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July 10, 2005

In praise of doing nothing


Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic at Vogue magazine, would be among the finalists in my contest for the person I'd most like to make a road trip across the U.S. with.

He is just a wonderful writer, quirky, original and so smart and funny.

In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review he reviewed Tom Hodgkinson's new book, "How To Be Idle."


Already I'm excited.

Why, you ask?

Steingarten wrote, "In 1993 Hodgkinson founded the British magazine The Idler, on whose Web site he succinctly sums up the horrors of having a job: 'With a very few exceptions the world of jobs is characterized by stifling boredom, grinding tedium, poverty, petty jealousies, sexual harassment, loneliness, deranged co–workers, bullying bosses, seething resentment, illness, exploitation, stress, helplessness, hellish commutes, humiliation, depression, appalling ethics, physical fatigue and mental exhaustion.'"

Hodginkson's solution: Become an idler.

Samuel Johnson said, "The happiest part of a man's life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning."

Nothing's changed since Johnson's time.

Me, I'm heading to amazon for Hodginson's book.

Here's Steingarten's piece.

    Being and Do-Nothingness

    For every hour of the day and night there is a different way of being idle, which is why Tom Hodgkinson has written his book in 24 chapters.

    At 8 a.m. (''Waking Up Is Hard to Do''), true idlers turn off their alarms, flop over in bed and go back to sleep.

    Hodgkinson is amazed that we voluntarily buy alarm clocks, which serve nobody but our employers.

    Nine a.m. is ''the time when someone, somewhere, decided that work should start.''

    And at 10 a.m. the idler is still sleeping in, living out Dr. Johnson's incontestable dictum that ''the happiest part of a man's life is what he passes lying awake in bed in the morning.''

    The chief problem with modern life is not work in itself.

    It is jobs.

    In 1993 Hodgkinson founded the British magazine The Idler, on whose Web site he succinctly sums up the horrors of having a job: ''With a very few exceptions the world of jobs is characterized by stifling boredom, grinding tedium, poverty, petty jealousies, sexual harassment, loneliness, deranged co-workers, bullying bosses, seething resentment, illness, exploitation, stress, helplessness, hellish commutes, humiliation, depression, appalling ethics, physical fatigue and mental exhaustion.''

    Yes, that pretty much sums it up.

    On this we can all agree.

    And the solution?

    Become an idler.

    These chapters brim with supporting quotations from successful literary idlers.

    G. K. Chesterton, in his essay ''On Lying in Bed,'' argues that the hour at which we rise should be a matter of personal choice.

    And there's Jesus himself, urging his listeners on the Mount to ''consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.''

    Not to mention the fowls of the air who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.

    Keats takes the lilies of the field as his epigraph for ''Ode on Indolence,'' in which he yearns for ''drowsy noons, / And evenings steep'd in honied indolence.''

    What do idlers do while they idle?

    A provisional list can be found in these pages.

    Idlers contemplate, meditate, appreciate, imagine, feel a sense of peace and calm, follow their dreams, go fishing (Izaak Walton is the star of the 7 p.m. chapter), smoke tobacco, stare at the ceiling and gaze at the stars.

    Maybe they also read voraciously or lose themselves in feasting, two of my favorites, but I don't recall that Hodgkinson mentions either of these.

    What do idlers not do?

    Jobs, of course.

    They may work for themselves or engage in meditative tasks like chopping vegetables for dinner -- but they do not work at jobs.

    Jobs are a relatively recent invention, a creation of the Industrial Revolution, Hodgkinson writes, relying on E. P. Thompson's pioneering work, ''The Making of the English Working Class'' (1963), and Bertrand Russell's essay ''In Praise of Idleness'' (1932). (If you check it out in the O.E.D., you'll find that things are somewhat more ambiguous. Before the 1920's, the word ''job'' generally meant a small, discrete piece of work, what jazz musicians would call a gig, never regular employment at set times and wages. But the words ''salary'' and ''wages'' are quite a bit more ancient.)

    In the old days, artisans worked for themselves, earning enough to support their families and little more.

    They managed their own time, in what Thompson describes as alternate bouts of intense labor and of idleness.

    On rainy days they would work like the dickens; come a sweet spring day, they might go fishing.

    Why have we have given up this freedom?

    Because the ruling classes (Hodgkinson's favorite target) have spent centuries persuading the rest of us to believe in the dignity of work even as they undignifiedly avoid it.

    The words above the gates of Auschwitz, as Hodgkinson reminds us, are ''Arbeit Macht Frei'' -- ''Work Makes You Free.''

    Freedom is Slavery.

    This is the heart of Hodgkinson's (and Russell's) critique of liberal consumer capitalism.

    It's no surprise that the successful idlers Hodgkinson quotes are all writers -- and writers will enjoy this book, at least the first half of it.

    But when we get to the chapter entitled ''The Hangover,'' which happens at noon, Hodgkinson suddenly lurches into the twilight zone.

    With no warning, he reveals that his goal -- the ultimate purpose of his idling -- is to attain a visionary state.

    That's just fine, at least with this reader.

    But then he tries to persuade us that the exaggerated sensitivity to light and sounds that hangovers inflict on us ''may be the model for Hinduism's 'third eye' of enlightenment.'' (He's quoting from an article in The Idler by Josh Glenn.)

    I'll have to ask my Hindu friends about that.

    At 1 p.m., we're back on Earth, in time to lament ''the death of lunch,'' which ''has been stolen from us by our rulers.''

    Right on!

    McDonald's and Pret a Manger ''fulfill the fascist definition of the function of food, 'to give the worker's body an injection of energy.'''

    Hodgkinson praises the Slow Food movement, but feasting does not appear to be his path to bliss.

    When he reminds us that London's celebrated 18th-century coffeehouses supplied their customers with ''vast bowls of alcoholic punch,'' we understand that Hodgkinson wants to take back lunch for the conviviality and conversation but especially, it appears, for the punch.

    Two p.m. is about being ill, which allows you to stay at home and ''pad around the house in your dressing gown like Sherlock Holmes, Noël Coward or our friend, that hero of laziness, Oblomov.''

    Doesn't Hodgkinson realize that some of us do not need illness to justify padding around the house?

    Jacques Derrida stayed in his pajamas all day unless he had an appointment.

    Loosen up, Hodgkinson!

    Three p.m. is the hour for napping.

    Many, many famous and successful people past and present have napped.

    I've always kept a list.

    But our rulers are trying to appropriate the afternoon snooze with the repulsive expression ''power nap,'' turning it into just another way of recharging our batteries before we plunge back into work.

    The first drink of the day comes at 6 p.m. and ''brings us into the present moment: we become Buddhists.''

    Aren't we still Hindus?

    At least Hodgkinson includes a very beautiful passage from Hemingway about getting drunk on absinthe.

    At 10 p.m. we go to the pub and recall Dr. Johnson's famous encomium upon the tavern, which I believe is still posted on the wall at Elaine's: ''As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude.... There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.''

    At this point in ''How to Be Idle,'' we have turned just over half of Hodgkinson's 286 pages and mastered most of his arguments, frequently with great enjoyment, and although there are further insights to come and some excellent jokes, a sense of repetition inevitably sets in -- until 3 a.m.

    It's time to party! ''Bring together good drugs, good people and good music and you have a magical combination.... We go beyond words.''

    We also go back to the future.

    The author discovers parallels between his own experiences on ecstasy and Thomas De Quincey's description of opium-eating.

    It all sounds like a conversation from more than a generation ago.

    Some of us still alive today grew up in a time when psychedelic substances were legal, when experimentation was widespread, when people were deliberate and thoughtful about what they ingested, and when Timothy Leary was a member of the Harvard faculty.

    But now we are plunged into a dark and desperate age.

    Eating a chocolate éclair is considered substance abuse. Abstinence passes for religious experience.

    You won't persuade people these days to become idlers, to throw off the shackles of wage slavery, by feeding them ecstasy.

    For the next year or two, let's concentrate on eradicating employment as we know it.

I always knew there was more to my affinity for Derrida (below) than his propensity for causing trouble.


Finally, I've discovered what it is: pj's.

July 10, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink


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