|The Virtue Of Idleness|
By Tom Hodgkinson
The Guardian 08-07-04
I wonder if that hard-working American
rationalist and agent of industry Benjamin Franklin knew how much
misery he would cause in the world when, back in 1757, high on
puritanical zeal, he popularised and promoted the trite and patently
untrue aphorism "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy,
wealthy and wise"?
It is a sad fact that from early childhood we are
tyrannised by the moral myth that it is right, proper and good to
leap out of bed the moment we wake in order to set about some useful
work as quickly and cheerfully as possible. Parents begin the
brainwashing process and then school works yet harder to
indoctrinate its charges with the necessity of early rising. My own
personal guilt about feeling physically incapable of rising early in
the morning continued well into my 20s.
As a student, I developed complex alarm systems.
I bought a timer plug and set it to turn on my coffee maker and also
the record player, on which I had placed my loudest record, It's
Alive by the Ramones. 7.50am was the allotted time. Being a live
recording, the first track was prefaced by crowd noise. The cheering
and whooping would wake me, and I'd know I had only a few seconds to
leap out of bed and turn down the volume before Dee Dee Ramone would
grunt "One - two - three - four" and my housemates and I would be
assaulted by the opening chords of Rockaway Beach, turned up to 11.
The idea was that I would then drink the coffee and jolt my body
into wakefulness. It half worked. When I heard the crowd noise, I
would leap out of bed and totter for a moment. But what happened
then, of course, was that I would turn the volume right down, ignore
the coffee and climb back to the snuggly, warm embrace of my duvet.
Then I'd slowly come to my senses at around 10.30am, doze until
noon, and finally stagger to my feet in a fit of self-loathing.
For all modern society's promises of leisure,
liberty and doing what you want, most of us are still slaves to a
schedule we did not choose. Why have things come to such a pass?
Well, the forces of the anti-idle have been at work since the fall
of man. The propaganda against oversleeping goes back a very long
way, more than 2,000 years, to the Bible. Here is Proverbs, chapter
6, on the subject:
Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways,
and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth
her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
(I would question the sanity of a religion that
holds up the ant as an example of how to live. The ant system is an
exploitative aristocracy based on the unthinking toil of millions of
workers and the complete inactivity of a single queen and a handful
Christianity has promoted bed-guilt ever since.
This passage from the Bible is used as a bludgeon by moralists,
capitalists and bureaucrats in order to impose upon the people the
notion that God hates it when you get up late. It suits the lust for
order that characterises the non-idler.
In mid-18th-century London, Dr Johnson, who had
nothing to be ashamed of as far as literary output goes, is to be
found lacerating himself for his sluggardly habits. "O Lord, enable
me ... in redeeming the time I have spent in Sloth," he wrote in his
journals at the age of 29. Twenty years later, things haven't
improved, and he resolves "to rise early. Not later than six if I
can." The following year, having failed to rise at six, he adapts
his resolution: "I purpose to rise at eight because though I shall
not yet rise early it will be much earlier than I now rise, for I
often lye till two."
The Methodist John Wesley, who himself rose every
morning at 4am, wrote a sermon called The Duty And Advantage of
Early Rising (1786), in which he claimed that lying in bed was
physically unhealthy, and used comically quasi-scientific terms to
drive home his argument: "By soaking so long between warm sheets,
the flesh is as it were parboiled, and becomes soft and flabby. The
nerves, in the meantime, are quite unstrung."
The bestselling Victorian author Samuel Smiles's
books were titled Self-Help (1859), Thrift (1875) and Duty (1880),
and were packed with homilies. If we think we are free of this sort
of thing today, then look at our magazines and the "sort your life
out" features that proliferate. Patronising self-help books regale
us with various bullet-pointed strategies to becoming more
productive, less drunk and more hard-working. Many involve spending
a lot of money.
I would argue not only that early rising is
totally unnatural but also that lying in bed half awake - sleep
researchers call this state "hypnagogic" - is positively beneficial
to health and happiness. A good morning doze of half an hour or more
can, for example, help you to prepare mentally for the problems and
As to how on earth going early to bed could
automatically guarantee riches and happiness, I suppose nothing can
be proved, but I'm with Dr Johnson who confidently asserted:
"Whoever thinks of going to bed before 12 o'clock is a scoundrel."
Greatness and late rising are natural bedfellows.
Late rising is for the independent of mind, the individual who
refuses to become a slave to work, money, ambition. In his youth,
the great poet of loafing, Walt Whitman, would arrive at the offices
of the newspaper where he worked at around 11.30am, and leave at
12.30 for a two-hour lunch break. Another hour's work after lunch
and then it was time to hit the town.
