The Pleasure of Leisure

Robert Dessaix, Knopf.

RRP $29.99

Christopher Robin likes to do ‘nothing’ best of all, Robert Dessaix reminds us.  Pooh asks him “How do you do Nothing”? and Christopher has a perplexing answer.  “Well,  when people call out at you just as you are going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin’, and you say, ‘Oh nothing’, and then you go and do it”. 

“Oh, I see,” says Pooh. (page 21)


The book lists this year have been heavy with titles on how fast the world is now, how complex, how we all run like rats in a wheel, how we have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and tension.

You need to have something exciting to say if someone asks “What’ve you been up to?”  If flummoxed, you can always lie.  Say “Finishing the libretto” and “Paid for the tickets to Mongolia today,”   then continue to enjoy leisure and JOMO, the Joy of Missing Out.

To counter all of this, there are lots of books about meditation, mindfulness (this idea is getting thin), yoga, and self-hypnosis for stress relief.  Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia, and that tells us something. There are a thousand courses, evening classes, seminars, websites, whole weekends where people get together to not speak at all.  In Tibet, the hills are alive with Europeans and Americans seeking stillness.

Well, Buddhism is not Robert Dessaix’s cup of tea (and I concur on that).  He doesn’t like the idea of a life devoted to getting rid of desire (not necessarily sexual desire, but that too).   Dessaix likes the quiet joy of a life lived with passion – for nearly everything: experiences, travel, gardening, friends, art, reading, and writing of course, food, bus rides, and he prefers the Hindus, ‘with their pleasure-loving hearts’.

By leisure, Dessaix does not mean indulgence or slothfulness, detachment or indifference.  They are a curse, as the world clamours and clatters so fast and everyone is famous for 15 minutes…and we feel alarmed at empty time.  But Dessaix says to be too busy is a form of enslavement to commerce, to consumerism, to competitiveness, and to the sticky fist of capitalism gone mad, and the whirl of the internet.

Reading this beautiful book, one is in awe of the wonders of the way Leisure can be rewarding.  Dessaix takes us through ideas of leisure in philosophy, humour, wisdom, literature, films, and his own life experiences. Keep it by your bed, and enjoy its fine writing.   And much of it is very down to earth.

Robert Dessaix, for instance, loves to nest, to minimalise his life, to take pleasure in simplicity. He cleans out his bookshelves, his cupboards, throws things away. “A trip to the tip can be revitalising.”

He suggests a simple walk without a destination: are you ambling, rambling, strolling?  Roaming, or maybe roving, sauntering, wandering, straggling?    I have added a bit here myself, as I tried it out in our big local nature park.  I wasn’t idle – I was enjoying words.

The thing is, Dessaix points out, it is impossible for the mind to be blank. However, you can fill it with leisurely rumination. Maybe a Guru can concentrate on ‘Aaoommmmm’ for some hours, but we cannot.

If you were old enough in the l990s, you will remember that we were told that the internet would create a ‘Leisure Society’.   We would all work a  three-day week, and have the rest in which to pursue hobbies, family, daily pleasures.   Well, it didn’t happen, and some people work seven long days each week, and others can get extra jobs. Deadlines became shorter, people became redundant, homelessness skyrocketed. Why is that? Well, Dessaix has an insight on that too.  Control of leisure has been a big part of politics: keep the people working, keep the wheels of the economy turning, compete, pay tax, pay to stay fit and get a gym membership, no lolling about – pay to go on mind-expanding cruises, and do the museums of Europe at a fast trot.  I would like to add, post all your travel pictures on Facebook, so people know you are busy and not missing out.

The title of this book is a little misleading, in that most of us have a limited range of use of the word ‘Leisure’ – whereas Dessaix canvasses everything from the Romans who were ‘edgy’ about empty time, (and even punished laziness with death) to the pleasure of conversation with friends, massage, a good bath, travel without a purpose and more, much more.  Play for instance; the book ends with a fabulous chapter on Play.

Leisure is not just what you do, it’s how you do it. How you get the bus to work, how you take a holiday in China, how you make dinner for ten people.

This book is not a quick, easy thing to read, and I haven’t room to explore here the most profound insights and depths of a lifetime of literature.   Robert Dessaix is a learned man, with a warm, intense fascination with ideas.

Dessaix admits to being puzzled about ‘doing nothing’. What does it mean?   He agrees that, in a way, there is no point in doing anything much, but doing nothing at all on any given afternoon is not as easy as it sounds.

A final note. Time. We have to work to pay the bills, of course but, after that?  Life is so short, is it OK to waste time? Well, why not? Answer that if you can.

Leonard Trollope.

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