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Dolce Far Niente

"Sweet Doing Nothing", John William Godward (1861 - 1922), British

"Leisure has had a bad press. For a puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few at the expense of many. Nobody in democracy is at ease with leisure, and almost every person, however little use he may have for his own time, will say that he works hard for living - curious expression, when the real thing to work for is dying." - Sir Roger Scruton


"Dolce Far Niente" is an expression coming from Italian language, simply meaning "sweet doing nothing" or "sweet idleness". It is an expression used to describe what is considered to be a blissful, calming "laziness". Simply, it means exactly what it tells - it is a joy, a sweetness in doing nothing, but rather simply being. Our is the world and era which sometimes seems to value efficiency and productivity above everything else, going as far as determining a value of a human being by how productive, efficient and hard-working they are. It stands as a way of justifying one's existence - if you breathe and exist, you need to justify your spot in the world and the only way to do that is by the extensive work and accomplishments that result from it. There is indeed, truth to that sentiment, as mindless consumption and absolute idleness is a pathway towards many physical, mental and spiritual ills. "Ora et Labora" ("Pray and Work") of Saint Benedict contains within it a sense of humility and meaning that comes from being in service and working in service of something beyond oneself. However, there is a subtle, yet significant difference in labour that is in service, that is filled with meaning and in which one immerses his or her being, and the work which comes from the almost puritan mindset of seeing leisure as sin, as a path towards vice. As such, work is used to fill the time, bring noise to the silence and sometimes as a form of escapism - from one's own thoughts, emotions and reflections. Simply, we have forgotten the joy of being still and not feeling guilty of the stillness. Stillness is a moment in which we are not even consuming, a moment in which we are just a being, sometimes aware, sometimes unaware of our existence, daydreaming and reflecting.


The Luxury of Time

"Sweet Doing Nothing", John William Godward (1861 - 1922), British

"A free man possesses time. A man who dominates space is merely powerful. In cities, the hours and years are the flowing blood of wounded time, and they escape us. In the cabin, time grows calm. It lies at your feet like a good old dog and suddenly, you've even forgotten it is there." - Sylvian Tesson

In the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans there are expressions "merak" and "keif/ćeif/ćejf". "Meraki" is originally a Greek word that has penetrated neighboring Balkan languages - including South Slavic languages in which the word appears as "merak". Meraki or merak simply means doing something with a "lot of soul". Rather than being a detached, empty action, merak is an action in which soul is fully immersed. The other expression is rather similar, it comes from the Arabic word "كَيْف" ("Kayf") which simply means "condition" or "state", but it also means "pleasure", "opiate". Both expressions are often used in a context of enjoying something, usually some kind of "non-doing" and taking time with it. A simple ritual that involves merak or keif is drinking coffee - to drink it while driving or in haste is to commit a sin against the beautiful, black, opiate. One is to take time - smell it, dip a sugar cube in it, feel the cube melt in mouth, listen to some slow music while doing it or simply sit on the balcony and observe the passerbys of the neighborhood or the birds, cats in the garden, hear the sounds. It becomes, an asana, a meditation in which one is fully present, with an empty mind and with no obligations, even if they await later in the day. It embodies exactly what Slyvian Tesson so picturesquely described "You even forget it (time) is there" - in that moment of not rushing, of blissful idleness, time is not a stern Saturn with a scythe in his hand and promise to take your head, when it is due, but time becomes that of which Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, countless gurus, coaches and everyone else remind us - the eternal stretch of "nows". The well-known moustached guy in the Mediterranean imagery, who spends his whole day in front or inside of a tavern, drinking coffee or perhaps raki, ouzo or wine, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, playing chess or backgammon all day, with his legs proudly crossed, often as if tells: "This moment in time is mine and nobody shall take it from me." What ideas of merak and keif also remind us of is that meditation and awareness is possible without necessarily having to make a cosmic, formal, ceremony out of it. That it is enough to be and to be content in being.


Blissful Idleness, Creativity and Labour

Still from the film "Elvira Madigan" (1967). Directed by Bo Widerberg

"They who always labour can have no true judgment. You never give yourselves time to cool. You can never survey, from its proper point of sight, the work you have finished, before you decree its final execution. You can never plan the future by the past. You can never go into the country, soberly and dispassionately to observe the effect of their measures on their objects. You cannot feel distinctly how far the people are rendered better and improved, or more miserable and depraved, by what you have done. You cannot see with your own eyes the suffering and afflictions you cause. (...) These are among the effects of unremitted labour, when men exhaust their attention, burn out their candles, and are left in the dark." - Edmund Burke The ancient Greeks thought that excessive labour was for slaves - for philosophers, thinkers and others did not engage in physical labour and exertion. The similar sentiment may be found in people today, even if they are not aware of it. Oftentimes, around me, the people who do not care about philosophy, ideas or arts, or big lengthy books, upon hearing how much a certain thinker had written or the complexity of their thoughts and ideas, they would tell something that sounded like: "They had time, and they were bored. When you spend whole afternoon sitting and thinking, all sorts of ideas come to your mind. If they had a whole field to dig every day, they would not thinK. They would just fall asleep like lambs in the heat." Even though it is a simple "folk" wisdom of peasants, villagers and other working class folk around me, they did seem to know that in order to entertain ideas, in order to create, write - you need time, and most importantly, you need idle time. And indeed, in my own experience, the easiest way to creativity was simply getting bored. Whenever I was profoundly bored and simply doing nothing, ideas, thoughts, rhymes, poems, characters, novel plots would appear. Thoughts however, can also be assaulting, and very often overthinking, excessive analysing brings no good. Those are different from reflection and awareness and prolonged idleness can take it to the extreme - of manic, obsessive and neurotic engagement with the content of every thought. It is awareness and non-attachment that should be the method of coping with them, not escapism. We can rarely truly ever escape our inner being. But that brings to another point and that is that labour is necessary to human condition just as leisure is. What labour reminds of is that human is a being capable of creating and contributing, what leisure reminds of is that human being is also a deeply reflective, creative, insightful being and that creativity and contribution of a human cannot and should not be reduced to that of a machine in a factory. Labour should exist as an expression of human need to be active, to engage, and leisure of human need to be passive, to reflect. There should be no guilt in leisure. leisure is not to be a break between periods of labour, leisure is to be fully immersed in, a bliss, a keif, a merak. The next time there is a beautiful, warm afternoon's sun touching your balcony or window, do meet it, allow it to touch you, and be aware of its warmth, let that time lie between your legs, like a good, old, obedient dog. "I do believe in an eternal life in the here and now. There are moments when time suddenly stands still and gives way to eternity." - Andrei Tarkovsky's Diaries / Fyodor Dostoevsky


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2 commenti

Thank you so much for your kind comment, Niels!

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A pleasant article. And nice anecdotes about Arabic and Slavic terms, as well as about Greece ! I recognize myself in the search for a balance between idle time and over-thinking ...

The last sentences come at the right time, we still have the beautiful illustrations of the article in mind, and make us languish the next warm afternoon, to forget ourselves and do nothing with "a lot of soul" :)

Thank you for sustaining this nice blog !

Niels, France

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