The English historian EP Thompson, in his classic
book The Making Of The English Working Class (1963), argues that the
creation of the job is a relatively recent phenomenon, born out of
the Industrial Revolution. Before the advent of steam-powered
machines and factories in the mid-18th century, work was a much more
haphazard affair. People worked, yes, they did "jobs", but the idea
of being yoked to one particular employer to the exclusion of all
other money-making activity was unknown.
Take the weavers. Before the invention in 1764 of
the spinning jenny by the weaver and carpenter James Hargreaves, and
of the steam engine in the same year by James Watt, weavers were
generally self-employed and worked as and when they chose. The young
Friedrich Engels noted that they had control over their own time:
"So it was that the weaver was usually in a position to lay by
something, and rent a little piece of land, that he cultivated in
his leisure hours, of which he had as many as he chose to take,
since he could weave whenever and as long as he pleased," he wrote
in his 1845 study The Condition Of The Working Class In England.
"They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to
do, and yet earned what they needed."
Thompson writes: "The work pattern was one of
alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness." A weaver, for
example, might weave eight or nine yards on a rainy day. On other
days, a contemporary diary tells us, he might weave just two yards
before he did "sundry jobs about the lathe and in the yard & wrote a
letter in the evening". Or he might go cherry-picking, work on a
community dam, calve the cow, cut down trees or go to watch a public
hanging. Thompson adds as an aside: "The pattern persists among some
self-employed - artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also
with students [idlers, all] - today, and provokes the question of
whether it is not a 'natural' human work-rhythm."
England, then, before the invention of the dark
satanic mills, was a nation of idlers. But in time the new
Protestant work ethic was successful. The Industrial Revolution,
above all, was a battle between hard work and laziness, and hard
The thundering polemicist Thomas Carlyle did much
damage in the 19th century by promoting the notion of the dignity or
even the romance of hard graft. "Man was created to work, not to
speculate, or feel, or dream," he wrote, adding, "Every idle moment
is treason." It is your patriotic duty to work hard - another myth,
particularly convenient to the rich who, as Bertrand Russell said,
"preach the dignity of labour, while taking care themselves to
remain undignified in this respect". Or as the late, great British
writer Jeffrey Bernard put it: "As if there was something romantic
and glamorous about hard work ... if there was something romantic
about it, the Duke of Westminster would be digging his own fucking
garden, wouldn't he?"
If you want religious justification for your
refractory habits, then remember there are parts of the Bible -
unlike those so often quoted by pro-work propagandists - that argue
against toil. Work is a curse, caused not by God but by the serpent
in the Garden of Eden. He led Adam and Eve to fall from the
work-free state of paradise by awakening material desire in them,
thereby condemning them to toil and pain. If you want nothing, you
don't need to work.
God himself set a good example, argues Paul
Lafargue, the socialist campaigner and son-in-law of Karl Marx, in
The Right To Be Lazy: after working for six days, he rests for all
The lie-in - by which I mean lying in bed awake -
is not a selfish indulgence but an essential tool for any student of
the art of living. As Sherlock Holmes knew. Lolling around in his
smoking jacket, puffing his pipe, Holmes would sit and ponder for
hours on a tricky case. In one superb story, the opium-drenched The
Man With The Twisted Lip, Holmes solves yet another case with ease.
An incredulous Mr Plod character muses: "I wish I knew how you reach
your results," to which Holmes replies: "I reached this one by
sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag."
RenÈ Descartes, in the 17th century, was
similarly addicted to inactivity. Indeed, it was absolutely at the
centre of his philosophy. When young and studying with the Jesuits,
he was unable to get up in the morning. They would throw buckets of
cold water over him and he would turn over and go back to sleep.
Then, because of his obvious genius, he was granted the special
privilege of getting up late. This was his modus operandi because,
of course, when he was lying in bed he was thinking. It is easy to
see how someone so inactive should conclude that the body and the
mind are separate entities. Laziness produced Cartesian duality. For
him, lying in bed and thinking was the very essence of being human:
Cogito, ergo sum, or, in other words, I lie in bed thinking,
therefore I am.
Idleness as a waste of time is a damaging notion
put about by its spiritually vacant enemies. Introspection could
lead to that terrible thing: a vision of the truth, a clear image of
the horror of our fractured, dissonant world. The writer Will Self,
arguing that long periods of motorway driving can be a method of
recapturing lost idling time, puts it like this: "This cultural
taboo against thinking ... exists in England because of the
Protestant work ethic which demands that people shouldn't be idle -
ergo they shouldn't think."
