Tuesday, June 21, 2005

7 Deadly Sins: Sloth

"Heigh ho: I am Sloth. I was begotten on a sunny bank. Heigh ho: I'le not speak a word more for a kings ransome."

Buster Carter and Preston Young, A Lazy Farmer Boy.
The Mills Brothers, Lazybones.
The Beatles, I'm Only Sleeping.
The Buzzcocks, Boredom.
Iggy Pop, I'm Bored.
Bing Crosby, Lazy.
The Lovin' Spoonful, Daydream.

Let's make no bones about it: popular music, from the Cathar troubadours to the South Central rappers, is steeped in sin--from the venial sins to the seven deadly sins, the capital or cardinal sins. Of these, lust is an essential; pride, anger, greed and gluttony are constants; envy and sloth are occasional.

Our survey starts with sloth, or as it goes formally--acedia. "The destruction that wasteth at noonday", as the Psalms say. The most comprehensive work on sloth, the Leviathan to this essay's minnow, is Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Melancholy, Burton says, "is most pleasant at first...a most delightsome humour, to be alone, dwell alone, walk alone, meditate, lie in bed whole days, dreaming awake as it were, and frame a thousand phantastical imaginations unto themselves." But the addiction waxes. "By little and little, by that shoeing-horn of idleness...melancholy, this feral fiend is drawn on." By the end, the melancholics "cannot endure company, light or life itself...their bodies are lean and dried up, withered, ugly, their looks harsh, very dull and their souls tormented."

Sloth has few public friends, many private adherents. Contemporary American culture is intertwined with most of the capital sins--without greed, envy and gluttony, the economy would sink like a stone; without lust, much of our entertainments would vanish; the absence of anger and pride would leave great empty holes in our history.

But sloth has long been the enemy. We all deny sloth, however much we indulge in it. Eavesdrop on any family reunion, or an encounter between friends who haven't seen each other in a while, and whenever someone asks another what they've been doing, the answers are typically the same: "Oh, I'm keeping busy"; "Things have been crazy": "I'm swamped."

There are vigilantes looking to wipe sloth out. One of my first jobs was in a grocery store, and the manager for a time was a Vietnam veteran who would seethe at the malcontents, bored high school kids and perpetual slackers under his command. The very dictates of his body disgusted him--he only slept for four hours a night, from midnight to 4 AM. "That's enough--sleep is a waste of time," he told me.

He was one of the many ambitious who dispense with sleep as if it was an embarrassing childhood habit--Bill Clinton sleeps five hours a night; Napoleon slept three or four. Here is Ben Franklin (himself a five-hour sleeper), prototypical American: "It would be thought a hard government that should tax its people one tenth part of their time, to be employed in its service. But idleness taxes many of us much more, if we reckon all that is spent in absolute sloth, or doing of nothing, with that which is spent in idle employments or amusements, that amount to nothing."

Franklin's Poor Richard is a stuffed bag of aborning cliches, still used in motivational speeches and management consulting books. Do not squander time, he says, "for that's the stuff life is made of!" The sleeping fox catches no chickens! Time enough for sleep in the grave! Lost time is not found again! He that rises late must trot all day! Wake up! Get up! Work!! (You can see why D.H. Lawrence grew to despise Franklin; Pynchon's no fan either.)

In "A Lazy Farmer Boy" a 1931 recording collected by Harry Smith on his Anthology of American Folk Music, we can hear the voice of Poor Richard, appalled at his sluggard neighbour over the fence. "All that young man's corn was lost," the singer clucks. You should have seen it--the corn was up to his eyes and he was a-laying about doing nothing about it. Sure enough, the lazy farmer loses his girl too, because she doesn't want to support a layabout. As Poor Richard says, sloth "makes all things difficult"; like rust "it consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright."

The Mills Brothers' "Lazybones", from 1934, is a catechism of laziness. The lazy farmer boy seemed a bit remorseful about his sluggishness, but the lazybones here is content to let the world do all the work for him--hoping the aphids fall off his crops, hoping he can get through the day without having to lift a finger. Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, and available on this collection.

