Quitting the Paint Store

This is an essay I read years ago in Harper’s Mag­a­zine. It’s hard to find now, but I kept it online. Our cul­ture val­ues orga­ni­za­tion, effi­cien­cy, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and hard work. This essay speaks to that sad con­di­tion.

QUITTING THE PAINT FACTORY

On the virtues of idle­ness

By Mark Slouka

Harper’s Mag­a­zine – Novem­ber 2004 issue

I dis­trust the per­pet­u­al­ly busy ; always have. The fre­net­ic ones spin­ning in tight lit­tle cir­cles like poi­soned rats. The slow­er ones, grind­ing away their fourscore and ten in right­eous­ness and pain. They are the soul-eaters.

When I was young, my par­ents read me Aesop’s fable of “The Ant and the Grasshop­per,” where­in, as every­one knows, the grasshop­per spends the sum­mer mak­ing music in the sun while the ant toils with his fel­low formi­ci­dae. Inevitably, win­ter comes, as win­ters will, and the grasshop­per, who hasn’t planned ahead and who doesn’t know what a 401K is, has run out of luck. When he shows up at the ants’ door, car­ry­ing his fid­dle, the ant asks him what he was doing all year : “I was singing, if you please,” the grasshop­per replies, or some­thing to that effect. “You were singing?” says the ant. “Well, then, go and sing.” And per­haps because I sensed, even then, that fate would some­day find me hold­ing a vio­lin or a man­u­script at the door of the ants, my anten­nae frozen and my hills over­due, I con­found­ed both Aesop and my well-mean­ing par­ents, and bore away the wrong moral. That sum­mer, many a wind­blown grasshop­per was saved from the pond, and many an anthill inun­dat­ed under the gold­en rain of my pee.

I was right.

In the life­time that has passed since Calv­in Coolidge gave his speech to the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of News­pa­per Edi­tors in which he famous­ly pro­claimed that “the chief busi­ness of the Amer­i­can peo­ple is busi­ness,” the domin­ion of the ants has grown enor­mous­ly. Look about : The busi­ness of busi­ness is every­where and inescapable ; the song of the buy­ers and the sell­ers nev­er stops ; the term “worka­holic” has been fold­ed up and put away. We have no time for our friends or our fam­i­lies, no time to think or to make a meal. We’re mov­ing pro­duct, while the soul drowns like a cat in a well. (“I think that there is far too much work done in the world,” Bertrand Rus­sell observed in his famous 1932 essay “In Praise of Idle­ness,” adding that he hoped to “start a cam­paign to induce good young men to do noth­ing.” He failed. A year lat­er, Nation­al Social­ism, with its cult of work [think of all those bronzed young men in Leni Riefenstahl’s Tri­umph of the Will throw­ing cord­wood to each oth­er in the sun], flared in Ger­many.)

A resus­ci­tat­ed ortho­doxy, so per­va­sive as to be near­ly invis­i­ble, rules the land. Like any reli­gion worth its salt, it shapes our world in its image, demo­niz­ing if nec­es­sary, absorbing when pos­si­ble. Thus has the great sov­er­eign ter­ri­to­ry of what Nabokov called “unre­al estate,” the con­ti­nent of invis­i­ble pos­ses­sions from time to tal­ent to con­tent­ment, been either infan­tilized, ren­dered unclean, or trans­lat­ed into the gram­mar of dol­lars and cents. Thus has the great wilder­ness of the inner life been com­pressed into a medi­an strip by the demands of the “real world,” which of course is any­thing but. Thus have we suc­ceed­ed in trans­form­ing even our­selves into bipedal prod­ucts, pay­ing rich­ly for sem­i­nars that teach us how to mar­ket the self so it may be sold to the high­est bid­der. Or per­haps “down the river” is the phrase.

Ah, but here’s the rub : Idle­ness is not just a psy­cho­log­i­cal neces­si­ty, req­ui­site to the con­struc­tion of a com­plete human being ; it con­sti­tutes as well a kind of polit­i­cal space, a space as nec­es­sary to the work­ings of an actu­al democ­ra­cy as, say, a free press. How does it do this ? By allow­ing us time to fig­ure out who we are, and what we believe ; by allow­ing us time to con­sid­er what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giv­ing the inner life (in whose precincts we are most our­selves) its due. Which is pre­cise­ly what makes idle­ness dan­ger­ous. All man­ner of things can grow out of that fal­low soil. Not for noth­ing did our moth­ers grow sus­pi­cious when we had “too much time on our hands.” They knew we might be up to some­thing. And not for noth­ing did we whis­per to each oth­er, when we were up to some­thing, “Quick, look busy.”