This prejudice is well established in the western
world. Governments do not like the idle. The idle worry them. They
do not manufacture useless objects nor consume the useless products
of labour. They cannot be monitored. They are out of control.
That being ill can be a delightful way to
recapture lost idling time is a fact well known to all young
children. On schooldays, the independent child soon learns that if
he is ill, then he can lie in bed all day, avoid work and be looked
after. What a different world from the everyday one of punishments,
recriminations and duties. Suddenly everyone is very nice to you.
Being ill - nothing life-threatening, of course -
should be welcomed as a pleasure in adult life, too, as a holiday
from responsibility and burden. Indeed, it may be one of the few
legitimate ways left to be idle. When ill, you can avoid those
irksome tasks that make living such hard work.Dressing, for
instance. You can pad around the house in your dressing gown like
Sherlock Holmes, NoÎl Coward or our friend, that hero of laziness,
Oblomov. When ill, you are the master. You do what you like. You can
play your old Clash albums. Stare out of the window. Laugh inwardly
at the sufferings of your co-workers. Looking a little deeper at the
benefits of being ill, we may argue that the physical pain can lead
to positive character development, that bodily suffering can improve
the mind. "That which does not kill me makes me stronger," said
The intellectual benefits of being ill are
demonstrated and reflected upon at length by Marcel Proust. Famously
chronically ill and frequently bed-bound, he had plenty of time to
theorise on being ill: "Infirmity alone makes us notice and learn,
and enables us to analyse processes which we would otherwise know
nothing about. A man who falls straight into bed every night, and
ceases to live until the moment when he wakes and rises, will surely
never dream of making, not necessarily great discoveries, but even
minor observations about sleep."
Proust was accused by contemporaries of being a
hypochondriac, which may have been true. But how else would he have
found the time to write the hundreds of thousands of words that make
up ¿ la Recherche du temps perdu? And how else would we find the
time to read it, were we not sometimes ill? If Proust had been a
healthy, upstanding member of society, then he might have suffered a
successful career in the upper reaches of the civil service, and the
world of letters would have been a good deal poorer.
In the far-off days before painkillers and
tranquillisers, illness and trauma were not to be swept under the
carpet and ignored. They were to be respected, listened to and given
time to work themselves out. When Samuel Pepys had an immensely
painful operation to remove a kidney stone, he did not rush back
into the office 36 hours later. No. He had the right to a full 40
days' recovery period during which time he was not allowed to do
"Convalescing" is a word one doesn't hear much
these days. It's as if we have banished the notion that time is a
healer. What happened, I wonder, to the doctors of the turn of the
century, who used to recommend long periods of inactivity on the
South Coast for minor ailments? When the sickly velvet-coated dandy
Robert Louis Stevenson fell ill in 1873, aged 23, the diagnosis was
"nervous exhaustion with a threatening of phthisis" and the
prescription was a winter on the Riviera, "in complete freedom from
anxiety or worry". Once upon a time, we knew how to be ill. Now we
have lost the art. Everyone, everywhere, disapproves of being ill.
To demonstrate how our attitudes to illness have
grown dramatically less idler-friendly in recent years, we need only
look at the recent history of Lemsip's marketing. When I was a
child, a mug of Lemsip mixed with honey was one of the pleasures of
lying in bed with a heavy cold. It went with being wrapped in a
dressing gown and watching Crown Court. It was all part of the fun.
Your mother might bring you a steaming cup of the soothing nectar in
bed. You would sip it, cough weakly and luxuriate in its fumes. It
had some positive effect on the physical symptoms of the illness, to
be sure, but it was also a pleasure in itself. Lemsip was part of
the delicious and much-needed slow-down that illness can bring into
Not any more. Lemsip has reinvented itself as a
"hard-working medicine". It has changed from a friend of the idler
to his worst enemy. The implication now is that rather than enjoying
your illness and waiting a few days till it has gone away, you
should manfully repress the symptoms and carry on as normal,
competing, working, consuming. Most appalling of all was their
recent ad line, "Stop Snivelling and Get Back to Work".
"Staying in is the new going out" was a joke I
made at a meeting once. Though daft and glib, there remains some
truth in it. Going out all the time can be oppressive. It's hard
work. Trying to keep up with the latest bar, club, movie, gallery,
show or band is a full-time occupation, and one always feels as if
there is something better going on somewhere else. On a simple
level, of course, staying in is the idler's dream, because of the
low physical effort involved. It avoids the tedious and costly
business of getting ready, leaving the house, travelling somewhere
else, attending the function and then enduring the still more
tedious and costly business of getting home at the end of it all. In
any case, planned schemes of merriment, as Dr Johnson rightly
pointed out, rarely turn into the best evenings.
