The dandies of Congo

In honour of Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika‘s talk on ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ (29 October), we look at the unexpected reincarnations of the dandy 6,000 kilometres away from the poet’s hometown. You can find Tamara’s great guest post on Baudelaire and procrastination here


‘My father was an elegant man… the kind of person to put a breast pocket on his pajamas.’

La SAPE is the world’s most debonair quasi-fictional organization. Featured by everyone from the New York Times to Ireland’s most famous brewery, it purportedly stands for the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes—the Society for Atmosphere-Setters and Elegant Persons.

In reality the organization is probably the invention of migrant youths in Paris and Brussels. In their besuited beings, the dandy is transported from Paris to the twin Congolese capitals, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, and back. If Baudelaire’s dandy is an anti-procrastinator, la sape is a response to externally enforced procrastination. Left in the waiting room of history—through imperial rule and dictatorship at ‘home’, unemployment and discrimination in the European metropolis—the sapeur uses flamboyant high fashion as a refuge and a demand for respect. He (and, like Baudelaire’s dandy, it is always he) embarks on ‘a sort of Baudelairian voyage‘ between continents and ‘from social dereliction to psychological redemption’.

sapeurs 2

Digital life imitates art: inevitably the Société now has a Facebook page. La sape has a much older history, though, dating back to the first decades of the twentieth century in colonial central Africa. Young Congolese men ‘formed clubs around their interest in fashion, gathering to drink aperitifs and dance to Cuban and European music played on the phonograph’. They invested in canes, silk shirts, fob watches, monocles, gloves—even, we are told, ‘elegant helmets’.

These were not aristocratic dandies in the mode of Beau Brummell, however, but houseboys, bookkeepers, and small traders. They saved up their meagre wages to order the latest Parisian fashions from catalogues or were paid with their bemused masters’ second-hand clothing. The more enterprising even exchanged couture for exotic goods—animal hides, elephant tails.

sapeur 1930s France

Sapeur and anticolonial activist Maurice Loubaki and companion in Paris, c. 1931 (from Didier Gondola, ‘La Sape Exposed!’, p. 163)

Through their debonair dress and strict emphasis on personal hygiene, the Congolese sapeurs defied notions of racial inferiority by assuming the trappings of modernity and cosmpolitanism. More than merely imitating French haute couture, they sought to master it—to become connoisseurs. Like the fashionable men of the coast, brought in to man the colonial apparatus, the dignified, dandified native could in this way earn the envious label of mundele ndombe, ‘white with black skins’.

Although borrowing the ‘fashion lexicon’ of colonialism, the sapologist Didier Gondola notes that this process is ‘nonetheless inherently subversive’. In the migrants’ hands, it was swiftly translated into an assimilationist strand of the anticolonial movement. Petitioning for recognition as French citizens, the sapeur-cum-activist demonstrated his credentials with well-chosen accessories: cologne, a close shave, and a white mistress.

The 1950s saw a flowering of night clubs, beer halls, and the Congolese rumba in the twin capitals. Musicians, often paid in boutique clothes, did much to advance the agenda. They incorporated designer labels (or griffes) into their lyrics, and danced as dapperly as they dressed. As the iconic Papa Wemba sang later: ‘Don’t give up the clothes—it’s our religion.’


Mobutu Sese Seko (left) in abacost and demure hat. Resembling a Mao suit or Nehru jacket, the abacost gained popularity with other leaders, including Siyaad Barre.

La sape was politicized once more in the face of the social tensions of 1960s Zaire. In 1974 President Mobutu banned Western suits and ties as part of his ideological programme of Authenticité, an attempt to ‘Zairianize’ national identity and eradicate the vestiges of colonialism. The suit was replaced by the abacost, an abbreviation of à bas le costume, ‘Down with the suit!’

In this context, the designer-suited sapeurs took on a radical light, their dress and public gatherings a form of civil disobedience. Some even developed manifestos and codes—though these focused more on the Ten Best Ways of Walking to Flaunt Your Versace, rather than freedom of assembly.

sapeurs shoes

Imelda Marcos, eat your heart out. Sapeurs became known for taking man-powered rickshaws to protect their shoes, much to the irritation of the nominally Marxist-Leninist regime in Republic of Congo, which banned the practice. The J.M. Weston gold crocodile penny loafers on the left are worth $1,750. In 2013, annual per capita GDP (at purchasing power parity) in the Democratic Republic of Congo was $747.

Today’s sapeurs are at least the third generation, and proudly boast of their pedigree. With a cigar and a bottle of beer in hand, they exude a sense of relaxed opulence. Their styles have updated with the times, now including London designers, kilts and tam-o’-shanters in imitation of an unlikely style icon: Prince Charles.

But, for all their Kenzo ties and Yohji Yamamoto jackets, la sape remains the hallmark of an underclass. For the Congolese psychology professor François Ndebani, la sape is a ‘hotbed of delinquency’, fuelled by drugs. In the banlieues of Europe, too, Congolese migrants face discrimination and underemployment. In the face of this, the sapeur is a defiant figure, dodging train fares and dominating public space to claim back the ‘colonial debt’. Self-respect is the priority: as one sapeur says, ‘A Congolese sapeur is happy even if he does not eat.’