Moth­er knew instinc­tive­ly what the keep­ers of the castles have always known : that trou­ble – the kind that might threat­en the sym­me­try of a well-ordered gar­den – needs time to take root. Take away the time, there­fore, and you choke off the prob­lem before it begins. Obe­di­ence reigns, the plow stays in the fur­row ; things pro­ceed as they must. Which rais­es an uncom­fort­able ques­tion : Could the Church of Work – which today has Amer­i­cans aspir­ing to sleep depri­va­tion the way they once aspired to a per­son­al knowl­edge of God – be, at base, an anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic force ? Well, yes. James Rus­sell Low­ell, that nine­teen­th-cen­tu­ry work­horse, summed it all up quite neat­ly : “There is no bet­ter bal­last for keep­ing the mind steady on its keel, and sav­ing it from all risk of crank­i­ness, than busi­ness.”

Quite so. The mind, how­ev­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly the mind of a cit­i­zen in a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety, is not a boat. Bal­last is not what it needs, and steadi­ness, alas, can be a syn­onym for stu­pid­i­ty, as our cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion has so amply demon­strat­ed. No, what the demo­c­ra­t­ic mind requires, above all, is time ; time to con­sid­er its options. Time to devel­op the demo­c­ra­t­ic virtues of inde­pen­dence, orner­i­ness, objec­tiv­i­ty, and fair­ness. Time, per­haps (to sail along with Lowell’s leaky metaphor for a moment), to pon­der the course our unelect­ed cap­tains have so gen­er­ous­ly set for us, and to con­sid­er mutiny when the ice­berg looms.

Which is pre­cise­ly why we need to be kept busy. If we have no time to think, to mull, if we have no time to piece togeth­er the sud­den asso­ci­a­tions and unex­pect­ed, mid-show­er insights that are the stuff of inde­pen­dent opin­ion, then we are less cit­i­zens than cur­sors, eas­i­ly manip­u­lat­ed, vul­ner­a­ble to the cur­rents of pow­er.

But I have to be care­ful here. Hav­ing worked all of my adult life, I rec­og­nize that work of one sort or anoth­er is as essen­tial to sur­vival as pro­tein, and that much of it, in today’s high­ly bureau­cra­tized, eco­nom­i­cal­ly diver­si­fied soci­eties, will of neces­si­ty be nei­ther pleas­ant nor chal­leng­ing nor par­tic­u­lar­ly mean­ing­ful. I have com­pas­sion for those mak­ing the most of their com­mute and their cubi­cle ; I just wish they could be a lit­tle less cheer­ful about it. In short, this isn’t about us so much as it is about the Zeit­geist we live and labor in, which, like a cuck­oo tak­ing over a thrush’s nest, has sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly shoved all the oth­er eggs of our life, one by one, onto the pave­ment. It’s about illu­mi­nat­ing the loss­es. We’re enthralled. I want to dis­en­chant us a bit ; draw a mus­tache on the boss.

INFINITE BUSTLE

I’m a stu­dent of the nar­row­ing mar­gins. And their vic­tim, to some extent, though my capac­i­ty for sloth, my belief in it, may yet save me, Like some stub­born heretic in fifth-cen­tu­ry Rome, still offer­ing gifts to the spir­it of the fields even as the priests sniff about the tem­pa for sin, I dai­ly sac­ri­fice my bit of time. The pagan gods may yet return. Con­stan­ti­ne and Theo­do­sius may die. But the prospects are bad.

In River­side Park in New York City, where I walk the­se days, the legions of “week­end nan­nies” are grow­ing, set­ting up a play date for a ten-year-old requires a feat of near-Olympic coör­di­na­tion, and the few, ves­ti­gial, late-after­noon par­ents one sees, drag­ging their wail­ing prog­eny by the hand or fran­ti­cal­ly kick­ing a soc­cer ball in the fad­ing light, have a gleam in their eyes I find fright­en­ing. No out­stretched legs crossed at the ankles, no arms draped over the back of the bench. No lovers. No be-hat­ted old men, argu­ing. Between the slide and the sand­box, a very fit young man in his ear­ly thir­ties is talk­ing on his cell phone while a two-year-old with a trail of snot run­ning from his nose tugs on the seam of his cor­duroy pants. “There’s no way I can pick it up. Because we’re still at the park. Because we just got here, that’s why.”