The greatest piece of staying-in literature ever
composed is ¿ Rebours by JK Huysmans, published in 1884. Huysmans
was a decadent fin de siËcle writer with a bourgeois day job - he
was a clerk at the Ministry of Interior for 30 years. But at night
he allowed his literary imagination to roam free and created some of
the most fascinating works of the period. ¿ Rebours, which
translates as Against Nature, is a study of a wealthy dandy called
Des Esseintes. Having exhausted the pleasures of town and failed to
find the meaning of life in weird sex and late nights, he decides to
retreat to a hillside mansion and create his own artificial reality,
a peculiar paradise of colour, smell and beauty, controlled by
ingenious mechanical devices. He is motivated by an idleness of the
body and a snobbishness of the mind. He doesn't want to exert
himself; he doesn't want to consort with his fellow human beings,
whom he regards as irredeemably vulgar. Bothering itself, to Des
Esseintes, is vulgar. With inner resources and books, there is no
need to move about, to travel.
So, Husymans sets about creating his indoor
wonderland. Helped by a couple of bemused servants, he uses his
considerable wealth and imagination to build an absurdly extravagant
reality. His first act is to sleep during the day and come alive at
night. Perhaps the best known of Des Esseintes's innovations is the
golden tortoise. He has a fancy that it would be amusing to have in
his sitting room an ornament that moved around, so orders a tortoise
to be plated with gold and encrusted with jewels. Another caprice is
an invention he calls the "mouth organ", a complex machine that
delivers drops of various different liqueurs from an array of stops,
the idea being to mix them up on the palate and create a symphony of
flavour. He also orders the most fragile, delicate and overbred
hothouse flowers to festoon his house. There is a nice vein of dark
humour that undercuts the earnest descriptions of Des Esseintes's
experiments: the tortoise, he notices one evening, has died, and
after a lengthy description of the mouth organ, Des Esseintes finds
that he can't be bothered to go through the whole palaver and simply
helps himself to a shot of whisky before sitting down. Needless to
say, the flowers all die, too.
Eventually, Des Esseintes is defeated by the
botherers. His style of living makes him ill, and he is told by
various doctors that he must move back to Paris and get out there,
have fun and talk to people. Otherwise, "insanity quickly followed
by tuberculosis" will be his fate. Des Esseintes gives in to their
advice with bad grace. His project may have been a failure, but that
doesn't mean we shouldn't take inspiration from his heroic attempt
to elevate his soul via interior furnishings.
I have been inspired to create a pub in my own
home. For me, the pleasures of staying in revolve around drinking
and talking. So I took the unprepossessing scullery in our rented
Devon farmhouse and installed a dartboard and two old dining-room
chairs, which cost £7 each in a local bric-a-brac place. I've also
added a print of dogs playing pool, fairy lights, a piece of
driftwood, a shove-ha'penny board, beer mats, Hogarth prints, an old
scythe which I found on a rubbish tip and postcards of Cornish men
eating giant pasties. All these items were either found lying around
or were donated by friends. The pub is called The Green Man and my
friend Pete Loveday has painted the sign. Through the battered
casement windows you can see the sun set over the sea, and without
stirring abroad I can know the whole world.
I have moved my old Dansette record player into
my home-pub and we play NoÎl Coward and The Ink Spots on sunny
afternoons. I find that sort of music accompanies ale and cigarettes
According to the actor David Garrick, when Dr
Johnson was asked what were the greatest pleasures in life, he
"answered fucking and the second was drinking. And therefore he
wondered why there were not more drunkards, for all could drink tho'
all could not fuck."
From Burns to Byron and from Bohemians to
hippies, the history of riotous, easy living and the quest for
liberty has been bound up with the pursuit of sexual freedoms. And
the pleasures of sex have long been attacked by the prudes and
bureaucrats who tend to run countries and large institutions. Solo
pleasuring has been a particular victim. In common with other forms
of non-reproductive sex such as homosexuality or bestiality, the
19th century saw a widespread and concerted attack on masturbation
from priests, schoolteachers, doctors and scientists.
You can imagine the burden everyone must have
been carrying around with them as a result. Here is an extract from
the guilt-torn diary of a certain Victorian do-gooder, written in
March 15: God has delivered me from the greatest
offence and the constant murder of all my thoughts.
March 21: Undisturbed by my great enemy.
June 7: But this long moral death, this failure
of all attempts to cure. I think I have never been so bad as this
June 17: After a sleepless night physically and
morally ill and broken down, a slave - glad to leave Athens. I have
no wish on earth but sleep.
