Out of Sheer Rage
I would like to begin writing this today…… only tomorrow feels better since it is about deferring.
It should be no surprise that I say this because it is traditional to turn the phenomenon of procrastination into a joke. This is a good way to belittle it, and make it bad, so we don’t have to think much, but perhaps the whole idea has nuances that really do need carefully teasing out. In the Middle East they say Bokrah inch’Allah – ‘Tomorrow, god willing’ or even ba’ad Bokrah – ‘After tomorrow’ and make it sound like time falls off the edge of a cliff. Only in that space beyond tomorrow will get done. But the tone of ‘will’ suggests it is really ‘might’, and might is not that certain, but closer to the truth of the way people behave. Why live in a linear world if you don’t have to? Time is elastic, so slow down- what’s your hurry? – and explore the possibilities inherent in putting this off till tomorrow.
A procrastinator, besides being a word that is difficult to pronounce, is alleged to be a terrible person. Yet we all procrastinate at some level as a world where we always get things done might become oppressive. Procrastination is mostly defined in inverse proportion to achievement as defined by the success-driven culture. But what if we were allowed to turn idleness into an occupation? People are all too apt to suggest time-management plans written in detail to oblige people who don’t feel like doing anything to dig deep into their natural inertia to produce something that can be applauded. Then perhaps they can become worthy. But it is worth considering that the unconscious mind may have a hidden purpose behind all the prevarication. It all depends on what the hidden benefits of not doing really are. Procrastination could be called the ‘distraction from the self’ disease. Yes, we all become sidetracked from time to time, but to elevate not doing what you intended to do into art form, now that is an achievement that we are glad he bothered to finish.
Geoff Dyer produced a maddening, but bone-ticklingly funny, book Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H.Lawrence (1997) that appears to be a solemn literary appreciation of the work of D.H.Lawrence. Yet, pick it up and we become flummoxed. Is it a biography? A commentary? Homage? It could even pass for a novel of autobiographical sort. Or is it a treatise on possibilities inherent in not achieving what you set out to achieve? A kind of treatise on Zen? Why does it meander so?
It stops and starts and skirts around the issue of dealing with Lawrence. Then it gets sidetracked into wrestling with daily trivia which is raised to the status of heroic quest for satisfaction where there is none. We hear more about the details in Dyer’s life than we do about Lawrence who remains off stage like a presiding genie. The narrative ambles along like the opening quote by Flaubert talking of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, full of “endless explanations of irrelevancies and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject.” In short, it is a litany of failed attempts, another genre-defying book, rapidly becoming farcical- hence its reputation as a book that can touch your funny bone. It is also a rant, a long one; its length emphasised by lack of chapter divisions. But not everyone may want to take a sip from this procrastinator’s bible. It can irritate the shit our of people who are action-junkies, and think all this navel gazing is self indulgent, and perhaps it is; in which case, it is not the book for you, but bear in mind that action for action’s sake can be utterly futile too.
Dyer’s approach is however refreshingly honest and full of human foibles, hilariously well observed. He follows Mark Twain’s idea of never putting off “until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” The other procrastinator’s slogan might be one of Dyer’s other books Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do it (2003) a classic Dyereque title- and another odd book of essays which doesn’t quite fit the book shop labels. To me, books are intriguing to the degree in which they elliptically tell the ‘other’ story, the one behind the one on the page and if that involves putting the writer stage centre through a lived experience, then so be it. This ‘other’ story is the human of weaknesses and failures, the one revealing the hidden mechanics and synchronicities of how the main story came into being. In Dyer’s case this was agonisingly slow. He never gained the paraphernalia of permanence, as his ten-year stay in Paris reveals – after a decade, you are still a tourist and only “the waiters remain.” He couldn’t write his book in Paris (‘the city of dreadful night’ according to Lawrence) because of that niggling feeling of transience. He could not work in Rome because of the heat; nor could he work on the Greek island of Alonissos because there was nothing to do there except look at the blue sea, so not enough pressure to write. You need first to be busy, in order to become busier. He couldn’t write it in Oxford either, as Lawrence detested Oxford and that would be to spit on his grave. On following him around the globe, the thing Dyer likes most about Lawrence is his irrepressible irritability, a serendipitous mirroring of Dyer’s disgruntled and dilatory nature.
