Robert Louis Stevenson, WRITER BY BOUNDARIES


Copyright © 2006 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-21224-7

Chapter One

Stevenson, Morris, and the Value of Idleness


I would like to begin by drifting idly down one river and then rowing vigorously-but not at all strenuously-up another. The ultimate destination of both journeys is a certain abstraction of mind. That abstraction, I will argue, is an important component of Stevenson's aesthetic theory. Using Stevenson as a touchstone, I will then make some general claims about the place of mental abstraction, idleness, reverie, and pleasure in late-nineteenth-century theories of reading. At the moment, however, those claims are still well downstream. So let us embark.

First, upon the Oise river, site of An Inland Voyage. The climax of that book comes when Stevenson and his traveling companion, paddling effortlessly with the river's current through long empty eventless days, finally achieve what Stevenson calls "the apotheosis of stupidity." Now, he writes, "when the river no longer ran in a proper sense, only glided seaward with an even, outright, but imperceptible speed, and when the sky smiled upon day after day without variety, we began to slip into that golden doze of the mind which follows much exercise in the open air. I have stupefied myself in this way more than once: indeed, I dearly love the feeling; but I never had it to the same degree as when paddling down the Oise. It was the apotheosis of stupidity" (Stevenson 1878: 110).

In this golden doze, somewhere "between sleeping and waking" (112), the muscles, even the voluntary ones, perform their duties without supervision, and the brain goes off-line altogether. "The central bureau of nerves," Stevenson writes, "what in some moods we call Ourselves, enjoyed its holiday without disturbance, like a Government Office. The great wheels of intelligence turned idly in the head, like fly-wheels, grinding no grist" (113). Impressions from the landscape impinge on the senses, but no answering consciousness rises to meet them, and so they drift unattended in some interior space Stevenson can give no name to. Likewise, "thoughts presented themselves unbidden," but they are not his own thoughts, because he is not there to think them. "I considered them like a part of the landscape" (114). Moreover, as Stevenson contemplates "the depth, if I must not call it the intensity, of my abstraction," he notices that it leaves him with "less me and more not-me than I was accustomed to expect" (113). Indeed, "a province of my proper being had thrown off allegiance and set up for itself" (114). His usual self has now "dwindled into quite a little thing" (114), and he responds to this secession of the me with a benign placidity that almost, but never quite, amounts to actual interest. Landscapes glide by, thoughts arise, impressions impinge, and someone paddles a boat. An "ecstatic stupor," Stevenson calls it. Cultivating it, he says, was "the farthest piece of travel [we] accomplished." All in all, "this frame of mind was the great exploit of our voyage" (114).

What a strange thing to say. But then An Inland Voyage is an odd book. It does almost none of the things travel books do. It is not a voyage of discovery in any conventional sense. Stevenson takes, literally, only passing interest in the topography he traverses, the communities he encounters, the people he meets. Nor does he take more than a passing interest in himself: this is not an inward journey into his own psyche. Instead the book seems to have been written in precisely the state of ecstatic stupor it describes. And, if I may take my own experience as representative, it seems designed to induce a like frame of mind in readers as well. This is not a criticism. I take seriously Stevenson's claim that achieving such utter mental abstraction was a goal of his voyage, as it would be a goal of many of his subsequent travels. Clearly it is a state of mind Stevenson was intrigued by, and it is one he pursued assiduously. In his essay "Walking Tours" he says that the true walker is never "in quest of the picturesque," for landscape "is quite accessory" to his aims (Stevenson 1876: 150). The true walker learns to stop paying attention and "surrender himself to that fine intoxication that comes of much motion in the open air" (152). "[O]nce you have fallen into an equitable stride, it requires no conscious thought from you to keep it up, and yet it prevents you from thinking earnestly of anything else. Like knitting, like the work of a copying clerk, it gradually neutralises and sets to sleep the serious activity of the mind" (154).

