Melancholy, Sloth, and the Powers of Procrastination


I’m reading one of those rarest of books: the kind where you find yourself underlining every sentence, where you send quotations out to your friends, where you relate every other big idea to the ideas encountered there. It’s Giorgio Agamben’s Stanzas: Word and Phantasm.

Perhaps one of the reasons I find it so powerful is because I’ve just completed the month-long toil that is writing a grant application and have, as such, wracked my brains about the real content of my grant as well as the process of grant-writing itself which might be called, by other names, procrastination or sloth.
In Stanzas, Agamben dedicates a chapter to the Noonday Demon, to the psychological state that looks like sloth and laziness. Theologians of the medieval era worried over this state because it plagued individuals living the monastic life.  They say of it: “As soon as this demon begins to obsess the mind of some unfortunate one, it insinuates into him a horror of the place he finds himself in, an impatience with his own cell, and a disdain for the brothers who live with him, who now seem to him careless and vulgar. It makes him inert before every activity that unfolds within the walls of his cell, it prevents him from staying there in peace and attending to his reading…”(4).

Agamben ends this chapter with this quotation:

“Opening a space for the epiphany of the unobtainable, the slothful testifies to the obscure wisdom according to which hope has been given only for the hopeless, goals only for those who will always be unable to reach them….As of a mortal illness containing in itself the possibility of its own cure, it can be said of acedia (slothfulness) that ‘the greatest disgrace is never to have had it”(7).

Sigh.

It occurs to me that those who entertain the aporias, invisibilitities, unsayabilities, inexpressabilities of postmodernism must be bear hearts that have aspired to art, or, at least, to love.

At the very least, perhaps it allows us some room to breath as we stare off into space, dreaming or reveling or lacking the right idea, the right word, the right book, to move us onto the next step in whatever project it is that we are working on.

Of course, a main difference between medieval sloth and modern sloth might be the internet. Now, rather than be slothful by a lack of doing, we are slothful by an over-doing. Too many windows open onto the world for us to really look through any single one.  Could this process be likewise, a mortal illness containing its own cure? A disgrace for which we could be grateful?

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