and reprinted in Roland Barthes, œuvres complètes, tome 3.
Not doing anything. Watching the grass grow. Slipping freely into the course of time. Making of our lives a long Sunday. . . Roland Barthes speaks of the delights of laziness.
Laziness is an element of the educational mythology. How would you analyze it?
Laziness is not a myth; it is a basic, seemingly natural given of the educational situation. Why? Because school is a structure of constraint, and laziness is a means for the pupil to dupe this constraint. The classroom inevitably includes a repressive force, if only because the student has no real interest in the things that are taught there. Laziness can be a way to answer back to this repression, a subjective tactic to accept this boredom, to manifest consciousness of it, and in a certain way, to force it into a dialectical process. This answering back is not direct, it is not an open confrontation, the student not having the adequate means to affront these constraints head on. It's a roundabout response which avoids a crisis. In other words, educational laziness has a semantic value, making up the code of the classroom, and the natural language of the student.
Looking at the etymology of these words[i], we might notice that in Latin, the adjective piger (“paresse” in French from pigritia), means “slow”. This is its most negative face, the saddest of a laziness which indeed does things, though badly, against our will, to satisfy the institution in giving it a response, though a response which drags on.
On the contrary, in Greek, the word for laziness is argos, the contraction of a-ergos, simply “he who does not work”. The Greek word is much more frank than in Latin.
Even in this brief etymological debate, the possibility of a certain philosophy of laziness is already laid out.
I was only a high-school professor for a year. It’s not from this experience that I draw forth an idea of educational laziness, but rather from my own experience as a student. I experience once again, spontaneously, this educational laziness, though only as metaphor, in my current life, which has, in theory, nothing to do with that of a school boy: often, before those tasks that bore me, like the mail, or unread manuscripts, I resist, telling myself that I’ll never manage to do them, exactly like the school boy who cannot do his homework. It’s a question, in these particular moments, of a painful experience of laziness to the degree that it is just as much a painful experience of will.
What place do you make—or must you yield—to laziness in your life, and in your work?
I might be tempted to say that I make no place for laziness in my life and that that is my mistake. I feel it as a lack, and a wrong. I often place myself in a situation to struggle to do things. When I don’t do them, or at least during the time when I can't manage to do these things—because I do end up doing them in the long run—it’s more a question of an idleness that is imposed upon me rather than a laziness of my choosing, and imposing myself upon it.
Obviously this rather shameful idleness does not take the form of a “not doing anything” which would be its most glorious, philosophical form.
At a certain time in my life, I allowed myself, after my afternoon nap, until around 4 or 5pm, a little of this kind of euphoric laziness which doesn’t struggle back. I used to take up, without getting too tense, my body’s orders, which were just at that moment, a little sleepy, and not very willing.
I didn’t try to work, letting myself go.
But this was during the summer in the country, when I used to do a bit of painting and work around the house like a lot of French people do during vacation. But back in Paris, I am eaten away by the need to work and the difficulty of working. I let myself get into this kind of suffered idleness called diversion, the repetition of diversions which we create for ourselves: making coffee, getting a glass of water. . . rather guiltily, moreover, since these diversions come to me from the outside. Instead of welcoming them openly, I’m always rather angry with the person who instigates it. I suffer then, disagreeably, the calls and visits, which disturb, in fact, work that isn’t happening.
Beside these diversions, I also experience another form of painful laziness which I would place under Flaubert’s invocation of what he called the “marinade”, meant for those moments when we throw ourselves on our beds to “marinade” or “stew”. Not doing anything, thoughts turning around and around, a little depressed.
I “stew” often, very often, though it doesn’t last too long now, just 15 or 20 minutes. Afterwards, I get my courage back.
I believe that, in fact, and here I come back to this theme of “not doing anything”, I suffer from not having the power or freedom to not do anything. There are moments, however, when I would really like to rest. But once again, as Flaubert said, “On what shall I rest?”.
If you like, I am incapable of placing idleness into my life, and even less so, leisure time. Besides my friends, I only place work or a sort of dismal laziness.
I never really loved sport, and I’m now beyond the age for it anyhow. What would someone like me do if he decided not to do anything?
To read? But that’s my work. To write? Even more so. That’s why I used to like painting, as a completely gratuitous, corporal and aesthetic activity, despite it all, being, at the same time, real rest, real idleness, because, not being anything more than an amateur, myself, I wasn’t able to invest any kind of narcissism in it. Whether well done or poorly done, it was still the same to me.
What else is there? Rousseau, towards the end of his life, made lace.
We could, without too much irony, beg the question of knitting. Knitting is the gesture itself of idleness except when we are caught back by the desire to finish the piece.
But convention prohibits men from knitting.
This wasn’t always the case. A hundred and fifty years ago, maybe even a hundred, men still made tapestries in common practice. This is, of course, no longer possible today.
