At around two a.m. I finally stop working and sit on the back steps of my home. I am exhausted from a day defined by checkmarks slashed through boxes drawn in my planner, a wearisome day of social patty-cake with hyper-intelligent students and peers. And I stayed late at the letterpress studio so I could finish printing a poster for one of the visiting writers who periodically drop into Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. The lead from metal type still blackens my hands because I forgot to scrub away the grime.
From my stoop, I study the sky. A lunar eclipse had taken place earlier that night during a Hunter’s Moon. And from my Iowan vantage point, had I been outside when it occurred, I would have seen a feint penumbral shroud smearing the lunar light.
But instead of moon or stars, I notice that the bad mitten net in my backyard has come unanchored and one end sinks to the ground. In the way that ordinary things take on meaning, those cheap plastic poles (mended with sticks and duct tape) mirror my own life: laundry spills over in the hamper, I haven’t eaten a single meal with my partner in over two weeks, I can’t recall the last time I laughed. What else has fallen without my noticing? What other beautiful thing have I missed while trudging through my overburdened schedule? A schedule taxed from my inability to say no and my desire to “become” a teacher and finish my first book.
And while I brood under the Hunter’s Moon, I think about Robert Louis Stevenson’s “An Apology for Idlers.” It’s an apt connection to make I suppose. Stevenson’s essay defends idle time in the face of steadfast ambition. Published in Cornhill Magazine in 1877, just before his career took off, Stevenson’s treatise on idleness scolds blind devotion to professionalism, scholarship mostly, in favor of the educative qualities of “idle” observation. To clarify, Stevenson’s idler is no slacker. His idler is not apathetic in the least. Instead, idleness, to Stevenson, demands the difficult work of appreciating one’s environment, one’s friends and family. To idle is to allow one the time to enjoy his or her own mind at work.
When I think of all the things I haven’t noticed or given time to, Stevenson’s “Apology” hits me like a reprimand. Though his tract defends the idler, his defense is constructed around what the idler is not rather than what the idler is. And though I am inspired to be more present in my day-to-day by Stevenson’s essay, the idler is not who I am at this point in my life. Throughout “An Apology,” Stevenson establishes an opposition between those who choose “Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market,” and the “truant student” that rests “on some tuft of lilacs, […] smokes innumerable pipes to the tune of the water on the stones” while birds “sing in the thicket.” Career oriented determination “to what a man calls his business,” Stevenson writes, “is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things,” and therefore demonstrates “a symptom of deficient vitality.” And it is this accusation, in part because I agree, that feels like I am being scolded. Though it is not entirely a life overburdened by obligations that Stevenson argues against, instead, it is the person who ignores friends and environment in favor of ambition.
And though merchants and lawyers are tossed into the mix, it is the scholar who takes the biggest lashing. Because, as Stevenson writes, “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.” Thus calling the ardent scholar vain if his or her endeavors sacrifice enjoyment and reflection:
They have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play.
While the idler gains intellectual nourishment from contemplative and corporeal meditation the diligent worker pushes himself into an early grave. This lack of “play” thus embitters the scholar because there is no guarantee, no definite appeasement or assured recognition.
As Stevenson argues the distinctions between idler and non-idler a very disconcerting claim emerges—no endeavor truly matters in the grand scheme of things. Stevenson proffers that bitterness stems from investing too much energy in pursuits that demand a return and he suggests that even success is a small reward if one lives his or her life too narrowly. If someone “publishes three or thirty articles a year,” or “finishes his great allegorical picture, are questions of little interest to the world.” The world, as Stevenson sees it, would not even lament the historical absence of Shakespeare. If Shakespeare had been bludgeoned “some dark night […] the world would have wagged on better or worse, the pitcher gone to the well, the scythe to the corn, and the student to his book; and no one been any the wiser of the loss.” And this, obviously, is a claim that nags at my discontent. More than my exhaustion it is the thought that readers will not enjoy my books, students will not learn from my lessons, or that the gatekeepers will not allow me through. Stevenson writes, “The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent.” In a different mood, I might choose to read this claim in a positive light. I might see that Stevenson is simply reminding his reader that he or she has no control over the outcome of any endeavor, but that they do have control over their own happiness in addition to their work.
For Stevenson it seems clear that one so diligently devoted to his or her goal that they are blinded to finer, calmer things “sows hurry and reaps indigestion; he puts a vast deal of activity out to interest, and receives a large measure of nervous derangement in return.” Stevenson never suggests that hard work is bad, but he does argue that overwork apparently makes men and women anxiously “deranged.” Instead, he seems to argue for an inclusion of joy that can only come from being present and observant. “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world, which remain unknown even to ourselves, or when they are disclosed, surprise nobody so much as the benefactor.” Thus Stevenson calls for a balance between idleness and busyness. He demands that duty to one’s happiness is as important, if not more, as duty to one’s career and life goals.
Stevenson’s “Apology” is a dark, yet hopeful call to arms for a more attentive existence. And I feel the pressure of this contradiction as I finally trudge off to bed, too tired to shower but with just enough energy to wash my hands and brush my teeth. And Stevenson’s essay is a good reminder that downtime is as important as diligence. But I can’t shake the knowledge that hard work is the only thing I have control over, and that makes me uncertain of Stevenson’s reliability. All of the sudden his anxiety, his “nervous derangement,” throughout “Apology” is palpable. Stevenson is a narrator frightened that his own endeavors, his own art, might fail in the world. And so his argument for idleness begins to resemble a psychological escape hatch. As if he is really saying to himself: if it all fails at least I can find happiness smoking on a field of lilacs. And yet, a maybe whispers between all the lines. But Stevenson did not fail.
And so I crawl into bed, noticing that my partner put on fresh sheets, and take out my day planner. Underneath the next day’s to-do list, crowded at the bottom of the page, I write “Date Night” and draw a little box next to it. Content, at least for a moment, with the potential of sharing an idle evening with someone I love.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. "An Apology for Idlers." The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. 222-228. Print.
M. Owens is a fiction writer and essayist from Memphis Tennessee whose work appears, or is forthcoming, in The Oxford American, Crazyhorse, Redivider, and Hobart: another literary journal. He now lives in Iowa City where he is an MFA candidate in the Nonfiction Writing Program. Contact him at www.randalowain.com.