It’s been one hun­dred and forty years since Thore­au, who itched a full cen­tu­ry before every­one else began to scratch, com­plained that the world was increas­ing­ly just “a place of busi­ness. What an infinite bustle!” he groused. “I am awaked almost every night by the pant­i­ng of the loco­mo­tive. It inter­rupts my dreams. There is no Sab­bath. It would be glo­ri­ous to see mankind at leisure for once. It is noth­ing but work, work, work.” Lit­tle did he know. Today the roads of com­merce, paved and smoothed, reach into every nook and cran­ny of the repub­lic ; there is no place apart, no place where we would be shut of the drone of that damnable traf­fic. Today we, quite lit­er­al­ly, live to work. And it hard­ly mat­ters what kind of work we do ; the process jus­ti­fies the ends. Indeed, at times it seems there is hard­ly an occu­pa­tion, how­ev­er use­less or humil­i­at­ing or down­right despi­ca­ble, that can­not at least in part be redeemed by our obses­sive ded­i­ca­tion to it : “Yes, Ted sold shoul­der-held Stingers to folks with no sur­name, but he worked so hard!”

Not long ago, at the kind of din­ner par­ty I rarely attend, I made the mis­take of admit­ting that I not only liked to sleep but liked to get at least eight hours a night when­ev­er pos­si­ble, and that nine would be bet­ter still. The reac­tion – a ‘com­plex Pinot Noir of ner­vous laugh­ter dis­placed by expres­sions of dis­be­lief and con­de­scen­sion – sug­gest­ed that my trans­gres­sion had been, on some lev­el, a polit­i­cal one. I was remind­ed of the time I’d con­fessed to Roger Angell that I did not much care for base­ball.

My com­ment was imme­di­ate­ly rebutted by tes­ti­mo­ni­als to sleep­less­ness : two of the nine guests con­fessed to being insom­ni­acs ; a mem­ber of the Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters claimed indig­nant­ly that she couldn’t remem­ber when she had ever got­ten eight hours of sleep ; two oth­er guests declared them­selves grate­ful for five or six. It mat­tered lit­tle that I’d arranged my life dif­fer­ent­ly, and accept­ed the sac­ri­fices that arrange­ment entailed. Eight hours ! There was some­thing will­ful about it. Arro­gant, even. Suit­ably chas­tened, I held my tongue, and escaped alone to tell Thee.

Increas­ing­ly, it seems to me, our world is divid­ing into two kinds of things : those that aid work, or at least rep­re­sent a path to it, and those that don’t Things in the first cat­e­go­ry are good and noble ; things in the sec­ond aren’t. Thus, for exam­ple, edu­ca­tion is good (as long as we don’t have to lis­ten to any of that “end in itself” non­sense) because it will pre­sum­ably lead to work. Thus play­ing the piano or swim­ming the 100-yard back­stroke are good things for a fif­teen-year-old to do not because they might give her some plea­sure but because rumor has it that Prince­ton is inter­est­ed in stu­dents who can play Chopin or swim quick­ly on their backs (and a degree from Prince­ton, as any fool knows, can be read­i­ly con­vert­ed to work).

Point the beam any­where, and there’s the God of Work, busi­ly tram­pling out the vin­tage. Bliz­zards are bemoaned because they keep us from get­ting to work. Hob­bies are seen as either ridicu­lous or self-indul­gent because they inter­fere with work. Longer school days are all the rage (even as our chil­dren grow demon­stra­bly stu­pid­er), not because they make edu­ca­tion­al or psy­cho­log­i­cal or any oth­er kind of sense but because keep­ing kids in school longer makes it eas­ier for us to work. Mean­while, the time grows short, the mar­gin nar­rows ; the white spaces on our cal­en­dars have been inked in for months. We’re angry about this, upset about that, but who has the time to do any­thing any­more ? There are those reports to report on, mem­os to remem­ber, emails to deflect or delete. They bury us like snow.

The alarm rings and we’re off, run­ning so hard that by the time we stop we’re too tired to do much of any­thing except nod in front of the TV, which, like vir­tu­al­ly all the oth­er voic­es in our cul­ture, endors­es our exhaus­tion, fetishizes and roman­ti­cizes it and, by dai­ly adding its lit­tle trow­el­ful of lies and omis­sions, helps cement the con­vic­tion that not only is this how our three score and ten must be spent but that the trans­ac­tion is both noble and nec­es­sary.

KA-CHINK !

Time may be mon­ey (though I’ve always resist­ed that loath­some plat­i­tude, the alche­my by which the very gold of our lives is trans­formed into the base lead of com­merce), but one thing seems cer­tain : Mon­ey eats time. For­get the visions of sanc­tioned leisure : the view from the deck in St. Moritz, the wafer-thin TV. Con­sid­er the price.

Some­times, I want to say, mon­ey costs too much. And at the begin­ning of the mil­len­ni­um, in this coun­try, the cost of mon­ey is well on the way to bank­rupt­ing us. We’re impov­er­ish­ing our­selves, our fam­i­lies, our com­mu­ni­ties – and yet we can’t stop our­selves. Worse, we don’t want to.

