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Did you get excited at the news that Hamburg University of Fine Arts is offering “idleness grants”, awarding successful applicants €1,600 for doing nothing? Or does the thought of being paid to be idle fill you with puritanical horror?
It sounds deliberately arch, but this conceptual furlough has a serious idea at its core. “How can you turn a society that is structured around achievements and accomplishments on its head?” asks Friedrich von Borries, the “design theorist” who devised it. It’s not new – Bertrand Russell was criticising the notion of an inherent virtue to work back in 1932.
Most of us have been confronted with a lot of nothing recently: enforced idleness or, if not idleness, at least unprecedented constraints around what we could do. “No travelling at all – no locomotion/No inkling of the way – no notion/No go – by land or ocean,” as the poem November, by Thomas Hood, that we had to recite in primary school, put it; 2020 is a year-long November – a litany of can’ts.
Doing nothing was, briefly, very simple: it was the moral and ethical choice – barely a choice at all, actually. It was the Great Pause. But doing less may continue to be the right thing for some time to come (for the pandemic and for the planet) as well as an economic necessity. We need to find ways to make peace with that.
I found author Michèle Roberts’s recent memoir, Negative Capability, helpful contemplating this. Roberts is not idle – hers is a story of rejection, covering the period after her novel is turned down by her publisher – but the book is all about existing fruitfully in doubt and stasis. The title is from Keats, who wrote of achieving the state of “negative capability… when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
It’s a nice notion, this serene inhabiting of the negative space, but I don’t think it’s remotely easy to achieve. For Roberts, it meant continuing to work on the unwanted novel and anatomising her discomfort, while tending her garden and friendships, enjoying food and travel. What about the rest of us? Can we accept an absence of achievements and accomplishments in a world stubbornly structured around them? Can inactivity be creative and, if it turns out not to be, is that, actually, OK, too? That’s what the idleness grant is exploring.
I don’t like to boast, but I think I have the (non) act of idleness nailed. There is almost no limit to how long I can stare at a wall. I’ve just done it for 45 minutes without even trying (fine, maybe I am boasting a little). The challenge is feeling good about it and this is where I fall down. I have subscribed wholeheartedly to the cult of the virtue of work and equate inactivity with failure. I feel perverse pleasure at the adrenal, breathless sensation of facing an over-full day and hate its opposite, the feeling that nothing is urgent. What makes it worse is knowing others are not staring at walls – they are working, contributing and creating, doing important, high-powered jobs that preclude any sitting around at all.
But we cannot all be achieving all the time, especially now. “They also serve who only…” sit and stare out of windows, as John Milton might have said (had he not been writing about blindness). Let me, then, submit my idleness grant application by answering the four questions the “School of Inconsequentiality” (as the Hamburg project will be delightfully known) asks:
What do you not want to do? I want not to compare my achievements, or lack of them, with others’. If successful, for the duration of my idleness grant I will crush the exhausting running mental commentary that points out what those with energy, drive and ambition are achieving and enumerates my inadequacies. When one or other of my nemeses tweets the dread phrase “some personal news” (always the precursor to an announcement of professional glory), I will not feel bad, because I will have accepted that “being quite lazy” has inherent merit in 2020.
Why is it important not to do this thing in particular? Because the compulsion to compare is endemic, harmful and also, I think, sterile. If the dismal self-flagellating actually drove me to achieve more (or anything), it might be worthwhile. It doesn’t: it drives me to family-sized Dairy Milk and gloom.
For how long do you not want to do it? Ideally, forever. I wish to cultivate the mug-clasping, sea-contemplating serenity of a Toast catalogue model in perpetuity. Those women do nothing more than look out of windows, and they seem fine with it.
Why are you the right person not to do it? Because this is my moment. This is the time for wall-starers and late-risers, the slothful and lethargic. The world needs more of what we’re good at. So let us rise up and… actually, let’s not rise up. That’s the whole point.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling
Source: The Guardian
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