The Art Of Doing Nothing At All

A few years ago Terry Eagleton wrote an amusing and stimulating essay titled Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America. The following is excerpted from pages 89 and 90 of that volume (Norton, 2013).

"Among the hard-working American middle classes, [staying in bed] is not the most popular of pastimes. Americans tend to rise in the morning earlier than Europeans, and go to bed earlier as well. There are clear economic motives for this, but also, one suspects, a queasy puritan sense that indulging the body by not dragging it brutally out of bed at the crack of dawn is somewhat sinful. An American mother I know used to run the washing machine and make school lunches for her children at three o’clock in the morning. People who do this should be handed lengthy prison sentences. Visitors to the States who stay in hotels will have had the traumatic experience of hearing what sounds like a dam bursting around six o’clock in the morning. This is the sound of fifty showers being switched on, at an hour when any civilized human being would still be agreeably unconscious.

"Americans do not seem to realize what a rich, fruitful, endlessly fascinating pursuit staying in bed can be. Rather as English aristocrats have taken centuries to perfect the art of doing nothing at all, a strenuous, demanding affair which requires a good deal of skill, persistence and unflinching concentration, so staying in bed can be a passion, a vocation, a religion, an existential commitment, a whole way of life. Those who stay in bed form a kind of secret spiritual aristocracy. They are a cosmopolitan confraternity, recognizable to each other by certain shyly murmured passwords and esoteric handshakes. Sometimes they compete with each other to see who can remain supine until dinner time, sternly suppressing any ignoble impulse to get up. They do not regard sleeplessness as a virtue, any more than insomniacs do.

"Americans, by contrast, like to be up and doing. They find it hard to savor the delights of passivity. They are relatively unfamiliar with the spiritual treasures to be reaped from being acted on rather than acting. For them, there is something both guilt-making and unmanly about such a condition. Steve Jobs’s sister, thinking she was paying him a compliment, described his death as something he ‘achieved’. Simply to have something happen to you is unthinkable. It undermines the vital business of being in control. Bed is where the body refreshes itself in order to plunge back into action. To enjoy it for its own sake is mildly perverse, rather like enjoying having rabies. The Duke of Edinburgh was once horrified to discover that his son Prince Charles actually reads in bed. Reading for the Duke is something of a degenerate activity in any case, but to confuse sleeping and waking life in this way struck him as morally pernicious. Bed is a preparation for activity, not a condition to be enjoyed in itself. It is certainly not a place in which to indulge such wimpish pursuits as learning about the secrets of the Pyramids or the inner life of vegetables, as the New Ageist Charles probably does."

Related Reading:

The Importance of Loafing

The Perfection of Non-existence

In Praise of Idleness