Just as the uncompromising sensibility of Baudelaire’s dandy became equated with vacuous foppism and Walter Benjamin’s arcades with the Americanized mall, the sapeurs have been coopted. Congo-Brazzaville president Denis Sasou Nguesso elevated la sape as a form of cultural heritage, sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism. He slips into designer suits for foreign trips, earning him the nickname of ‘the Pierre Cardin Marxist’.

Solange Knowles with 'sapeurs'

Solange Knowles with ‘sapeurs’

In the West, too, the picturesque sapeurs have been safely recast as the consumerist icons of a rising Africa. Solange Knowles, Beyoncé’s little sister and famed Jay-Z basher, drafted them in for a 2012 music video. In January 2014 Guinness built an advert around la sape, prompting a wave of media interest. (Both videos were actually shot in South Africa.) Quoting—what else?—the poem ‘Invictus’, the growly voiceover declares: ‘In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.’

Youth unemployment is becoming a hallmark of the twenty-first century. With little money and even fewer prospects, accused of procrastination and fecklessness, young men must pass the time. By taking up the dandy’s mantle and making themselves living works of art, are the sapeurs flamboyant rebels—or mere fodder for the fashion industry?

Baudelaire and procrastination: the flâneur, the dandy, and the poet

The following is a guest blog by Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, one of our speakers in this autumn’s Procrastination Seminar. Come and hear Tamara discuss ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ on Wednesday 29 October at 5.30pm in the Old Library, All Souls College, Oxford.

baudelaire 1855

Baudelaire, by the famous photographer and balloonist Nadar (aka Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), 1855-8

Il n’y a de long ouvrage que celui qu’on n’ose pas commencer. Il devient cauchemar.

The only difficult work is that which we dare not begin. It becomes a nightmare.*

—Charles Baudelaire

These words by the accursed poet, the writer of beautiful spleen and terrifying idéal himself, are a perfect mantra for anyone experiencing the entrancing throes of procrastination.

The sentence that follows them in his Journaux Intimes (1887)—“By putting off what one has to do, one runs the danger of never being able to do it”—confirms that Baudelaire was no stranger to procrastination. Since he speaks of it as danger, risk, or haunting nightmare, it is not surprising that he also offers thoughts on how to counter its siren call.

A few lines further, in a section titled “Hygiene. Morality. Behaviour.”, Baudelaire makes this note-to-self: “An abridgement of wisdom. Grooming, prayer, work.” As editor Claude Pichois explains, the poet viewed the ritual of prayer as a process through which to gather his spirits, focus on his work, and enhance his determination.

Indeed, although Baudelaire penned the figure of the flâneur who whiles away the hours in observant but unproductive wanderings, his journals show that he actually aspired to a work ethic that defies procrastination (“Work tirelessly six days a week”)—and that there is another key figure of his oeuvre which is closely connected to this preoccupation with time and creation: the dandy.


In his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Baudelaire depicts the dandy as a man stoically devoted to “cultivat[ing] the idea of beauty” in himself, assiduously crafting his existence into a work of art. While some are quick to discard the dandy as a superficial figure, the Journaux Intimes underline that Baudelaire’s dandy has depth: he is the “superior man”, who must “be sublime without interruption” and even “like to work”, so long as it is not for the mundane purpose of making a living—since he is by definition, as is clearly stated, wealthy and powerful enough to not be concerned with such trivialities.

The dandy’s meticulous grooming and steadfast commitment to sustaining a cold, proud façade (he has an “unshakable resolve not to be moved”) are less frivolous than popular opinion would have it: as Baudelaire’s above note-to-self indicates, they are an antidote to procrastination, a morally-driven behaviour at the service of creation. By dedicating his every minute to embodying his aesthetic ideal, unperturbed by the rest of the world, the dandy’s mere being—both in appearance and thought—is art, without having to produce anything outside of himself.

fleurs du mal-01

The poet, however, does not necessarily have this luxury. In his poem “La Fin de la Journée” from the iconic Fleurs du Mal (1857), Baudelaire writes that a poet always welcomes nighttime with a relieved “At Last!”—not only because he revels, in romantic fashion, in its soothing shadows, but also because it “erases everything, even shame”. Tormented by the pressure of time and productivity (daytime is “pushy and shrill” in the poem), the poet feels at home in the moment at which rest and sleep (darkly likened to entombment) are expected.

As evident in the use of the words ‘erase’ and ‘shame’, artistic self-doubt looms behind the poet’s procrastinatory tendency and his desire for respite from, even destruction of, his work. In Baudelaire’s “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste” (from the prose poetry collection, Le Spleen de Paris, 1869), the speaker, in awe of the splendour and vastness of the world, confesses: “The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist screams out of fear before being vanquished.” The poet is paralysed by the beauty that he sees in the light of day, unsure he will be able to match its wonder.

The dandy, untroubled by ordinary considerations or feelings (deadlines, bills, or low self-confidence are foreign to him), is indefatigably focused on being his own masterpiece (he must even “sleep in front of a mirror”, according to the Journeaux Intimes). The poet, confronted with the realities of life and his own anxieties, instead finds solace at night, when the spectre of what has not been achieved during the day fades. He can then stop writing and revising—or on the contrary, stop putting it off and quietly start all over again—liberated by the sense that the late hours demand nothing from him, that darkness is a blank slate.

Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Three visions for the (anti)-procrastinator: flâneur, dandy, poet. Photo © JR_Paris, Flickr

Baudelaire’s work is a Pierian spring for procrastinators. The flâneur, who merely promenades through the modern city, without aiming to create anything, may be the first of Baudelaire’s key figures to come to the procrastinator’s mind: how could the freedom of idling along the streets with no obligation not be tempting when faced with a daunting task? Moreover, as is commonly accepted, a stroll may spark renewed creativity (though that is not what the true flâneur seeks).

Yet Baudelaire’s oeuvre presents an alternate figure for procrastinators to draw inspiration from: the dandy, who pledges his life so entirely to his aesthetic principles (in a manner assimilated to ‘spiritualism’ in the author’s essay) that his every move serves to realise them. Those who have creative rituals may find a new spiritual leader in Baudelaire’s dandy and challenge themselves to emulate the constancy underpinning his sartorial and behavioural choices. As we have seen, Baudelaire apparently practiced prayer—as well as perfect dress—to concentrate his creative energy.

Nevertheless, given that neither of these “ideal” figures (who, it is important to note, are not in fact procrastinators, since they are not required to produce anything to begin with) represents a tenable way of life for the average person in our society, the procrastinator may simply find it reassuring to listen to the voice of the third figure, the poet, echoing through Baudelaire’s writing—a voice which speaks of uncertainty and fear, but still decides to ring out and not remain silent.

 *All quotes in English are my translations from the French texts.

The flâneur

Around 1840 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flânerie —Walter Benjamin

Flaneur 2

From Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (1841)

Flânerie, the art of the flâneur, means strolling, loitering, sauntering with no fixed intent but simply looking. Is the flâneur an exotic cousin of the procrastinator? That depends where you stand, or wander.

Insufferable idleness

Vagrants and prostitutes (the other kind of streetwalker) were increasingly unpopular with the nineteenth-century Parisian authorities. Contemporaries were quick to suspect this new figure too. As one dictionary of ‘popular’ French usage from 1808 defines it, un grand flâneur is

a lazybones, a loafer, a man of insufferable idleness, who doesn’t know where to carry his trouble and his boredom.

From Physiologie du flaneur

From Physiologie du flâneur

(We still see this today: the puritanical workaholics of the OED call him ‘a lounger or saunterer, an idle “man about town”.’ Ouch.) But over the course of a century flânerie was to develop its own rich philosophy.

Baudelaire and Benjamin: a pair of loafers

Though the French verb flâner is considerably older, the invention of the flâneur as icon is often credited to Baudelaire and his famous essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). Dandified but incognito, he strolls amongst the crowds of Paris, just behind his pet tortoise:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define…

The flâneur, its exponents argued, is a passionate observer of the human species, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Benjamin). He is an urban native, a connoisseur—Balzac called the activity ‘gastronomy of the eye’—of the great metropolis and its glamorous manmade ‘sensorium’. The wandering Wordsworth is denied flâneurhood: it is impossible in soggy Cumbria.

The flâneuriat argued that they concealed themselves behind their tortoises; their indolence was a mask. They were quick to differentiate themselves from the dreaded archetypes with which they might (somewhat justifiably) be confused: the idler, the self-absorbed dandy, the tourist, and—heavens forfend—the undiscriminating, slackjawed badaud or gawker. This ‘man of the world’ (and it is invariably a man) does not merely gawp or potter: he is, in the common image, a detective: it’s no accident that Baudelaire became obsessed by Edgar Allen Poe and his short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ (1840). The flâneur is an ethnographer with less stamina and better hats.

The impossible flaâneuse? George Sand (Baudelaire tellingly wrote her off as having the morals of 'janitresses and kept women')

The impossible flâneuse? George Sand (Baudelaire tellingly wrote her off as having the morals of ‘janitresses and kept women’)

Free radical?

So is the flâneur another Bartleby, an alternative icon in a world of capitalist drudgery? Benjamin certainly hoped so, resurrecting him as the archetype of urban modernity, empathetic and eye-opening in the face of alienation. Clearly the flâneur presents some small threat of deviancy, or else those sensitive lexicographers would be more relaxed.

Too distracted to see the obstacles of everyday life? (From Physiologie du flâneur)

Too distracted to see the obstacles of everyday life? (From Physiologie du flâneur)

But if he isn’t a simple idler or dandy, he is at best an ambiguously radical figure: a man of leisure, well-dressed, gregarious and late-rising. His love of window-shopping and department stores is a little too close to naked consumerism for comfort—and once women get into these activities they lose all their masculine charm—while his dismay at being seen as a mere gawper or tourist belies his pathological snobbery. The flâneur may be a man of the crowd, but he is no man of the people (‘Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul,’ sighs the epigraph to Poe’s story).

It is no accident that flânerie flourished in the great age of boredom (incidentally a word which was not ‘invented’ by Dickens, another famous city wanderer). For his spontaneity and freedom of action, Benjamin himself bracketed the flâneur with such unlovably idle figures as the the gambler, the drug addict and the student (and experimented with drugs and gambling himself). Not only managing but actually thriving in boredom he credited as perhaps the flâneur’s greatest contribution in the age of bureaucracy. The gambler merely kills time, but the flâneur ‘charges time like a battery’ through his attention to novelty, the transient and the ephemeral.

