On Bon Iver, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the art of wasting time.
One image that continues to recur in my mind during the lockdown is the one of an early indie icon, Bon Iver, recording For Emma, Forever Ago. A young man with a broken heart making music in a snowy, remote cabin somewhere in the woods of Wisconsin from which he does not contact anyone until the album is finished. At least this is the romanticised picture I had in my mind when I first heard this story.
Now, with isolation becoming such a big part in most of our lives, it is easy to find ourselves seeking a similar experience as the one of Bon Iver. If you are privileged enough to feel bored during the lockdown, the stories like the above have something appealing about them. However, instead of trying to record a next Dark Side of the Moon or write the next The Great Gatsby; we should allow ourselves to be idle for a while (if we can afford that).
Image: Karolina Wilczyńska, Poland, 2020
Crises have a way of emphasising the issues within societies and even though the contemporary cult of productivity has been long criticised, now it seems ever more problematic. We are caught in the constant pursuit to be better, to do something meaningful, to be efficient. Many of us are familiar with the rhetoric along the lines of “every useless email costs you $8”, which tries to put a price on every part of our lives. While you probably could be learning a new language instead of looking at memes, for me it seems abstract to sum it up in terms of lost capital.
What such a profit-obsessed approach fails to recognise is that there are spheres of life that cannot be commodified and plenty of activities that make us fulfilled or happy without being ‘productive’. Going out for a walk in nature is an exact contrary to a waste of time, even though technically you could be earning money instead. Sometimes, we may have a good enough reason not to do anything else than re-watch Friends for the thousandth time.
We are expected to feel energised, to do this, to start something new, to be grateful for this time and to use it in pursuit of becoming your better self. Yet, this over-ambitious vision tries to divert our attention from the fact that we are in the middle of a world-wide crisis, something in which none of us have ever been in before. Sometimes, it’s okay not to feel okay, and to not do anything but watch Netflix for a while. In fact, if there is any time to take a break from the pressures of modern-day efficiency it seems to be now.
After all, the lockdown is not an opportunity — it is an unforeseeable, contingent crisis that we have to deal with politically, economically, and individually. If you are staying at home, your contribution is already large enough. Therefore, before focusing on being productive, we should focus on simply being.
There is something beautiful and important about idleness, something that encourages us to just exist. When we are feeling lazy, we usually have a lot of things to deal with deep down, which is especially true considering the current situation. Instead of undertaking new tasks we should take a pause and look inward to our thoughts, emotions, and anxieties. With the ever-present cult of productivity, we tend to underestimate the un-picturesque art of doing nothing. What may seem like wasting time can actually be a deeply transformative time for our personality.
Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet wrote that to create art it is best “to go into yourself and examine the depths from which your life springs”. Allowing yourself to be transformed usually happens when we are faced with a prolonged isolation, where our minds tend to enter a transitory state, a social limbo, enabling self-reflection. I think that the success of For Emma, Forever Ago was not merely because Bon Iver had more time to be productive, but because he had more time to spend with his thoughts. As many romantics, such as Rilke, would agree, the best work comes from self-reflection. Even with the romantic ethos of artistic genius long gone, spending time with your thoughts is a more worthy quarantine task than aiming for a Pulitzer. Who knows, maybe if you allow yourself to waste some time, you will eventually write the next Love in the Time of Cholera after all.
Inevitably, when the global quarantine passes, significant changes will emerge —hopefully causing us to reconsider the social system we participate in, where a new light could be shed on detrimental effects of the cult of productivity. The lockdown forces us to assume a more minimalist lifestyle with less obligation, leading us to prioritise the things that we actually do care about. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I hope to see a new normality where we think less about everything in terms of earning or losing money.
Remember you have the right to feel bored; make the best out of those circumstances by doing what simply feels good – whatever that may be. I encourage you to take some time to focus on existing with no pressure to get anywhere in particular. If you allow yourself to do this, in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “a world will come over you, the joy, the richness, the incomprehensible greatness of a new world”.
Edited by Ellie Muir