American Idle: How Fear and Anger Drive Us To Our Fallen Work
April 30, 2009 2 Comments
[Agreement plus fake announcement of topic]: I’m with you: anger and fear, weirdly understood as alienating or paralyzing emotions, are no such thing—if anything, they’re over-activating. Without anger, fear and their cousins discomfort and desire, nothing would ever get done.
[Facile examination of social objectives:] ‘Course, this is a militantly capitalist take on what exactly it is that a society is supposed to do. Conquer nations? Propagate the species? Provide decent transportation? Eastern philosophy interests me in its determinedly unworldly focus: if nirvana is the elimination of desire (o happy goal!), why would anyone build anything?
[Acknowledgment of bias that effectively neuters all that precedes and follows:] (Full disclosure: I’m writing you from my time-share in the Unmotivated, Unfearing and Unangry Doldrums, so I know whereof I speak. But I confess to also vacationing in Unenlightenedland.)
Idleness [a.k.a. Jerry-rigged Transition to Give You a Break and Create a Pleasing If Deceptive Sense of Progress]
Slate has been running a series called “The Idle Parent” celebrating the delights of leisure, especially spontaneous and unforced interactions, for parents and children alike.
[Don’t Be Fooled–Marriage and Kids Will Suck Out Your Soul:] Seems like a sensible approach to child-rearing—one that might soften the apocalyptic overtones of pregnancy and marriage by suggesting that people needn’t subordinate their entire intellectual and emotional selves to the needs of a mewling infant. Which might, in turn, counteract the fear of commitment that plagues the unmarried Mongol hordes who suspect (rightly, insofar as the culture defines these things) that both marriage and parenthood irrevocably castrate the self.
Idleness has a place. An important place. Even—as I’ll get to in a minute—an Edenic place. Milton’s Adam might be the very first Idle Parent.
[The Autobiographical Problem That Motivated This Whole Faux-Philosophical Post:] BUT: as someone whose work takes place at home and by choice, and who has been (essentially) idle lo these many months, I confess I’ve succumbed to the wrong kind. This isn’t the nutritive idleness that enables creative work and allows one to produce; it’s the kind that shuts down initiative and drowns the possibility of progress in a deadening digital flood of websites and television shows.
[How Anger Over A Literary Interpretation By Someone Who Criticized Her Teaching Catapulted The Defensive Author Out of Idleness:] I had an angry episode recently when I heard a botched take on Book 9 of Paradise Lost—The Book, the one that contains THE FALL. The botcher or butcher suggested that Adam’s idea of work is right and that Eve’s is wrong, or Fallen.
[Previously, On Paradise Lost:] Here’s what happens: Up until this point we understand that Eden is a fragrant fecund space in which fruits hang temptingly from the trees and everything multiplies gorgeously. Adam and Eve’s labor, up until now, has consisted of pruning the excess growth and occasionally “marrying” a vine to a tree. And, of course, their sex, which Eve heightens through “sweet, reluctant amorous delay.”
[Eve’s Idea of Work:] In Book 9, Eve suggests to Adam that they split up to work the garden. She argues that it will be more efficient this way—that because they enjoy each other’s company so much, they get distracted from their work by smiles and conversation. The garden, she says, “with wanton growth derides, tending to wild.” Their distraction is a problem because “Our day’s work brought to little” and “th’hour of supper comes unearned.” One should, in other words, EARN one’s leisure.
[Adam’s Indefensible Side:] Adam says Eve’s understanding of their work is wrong—after first telling her she’s right and has “well thy thoughts employed How we might best fulfil the work which here God hath assigned us.” He praises her for bothering her head about this, “for nothing lovelier can be found in woman than to study household good and good works in her husband to promote.” (It’s possible Milton’s making Adam out to be a prig here.)
[Why Eve is Wrong According to Adam, or Adam’s Idea of Work and Idleness:] All this sacrifice is unnecessary, Adam says. God isn’t that strict with us. He has no intention of stopping us
when we need refreshment, whether food or talk between, food of the mind or this sweet intercourse of looks and smiles, for smiles from reason flow. … For not to irksome toil but to delight He made us and delight to reason joined. These paths and bow’rs, doubt not but our joint hands will keep from wilderness with ease as wide as we need walk till younger hands ere long assist us.
In other words, don’t worry honey: our work will always be easy, and requires no sacrifices on our part—either of pleasure, or of each other’s society. We’re all we need until kids come along to help us.
It’s all very Zen… very compatible, it seems to me, with a Buddhist idea of the ideal society. In Eden there is no excess emotion before the fall. AFTER the Fall, Adam and Eve have unbelievable orgiastic hours-long sex. Moderation is gone. Gone is the sweet reluctant amorous delay. Our lowly wise progenitors become lust-filled beasts.
The great questions, to my mind, are two:
- Why didn’t Adam and Eve have kids before the Fall? Is it possible that this Edenic model was only possible in a childless state? And is it possible that only fallen, excessive, idolatrous sex can engender children?
- If, as Adam hints, kids DO come along in Eden, what happens to the work? Does the amount of “necessary” work in Eden multiply just enough so that there’s enough for them to do? Or is that “till” important? Is Adam waiting until they have kids to start the imperial project of building a Christian nation? If so, won’t that require “less easy” work, work that must be done according to Eve’s more efficient model?
[Marriage and Bickering in Eden:] So, it emerges that Eve just wants to get away from Adam for a bit. She keeps arguing that they should split up, even suggests that solitude might make her more grateful for Adam’s company. She’s never been alone since she was created and fell in love with her reflection in the pool. It emerges that she might be a little weary of always having to be reminded of her inferiority. Adam says that splitting up might not be a great idea, what with the warning they received about an enemy trying to assail them. Eve takes offense—she never expected Adam to doubt her firmness or her faith. Adam: That’s not what I meant. What I meant is, we’re stronger together. Also, even to be tempted is an insult to you—the tempter has a low opinion of you. I’d rather that dishonor fall on me than you. Eve: Because you think you’re stronger and I’ll give in. Adam: No, what I meant was— Eve (essentially): Look: if we’re stuck together forever after because an enemy might be lurking somewhere, we were never free to begin with.
[Falling Slowly:] Adam gives in—in one of the most realistic moments of the poem and the marriage:
Go, for thy stay, not free, absents thee more.
Next stop: the Fall, Damnation, and Labor—the childbirth kind and the “till the soil” kind.
[A Barrage of Rhetorical-Sounding Though Not Actually Rhetorical Questions:] Is this the moment when Adam’s Idleness model fails? Is his mistake assuming that everything should be easy? Or is it Eve’s insistence on a work ethic that privileges production and progress over pleasure that occasions the Fall?
Going back to your radio show—was the host America’s Adam, and are you, the proponent (or inhabitant, at any rate) of discomfort and fear, of squirmy challenge and productive if agonized unrest, America’s Eve? Can there be any meaning in the relation to work that Adam describes?
[The Last, for Now, of the Fears, Both Fulfilled and Un:] I feel unqualified to opine, having never actually experienced Adamite idleness—only the miserable procrastinatory kind that keeps me here, at this desk, rebelling Satanically against nothing.
But hey, at least I’m back to angry.