The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Essays

Virtuosos of Idleness

Charlie Tyson

(Giles) Lytton Strachey, 1916, by Dora Carrington (1893–1932);

I begin to doubt beautiful words. How one longs sometimes to have done something in the world.—Virginia Woolf to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, October 17, 193111xQuoted in Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (New York, NY: Vintage, 1996), 612.

Most artistic collectives flicker out after delivering, at best, a crackling manifesto. For a group of aspiring artists and intellectuals to vow to trans-figure art, then the world, is no rare thing. Yet by any measure, the Bloomsbury Group—whose members included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and, more peripherally, Bertrand Russell—made good on its ambitions. Of the countless novels, philosophical treatises, and economic theories that appeared in England in the early decades of the twentieth century, Bloomsbury claims credit for some of the most durable and dazzling.

The Bloomsbury Group, named for the London area where its members congregated, is known to us today for the work it left behind. Yet to their contemporary rivals, the “Bloomsberries” seemed contemptibly lazy. Caricatures pegged them as a band of snobbish rentiers who whiled away afternoons sprawled on couches murmuring about art and beauty. Even in their own work, they portrayed moneyed leisure with uneasy self-awareness. Standing on the soft carpet outside Clarissa Dalloway’s dressing room, the drab tutor Miss Kilman of Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway seethes, “Instead of lying on a sofa— ‘My mother is resting,’ Elizabeth had said—she should have been in a factory; behind a counter; Mrs. Dalloway and all the other fine ladies!”22xVirginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1983), 124. First published 1925. Miss Kilman’s rage blazes more furiously with each semicolon as she condemns not just Mrs. Dalloway but all her privileged class to the servile humiliations of wage labor. Clarissa Dalloway can lie on the couch for an hour after lunch. Her daughter’s tutor cannot. Miss Kilman correctly sees Clarissa’s leisure as the result of an economic position that excuses her from paid work.

To say that the Bloomsbury Group was lazy, that its members celebrated their own idleness, and that their leisure was enabled by unjust economic arrangements would seem to be damning pronouncements, if true. But in the writings of key Bloomsbury figures, these very ideas were disputed less defensively than we might imagine and judged more frankly than we might expect.

In Bloomsbury, we find sophisticated theorists of leisure, as well as committed practitioners. Russell, Keynes, Strachey, and Woolf thought deeply about work, idleness, and the relationship between leisure and culture. What’s more, Bloomsbury’s leisure theorists discuss idleness in terms that seem remarkably current. They anticipate, and clarify, a cluster of present-day debates surrounding work, income, automation, and what is sometimes called “free” time.

The End of Work—and of Leisure

Most Americans today find work drudgery and leisure anxiously vacant. In our hours off work, we rarely achieve thrilling adventure, deliberate self-education, or engage in Whitmanian loafing. At the same time, faith is eroding in the idea that paid work can offer pleasure, self-discovery, a means for improving the world, or anything more than material subsistence. Some doubt that paid labor will continue to exist at all. Technological automation threatens to expel workers in droves and press wages downward.3See, e.g., Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015); The White House, “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy,” December 2016, artificial-intelligence-automation-and-economy. In the decades to come, if current trends continue, more people will be handmaidens to robots (think of the harried “pickers” in sweltering Amazon warehouses), or working at the beck and call of efficiency algorithms, than will be supervisors of these technologies. In some industries, subservience to information technology is already the status quo. Truck drivers, once a work force vaunted for its manly independence, are now subject to electronic surveillance, bound to devices that override their own judgment about whether they are too fatigued to drive.4Karen Levy, “The Contexts of Control: Information, Power, and Truck-Driving Work,” Information Society 31, no. 2 (2015): 160–74, wp-content/uploads/2016/08/The-Contexts-of-Control- Information-Power-and-Truck-Driving-Work.pdf.

