The Devilishness of Idleness


“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”
–Walter Benjamin


One month ago, I left the United States, a country I had lived in for nearly every moment my twenty six years, and moved to a former coal mining village in the northeast of England. I came here for my girlfriend, whose status as a postgraduate student affords her protection from that dreaded, inevitable, doubt-inducing inquiry, “So what is it that you do?

The question, of course, is never so much literal (how do you occupy your time) as euphemistic—what do you do for work, to whom are you employed, how do you make your money?

To which I should answer candidly (although I rarely do, preferring to natter back some clumsy euphemism of my own), I don’t. I read books, watch movies, cook dinner, and daydream. I volunteer on an organic farm, call my mother on Sundays, and peruse the university library’s blessed, stocked shelves.

Of course, this is a difficult declaration to make. Idleness, as the novelist Mark Slouka asserts in his 2004 essay, “Quitting the Paint Factory”—the title comes from the famous anecdote* about Sherwood Anderson, who literally walked out of his job as manager of a paint factory to join the ranks of writerdom—has become almost a dirty word in America today. Leisure is permissible, according to Slouka, because of its potential for commercial fodder. But idleness—”unconstrained, anarchic…[un]shave[n]”—is simply unacceptable. (The recent mainstream response to Occupy Wall Street comes immediately to mind.) Our capacity for remuneration, our talent in accruing cash, has become the sole gauge by which our social value is gleaned.

But this preoccupation with work isn’t really about money, I don’t think—it’s about occupation. Despite an ever-worsening economy and burgeoning population of unemployed, there remains relatively little hunger and homelessness in our society. “The Church of Work,” as Slouka calls it, has less to do with deeply-held convictions about personal provision or social contribution, it seems to me, and more with a failure of our collective imagination. We work because we don’t know what else to do.

Several years ago, I went to see Thomas Frank, the sociologist and author, read from his influential book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The book had provoked much hand-wringing among liberals at the time. They were appalled at the ill-educated Midwesterners, who had been duped, according to Frank, into voting “against their own economic self-interest.” As canny a critic as exists on the Left today, Frank finished his reading with a smile, then opened the room up for questions. “But what can we do?” came the concerned chorus’ cries. “What should we do?” For the first time all evening, a flicker of doubt twitched across the author’s face.

What to do, what to do. But perhaps we have done too much already; perhaps we should strive to do less. “I believe there is far too much work done in the world,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932, during another period of economic distress, “that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial societies is quite different from what always has been preached.” There were enough resources to go around, Russell argued, if only we could learn to utilize them properly. Reducing the workday from eight hours to four, for example, would leave plenty of jobs for everyone. The rest of the day could be then used for visiting the cinema, indulging one’s scientific curiosity, painting pictures, writing stories, making music, spending time with one’s family, gardening, keeping tabs on the government, and so on. (I know: heady, idealistic stuff. To be fair, Russell was writing before either television or the Internet.) The essay is entitled, appropriately, “In Praise of Idleness.”

The eminent philosopher would be appalled by America today, a place where industriousness is praised as an end in itself. “It seems there is hardly an occupation, however useless or humiliating or downright despicable, that cannot at least in part be redeemed by our obsessive dedication to it,” Slouka writes. “‘Yes, Ted sold shoulder-held Stingers to folks with no surname, but he worked so hard!

To clarify, Russell was not against excessive work because he thought people should be lazy. He was against it because he recognized that “leisure is essential to civilization.” (He doesn’t make the same distinction between leisure and idleness that Slouka does.) Members of the leisure class, Russell argued, had pushed forward the frontiers of science, art, philosophy, math—on the back of the laboring class, to be sure, but an oppression, with the invention of new technologies, that could be made obsolete. “Modern technique,” Russell argued, “has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small, privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout society.”

Okay, you might say, I could maybe believe that idleness is a virtue—maybe!—but what about health insurance? How do I get that? And what about car payments? Rent? Groceries? Internet access? Who’s going to pay my student loans? And how does my baby get through college?

Fair enough. I am tempted to say something facile about consumption and community—less of the former and more of the latter—but the truth is these are legitimate concerns. Health insurance, in particular, remains a decided determinant in the choices Americans make. A few months ago, for example, I had a friend turn me down on an offer of a game of basketball because he had no health insurance. The risk of turning an ankle was too great to bear. This past summer, I worked on a farm fifty hours per week, earning $7 an hour but no health insurance. After a few months, I developed signs of a stomach ulcer. The symptoms were exacerbated by my anxiety over the cost of a doctor. (As an aside: the tiny, working-class village where I just moved hosts a fully-functioning branch of the British National Health Service that will treat me, a temporary resident, for free. But never mind: that’s socialism.) So yes, I hear you, dear reader. If it’s one thing the Left and Right seem to agree on, it’s that it is hard to make it in America today. (You can see Charles Bradley for the musical accompaniment.)

But regardless of the challenges you may or may not face, you still have a choice. You can either spend your time on this planet—which is limited, by the way—worshipping at the altar of neverending occupation, or you can choose to live in the “ontological present”—Slouka’s term—comprised as it is (or could be) of poems, artwork of all kinds, your partner’s warming skin, vast uncluttered days, and thousands upon thousands of idle moments. Be warned, though, if you opt for the latter, you might want to make friends with a naturopath. Or have a girlfriend who goes to University.

Eight years ago, I fell in love with poetry. I felt like my subconscious had been dipped in methamphetamine and whirled around with a whisk. (This was a particularly surrealist brand of poetry I was reading and writing at the time.) Who knew what weird stuff had been cooking around in my subconscious! Poetry was emphatically not journalism (I wrote for the school paper) or English class (which I struggled with). It was delicate and strange and illogical, yet somehow true. It felt sacred to me. I resolved to devote my life to it.

Then, somewhere along the way, I got caught up in the mundane details of survival and assimilation—lost in the weeds, as a former employer of mine would say. I struggled with a gambling addiction I had become convinced was my life’s love. Than my dad died and grief overcame me. I worked mediocre jobs, did mediocre things.

Still, I wrote poems, essays, even part of a novel. But writing didn’t feel sacred to me anymore. It felt obligatory. You want to be a writer? Then write, the world said. It’s like weightlifting. You got to put in the work. Malcolm Gladwell says, etc.

I am not here to argue with axioms or debunk trite writerly clichés. I am simply interested in rekindling that feeling of limitless, star-scraping wonder, in recovering my earlier self, strange and poetry-crazed as he was. I will eventually have to go back to work, of course—I am not a rich man. But the story of my time in England will not be a tale of the triumph of hard work, I can promise you that. Instead, it will be about reveling and romping in that devilish state of idleness.

* “What we need in America, [Anderson] liked to say, is a new class of individuals who, ‘at any physical cost to themselves and others…will agree to quit working, to loaf, to refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world,’” wrote literary critic Malcolm Cowley in an introduction to Anderson’s most famous book, Winesburg, Ohio. “In the next generation there would be hundreds of young man, readers of Anderson, who rejected the dream of financial success and tried to live as artists and individuals.”

Alex Gallo-Brown’s essays have appeared at The Rumpus, Salon, Bookslut, The Nervous Breakdown, The Collagist, and more. He is the author of The Language of Grief, a collection of poems. You can find him at More from this author →