From The New York Times Book Review
6 June 1993
In 1993, the NYTBR ran a series in which various authors were asked to write about one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Thomas Pynchon's subject was "Sloth."
In his classical discussion of the subject in the "Summa Theologica," Aquinas termed Sloth, or acedia, one of the seven capital sins. He said he was using "capital" to mean "primary" or "at the head of" because such sins gave rise to others, but there was an additional and darker sense resonating luridly just beneath and not hurting the power of his argument, for the word also meant "deserving of capital punishment." Hence the equivalent term "mortal," as well as the punchier English "deadly."
But come on, isn't that kind of extreme, death for something as lightweight as Sloth? Sitting there on some medieval death row, going, "So, look, no offense, but what'd they pop you for anyway?"
"Ah, usual story, they came around at the wrong time of day, I end up taking out half of some sheriff's unit with my two-cubit crossbow, firing three-quarter-inch bolts on auto feed. Anger, I guess.... How about you?"
"Um, well ... it wasn't anger...."
"Ha! Another one of these Sloth cases, right?"
". . fact, it wasn't even me."
"Never is, slugger -- say, look, it's almost time for lunch. You wouldn't happen to be a writer, by any chance?"
Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. They are approached all the time on the subject, not only for free advice, but also to speak at Sloth Symposia, head up Sloth Task Forces, testify as expert witnesses at Sloth Hearings. The stereotype arises in part from our conspicuous presence in jobs where pay is by the word, and deadlines are tight and final -- we are presumed to know from piecework and the convertibility of time and money. In addition, there is all the glamorous folklore surrounding writer's block, an affliction known sometimes to resolve itself dramatically and without warning, much like constipation, and (hence?) finding wide sympathy among readers.
Writer's block, however, is a trip to the theme park of your choice alongside the mortal sin that produces it. Like each of the other six, Sloth was supposed to be the progenitor of a whole family of lesser, or venial, sins, among them Idleness, Drowsiness, Restlessness of the Body, Instability and Loquacity. "Acedia" in Latin means sorrow, deliberately self-directed, turned away from God, a loss of spiritual determination that then feeds back on in to the process, soon enough producing what are currently known as guilt and depression, eventually pushing us to where we will do anything, in the way of venial sin and bad judgment, to avoid the discomfort.
But Sloth's offspring, though bad -- to paraphrase the Shangri-Las -- are not always evil, for example what Aquinas terms Uneasiness of the Mind, or "rushing after various things without rhyme or reason," which, "if it pertains to the imaginative power... is called curiosity." It is of course precisely in such episodes of mental traveling that writers are known to do good work, sometimes even their best, solving formal problems, getting advice from Beyond, having hypnagogic adventures that with luck can be recovered later on. Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do. We sell our dreams. So real money actually proceeds from Sloth, although this transformation is said to be even more amazing elsewhere in the entertainment sector, where idle exercises in poolside loquacity have not infrequently generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
As a topic for fiction, Sloth over the next few centuries after Aquinas had a few big successes, notably Hamlet, but not until arriving on the shores of America did it take the next important step in its evolution. Between Franklin's hectic aphorist, Poor Richard, and Melville's doomed scrivener, Bartleby, lies about a century of early America, consolidating itself as a Christian capitalist state, even as acedia was in the last stages of its shift over from a spiritual to a secular condition.
Philadelphia, by Franklin's time, answered less and less to the religious vision that William Penn had started off with. The city was becoming a kind of high-output machine, materials and labor going in, goods and services coming out, traffic inside flowing briskly about a grid of regular city blocks. The urban mazework of London, leading into ambiguities and indeed evils, was here all rectified, orthogonal. (Dickens, visiting in 1842, remarked, "After walking about in it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street.") Spiritual matters were not quite as immediate as material ones, like productivity! Sloth was no longer so much a Sin against God or spiritual good as against a particular sort of time, uniform, one-way, in general not reversible -- that is, against clock time, which got everybody early to bed and early to rise.
Poor Richard was not shy in expressing his distaste for Sloth. When he was not merely repeating well-known British proverbs on the subject, he was contributing Great Awakening- style outbursts of his own -- "O Lazy-bones ! Dost think God would have given thee arms and legs if he had not designed thou shouldst use them?" Beneath the rubato of the day abided a stern pulse beating on, ineluctable, unforgiving, whereby whatever was evaded or put off now had to be made up for later, and at a higher level of intensity. "You may delay, but time will not." And Sloth, being continual evasion, just kept piling up like a budget deficit, while the dimensions of the inevitable payback grew ever less merciful.