The spectacle, and the most anti-conformist thing, and therefore possibly the most scandalous, that I’ve ever seen, scandalous, not for me, but for the others that witnessed the event, took place in the Paris subway, when a young man took his knitting out of a bag, and started ostensibly to knit. Everyone felt the sensation of a scandal, though no one said it.
Knitting, there’s an example of a manual, minimal, gratuitous activity without any finality in itself, while representing, at the same time, both a truly lovely and successful sort of idleness.
We would then have to find where we might find idleness in modern life. Have you noticed that we always speak about the right to leisure time[ii], but never about a right to idleness? I wonder moreover if here, in the modern Occident, if not doing anything really exists.
Even those people who have a completely different, tougher, more alienated and laborious, life than my own don’t do “nothing” when they’re free. They always do something.
I remember this image: of being a child, a teenager, when Paris was different. This was before the War. The summers were hotter, certainly hotter than now as everyone believes, or at least, me, I do believe it. Very often, the Parisian concièrges, at the time an institution, came out with their chairs during the evenings, propping them in front of their doors to sit without doing anything.
This is, of course, a vision of laziness that has been completely eliminated, and which I no longer find in contemporary life; in today’s Paris, there aren’t many gestures of laziness. A café is nonetheless a relay point with conversations and an “appearance” as well. This is not true idleness.
It is likely that, now, laziness consists in, not in not doing anything, since we’re incapable of that, but rather in cutting apart time as often as possible, and in diversifying it. It’s exactly what I do on my own small scale when I introduce different diversions into my work. I cut apart time. It’s really a way of making myself idle. I aspire, however, to another idleness.
A Zen poem, dazzling in its simplicity, might just be this definition of this laziness I dream of:
Seated peacefully without doing anything
and the grass grows of itself.
The poem such as it is translated in French[iii] introduces a remarkable example of an anacoluthon into the text, that is, a rupture in construction. He or she who is seated peacefully is not the subject of the sentence. It isn’t springtime that is seated. This rupture of construction, whether desired or not, indicates that, in the situation of idleness, the subject is almost dispossessed of his consistence as subject[iv]. Once decentered, saying “I” isn’t even possible. Now that would be true idleness, managing, in certain moments, to no longer even have to say “I”.
Wouldn’t the subject in love be just that person who seeks the most to achieve this state of laziness?
The laziness which the subject in love asks for is not only to “not do anything”, but most especially, to not decide.
In a Fragment titled “What to do?”, I said that the loving subject, in certain moments, tries to find for himself, in this perpetual tension which passion represents for him, “a little corner of laziness”.
Indeed, the subject in love whom I was striving to describe creates for himself, at any given moment, problems of conduct: shall I call? Should I go out on this date!? Shouldn’t I maybe not go?
I had recalled that the “what to do?”, that is to say, the fabric of deliberations and decisions of which our life is made up, is similar to Buddhist karma, that is to say, the chain of causes and effects which forces us, endlessly, to act and to respond. The opposite of karma is nirvana. We might, when suffering intensely from karma, postulate, or fantasize about, a kind of nirvana. Idleness takes on, then, a dimension of destruction.
True laziness would be basically a laziness about “not deciding” whether or not “to be there”. Much like the class dunce sitting at the back of the classroom who has no other trait than being there.
They don’t participate, nor are they excluded. They’re there, period, like a sort of heap.
That’s what I would like sometimes: to be there, but not to decide anything. There is a Taoist teaching on laziness, I believe, on the “not doing anything” in the general sense of “not moving anything”, that is, not determining anything.
There we could find certain tenets of Tolstoy’s ethics. To the degree to in which we might ask ourselves if we have the right to be lazy in the face of evil. Tolstoy said that yes, indeed, this would still be the best possibility left, since answering back to evil with another form of evil is not acceptable.
Needless to say that, today, such a form of morality has been completely discredited. And if we went even further, idleness might seem like a high philosophical solution on the side of evil. Not answering back, though once again, today’s society doesn't really put up very well with neutral attitudes. Laziness is intolerable then, as if this were the basic principal evil.
What makes laziness terrible is that it could be the most banal, the most common, the least thought thing in the world, just as it could be the most thought out.
It could be easy, or just as well, a conquest.
Might this "thought" laziness be what Proust calls “lost time”?
Proust’s attitude in the face of his work as a writer is something quite special. His work is built, if not upon, then at least in the company of, a theory of involuntary memory, of the free surfacing of ideas, and sensations. This free-surfacing obviously implies a kind of idleness. Being idle, according to this perspective, is precisely like, to take up the Proustian metaphor, being the madeleine which crumbles apart slowly in our mouth, being precisely, at that moment, idle. The subject, letting himself crumble apart by the memory, is idle. If he weren’t, he would be in fact finding a voluntary memory.
We might also turn to another of Proust’s images—that of tightly wound Japanese paper flowers that open up and spread out in water. Idleness would be this then: a moment of writing, a moment for the oeuvre.