Seen from the right van­tage point, there’s some­thing won­der­ful­ly ani­mistic about it. The god must be fed ; he’s hun­gry for our hours, craves our days and years. And we oblige. Every morn­ing (unlike the good cit­i­zens of Tenochti­t­lan, who at least had the good sense to sac­ri­fice oth­ers on the slab) we rush up the steps of the zig­gu­rat to lay our­selves down. It’s not a pret­ty sight.

Then again, we’ve been well trained. And the train­ing nev­er stops. In a recent ad in The New York Times Mag­a­zine, paid for by an out­fit named Wealth and Tax Advi­so­ry Ser­vices, Inc., an attrac­tive young wom­an in a dark busi­ness suit is shown work­ing at her desk. (She may be at home, though the­se days the dis­tinc­tion is moot.) On the desk is a cup, a cell phone, and an adding machine. Above her right shoul­der, just over the blurred sofa and the blurred land­scape on the wall, are the words, “Suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neurs work con­tin­u­ous­ly.” The text below explains : “The chal­lenge to build­ing wealth is that your finances grow in com­plex­i­ty as your time demands increase.”

The ad is worth dis­ar­tic­u­lat­ing, it seems to me, if only because some ver­sion of it is beamed into our cere­bral cor­tex a thou­sand times a day. What’s inter­est­ing about it is not only what it says but what it so blithe­ly assumes. What it says, crude­ly enough, is that in order to be suc­cess­ful, we must not only work but work con­tin­u­ous­ly ; what it assumes is that time is inverse­ly pro­por­tion­al to wealth : our time demands will increase the hard­er we work and the more suc­cess­ful we become. It’s an organ­ic thing ; a law, almost. Fish got­ta swim and birds got­ta fly, you got­ta work like a dog till you die.

Am I sug­gest­ing then that Wealth and Tax Advi­so­ry Ser­vices, Inc. spend $60,000 for a full-page ad in The New York Times Mag­a­zine to show us a young wom­an at her desk writ­ing poet­ry ? Or play­ing with her kids ? Or shar­ing a glass of wine with a friend, attrac­tive­ly thumb­ing her nose at the acqui­si­tion of wealth ? No. For one thing, the folks at Wealth and Tax, etc. are sim­ply doing what’s in their best inter­est. For anoth­er, it would hard­ly mat­ter if they did show the wom­an writ­ing poet­ry, or laugh­ing with her chil­dren, because the­se things, by virtue of their place­ment in the ad, would imme­di­ate­ly take on the col­or of their host ; they would sim­ply be the rewards of work­ing almost con­tin­u­ous­ly.

What I am sug­gest­ing is that just as the mar­ket­place has co-opt­ed rebel­lion by sub­or­di­nat­ing pol­i­tics to fash­ion, by mak­ing anger chic, so it has qui­et­ly under­writ­ten the idea of leisure, in part by sep­a­rat­ing it from idle­ness. Open almost any mag­a­zine in Amer­i­ca today and there they are : The ubiq­ui­tous tanned-and-toned twen­ty-some­things dri­ving the $70,000 fruits of their labor ; the mon­eyed-look­ing men and wom­en in their healthy six­ties (to give the young some­thing to aspire to) toss­ing Fris­bees to Irish set­ters or tying on flies in mid­stream or watch­ing sun­sets from their Adiron­dack chairs.

Leisure is per­mis­si­ble, we under­stand, because it costs mon­ey ; idle­ness is not, because it doesn’t. Leisure is focused ; what­ev­er think­ing it requires is absorbed by a cer­tain task : sink­ing that putt, mak­ing that cast, watch­ing that flat-screen TV. Idle­ness is uncon­strained, anar­chic. Leisure – par­tic­u­lar­ly if it involves some kind of high-priced tech­nol­o­gy – is as Amer­i­can as a Fourth of July bar­be­cue. Idle­ness, on the oth­er hand, has a bad atti­tude. It doesn’t shave ; it’s not a mem­ber of the team ; it doesn’t play well with oth­ers. It thinks too much, as my high school coach used to say. So it has to be ostra­cized. (Or put to good use. The wilder­ness of asso­ci­a­tion we enter when we read, for exam­ple, is one of the world’s great domains of imag­i­na­tive diver­si­ty : a seedbed of indi­vid­u­al­ism. What bet­ter rea­son to pave it then, to make it an acces­so­ry, like a per­son­al orga­niz­er, a sure-fire way of rais­ing your SAT score, or improv­ing your com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills for that next inter­view. You say you like to read ? Then don’t waste your time ; put it to work. Order Shake­speare in Charge : The Bard’s Guide to Lead­ing and Suc­ceed­ing on the Busi­ness Stage, with its pic­ture of the bard in a busi­ness suit on the cov­er.)