So to unravel the mystery of procrastination, which as Don Marquis explains is “the art of keeping up with yesterday,” I decided to consult Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan (2007). He actually links the infamous bed of Procrustes to the art of procrastination. At first I thought there was an etymological link but it seems not. The myth goes that Procrustes would, after enticing weary travellers with dinner, and a bed for the night, eagerly chop off their limbs or stretch them to fit the size of his bed. In one version of the story, he had two beds: he would offer the long one to short people and the short one to tall people. Stop to think about that for a while: Yes, this applies in politics and economics, health, or wherever the one-size-fits- all solution is offered as the only solution. We tend do this with time. Hence the growth of procrastination. But if work really does fill the time allotted to it, then consider how we might be obliged to squeeze a lot of work into a tiny slither of time designed only to someone else’s plan? Taleb defines it succinctly: “Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.” Dyer’s book has the ring of a soul in rebellion to the confines of life, plus a very strong aversion to writing a dry academic book. Procrastination is a natural defence, your spirit wrestling with the Procrustean bed of modernity. So, rather than rid yourself of the tendency to second thoughts, or regard it as a negative trait, reconsider that it might be a way of positioning yourself ‘contrary to corporate agendas.’
Timothy Pychyl, who compiled a resource, the wellspring of all things to do with procrastination, said that “all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.” Festina Lente is Latin for ‘Make Haste Slowly’ which, on the one hand, satisfies the need to get things done, but on the other questions why ‘doing’ is more highly valued than ‘being’. Take your time, why not, as if you don’t, time will take you anyway. Procrastination, along with many other distinctly human inclinations, has become pathologised. Perhaps, in the near future, they’ll sell us a pill to stimulate constant proactivity? If it is a problem, it could be caused by akrasia a weakness of the will, or aboulia a lack of will according to Plato. So clearly there is something more complex to be addressed here as British philosopher Neil Kramer’s work speaks of reestablishing the importance of the non-personal will and of having self discipline.
Procrastination can protect you from error and gives nature a chance to do its job; so it could be called a risk-averse form of decision making. Pavlina writes “Even when it seems like your procrastination habit is a purely destructive one, there may be hidden benefits that can be difficult to see at the time.” But take time to see them, as to miss them makes us fall even deeper into the action=success trap. There is also the idea that it helps us identify what is important to us, as we wouldn’t procrastinate if we really valued the task. To delay therefore may give you a chance to rethink, revise or readjust. The point is that procrastination could contain important growth experiences just as Dyer’s book tells us. Following your heart may seem to lead to trivial and wasteful activities, but those avoidances could be the infrastructure of a deeper purpose and be the vital link to your personal path. So dawdlers of the world – your holding back may be the very thing that saves you. There is time for the Yin, and time for the Yang, and all that lives in between.
Lawrence and Dyer: Astrology, the Muses and Quetzalcoatl
Mercury is currently retrograde until June 11th and this important for budding procrastinators for the following reason. This retrograde action is literally like the universal mind telling us to put things off till later. Good to know that we humans are not the only ones who do it. Mercury is also currently in Gemini, its own sign, for 71 days. This length of time is perfect for writers wanting to re-edit their work or students revising for exams. Mercury appears to go backwards on a regular basis – up to four times a year- so it is not unusual for us to be obliged to check for errors, but there is way too much fuss made about the retrograde period. It’s a cool down phase- that’s all. Like Dyer, a Gemini, who seemed to make a habit of it, he just re-looked at his options from new perspectives. Paris or Rome: Who wouldn’t at least pause for thought? So this is an appropriate time to be discussing an entire book devoted to dabbling in non-compliance to impulse. People are too easily inclined to say “you have to move on,” but perhaps you need to move back a step first before you even begin to think of moving in any direction.