A brief idle history

In a way, Sloth is the youngest of the seven deadlies. The Romans and Greeks fretted about gluttons, the wrathful, the lustful and the hubristic, but didn't seem to worry much about the lazy. The sense of sloth as a specific sin comes out of the deserts of fourth-century Egypt, where Christian monks noticed some of their brethren growing listless and dull-eyed around midday. A Greek monk Evagrius drew up a list of eight chief sins that, two centuries later, Pope Gregory put into its present form, conflating two of the original eight sins--tristia and acedia, essentially sadness and spiritual lethargy, into one banner sin, our present sloth. Aquinas sums it up: "Sloth is an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing; thus acid things are also cold."

The medieval artists gave sloth a face. Dante puts the slothful in hell trapped underwater, their moans making the Stygian lake's surface bubble. While alive, the slothful were sad even in the sweet summer air, so now they are immersed in cold, filthy water. (Dante encounters some penitent sluggards in purgatory, where they are forced to act like a glee squad, running about being zealous in the hopes of purging their sins.)

Spenser, in the Faerie Queene, has "sluggish Idleness" in a black monk's habit, riding upon a "slouthfull Asse":

"For of devotion he had little care,
Still drownd in sleepe, and most of his dayes ded;
Scarse could he once uphold his heavie hed,
To looken, whether it were night or day...
From worldly cares himselfe he did esolyne,
And freatly shunnéd manly exercise..."

Four centuries later, we have "I'm Only Sleeping." At the time he wrote it, John Lennon was a first citizen of sloth. "He can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. 'Physically lazy,' he said. 'I don't mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with any more." Here is the Maureen Cleave article (from which the infamous "we're bigger than Christ" quote comes), in which Lennon is shown wandering his Weybridge mansion, unaware of what day or hour it is, surrounded by things he had taken up and discarded--gorilla suits, fruit machines, little green boxes with winking lights. ("I'm Only Sleeping" is from 1966's Revolver).

Being boring

Sloth isn't just mere idleness. It's shirking your spiritual duties, declining to punch in at the celestial timeclock. God apparently has divine expectations for us, as though our life is a franchise agreement to which we are indentured at birth, one that we can easily neglect. We should be doing zealous acts to fulfill our contract, and doing so joyfully. If not, the end result is despair, ennui, boredom.

In the Buzzcocks' "Boredom", the singer is stuck somewhere, in his flat, in his mother's house--he's waiting for the phone to ring, and hating when it does; waiting for something to come on television, for something to happen. "I'm already a has-been," he snarls. "My future ain't what it was." Even when his girlfriend comes over, he's just disgusted. "Tell me who are you trying to arouse? Get your hands out of my trousers!" (Originally on Spiral Scratch, one of the first and greatest of punk records, released in 1977--buy here.)

Iggy Pop's "I'm Bored" isn't the whine of an adolescent--it's more like the sated, dulled musings of an emptied rake. The singer's done it all, and to such extremes, that he's sick to death of everything--sex, drugs, pleasure. From New Values, a 1979 album that still doesn't get enough respect.

Yawns from the defense

There are those who have stood up (or at least nodded their heads) for sloth, the great gallery of slackers--Aife of Connacht, who lay abed for a year, rising only to change her stepchildren into swans, and Darby Ruadh, who, after he fell in love with a mermaid, kept to his bed, lovesick; Rip Van Winkle; Oblomov, the Russian aristocrat who prefers to stay in bed and remember his happy childhood; Bartleby, the Wall Street scrivener who simply prefers not to; Brian Wilson, spending three years in bed, listening to "Be My Baby" over and over again.

So let's end with some (mild) celebrations of sloth. One ode is Bing Crosby's "Lazy", written by Irving Berlin, in which Bing is lugging a valise-ful of books in search of a shady tree--he's looking to waste time constructively. "Lazy" is from 1942's Holiday Inn, a film that has both the first appearance of "White Christmas" and a disgraceful blackface performance by Crosby, singing Berlin's equally execrable "Abraham", which has lines like "When black folks lived in slavery/Who was it set the darkie free?" Buy here.

And finally the Lovin' Spoonful's 1966 "Daydream", in which John Sebastian makes the act of sloth a personal insurrection. "I couldn't care less about the dues you say I got." (On Anthology.) Maybe he'll go back to work tomorrow, maybe he'll daydream for a thousand years--that sounds all right. The rub is that Sebastian is sprawled happily asleep on a lawn that someone else has cut--the slothful, as always, remain dependent on the strivers.

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