By:Thomas Fleming | September 06, 2011

 

Idling:

A Public and Entirely Self-Serving Diary

 

1 September 4,2011. A few words by way of justification for wasting time, mine as much as yours, on talking about nothing.

I have always been by inclination an idle man, the sort who is too lazy to balance his checkbook or do his taxes until the six month's extension is almost up and even then goes to an accountant.

If I followed this inclination, I would spend each summer day in a hammock, reading and getting up only to change books--from Gibbon to Trollope to Simenon—or refresh my iced tea.  One of the best things about not having air conditioning in south Carolina was the excuse for doing nothing provided by the heat.  Henry Timrod used to say his Muse fled north every summer:  It's a good line, and I have used it often.

As winter came on, I would drag my shivering carcass inside to sit in front of the fire and read.  Unfortunately, we were so poor that, without any other source of heat than the fireplace, I had to chop a great deal of wood.  Still, once it was chopped the pile of wood was a towering justification for doing nothing more than to drink hot tea and stare into the flames, getting up from time to time, grudgingly, to stir up the fire, though not too much, since a fire that burns too hot goes quickly through your supply of wood.  As Gilbert's Lord Chancellor said, the ancient Romans said, "festina lente."

It is not that I ever did absolutely nothing or even wanted to.  At five there were drinks to make and by seven supper to eat and afterwards perhaps a film to watch—the trouble with spending a day reading is that you lose your taste for it in the evening.

Such a routine could quickly become wearisome, were it not varied by pleasant walks, a bit of music now and then, a weekend fishing trip, and even an hour or two of writing something not against a deadline.  As I said in the beginning, my nature inclines me to the sort of life lived in Eden, before sin and presumption forced man to earn his living by the sweat of his face.  Unfortunately, my Eden, almost from the beginning, was inhabited by a snake.  The spoiler was not poverty—though I've had my share of that, both in the genteel and ungenteel versions—but the gnawing thought that I had to be doing something worthwhile.

Even in my college years, which to this day are a blur of drinking till dawn mooning over some chit of a girl with whom I had talked myself into being hopelessly in love, even then, I would return to my room in the wee small hours of the morning, and, seeing the text of Aeschylus propped up under my desk lamp beside the intermediate Liddell Scott Greek lexicon, I felt such a wave of—not remorse or guilt—but duty that no matter what condition I was in, I would try to read 100 lines that I would never remember the next afternoon, when I woke up.

This foolish sense of duty has undermined my natural aptitude for idling without exactly making my life anything like a model exercise in duty.  There is hardly a night when I do not go to bed promising myself that "tomorrow is another day," when I shall eat and drink less and exercise more, when I shall begin the day with at least five pages of Plato, write for three hours, take notes in the afternoon, and round off the day by first going over the life of the saint whose day it is (or nearly) and end by reading a French or Italian classic in the evening.  Aggravating this unnatural dedication to study is an even more unwholesome conviction that the ultimate point of learning something is to share it with others by teaching it.  The teaching can the form of a traditional lecture, an academic article or popular essay, an internet column on Aristotle or Mandeville, or even an impromptu discourse over the dinner table. How little separates the hardened teacher from the common bore, I know all too well.

If the ideal day is passed in the study of language, philosophy, history, and literature, the reality is often a good deal less exalted.  This past Saturday, for example, I woke up determined to live up to the inspiring professions of the night before, but in the end I spent perhaps an hour or more practicing Italian and another hour reading the sort of thriller they call gialli (in this case Giorgio Scerbanenco's disturbing novel, Venere privata, which introduces his detective hero Duca Lamberti, a doctor convicted of mercy killing who is now an avenging angel out to destroy a band of white slavers).  I did manage to put in nearly two tedious hours revising a chapter on the divorce revolution before gratefully acceding to my wife's request to bung together an extensive wine rack.  (Now I know something of what it is like to build a replica of Big Ben with Popsicle sticks).