What are we to make of this? How are we to understand it? In An Inland Voyage Stevenson suggests that this "calm, golden, and incurious" mental state is akin to what Buddhists call Nirvana (114). Maybe, but I think there are other more relevant contexts closer at hand. Here is where we embark on the second inland voyage I mentioned, on the Thames this time, headed upriver, and accompanied not by Robert Louis Stevenson but by William Morris, or rather by William Guest, Morris's alter ego in News from Nowhere. The second half of that book depicts a long beautiful journey up the Thames from London to Morris's beloved Kelmscott Manor. It is a secular pilgrim's progress, with Kelmscott as the New Jerusalem. During the journey Guest finally gives himself over, not just intellectually but physically, emotionally, spiritually, to the utopian world he has landed in. Rowing up the river, he momentarily succeeds in producing in himself the state of consciousness appropriate to that utopia. Like Stevenson on the Oise, Guest learns to cultivate an emptiness that is not vacuity but instead a kind of balance or integration of body and psyche. His traveling companion, the wise and lovely Ellen, echoes Stevenson when she counsels Guest not to confuse this condition with "mere dreamy musing" (Morris 1890: 204). She proposes a better definition: "repose amidst of energy" (204). Rowing is the perfect example of what she is talking about. Her larger point-and Morris's as well-is that all activities in Nowhere are so defined. Indeed, at the heart of Morris's socialism is the belief, as he puts it in his 1889 essay "How Shall We Live Then?" that we must be "free to enjoy all ... exercises of the body without any sense of shame" and "without any suspicion that our mental powers are so remarkable and godlike that we are rather above such common things" (Morris 1889: 261). "We shall not be happy," he writes, "unless we live like good animals" (261). One name for these exercises of the body is, simply, work-not useless toil or degrading labor but genuine work, which, as Morris writes in "How We Live and How We Might Live," we experience at a deep level as the pleasure of "moving one's limbs and exercising one's bodily powers" (Morris 1884: 17). What in News from Nowhere he calls "work-pleasure" (Morris 1890: 134) is for Morris the source of all human value, and it is among other things the precondition for art. Yet work-pleasure is precisely what the modern world no longer offers us. That alone, says Morris, is a sure sign of our degradation. By contrast, he says, imagine a social order so arranged that every human act is one of repose amidst of energy. That would be utopia. It would be the earthly paradise.

I introduce Morris here because he helps to illuminate an important aspect of Stevenson's aesthetic theory. That aesthetic theory in turn is, like Morris's, grounded in a political insight. I am not suggesting that Stevenson was a socialist in Morris's sense. But the two men do share an interest in a cluster of keywords that they invest with a weight and a significance-political and aesthetic-that is likely to strike us as counterintuitive. Two of those words are idleness and pleasure. They are in fact among Morris's favorite words, recurring with unmissable frequency throughout his political writings, his long narrative poems, and his prose romances, as well as throughout News from Nowhere. Contrary to common usage, Morris does not associate idleness with passivity or pleasure with escapism. He instead charges them, consciously and systematically, with revolutionary energy. Less consciously and far less systematically, Stevenson does the same.

To see what is at issue here, consider both writers' seemingly perverse insistence on the value of not paying attention. Stevenson on the Oise, William Guest on the Thames, both slide into states of mind in which they no longer attend consciously to their surroundings or to themselves. At best their attention is diffused, not centered on any one object or set of objects or ideas. We have all been in that state and can attest to its pleasures. But its value? The value-as our parents, teachers, mentors, and employers have always told us-lies precisely in learning to pay attention, in cultivating the discipline needed to accomplish that always-difficult task. The idea that paying attention is at once a virtue in itself and the fount of other virtues is so deeply engrained in our thought that it is difficult to see the connection as anything but natural. Yet it was not always so. For a long time-from, roughly, the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth-attention was a problem, or rather it was the site of a series of problems that cut across intellectual disciplines. During this period, attention attracted the attention of numerous thinkers, great and small. What is attention, anyway? How is it produced? In what contexts is it needed, and why? How might it be prolonged? How is it related to will? to discipline? to education? to temperament? to physiology? to environment? These and related questions were posed by philosophers, physiologists, political economists, aestheticians, psychologists, sociologists, and others, all of whom were for different reasons attempting to define and to theorize this phenomenon, this problem, of attention.

