Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America

by Tom Lutz
363 pages,
ISBN: 0865476500

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Productive Idlers
by Matt Sturrock

In recent years, the steadily expanding and fragmenting realm of non-fiction publishing has seen the advent of some curious sub-genres¨selfish little species of writing (part escapist romp, part nostrum) that obliquely address the problem of personal fulfillment. There is, for instance, the wearisomely ubiquitous Voluptuary's Travelogue, where some jaunty anglophone moves to Tuscany or the south of France to restore a villa, start a vineyard, and live a life of epicurean ecstasy with other similarly enlightened folk. There is the Erotic Memoir, where a randy teenager, seasoned seductress, or lonely oldster triumphantly recounts in staggering detail some carnal odyssey she undertook with nameless strangers, classified ad respondents, or herself. And there is, pertinent to our purposes here, the Indolence Manifesto, a usually humorous tome that calmly petitions its audience to strive for, and achieve, much, much less¨for their own health and happiness. Bookstore shelves sag under the weight of manuals with words in their titles like Idle, Hedonist, Lazy, Slow, and Sloth, and which variously prescribe reduced or eradicated work schedules and the languorous pursuit of pleasure.
Now comes Tom Lutz, whose own contribution is poised to join this burgeoning canon. While any author who has toiled hard to produce a book about easy living is in an awkward position, Lutz's large, scholarly treatise might seem to leave him particularly exposed. The author of Doing Nothing has obviously been doing something, diligently and strenuously, for what must have been years. But contrary to expectations, his book is not the jokey, tongue-in-cheek celebration of layabouts that some of Lutz's contemporaries have produced. He's much more ambivalent about the supposed salutary effects of loafing, lounging, and slacking, quick to recognize the impracticalities of, and challenges posed by, indolence in our fast-moving culture.
In the seventies, Lutz was a back-to-the-land "communard" living on a farm with like-minded hippies, growing his own soybeans and foraging for fruit in the nearby hills¨ostensibly to avoid participating in the materialist-capitalist way of life he so reviled at the time. His authorial bona fides were further established by a decade of "itinerancy and odd-jobbing," hitchhiking and rail-riding across America as a miasma of pot smoke trailed behind him. As he dryly points out, he "worked hard to escape working." Now largely reformed and making his living as an academic, Lutz says that it was his grown son's own lack of drive, and the exasperation it fostered in him as a father, that compelled him to investigate the activity of work and the ethics that have sprung up around it.
In the early Judeo-Christian tradition, work was "the original curse, the punishment for the original sin." The Old Testament's injunction is succinct: "In the sweat of thy own face shall thou eat bread." For the people of classical Greece and Rome, it was similarly viewed, at best, as a grim duty (and one properly handled by slaves); what true citizens would aspire to was otium, "leisure whose purpose is learning, art, and contemplation." It's not until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that work became a moral good, a means of establishing self-worth and serving God. Until then, Lutz argues, "there could be no slackers in the modern sense¨people whose identity involved their refusal to believe in the value of work¨because everyone, in a way, was already against work."
The progenitor of the slacker ethos, our author contends, is Samuel Johnson. In 1758, the poet, essayist, and lexicographer wrote that "Every man is, or wants to be, an Idler"¨the argument being that those who renounce routine effort better appreciate daily life and have the time to "descend into profoundness or tower into sublimity." Slovenly and scrofulous in appearance, uncouth, and a formidable procrastinator, Johnson was nevertheless a prolific author, and successfully undertook one of the greatest projects in English letters: the creation of our first major dictionary. That he was not nearly as idle as the model he put forward in his writings is a key contradiction that shows up repeatedly in the lives of other, later, idleness advocates. (That those espousing a strict work ethic, like Johnson's contemporary, Benjamin Franklin, were prone to periods of inordinate laziness is a truth that this book repeatedly demonstrates, too.) Lutz contends that indolence is, sooner or later, a spur to action: "After doing nothing, doing something is the only next move."
Lutz charts the evolution of the slacker from Johnson's time to our own. He outlines the contributions of the Romantic poets, who brought a "melancholic, guilt-ridden depressive" dimension to a character profile that had typically been relaxed and carefree. He chronicles Nathaniel Hawthorne's dalliance with Transcendental utopianism and Henry David Thoreau's forest-dwelling retreats. He defines, most helpfully, the qualitative differences between tramps, hobos, and bums. (I had, to my embarrassment, been employing them as terms of opprobrium more or less interchangeably.) From Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, through the Beats' Bohemian-Buddhist bunkum, and on to Richard Linklater's languishing cinematic ironists¨Lutz catalogues the counterculture with laudable conscientiousness. He surmises, ultimately, that the movement has been a series of reactions to some monumental changes in the world of work: the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, and now the Information Revolution. Slacking, he argues, is "a kind of mourning . . . built out of a sense of loss, a loss of innocence, a loss of ideals, a loss of purpose."
It's a plausible thesis, and one that he supports engagingly enough, but there were times, it must be said, when all this socio-cultural detail started to bog me down. One yearns for some drollery, some wise-assery, from the author. Why can't he intermittently conjure up that baked-out hippie wastrel from his past to offer some comic relief? Lutz often brandishes menacingly detailed statistics on anti-idleness legislation, on strikes and union busting, on white-collar to blue-collar worker ratios, on per capita labourer outputs and the like. Each new page threatens an italicised reference to some dusty, leather-bound ledger or gazetteer in a library somewhere. His bibliography is long enough to have warranted publication as a separate companion volume. My fear is that, for the aspiring shirker simply looking for a few choice epigrams and cool poses to thwart angry parents or creditors, Doing Nothing might present too demanding a workload. All readers are urged to take it slow, with frequent tea and smoke breaks.
In the conclusion of his book, Lutz admits that "he had a very difficult time sitting down and writing this book." For months, he suffered from so pervasive a torpor that his wife, his editor, and his agent all feared for his health. His work is done now; he can reflect on a job well done. We can be grateful that he chose not to heed the words of another slacker author, Huck Finn: "There ain't nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more." ˛

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