The Importance of Doing Nothing


This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, pp. 50-51):

The Importance of Doing Nothing

You know something is seriously awry when even the Tory leader claims we should be focusing on GWB as well as GDP. General Well-Being is a catch-all phrase, but in our long-hours culture it can only mean one thing: striking a better work-life balance. As Paul Lafargue — Karl Marx’s son-in-law — pointed out, God seems to have sussed it from the word go: “after six days of work, he rests for all eternity” (The Right to be Lazy, 1883). Although scripture is notoriously open to interpretation, prelapsarian Eden is patently presented as a work-free environment. It is only after the Fall — and, crucially, as a result of it — that men were condemned to earn their dough: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” (Genesis 3:19). Women, for their pains, would bring forth children “in sorrow”. The word ‘travail’ — French for ‘work’ — also happens to refer to labour pains: it derives from the Latin tripalium which, fittingly enough, was an instrument of torture. As for ‘labour’ itself, it comes from labor meaning ‘trouble’. No wonder work is a four-letter word (to quote the 1968 Cilla Black number famously covered by the Smiths).

In ancient Greece, work was restricted to slaves — a set-up which provided a blueprint for the West until the Industrial Revolution. By the early nineteenth century, however, “the voice of busy common-sense” — as Keats dubbed it — had become deafening (“Ode on Indolence,” 1819). Nietzsche observed how people were beginning to feel guilty of “prolonged reflection”: “Well, formerly, it was the other way around: it was work that was afflicted with the bad conscience. A person of good family used to conceal the fact that he was working if need compelled him to work. Slaves used to work, oppressed by the feeling that they were doing something contemptible” (The Gay Science, 1882). “It is to do nothing that the elect exist,” Oscar Wilde reaffirmed defiantly in the face of a triumphant work ethic. Contemplation, he lamented, had come to be regarded as “the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty” rather than “the proper occupation of man”. It is this gradual erosion of the contemplative life — “the life that has for its aim not doing but being” — which writers and dreamers have always tried to resist (“The Critic as Artist,” 1891). Robert Louis Stevenson — who poured scorn on those “who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation” — argued that idleness “does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formulations of the ruling class” (“An Apology for Idlers,” 1881). In How to be Idle (2004), Tom Hodgkinson — co-founder of The Idler magazine (1993) — reminds us that “living is an art, not something that you fit in around your job”.

Pockets of collective anti-work resistance appeared at regular intervals throughout the 20th century, from the drop-out beatniks to the unemployed punks. The Sex Pistols’ brazen “I’m a Lazy Sod” contained the classic line: “I don’t work, I just speed; that’s all I need”. Bow Wow Wow’s second single — “W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah No! No! My Daddy Don’t)” — turned the tables on Thatcherite austerity by celebrating the rise of the idle poor. Many like Morrissey went looking for a job and then found a job and heaven knows were miserable now. 1991 saw the release of Slackers as well as the publication of Generation X whose protagonists relocate to the Californian desert after opting out of the rat race. Douglas Coupland’s downshifting classic was subtitled “Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” mirroring the parallel rise of the Slow movement anticipated by Bertrand Russell (“In Praise of Idleness,” 1932) and chronicled by Carl Honoré (In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed, 2004).

“Our epoch has been called the century of work,” Lafargue wrote, back in the 1880s, “It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.” “Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of,” D. H. Lawrence echoed in the 1920s (“A Sane Revolution”). Unsurprisingly, Dr. Frank Lipman’s current diagnosis is that we are all completely knackered (Spent? End Exhaustion & Feel Great Again, 2009). So what are we to do? One option is to follow the advice of New Rich guru Timothy Ferriss whose best-selling The 4-Hour Work Week (2007) is designed to teach you how to let money make itself by outsourcing your business. Alternatively, we could turn to Melville’s Bartleby who, when asked to do anything, answers: “I would prefer not to” (Bartleby, the Scrivener, 1853). We could also take our cue from Jerome K. Jerome — the forefather of Phone In Sick Day — and get our kicks from the illicit thrill of skiving: “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do” (“On Being Idle,” 1889). Following Thierry Paquot (The Art of the Siesta, 1998), Hodgkinson prescribes hitting the snooze button where it hurts: “Edison promoted the idea of ‘more work, less sleep’. The idler’s creed is ‘less work, more sleep'”.

One man who devoted his life and, er, work (8 slim volumes in 65 years) to sleep was Egyptian émigré Albert Cossery. His was a militant form of idleness which he saw as the only way to fully enjoy “the Edenic simplicity of the world”. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood are prepared to kill off those who interrupt their sacred slumber before noon; in another, an Oblomov-style character refuses to leave his bed for a whole year. Cossery was convinced that those who rejected (or were deprived of) material wealth gained access to a heightened state of consciousness hence the constant association between destitution and nobility. In 1945, he checked in to a poky hotel — on the very same Parisian street where the iconic “Ne travaillez jamais” (“Never work”) graffito would soon appear — and remained there, doing precious little, until he passed away last year. Cossery chose to get a life instead of a job. Perhaps more of us should do the same — the world might be a better place.