Leisure, the Basis of Culture

In Defence of Time-Wasting

To read a literary journal requires leisure; and to be reading this new literary journal suggests an excess of it. Moralists and even some parents will stress that we must make good ‘use’ of our university years. But this word has mildly pernicious connotations of usefulness, and by extension utility, and a humanities degree should be, to all intents and purposes, useless. Those who study English literature for employment reasons are corrupting the system of education. (This is not to say one should not seek employment after one’s degree.) Time-wasting it may be, but the intellectual life is, in its fullness, a sort of consecrated time-wasting. It is good for the soul.

In repudiating the language and ethos of the modern Total Work State, the intellectual, with his celebration of time-wasting, may seem to speak with unbecoming levity. The intellectual prides himself in being utterly non-utilitarian, and therefore he appears to the ‘real world’ as sort of heretic. He has opted out of the system. Because he does not produce anything marketable, and because his hours are spent in leisure, he cannot even receive a wage. (See Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture for all this in a much richer form.) For one receives a wage as a bribe – spend your time doing this undesirable job, says the employer, and I shall compensate you £x. But the intellectual is not working, and so cannot be paid except in the form of a donation, grant, or fellowship.

Disappearance of the Literary Magazine

The whole movement of the post-war years has been to drive out leisure from society and even from the sanctuary of the intellectual, the academic school. Nowadays, an academic is a member of ‘staff’ in a ‘department’, his or her life is driven by government targets for research not teaching, and the bureaucracy is like that of any other profession. Those in the ‘real world’ say, well that’s life. Indeed it is. But to apply the ethos of the factory or office to the academic school impoverishes it, and the form-filling activities which are common to many jobs is less tolerable in academia because ‘wages’ are so low. For wages must be paid to academics, now that they are workers.

Connected to this deprivation of leisure is the disappearance of the literary magazine. The corollary of research-based departments is a low amount of class hours and so at least while academics have no time for such things as journals, the students do (though in practice there are few such ventures). The classical literary magazine, popular outside the academic circles, which flourished for two-and-a-half centuries until the second war, is now not only dead, but forgotten. Again, this is explained by the all-subsuming Total Work State which sucks the leisure out of our lives. What was noble in working-class culture – Ruskinian evening lectures, a respect for education, that sort of thing – has been assuredly undermined by commerce driven popular culture.

Home from the factory or office to slump at home and then out for another day ad infinitum. That is exactly what the government wants – unskilled labour with no aspirations. And then there is the other thing much desired – the continuing decline of religious belief, for religion is the thing most likely to bring lofty ideas about human dignity to the proles. It’s fairly obvious that Matthew Arnold’s naïve faith in the ability of culture (without religion) to circulate ‘the best that has been thought and known in the world’ has been proven nonsense.

Addison and Steele

If we are to have a literary journal then, let it be one based on leisure. It is unlikely that much will be learned from the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, though both are superb in their way. But much will be learned from the eighteenth century prose-stylists, like Addison and Steele who produced the Tatler and the Spectator. Their great literary essays combined the ‘novelty of literary experiment with the security of journalistic convenience’. In that tradition are all the popular journalists up to Chesterton. The Spectator was the conversation, quite literally, of the coffeehouses of London; it was the product of leisure. And so Addison’s creature, the Spectator, famously proclaimed that ‘I have brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea tables and in coffeehouses.’

It makes sense that the writers who produced the great essays are not on our university syllabi. According to one honest left-wing critic, ‘[t]he work of both Addison and Steele has features that render it useless to critics housed in English departments.’ The occasional essay is an inherently ‘conservative’ form, embodying the high-leisure of the bourgeoisie; its subjects are often directly related to leisure, such as Chesterton’s gem, ‘On Lying in Bed’. As such, what use has this form for the modern academic department?

Anyway, before your editor gets too heated and emotional, let us conclude by saying that the Mitre Literary Review, the little brother of the Mitre, is a minor show of defiance. The journal has no ‘learning outcomes’ and we hope you catch no ‘transferable skills’. We aspire, at least, to read and write for no end other than to make edifying use of our leisure time. We hope you consider our Review, as one critic called the original Spectator, ‘a wholesome and pleasant regimen’.

Categories: Leaders

Robert O'Brien

Matt Bell
Associate Editor

Andrew Cusack

Founded in 2005
the University of St Andrews
in Scotland

All text © The Mitre Literary Review 2005–present, unless otherwise stated.