Mark Slouka wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine called “Quitting the Paint Factory,” and to my mind its everything an essay should be: beautiful, impassioned prose with a solid argument to boot. It’s about the culture of work that dominates American culture today, and it’s a lament for the forgotten value of idleness.
Do yourself a favor and check it out. I read it here, so that’s where I’ll send you to read it. But here’s a taste to pique your interest:
A resuscitated orthodoxy, so pervasive as to be nearly invisible, rules the land. Like any religion worth its salt, it shapes our world in its image, demonizing if necessary, absorbing when possible. Thus has the great sovereign territory of what Nabokov called “unreal estate,” the continent of invisible possessions from time to talent to contentment, been either infantilized, rendered unclean, or translated into the grammar of dollars and cents. Thus has the great wilderness of the inner life been compressed into a median strip by the demands of the “real world,” which of course is anything but. Thus have we succeeded in transforming even ourselves into bipedal products, paying richly for seminars that teach us how to market the self so it may be sold to the highest bidder. Or perhaps “down the river” is the phrase.
Ah, but here’s the rub: Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had “too much time on our hands.” They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, “Quick, look busy.”
[ . . . ]
Increasingly, it seems to me, our world is dividing into two kinds of things: those that aid work, or at least represent a path to it, and those that don’t. Things in the first category are good and noble; things in the second aren’t. Thus, for example, education is good (as long as we don’t have to listen to any of that “end in itself” nonsense) because it will presumably lead to work. Thus playing the piano or swimming the 100-yard backstroke are good things for a fifteen-year-old to do not because they might give her some pleasure but because rumor has it that Princeton is interested in students who can play Chopin or swim quickly on their backs (and a degree from Princeton, as any fool knows, can be readily converted to work).
[ . . . ]
Time may be money (though I’ve always resisted that loathsome platitude, the alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce), but one thing seems certain: Money eats time. Forget the visions of sanctioned leisure: the view from the deck in St. Moritz, the wafer-thin TV. Consider the price.
Sometimes, I want to say, money costs too much. And at the beginning of the millennium, in this country, the cost of money is well on the way to bankrupting us. We’re impoverishing ourselves, our families, our communities – and yet we can’t stop ourselves. Worse, we don’t want to.
Seen from the right vantage point, there’s something wonderfully animistic about it. The god must be fed; he’s hungry for our hours, craves our days and years. And we oblige. Every morning (unlike the good citizens of Tenochtitlan, who at least had the good sense to sacrifice others on the slab) we rush up the steps of the ziggurat to lay ourselves down. It’s not a pretty sight.