7 Reasons Why Lists Are Slippery, Treacherous Creatures And Not Necessarily Your Friends After All

We are living in the Age of the List. Its empire extends from the crags of the Encyclopædia Britannica to the sweaty coast of BuzzFeed. There is a list for every second of the day, from Disney’s original 47 dwarves to the spiritually troubling effects of the baby aardvark. ‘Lists,’ as Don DeLillo declaimed twenty years ago, ‘are a form of cultural hysteria.’ They have colonized our food, our news, our emotions. They even got Wallace Stevens.*

reading-a-listicleAs every procrastinator knows, Stage 1 in the self-help world is the To-Do List. Even the first usage of ‘list’ in this sense—’a catalogue or roll consisting of a row or series of names, figures, words, or the like’—the OED attributes to none other than Hamlet’s more decisive echo (Horatio: ‘Young Fortinbrasse..Hath..Sharkt vp a list of lawelesse resolutes’).  The list is the communion wafer of the productivity cult that is Getting Things Done and has spawned a thousand apps.

  1. Break it down.
  2. Make a list.
  3. Just do it.

Simple.

But what if the list is not the silver bullet we were promised? Many über-procrastinators are diligent list-makers. My room is piled higher and deeper with shopping lists and future bibliographies, playlists and New Year’s Resolutions, holiday wish lists and 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Why do my lists (crafty inky things) betray me? Here are 11 ways 7 ways that lists can go dreadfully wrong—and why we carry on writing them anyway.

Last-minute alternatives to Gone With the Wind's most famous line, after US censors decided 'damn' was too wild. From Lists of Note (ed. Shaun Usher, 2014).

Last-minute alternatives to Gone With the Wind‘s most famous line, after US censors decided ‘damn’ was too wild. From Lists of Note (ed. Shaun Usher, 2014).

1. Lists create a false sense of achievement. They are beautifully time-consuming in their own right. One journalist writes that list-making is ‘is the most effective temporary form of anxiety relief that I know of’—’aside from heavy drinking’, of course. Describing the ‘bliss, euphoria and an all-consuming calm’ that writing a list brings, another confesses, ‘It doesn’t matter that I will never look at it again.’ (The profession may attract some troubled individuals.)

Worse, you can cheat in your pursuit of the list buzz. Who hasn’t added something they’ve already done? The first item on any true procrastinator’s list is: ‘1. Make List.’ Or look at this famous example by Johnny Cash:

johnny cash list

‘Cough. Pee. Eat.’ Might we be setting the bar a tad low?

2. This weird pleasure is down to the self-reinforcing joy of completeness. This is the ‘reassuring allure’ of the listicle: we can commit to their tiny size, and yet feel smug about conquering them. This low-effort completism is the curse of the perfectionist procrastinator, for the illusion of self-improvement that it fosters. You really ought to be able to name all 54 countries in Africa. Might as well binge-watch all of Orange Is the New Black now, so it doesn’t distract you tomorrow. And what if someone starts chatting about the Sixth Ecumenical Council at dinner? Click. Click. Click.

'Lists mean likes!' —XKCD

‘Lists mean likes!’ —XKCD

3. On the other side of the spectrum, lists are often aspirational rather than attainable. They are to work as the Ikea instruction manual is to the FjälkingeTheir relationship to reality is tenuous. The archetype is the bucket list, condemned by the New Yorker as ‘the YOLO-ization of cultural experience.’ A quick perusal of those astute folks on the internetz brings up the following mortality-cheating goals:

  • Learn how to knit
  • Paint smiles on all the eggs in fridge
  • Get stuff coated in gold
  • Discover element. Name after self.
  • Touch Christian Bale’s face

Just like my to-do lists: 40% banality, 60% wishful thinking.

4. Lists are the lazy man’s way of imposing order. They make a superficial kind of sense. Never mind that this order can be entirely arbitrary:

In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
— Jorge Luis Borges, a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled “Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge”‘

This explains why so many academics love lists. They fit on PowerPoint slides, ensuring most social science presentations are a firing squad of bullet points.

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

That was Ray Bradbury building a story. But it could just as well have been that anthropology seminar you sat through last Tuesday.

5. It’s easy to assume that if you imitate the trappings of horrifying overachievement, you’ll become a horrifying overachiever yourself. And successful people love lists.