Yet here again we see the flâneur is no radical: his efforts are not especially political, but aesthetic and nostalgic. He does not so much escape boredom and consumerism as revel in it, marking the transition between the dandy of good taste and the dandy who relishes camp with detached, apolitical irony. Against alienation he can set only oh-so-postmodernist fragments of experience, a collapsing kaleidoscope. Is it any wonder that Walter Benjamin was unable to finish his project?

The undercooked flâneur

It is not as an anti-capitalist icon but as a heroic myth for writers that the flâneur owes his survival. He is, says one commentator, ‘the indulgent fantasy of the writer not writing but whose observing eye nonetheless transmits directly to the novelist’s page’, daydreaming his way to a critique of modernity. The problem is that this shortcut often fails to work. Several of the great flâneur-writers became crippled by perfectionism, that handmaiden of procrastination. Benjamin’s own massive work on the Parisian arcades, like Robert Musil’s vast, ambivalent and false-start-filled Vienna novel The Man Without Qualities, was never finished. The cities themselves got the better of the works.

In the end the flâneur met a Rasputin fate, killed by tortoise-crushing traffic, the democratization of city lounging and travel writing, the feminization of his favoured pastimes, and his own internal contradictions. As early as 1877 the writing was on the wall: the feminine word flâneuse appeared—to designate a kind of chaise longue.

'Flaneuse - eucalyptus - toile - fruity - pastel'

‘Flaneuse – eucalyptus – toile – fruity – pastel’

Nonetheless, though nineteenth-century incarnations of the flâneur may have missed it (and even Benjamin could not save him), there is radical potential in urban drifting. Ditching the cigar and top hat, its heirs were Britain’s critical psychogeographers, Guy Debord and the Situationist International—as our speaker Kamel Boudjemil (Sorbonne) will discuss on 2 July [sign up here today].

St. Expeditus

Image from

Image from

Move over, Jesus. This Easter weekend has a new hero in town: St. Expeditus.

Patron saint of the micronation the ‘Republic of Molossia‘, Expeditus is known for all things temporal. He lends a helping hand in emergencies; offers expeditious solutions; is patron to merchants, navigators, students, examinees, programmers, hackers, and revolutionaries; and, most importantly, this guy protects against procrastination. His feast day, should you choose to observe it, is April 19th.

Though his death is posited as 303 A.D., Expeditus seems to have really leapt into being in the 18th and 19th centuries—a late-coming almost too befitting for his purpose. His story involves everything we love: postage, puns, nuns, and procrastination. On Saturday—his day—we’ll be celebrating him.

In his first recorded mention (in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a martyrology attributed to St. Jerome), Expeditus is named on both April 18th and 19th, placed first among a group of martyrs from Rome, and then with a group from Armenia. In both instances, however, it is believed that the introduction of Expeditus to the list of martyrs was merely the result of a copyist’s error. Nevertheless, as with all things too good to be true, the legend of Expeditus has been constructed around him.

emblem-packageOne story—our favourite—places the origin of the cult at a convent in Paris. In 1781, a package containing unidentified relics and statutes that had been unearthed at the Denfert-Rochereau catacombs in the city was delivered to the nuns of a nearby convent. Not knowing anything about the martyr to whom the relics belonged, the nuns did what all of us would do: they checked the box for instructions. Lo, the box was marked expedite: the remains must be St. Expeditus! (Forget that expédite is “sender”, please—I’m telling a story.) When their prayers to the new martyr were answered with lightening speed, the cult of Expeditus spread with equal haste across France, and then to all of Christendom. While you wait for the urban legend bells to subside, spare a thought for some nuns duped by express delivery.

A similar story places Expeditus in New Orleans: Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel received a shipment of numerous statues, only one of which was unlabelled. Residents there, like the nuns, took the ‘expedite‘ written on the crate to be the unidentified saint’s name. So, ‘one of New Orleans’s most popular saints‘ was born. Over in Louisiana, the statue named Expeditus is bribed with sweet cakes and flowers to this day.

Wikimedia Commons, attrib. Poussin_jean.

Statue of St. Expeditus, église de Brain-sur-Longuenée, Maine-et-Loire. (Wikimedia Commons, attrib. Poussin_jean.)

While we might doubt his heritage (and his miraculous credentials), we can certainly get on board with Expeditus’s iconography. Tradition holds that when Expeditus decided to convert Christianity, the devil, in the form of a crow, attempted to make him defer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cry of the crow—”caw” in English—is rendered cras in Latin: “tomorrow”. Ever expedient, Expeditus trampled upon the bird and killed it. “I’ll be a Christian today!” he proclaimed. (Take that, feckless Augustine.) Today, then, if you ever spot him you’ll find Expeditus, “cras-ing” crow underfoot, thrusting forth a cross inscribed with the word hodie: “today”.

So while you’re chowing down on your eggs this weekend, maybe even patting yourself on the back after a successful 40-day stint of will-power, don’t let the holiday drag you into a long-term slump. When it comes to returning to work, don’t do a Jesus—you can’t afford another three day rest before resurrection. Kick that crow, and go with Expeditus.