With idle­ness safe­ly on the reser­va­tion, the notion that leisure is nec­es­sar­i­ly a func­tion of mon­ey is free to grow into a tru­ism. “Mon­ey isn’t the goal. Your goals, that’s the goal,” reads a recent ad for Citibank. At first glance, there’s some­thing appeal­ing­ly sub­ver­sive about it. Apply a lit­tle skep­ti­cism though, and the implic­it mes­sage floats to the sur­face : And how else are you going to reach those goals than by invest­ing wise­ly with us ? Which sug­gests that, um, mon­ey is the goal, after all.

THE CHURCH OF WORK

There’s some­thing un-Amer­i­can about singing the virtues of idle­ness. It is a form of blas­phe­my, a sec­u­lar sin. More pre­cise­ly, it is a kind of lat­ter-day antin­o­mi­an­ism, as much a threat to the ortho­doxy of our day as Anne Hutchinson’s desire 350 years ago to cir­cum­vent the Puri­tan min­is­ters and dial God direct. Hutchin­son, we recall, got into trou­ble because she accused the Puri­tan elders of back­slid­ing from the rig­ors of their the­ol­o­gy and giv­ing in to a Covenant of Works, where­by the indi­vid­u­al could earn his all-expens­es-paid trip to the pearly gates through the labor of his hands rather than sole­ly through the grace of God. Think of it as a kind of fre­quent-flier plan for the soul.

The anal­o­gy to today is instruc­tive. Like the New Eng­land cler­gy, the Reli­gion of Busi­ness – lit­er­al­ized, painful­ly, in books like Jesus, C.E.O. – holds a monopoly on inter­pre­ta­tion ; it sets the terms, dic­tates val­ue. [In this new lex­i­con, for exam­ple, “work” is defined as the means to wealth ; “suc­cess,” as a syn­onym for it.] Although today’s ver­sion of the Covenant of Works has sub­sti­tut­ed a host of sec­u­lar plea­sures for the idea of heav­en, it too seeks to cor­ner the mar­ket on what we most desire, to sug­gest that the work of our hands will save us. And we believe. We believe across all the bound­aries of class and race and eth­nic­i­ty that nor­mal­ly divide us ; we believe in num­bers that dwarf those of the more con­ven­tion­al­ly faith­ful. We repeat the dai­ly cat­e­chism, we sing in the choir. And we tithe, and keep on tithing, until we are spent.

It is this will­ing­ness to hand over our lives that fas­ci­nates and appalls me. There’s such a love­ly per­ver­si­ty to it ; it’s so won­der­ful­ly coun­ter­in­tu­itive, so very Chris­tian : You must emp­ty your pock­ets, turn them inside out, and spill out your wife and your son, the pets you hard­ly knew, and the days you sim­ply missed alto­geth­er watch­ing the sun­light fade on the bricks across the way. You must hand over the rainy after­noons, the light on the grass, the moments of play and of sim­ply being. You must give it up, all of it, and by your exam­ple teach your chil­dren to do the same, and then – because even this is not enough – you must train your­self to believe that this out­sourcing of your life is both nat­u­ral and good. But even so, your soul will not be saved.

The young, for a time, know bet­ter. They balk at the har­ness. They do not go easy. For a time they are able to see the utter sad­ness of sub­or­di­nat­ing all that mat­ters to all that doesn’t. Even­tu­al­ly, of course, sit­ting in their cubi­cle lined with New York­er car­toons, sell­ing what­ev­er it is they’ve been asked to sell, most come to see the advan­tage of enthu­si­asm. They join the choir and are duly for­given for their illu­sions. It’s a rite of pas­sage we are all famil­iar with. The gen­er­a­tions before us clear the path ; Augustine stands to the left, Freud to the right. We are born into death, and die into life, they mur­mur ; civ­i­liza­tion will have its dis­con­tents. The sign in front of the Church of Our Lady of Per­pet­u­al Work con­firms it. And we believe.

- — - — - — - — - — -

All of which leaves only the task of explain­ing away those few mis­cre­ants who out of some inner weak­ness or per­ver­si­ty either refuse to con­vert or who go along and then, in their thir­ty-six­th year in the choir, say, abrupt­ly aban­don the faith. Those in the first cat­e­go­ry are rel­a­tive­ly easy to con­tend with ; they are sim­ply losers. Those in the sec­ond are a bit more dif­fi­cult ; their apos­ta­sy requires some­thing more ….. dra­mat­ic. They are con­sid­ered mad.