In the idea of time that had begun to rule city life in Poor Richard's day, where every second was of equal length and irrevocable, not much in the course of its flow could have been called nonlinear, unless you counted the ungovernable warp of dreams, for which Poor Richard had scant use. In Frances M. Barbour's 1974 concordance of the sayings, there is nothing to be found under "Dreams," dreams being as unwelcome in Philly back then as their frequent companion, sleep, which was considered time away from accumulating wealth, time that had to be tithed back into the order of things to purchase 20 hours of productive waking. During the Poor Richard years, Franklin, according to the Autobiography, was allowing himself from l A.M. to 5 A.M. for sleep. The other major nonwork block of time was four hours, 9 P.M. to 1 A.M., devoted to the Evening Question, "What good have I done this day?" This must have been the schedule's only occasion for drifting into reverie -- there would seem to have been no other room for speculations, dreams, fantasies, fiction. Life in that orthogonal machine was supposed to be nonfiction.
By the time of Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robberbaron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, "I would prefer not to." While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener -- this writer! -- who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? Bartleby is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others-take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you're bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.
In this century we have come to think of Sloth as primarily political, a failure of public will allowing the introduction of evil policies and the rise of evil regimes, the worldwide fascist ascendancy of the 1920's and 30's being perhaps Sloth's finest hour, though the Vietnam era and the Reagan-Bush years are not far behind. Fiction and nonfiction alike are full of characters who fail to do what they should because of the effort involved. How can we not recognize our world? Occasions for choosing good present themselves in public and private for us every day, and we pass them by. Acedia is the vernacular of everyday moral life. Though it has never lost its deepest notes of mortal anxiety, it never gets as painful as outright despair, or as real, for it is despair bought at a discount price, a deliberate turning against faith in anything because of the inconvenience faith presents to the pursuit of quotidian lusts, angers and the rest. The compulsive pessimist's last defense -- stay still enough and the blade of the scythe, somehow, will pass by -- Sloth is our background radiation, our easy-listening station -- it is everywhere, and no longer noticed.
Any discussion of Sloth in the present day is of course incomplete without considering television, with its gifts of paralysis, along with its creature and symbiont, the notorious Couch Potato. Tales spun in idleness find us Tubeside, supine, chiropractic fodder, sucking it all in, re-enacting in reverse the transaction between dream and revenue that brought these colored shadows here to begin with so that we might feed, uncritically, committing the six other deadly sins in parallel, eating too much, envying the celebrated, coveting merchandise, lusting after images, angry at the news, perversely proud of whatever distance we may enjoy between our couches and what appears on the screen.
Sad but true. Yet, chiefly owing to the timely invention -- not a minute too soon ! -- of the remote control and the VCR, maybe there is hope after all. Television time is no longer the linear and uniform commodity it once was. Not when you have instant channel selection, fast-forward, rewind and so forth. Video time can be reshaped at will. What may have seemed under the old dispensation like time wasted and unrecoverable is now perhaps not quite as simply structured. If Sloth can be defined as the pretense, in the tradition of American settlement and spoliation, that time is one more nonfinite resource, there to be exploited forever, then we may for now at least have found the illusion, the effect, of controlling, reversing, slowing, speeding and repeating time -- even imagining that we can escape it. Sins against video time will have to be radically redefined.
Is some kind of change already in the offing? A recent issue of The National Enquirer announced the winner of their contest for the King of Spuds, or top Couch Potato in the United States, culled from about a thousand entries. "'All l do is watch television and work,' admits the 35-year-old bachelor, who keeps three TV sets blaring 24 hours a day at his Fridley, Minn., home and watches a fourth set on the job.
"There's nothing I like more than sitting around with a six-pack of beer, some chips and a remote control. . . . The TV station even featured me in a town parade. They went into my house, got my couch and put it on a float. I sat on the couch in my bathrobe and rode in the parade!"
Sure, but is it Sloth? The fourth television set at work, the fact that twice, the Tuber in question mentions sitting and not reclining, suggest something different here. Channel-surfing and VCR-jockeying may require a more nonlinear awareness than may be entirely compatible with the venerable sin of Sloth -- some inner alertness or tension, as of someone sitting in a yoga posture, or in Zen meditation. Is Sloth once more about to be, somehow, transcended? Another possibility of course is that we have not passed beyond acedia at all, but that it has only retreated from its long-familiar venue, television, and is seeking other, more shadowy environments -- who knows? computer games, cult religions, obscure trading floors in faraway cities -- ready to pop up again in some new form to offer us cosmic despair on the cheap.
Unless the state of our souls becomes once more a subject of serious concern, there is little question that Sloth will continue to evolve away from its origins in the long-ago age of faith and miracle, when daily life really was the Holy Ghost visibly at work and time was a story, with a beginning, middle and end. Belief was intense, engagement deep and fatal. The Christian God was near. Felt. Sloth -- defiant sorrow in the face of God's good intentions -- was a deadly sin.
Perhaps the future of Sloth will lie in sinning against what now seems increasingly to define us -- technology. Persisting in Luddite sorrow, despite technology's good intentions, there we'll sit with our heads in virtual reality, glumly refusing to be absorbed in its idle, disposable fantasies, even those about superheroes of Sloth back in Sloth's good old days, full of leisurely but lethal misadventures with the ruthless villains of the Acedia Squad.
-- By Thomas Pynchon