The jobs lost to automation, however, may not be worth mourning. Work these days is not just sterile ground for self-cultivation. It is a site of coercion. Most companies, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues in her remarkable Private Government, operate like communist dictatorships.5 Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). Communist, because the firm (by definition) owns all the assets and organizes production through central planning rather than internal markets. Dictatorships, because at-will employment—the contractual norm in the United States—allows employers to fire workers for any or no reason, including their speech on social media, their haircut, their choice of sexual partner, or the inconvenient fact that their daughter was raped by a friend of the boss (the last a real-life example Anderson mentions). The infringements and invasions that are daily parts of modern work would be seen as impermissible violations if demanded by a government instead of an employer. Hence some people, such as the British work-refusers recently profiled by the sociologist David Frayne, have tried to subsist outside the workplace in part or altogether.6David Frayne, The Refusal of Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work (London, England: Zed Books, 2015), 118–209.

Accompanying this crisis of work is a crisis of leisure. Americans spend their time off work in unfocused restlessness. Passive amusements dominate nonwork hours, with television consuming the lion’s share of leisure. (American adults watch, on average, 2.7 hours of TV a day, according to US Labor Department surveys; a recent study by Nielsen pegged that figure at more than five hours daily.)7US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “American Time Use Survey: 2016 Results,” Table 11A, June 27, 2017, nr0.htm; John Koblin, “How Much Do We Love TV? Let Us Count the Ways,” New York Times, June 30, 2016, nielsen-survey-media-viewing.html. And distraction, especially the states of minimal absorption encouraged by browsing on the Internet, is an enemy of both work and high-quality leisure. The slothful withdrawal that characterizes our off hours, coupled with the well-documented weakening of local and community ties, has dispiriting civic implications. The number of Americans who spent 2016 reclining on their beds or sofas, laptops perched on their stomachs as they watched a vulgar demagogue seize power, almost certainly stands in the tens of millions.

Recreational pursuits more demanding than fleeting digital absorption are, increasingly, acts of consumption. Leisure is not something you “do” but something you “buy,” whether in the form of hotels and cruises or Arianna Huffington–vetted mindfulness materials. The leisure industry provides work for some while promising relaxation to others, for a fee.

The sorry state of leisure is partly a consequence of an economy in which we are never fully detached from the demands of work. The category of “free” time is not only defined by its opposite (time “free” of work); it is subordinated to it. Free time, Theodor Adorno warns, “is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labor.”8Theodor Adorno, “Free Time,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London, England: Routledge, 1991), 194. Free time is mere recovery time. Spells of lethargy between periods of labor do little but prepare us for the resumption of work.99xFrayne, The Refusal of Work. Workers depleted by their jobs and in need of recuperation turn to escapist entertainment and vacuous hobbies. And the problem of figuring out when work is “over,” in an economy in which knowledge workers spend their job hours tweeting and their evening hours doing unpaid housework and child care, has never seemed more perplexing.

The prospect of a “postwork” future has spurred renewed support in some quarters for a universal basic income provided by the state. Such proposals have made modest inroads in Europe: Last year, Switzerland put an unconditional monthly income plan to a national vote (finding 23 percent of the electorate in favor), and Finland is testing basic income schemes with a 2,000-person pilot study.10Raphael Minder, “Guaranteed Income for All? Switzerland’s Voters Say No Thanks,” New York Times, June 5, 2016, switzerland-swiss-vote-basic-income.html?mcubz=0; “Finland Tests a New Form of Welfare,” The Economist, June 24, 2017, unemployed-new-form; Tracy Brown Hamilton, “The Netherlands’ Upcoming Money-for-Nothing Experiment,” The Atlantic, June 21, 2016, business/archive/2016/06/netherlands-utrecht-universal-basic-income-experiment/487883/. The case for basic income has more recently been taken up in the United States, and not just by proponents on the left. Some libertarians and technology-sector leaders have come to see basic income as a way to quell the discontent that structural unemployment and growing wealth inequality might otherwise unleash.11Farhad Manjoo, “A Plan in Case the Robots Take the Jobs: Give Everyone a Paycheck,” New York Times, March 2, 2016, ogy/plan-to-fight-robot-invasion-at-work-give-everyone- a-paycheck.html?_r=0; Brishen Rogers, “Basic Income in a Just Society,” Boston Review, May 15, 2017, http://