But what if overachievers don’t make the best advisors? Zadie Smith summarized:

When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

Thanks, Zadie. Other authors you might consider imitating (from Mason Currey’s great Daily Rituals):

  1. Francis Bacon: dined on rich food, a half-dozen bottles of wine, and garlic pills
  2. Ayn Rand: worked for 30 hours straight, powered by Benzedrine
  3. Patricia Highsmith: kept pet snails, which she smuggled into cocktail parties in her handbag

6. Once that deadline’s whizzed by, lists help you work out who to blame. Blacklists, grudge books, hit lists—all jolly distractions from the tedium of actual work.

7. Lists can grow and shrink along with your sense of self. You can relabel your blog post ‘7 Reasons’ because you kind of ran out before 11. Or they can take on a momentum all of their own: an academic we know is writing a book on reference works, from Samuel Johnson to Hobson Jobson, and has an entire chapter entitled ‘overlong and overdue’. Lists are potentially infinite. For Umberto Eco, this explained why we love them: ‘because we don’t want to die’.

Isn’t this exactly what procrastination is—the triumph of hope over experience?

_

* Do not click on these links. THEY ARE TRAPS. 

Advertisements

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.

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 Procrastination Seminar speakers

CLOCK LOGO autumn-01After frantic last-minute negotiations, we’re delighted to unveil the provisional line-up for this term’s five sessions in the Procrastination Seminar.

All talks will be held on Wednesdays at 5.30pm in the Old Library at All Souls College on the High Street, Oxford (see our handy map). All are welcome, and of course the seminars are free. We will endeavour to provide wine and maybe even the odd nibble.

Note: this schedule was updated on 14 October.

vince crawford15 OctoberProfessor Vince Crawford, ‘Now or later? Present-bias and time-inconsistency in intertemporal choice’

Vince is the Drummond Professor of Political Economy, and has a longstanding interest in behavioural and experimental economics. He boasts that he was thinking about preproperation (or precrastination) long before anyone else.

22 October: Professor Diane Purkiss, ‘The writer’s brain: Ernest Hemingway’s traumas and addictions’

diane purkiss‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment,’ wrote notorious wit Robert Benchley (Chips Off the Old Benchley, 1949) in the now-classic slogan for structured procrastination. If side projects make you more productive, Diane is a Fordist fantasy. Alongside writer’s block, her areas of interest include the English Civil War; Milton and Marvell; the supernatural, especially witchcraft; women’s writing; food and food history; children’s literature; and writing mythical novels as one half of Tobias Druitt.

John McManus29 OctoberJohn McManus, ‘Driven to distraction: football supporters, technology use and the politics of place-making’

John is an anthropologist of popular culture and migration, especially smartphone-wielding Turkish football fans. When taking a well-earned rest from the terraces, he can be found lending his voice to winsome indie-folk outfit the Yarns.

20140312_220600-004Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’

Tamara is a research officer with Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy. She has worked on such dilettantish topics as hate speech, missile defence policy, and nuclear proliferation—seasoned with a soupçon of Baudelaire.

10624794_380127925483732_8954905304583990697_n5 November: Huw Lemmey (LimaZulu), ‘IT’S OK TO HATE YOUR JOB: digital procrastination as proletarian sabotage’  

Huw is an artist, cultural commentator, and sometime Guardian contributor. He tweets with terrifying fecundity @spitzenprodukte.

downingArthur Downing, ‘Procrastination, working-class saving, and institutional design in the nineteenth century’ 

Arthur is an economic historian, and one of the original organizers of our 2 July procrastivaganza. His DPhil looks at the saving patterns of working class households in nineteenth century Britain, and how individuals overcame their procrastinatory and myopic tendencies to put off saving. It hasn’t helped him be more self-controlled. He knows the words to nearly every Friends episode.

12 November: Dr Bill Prosser, ‘Drawing—it’s a drag’

Bill’s drawings have been exhibited internationally. He was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow at the University of Reading and Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. He has written on art and Beckett and is currently a Research Fellow at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford.

Katrina Mayson, ‘Procrastination or professionalism? Elizabeth Bishop’s chronic “second thought habit”’

Katrina Mayson is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research is on the lives of objects within Elizabeth Bishop’s writings, with a specific focus on her work as translator and the influence of Brazilian language and culture on her poetry.

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:

Guy-Debord-Ne-travaille-jamais

(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

Lame Excuses

Or,
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’
Cautionary_Tales_for_Children_1907_edition

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.