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 of drones.)

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 tasks ahead.

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 work won.

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 eternity.

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."

Ren 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, Nol 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 Nietzsche.

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 anything.

"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 our life.

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 sicle 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 Nol Coward and The Ink Spots on sunny afternoons. I find that sort of music accompanies ale and cigarettes rather well.

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 1850:

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 last week.

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 me.

(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 Buuel, 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 Buuel 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 her.

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.