Awaken you dreamers
Asleep at your desks
Parrots and lemurs populate your
Please let ’em all out
Do it today
Don’t let the loveless ones sell you
A world wrapped in grey
— Andy Partridge
Baron Munchhausen’s post horn was more beautiful than our canned music, the Seven-League Boots more beautiful than an automobile, Oberon’s kingdom lovelier than a subway tunnel, the magic root of the mandrake better than a telegraphed image, eating of one’s mother’s heart and then understanding birds more beautiful than an ethologic study of a bird’s vocalizing. We have gained reality and lost dream. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toes; there’s work to be done. To be efficient, one cannot be hungry and dreamy but must eat steak and keep moving. It is exactly as though the old, inefficient breed of humanity had fallen asleep on an anthill and found, when the new breed awoke, that the ants had crept into its bloodstream, making it move frantically ever since, unable to shake off that rotten feeling of antlike industry.
— Robert Musil
We have reached a grim impasse, my friends. We have become so busy that many of us no longer remember how to daydream.
Our wretched American busyness is due in part to three-plus decades of bizarre political choices, a sort of Puritanical mass-mania that has allowed us to vote against our own best interests time and time again. Many of us now work two jobs or more to keep the creditors at bay. Loving parents no longer stay home with their children, and the widespread expectation of a comfortable retirement, it is now clear, was a historical aberration; the best investment you can make today is a down-payment on those titanium hips and nickel-plated knees you’ll be needing mid-century. Take care of your feet, too. You will be on them for a long, long time to come.
Driven as a culture by unexamined values of busyness and positivism, we scramble for “leisure activities” that leave us upbeat and grinning and foaming like blown horses even in those few moments when we’ve slipped the harness. We have allowed ourselves to become so busy that those efficiency experts masquerading as self-help gurus — the ones who tell us how to maximize our time and our ambitions and the fearful greed pooling in the inky depths of our acquisitive, thieving, monkey-dark hearts — yes, even they tell us it’s time to slow down.
Do not be fooled. Noxious euphemisms like “taking the machine offline,” “recharging,” and “sharpening the saw” reveal our ultimate roles as units of production, personnel assets to be managed properly (read: worked not quite to death). The efficiency experts don’t want us to use this putative “downtime” to daydream, to imagine, to immerse ourselves in the wonder of this glorious life. Of course not. They want us to “cocoon” for the weekend in order to increase our productivity Monday morning.
It’s not their fault; it’s ours. They are merely opportunists grasping for bandwidth in our daily flood of infogarbage. This is perhaps the most insidious part of our busyness; the time we could spend in communion with our innermost selves and the rest of the cosmos is squandered on ephemera that not only wastes precious hours but deadens our wits such that we can’t simply daydream.
Unless there’s a damned app for it. I’m waiting for the app that kills the smartphone and the user himself upon detection of the death of the soul. KA-BOOM!
Brave talk, but I’ll never completely buck this lockstep parade, this ruthless tooth-and-nail fight to the middle. Neither will you. The best that most of us will ever do is change the tune and change the tempo (rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I believe it’s called). To that end, some of us march this maddened march in paisley and turquoise, and some of us pretend we don’t care about money and fame, but “above-it-all” is perhaps the most self-revelatory imposture of all; mind well the artiste who says she doesn’t care about wealth or recognition because she will chew off her own arm — or yours — to get a few spaces ahead in the critical queue.
The rest of us keep the idiot grins, put Bluetooth devices in our ears, and never admit that deep in our hearts, despite telling others that our true passion is our abstracted devotion to ideals of truth, justice, and equity in human relations, we really live to forge beauty from pain (we must never say that aloud) and that we still live for our childhood dreams. No matter what, we do not get that faraway look, nor do we allow ourselves to appear unproductive or melancholy. If we do, they will convince us to medicate ourselves to within an inch of our lives.
You know it’s true. You’ve known the dangers of being caught daydreaming since grammar school.
We learned to hide our hearts by the time adults finally trained us to sit up straight and coerced us into hugging our frightening and malodorous elders. We learned how to get along by watching performing chimps get gold stars. We observed that adults considered melancholia a foul, pernicious disease, perhaps the root of lollygagging, sloth, and masturbation, and that dreaminess, moping, mooniness — all such antisocial and counterproductive behavior — had to be eradicated.
In fear, in deeply intuitive and well-justified fear, we learned to imitate the model of perky, punctual pragmatists armed with malleable ideals and a voracious capacity to accrue more than our neighbors in a world of constantly diminishing returns.
We’ve learned the lessons too well, my friends. Now, no one can show us the way back to our daydreams.
Getting off the grid does not ensure wonder, and simply opting out of the rat race does not quiet the mind enough to let it wander, to let it drift, to let it daydream. Distracting ourselves with writerly-workshop/retreat busyness hasn’t helped, either, although scribbling responses to “juxtaposition prompts” has prepared us to write submissions for those ¼-cent-per-word themed flash anthologies.
There’s always a silver lining.
Now, get cracking on that.
Not even the French can tell us how to get back to our daydreaming. They’ve started to gather data on workers’ self-reported lassitude as part of their annual labor stats because they know creativity is born of a profound and beautiful boredom, a bel ennui. Even the French had to wait till Steve Jobs built a special room for daydreaming to admit the contradictory truth that languor and woolgathering, becoming slightly empty, is the best way to become full.
This is the bel ennui that heralds wars in Heaven and exquisite ironies in Hell, all accompanied by the golden peal of trumpets here on earth, all while you’re standing there in a somnambulistic daze with fabric softener in one hand and a dustpan in the other, thinking: Jesus, that’s a good line. I’d better write that down…
That’s the great reward, liebchen: emptying the mind such that something not quite you makes itself heard. If you’re like me, you live for those moments.
The French are stymied in their research by Google’s refusal to give them stats on searches for terms like “nihilism,” so we shouldn’t wait for Sarkozy’s ennui squad to draw us a map.
Nor can I draw you a map to bel ennui, but at least here at kendley.com, you’re free for a few minutes to be dreamy, to be hungry, to be somber, somnolent, or even melancholy. I encourage it, and I love you for it. I can’t draw the map, but I humbly present the fruits of having been there, and my sincerest hope is that these works will free your dreams and inspire you to seek bel ennui, the satiation that breeds appetite, the emptiness that fulfills, the gateway to the only state of grace I know.