Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In Defense of Idlers

Some will take yesterday’s column “Doing nothing” too literally as meaning one must literally do nothing, that one must be a sloth and waste away. In this post we aim to better define the many layers and benefits of idling, properly viewed.

For this defense, we turn to one of the great idlers: Robert Louis Stevenson. You may know him for his fiction – Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888). We have read all of these books and only recently finished the Black Arrow. We will say this for Stevenson: He is one hell of a story teller in the great old manner of storytellers.

Stevenson also wrote a considerable amount of nonfiction, which most people don’t know about. Much of it we’d categorize as travel writing: An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879) were both about wandering in France. And The Silverado Squatters (1883) was about his first trip to America. We have read and enjoyed all of these as well. There were also books about his travels in South Sea and many letters and essays.

Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, was frequently ill as a child. Indeed, his health was often fragile throughout his life. He attended the University of Edinburgh where he was an indifferent student. He seemed more interested in a Bohemian existence than in becoming a great scholar. Instead of going to law school as his father wished, Stevenson decided he would be a writer – thankfully for those of us who enjoy his work today.

He had a falling out with his father, not only over his career choice, but also over matters of religion, which Stevenson seemed not to take seriously enough for his father. And so began the aimless wandering that characterized much of his adult life.

In 1877, he wrote “An Apology for Idlers” which was a defense of his idling and one of the best ever written. In it, Stevenson expounded more on what it meant to be an idler. And as one can readily attest by looking at Stevenson’s literary output – remembering he died at the age of 44 – idling does not mean literally doing nothing.

As Stevenson put it idleness “does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class.” It meant doing things you wanted to do, regardless of what society wanted you to do. It meant defining success and pleasure in your own way.

This has a habit of making other non-idling people nonplussed. Stevenson said. “It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter the handicap race for six-penny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.”

The idler of Stevenson’s conception, and the one we intend, was an open-minded fellow. “He who has looked on at the childish satisfaction of other people in their hobbies, will regard his own with only a very ironical indulgence. He will not be heard among the dogmatists.”

Also, while Stevenson appreciated diligence and hard work, he thought idling and diligence were not mutually exclusive. And here we get to an important part of his idea. “To state one argument is not necessarily to be deaf to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.”

Idlers love learning things, exploring, poking around for its own sake – “to play a fiddle, to know a good cigar, to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.”

What Stevenson is against is incessant busyness, the rat race, the pursuit of money to impress. He is against all work and no play, the narrowing of life people pursue “until they are forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one though to rub against another…”

It the busy man who “sows hurry and reaps indigestion.” Stevenson was for calm, for reflection and for slower work. He would be at ease among the slow food movement of today. He would not be found on Twitter.

Stevenson, in our minds, exemplifies the ideal of idling. He died in Samoa in 1894 on the island of Samoa, which seems an appropriate place for an idler to end up.

There is one other clever writer I want to throw in here: Jerome K. Jerome, author of a collection of essays titled The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and long-time practitioner of the idle arts. I will spare you his life story, but his words on idling stay with me:

“It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.”

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