Thursday, December 04, 2008

Idleness as a Point of Conscience: Nice Not Work if You Can Get It

from Crooked Timber. by John Holbo.

My friend Josh Glenn has a new book, The Idler’s Glossary [amazon]. An acquaintance of mine, Mark Kingwell, wrote the introductory essay. And Seth did the illustrations. (I love Seth.) The whole svelte, 3.7×6 in. unit would slip snugly into someone’s X-Mas stocking, mayhap.

It’s a glossary: entries on absentmindedness and acedia through to working-class hero. (Shouldn’t there be an entry for ‘zzzzzz’? With no gloss? I think that might have been an elegant way to end the book.)

Right, the philosophy of idleness. First, I will note that Kingwell and Glenn have diametrically opposed theories of boredom. Kingwell quotes a passage from a Kingsley Amis novel: “My wife accuse me of thinking her boring. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that this might be because she’s boring … To her mind, her being boring is a thing I do.” Kingwell takes the husband’s side, but Glenn goes on to take the wife’s: “Go ahead and blame your dull companions, but being bored [a slang term that appeared among London’s smart set in the late 18th century, perhaps derived from the French for ‘triviality’] is your own fault. It’s the state of being too restless to concentrate, while too apathetic to bust a move.” Which, come to think of it, is a pretty stable Kinglsey Amis formula.

So who’s right: Kingwell or Glenn? In philosophical terms, if a tree is boring in the forest, and there is no one there to be bored by how dull Nature is … ? In Humean terms, is boringness a matter of (we shouldn’t say ‘gilding and staining Nature with our sentiments’) dulling and drearing Nature with our sentiments. Or was existence already dull and drear when we lay down on it?

Let us proceed to our second topic, which is of even greater significance: idleness, per se. Kingwell wants to distinguish Idleness, as a positive spiritual condition, from mere laziness and slackerdom. The latter, he correctly notes, are cases of second-order desire failure. You want to want to do something, but nothing happens. Idleness, by contrast, makes a virtue of not-doing. As he says, there is a world of difference between not working and not-working. But it seems to me we need to take another step at this point. To explain: Kingwell quotes Russell, from In Praise of Idleness, about the two kinds of work: moving stuff around on or near the surface of the earth; or ordering/advising other people to do it. But then he faults Russell for ultimately being trapped on the gerbil wheel (if you will) of work ethic talk. ‘Idleness’ just becomes another word for not working. It does not escape into some proper value sphere of its own, not-working. And so Russell ends up confusing idleness with laziness. And yet: is not Kingwell himself making the same mistake. (!!) The trouble with ‘idleness’ is that it, too, still sees from the point of view of work. Idlers – from Socrates asking annoying questions, to Nerval, walking his lobster, to that fellow sleeping on the bench – are all the same from the point of view of work. These people are not working. What is missed is the distinction between doing nothing and doing something that is, from the point of view of work, conspicuously profitless – like philosophy, or walking a lobster. ‘Idleness’, applied to Socrates or Nerval, is a careless, inaccurate term of abuse, a tactical refusal to acknowledge what distinguishes the doer of nothing from the doer of something seemingly pointless. It seems to me that, when we shave off mere laziness, on one side, and various forms of active strangeness, on the other, you reduce the category of true Idleness, positive not-working, to a relatively small, hard core of soft indolence. You have to limit your cases to philosophers of Idleness. I think there should be an entry for ‘Taoism’, some quotes from Chuang Tzu. (On the other hand, there is an entry for ‘Cunctation’, which is a word I like.)

Now, contemporary public policy implications. The LA Times reports:

Reporting from Washington – The outgoing Bush administration is planning to announce a broad new “right of conscience” rule permitting medical facilities, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers to refuse to participate in any procedure they find morally objectionable, including abortion and possibly even artificial insemination and birth control.

For more than 30 years, federal law has dictated that doctors and nurses may refuse to perform abortions. The new rule would go further by making clear that healthcare workers also may refuse to provide information or advice to patients who might want an abortion.