There were some practical incentives for doing so. It is no coincidence that attention emerges as an object of inquiry during a period when new forms of industrial production were transforming the conditions and experience of work. In the first volume of Capital, Marx points out that factory managers had long since recognized that the conditions of factory- and millwork made attentiveness a problem (Marx 1867: 407-17). For industrial workers, paying attention was essential but often nearly impossible to do. For their own safety, mill-hands needed to concentrate as they interacted with ever larger, ever more complex machines. Yet the very nature of their tasks fostered inattention, since those tasks were often literally mind-numbing in their tedium and repetitiveness. In Morris's terms, industrial labor under these conditions is the epitome of useless toil. Concentration is required, but no other faculties of mind are engaged. Indeed, the intensity of the concentration required of industrial laborers leaves no room for any other mental activity. The need to pay attention drives out everything else. Paying attention is all they can do, yet conversely, because of the tedium of their tasks, it is also all they can do to pay attention.

In Morris's utopia, useless toil has given way to genuine work, which always involves the integration of body and mind in tasks that engage the full range of human faculties. "Men whose hands were skilled in fashioning," writes Morris in "The Lesser Arts of Life," "could not help thinking the while, and soon found out their deft fingers could express some part of the tangle of their thoughts, and that this new pleasure hindered not their daily work, for in the very labour they lived by lay the material in which their thought could be embodied; and thus, though they laboured, they laboured somewhat for their pleasure and uncompelled, and had conquered the curse of toil" (Morris 1882: 236). Note Morris's insistence on "pleasure," which is invariably his term for the sensuality, amounting at times to a kind of erotics, of work. Implicit too in this passage is the altered status of attention in the context of work. Genuine work engages the attention, but it is always a multiple, relaxed, and diffused attention rather than a focused and intense one. The craftwork Morris most enjoyed, weaving especially, called for an attentiveness that still allowed plenty of room for attending to other things too. Morris was himself famously adept at "multitasking": making sketches for wallpaper patterns at the same time that he was mentally composing poetry, all while engaged in vigorous conversation. Far from finding this taxing or wearying, Morris was invigorated by it, in part because his faculties were agreeably diffused across a range of objects and tasks, in part because like Stevenson he found a release in being decentered, in giving himself over to the "not-me," which for him was a defining effect of pleasurable work. Repose amidst of energy.

For Morris, then, learning not to pay attention could be a political act. In a properly-ordered world, social and economic relations would be so arranged that the kind of attention required by, say, a factory manager or by my teachers in grade school would no longer serve any function. In the world as it is presently ordered, refusing to submit to the regime of attention can be a gesture of defiance, an indication that one recognizes the need to pay attention as a symptom of larger social ills. Morris's deliberately provoking term for such a refusal is idleness.

So too is it Stevenson's. At the beginning of "An Apology for Idlers" Stevenson foregrounds the political dimension of his argument concerning the "utility" of idleness. "Idleness so called," he writes, "which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself" (Stevenson 1877: 67). The essay as a whole works by wittily reversing the valuations of those familiar Victorian keywords, industry and idleness. Idleness is shown to be a form of vigorous activity and a vehicle for self-development, while industry produces only mental torpor and physical lassitude, what Stevenson calls a "dead-alive" kind of existence (73). "Extreme busyness," he writes, "is a symptom of deficient vitality" (73). The world tells you to work hard, buckle down, attend only to your business, let nothing divert your attention or your energy. Yet those who follow this advice "have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake.... It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough" (73). Like Morris, Stevenson sees "industry" as an ideologically charged term, and like him he wants to strip it of its accustomed virtues. To be industrious is finally to be, in Stevenson's phrase, "paralysed or alienated" (74), the two conditions open to workers in the modern world. It is to exist "in a sort of coma" that makes "the whole breathing world ... a blank" (73-74). To be idle, to be deliberately and self-consciously idle, is on the other hand to resist the ideology of work and all it entails in order to cultivate the pleasures of "random provocations" and "the exercise of one's faculties for its own sake." Where Morris offers his resistance in the name of socialism, in "An Apology for Idlers" Stevenson, we might say, resists on behalf of the Republic of Bohemia: a not wholly serious undertaking, in other words. But as so often in his writings, the seemingly inconsequential air and not-quite serious tone of this essay mask an incisive critique of a type I would be willing to call socialist if only Stevenson were willing to do the same.


Excerpted from Robert Louis Stevenson, WRITER BY BOUNDARIES Copyright © 2006 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.