The outcome of today’s push for basic income is far from clear. (The agenda will likely make no strides during the Trump administration.) And blithe predictions about the “end of work” and the consequent need to rethink leisure are often misleadingly simplistic: Analysts such as James Livingston and Yuval Noah Harari routinely understate the obstacles standing in the way of schemes like basic income in large, ethnically diverse countries, and ignore the likelihood that widespread automation will make people feel more precarious and harried (because of the need to cobble together an income from whatever short-term freelance work they can get) rather than less.12See, e.g., James Livingston, No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Yuval Noah Harari, “The Meaning of Life in a World without Work,” The Guardian, May 8, 2017, technology/2017/may/08/virtual-reality-religion-robots- sapiens-book.

The truth is that we need to rethink leisure (however little of it we may possess) regardless of whether paid labor remains the center of our economic structure. Those of us looking for models of meaningful idleness could do worse than turn to Bloomsbury. In their own lives, the members of the Bloomsbury circle practiced humane uses of leisure. They engaged in rigorous conversation, artistic collaboration, and copious letter-writing. They prepared papers and stories to read aloud to each other from the hearth rug. But as theorists of leisure, rather than idealized exemplars, they are more useful still.

All of the writers discussed here praise leisure as a positive good yet recognize it as a source of anxiety. They discriminate among varieties of idleness, seeing some forms of inactivity and play as more worthwhile than others. In seeing leisure in accordance with higher aims—typically the pleasures of human intercourse and aesthetic appreciation, celebrated by the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore as constitutive of “the art of life itself ”—these Bloomsbury figures revise assumptions about what counts as valuable activity.13John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” The Essential Keynes, ed. Robert Skidelsky (London, England: Penguin, 2015), 83. Essay first published 1930. See also G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 183–224. First published 1903. They imagine, in short, an art of idleness.

The Industrious Past

“I cannot work,” Lytton Strachey wrote in a 1927 letter to his friend Topsy Lucas. “Perhaps tomorrow I shall be able to—but I’ve been idle for days and days. It’s a wretched state of affairs.”1414xQuoted in Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography (New York, NY: Norton, 1994), 571. We should not take this complaint altogether seriously. Strachey, often found flopping on beds, couches, and chaise longues, book in hand (as pictured in Dora Carrington’s famous 1916 portrait of him), had a habit of performing his languor. “When discussing his own work,” Strachey biographer Michael Holroyd writes, “Lytton understated his conscientiousness. There was something ridiculous about hard work.”1515xIbid., 122.

Today, Strachey’s fame rests on his irreverent Eminent Victorians, a collection of four biographical sketches of widely lionized nineteenth-century Britons, among them Florence Nightingale. In this work he ventured, in the words of the literary critic Edmund Wilson, “to take down once [and] for all the pretensions of the Victorian Age to moral superiority.”16Edmund Wilson, “Lytton Strachey,” in The Shores of Light: Literary Chronicles of the Twenties and Thirties (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1952), 551. He followed Eminent Victorians with a life of Queen Victoria, a work less acerbic in tone than its predecessor, but similarly ambitious in its attempt to take stock of the attitudes and aspirations of “great” Victorians. In both biographies, Strachey takes aim at the Victorian work ethic: the drive toward unflagging industry that nineteenth-century British culture demanded and prized.

In Strachey’s telling, Florence Nightingale was strange from the start. As a child, when her sister would show a “healthy pleasure” in tearing her dolls to shreds, young Florence would display “an almost morbid one” in stitching them back together.1717xLytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (London, England: Penguin, 1986), 112. First published 1918. Her desire to repair the dolls, an infantile rehearsal of work, presages a drive to perform that becomes maniacal. Turning on its head the adage that Satan finds mischief for idle hands, Strachey says of the indefatigable Nightingale, “A Demon possessed her.”1818xIbid., 111.