June 18: I had no wish, no enemy, I longed but
for sleep. My enemy is too strong for me, everything has been tried.
All, all is vain.
June 21: My enemy let me go and I was free.
June 24: Here too I was free.
June 29: Four long days of absolute slavery.
June 30: I cannot write a letter, can do nothing.
July 1: I lay in bed and called on God to save
(You may be surprised to learn the owner of this
towering libido was none other than Florence Nightingale.)
In the modern west we like to congratulate
ourselves on having a more open-minded attitude to sex. But sex,
like so many other pleasures, has been caught up in the striving
ethic. It has become hard work; something we have to "perform" at; a
competitive sport. The journalist Suzanne Moore made this point in
the Idler in 1995. She recalled her schoolfriend Janice, who taught
the young Suzanne various sexual tricks: "What Janice tried to
impress on me was that sex was an activity that you had to work at,
practise, evolve techniques for: one vast exercise in
self-improvement. I had never liked sports of any description. I was
lazy. I couldn't be bothered ..." This vast effort is all wrong. Sex
becomes something we have to learn. The magazines give us homework.
And if we get it wrong, if we get low marks, then we feel guilty and
useless. Fitness-freak pop stars such as Geri Halliwell contribute
to this sor t of suffering, as does Madonna, who, as Moore says, "is
of course living proof that you can try too hard. She has made sex
as sexy as aerobics and, like step classes, something that has to be
slotted into an already tight schedule."
It seems to me the situation is critical in the
US, where sex has been elevated into a cross between a religion and
a sport. And spare us, please, the humourless tantric-sex workouts
of Sting. But the question remains: what is idle sex? With what
shall we substitute the modern ideal of athletic power-shagging?
Well, Suzanne has one answer: "To be frank, I have never understood
what was so wrong with lying back and thinking of England ... when
sex becomes such major toil, a labour of love, let me tell you that
it is your revolutionary duty to phone in sick."
Oh, to lie back and be used and abused! This is
surely the secret wish of the sexual slacker. Sex for idlers should
be messy, drunken, bawdy, lazy. It should be wicked, wanton and
lewd, dirty to the point where it is embarrassing to look at one
another in the morning. And idle sex should be languid. Men are
characterized as wanting to get straight to the point when it comes
to intercourse, and women complain that all men want to do is thrust
it in. But in my own case, I find I have a slight sense of
disappointment when the messing around comes to an end and the final
act begins. It means the mechanical element has taken over, the
useful bit, the part that actually makes babies. A part of me would
like simply to toy with my mistress for days on end under the lotus
tree or on an enormous pile of velvet cushions, while smoking,
drinking and laughing.
People criticise drunken sex but in my experience
it tends to be better than sober sex. Drink and drugs improve sex by
removing all the performance anxiety and guilt and concern about
having a crap body, as well as certain, ahem, inhibitions.
Dreams and idleness go together and are dismissed
as "the children of an idle brain", as the sensible and grounded
Mercutio says to the starry-eyed Romeo in Romeo And Juliet. Dreamers
are "away with the fairies". They are told to start living in the
"the real world". The trick, indeed the duty, of every serious idler
is to harmonise dreamworld and dayworld.
Dreams make the world go round. Our dreams at
night fill our subconscious with strange reflections of the day. In
our dreams, our spirit roams free; we can fly, we can sing, we are
good at things (I have dreams where I am brilliant at skateboarding,
for example), we have erotic encounters with celebrities.
For surrealist filmmaker Luis BuÒuel, dreams were
the highlight of his life: "If someone were to tell me I had 20
years left, and ask me how I'd like to spend them, I'd reply: 'Give
me two hours a day of activity, and I'll take the other 22 in dreams
... provided I can remember them.' I love dreams, even when they're
nightmares, which is usually the case."
The two hours a day, presumably, were when BuÒuel
would fashion some sort of art from his visions.
There are many examples of the creative power of
dreams: Kubla Khan came to Coleridge in a dream, as did the tune for
Yesterday to Paul McCartney. The idea for Frankenstein revealed
itself to the young Mary Shelley in a waking dream; Einstein said
that a breakthrough in his theory of relativity had come to him in a
dream; Descartes had a dream that set him on the path towards his
whole philosophical system (he said it was "the most important
affair" of his life). JK Rowling was staring out of the window on a
train when the idea, plot and characters for Harry Potter came to
The art of living is the art of bringing dreams
and reality together. I have a dream. It is called love, anarchy,
freedom. It is called being idle.
© Tom Hodgkinson, 2004.