Lives of leisure

By Helen Elliott
Robert Dessaix’s ‘The Pleasures of Leisure’ is a 21st-century defence of idleness

The erudite and influential Calvinist from Hobart, Robert Dessaix, has written a book on the pleasures of leisure. This is his 10th book and he didn’t start publishing until he was 50, so you might wonder what such an industrious man could know about leisure.

Quite a bit, it turns out. But the leisure in The Pleasures of Leisure (Knopf; $29.99) is particular. For Dessaix, never an idler and always in love with ideas, leisure excludes sports, crosswords and most games, especially spectatorial games. He is not keen on hobbies, approving of Seneca’s theory that busyness is not living. He is always half-hearted about common pursuits. Perhaps, like the equally interesting Susan Sontag, the young Dessaix thought childhood a terrible waste of time?

He asks if we really know what leisure is. Entertainment? A hobby? Or is it loafing? Idleness? Indolence? How are these different? He applies his usual clarity to decode what leisure might mean in this always-new, always-old world. A Calvinist by upbringing and temperament, if not by belief, Dessaix is not naturally addicted to leisure. His life has been spent learning, looking, understanding, travelling and improving.

In middle age, facing a probable death sentence with a health crisis, Dessaix read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and “realised with a start that leisure was something I’d never quite got the hang of”. He knew Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’ but couldn’t remember whether or not he’d read Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel featuring an aristocrat who is so idle that he can’t get out of bed. Oblomovism can be indispensible shorthand.

The talented Tom Ripley, of course, could never practice Oblomovism. Ripley engaged in a bit of murder to appropriate a fortune, but he used that fortune to become the best, the most refined version of himself. Dessaix approves of the result – possibly not of murder – because this is where leisure, used judiciously, might lead. Ripley lives beautifully in the world. Not only does he find and attract love but he also organises to spend much of his life on the shores of the Italian Lakes well before George Clooney thought of it.

Dessaix believes that most of us never reflect on leisure and what it might bring to our lives. It isn’t just that we don’t have the time, which we don’t, but we are generally busy being greedy. We work to buy things because “we are insatiably addicted to things”. Things bring delight but the desire for them brings the treadmill. Leisure, as Dessaix defines it, must be without any material gain. He is explicit about the horror in store for those who declare their work is their “passion”. Get paid for your passion and a type of rigor mortis of the soul sets in.

His wonderfully useful suggestions about the pursuit of leisure include loafing, nesting, grooming and play. And his cutting remarks on Buddhism, yoga, meditation, certain types of travel, and camping made me cartwheel around the garden as joyfully as a dog. Dessaix suggests that dogs might hold the secret to leisure. Even the most purposeful dog is just playing at being purposeful. He is instructive on the sheer loveliness of boredom, the capacity to sit and stare – the perfect pastime, way better than looking because looking with intent will make you anxious. Doing something for an end cannot be leisure.

Much of Dessaix’s writing has been about his wandering of the world like an 18th-century gent on The Grand Tour, stopping at spa towns for a spot of flirting in the sulphur fumes, so what he says about the travel–leisure connection is sage. Ponder that destination: “To be remarkable in itself – as the Taj Mahal is, or Machu Pichu, or Angkor Wat – is not enough. It must make everything that has been ordinary about you now feel extraordinary.”

The wittering, campy snobbishness that sometimes pricked the virtuosity of his previous writing is less evident here. This is a provocative and educative book and, to my mind, his best yet. There is the subtlety and sonorousness of the thought and language, the lightly worn erudition, the high-mindedness cloaked in self-deprecation, and a generous consideration of how an individual might live a larger life than the one ordained. A few books back, in an endearing moment of perception and self-deprecation, Dessaix noted that his audience were all women of a certain age, class and sensibility. Did he mention the word “lavender” or is this my imagination? Of course, his observation isn’t exactly true, but this book will delight many others as well as anyone wearing lavender.

That said, bear in mind that there are conditions for a life of leisure and they are much as they always were: positive dosh, negative dependants. Can you aspire to the refinement, the delicacy, the spaciousness and richness of life as you deal with the nappies? Dessaix’s intellectual lights are Russell, Adorno, Montaigne, Seneca, Chesterton, Kundera and countless others. All men. And as much as this book engaged, delighted and informed me, I can’t quite overlook the fact that the world Dessaix describes emanates from a single, beautifully developed sense of self-worth. And perhaps a detachment from the dangerous and rough emotions of common life.

Dessaix is one of the great collectors, and they are generally men, generally men of leisure, generally obsessive. Collecting is an art of sorts, but it also might be seen as a withdrawal from life rather than enlargement, a preference for the perfection of the miniature instead of the impossible perfection of the vast. Dessaix is a collector of refinements, and this is what is displayed here, fabulous as Fabergé, but, like that egg, only available to the privileged few. It takes a lifetime to understand the transcendent nature of frivolity, but who has that much time? We can always dream, and there is no better place to start than here.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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