I would prefer not to

‘You think I’m gonna let some clock tell me what to do?’

a chronically unpunctual civil servant says incredulously at the outset of ‘Procrastination: a modern malaise’ (Barbara J. Moore, Antioch Review, 2004). The situationist Guy Debord emblazoned an even more radical sentiment across a Parisian wall in 1953:


(Debord, beloved of punk bands and slacker filmmakers, never did work in any conventional sense: he found a rich patron. Before that his wife ‘supported them both by writing horoscopes for racehorses.’ He was unimpressed when his slogan became a ‘comic’ postcard.)

This post is dedicated the great refuseniks of life and literature—those brave souls who have had the courage to say NO to the modern 9-to-5 (or, today, 24-7) world of work. Such icons are precious. After all, what other role models does history provide for quitters? Nixon, Edward VIII, Sarah Palin, the ex-pope, and Anthony “Wiener” Weiner.

Just say no

Perhaps the most famous refusenik of them all came a century before Debord’s graffito. In Herman Melville’s 1853 short story, Bartleby the Scrivener is hired as a copyist. He seems a decent enough chap. Then one day he presents the narrator, his new boss, with what is to become his catchphrase:

via Avidly

Image (reproduced on a thousand T-shirts) via Avidly

Prefer not to work, not to answer questions, not to move out of the office. Mild, unprepossessing, hostile to change, this most minor of bureaucrats is an unlikely hero, an inverted Oliver Twist with his painfully polite declaration. It becomes clear that he has no friends, no home, no hope. He is a curiously ambivalent refusenik.

Yet this enigmatic figure has become a quiet icon. So many interpretations have been piled upon his pale and silent self that Dan McCall wrote of ‘the Bartleby Industry’, within which the story itself had become all but lost (The Silence of Bartleby, 1989).

Bartleby the everyman

benaffleckdogmaThese glosses vary wildly. He has, inevitably, been read as autistic, schizophrenic or depressed—all that staring at walls—yet Deleuze found him ‘violently comical‘ and the 2001 film somehow managed to introduce ‘sitcom elements’. Ben Affleck’s Bartleby in Dogma (dir. Kevin Smith, 1999), meanwhile, is a murderous rogue angel finally slain by God Herself, aka Alanis Morissette.

Literature has parasitized the scrivener too. The copyist becomes the noble wordsmith, rejecting the demands of pulp fiction. In Enrique Vila-Matas’s crafty ‘metafiction’ Bartleby & Co. (2000, trans. 2004), he becomes the emblem of all ‘artists of refusal’, including Kafka, Beckett, Musil, Duchamp, Rimbaud, and a host of lesser-known figures. Some, like the reclusive, hunchbacked narrator, can’t or won’t write. Others, most famously Pynchon and Salinger, shun the limelight. Thus even Bartleby’s eventual fate—a quiet hunger strike unto death against the unfeeling world (‘Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!’)—is interpreted as that ultimate refusal, suicide.

Bartleby is the 99 percent

iwouldprefernottostrikeIf artists have the leisure to kill time (and themselves), it is the world of labour that has most recently embraced Bartleby. He’s one of the army of disposable workers, made redundant from the Dead Letter Office of Washington and surviving only on ginger-nuts. The scrivener thus became an unexpected symbol for the Occupy movement. Melville’s subtitle is, after all, ‘A Story of Wall-Street’. His baffled employer-narrator is a corporate lawyer; he’s basically the first man ever to work in an office cubicle; and eventually he ends up squatting in the office, all the while refusing to touch money. ‘Bartleby,’ the Atlantic pointed out, ‘was the first laid-off worker to occupy Wall Street.’

At the movement’s height the IWPN2 catchphrase did the internet rounds. But such is his inscrutability that Bartleby can be interpreted in the opposite fashion. For the New Yorker he is the mascot of social media fatigue: ‘Apathy muddled by strong opinion and obstinacy, the scrivener would fit right in among my generation, posting weary outrage in comments sections.’ In the twenty-first century his rallying cry would be trimmed—to ‘Meh.’

The messianic scrivener

Melville, 1870

Melville, speculated to be the model for Bartleby, along with Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Bleak House‘s ‘Nemo’—and Jesus Christ

As if this were not burden enough, a bunch of people have claimed that Bartleby, like Josef K., is Christ. Yes: the quiet bureaucrat as a wandering pilgrim sans Samaritan, Lazarus or a figurative leper (though an older author saw him simply as a corpse). He is Heidegger’s broken tool, a thing of questionable status—like the letters of the dead he used to handle.

The most high-profile exponent of this notion is the Foucauldian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. His most celebrated concept, the ‘state of exception’, is Bartleby-based. He was inspired enough to write a commentary on the short story in 1993. Homo Sacer (1995, trans. 1998) again presents the scrivener as ‘the strongest objection against the principle of sovereignty’.

