In these days of government recommended social isolation, we have days, may be months, to meditate on the benefits of inaction. It is nothing new though for the ‘magnum opus’ of the French author (bearing the title of À la recherche du temps perdu) mentioned in the title of this piece has also been translated as ‘In Search of Lost Time’ (the other variant being In Remembrance of Things Past). Proust’s reflections on the loss of time and lack of meaning in this world are as relevant today as they have been in the aristocratic French societies of the late 19th century. And, speaking of the past, you may also remember Blaise Pascal and Thomas Mann, both of whom did not actually recommend the active life, did they?
When I defend the idea of wasting time, it is obviously not through confinement. I would like to offer everyone an option of getting rid of their dependence on technological devices, for people tend to use them a lot more during confinement. So this is an appeal to actually turn off the phone and the computer and just watch time go by for what it is. This is where Blaise Pascal invites us to. He wants us to become aware of the emptiness of our existences, shorn barren of all kinds of distractions and gives us the opportunity to discover something that is worthwhile. For the author of Pensées, that ‘worthwhile’ was God, but we can conceive of other realms, other paths! I do recognize though that for all those who are unlike me, this project of doing nothing at all is untenable. They may not be as capable as this translator to remain confined to an apartment. If you remember, Pascal also admitted that it is impossible to stay in a room without distraction!
You may envision walking in your apartment, contemplating landscapes or sketching the passersby whom you watch from your window remembering all the while that both Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann offer us a slightly lighter version of inaction à la Pascal. In the last three volumes of À la recherche, Proust hardly leaves his home! There are many passages in those volumes devoted to his confinement and finally we see that something worth living for emerges from those experiences which are not without joy. In The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann tells the story of a character in a sanatorium, it is unclear whether he is locked up there because of the doctor’s advice or perhaps the person himself appreciates the padded and protected atmosphere of the place. But he does not care much. His inaction, in a way, keeps him occupied.
I am not a great advocate of capitalism as you know if you have read my short letter to The Statesman yesterday. Capitalism is associated with the idea that time must be useful, it makes men impatient for they have to run all the time after success and prosperity. In our age, we subconsciously embrace this idea that wasting time is a mistake, and when we are left with an afternoon without work, we accept it grudgingly with a feeling of guilty pleasure or sin. Accepting to waste your time, to do nothing, is therefore a form of resistance to the spirit of capitalism. Yet, it is also, without doubt, a way of preparing for the future, because it is likely that with automation, work will become scarce in the future in all societies.
I don’t mean to say that this is a good experience for us. We are living in the midst of a disaster, the magnitude of which we still ignore, and which will no doubt have major economic consequences. But does it not give us an opportunity to reconsider our philosophies and reorganize our lives?
I send this to you because, and you know it by now, no newspaper will accept a mad man’s meandering thoughts especially when he is in a pensive mood. The editors of our journals prefer politics to philosophies.