In one of my favorite anec­dotes from Amer­i­can lit­er­ary his­to­ry (which my chil­dren know by heart, and which in turn bodes poor­ly for their futures as cap­tains of indus­try), the writer Sher­wood Ander­son found him­self, at the age of thir­ty-six, the chief own­er and gen­er­al man­ager of a paint fac­to­ry in Elyr­ia, Ohio. Hav­ing made some­thing of a rep­u­ta­tion for him­self as a copy­writer in a Chicago adver­tis­ing agen­cy, he’d moved up a rung. He was on his way, as they say, a busi­ness­man in the mak­ing, per­haps even a tycoon in embryo. There was only one prob­lem : he couldn’t seem to shake the notion that the work he was doing (writ­ing cir­cu­lars extolling the virtues of his line of paints) was patent­ly absurd, undig­ni­fied ; that it amount­ed to a kind of pris­on sen­tence. Lack­ing the ratio­nal­iz­ing gene, inca­pable of numb­ing him­self suf­fi­cient­ly to make the days and the years pass with­out pain, he suf­fered and flailed. Even­tu­al­ly he snapped.

It was a scene he would revis­it time and again in his mem­oirs and fic­tion. On Novem­ber 27, 1912, in the mid­dle of dic­tat­ing a let­ter to his sec­re­tary (“The goods about which you have inquired are the best of their kind made in the…”), he sim­ply stopped. Accord­ing to the sto­ry, the two sup­pos­ed­ly stared at each oth­er for a long time, after which Ander­son said : “I have been wad­ing in a long river and my feet are wet,” and walked out. Out­side the build­ing he turned east toward Cleve­land and kept going. Four days lat­er he was rec­og­nized and tak­en to a hos­pi­tal suf­fer­ing from exhaus­tion.

Ander­son claimed after­ward that he had encour­aged the impres­sion that he might be crack­ing up in order to facil­i­tate his exit, to make it com­pre­hen­si­ble. “The thought occurred to me that if men thought me a lit­tle insane they would for­give me if I lit out,” he wrote, and though we will nev­er know for sure if he suf­fered a ner­vous break­down that day or only pre­tend­ed to one (his biog­ra­phers have con­clud­ed that he did), the point of the anec­dote is else­where : Real or imag­ined, noth­ing short of mad­ness would do for an excuse.

Ander­son him­self, of course, was smart enough to rec­og­nize the absur­di­ty in all this, and to use it for his own ends ; over the years that fol­lowed, he worked his escape from the paint fac­to­ry into a kind of para­ble of lib­er­a­tion, an exem­plar for the young men of his age. It became the cor­ner­stone of his cri­tique of the emerg­ing busi­ness cul­ture : To stay was to suf­fo­cate, slow­ly ; to escape was to take a stab at “alive­ness.” What Amer­i­ca need­ed, Ander­son argued, was a new class of indi­vid­u­als who “at any phys­i­cal cost to them­selves and oth­ers” would “agree to quit work­ing, to loaf, to refuse to be hur­ried or try to get on in the world.”

To refuse to be hur­ried or try to get on in the world.” It sounds quite mad. What would we do if we fol­lowed that advice ? And who would we be ? No, bet­ter to pull down the blinds, fin­ish that sen­tence. We’re all in the paint fac­to­ry now.

CLEARING BRUSH

At times you can almost see it, this fly­pa­per we’re attached to, this mech­a­nism we labor in, this delu­sion we inhab­it. A thing of such mag­ni­tude can be hard to make out, of course, but you can rough out its shape and mark its pro­gress, like Lon Chaney’s Invis­i­ble Man, by its effects : by the things it ren­ders quaint or obso­lete, by the trail of dis­card­ed notions it leaves behind. What we’re leav­ing behind today, at record pace, is what­ev­er belief we might once have had in the val­ue of unstruc­tured time : in the priv­i­lege of con­tem­plat­ing our lives before they are gone, in the impor­tance of unin­ter­rupt­ed con­ver­sa­tion, in the beau­ty of play. In the thing in itself – unmedi­at­ed, lead­ing nowhere. In the present moment.

Admit­ted­ly, the present – in its onto­log­i­cal, rather than con­sumerist, sense – has nev­er been too pop­u­lar on this side of the Atlantic ; we’ve always been a fin­ger-drum­ming, rest­less bunch, sus­pi­cious of jaw­bon­ing, less like­ly to sit at the table than to grab a quick one at the bar. Whit­man might have exhort­ed us to loaf and invite our souls, but that was not an invi­ta­tion we cared to extend, not unless the soul played pok­er, ha, ha. No sir, a French­man might invite his soul. One expect­ed such things. But an Amer­i­can ? An Amer­i­can would be out the swing­ing doors and halfway to tomor­row before his sil­ver dol­lar had stopped ring­ing on the coun­ter.