Bartlebyism is not procrastination in the sense of idleness, Oblomov’s paralysis or Jerome K. Jerome’s gentle chuckles. It requires exertion and, however inchoate, a sense of politics. His mantra is truly subversive, because it ‘resists every possibility of deciding between poten­tiality and the potentiality not to.’ Agamben’s Bartleby is therefore not pessimistic  but redemptive. He is a messiah who would ‘fulfil the Torah by destroying it from top to bottom’—and so enable us to live a life of possibility.

sickle and mouse

Much ink has been spilled on academics’ and freelancers’ self-exploitation. (And half of us even use a programme called Scrivener!) Tired of your endless scribblings, marking, emailing, reviewing, tweeting? Repeat that great, curiously British mantra:

bartleby swoosh

The snoozing spires

Oxford is, without doubt, one of the cities in the world where least work gets done.
—Javier Marías, All Souls (Todas las Almas, 1989)

Is Oxford especially procrastination-prone? Despite its profusion of clocks (‘The bells! The bells!’), the city prides itself on its timelessness. The spires dream. It is a ‘city preserved in syrup’, like an old-fashioned peach, or a dead wasp. Perhaps it is no accident that Alice in Wonderland was written here: a book of eternal teatime, where time is murdered, and it is always six o’clock.

white rabbitThere is something somnolent in the very air. ‘In Oxford,’ Marías continues, ‘just being requires such concentration and patience, such energy to battle against the natural lethargy of the spirit, that it would be too much to expect its inhabitants actually to stir themselves.’ For centuries the denizens of Oxford have done anything but work. They fornicate and take drugs (Kingsley Amis, Jake’s Thing), ‘snooze…in the arms of Duke Humphrey’ (Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night), wander the meadows and cart around teddybears. And, worst of all, they write Oxford novels. There were 533 by 1989 alone.

Surveying this literature, here are three key reasons why Oxford is the venerable home of procrastination.


Academic seclusion has all the inconveniences of a desert island, with none of its compensations: it breeds idleness, spite, intrigue, arrogance and strange lunacies.
—Cecil Day Lewis and Charles Fenby, Anatomy of Oxford (1938)

all souls sundial

Oxford’s walls and cloisters are a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, eccentricity, brotherhood, and tradition flourish. On the negative side, eccentricity, brotherhood, and tradition flourish. Jan Morris compared it to Kyoto: old, intensely private, provincial and stubborn.

Into the 1800s, unreformed Oxford was notably relaxed about academic work. The historian Edward Gibbon claimed that the fourteen months he spent at Magdalen were ‘the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life’. Adam Smith accused the professors of giving up ‘even the pretence of teaching’. John Wesley delivered a ferocious sermon at the University Church in 1744, castigating the university fellows for their

pride and haughtiness of spirit, impatience and peevishness, sloth and indolence, gluttony and sensuality, and even a proverbial uselessness.

(He was banned thereafter.)

Even in the twentieth century, Oxford’s ‘narrow serenity’ persisted, albeit with an increasing sense of paradise lost. The students joined drinking clubs and whipped off their trousers (Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall), or pinioned Jewish students ‘to the lawns with croquet-hoops’ (Jake’s Thing). Meanwhile the university fellows declaimed, discoursed, plotted and schemed, mounted the hierarchy, and exercised their eccentricities. Committees, lectures, papers, marking, and those pesky students: Isaiah Berlin (see our Cunctator Prize) complained of the ‘fearful time-eating occupations’ of university life, ‘devouring one’s substance’. The whole logic is that of Sayre’s Law—academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. Recall that one of the fiendish tactics of Gaudy Night‘s villain was… maliciously blocking the SCR lavatories.

With all these other claims on their time, how could anyone get any work done?

High Street

In my first-ever tutorial, the professor asked us whether we had ‘developed any new vices’.

Max Beerbohm by Walter Sickert in Vanity Fair (1897)

Max Beerbohm by Walter Sickert in Vanity Fair (1897)

‘No?’ He whipped out a box of snuff.

No wonder Oxford is so serene. It’s drug-addled. And it’s a city of temptations. This is the tranquillized city that inspired a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Northern Lights begins in the Retiring Room of Jordan College, complete with ‘a basket of poppy-heads’.

Or else the Fellows are all drunk, as a German visitor complained in 1710. Little had changed 250 years later. So Philip Larkin could scribble: ‘I drove v. carefully after my 2 gins, 3 wines, 2 ports and 1 whiskey, a v. modest All Souls evening.’ Undergraduates learned from the best. ‘I cut tutorials with wild excuse, / For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way,’ Betjeman wrote (he was sent down).

Mind you, those opium dreams can be inspiring if not terribly productive, as Coleridge might tell you. ‘Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action’, Max Beerbohm began,

But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas. —Zuleika Dobson (1911)

Pride and prejudice and zombies

Perhaps there is an even simpler explanation for the epidemic of lethargy. Oxford is a city of the undead.

Image via

Image via

Those ghostly moonlit towers are a clear breeding ground for phantoms. Think of all those detectives: Morse and Lewis, Lord Peter Wimsey, Gervase Fen, Dirk Gently. Poison, bludgeonings, gargoyle landslides, the odd mass suicide engendered by a foxy lady… There can be barely 27 of us still alive in here.

