‘In idleness is the salvaging of the inner life’


An Idle Moment, John White Alexander, c. 1885

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

Idleness—that beautiful, historically encumbered word. Beautiful because childhood is its first sanctuary and still somehow inheres in its three easy syllables—and who among us doesn’t sway toward the thought of it, often, conjuring what life might be like if it were still a play of appetites and inclinations rather than a roster of the duties and oughts that fill our calendar—indeed, make it necessary that we keep a calendar at all? Encumbered because the word has never not carried the taint of its associations. Idle hands, the idle rich, the downturns that idle workers. Idleness has been branded the obverse of industry, a slap in the face to all healthy ambition. So-and-so is a layabout, a ne’er-do-well, an idler. But for all that, we have not made the word unbeautiful; there is a light at the core, to be remarked, gleaned from the righteous attributions of the anxiously busy.

It is a confusing concept, though, and to find that pure and valid strain, it would help to say what it is not. Idleness is not inertness, for example. Inertness is immobile, inattentive, somehow lacking potential. Neither is idleness quite laziness, for it does not convey disinclination. It is not torpor, or acedia—the so-called Demon of Noontide—nor is it any form of passive resistance, for these require an engagement of the will, and idleness is manifestly not about that. Gandhi was not promulgating idleness, nor was Bartleby the scrivener exhibiting it when he owned that he would “prefer not to.” Nor are we talking about the purged consciousness that Zen would aspire to, or any spiritually influenced condition: idleness is not prayer, meditation, or contemplation, though it may carry tonal shadings of some of these states.

It is the soul’s first habitat, the original self ambushed—cross-sectioned—in its state of nature, before it has been stirred to make a plan, to direct itself toward something. We open our eyes in the morning and for an instant—more if we indulge ourselves—we are completely idle, ourselves. And then we launch toward purpose; and once we get under way, many of us have little truck with that first unmustered self, unless in occasional dreamy asides as we look away from our tasks, let the mind slip from its rails to indulge a reverie or a memory. All such thoughts to the past, to childhood, are a truancy from productivity. But there is an undeniable pull at times, as if to a truth neglected. William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” suggests as much: “But for those first affections,/Those shadowy recollections,/Which, be they what they may,/Are yet the fountain light of all our day,/Are yet a master light of all our seeing.”

Idleness is what supervenes on those too few occasions when we allow our pace to slacken and merge with the rhythms of the natural day, when we manage to thwart the impulse to plan forward to the next thing and instead look—idly, with nascent curiosity—at what is immediately in front of us. It has been with us from the first man and woman—when self was in accord with all nature—and so along with being the core of our childhood sense of the world, it is also the center of our Western legend of creation.

“The Mother of Possibility”, Sven Birkerts, Lapham’s Quarterly