As Nightingale grows up, she feels a “singular craving” to be doing something of importance, an urge to act that verges on derangement. She devours, in secret, medical reports and sanitary pamphlets, acts of intellectual consumption that Strachey describes in viscerally appetitive terms.

Suddenly, mock libido runs into a genuine sexual possibility. Nightingale meets a young man who strikes her as eminently desirable:

but now—For a moment, she wavered. A new feeling swept over her—a feeling which she had never known before, which she was never to know again. The most powerful and the profoundest of all the instincts of humanity laid claim upon her. But it rose before her, that instinct, arrayed—how could it be otherwise?—in the inevitable habiliments of a Victorian marriage; and she had the strength to stamp it underfoot.1919xIbid., 114.

Always alert to the power of punctuation, Strachey represents Nightingale’s wobbling and wavering with a series of tantalizing dashes. In this contest between love and work, Nightingale’s need for productive agency trods romance underfoot. Any erotic fulfillment she would find would come from labor, not marriage. In the Crimean military hospitals where she made her name, wounded soldiers kissed her shadow when she passed.

Nightingale’s insatiable work ethic expresses a domineering temperament that seeks to bend the world to its will. Her unflagging vigilance, Strachey observes, wreaks havoc on her body. She returns from Crimea in a shattered state. Yet even as she lies gasping on her sofa, she tears through government reports, dictates letters. Prone and fevered, she churns with frenzy. Nightingale refuses to be bound by the limits of something so trivial as a human body. The will to work surmounts not just the will to love but the will to live. The compulsion to work has grown pathological.

Monarchs as Menials

For a biography of a major global political figure, Strachey’s Queen Victoria devotes a remarkable amount of space to the mundane particulars of the queen’s daily routine. Victoria spends much of her reign not on her throne but at her writing desk. Her philosophy is simple: “Life is composed of duties.”2020xLytton Strachey, Queen Victoria, (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 2002), 211. First published 1921. The queen, notwithstanding her keen sense of her position as monarch, is a perfect projection of middle-class aspiration and industry.

Strachey shows us Victoria and her husband, Albert, working side by side:

In the winter, before dawn, [Albert] was to be seen, seated at his writing-table.… Victoria was early too…and when, in the chill darkness, she took her seat at her own writing-table, placed side by side with his, she invariably found upon it a neat pile of papers arranged for her inspection and her signature. The day, thus begun, continued in unremitting industry.… It was no longer a mere pleasure, it was a positive necessity, to go to bed as early as possible in order to be up and at work on the morrow betimes.2121xIbid., 189–90.

The two royals seem indistinguishable as they sit together and manage the affairs of state. But their mental lives, the hopes and desires they invest in work, are quite different. Victoria works because it is her duty, with imperturbable conscientiousness. Albert, by contrast, emerges as a cautionary tale.

The prince begins to “crave” his work with “an almost morbid appetite”—a description that cannot but recall the “almost morbid” pleasure young Florence took in stitching dolls back together. His industry grows “maniacal.” He refuses relaxation. “He would go on, working to the utmost and striving for the highest, to the bitter end.”

This passage representing Albert’s unchecked fervor for work contains multiple clichés (“striving for the highest,” “to the bitter end”) in part because standard Victorian thinking surrounding the benefits of hard work manifests itself, Strachey suggests, in anodyne language. But work is not simply work for Albert. In deriving a “morbid” enjoyment from his ceaseless toil, he commits the sin of mixing work with pleasure. His crime is one of excess.

Victoria never makes this mistake. After Albert dies, she takes his work upon her own shoulders. Sitting alone, she spends morning until night hemmed in at her desk by heaps of boxes, reading and writing. She accepts the demands of labor without complaint, but without zeal either.

As a model of steadiness and assiduity, Victoria’s approach to work appeals. But her example of unremitting industry is in certain ways even less attractive than the pathological cases of Nightingale and Albert. Strachey’s Victoria is a model of relentless effort unenlivened by the heat of mania, her life a parade of endless duties without the pleasure that rides alongside obsession. Strachey dissects a work ethic gone wrong, one that collapses too easily into mania or mundanity. Other Bloomsbury figures tried to imagine something better.