Even for Proust, writing is not an idle activity. Proust employs another metaphor to designate the writer, that is, of work. He says that he creates his works much like a dress-maker makes a dress. This implies, of course, an incessant, meticulous, gathering, retouching, ultimately constructive activity like that of Proust’s own. Because even if he was idle until the middle of his life (and even longer still!), when he locked himself away to write La Recherche, he wasn’t in the least idle. He worked all the time then.
There would basically be, in writing, two times. The first would be the time of the stroll, a strolling time that almost cruises, in which memories, sensations, incidents find themselves cruised for. We let them blossom forth. Then there would be second time, that of the desk (or for Proust, the time of the bed).
But I believe, really, that to write, we mustn’t be idle, and that is precisely one of the difficulties of writing. Writing is a pleasure, but at the same time a difficult pleasure because it must cross through different, particularly difficult work zones, with all the risks that this suggests: desire for, and threats of, laziness, temptations to abandon, fatigue, revolts. Just an hour ago, I was taking some notes on Tolstoy’s diaries. He was a man that was obsessed with life’s rules, the division of his time, the ethical problem of not being idle. At any given moment, he records his failings. It’s a rather incessant struggle, a truly diabolical one. And, indeed, if we are fundamentally lazy, or if we decide to be, which is both easily conceived and defended, we cannot write.
Are there any other rituals of idleness? Is Sunday just a day like any other?
It’s now time to say that there are as many different idlenesses as there are professions, maybe as there are social classes. And if Sunday is the institutional slot for idleness, it is obvious that the professor’s Sunday isn’t the same as the labourer’s Sunday, or the bureaucrat's, or that of a doctor.
But, outside of this sociological issue, comes forth the historical role of the weekly day-off, be it Sunday, Saturday, Friday, depending on our religion. . . that is to say, the issue of ritualized idleness.
In very coded societies, such as in Victorian England, for instance, or in Judaism today, the day-off was, and is, a day marked by rituals prohibiting any kind of doing. The ritual comes before this desire to “not do anything” or to “do nothing”.
But it seems that, unfortunately, as soon as people have to submit themselves to this prohibitive ritual, they suffer from this “doing nothing”. Idleness, because it comes from the outside, because it is imposed, becomes a torture. This torture is called boredom.
Schopenhauer said, “Sunday is the social representation of boredom itself”[v].
For me, when I was a child, Sunday was rather a boring day. I don’t really know why, though I think that, often, children think of it as such. There's no school, and school, even if it is ambiguous for children, is still a social and emotional milieu. . . distracting enough.
Now, as I’m no longer a child, Sunday has become once again a day in which all the socials demands are suspended—mail, the phone, rendezvous—which tire me out during the week. A happy day, because it is a day unfilled, a silent day when I can remain idle, that is, free. Because the saintly form of modern laziness is, at the end, freedom.
trnsl: JD Tuyes, 2002
[i] of course the etymological analysis that Barthes undertakes for the word “paresse” will not hold true for “laziness” in English. "Paresse” generally translates as “laziness” or “idleness", though “idleness” is most associated with “oisiveté” (Barthes uses this word only once over the course of his article). Even if “paresse” and “oisiveté” are distinguished in his article, there are moments, especially in speaking about Proust and Sunday as a ritualised day of idleness, when the use of the word where the choice of "idleness" seemed more appropriate.
The word "idle" comes from the middle English idel, and "lazy" is probably of low German origin. In either case, any definition of the two adjectives necessarily includes the other, lazy being "disposed to idleness", and idle, "avoiding work or employment; lazy". The two adjectives function basically as synonyms and interpenetrate each other in terms of meaning and common usage, but are not identical either. Both containing this aspect of will Barthes mentions, describing a motor as "lazy" rather than 'idle" is simply incorrect English. Only nuances of common usage resurge between the two words.
It is now up to the reader to replace the word “laziness” and “lazy” by “idleness” and “idle”, and vice-versa, as he or she sees fit
[ii] a particularly European idea, represented in a "right to vacation-time", through grants and the creation of vacation camps, for those with little means. Of course such a concept would be totally lost on most Americans, for instance, in the fact that all French employees have the right to five-weeks paid vacation time per year. It is perhaps this simple objective fact which will render Barthes's discussion of laziness incomprehensible.
[iii] here, translated from French into English.
[iv] knowing that "the subject" is never neutral , but rather caught up in a (both fantasmatic and "real") determination of "sex", that is, either as "he" or "she", the use of "his" in the translation of "sa consistance de sujet", and later on, in the discussion of the subject in love, seems unjustified. We maintain, however, the use of "he" as the general, neutral marker of the subject as it was used in the 1970s, except in those moments where "he or she" does not interrupt the style of the text, that is, does not distract from the "subject" at hand.
[v] here, translated from French into English.