I was put in mind of all this last June while sit­ting on a bench in London’s Hamp­stead Heath. My bench, like many oth­ers, was almost entire­ly hid­den ; well off the path, delight­ful­ly over­grown, it sat at the top of a long-grassed mead­ow. It had a view. There was whim­sy in its place­ment, and joy. It was thor­ough­ly imprac­ti­cal. It had clear­ly been placed there to encour­age one thing – soli­tary con­tem­pla­tion.

And sit­ting there, lis­ten­ing to the sum­mer drone of the bees, I sud­den­ly imag­ined George W. Bush on my bench. I can’t tell you why this hap­pened, or what in par­tic­u­lar brought the image to my mind. Pos­si­bly it was the sheer incon­gruity of it that appealed to me, the turtle-on-a-lamp­post illog­ic of it ; ear­lier that sum­mer, intrigued by images of Kafka’s face on posters adver­tis­ing the Prague Marathon, I’d enter­tained myself with pic­tures of Franz look­ing fit for the big race. In any case, my vision of Dubya sit­ting on a bench, read­ing a book on his lap – smil­ing or nod­ding in agree­ment, wet­ting a fin­ger to turn a page – was so dis­cor­dant, so absurd, that I real­ized I’d acci­den­tal­ly stum­bled upon one of those visu­al oxy­morons that, by its very dis­so­nance, illu­mi­nates some­thing essen­tial.

What the pic­ture of George W. Bush flushed into the open for me was the clas­si­cal­ly Amer­i­can and increas­ing­ly Repub­li­can cult of move­ment, of busy-ness ; of doing, not think­ing. One could imag­ine Kennedy read­ing on that bench in Hamp­stead Heath. Or Carter, may­be. Or even Clin­ton (though given the bucol­ic set­ting, one could also imag­ine him in oth­er, more Dionysian sce­nar­ios). But Bush ? Bush would be clear­ing brush. He’d be stomp­ing it into sub­mis­sion with his pointy boots. He’d be mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.

Now, some­thing about all that brush clear­ing had always both­ered me. It wasn’t the work itself, though I’d nev­er ful­ly under­stood where all that brush was being cleared from, or why, or how it was pos­si­ble that there was any brush still left between Dal­las and Austin. No, it was the fre­net­ic, anti-think­ing ele­ment of it I dis­liked. This wasn’t sim­ply out­door work, which I had done my share of and knew well. This was brush clear­ing as a state­ment, a ges­ture of impa­tience. It cap­tured the man, his dis­dain for the inner life, for the virtues of slow­ness and con­tem­pla­tion. This was move­ment as an answer to all those equiv­o­cat­ing intel­lec­tu­als and Gal­lic pon­tif­i­ca­tors who would rather talk than do, think than act. Who could always be count­ed on to com­pli­cate what was sim­ple with long-wind­ed dis­cus­sions of com­plex­i­ty and con­se­quences. Who were weak.

And then I had it, the thing I’d been try­ing to place, the thing that had always made me bristle – instinc­tive­ly – when­ev­er I saw our fid­gety, unelect­ed Pres­i­dent in action. I recalled read­ing about an Ital­ian art move­ment called Futur­ism, which had flour­ished in the first decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Its prac­ti­tion­ers had advo­cat­ed a cult of rest­less­ness, of speed, of dynamism ; had reject­ed the past in all its forms ; had glo­ri­fied busi­ness and war and patri­o­tism. They had also, at least in the­o­ry, sup­port­ed the growth of fas­cism.

The link seemed ten­u­ous at best, even facile. Was I seri­ous­ly link­ing Bush – his shal­low­ness, his bustle, his obvi­ous sus­pi­cion of nuance – to the spir­it of fas­cism ? As much as I loathed the man, it made me uneasy. I’d always argued with peo­ple who applied the word care­less­ly. Hav­ing been called a fas­cist myself for sug­gest­ing that an ill-tem­pered rot­tweil­er be put on a leash, I had no wish to align myself with those who had down­grad­ed the word to a kind of gen­er­al­ized epi­thet, rough­ly syn­ony­mous with “ass-hole,” to be applied to who­ev­er dis­agreed with them. I had too much respect for the real thing. And yet there was no get­ting around it ; what I’d been pick­ing up like a bad smell when­ev­er I observed the Bush team in action was the faint but unmis­tak­able whiff of fas­cism ; a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly dilut­ed fas­cism, true, and masked by the per­fume of down-home cook­in’, but fas­cism nonethe­less.

