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Tom Lutz on Doing Nothing

Tom Lutz's Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), embodies a new type of book - new to me, anyway - one that I'm tempted to call the "California Monograph." The first exemplar of this sort of writing that I came across was Leo Braudy's From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Knopf, 2003), which I read two years ago. I didn't write it up, because I didn't know quite what to make of it. Mr Braudy had lots and lots of interesting things to say about manliness, but I feared that I'd missed the message. Mr Lutz's book suggests that looking for messages in this kind of literature is superfluous, because messages are superfluous. The idea is to present the complexity of life while avoiding neat, reductive generalizations.

Doing Nothing is an engaging read, almost as stuffed with interesting details as From Chivalry to Terror. It is in one way a companion volume: where Mr Braudy looked at warfare as the defining masculine activity, Mr Lutz recognizes that idleness is the masculine daydream. (It's interesting to note that the two come together in the underworld of thugs, where extended idleness is punctuated by occasional improvisatory violence.) Doing Nothing delivers on its promise to trace the history of this daydream in America, and it does so by parading the various shapes and figures that have incarnated idleness over the past two centuries and more, beginning with the apparent philosophical difference between Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson. Franklin exhorted his readers to be busy and productive; Johnson published The Idler. Right from the start, however, Mr Lutz is eager to muddy the picture. Late in life, particularly during his long mission at Paris, Franklin was a sybarite, spending his days and nights enjoying the pleasure of conversations with pretty ladies. Johnson, meanwhile, labored to produce the Dictionary, a monumental effort that indeed produced a monument. Which one was the worker, which the drone? In each of the seven subsequent chapters, we're presented with the equally puzzling archetypes of indolence that were associated with the age: the loungers and Rip van Winkles of the early Republic, the communists and bohemians of the Civil-War era, the neurasthenics of the Gilded Age, the Flappers of the Twenties and the bums of the Depression, the Beats, the hippies, and, finally, today's slackers - many of whom, such as the Japanese hikikomori, seem to me to be in serious need of medical attention.

Relying wholly on documentary evidence, Doing Nothing is necessarily a review of narratives. Only occasionally does Mr Lutz dig for facts and figures; his concern is with changing attitudes toward work and leisure, and these are for the most part reflected in writings (and in other media later) of some sophistication. I was intrigued to meet Joseph Dennie, creator of Meander (who keeps a diary in which nothing happens) and vituperator of Jefferson; I had somehow missed "the Connecticut Wits." I was riveted by the discovery that neurasthenia was invented in the United States. 

Americans were proud of neurasthenia. It began as an upper-middle-class disease, since, the theory was, the more educated, refined, and civilized one was, the more sensitive one would be to the overwhelming pace of modern life, and thus the more it would wear one down. The simple people, with simple minds and simple needs, were no more likely to be deleteriously afflicted by modernity than they were to read Henry James or worry about the latest scientific discoveries. By the turn of the century, neurasthenia had spread through the international bourgeoisie as far as Kyoto, Calcutta, and St Petersburg.

And I'm grateful for Mr Lutz's take on a favorite movie of mine, George Cukor's Holiday.

The film is based on Philip Barry's 1928 play of the same name, and it was first made into a film in 1930. In both these earlier versions Johnny's two friends [played by Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton] are not serious intellectuals but Fitzgeraldesque partygoers, blasť boneheads with no other real plans, ideals, or ideas. The professors in the 1938 version, on the other hand, feel that Johnny's quest is important, and they encourage him not because they want to play with him, but because they believe that it is the only good and right thing for him to do. Like [Bertrand] Russell, they are countercultural intellectuals, critical of a system in which money rules and art and introspection suffer.

Mr Lutz was goaded into his enquiry into the work ethic and its discontents by the anger that he felt when his son, who had just graduated from high school and come to live with him in Los Angeles, spent day after day after day on the couch, watching television. In the book's very powerful and wide-ranging first chapter, "Cody on the Couch," the author considers all the possible explanations of his rage without settling for any of them. This occasions an exploration of cultural artifacts ranging from Democracy in America to Office Space and beyond, totting up the pros and cons of work and idleness, finally arriving at a point beyond beyond the opposition of one to the other:

The anti-work ethic rhetoric of all slacker subcultures relies on the economic productivity of workers for its very being, of course, just as my son relied on the income that bought the couch he was on. Someone pays the bills, someone makes the film and sets the type, someone buys the book or the DVD, but that is hardly the point. What is important is not the utopian dream of a work-free world, but the cultural give-and-take such dreams engender. The slacker offers us a relaxed view of life from the couch or pool chair, or, in earlier eras, from the gentlemen's club, the open road, or the poolroom - a view that sees our striving and efforts stripped of the value we habitually imagine them having. In the same way that physicians and psychotherapists show us other ways to respond to disease, dysfunction, and injury, slacker subcultures have performed an important emotional function, expressed and adding to our culture's repertoire of feelings about work.

At the end of the book, we're told that Cody eventually got up from the couch and went to work with a vengeance, but if father and son ever discussed Cody's slacking phase, the conversation is not quoted. Mr Lutz shares his anger with us, but spares his son; similarly, he veils Cody's state of mind with an almost sacred discretion. Cody's apparent laziness is an impenetrable phenomenon that, once it has launched his father on his quest, has served its purpose.

This is perplexing because it is unusual. A more conventional book would have featured Cody's direct testimony. It would have come down on one side or the other of the argument between workers and shirkers, or at least worked out a schedule, allotting seasons to each. But if Doing Nothing makes a case at all - and it really does no such thing - it's that work and idleness are the same thing, seen from different points of view. Mr Lutz has written a book-length paradox.

Nowhere is this paradox more concisely expressed that in the author's picture of his own daily life. As a teacher and a writer, he does not have to spend long hours in a workplace. He has a few classes a day, perhaps a few meetings a week, and he can write wherever he feels like writing. His time is, for the most part, his own. That he spends it largely on the comprehensive research engaged in by today's cultural critics does not, somehow, mean that he is working all the time. How can watching Office Space be "working"? Writing is difficult certainly, but it can be free, as when I'm thinking about what I'm trying to say, or wondering where I'm going to go with something, or it can be bound, as when I reflect that I have got to have something to publish tomorrow. On the best days, writing just flows out of me in a gentle but steady current. Is that work? It certainly doesn't feel like work. On other days, writing is nothing but work - and the worst thing about it is that I often have to discard what I've worked so hard on because the work shows. Happily, the nothing-but-work days are very rare.

Having been brought up to honor the rule against contradictions (pursuant to which a thing either is something or it isn't), I'm habitually inclined to break ostensible paradoxes down into manageable parts in order to "solve" them, to iron out the contradictions in a demonstration of harmony. This may be naive, but I still find it useful, and there were moments, reading Doing Nothing, when I wished that Mr Lutz would be a tad more systematic. For example, one simple difference between work and play is obligation: the moment you're obliged to do something, it's work, no matter how pleasant it might otherwise be. Doing Nothing is full of instances of the slacker critique of industry, which is that it is soul-deadening; but Mr Lutz never ventures, what seems obvious to me, the continuum between the work that requires machine-like self-oblivion and the work that requires preternatural attentiveness to a constantly shifting scene. The first describes an assembly line, the second, a tennis court. The first involves total alienation of mind and body, the second, total integration. All work falls somewhere on this line, and we'll be more likely to call it work, and to complain about it, as it approaches the robotic.

Another continuum that Mr Lutz might have made use of stretches between inner- and outer-directedness. People at the extreme ends of this line are in big trouble, either insane or depressed. The idea is to succeed somewhere near the center, responding to circumstances with authentic decisions. The more I read about slackers and bums, the more these people seemed to lack inner direction. They're not directed, from within, to pursue goals of any kind, and they're unwilling to force themselves to pursue other people's goals. This enrages similarly outer-directed but "responsible" neighbors, who can all too easily imagine the pleasures of the hammock, but it surprises inner-directed folks who don't have to wait for the whistle to get going. As one of the latter, I have to say that having nothing to do - including nothing to think about - is my idea of hell. Sitting around complaining about society would very soon drive me to the far more arduous business of writing cogently about society. I can't imagine what it's like not to have ambitions, and the more I write, the more ambitious I become. There is nowhere near enough time for the realization of all of my ambitions. Sometimes I am actually paralyzed by the inability to decide which shouting ambition to pursue, but such moments - and they're just moments - are the very opposite of slacking.

But I am content that Mr Lutz has written the book that he has written. He is a lucid thinker and an astute cultural critic. His preferring not to come to conclusions perfectly demonstrates his ambivalence about work: work is good, but too much work is bad, and determining the right amount of work is highly contingent for each person at each moment. In order to work, any rules on the subject would have to be unintelligibly complicated. Time wasted in developing them would be far more profitably spent examining the countless ways in which we kid ourselves about what we're up to. (July 2006)

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