Thursday, May 15, 2014

Permission to do nothing

I resonated so deeply to Sven Birkerts' historical disquisition, in Lapham's Quarterly, on the beneficial nature of doing “nothing” in this day and age of incessant clicking, keying, binge-watching, and all-around overscheduling. Some of my life's happiest moments have been spent lying on my back watching the pattern of light through the beautifully rustling leaves of a tree in spring. Well worth reading in its entirety, here is the finale of his essay, “The Mother of Possibility.”
Who still idles? Sieving with the mind’s own Google I pull up a few names: the late W. G. Sebald, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson in her reverie-paced scenemaking, Nicholson Baker in The Anthologist…But finally there are few exemplars. Most contemporary prose, I find, agitates; it creates a caffeinated vibration that is all about competing stimuli and the many ways that the world overruns us. Idleness needs atmospheres of indolence to survive. It is an endangered condition that asks for a whole different climate of reading, one that is not about information, or self-betterment, or keeping up with the latest book-club flavor, but exists just for itself, idyllic, intransitive.
I recently heard a commencement speech by critic James Wood in which he lamented the loss of pungency from our lives—so much is now sanitized or hidden away from the public eye—and exhorted would-be writers to search deep in their imaginations for the primary details that animate prose and poetry. On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.
Don't miss this post on Eliot Porter's exquisite photographs of Thoreau's woods.


  1. Thank you for this post. I think it is so important to remember that being idle has far-reaching and indescribable benefits.

    Also, I'm sure it's not, but is the picture of leaves by any chance the work of Ernst Benary? I do so love his vegetable depictions, and noticed a resemblance between them and these leaves.

  2. "People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day." A. A. Milne
    "Idleness is only fatal to the mediocre." Albert Camus (Oh those French!)
    "Extreme busyness is a symptom of deficient vitality, and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity." Robert Louis Stevenson
    Whew! There's no shortage of advocates of idleness. But I think idleness can cause trouble in those who are disposed to it, (teens with a 6-pack of beer, for example) while for those of a pensive bent, it gives leave to follow that butterfly of curiosity that may otherwise die of inattention.

    Yipes! Did I just agree with M. Camus?

    1. Love them all! Kindred sensibilities oft maketh strange bedfellows (re M. Camus).
      BTW, liked yr entry in the latest Public Domain Review caption contest (even before I saw your name!).

    2. You're so kind. The PDR Caption pictures seem a bit grim sometimes. They haven't discovered the comedic possibilities of a penguin and a Scotsman!

  3. Dear DG Blogger,

    You should do more of this.