Idler: Robert Dessaix opposes the idea that not being productive means you are a drain on the economy. “Productivity is what our masters want.” Robert Dessaix is not a fan ofthe modern, obsessive need to be busy.
“Busyness is slavery,” Dessaix says.
Dessaix, one of ’s most respected authors, will be a guest at next week’s Newcastle Writers Festival.
He’s written acclaimed books includingCorfu, Arabesques,Night Letters andA Mother’s Disgrace.
In his latest book,The Pleasures of Leisure, he dissectspeople’s “inability to jump off the treadmill of toil”.
He asks whythere is so little free time in our lives,despite “all the advances in science and compound interest”.
The system itself is, of course, partly to blame.
“It’s the nature of capitalism to keep on selling. It works by making us greedy for more.In order to buy things, you have to keep working,” he says.
But the system aside, much of our deep-set drive to wrap ourselves in work is self-inflictedand contagious. As is theperennial state of anxiety thatcomes with it.
“You can liberate yourself from thesesyndromes,” Dessaix says, adding thatvery few people in the West have done this –except forthe Italians.
“You just say, ‘stuff it, I’m going to sit in the piazza with friends, drink coffee and watch attractive people walk by and smoke a cigarette’.
“In the end,being idle like that is giving me more than having a bigger house, a second car andthe latest Apple iPhone.”
Dessaixunderstands that some people will always struggle to find time for leisure.
“I’m not stupid, I do understand thatIf you’re a single mum with five children, life is going to be much more difficult than it is for me,” he says.
“For some people, life has worked out badly and they’re going to find themselves locked into all sorts of syndromes they can’t get out of. But for the vast majority of us, it’s self-inflicted. We just can’t say no.”
Through his eyes, time ismore important than things.
“The important thing is experience, not possessions. It’s being not having. All my books are about being.
“I’d much rather spend any money I’ve got going to Indonesia for a couple of weeks,walking in the Himalayas, going to the Kimberleys, or visiting friends in Melbourne,” he says.
“I don’t have very much at all. But I am very alive.”
When he’s writing, Dessaixis trying to “seduce the reader, really, into having a good time”.
“I’m not interested in being right. I’m interested in the reader joining me on a little adventure and we’re going tohave fun.
“It’s for academics to be right or not. I’m not an academic.”
InThe Pleasures of Leisure, which is witty and whimsical, he pokes fun at quite a few topics.
“In the book, I’m very rude about cricket,yoga, jogging and also mindfulness. I can’t stand mindfulness,” he says.
He suggests that people who love cricket,yoga, jogging and mindfulness shouldn’t be offended.
“Just laugh it off if you don’t agree. It doesn’t matter,” he says.
He says that some peoplemix up relaxation and leisure.
“Leisure isn’t necessarily relaxing. The point is who owns the time. Are you free or not?That is the question,” he says.
He will speak on a panel at the writers festival todiscusswhatit meansto live well.
This will involve thinkingabout “the nature of the good life”.
“What I’m always asking is, given thefact that we’re all going to die, what does it mean to live a good life?
“What I’m saying is, at some level, it’s nothing to do with virtue, it’s more to do with beauty. I always prefer the French way of asking that question, which is: how do I have a beautiful life?
“Becausethe older you get, the more you give up on virtue, actually. And you just look for beauty.”
Dessaix, 74,divides pleasure into three categories:idleness, nesting andplay.
He uses this techniqueto “helppeople sort out what they’re doing with their time and feel less guilty”.
“I think if people know which of those three they’re doing, they don’t feel so at sea.”
Having a sleep during the day, he says, is a way of being idle.
He thinks ifpeoplecan say to themselves,“I’m having a siesta after lunch and that is perfectly all right”, they’ll feel better.
“It doesn’t mean my whole life has turned to dozing in a recliner. It just means I’m having a siesta.
“Being idle is what animals do across the planet. And I am an animal.”
An example of nesting, he says, is sorting out a living space.
“The other day I went through my drawers, threw things out and took books to the second-hand shop. I chucked a lot of files out. I knew I was nesting,” he says.
“For me, that is a deeply humanising activity. It’s what humans do. It’s what animals do. I want to be a kind of developed animal. I felt good about what I was doing.
“Going to the tip is also nesting. I love going to the tip.”
An example of play, he says, is “dalliance and sexual adventure”.
“This isa very civilised way of playing,relaxing and feeling more deeply human in anentertainingand enriching way.”
In the book, he writes that there is “barely a novel or movie I can think of that does not turn on the notion of dalliance (courtship, adultery, betrayal) and its consequences”.
We all neederotic adventure, he says.
“Afterwards you have an overwhelming sense ofrelaxation quite unlike any other in the world.”
And to live a good life of leisure, “you need imagination andan inner life”.
“That is the important thing. Then you will be able to make really smart choices about what to do once you own your own time,” he says.
“None of us can own our own time completely because we have to eat andpay things off. Unless your Gina Rinehart and can afford to do absolutely nothing.
“But the rest of us have to do something some of the time. But for the other time, you’ve got to have imagination.
“You’ve got to be able to think how you can connect yourself with being more deeply and broadly human.”
People don’t need to live a life of endless productivity, he says.
“Ask anyone in the Liberal Party and they will tell you: ‘If you’re not being productive, you are a drain on the economy’. I would say bollocks. You are simply smart. You have found a way to be an interesting human being with an interesting mental life and probably physical life, which is less dependent on other human beings and other people.
“This idea of having to produce things all the time –there’s always going to be someone who’s happy to produce. Let them produce. I quote a Chinese philosopher in the book, who saysthere will always be idiots out there who are happy to be slaves. Let them slave.”
Dessaix will make two appearances at thewriters festival to discuss what it meansto live well, the pleasures of leisure and why we need to do less instead of more.