On An Apology for Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson

From a rather limited selection of Penguin Books Great Ideas available locally, I picked up Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of essays An Apology for Idlers, because to idle, ‘tis one of mah favorite things to do. Also, I went into this hoping that my idleness could be justified, among other things [like pursuing a career in art, like falling in love]. To be told that being perfectly content with spending a weekend either reading or napping, or daydreaming before napping with a book lying forgotten in my hands — that this points to a noble existence. Because I know that in my bones — I just really need a dead white guy to lend credence to this conviction.

Basically, I wanted someone to defend me, haha. Aherm. Anyway, we’ll mostly talk about the three essays that interested me most, in my usual slap-dash / commonplace book manner:

->An Apology for Idlers

+ Little aphorisms like this, easily taken in, hungrily absorbed—now this is the sort of thing I want to hear.

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.

Woohoo! is the best academic response I can come up with. But before I jump up and down then start penning my resignation: I see what you’re doing, Bobby. He uses them extremely busy people as a sample for their kind, and only point to those with “a faculty for idleness” — those, so to speak, who can be chillax in the weekends, without anxiously checking their phones every fifteen minutes or so. It’s basically these yeah-I’ll-put-my-feet-up-a-bit kind of people who are held in contrast to the zombies:

There is a sort of dead-alive hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. . . . They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still.

It eventually appears that this is less about a defense for idlers, and more of a cuttingly funny, sniffy disdain lynching of those extremely busy people. For instance, after a lengthy enumeration of said people’s traits, our author proclaims: I do not care how much or how well he works, this fellow is an evil feature in other people’s lives. They would be happier if he were dead. Snort.

+ One thing I disagree with, and I don’t care if I am wrong:

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady of Shallott, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bustle and glamour of reality.

Boo. Fine, this is me. But given that life’s been more bustle than glamour for me lately, I’m quite comfortable with bloodless substitutes, thank you.

* * *

->Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art

+ Which is basically a response along the lines of, “Sure about this, dumbass?” and “Gahdammit, how will you feed yerself?” But what’s different between the average parent cross-examining this desire for an artistic life, and our author: Stevenson answers as one who once asked this question, as someone who leads such a life. And noble it may be, as grandiose one’s heart’s desires are: this shit is hard, dude.

+ Stevenson underscores the gentleman’s youth, asks him to be certain that this is truly a “vocation” and not simply a “temptation,” some passing folly: is this what you truly desire?

Is it worth doing?—when it shall have occurred to any artist to ask himself that question, it is implicitly answered in the negative.

But, after the examination: there is no room for hesitation: follow your bent. And then, the rest is a lot of warnings, a lot of practical advice, but the assurance that art is the shiznit:

In the life of the artist there need be no hour without its pleasure. I take the author, with whose career I am best acquainted; and it is true he works in a rebellious material, and that the act of writing is cramped and trying both to the eyes and the temper; but remark him in his study, when matter crowds upon him and words are not wanting — in what a continual series of small successes time flows by; with what a sense of power as of one moving mountains, he marshals his petty characters; with what pleasures, both of the ear and eye, he sees his airy structure growing on the page; and how he labours in a craft to which the whole material of his life is tributary, and which opens a door to all his tastes, his loves, his hatreds, and his convictions, so that what he writes is only what he longed to utter. He may have enjoyed many things in this big, tragic playground of the world; but what shall he have enjoyed more fully than a morning of successful work? Suppose it ill paid: the wonder is it should be paid at all. Other men pay, and pay dearly, for pleasures less desirable.

* * *

->On Falling in Love

+ Yihee. Haha. Aherm. That falling in love is “one event in life which really astonishes a man and startles him out of his prepared opinions”—the first of many descriptions and definitions. This entire essay is so cute. Having gleaned the impression that this amusingly sarcastic goat actually has a marshmallow heart, his elaborations on love are just so adorable. Funny and witty, awesomez. And earnest too. See:

Falling in love is the one illogical adventure, the one thing of which we are tempted to think as supernatural, in our trite and reasonable world. The effect is out of all proportion with the cause. Two persons, neither of them, it may be, very amiable or very beautiful, meet, speak a little, and look a little into each other’s eyes. That has been done a dozen or so of times in the experience of either with no great result. But on this occasion all is different. They fall at once into that state in which another person becomes to us the very gist and centrepoint of God’s creation, and demolishes our laborious theories with a smile; in which our ideas are so bound up with the one master-thought that even the trivial cares of our own person become so many acts of devotion, and the love of life itself is translated into a wish to remain in the same world with so precious and desirable a fellow-creature.

+ So much earnestness. So affective, and I found myself nodding along, or chuckling, or both. Here’s a favorite:

. . . for the essence of love is kindness; and indeed it may be best defined as a passionate kindness, so to speak, to run mad and become importunate and violent. <3

Bah. It is awesome. As usual. Verra boring around these parts, them awesome books. Bah.

8 thoughts on “On An Apology for Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. This idea of books as a substitute for life, or not… I think the value of books depends rather on the having (had) a life – or something of it. Nothing gives me much more pleasure then a good book, but I wonder if that would be the case if I´d not bumped my way around the world a bit first. And I´ve read some stunning books (or parts of them) about love, but they didn´t and don´t make me feel I´d have lived the life I know now for having experienced the force of love in the guts… or wherever else I´ve felt or am feeling it. (I take adequate time off from the love-life to read, of course.)

    I continue to enjoy reading snippets of your autobiography…


  2. “Also, I went into this hoping that my idleness could be justified, among other things [like pursuing a career in art, like falling in love]. To be told that being perfectly content with spending a weekend either reading or napping, or daydreaming before napping with a book lying forgotten in my hands — that this points to a noble existence. Because I know that in my bones — I just really need a dead white guy to lend credence to this conviction.”

    Don’t we all. You have an amazing way with words, Sasha.

  3. Many years ago (about 60) I was in a Literature class. I read an essay assigned to me, which I forgot the author of, but it had a line in it where a young man answers some busybody who inquires what he is doing as he lies beside a stream resting, Young man, what does thou… and the young man answers “Truly Air, I take mine ease.” This enrages the old busy body and ever since then I have used the line to justify mynapping ar siting reading. It has served me well, but I couldn’t find the source of the line. Ask.com got me to Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “An Apolgy for Idlers”. Like someone said, I neeeded a dead white guy to justfy my life style. This essay is it…..

  4. I’m not sure why I didn’t remember the existence of this book, between my love of Stevenson and my love of Penguin Great Ideas, but woohoo for your bringing it to my attention! I want one for myself and another for my boyfriend now. Idlers both!


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