Coming Soon: conference highlights

audioplayerOver the next few weeks, we hope to provide audio highlights from the Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference held on 2 July. Remember, the conversation will continue with our seminar series from October.

To whet your appetite, you can hear our contributor Pelle Valentin Olsen (Oxford) discussing idleness and Baghdad coffee shops on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed—along with the political history of surfing.

And in the meantime, we’ll be sharing some of the artefacts from the Mañanarama exhibition that followed the conference…


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].

A hierarchy of procrastination

Not all procrastination is created equal. It is a capacious concept, it contains multitudes. While the word always suggests postponement and delay, whether this is negative or positive is more contentious.

Decisiveness is not necessarily a virtue—’more haste, less speed’, after all—while deferral can also mean defiance. Even acknowledged time-wasting can take quite different forms, with quite different moral valences. The ends may justify the means: your tweedy-browed academic, waxing lyrical over the Sauternes, is quite happy to admit to some procrastination while a team of subconscious elves do the hard work of creativity (Stephen King rather creepily calls them ‘the boys in the basement’).

Mother's ruin: pointless procrastination?

Mother’s ruin: pointless procrastination?

The means themselves vary in moral resonance too. Cleaning the house or immediately answering emails make you a good citizen. Self-improving procrastination (reading poetry, say) also seems somehow superior to endless consumption of TV or YouTube cats. These moral valences are not static or universal: the value of the leisurely musing young aristocrat or the uncommitted political leader has risen and fallen. One man’s brave refusenik is another man’s pretentiously idle French stereotype.

Here, then, is a first attempt at sketching a hierarchy of procrastination, as it appears to a middle-class Millennial in the town of Oxford in February 2014. (Click here for PDF.) What do you think?

Is the hierarchy neatly linear, or do we need to differentiate between the individual and the social? Can inactivity with external causes (structural unemployment, a culture of endless boardroom meetings) truly be called procrastination, or are behavioural economists correct in seeing it as the ‘quintessential self-regulatory failure’? How does this hierarchy vary over time and space? Does it, in the end, all come down to successful outcomes—or to social class?

hierarchy of procrastination

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—’

Want to join the discussion? See our Call for Papers.