Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Leisure Suits

Michaelangelo's Rachel and Leah, adorning the tomb of Julius II

            Immediately following the Dante seminar reported on last week we moved into the Princeton University Reunions weekend.  The Princeton class reunions constitute a phenomenon that must be seen to be believed.  I taught at this place for forty years and hence had personal connections with individual students in forty graduating classes.  I came to know and sometimes know well dozens of older alumni who graduated well before my arrival.  Furthermore this summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the completion of my doctorate in the department of which I would one day become the chairman.  Hence the emotion was copious if viscous.  On another occasion I might try to summarize the experience in a brief essay, but I rather doubt it.  Suffice it to say that this year the heat was stifling, the food too abundant, the spiritual and physical effort rather exhausting.

            We had as an overnight guest on Sunday a very old and genial but rarely seen friend from the class of 1973, now an aging Stanford professor.  We had a most mellow evening, and I awoke on Monday with a strange sense of well-being.  Perhaps what was strange was not the sense itself but its explicit perception.  Robust good health should be a norm, but my experience over the years has demonstrated an inner perversity that allows me to appreciate feeling really good only when I am actually not feeling so hot.  I know that I am not alone in lamenting the unhappy paradox that too often presence can be confirmed only by absence.  As the Canadian philosopher J. Mitchell puts it,
                        Don't it always seem to go
                        That you don't know what you've got
                        Till it's gone…

            On this occasion, however, I was keenly aware of what I got while I still got it, so to speak, and that was an appreciation of a lack of obligation.  Such obligations as I had recently liquidated were hardly onerous.  My current book had been put to bed at the publishers, and was beyond my powers to alter for good or ill.  I had talked a little about Dante with a group of highly intelligent people.  I had given a ten-minute talk at a Reunions panel discussion.  And I had mowed the lawn.  What other worlds to conquer could there possibly be?  I had absolutely nothing I had to do before taking off on a trip to Sri Lanka (!) in a week’s time.  I was luxuriating in a rare feeling of leisure.  That feeling lasted until the early afternoon, when I succumbed to the nascent worry that I was somehow wasting time.

            The problem is, leisure is complicated.  It rather depends upon how you assess the hierarchy of doing something and doing nothing,  Don’t just do something.  Stand there!  In Latin, leisure was called otium, and it was generally a good thing.  Its negation was negotium—“negotiation” or “doing business”.  As you can tell from the current use of the adjective otiose, however, we have a deep suspicion of otium.

  Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)      

                 I have in my time read at least two terrific books about leisure.  The first, one of the classics of my radical youth, was Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), which was among the first volumes in my small personal collection of the Modern Library.  Veblen takes as his arena of inquiry the sociology and anthropology of the Gilded Age—the 1880s being sort of Reagan’s Eighties on Steroids.  It was Veblen who invented, or at least popularized, the idea of conspicuous consumption: “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.”  Veblen was not a Marxist, but like Marx he advanced a “labor theory” of value:   “Labor wants pride and joy in doing good work, a sense of making or doing something beautiful or useful—to be treated with dignity and respect as brother and sister.”

            The Theory of the Leisure Class is brilliant, often quite witty, and finally very sad; but it does not entirely discredit the concept of leisure.  Veblen is naturally selective in his literary representations of the idle rich.   Not all of them were lighting cigars with five dollar bills.  The entire current issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Spring 2013) is given over to a fascinating long article or short monograph by Timothy Husband entitled “Creating the Cloisters”—meaning, of course, the fabulous collection of medieval art housed in a translated monastery in Tryon Park in upper Manhattan.   This great boon to humanity came about through the sometimes comical and often extremely busy activities of numerous American Mandarins of the leisure class, especially John Davidson Rockefeller, Jr. 
            One place where the old “good” sense of otium survived was the medieval monastery.  In medieval monastic texts otium was often praised as the enabler of contemplation.  Mary was superior to Martha, and Rachel to Leah.  This medieval concept was ably articulated in modern form by the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper in a book with the arresting title Leisure: the Basis of Culture (English translation with introduction by T. S. Eliot, 1952).

Josef Pieper (1904-1997)

            It may surprise us to learn that culture and cult (cultus, religious worship) derive from a common source.  Pieper argues that real happiness is to be found in the shared worship of religious community—a gratuitous and materially unproductive activity made possible only by leisure.  “The ultimate meaning of the active life,” he writes, “is to make possible the happiness of contemplation.”  Against this truth the clouded human mind instinctively rebels. "Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift."  So I sat down at the computer and started to write an essay about—leisure.