With most of us stuck at home, the many elves who keep the short-term course and webinar mills running have been very busy. Switch on your computer and they hit you from every direction. They offer courses in app dev, Hebrew, painting à la Van Gogh, dog-nail clipping and more, and that too at slashed rates. Such wondrous courses and webinars are guaranteed to keep you busy forever.
Thou shalt not remain idle. Thou shalt be industrious and ‘upskill’ thyself, proclaims the great voice from deep inside the machine. And a 10-year-long school education in moral science forces you to meekly accept it. This life, full of care, is doomed to be without the privilege to sit and stare.
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In this perpetual hurry and scurry that we call ‘life’, is there space for those of us who want to do nothing? Can we aim at the kind of life Karel Čapek extolled in his essay, ‘In Praise of Idleness’: “To be like a stone without weight. To be like water without reflection. Like a cloud without motion... like a human without thoughts”?
Bertrand Russell, who borrowed Čapek’s title for his essay (in essence, subliminally strengthening his case), talks of how the notion of ‘duty’ has been drilled into us in order to ensure that we always stay on the treadmill and delude ourselves into thinking that duty trumps everything. It means, keep working constantly... so that certain others can enjoy their leisure!
Work, which he terms “moving matter about”, while being necessary to a limited extent is not “one of the ends of human life”, Russell asserts. Even that hallowed phrase, ‘dignity of labour’, is a sham. It has been carefully constructed to keep the minions scurrying about while the creamy layer people gaze out at the blue sky and sigh in pleasure at the beautiful day.
Russell says that four hours of work a day should be sufficient to keep us in fine fettle. Speaking in the 1930s, he said that technology had evolved enough to grant us leisure. And yet here we are, almost a century later, still on the eternal treadmill.
Let us state clearly that idling is honourable. And it is achievable. Onward with the case for it.
Binding the free
In ‘An Apology for Idlers,’ Robert Louis Stevenson, writing decades before Russell, says that idleness has “as good a right to state its position as industry itself”. His model young person, whom he briefly sketches in the essay, offers a stout defence of his conduct when pulled up for lolling around the countryside. He says he is busy learning a lesson in “Peace, or Contentment”. Perhaps anticipating the high value that capitalism would attach to the wealthy, Stevenson also says: “Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last.”
While we have known for a long time that a fancy degree and a swelling bank balance cannot buy you happiness, we know now that they cannot even get you a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder. So why labour unnecessarily?
To stand and stare, devoid of thoughts — at blue skies, starry nights, even heartless concrete — is worth fighting for. We all need to cast away our attachment to work and ask, as Charles Lamb did:
“Who first invented work, and bound the free/ And holyday-rejoicing spirit down/ To the ever-haunting importunity/ Of business in the green fields, and the town —/ To plough, loom, anvil, spade — and oh! most sad,/ To that dry drudgery at the desk’s dead wood?”
Let us stop being productive for a while and enjoy life to the lees.
The Bengaluru-based writer works in publishing.