July 22, 2013
A grammar of laziness
by Emma Aylor
In his newest post for the New York Review of Books blog, Charles Simic muses on “Summertime.” He fears the loss of laziness as skill: “To my great regret, I no longer know how to be lazy, and summer is no fun without sloth. Indolence requires patience—to lie in the sun, for instance, day after day—and I have none left.” Even in retrospect, however, Simic’s quiet dozes and noticings provide an illumination of stillness; in youth, he fell asleep on Oak Street Beach in Chicago, and “After getting up and stretching, yawning, and scratching for a while, I sat down once again and thought to myself, How wonderful all this is.”
In honor of Simic’s appreciation and our ninety-some degree days, here are a few more literary greats who appreciated a little idleness.
Above, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost in Key West in 1940. Stevens suspected that Frost did not fully enjoy his and a friend’s penchant for Floridian drinking, and wrote to Harriet Monroe after a Key West cocktail party in 1935, “I imagine that Frost has been purifying himself by various exorcisms ever since.”
Wallace Stevens: Stevens, who lived on quiet side streets of Hartford from his departure from New York in 1916 to his death in 1955, understood something of stillness. In August 1950, he wrote: “At the moment, too, in mid-summer, when everyone is interested in having a holiday, there is a vast element that is simply not interested one way or the other: that wants to lie in the sun or sleep in the shade. This last element, I am afraid, is the one to which I really belong.” The everyday—the senses—even found precedence at times over Stevens’ long-pursued “supreme fiction”; he wrote in 1942, “It is the same thing with an idea like the idea of a supreme fiction. When I get up at 6 o’clock in the morning […] the thing crawls all over me; it is in my hair when I shave and I think of it in the bathtub. Then I come down here to the office and, except for an occasional letter like this, have to put it to one side. After all, I like Rhine wine, blue grapes, good cheese, endive and lots of books, etc., etc., etc., as much as I like supreme fiction.” And yet, as he wrote in his poem “Esthétique du Mal” (1945), the ultimate answer was some “thesis scrivened in delight”: not study, not diligence, but what we do here, “[m]erely in living as and where we live.”
My favorite image of Walt, just casually looking into your soul. The photograph was taken by Frank Pearsall in 1869.
Walt Whitman: This one’s a given. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote of Whitman: “No man who ever lived liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman. All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him. All sights and sounds seemed to please him.” Indeed, Whitman’s “loafing” was a sort of religion of its own, and provides the invocation for Song of Myself. “I loafe and invite my soul,” Whitman writes in the poem’s second stanza, “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Not only invocation, the span of laziness allows invitation and inclusion: “Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, / Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best, / Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.” This is a belief of play, of action and inaction for their own purposes. As Wallace Stevens (up next!) wrote in 1955, in one of my favorite things ever said regarding Whitman, “I suppose that you think of Whitman as one who lived in Brooklyn. But that was a totally different Brooklyn from the Brooklyn of today. I always think of him as one who lived in Camden and rode around Philadelphia on open street cars. If he was up front, he would be lounging with one foot on the running-board. If he was in back, he would have both feet on the rail.”
Capote at his studio in the Hamptons in the mid-sixties.
Truman Capote: As cited by listicles everywhere (now including this one), Truman Capote’s writing habits required horizontality. He told The Paris Review in his 1957 interview, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.” In addition, he advised in his story “Shut a Final Door,” “Think of nothing things. Think of wind.”
Woolf with friends, 1926.
Virginia Woolf: Virginia Woolf’s relationship with the world was one that required a certain proportion of stillness; particularly through her writing of women’s traditional activities (cleaning, sewing, knitting—the latter of which she herself loved), Woolf prepared a dignification of so-called “idleness.” When Clarissa Dalloway mends her green dress in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), “Quiet descended on her, calm, content… So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all.” In actuality, Woolf’s spaces of quiet are truly textures of movement within, as for Mrs. Ramsay knitting in To the Lighthouse (1927): “And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” Stillness and simple presence, then, become action; “For there she was,” at the end of Mrs. Dalloway; and “there she sat,” in To the Lighthouse. Woolf summed this up in a diary entry of 1932: “If one does not lie back & sum up & say to the moment, this very moment, say you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying? No: stay, this moment. No one ever says that enough.”
Nabokov hunting butterflies with his wife, Vera.
Vladimir Nabokov’s laziness was less immobility, more leisure. His pleasures lay in writing and lepidoptery, and after Lolita’s success Nabokov was able to stop teaching. That said, the clearest expressions of pleasure in the everyday, in stillness, are not in his personal writings or speech but in his books. Pnin (1957), particularly, depends on this, with its “shoe trees, apples, dictionaries” and other “Pninian” trappings. The smallest events take on cosmic significance, as in Pnin’s surreal yet simple encounter with a squirrel: “In one sinuous tendril-like movement, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood… ‘She has fever, perhaps,’ thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed on him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude. The water father continued upon his way.” And then there is that passage in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941): “I know that the common pebble you find in your fist after having thrust your arm shoulder deep into water, where a jewel seemed to gleam on pale sand, is really the coveted gem though it looks like a pebble as it dries in the sun of everyday.”
Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.