Still, it was not until I’d returned to the States and had forced myself to wade through the reams of Futur­ist man­i­festos – a form that obvi­ous­ly spoke to their hearts – that the details of the con­nec­tion began to come clear. The link­age had noth­ing to do with the Futur­ists’ art, which was notable only for its sus­tained medi­oc­rity, nor with their writ­ing, which at times achieved an almost sub­lime lev­el of bad­ness. It had to do, rather, with their ant-like ener­gy, their busy-ness, their utter dis­dain of all the man­i­fes­ta­tions of the inner life, and with the way the­se traits seemed so organ­i­cal­ly linked in their think­ing to aggres­sion and war. “We intend to exalt aggres­sive action, a fever­ish insom­nia,” wrote Fil­ip­po Marinet­ti, per­haps the Futur­ists’ most breath­less spokesman. “We will glo­ri­fy war – the world’s only hygiene – mil­i­tarism, patri­o­tism, the destruc­tive ges­ture of free­dom-bringers….. We will destroy the muse­ums, libraries, acad­e­mies of every kind….. We will sing of great crowds excit­ed by work.”

Mil­i­tarism, patri­o­tism, the destruc­tive ges­ture of free­dom-bringers,” “a fever­ish insom­nia,” “great crowds excit­ed by work” … I knew that song. And yet still, almost per­verse­ly, I resist­ed the recog­ni­tion. It was too easy, some­how. Wasn’t much of the Futur­ist rant (“Take up your pick­ax­es, your axes and ham­mers and wreck, wreck the ven­er­a­ble cities, piti­less­ly”) sim­ply a ges­ture of ado­les­cent rebel­lion, a FUCK YOU scrawled on Dad’s garage door ? I had just about decid­ed to scrap the whole thing when I came across Marinetti’s lat­er and more extend­ed ver­sion of the Futur­ist creed. And this time the con­nec­tion was impos­si­ble to deny.

In the piece, pub­lished in June of 1913 (rough­ly six months after Ander­son walked out of the paint fac­to­ry), Marinet­ti explained that Futur­ism was about the “accel­er­a­tion of life to today’s swift pace.” It was about the “dread of the old and the known… of qui­et liv­ing.” The new age, he wrote, would require the “nega­tion of dis­tances and nos­tal­gic soli­tudes.” It would “ridicule … the ‘holy green silence’ and the inef­fa­ble land­scape.” It would be, instead, an age enam­ored of “the pas­sion, art, and ide­al­ism of Busi­ness.”

This shift from slow­ness to speed, from the soli­tary indi­vid­u­al to the crowd excit­ed by work, would in turn force oth­er adjust­ments. The wor­ship of speed and busi­ness would require a new patri­o­tism, “a hero­ic ide­al­iza­tion of the com­mer­cial, indus­tri­al, and artis­tic sol­i­dar­i­ty of a peo­ple”; it would require “a mod­i­fi­ca­tion in the idea of war,” in order to make it “the nec­es­sary and bloody test of a people’s force.”

As if this weren’t enough, as if the par­al­lel were not yet suf­fi­cient­ly clear, there was this : The new man, Marinet­ti wrote – and this deserves my ital­ics – would com­mu­ni­cate by “bru­tal­ly destroy­ing the syn­tax of his speech. He wastes no time in build­ing sen­tences. Punc­tu­a­tion and the right adjec­tives will mean noth­ing to him. He will despise sub­tleties and nuances of lan­guage.” All of his think­ing, more­over, would be marked by a “dread of slow­ness, pet­ti­ness, analy­sis, and detailed expla­na­tions. Love of speed, abbre­vi­a­tion, and the sum­ma­ry. ‘Quick, give me the whole thing in two words!’”

Short of telling us that he would have a ranch in Craw­ford, Tex­as, and be given to clear­ing brush, noth­ing Marinet­ti wrote could have made the resem­blance clear­er. From his noto­ri­ous man­gling of the Eng­lish lan­guage to his well-doc­u­ment­ed impa­tience with detail and analy­sis to his chuck­ling dis­re­gard for human life (which enabled him to crack jokes about Aileen Wuornos’s exe­cu­tion as well as mug for the cam­eras min­utes before announc­ing that the nation was going to war), Dubya was Marinetti’s “New Man”: impa­tient, almost patho­log­i­cal­ly unre­flec­tive, unbur­dened by the past. A man untrou­bled by the imag­i­na­tion, or by an aware­ness of human frailty. A lead­er won­der­ful­ly attuned (though one doubt­ed he could ever artic­u­late it) to “today’s swift pace”; to the neces­si­ty of forg­ing a new patri­o­tism ; to the idea of war as “the nec­es­sary and bloody test of a people’s force”; to the all-con­quer­ing beau­ty of Busi­ness.

2 thoughts on Quitting the Paint Store

  1. This is bril­liant. And final­ly, I under­stand why I’ve always hat­ed Futur­ism.
    And you know what’s weird­ly co=incidental ? I’m assign­ing a Mark Slouka sto­ry to my stu­dents tonight for their midterm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *