Story type: Essay
Idleness seems to be the last accomplishment of civilization. To be idle gracefully and contentedly and picturesquely is an art. It is one in which the Americans, who do so many things well, do not excel. They have made the excuse that they have not time, or, if they have leisure, that their temperament and nervous organization do not permit it. This excuse will pass for a while, for we are a new people, and probably we are more highly and sensitively organized than any other nation–at least the physiologists say so; but the excuse seems more and more inadequate as we accumulate wealth, and consequently have leisure. We shall not criticise the American colonies in Paris and Rome and Florence, and in other Continental places where they congregate. They know whether they are restless or contented, and what examples they set to the peoples who get their ideas of republican simplicity and virtue from the Americans who sojourn among them. They know whether with all their leisure they get placidity of mind and the real rest which the older nations have learned to enjoy. It may not be the most desirable thing for a human being to be idle, but if he will be, he should be so in a creditable manner, and with some enjoyment to himself. It is no slander to say that we in America have not yet found out the secret of this. Perhaps we shall not until our energies are spent and we are in a state of decay. At present we put as much energy into our pleasure as into our work, for it is inbred in us that laziness is a sin. This is the Puritan idea, and it must be said for it that in our experience virtue and idleness are not commonly companions. But this does not go to the bottom of the matter.
The Italians are industrious; they are compelled to be in order to pay their taxes for the army and navy and get macaroni enough to live on. But see what a long civilization has done for them. They have the manner of laziness, they have the air of leisure, they have worn off the angular corners of existence, and unconsciously their life is picturesque and enjoyable. Those among them who have money take their pleasure simply and with the least expense of physical energy. Those who have not money do the same thing. This basis of existence is calm and unexaggerated; life is reckoned by centimes, not by dollars. What an ideal place is Venice! It is not only the most picturesque city in the world, rich in all that art can invent to please the eye, but how calm it is! The vivacity which entertains the traveler is all on the surface. The nobleman in his palace if there be any palace that is not turned into a hotel, or a magazine of curiosities, or a municipal office–can live on a diet that would make an American workman strike, simply because he has learned to float through life; and the laborer is equally happy on little because he has learned to wait without much labor. The gliding, easy motion of the gondola expresses the whole situation; and the gondolier who with consummate skill urges his dreamy bark amid the throng and in the tortuous canals for an hour or two, and then sleeps in the sun, is a type of that rest in labor which we do not attain. What happiness there is in a dish of polenta, or of a few fried fish, in a cup of coffee, and in one of those apologies for cigars which the government furnishes, dear at a cent–the cigar with a straw in it, as if it were a julep, which it needs five minutes to ignite, and then will furnish occupation for a whole evening! Is it a hard lot, that of the fishermen and the mariners of the Adriatic? The lights are burning all night long in a cafe on the Riva del Schiavoni, and the sailors and idlers of the shore sit there jabbering and singing and trying their voices in lusty hallooing till the morning light begins to make the lagoon opalescent. The traveler who lodges near cannot sleep, but no more can the sailors, who steal away in the dawn, wafted by painted sails. In the heat of the day, when the fish will not bite, comes the siesta. Why should the royal night be wasted in slumber? The shore of the Riva, the Grand Canal, the islands, gleam with twinkling lamps; the dark boats glide along with a star in the prow, bearing youth and beauty and sin and ugliness, all alike softened by the shadows; the electric lights from the shores and the huge steamers shoot gleams on towers and facades; the moon wades among the fleecy clouds; here and there a barge with colored globes of light carries a band of singing men and women and players on the mandolin and the fiddle, and from every side the songs of Italy, pathetic in their worn gayety, float to the entranced ears of those who lean from balconies, or lounge in gondolas and listen with hearts made a little heavy and wistful with so much beauty.
Can any one float in such scenes and be so contentedly idle anywhere in our happy land? Have we learned yet the simple art of easy enjoyment? Can we buy it with money quickly, or is it a grace that comes only with long civilization? Italy, for instance, is full of accumulated wealth, of art, even of ostentation and display, and the new generation probably have lost the power to conceive, if not the skill to execute, the great works which excite our admiration. Nothing can be much more meretricious than its modern art, when anything is produced that is not an exact copy of something created when there was genius there. But in one respect the Italians have entered into the fruits of the ages of trial and of failure, and that, is the capacity of being idle with much money or with none, and getting day by day their pay for the bother of living in this world. It seems a difficult lesson for us to learn in country or city. Alas! when we have learned it shall we not want to emigrate, as so many of the Italians do? Some philosophers say that men were not created to be happy. Perhaps they were not intended to be idle.