LETTER NO. 2: ON IDLENESS
by Chris R. Morgan
Of all the subjects so far given for this series, idleness is at once the least gloomy and the most difficult to reflect on. Its legacy as one of the most turned-to themes of occasional nonfiction is daunting to say the least. “An Apology for Idlers” is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most well known essays, though I admit that’s not saying much; Samuel Johnson had a periodical called The Idler; Jerome K. Jerome wrote of it as well. If Montaigne somehow didn’t put pen to paper about it I imagine it is because he died before getting the chance. (Fact check: he did) And even Thomas Merton’s paeans to “contemplation” can be read as the idleness defense’s high-minded first cousin. Idleness is a light subject, so light as to be bounced around like a cerebral beach ball at a humanist Glastonbury.
And yet, of all the subjects I am least unqualified to confront, this one would rank rather high. In fact it would have stiff competition against writing itself, which, I guess, should come as no surprise. But this is still a high claim coming from a scion of a generation known as much for its self-consciously self-aware self-deprecation as it is for its laziness. But believe me, or at least bear with me, when I say that I am at my most prideful, my most confident, and my most steadfast in asserting the leg up I have in the apparent competition I and my peers are running to be the most inert. I have, indeed, a proclivity towards idleness, one that feels natural having indulged it for so long but was intuited rather than inborn, a revelation that, for some, pleases as much as it disturbs.
Like any immigrant family, mine was one that came to America having known mostly toil and religion. And death. My great grandmother, I am told, took her first job at age nine when she still lived in Spain, pushing a wheelbarrow around for a bricklayer. (If siestas played any part in this family tree branch it did not carry over.) The man she married after coming to the States shoveled coal for the Hudson River ferries. When the ferrymen went on strike, his brother invited him to move to the Pittsburgh area where a job was procured for him at the Universal Atlas cement company—if you’ve seen The Mothman Prophecies, its ruins are featured at their most gloomy. My other great grandfather, George A. Morgan, worked at a Life Savers factory before dying prematurely. Gradually, religion had been lowered as a priority with each generation, while the work ethic has entrenched itself, and to such a depth that it is my family’s only truly consistent principle. Though you need not work to have good character, the defects of your character don’t matter so long as you work. Though I am by no means the first person in my family to have attended college, I am quite sure to be the first, with all the implications that apply, to openly call bullshit on that premise.
About a century ago, around the same time my family had begun planting its roots here, the term “slacker” was if not coined then put into popular use for the first time. At the height of the First World War, it was a derogatory designation for those, mainly young men, who were seen as shirking their patriotic obligations, everything from refusing to donate to war causes to dodging the draft. The sinister implications of the word are made plain by the easily Google-able propaganda imagery of the time. Just as interesting are the contemporary newspaper headlines reporting “Forty-One on First Slacker List for City” or “Slacker is Dowsed in Barrel of Paint.” It would be amusing to read these to those none the wiser of their historical context and see how they’d react to the implied idea of Bill Clinton imposing subcultural purges.
Americans, seemingly above all other cultures, fear uselessness like a phantasm. “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” whatever its precise origin, is more American than “amber waves of grain.” Idleness has a deceptive innocence to it, like a mortal sin we confuse as venal. It is anathema to the ethic to which I and others have been raised to adhere. I contrast this with leisure, which in itself is fine except in a work-dominant culture where it assumes a Vichy-like dependence, serving as a reward for those who obey. Idleness emerges as a passive resistance to this arrangement, putting forth the counterargument that work is not as infused with as much spiritual and moral currency as hoped. That one person’s disentitlement to inaction does not make automatic one person’s entitlement to the energy of another, regardless of how much or how little one pays for it. To see the degradation of the work ethic in action look to Greg Ginn, whose “Calvinistic” slave driving of Black Flag propelled it to rock n’ roll greatness, but later propelled him to (very plausible) allegations of child abuse.
This is not to say that I don’t see objections worth being raised on my end of things, prime above all being its major social disproportion. With some notable exceptions—Merton, Eric Hoffer—a steady majority of the world’s greatest idlers are comfortably well-off at best, obscenely wealthy at worst. William Hazlitt seemed to want nothing more than to retire into a life of motionless self-reflection, but his financial dire straits—and maybe also his contrarily hyperkinetic constitution—made this impossible; he died in misery in a boarding house that is now a luxury hotel that bares his name. There is no such thing as an ethic of idleness, only a privilege. The closest thing to principle in idleness emanates out of the choruses sung by young, mostly conservative, layabouts who cultivate an air of classic aristocracy to counteract the stagnant satisfactions in the conventional career and personal life. If I seem to embody this at all, I should hope to make up the offense by doing the utmost to make constructive use of my time to see how idleness can be redistributed as we might seek to redistribute the fruits of labor.
America is plagued by a cult of usefulness that has no ritual with which to off itself. And yet, as you and others have pointed out, a rising number of people, once broadly employable and defined by that employability, find themselves surplus to requirements. In taking stock of our disaster scenarios, we get caught up in the most operatic ones, in which we are vanquished as foes, and tend to overlook the anticlimactic ones, in which we are swept aside as nuisances. We are reaching an uncomfortable realization that despite our continued drive to live, the mean by which we fulfilled that drive is not a renewable resource. The society we built no longer needs us but for its light maintenance, reaching ever closer to a Vonnegut-esque existence, where the last job is turning the switch to the machine that does all the others. “The problem is this,” Vonnegut wrote, “How to love people who have no use.”
There is some personal anxiety here, to be sure. On the one hand, my own struggles to be at once useful, reasonably paid, and somehow protected from the tedium the first two tend to weigh on me, are without end. On the other hand, my contempt for the culture the cult of utility perpetuates is fast approaching the negative power of a neutron star. I attach it to no politics. No ideological captivity can domesticate it. It hews closest to an anti-religion. It has no particular tenants or theology other than we are not how we work or who we work for. In its moderate guise it would relent life’s current pace and recast how we understand what it means to be productive in as much as we understand each other and ourselves.
I’m aware of how utopian that sounds, but then I am already succumbing to the influence of the extremist reading of my own catechisms. Having too long been lost in a dense forest of futility, I lurch steadily toward the prospect of finding the quietest corner to gather moss and, when the time comes, have my husk provide sustenance to the earth. This, provided I can overcome my suffocating ambitions and petty fears.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.