We’re living in a culture governed by a permanent compulsion towards frenetic activity or fevered distraction. Outside working hours, every pause seems almost reflexively to trigger a jolt of anxious guilt or shame that something – a laundry cycle, a tax return, a status update – remains undone.
The effect of this permanent busyness is to leave us feeling that inactive states have no meaning or validity in themselves; that they exist only to be filled in with some content. Inactivity increasingly exists for us as the negative of our “real” lives of activity and purpose.
In my book Not Working, I try to counter this conception of human life by exploring various dimensions of inactivity. I don’t idealise non-work, which can signify depression and indifference as much as creativity, but I do argue that it’s an essential dimension of every human life, such that its loss impoverishes us imaginatively and emotionally.
It’s surely no surprise that much of the inspiration for the book came from reading. I’m referring not only to the rich and varied literature on the subject, but equally to the act of reading itself. As anyone who makes a living from it will tell you, reading can be hard work. But turning away from the immediate demands of the “real” world to immerse oneself in a world made on the page – be it the speculative world of the philosopher or physicist, the reconstructed past of the historian, or the imaginary realms of the novelist or poet – is itself a refusal of the demand for useful productivity. It requires us to slow down, wait, be curious, avoid the headlong rush into practical action.
Here, then, are the books I’ve found most helpful in exploring inactivity, idleness and aimlessness in all their wonderfully various forms.
- Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot
A kind of delirious inversion of a Platonic dialogue; replacing Socrates the lover of wisdom guiding his awed pupil towards the Good with Rameau the unconscionable and entitled slob instructing the half-amused, half-disgusted Diderot in the ways of gluttony and freeloading. Diderot, editor of the epic Encyclopédie, was himself a paragon of almost unfeasible intellectual productivity and a passionate advocate for human reason. Yet one of his most brilliant and seductive creations is this shamelessly unreasonable waster and his compelling argument for making very little effort in life.
- Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
A pampered only child raised on an idyllic country estate, Oblomov is stuck with his aged, cantankerous manservant in a dusty St Petersburg apartment, unable to summon the will to get out of bed and face the ominous financial demands and administrative tasks proliferating around him. The rousing pep talks of his tireless, go-getting friend Stolz briefly propel him into life, but in the end Oblomov – whiny, self-pitying yet strangely lovable – can never resist the inexorable pull of inertia. No less than Lenin lamented the chronic malaise of “Oblomovitis” affecting the Russian people. Good for them, I say.
- The Portable Thoreau by Henry David Thoreau
This handy volume includes some of the best writings of the great American naturalist, essayist and political agitator. Walden, his record of a year-long experiment in living self-sufficiently, dares to imagine a life unencumbered by economic necessity and social obligation. Here and in great essays such as Walking and Life Without Principle, Thoreau enjoins us to the freedom of living aimlessly, guided by the lights of our own desires rather than the world’s life-denying imperative of “incessant business”. The real pleasure is to be found in Thoreau’s beautiful prose and singular voice – wry, often exasperated and just a little imperious.
- Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud
This remains Freud’s most controversial work, a bold and often startling foray into speculative biology and the outer edges of the human psyche. Its central idea of a “death drive” continues to trouble its critics, as well as inspire artists, writers and philosophers. The death drive is not primarily, as is sometimes claimed, an innate destructiveness, but a resistance to the growth and expansion inherent to life. The scandalous suggestion is that behind the impulse to do, make and expand is an older and ultimately more powerful urge to lassitude and stasis. Which makes sense to me.
- The Decay of Lying and Other Essays by Oscar Wilde
“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world.” The red thread running through this anthology of some of Wilde’s finest essays is his provocative disdain for action. In a surprising echo of Freud, he argues that it is always “ignorant of its direction”. We don’t know what we’re doing when we act and so are liable to make a mess of things despite our best intentions (Wilde is a brilliant companion for the Brexit age.) In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he imagines us liberated by machines from the shackles of labour to realise our full creative possibilities. Unrealistic? Of course, but then the famous 1968 slogan, “Be realistic: demand the impossible!” could have been coined by Wilde, master of paradox.
- The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot
The best place to start with this enigmatic, forbidding but endlessly fascinating French philosopher and critic. Ostensibly a collection of essays on major modern writers, it’s really a sustained reflection on art as a kind of reserve of pure idleness. A prolific writer himself, Blanchot doesn’t deny that making art is hard work; but it’s work that doesn’t intervene in the concrete world of historical action. In other words, art can do anything in its own world – bend and break time, space, physical reality – because it doesn’t really do anything in reality.
- A Short History of Decay by EM Cioran
A brilliant collection of aphorisms from the lyric philosopher of existential misery. For all his uncompromising pessimism and disgust, hope sneaks into his writing surreptitiously, through the wry humanity of his voice. Cioran takes a hammer to religious and political belief systems in the name of more than mere nihilism; his primary concern is to protect a place for “doubt and sloth”’, for the “idlers and aesthetes” who “propose nothing”. It’s the spirit of the idler, after all, that stands between us and the terrible ravages of fanaticism.
- A Man Asleep by Georges Perec
Perec’s early novella is a deeply unsettling portrait of a young man’s wish to sleep his life away. From the beginning, its narrator sinks inexorably into anonymity and indifference, becoming “a man of leisure, a sleepwalker, a mollusc”, concentrating all his efforts in the achievement of a state of immobility and silence. Perhaps that makes it sound dull and depressing; but the disconcerting enigma of this book is how thrilling it is.
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Really? With a word count to rival War and Peace, not to mention a similar level of narrative convolution, this doorstopper may not be the first novel you associate with inactivity. But its proliferation of characters and stories all converge on the same motif: our culture’s drive to (in the words of the polemicist Neil Postman) “amuse us to death”. The titular film, circulating underground in a dystopian American future, does just that, inducing a pleasure in its viewer so extreme as to induce permanent catatonic bliss.
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh’s novel, published last year, reads a bit like a baroque rewriting of A Man Asleep. The unnamed narrator’s elaborate project to self-induce a year-long sleep with prescription drugs and withdraw from the vapid New York of money, bad art and worse parties takes us through various narrative detours – a needy friend, a hideous ex, a mad psychiatrist – on the way to oblivion. Few novels have conveyed so powerfully the urge, induced by our culture of permanent visibility and stimulation, to shut down.