On the Fruits of Languor

Posted by Erica Vinskie on

If I were to once again don my gown as a humanities scholar, I might compose an essay titled, "In Praise of Languor" wherein I examine the valuation of idleness in select works of literature. Since I'm now a perfumer and shopkeeper who is (thankfully) not matriculated in any academic program, I'm just going to dash off a half-baked blog post on a Sunday afternoon in January.

Charles and Sebastian in Gondola in Brideshead RevisitedA pretty pair of loafers. Charles (Jeremy Irons) and Sebastian (Anthony Andrews) languishing in a Venetian gondola in ITV's 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. (Image owned by ITV)

Any decent essay should first define its key terms and suppositions. So allow me to rely on the following tired undergraduate rhetorical strategy:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (ahem, Google), languor is "the state or feeling, often pleasant, of tiredness or inertia".

Sundays in January seem to have been divinely ordained for languor.

Walt Whitman

Next, I'll identify the primary sources I'll be considering: Walt Whitman's 1892 poem "Song of Myself" and Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. These texts were chosen primarily because I'm obsessed with them.

This essay (ahem, slapdash blog post) will argue that languor is a necessary precursor to creativity. And creativity, rather than productivity, is the proper aim and the primary purpose of human existence. (This, professor, is my thesis. What justifies it, you ask? It came to me in a dream.)

At some time in the middle of the 19th century, American poet Walt Whitman, then in his mid-thirties, composed these lines:

"I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

Decades later, in his seventies, Whitman affirmed his earlier middle-aged exaltation of languor when he reissued the poem under the new title, "Song of Myself".

A half-century later "across the herring pond", another middle-aged wordsmith, Evelyn Waugh, sang a paean to languor in prose:

"The languor of Youth — how unique and quintessential it is!...the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews — the mind sequestered and self-regarding — that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it."

Ironically, Waugh wrote these words—and the entirety of the novel in which they appear, Brideshead Revisited — while languidly convalescing in an officers' hospital following a relatively minor wartime injury.

Brideshead Revisited Book Cover 1st Edition

Now myself middle-aged, I understand why Waugh considered languor the province of youth that "dies with it". Nevertheless, I heed Whitman's exhortation at the start of "Song of Myself":

"What I assume, so you shall assume. For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

I've lived long enough to observe that the more leisure and languor I enjoy, the higher the quality of my creative output and the greater value it has for me and to others. Usually, at some indeterminate time in the future, this results in greater prosperity. Meanwhile, demands (originating from both within and without myself) that I be 'more productive' result — more often than not — in frustration, diminished quality, and scarcity.

The forces at work in this esoteric process are inscrutable to me. As far as I can reason, the creative mind (i.e., the human mind) requires a period of reset and reintegration similar to the defragmentation and concatenation of a hard drive. A mind at rest is able to observe, appreciate, and integrate its own experiences of the world around it. The process must be allowed to complete before creativity can emerge.

"What I assume, so you shall assume." I recognize that not everyone enjoys the privileges that allow me regularly to luxuriate in languor. (Mine is a middle-income American household with no children at home.) I often mourn the unrealized potential of my intellectually- and artistically-gifted ancestors and contemporaries who — because of economic exigency and lack of access to opportunity — were and are forced to be producers rather than creators. Nevertheless, the complex problems we face as a race will not be solved by more production. They can only be addressed through creativity.

"For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." I therefore invite you; no, I exhort you: lean and loaf with me. Even if only for a moment stolen here and there, rest your weary sinews. Regard yourself and delight in your singularity. Allow yourself to be distracted by and enjoy the Creation. By virtue of being human, rest is your birthright. What's more, the world needs whatever creative gains issue forth from your leisure. Humanity needs the fruits of your languor.

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