In Pursuit of Idleness

Many writers have raged against laziness, and from St Paul’s epistles to Dante’s Inferno, from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac to Frederick Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management, the slothful have been cursed and condemned, ridiculed and reformed. There are many recent works dedicated to breaking our indolent ways. (And what are you doing, dear reader, idling over this review to put off pressing matters?)

Yet no one seems to have written a serious history of laziness, though happiness and horror, melancholy and madness, love and lust, salt, cod, dust and spice all have their histories. But laziness has scarcely evoked a yawn, much less a monograph. A few years ago Tom Lutz’s Doing Nothing was published: a quirky, smart account of American idlers, well-known or obscure, but the subject still awaits its chronicler. Pierre Saint-Amand, author of The Pursuit of Laziness, is not such a historian, and even this small book took him far too long to finish: “My own laziness,” he confesses, “might be partly to blame.” But it will do nicely while we wait for the encyclopaedic account. In 150 pages (25 of them endnotes and bibliography, which may be tools of the serious or playthings of the idle), Saint-Amand offers a graceful, sometimes insightful glimpse of the French Enlightenment’s famous and indolent.

Of course the Enlightenment was all about industriousness, intellectual or political, artisanal or agricultural. From the Physiocrats to the philosophes, making the most of resources and time was an unquestioned good: not only did it promise a more prosperous nation, but also salvation from the “despair of wasted time”, a quotation from the entry on laziness in the Encyclop?die, the era’s monument to industry. Both in the labour its 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates required, and the loving attention its writers and illustrators gave to skills and machines, the Encyclop?die reflected and reinforced the age’s ethos. However, Denis Diderot, the Encyclop?die’s editor and an incessant scribbler of mostly anonymous works, was a lazy bum. Or rather, he understood the attraction of being a lazy bum. Saint-Amand devotes a chapter to Diderot’s extraordinary dialogue, Rameau’s Nephew, a fictional encounter between the narrator and the composer’s embarrassing family relation, best known today as author of a poem that explains why his life never amounted to a hill of beans.

Diderot’s Rameau is a loafer for whom artistic creation means mimicry and regret. At the work’s climax, the nephew gives a rendition of all the instruments in an orchestral performance, as well as the steps of the dancers and responses of the audience. Saint-Amand notes that this is “a sort of pointless gymnastic, an astonishing lack of productivity.”

Other creations of Diderot, unmentioned by Saint-Amand, also delight in doing nothing by the traditional standards of the West: the Tahitian natives in his Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville for whom mocking those same western standards is about as busy as they get; or Jacques and his master in Jacques the Fatalist, content with interruptions and detours in their own lives that mock our traditional standards.

Saint-Amand drifts to other writers and bumps up against Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who could never quite make up his mind about work and idleness. Rousseau praises the honest work of artisans ? like those in his native Geneva ? and declaims against the decadent activities of le tout Paris. In his Letter to d’Alembert, a scathing critique of “theatre”, a term of abuse for all those activities that prefer appearance to reality and eat away at society and our selves, Rousseau declared the “habit of work renders inactivity intolerable and a good conscience extinguishes the taste for frivolous pleasures.”

A wanderer and a dreamer

Yet the citizen of Geneva was an enemy of time ? the sort of time dictated by the artificial units on clocks and watches. (No small rebellion, as Saint-Amand notes, for a man whose father was a watchmaker and who himself had been apprenticed to a watch engraver.) Rousseau began his itinerant life when he failed, while dreamily walking the hills outside Geneva, to hear the church bells signal the closing of the city gates. Rather than show up the next day and confront his master’s wrath, Rousseau hit the road.

He remained a wanderer and dreamer. In one of his final works, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau proposes a science of doing nothing. Rambling outside Paris gathering plants, or lying at the bottom of a boat off the coast of Ile de Saint-Pierre, Rousseau set out to lose himself. What do we enjoy, he wonders, in such situations? “Nothing external to ourselves, nothing if not ourselves and our own existence. As long as this state lasts, we are sufficient unto ourselves, like God.” It is little wonder that for church and state, Rousseau was a dangerous thinker ? though liberating to his readers.

Saint-Amand does not fully do justice to Rousseau’s ambivalent attitude towards society and solitude, labour and lounging about. While living in Motiers, a village in the Jura to which he had fled in 1762 after the Paris Parliament condemned his book Emile, Rousseau went off walking. Deep in the surrounding primeval forest, he began to dream that he was the first man to ever visit these woods. Suddenly he heard a clanking noise: “in a little hollow twenty feet from the very place where I believed myself to have been the first to arrive, I saw a stocking mill.” Saint-Amand’s conclusion is straightforward: “Rousseau is repelled by such agitation.”

But the text itself is not straightforward. Rousseau’s initial reaction is not repulsion but elation. “My first impulse was a feeling of joy to find myself back among humans when I had believed myself totally alone.” Saint-Amand’s caption for this scene ? “How vexing for the lazy botanist to stumble upon this factory buzzing with workers!” ? is at best a careless reading, and at worst?well, a lazy reading. In this regard, Saint-Amand has written a lazy book, with the added dollop of indolence of a professor unable to say no to post-modern literary theory. (The many passages he quotes from Deleuze, Guattari and other princes of post-modernism are, at least for this lazy reader, absolutely opaque.)

However, I think Diderot would be grateful, as I am, for the corrective Saint-Amand offers not just to our understanding of the Enlightenment, but also to our self-understanding. In his discussion of Joseph Joubert, who never mustered the energy to write a single book, or even leave his bed, but did leave posterity his fascinating notebooks, or of Jean-Baptiste Chardin, who never painted as much or as seriously as his contemporaries demanded, we glimpse the path we didn’t take.

In 1932, Bertrand Russell published his essay “In Praise of Idleness”. He declared: “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.” That a philosopher and public intellectual as prolific and active as Russell should write a paean to laziness was a deliberate provocation, but with a double purpose. He questioned the justice of our economic system. Russell’s words are as relevant today as they were 70 years ago: we live in a world that allows the “total produce go to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all.” Yet this minority demands greater productivity from the majority that does work ? or are lucky enough to have work in our era of high unemployment.

And Russell questions our belief ? which the Enlightenment had helped to propagate ? that labour makes our greatness and virtue. Only someone who has never worked in a field, assembly line, mine or office cubicle could believe that. Russell rightly wrote that workers, unlike those who control the economic fate of workers, consider work “as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.” There’s the importance of Saint-Amand’s small book.

The Enlightenment was a movement and worldview capacious and chaotic enough to both assent to and dissent from almost every philosophical and moral claim we associate with it. For every claim made for reason’s primacy, there was a counterclaim based on passion’s supremacy; for every huzzah for progress and what we have gained, there were voices worrying about the past and what we have lost. To be reminded by Saint-Amand that our world and we ourselves share the tension and ambivalence of our 18th century ancestors is far from idle.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history at the Honors College, University of Houston, Texas, author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life, Cornell University Press, 2010, and co-author of France and Its Empire Since 1870, Oxford University Press, March 2010.

This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.


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