After two hours of labor, my aching joints and strained muscles required a stiff Martini—four ounces of gin and a bit of vermouth—a little supper with a bottle of a nice Malbec, and then a French espionage film starring the great Bosnian ex-Muslim director, Emir Kusturica.  (Don't know his movies?  Try Underground). There was just time enough for a little more Scerbanenco before dozing off for the five hours sleep that my body had decided was good enough for the likes of someone like me.  I did not so much as look for the text of the Phaedrus.  Today, it is more Venere privata and maybe a little of Sir Moses Finley's Ancient Sicily.  If I finish Scerbanenco, the choice is between Leonardo Sciascia, the Sicilian master who combines the form of the giallo with the with whimsical brilliance of a Borghes, and Ngaio Marsh, perhaps the master (or rather mistress) of genteel English mysteries.  I think the Phaedrus is at the office.  Besides, I am writing this nonsense, which is a great deal more amusing than my reflections on common-law marriage.

September 2 (The opening rant concludes)

My former colleague Allan Carlson, then President of The Rockford Institute, used to come into my office and catch me staring dreamily out the window.  "What do you think this is," he would say with a pleasant laugh in his voice, "a think tank?"  Perhaps he was only joking.  Once or twice I remarked that it was only when I was staring out the window that the Institute really got value for the money it was paying me.

The truth--one to which I do not always confess--is that I work faster than anyone I know.  Once I have an idea and a "lead" sentence, I can write fairly good stuff (at least by my low standards) at an amazing rate, perhaps five pages an hour or better.  I am not talking about tedious academic writing, which requires a careful integration of secondary sources, but of essays and editorials and even poems.  Evelyn Waugh was once asked how he was coming on a novel, and he replied that it was nearly done.  All he had left to do, he said, was to write it.  He was, doubtless, exaggerating, but I think I know what he meant.  As the country-pop singer Jerry Reed put it in a somewhat different context, "When you're hot you're hot, when you're not you're not."  Nothing is more difficult for me than to write cold; it is far more agonizing the putting together the elaborate toy with the ominous label, "some assembly required."  I am not referring to anything so mystical as inspiration but to the stream of ideas that pulls the writer along with its current, even if he would like to swim in the other direction.

Nothing is free.  If I can churn out 2000 pretty good words in a single setting of two to three hours, it feels, at the end, that I have worked two or three days.  It's a like the feeling people have (I imagine) when they  have stayed up all night on speed  studying for an exam.  The blood is hammering in the temples, the hands shake, the mind is giddy but at the same time clouded and dim, as if whatever mental muscle tissue you ever possessed was strained and sore. Either I or reality have receded into another dimension, and there is not enough energy left in the day except to take a walk or stare out the window until I can read or at least listen to language tapes.

A more skilled hypocrite than I am would pretend to work, sitting in front of the computer screen and typing away nonsense, as the TV crews always ask you to do when you have finished an interview.  Not me, not any longer.  Work is what you have to do to earn the right to be idle.  Only a maniac would have devised the Protestant Work Ethic, and only a fool would try to live his life according to it.

The ancients knew better.  If they had any money, they had slaves to do all the heavy lifting, including going over the accounts and taking dictation and reading books aloud.  For the Romans, otium—leisure was the desired state, while the opposite word, negotium—non-leisure—is the word we routinely translate as business.  (The Italians know the score, and negotium has become negozio, shop or store, a place where people have to a work that is necessary but undesirable.  The late Josef Pieper understood the ancient and the Christian mind, and his little essay, Leisure the Basis of Culture is a wholesome antidote to the great American obsession with the supposed virtues of work.  What other country could have created such preposterous humbugs as Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, or—the ultimate in humbuggery—Rick Warren, whose very title (The Purpose-Driven Life) gives me the jim-jams.  Imagine a country that could produce such a book and, worse, produce enough readers to make Warren a success.  My people, my people.

We have demonized the sense of otium, which survives in English as the adjective otiose, used sometimes to mean "indolent" but more typically in the sense of "serving no practical purpose."  When we do celebrate leisure, it is usually in the form of "leisure-time activities," expensive and time-consuming sports and hobbies that we pursue with the same grim determination we apply to our jobs.  A bass fisherman without tens of thousands of dollars of equipment cannot be taken seriously, and golfers—just listen to them talk about their handicaps, the length of their drives, the 78 they shot on the back nine.  It's all a matter of keeping score.

If a golfer did not continue to buy the latest technology or keep score of his accomplishments, he would be simply having a good time that serves "no practical purpose."   It's not the competition, even in sports and hobbies is not healthy and, for normal men at least, inevitable, but we Americans seem to care less and less about the game itself and more and more about the statistics.  Just try watching a game on television some time, as the game-changing triple or strike-out interrupts the play-by-play announcer's recitation of irrelevant facts about other players in other games.