The Idle Future

“The idea that the poor should have leisure,” wrote Bertrand Russell in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” “has always been shocking to the rich.”2222xBertrand Russell, “In Praise of Idleness,” In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 17. First published 1932. Along with John Maynard Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” published two years earlier, Russell’s essay, in which he argues for a four-hour workday, represents a serious attempt to understand what the future could hold for work. If the Victorians’ fanatical devotion to work was passing away, what would replace it?

Russell suspected that for British society in the 1930s, a radically diminished workday was already within reach. That the British populace did not already enjoy a deliciously idle society struck the philosopher as the result of deliberate political choices that overworked half the population and left the rest “to starve as unemployed.”2323xIbid., 16. He points to the apparent flexibility of the British labor market during World War I. All the men and women connected with the war effort—serving in the armed forces, working in weapons production, engaging in spying and propaganda—were for the war’s duration withdrawn from productive work. Yet general living standards were higher than ever.

The Therapeutic Three-Hour Workday

Keynes, for his part, saw the leisurely future of England and the United States as an inevitable byproduct of already-visible economic trends. “Mankind is solving its economic problem,” he declares; “the economic problem may be solved, or at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years” (emphasis in the original). Where Russell predicted a four-hour weekday, Keynes suspected that just three hours would suffice. The “age of leisure and of abundance”—an age, he implies, that all of humankind will enter together—is on the cusp of emergence.2424xKeynes, “Economic Possibilities,” 80–81, 83. Meeting material needs was a collective problem shared by the human race. That the economic gains brought about by technology might accrue more to the capital holdings of a small number of elites than to the population at large does not seem to have occurred to him.

Keynes and Russell foresaw just one problem: A lapse into leisure might make us miserable.

“To those who sweat for their daily bread,” Keynes observes, “leisure is a longed-for sweet— until they get it.”2525xIbid., 82. Inactivity runs against our nature. By acquiring wealth, we lose the economic need that spurs us to work and create. Prosperity, Keynes warns, could precipitate a widespread nervous breakdown. His suggestion of a three-hour workday is not an economic proposal but a therapeutic one: because of our deep habituation to work, for “many ages to come…everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented.”2626xIbid., 83.

Who is the happy idler, according to Keynes? “No country and no people,” he warns, “can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread.… It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents to occupy himself.” People with talents will find their leisure time easily accounted for. But ah, he sighs, “how few of us can sing!” Most of us, cut loose from work and its accompanying rituals and social ties, will be left vacantly unoccupied.

To fix this, Keynes proposes nothing short of a moral revolution:

We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things.2727xIbid., 84–85.

Once freed from the pressure of economic need, society could transform its values and look upon the love of money as a “disgusting morbidity.”

Leisure and Civilization

Russell claims that an intelligent use of leisure does not encompass only “highbrow” activities:

He praises “peasant dances” as an example of nonfrivolous recreation. Yet much of his enthusiasm for leisure rests on the artistic and scientific endeavors that idle time enables. “Leisure,” he proclaims, “is essential to civilization.”2828xRussell, “In Praise of Idleness,” 15. He echoes the language of the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen when he asserts, “Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.”2929xIbid., 26.

When Russell surveys the cultural contributions made by the hereditary leisure class, however, he finds cause for skepticism: “The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.” Still, in a leisure society, the few who have talent can exercise it unimpeded. Young writers, for instance, will not need to write “sensational pot-boilers” in order to earn their bread. What Russell offers is not just a program for better living. It is, more narrowly, a system for insulating artistic and scientific work from market pressure.

Russell could have found in Veblen another reason why an idle society might produce greater advances in the arts and sciences. From a Veblenian point of view, the relevant feature of the society Russell imagines is not the greater abundance of leisure; it is the fact that leisure time is evenly distributed across the population.

Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption”—consuming goods in performative fashion to display one’s wealth and win social status—is well-known. But equally important to Veblen was the idea of “conspicuous leisure.”3030xThorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, ed. Martha Banta (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007), 28–49. First published 1899. Leisure, too, is performative. Showing that you have more leisure time than someone else indicates status. Members of the leisure class apply themselves to such pursuits as mastering dead languages to signal that they have the surplus time and money to engage in economically useless activity.3131xIbid., 34–37, 254–57. For Veblen, idle time as spent by the leisure class is aimed at arousing others’ envy. Distributing leisure evenly across the population disables this function. If everyone enjoys the same quantity of leisure time, there is no reason to try to show, peacock-like, that you have more. Instead of working to one-up your neighbors, you could devote yourself to activities you enjoyed, and to causes more exalted than easing status anxiety. The status-related pressures that deform idleness would, in Russell’s envisioned society, become largely obsolete.

Looking at Idleness Anew

The leisure theorists I have mentioned so far are men; the figures of work, Albert excepted, women. (And workaholic Albert is somewhat feminized by Strachey: The prince at one point wonders of his relationship with Victoria, was he the wife and she the husband?) This arrangement of leisure-conscious men and work-driven women marks an unusual inversion. More familiar is the invidious association between idleness and effeminacy, an association hardened by the routine exclusion, in many historical milieus, of many women from paid work.

In Oblomov, the classic Russian novel of idleness, Ivan Goncharov wastes no time in pointing out that the titular protagonist, who spends nearly all of the work’s five hundred or so pages recumbent in bed, has grown effeminate from his lethargy: “His whole body, in fact, to judge by the lustreless, unnatural whiteness of the skin of his neck, his small pudgy hands, and soft shoulders, seemed altogether too delicate and pampered for a man.”32Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov, Oblomov, trans. Stephen Pearl (New York, NY: Bunim & Bannigan, 2006), 1. First published 1859. In the place of hard muscle and rough hands, Oblomov’s laziness produces a womanly figure of alabaster skin and flabby softness. According to the still-familiar line of stereotype this description invokes, idle men become womanlike, working women manlike. Diversion, so dangerous for men, may be an appropriate or even natural state for women.33Cultural stereotype has not yet assimilated findings from the economist Erik Hurst on the declining labor-force participation rate of young men, especially young men without college degrees. Hurst estimates that 75 percent of new leisure time that accrues to young unemployed men “falls into one category: video games.” Erik Hurst, “Faculty Spotlight,” Becker Friedman Institute, July 1, 2016,

Thus, while Russell and Keynes were dreaming of leisurely futures and Strachey was dramatizing the obsessive industry of the Victorian past, Virginia Woolf set herself the task of looking at idleness anew. Rigorous reading in her father’s library and challenging conversations with friends in Bloomsbury had attuned her to the existence of activities beyond paid work that were fulfilling, perplexing, and depleting—yet which looked suspiciously like privileged indolence.

Of all her pursuits, the occupation that most resembled conventional work was her involvement with the Hogarth Press, the publishing business she and her husband, Leonard Woolf, set up with a hand press in their drawing room. Because of Leonard’s hand tremors, it was up to Virginia to set the type and bind the pages together. Yet precisely because of the manual dexterity it required, the press was intended as therapy for Virginia, a task to take her mind off her (“real”) work.34Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918 (London, England: Hogarth Press, 1964), 223.

Virginia Woolf’s medical history no doubt colored her perspective on idleness. The novelist had more familiarity than most with leisure that was unchosen. During her adult life her doctors, including (the perhaps aptly named) George Savage, repeatedly recommended rest cures, a process that combined isolation and inactivity with overfeeding the patient with milk.3535xLee, Virginia Woolf, 179. Woolf spent much of her life in states of involuntary rest, dosed with sedatives and shut up in the dark.

In her novels and essays, Woolf distinguishes among varieties of idleness, seeing some forms of economically nonproductive activity as slothful, others as euphoric. She encourages us to regard certain leisure activities with unmistakable gravity. Even the classic diversion of reading a novel is, she warns, “a difficult and complex art.”36Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?,” The Second Common Reader, ed. Andrew McNeillie (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1986), 260. First published 1926.