Some of its most famous alumni had the measure of the city. Algernon Swinburne claimed nobody in Oxford could be said to die ‘for they never begin to live’. Mere months after arriving at Merton College, T.S. Eliot agreed that ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead’, and fled to London. ‘It is as though the genius of the city dries up the sap in you,’ wrote Jan Morris. The blood of its scholars, like Middlemarch‘s Casaubon, contains not human red blood cells but semicolons and parentheses.

Others have explicitly alerted us that the dead are walking Turl Street. Much-lampooned broadcaster Robert Robinson set his 1956 crime hit Landscape with Dead Dons in Warlock College. More recently the hero of Deborah Harkness’s historical fantasy trilogy (2011-) is, inevitably, a vampire at All Souls (or ‘the love child of a wedding cake and a cathedral’, as she describes it). Or, as Barbara Pym sinisterly hinted in Crampton Hodnet (1985 [1935-1941]):

‘Are there no sick people I ought to visit?’ asked Mr Latimer hopefully.
‘There are no sick people in North Oxford. They are either dead or alive. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, that’s all,’ explained Miss Morrow.

The Oxford Internet Institute has taken this threat seriously: in 2011, it developed a map of the imminent zombie apocalypse. Southeast England is a hub of zombie consciousness, alongside Hollywood and Texas. The city’s timeless apathy is less surprising when you consider the reanimated corpses stumbling along Broad Street.

'Mapping Zombies', Oxford Internet Institute, July 2011

‘Mapping Zombies’, Oxford Internet Institute, July 2011

So, procrastinators of O-Town, which is it? Misplaced priorities, worldly temptation—or devoured brains?

The Great Cunctator

Fabius Cunctator

Statue at Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna

← This is Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator, a monument to the virtues of positive procrastination. As consul and then Dictator, in the words of the eponymous military blog:

Fabius Maximus (280-203 BC) saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing Rome’s weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho ‘boldness’ to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century Americans.

His controversial tactics earned him the honorific Cunctator, the great Delayer. (His other nickname, ‘Verrucosus’, came from his warty lip—or so claimed Plutarch.) Today he is credited as an inventor of guerrilla warfare and attrition tactics, at least among the US military establishment.

Fabius Maximus would lend his name to the Fabian Society, which became a byword for middle-class gradualism in the transition to socialism. Its colophon is, inevitably, the tortoise. As Fabian Tract No. 1 had it:

For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain and fruitless.

The Fabian tortoise, initially a Christmas card design

The Fabian tortoise, initially a Christmas card design (photo: Wikipedia)

Cunctation (to use the rather rude-sounding noun) survived into the twentieth century—and presented itself handily in the context of our conference. Wolfson College is the home of one of our sponsors and the conference dinner/Mañanarama exhibition. Its founder, Isaiah Berlin, was a political philosopher and one of the century’s great public intellectuals. He was also a perennial procrastinator and perfectionist, preferring gossip and academic intrigue to the anxieties of work.

The philosopher’s agents and publishers were left exasperated. His longtime editor Henry Hardy characterizes Berlin’s relationship with Oxford University Press as one of ‘frustration, misunderstanding, tergiversation, indecisiveness, prevarication, unrealistic expectations’.  An internal OUP note sighed in 1962: ‘Isaiah Berlin, the great cunctator, has again put off supplying the preface.’

In honour of the art of cunctation, and with the support of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, we are offering a £50 prize for the best graduate paper of the conference. For more information, see here.

So here’s to the gradual, the noncommittal, the dilatory. Here’s to the tortoises.

Lame Excuses

the Many Literary Afterlives
of the Person from Porlock

Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes…
That Night a Fire did break out—
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
[But] every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

—Hilaire Belloc, ‘Matilda: Who told Lies,
and was Burned to Death’

Forced to dissemble by a deadline-obsessed world, procrastinators tend to be an untrustworthy bunch. Consider Kafka, who complained bitterly that his job simply did not give him time to write. In fact his shift lasted only from 8.30am until 2.30pm, and he often enjoyed a four-hour afternoon nap (and writing endless letters about his lack of time). In the words of a disappointed Zadie Smith: ‘The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you.’

In the radio documentary ‘Helping Hamlet,’ Douglas Adams’ literary agent similarly recalled the author’s constant excuses and outright lies. Procrastinators are ‘a bit like alcoholics or drug addicts,’ he declared, ‘they’re always hiding their behaviour.’

Persona non grata

The most celebrated literary excuse of all was proffered by notorious procrastinator Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Waking from an opium-tinged dream, he began scribbling down his great poem ‘Kubla Khan’. As the preface famously claims:

On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour…

The rest of the poem ‘passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast’.

Porlock, Somerset

Porlock, Somerset

Readers have continued to debate whether the unwelcome visitor was real (Wordsworth? a drug dealer?), an artistic device to leave the work fragmentary, or a tiny little fib by a chronic procrastinator.

Xanadu may have stolen the thunder, from Citizen Kane to DC Comics, but the Person from Porlock has become quietly iconic in his own right. Neil Gaiman, Arthur Conan Doyle and Inspector Morse have toyed with him in passing, while for others he has become an important motif.

Genius, interrupted

The early-C20th Coleridge scholar John Livingston Lowes used to tell his classes: ‘If there is any man in the history of literature who should be hanged, drawn, and quartered, it is the man on business from Porlock.’ Coleridge, against the Romantic notion of individual agency, is the archetype of the artist visited by the Muse—and the Person has come to symbolize all that is antithetical to creativity. He is the anti-Muse.

