Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Doing nothing

To add on to Bomstein’s post from yesterday…

A disinclination to work is probably as old as humanity itself. But the idea of a slacker, idler or loafer as an identity, or philosophy, is only a couple of centuries old, emerging after the Industrial Revolution. It’s sort of a counter to the “protestant work ethic” – this latter, we’ve always regarded as a life-sucking and moronic creed. But, we’re glad we have plenty of people who work hard. Somebody has to do it.

America has had some great loafing personalities.

There is Henry David Thoreau, a great mid-nineteenth century loafer. He railed against work. Studied nature. Took long walks. Lived simply. Emerson counted it as a mark against him, writing: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”

We count that as among Thoreau’s greatest charms.

Then there is Walt Whitman: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Whitman was kind of a dual personality on this front. He praised working – the hammer of the blacksmith and the plough of the farmer – but he also likes to lounge around, nap in the shade of willow trees and watch the clouds go by.

Tom Lutz has a great book on this whole subject of doing nothing. The book’s title is… well… Doing Nothing. The subtitle is A History of Loafers, Lounges, Slackers and Bums in America.

It covers a lot of ground, including what most people would probably think of first: the hippies. Doing nothing was sort of a political project for them. Lutz writes of the “hippie curriculum” – books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Stalking Wild Asparagus and The Whole Earth Catalog: “One of the main lessons of these books was that striving, pushing, desperate grabbing at the brass ring – any and all ambitious desires – were worse than distractions; they were the very stuff that made nirvana impossible.”

Lutz even posits that perhaps Jesus was an idler: “You notice that though supposedly a carpenter, Jesus didn’t seem to drive very many nails.” Jesus was supposed to have said: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not, nor do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Idler talk that. Doing nothing is a virtue.

It runs counter to what many Americans think and yet the idea itself is quintessentially American. If we look at American work patterns, we see a steady climb in things like hours worked. But it’s the idler who argues that the good life is better than the good job. It’s a subculture in America. A sort of shadow ethic.

In the course of Lutz’s book, he uncovers many interesting American characters in this line, including what may be America’s first slacker: John Dennie – “a man who more than any other established the lounger in America. Dennie was a child during the American Revolution, five years old in Boston during the Tea Party and six during the Battle of Lexington.”

He worked for a year as a clerk, which convinced him he wanted to do as little as possible. He enrolled in Harvard to live a leisurely life of student and lecturer. He was expelled for laziness and doing nothing. He wrote poetry. Tried the ministry. Then law. Everything he did, he did for a little while, got bored and moved on.

He started writing essays. Wrote about indolence and idling in a tongue-in-cheek style. He started to attract a literary following and had some name fans – William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, Wordsworth, et al.

He found he liked the writing life as he could support himself without working too hard. He was the center of a literary group called the Crafts Tavern, a “coterie of wags, wits and literati.” Dennie continued to live his leisurely lifestyle. He overslept. Drank too much. Worked as little as possible. After he died in 1812, one of Dennie’s followers wrote that Dennie was “perpetually roaming, in quest of pleasure.”

An inspiration, old Dennie is.

There are many more... Herman Melville, who “wrote one of the most significant paeans to slackerdom ever produced.” That being Typee, his autobiographical novel of lounging around in the South Seas, sleeping and eating on the beaches, of many “tranquil days of ease.”

And not all of them were Americans. There is Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Karl Marx and author of The Right to be Lazy (1883). You can find it for free on the internet.

I won’t go through all of these thinkers or their ideas. Suffice to say there is something in doing nothing. Something to learn and something to make life better in doing less.


  1. Nice post. I think I'll be taking a nap now.

  2. For all the people that aren't completely lazy, this totally applies. We could all do a little less and feel good about it, if we ALLOW ourselves to feel good about it. The trick is to not think too hard... haha...