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Robert Dessaix’s paean for the pleasures of leisure

Leisure is a hard-won benefit of modern life that in historical terms only recently became accessible to those who otherwise must work. But is it already on the way out?

Robert Dessaix’s new book The Pleasures of Leisure invites us to make the most of our precious me-time. One of Australia’s leading authors, Dessaix makes an eloquent plea for a return to the idea that taking time out can be harmless fun, no more and no less. The publication of a book like The Pleasures of Leisure is a timely reminder that there is real distinction to be made between work and private life.

In the preamble to The Pleasures of Leisure, Dessaix asks what happened to all the free time we were promised by labour-saving devices and more humane employment conditions. The tone is jocose yet the underlying message is serious.

“The richer we get, the harder we work, and the less time we have to do what we want. What’s gone wrong?”

“We were supposed to be awash with it by now – technology and progressive politics have been promising freedom from toil for over a century – yet, astonishingly there’s less of it about than in our grandparents’ day. (Except in Italy, as you’d expect.) Paradoxically, the richer we get, the harder we work, and the less time we have to do what we want. What’s gone wrong?”

We can find increasing evidence for what’s gone wrong in the headlines of the day. Even something as simple as the office lunch break seems under threat from technology in the hands of those with power over us. The news that a US tech firm is encouraging its employees to have a micro-chip inserted under their skin may seem innocuous. The CEO insists it only works in relation to buying food at work, but it is precisely because it appears harmless in itself that it is so dangerous.

The gradual loss of autonomy begins with the promise of increased convenience and security – Robert Dessaix advocates aimless walking around in the manner of a flâneur as an excellent use of leisure time. Why bother with a credit card when you can just wave your hand to make a payment? Back in the day, credit cards replaced cash with just the same promise, and we have seen how easily they can be hacked and misused.

Why would an employer go to the trouble and expense of micro-chipping its staff over something so trivial as buying lunch? Tracking food purchases made by employees during their breaks is a short step from having the means to monitor them all the time, including when they are away from the workplace. It is the kind of dystopian scenario played out in countless science fiction stories, including the recent film The Circle.

Robert Dessaix advocates aimless walking around in the manner of a flâneur as an excellent use of leisure time.

In the Newspeak terminology of George Orwell’s novel Nighteen Eighty-Four, ownlife, which means “individualism and eccentricity”, is considered politically subversive. Winston Smith comments that “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.” For his part, Robert Dessaix advocates aimless walking around in the manner of a flâneur as an excellent use of leisure time.

In our own society, people who must work to live may feel trapped into surrendering their privacy. As meaningful employment becomes harder to find in a job market where the supply of labour exceeds than demand and humans are being replaced by robots, will people be more willing to surrender their freedom from tracking for the opportunity just to have the prospect of a career?

Well-paid jobs not only benefit the employees lucky enough to secure them, but also support indirectly the other people who can’t get paid work. Increasingly, it will be employment status rather than the capacity for leisure that is viewed as the preserve of the privileged.

Dessiax describes how we have drifted into a mode of living where what was once considered free time is consumed with work of a different kind. And there are powerful vested interests – among them governments, corporations and even some cultural institutions such as commercial sports bodies – behind the usurpation of our leisure time.

The Pleasures of Leisure is a bold and timely assertion of individual freedom against the forces of conformity and consumerism.

Bosses increasingly want us to be available 24/7, and our communication devices make it harder for their demands to be ignored. There are always subtle pressures to do things as mass consumers that satisfy economies of scale. The motive behind the online algorithms that seek to understand our preferences and desires is commercial or political advantage, and not simply to enable us to express ourselves more fully as individuals.

In a quietly revolutionary way, The Pleasures of Leisure is a bold and timely assertion of individual freedom against the forces of conformity and consumerism seeking new ways to leverage and exploit the limited space in our lives where we can otherwise be ourselves.

We accept that in exchange for the economic means to live a decent life we must trade a certain portion of our time and energy in return for the money we need to find shelter, raise a family and do any of the other things needed for survival and a certain measure of physical and mental recreation.

Dessaix labels Loafing, Nesting and Grooming, and Play – is the secret to making leisure a true pleasure that enriches us as individuals.

The irony is that lots of people enjoy being part of the crowd, whether it be at the sports stadium or as the customer of a large corporation.  Moreover, it must be acknowledged that lots of people like being told what to think and do, however much they would protest otherwise. There is a certain relief in having “structure” and being organised, even if it means more regulation and increased obeisance.

For his part, Robert Dessaix, in common with Groucho Marx, is reluctant to join any club that would have him as a member. He believes that embracing activities that involve some element of whimsical spontaneity – what he labels Loafing, Nesting and Grooming, and Play – is the secret to making leisure a true pleasure that enriches us as individuals. These might include reading, taking the dog for a walk, knitting a scarf, having sex or experimenting with the slow cooker. It could be something as simple as a visit to the seaside.

Enjoying the moment, losing ourselves, indulging the senses, stimulating our imaginations – all of this is consistent with the kind of higher hedonism advocated by Dessaix.

Inimical to this objective are activities that control and exploit us as consumers in the herd. Farm animals such as cattle and sheep have no choice about being microchipped – let’s not allow that to be our fate as well.

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The Pleasures of Leisure is published by Knopf, $29.99.   

Simon Caterson will be chairing author talks by Robert Dessaix on August 10 at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre and on August 26 at the Melbourne Writers Festival

To coincide with the publication of The Pleasures of Leisure, five of Robert Dessaix’s previous books have been reissued by Brio

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