It also seeks to cover more employees. For example, in addition to a surgeon and a nurse in an operating room, the rule would extend to “an employee whose task it is to clean the instruments,” the draft rule said.

An older NY Times article adds another significant element to the picture:

The Ohio Health Department said the rule “could force family planning providers to hire employees who may refuse to do their jobs” — a concern echoed by Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.


Under the Civil Rights Act, an employer must make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religious practices, unless the employer can show that doing so would cause “unduehardship on the conduct of its business.”

In a letter commenting on the proposed rule, Mr. Ishimaru and Ms. Griffin, from the employment commission, said that 40 years of court decisions had carefully balanced “employees’ rights to religious freedom and employers’ business needs.”

The proposed rule, they said, “would throw this entire body of law into question.”

I think we see here a chance, in the waning days of the Bush administration, for a massive embiggening of the Republican Big Tent. A coalition of the Unwilling, if you will. Nihilcons – or Taocons, or Dronecons if you prefer. Republicans can pivot from being the party of Emersonian self-reliance to the Bartlebyan party of ‘I would prefer not to’. (Think how much clearer things would be if that had been FEMA’s official, rather than unofficial, motto. ‘Heckuva not-job, Brownie’ and all that.)

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. You may reasonably say: this is all well and good, and obviously I should buy The Idler’s Glossary for anyone in my family who is planning on going to medical school, or working at or near a hospital or pharmacy. But what about the rest of us? What about Main Street, to say nothing of Wall Street? Can the denizens of these alternative avenues cultivate Idleness as an obscure point of positive philosophical conscience, to the point where – by the terms of this new HHS rule – one could simply refuse to work, without being fired?

At this point I suggest coming up with some hoo-ha about how the whole economy is all intertwined – making sandwiches for doctors, teaching the children of doctors, to say nothing of the Interstate Commerce Clause, etc. etc. If a butterfly idly refuses to flap its wings, and this causes a storm half a world away, or causes the aftermath of a storm to not be cleaned up, then … stuff from Chuang Tzu:

‘Caves and dells of hill and forest, hollows in huge trees of many a span in girth; ‹ these are like nostrils, like mouths, like ears, like beam-sockets, like goblets, like mortars, like ditches, like bogs. And the wind goes rushing through them, sniffing, snoring, singing, soughing, puffing, purling, whistling, whirring, now shrilly treble, now deeply bass, now soft, now loud; until, with a lull, silence reigns supreme. Have you never witnessed among the trees such a disturbance as this?’

‘Well, then’, enquired Tzu Yu, ‘since the music of earth consists of nothing more than holes, and the music of man of pipes and flutes, ‹ of what consists the music of Heaven?’

‘The effect of the wind upon these various apertures’, replied Tzu Ch’i, ‘is not uniform. But what is it that gives to each the individuality, to all the potentiality, of sound?

‘Great knowledge embraces the whole: small knowledge, a part only. Great speech is universal: small speech is particular.

‘For whether the mind is locked in sleep or whether in waking hours the body is released, we are subject to daily mental perturbations, ‹ indecision, want of penetration, concealment, fretting fear, and trembling terror. Now like a javelin the mind flies forth, the arbiter of right and wrong. Now like a solemn covenanter it remains firm, the guardian of rights secured. Then, as under autumn and winter’s blight, comes gradual decay, a passing away, like the flow of water, never to return. Finally, the block when all is choked up like an old drain ‹ the failing mind which shall not see light again.

‘Joy and anger, sorrow and happiness, caution and remorse, come upon us by turns, with everchanging mood. They come like music from hollowness, like mushrooms from damp. Daily and nightly they alternate within us, but we cannot tell whence they spring. Can we then hope in a moment to our lay our finger upon their very Cause?

And if not, can we be unjustified in our Idleness? CAN WE!?

Then make sure to nod off again, abruptly, while your earnestly work-favoring interlocutor clutches vainly for any objection.

And so it turns out Kingwell speaks nothing but the sober truth when he write, in his introduction: “Henceforth all further glossaries are superfluous because everything you need to know about how to conduct a life lies within these covers.” Just show your employer the book and claim a ‘right of conscience’ to pure Idleness.

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