Idle Hands Are the Dreamer’s Tools

Why lolling about is a worthwhile pursuit

Larissa Leite/Flickr
Larissa Leite/Flickr

The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl; Viking; 288 pp.; $26


Patricia Hampl’s new book, The Art of the Wasted Day, is so delightfully nebulous—dangling somewhere between travelogue, literary criticism, memoir, and love letter, with a couple of philosophical deadlifts thrown in—that it’s worth summarizing her argument right from the get-go: reveries and daydreams are not throwaway instances that we should shrug off or snap out of. Times when we are lost in thought, far away from quotidian woes, are moments to seek out and cultivate. The central concern of her book is to show us how to do just that—how to live a life of the mind in a humdrum world.

We begin with Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, who in 1778 abandoned their duties, routines, and familes in Ireland for a long life of what they called “delicious seclusion” in the Welsh countryside. For the next 50 years, they lived in solitude, savoring each other’s quiet company. Well, almost.

Having become “famous for wishing to be left alone,” as Hampl puts it, they were soon visited by the whole literary kingdom. Wordsworth, Southey, Shelley, and Byron all stopped by, as did Sir Walter Scott and Caroline Lamb. All were enchanted by the two “chatelaines of serenity” who had voluntarily rusticated themselves, eschewing the pleasures and vices of urban society. Instead, the Ladies organized their days around self-improvement activities, clocking everything by what they termed “our System”: hours for language studies, transcription, sketching, long walks, and letter writing. Reading was the centerpiece of each day. A full life, but “so still,” as Eleanor records in her journal. “So silent.”

Intrigued by her “secular nuns,” Hampl, a memoirist best known for her book The Florist’s Daughter, takes a trip to this pleasant place to see if she can learn from their example. Traveling alone, she has plenty of occasion to mull over how to get on in the cool sequester’d vale of life. Hampl knows there’s no easy answer, so she takes her time, working the question over, approaching it from different angles, toying with it like a wobbling tooth. Between her ruminations, we see her navigating public transportation from London to rural Wales, befriending the hostess of a hotel she was unable to book, and coaxing herself through the social anxiety of dining alone at a restaurant, at a prime four-person table. “I open my book,” she writes, “which is meant to prove I’m sustaining a relationship of some kind like everybody else out for the night.”

Hampl posits that idling, puttering, daydreaming, imagining, observing—such grammatically active yet strongly passive verbs—are central to the pursuit of a still and silent life. But for Hampl, and everyone else, “a scrum of tasks jittering down the day” usually shuts out any hope of getting to the unscheduled hour. Take a piece from her oddly poetic to-do list, penned before her pilgrimage to Llangollen:

Furnace inspection (ticking sound)
Blurbs (3—actually read the books to the end)
Date of Thanksgiving this year?
Dish soap
Dog food

Walt Whitman defined the living of a mindful life this way: to “loaf and invite my soul.” For Montaigne, “order and tranquility in our conduct” was essential in order “to live appropriately.” By invoking these writers, Hampl argues that a life of the mind is, in part, a way “to reach the self’s greatest achievement—integrity.” For Hampl, however, integrity is a grand but vague word. I take it to mean being quietly and incorruptibly oneself, regardless of the way the world moves.

Hampl’s narrative wends back and forth like a river meandering to the sea. I usually read early in the morning because my thoughts feel efficient and nimble, but I found that I preferred opening up Hampl’s book between dinner and bed, when, with a cup of tea, our paces synched. No plot or narrative arc emerges, but Hampl’s style is so lithe and lively that I happily followed her anywhere. She practices free association within the contents of her mind, blending her memories with her daydreams—an afternoon lolling in the shade of a beechnut tree, a middle-seat-of-an-airplane panic attack, a flirtation and faux pas with a young Palestinian man. To loaf with her soul, Hampl adopts a protean tact, splitting her book into two parts, “To Go” and “To Stay,” and lets the passing moments, the pocket-size literature lessons, and the travel vignettes seep into the gaps.

Intriguing at first, by the second act, Hampl’s mental wandering begins to obscure her larger meaning. I kept hoping that she would snap out of her reveries, at least for a moment, to focus on practical matters. Money troubles, for example, she mentions only once, a large lacuna given that a leisurely life of the mind is often enabled by wealth. The Ladies were bankrolled by relatives and a pension, for example, and Montaigne was a rich magistrate who retired to his family’s chateau. Gregor Mendel pioneered the science of genetics while living a cloistered life as a monk. Hampl devotes one worrisome paragraph to the Ladies’ finances, explaining that they “were forever either in debt or in frenzied terror of ruin.” But no matter, she quickly moves on to their profligate spending: “So much to ornament here in this paradise dedicated to the picaresque” (does she mean picturesque?). Beautiful or bankrupt: Is it impossible to live a life of the mind without the help of God or a silver spoon? One wonders if daydreaming, like writing, is best practiced as a hobby.

But then, when it comes to leading a thoughtful life, perhaps it’s fitting to dwell on things more important than money. Widowed while in the process of writing this book, Hampl was compelled to wrestle with the feeling of isolation that often accompanies seclusion. She nods to Balzac: “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.” Montaigne was happy to keep to himself because it enhanced his perceptions for writing, and Mendel was content to tend to his plants. The Ladies of Llangollen, however, took a more human and less stoic stance, softening their solitude by quietly living side by side. Hampl bundles together the habits of her historic idlers and creates her own company through language. This book is a conversation that’s as much about listening as speaking—“the writer is the mouth, the reader the ear,” Hampl writes. Reading her thoughts is a bit of magic that allows us to share in the solitude of ideas together.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Charlotte Salley is a former assistant editor of the Scholar.


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