It is no accident that the Person came ‘on business’, and he has often been taken to signify the grubby intrusions of commerce into literary life. For Australian poet A.D. Hope, Porlock embodied the babbling distractions of the mundane and vapid. A.N. Wilson called his early essay collection Penfriends from Porlock, complaining of the distractions of journalism and literary parties (J.L. Carr told him to move to Kettering).

Death: a visitor who comes without warning. Hans Holbein the Younger, 'The Rich Man' (woodcut, c. 1526)

Death: a visitor who comes without warning. Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Rich Man’ (woodcut, c. 1526)

In a more self-critical vein, Louis MacNeice used the concept for his last radio play, Persons from Porlock (broadcast 1963), about a painter and his alibis for failure. His art is interrupted by war, women, drink, and commercial selling-out—not unlike MacNeice himself, with radio plays themselves a meta-Porlockian distraction. Eventually Death, ‘a noble person from Porlock’, comes for the artist—and came for MacNeice himself only a few days after the broadcast.

Persons unknown 

© Street & Smith Publications

Science fiction writers also embraced S.T.C.’s image (Robert Heinlein: ‘Anne, you have just interrupted a profound thought. You hail from Porlock’), but reinvented him for the age of pulp. In Raymond F. Jones’ classic short story, published in Astounding Science Fiction (1947), the Person became a malevolent extraterrestrial conspiracy:

‘Don’t you see? It’s these Persons from Porlock who have made it impossible for me to complete my work… These Persons from Porlock—I wonder how many thousands of years of advancement they have cost the world!’

The alien Persons had indeed intervened to stop Coleridge from writing—because, of course, his drugged dream had ripped the veil from their secret colony.

A welcome break

But what if the Person came just in time? Stevie Smith cast doubt on Coleridge’s alibi: ‘As the truth is I think he was already stuck.’ Unlike her procrastinating predecessor, she welcomed a visit. This is the Person re-envisaged as a depressive death wish:

I am hungry to be interrupted
Forever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

Porlock, 1937

Porlock, 1937

Others have embraced the Person in less morbid fashion. The experience of artistic creation has been depicted as divine: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, for example, compares the narrator’s troublingly spiritual creative experience to that of an unPorlocked Coleridge. It was a short step from this (and from sci-fi pulp fiction) to reinvent the Person himself as godly—thus Welsh poet (and Anglican priest) R.S. Thomas called him ‘The eternal, nameless caller at the door’.

For Vladimir Nabokov, the Person recurs as a supernatural being of sorts. In ‘The Vane Sisters’, the quack librarian Porlock hints at the story’s eventual paranormal literary solution; and the novel Bend Sinister (1947) was provisionally entitled ‘A Person from Porlock’—with Nabokov himself the Person, ‘an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me’. The figure last appears in Lolita as a taunt in a guestbook: ‘A. Person, Porlock, England.’

Convenient accidents

‘Tomorrow I’ll sing a sweeter song,’ S.T.C. concluded in (mis)quoted Greek, ‘but the to-morrow is yet to come.’ It never came. Not published for another two decades, ‘Kubla Khan’ would always be presented as a fragment of an unrecoverable whole.

There is something strangely potent about unfinished works, with their suggestion of eternal promise wrecked by death, or about works sadly lost altogether. They are the X on the tea-stained treasure map, the Ark of the Covenant, and have fuelled both academic speculation and Dan Brown’s career. Kurt Vonnegut even sketched a ‘Two-thirds of a Masterpiece is More than Enough’ rule. Hamlet, for example, ought to finish after the murder of Polonius: ‘Got it, got it, got it. All freeze. Bring in a person from Porlock. Lower the curtain. The play is done.’

Truman Capote ©Jack Mitchell, 1980

Truman Capote ©Jack Mitchell, 1980

But some interrupted works may never have existed at all. Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison were both perfectionist procrastinators who failed to publish for decades after their masterpieces, In Cold Blood (1965-6) and Invisible Man (1952). Both constantly sought excuses and scapegoats for their lack of productivity. For Capote it was a vindictive ex-lover who had stolen the manuscript. For Ellison it was his soon-to-be wife (YOUR SILENCE PREVENTING WORK, he telegrammed) and later a convenient fire. Both men’s biographers agree that these works may never have existed.

This, too, is interruption as divine salvation, deus ex machina—it’s the ‘dog ate my homework’ of literary procrastination.

Saving Porlock

It took an unrepentant procrastinator to fully rehabilitate the Person’s reputation. Paranormal influence on S.T.C. appeared again in Douglas Adams’ sci-fi detective mystery Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987). The novel is full of passing time, taking in a sleepy Oxbridge college full of sinecures, silent dons, and a ‘Professor of Chronology’ appointed some two centuries earlier by a clock-obsessed George III.

With the apocalypse nigh at the hands of an alien ghost, the eponymous detective must save the world with a crucial interruption in Somerset:

‘Mr. Samuel Coleridge? I was just passing by, on my way from Porlock, you understand… I do hope I haven’t kept you from anything important—’

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