How do you know you are winning if you are not keeping score?  Forty years ago, as I recall, a man in business was supposed to make, at a minimum, as many thousands as he had years.  Now, I suppose, it is double that.  We have blood pressure scores, weight loss scores,  and men know how much weight they can press (Don't ask, because my answer is sure to embarrass someone.)   When we are born, we are assigned an Apgar score; later we are given a Personal Vitality Score.  Fortunately, I have never learned what they call the mortality score they assign to dying people.

There is nothing too trivial or too important not to receive a number.  We grade women in a bar on a scale of one to ten, and we use the same scale to evaluate decisions.  "On a scale of one to ten, how highly do you value access to a beach in your retirement community?"  Part of this obsession can be blamed on teachers who think test numbers actually correspond to some reality.  But a lot of it is related to our need to be significant.

Americans who are anybody are determined to be a somebody, whether it is on Wall Street or the Country Club.  St. Paul has that nice phrase about people who say they are something.  He was warning his readers about taking themselves too seriously as objects of importance.  I do not know what he could have said to modern Americans, who are positively convinced that it is their duty to be somebody.

Most of us fail to become the Donald Trump or Barry Bonds or Michael Jackson we are in our dreams, and when we do we are not content to settle down with the girl next door and lead the normal human life we were made for.  Some of us waste our time on schemes to make ourselves rich and famous—Jackie Gleason's Ralph Cramden is a more tragic and pathetic character than Willy Loman.  Or we spend our lives wailing over what might have been.  "I coulda had class, I couda been a contender, I couda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am."

Most of Martin Scorsese's best characters are driven mad by the desire to be somebody among the hundreds of millions of nobodies that fill up these United States.  The Taxi Driver takes on the burden of avenging the sufferings of child prostitutes, and the King of Comedy dreams of being the next Johnny Carson. (Johnny who?  That guy before Letterman and Leno?)

Back in my misspent middle age, when I used to read (and occasionally write for) The National Review, I was forever seeing ads for Mr. Buckley's personal accounts of his own life.  In books like Cruising Speed and Overdrive, as I recall from brief extracts, poor Bill never had a moment to himself. It was breakfast with Henry Kissinger, meetings with the secretaries of this and that, rehearsals for a harpsichord concert at Carnegie Hall, a spy thriller chapter banged out, more meetings with more secretaries, and an evening out with some of the Beautiful People.  Lord, how I pitied the poor fellow.

It is no great secret that Bill and I were never friends. Whey should we have been?  He belonged to an older generation, was brought up as rich and well-connected as I am poor and no-account.  He condemned Chronicles as reckless and unwholesome, because it continued to say publicly what he had also said until he lost his nerve.  Our one lunch together was a polite though uneasy exercise in one upmanship.  He won because he left early for an appointment , certainly an important appointment.  Later he is said to have blamed me, apparently for picking up the check when he had to leave early.  I have too much respect for Bill to think he seriously believed I would let his sister Priscilla grab the check.

He's gone and will be soon forgotten, though not as quickly as I shall be, when it comes my turn.  He had a glib tongue in his early days--and a good deal of courage--but a mind unaccustomed to effort.  In the end his purpose-driven life sputtered out in ungrammatical and incoherent columns written to prove the world was flat (or did he say it was round?  No matter).  He tried to do a great deal of good, and he sometimes succeeded. His loyal friends—not the ones who wrote books about him—testify to his virtues, and I believe them.  I would not live down to Antony's observation that "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones."  I was more than a little annoyed with my friend Peter Brimelow for writing an obituary of the type that Buckley composed for people who got in his way.  It's more useful, in the long run, to remember the wit and courage of the early Buckley.  That he was human like the rest of us is of no interest, and it takes only a few years of rainy weather to wear away feet of clay and leave the bronze torso intact.

But perhaps just perhaps, if Mr. Buckley had travelled at speed somewhat less than overdrive, if he had found the time to let his mind idle now and then reading a book written by a nobody who could do him no good, just for the pleasure of it, he might not have written such dreadful books or passed on his magazine to a generation of poor writers that despise everything he stood for.