Woolf ’s novel To the Lighthouse is a love song to forms of work typically neglected or derided. “Oh, but think of his work!” Lily Briscoe, an aspiring painter, exclaims, defending the moody Mr. Ramsay, who has managed to feed eight children on a career in philosophy.3737xVirginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005), 26. First published 1927. At dinner that same night, she recalls with a flush of joy: She has her work too. The novel claims the work of thought and the work of art as work, activities around which one organizes a life. As the botanist William Bankes considers, “How trifling it all is…compared with the other thing—work.”3838xIbid., 91.

To the Lighthouse depicts the arts and sciences, those classic leisure pursuits championed by Russell, as activities of high purpose. But the novel also registers Mrs. Ramsay’s silent labor on behalf of the people around her, the “effort of merging and flowing and creating” that rests entirely on her.3939xIbid., 86. It is she who sets drawing room and kitchen aglow, she who wraps her shawl round and round the boar’s skull mounted on the wall of her children’s bedroom like a savage memento mori, promising safety and immortality to fearful children and fragile philosopher-husband alike.

The novel’s recognition of women’s work achieves its most astonishing expression in its description of the often invisible tasks of domestic help. Ten years after the story’s opening events, the housekeeper, Mrs. McNab, now nearing seventy and hobbling on bad knees, is instructed to ready the Ramsays’ long-empty house by the sea. It is too much work for one woman, she reflects, what with the books glutted with mold and the swallows nested in the drawing room:

Slowly and painfully, with broom and pail, mopping, scouring, Mrs. McNab, Mrs. Bast stayed the corruption and the rot…with the creaking of hinges and the screeching of bolts, the slamming and banging of damp-swollen woodwork, some rusty laborious birth seemed to be taking place, as the women, stooping, rising, groaning, singing, slapped and slammed, upstairs now, now down in the cellars. Oh, they said, the work!4040xIbid., 143.

The heroism Woolf ascribes to these household servants is not meant in jest. Straining against the inexorable pull of all things toward oblivion, staving off rot and rust and ruin, the women rescue the island home. Only with their efforts can the Ramsays’ journey to the lighthouse, deferred for more than a decade, take place. Whatever morsel of redemption or resolution the novel offers is in part thanks to these women.

Much of the joy and feeling in ordinary existence relies, Woolf sees, on exertions that fall only inconsistently into the privileged category of “work,” on efforts that are often ignored or degraded. Yet the same novel that honors forgotten and unappreciated work includes one of Woolf’s most striking figures of idleness. The poet Augustus Carmichael spends his afternoons “basking with his yellow cat’s eyes ajar,” sunk “in a grey-green somnolence,” an all-consuming lethargy. His eyes give “no inkling of any inner thoughts or emotion.”4141xIbid., 13–14. A telltale streak of canary-yellow in his white moustache discloses the opium slipped earlier into his glass.

Idleness, Woolf recognizes, takes many forms, from the strenuous to the catatonic. While other characters break free from the strictures of the everyday in fleeting moments of transcendent flight, Carmichael’s escape is subterranean. He lodges himself in the quicksand of stupor “like an old pagan god.” Even after he grows famous from his poetry, he sinks into spells of empty time, “not reading, or sleeping, but basking like a creature gorged with existence.”4242xIbid., 211, 181. Carmichael is not a warning but a foil. His lethargy sets adazzle the forms of leisure suffused with life that populate the novel around him.

Woolf’s characters are not meant as exemplars, and I have no wish to extract a moral from her portrait of the poet. But I cannot help observing this: that so many of us have chosen the path of Carmichael, and so few that of the aspiring painter Lily Briscoe. To the Lighthouse, together with the larger Bloomsbury corpus on work and leisure, does not endorse a particular vocation or avocation. It reminds us, however, of the soaring promise of activity that goes uncompensated or unrecognized. The novel finds value in intellectual and artistic striving, and in attempts to ease, however slightly, the lives of the people around us—pursuits that offer, more so than most work, room for self-realization. Not so that we may all become artists or botanists, parents or philosophers. But so that we may choose.