This, then, is my justification for keeping this diary, as much a Diary of a Nobody as George Grossmith's (written with his brother Weedon) famous little book.  Grossmith, for those who have not devoted their lives to the higher things, introduced several of the most memorable characters in Gilbert and Sullivan, The Sorcerer John Wellington Wells, Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, the Modern Major General, Bunthorne, the Lord High Executioner, Jack Point, and my own favorite King Gama.  If you don't know all of these parts, shame on you fore being a slave of duty with no time for fun.

Readers who are willing to waste their time on this diary may learn a bit about what it takes to be an idle man in a world of people going places.  It is not the least important lesson they can learn.  The only question for me is whether I shall find the strength to overcome my indolence and write down any more entries.

September 4

The other night we went to a dinner party.  One of the guests was a very nice man, somewhat younger than I am.  When he conversation turned to strange bathrooms we had experienced around the world, the guest—from somewhere in the wilderness of the Chicago suburbs--opined that by far the dirtiest and crumbiest bathrooms in America were to be found in Arkansas.  He could not have known that here in Rockford, everyone tells "Parkansas jokes," based on the presence of so many Arkies in the blue-collar suburbs of Love's Park and Machesney Park, where incest is supposed to be more common than marriage.  I should be amused by the descendants of Swedish peasants making fun of anyone, but I am mildly offended by the disdain of the white-bread middle classes for the Southern poor.  First your kill over a million and a half people, burn their homes and businesses, steal their crops—and then tut tut about their poverty.

I gently observed that at least the Southern poor had given America several of the country's few distinctive musical traditions—country, blues, jazz—while this great state of Illinois had created what?  Exactly nothing.  This is a state where they think Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks are great poets and "Chicago" counts as a rock and roll band.  Later, as we sat outside in the cool evening sipping Grappa di Toscana, the same guest complained about the anti-Italian discrimination his family had experienced.  Now, this man was half-Italian and did not look it.  Educated with undergraduate and graduate degrees from major universities, he was a pretty unlikely candidate to play the part of the poor downtrodden victim of discrimination.  Well, not him exactly, but his father's family.

At this point, I went too far.  You don't see any irony here?  After making fun of a people who settled the country and fought the Indians so your people could move in without risk, you then complain about the prejudice your family suffered?  Prejudice against foreigners is universal.  The Swedes who told the Italians to stay on the West side were one generation away from being maids and chauffeurs, members of an ethnic group that were never called Swedes but always "Dumb Swedes."  The stranger is always ridiculed in the first generation or so.  The test is what happens to his children and his children's children.  If Anglo-Americans have been so nasty, why didn't the Italians pack up and go back to Italy?  It was the grappa talking, and I should not be allowed out in public, if I am going to blurt out these unpleasant truths.

As I said in the beginning, the guest is a very nice man and did not seem to take any offense, and the conversation quickly turned into safer directions.  There are two conclusions, however, that can be drawn, and even though they are obvious, I shall draw them anyway.

First, people of Midwestern immigrant stock who despise the Southern poor have absorbed the Yankees' prissiness, and when the virtues of the rural South are extolled, they honestly do not know what you are talking about.  Italian immigrants, a hundred years ago, came from cultures that would have understood and sympathized with the Arkies and Okies.  People content with suburban life, frozen food, canned music, and industrial entertainment, are so culturally impoverished that modern plumbing is the summit of perfection.  I like modern plumbing, but I can cheerfully sacrifice a hot tub for some decent wine and good music.  But the purpose-driven-lifers have to measure where they are by where they have been.  Onward and upward, more and more toys, cleaner and cleaner until we have won the war on dirt and obliterated Arkansas.  Excelsior!

The second obvious conclusion is that despite our religion of success, we Americans love to portray ourselves as underdogs.  Those of you lucky enough to remember the 60's will recall the spate of books with titles like, Woman as N-gger, The Child as N-gger, The Jew as N-gger, and—my personal favorite, The Quebecker as N-gger.  I was always waiting for some not-too-bright black nationalist to come with The N-gger as N-gger.

We can't be happy unless we or our ancestors have suffered from discrimination.  I think that must be one of the reasons why young white males turn homosexual.  Now they can join aristocracy of the underprivileged.  I really pity people of bona fide aristocratic descent in Britain and North America.  It is a good thing so many of them are drug addicts, alcoholics, and sexual deviants.  Once he goes into rehab, the twelfth Marquis of Stilton can be applauded as a recovering aristocrat.

 

 

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