Lawrence’s natal chart reveals he was born with Mercury Retrograde – typically a good placement for writers who need to revise and rethink always. He is a Virgo ( Scorpio Rising) which lends force of detail to mind that has a nervous disposition. Mercury is exalted in Virgo so it is in a prime position for mental clarity, and to be of service to literature. It is also sextile to Saturn, but square to Pluto suggesting a triadic pyramid of intensity matched to transformative power. The Pluto-Venus opposition suggests that incendiary power he had to reformulate the culture’s traditional thoughts about love and sex. But Jupiter is also positioned in Virgo here in its detriment, indicating a perception of bad fortune befalling him. Life gave him a rough time and he made many enemies; his reputation in tatters by the time of his death. The planet Venus predominates in the chart however, in the air sign Libra which it rules. This makes total sense as he joked himself and was called by others the ‘Priest of Love.’ The sign of Libra is also the one associated most with procrastination and indecision. Lawrence had trouble settling on a place in a life of constant ‘savage’ wandering, until finally he began to shift from feeling that he was a stranger everywhere to feeling at home everywhere.
What fascinates me is that he has an unusual stellium of Muses all in is sun sign of Virgo – five of them in total: Melpomene, Urania, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, and Clio. So it might seem that the spirits of the arts gathered at his birth to muster a hurricane to his sails, making him one hell of a perfectionista. Erato, the muse of Love Poetry and mimicry, in Libra, is trine his Chiron, which also happens to be trine both his Moon and Venus, bringing the taste of a shamanic healer’s brew to his writing- rendered with intense feeling. This is in contrast to Geoff Dyer, following in Lawrence’s footsteps. In Dyer’s chart (using noon as his birth time for lack the specific time) four Muses are clustered in the fire sign of Leo. Euterpe, Muse of Music, in Pisces, is well aspected to Jupiter, perhaps explaining his love of writing about jazz musicians and Tarkovsky films. Curiously, or perhaps not so, when you get used to seeing these synchronicities, the most prominent Muse in Dyer’s chart appears to be Thalia, also in Pisces, which is both sextile his Moon and his Mercury. Thalia, is the Muse of comedy. Dyer definitely has an urbane talent to amuse as Out of Sheer Rage is cited as ‘a laugh-out loud book’, even from people who don’t usually laugh. For Lawrence, not known for his sense of humour, Thalia is the least prominent Muse, having absolutely zero aspects to any other muse or planet. Lawrence never wrote a single ‘laugh out loud’ book although Dyer does think of him as a kind of comical figure.
The Legacy of Lawrence
As I was writing this, a message from Mark Doty appeared. Doty was was struck by this lesser known poem Shades by Lawrence and its directness of voice. Lawrence speaks to us still from beyond the grave, just as Dyer speaks to our need to take our time. Yet Lawrence himself despite being a procrastinator, achieved a great deal in a short life being a poet, novelist, polemicist, critic, travel writer and painter. He also happened to be a visionary. According to his friend Catherine Carswell, he achieved everything he wanted to do. Lawrence’s emphasis on the value of touch and the instinctual, visceral power of sex seems to us now quite tame, or even obvious, yet he was vilified and hounded as a pornographer in his lifetime.
So I began thinking what is it that makes Lawrence so alive to us today? Crypto-fascist he may have been, flirting with its ideology, and like a lot of artists, he was complex, and contradictory, and easy to misunderstand, but since he was pugnacious and independent of people’s standard views. What he may have thought of Hitler is not known, since he died before the rise of the Third Reich.He pokes at the core of who we are and uses symbolic imagery to make his words resonate. This pulsing energy and drive is beautifully rendered with all due complexity in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969). This film is vintage Russell, exuberant yet also somewhat restrained. It is also that rare film in that it very nearly equals the book.
Like many other modernists, Lawrence was influenced by occult knowledge that was spinning the inner wheels of culture at the time. This is not always brought to people’s attention due to the bad press anything occult has always received. One influence, besides all the French Symbolist poets, was Maeterlink who was a Belgian Theosophist who wrote in French. The ideas were of a universals, of forces bigger than what we can conceive of, and far larger than anything religions can label as theirs for their gang wars. There was also the ultimate inspiration and debt to the writings of Nietzsche. But it is known that he read Blavatsky and C.G. Jung. There are also suggestions he knew of ‘mindfulness meditation’ from his trip to Celyon in 1920 and he definitely preferred the action version rather than sitting down. He loved to compose sitting under a tree. There are hints in his novels that he had studied Tantra as well. He wrote The Plumed Serpent (1926) on a theme that reverberates with proto-facistic theories of folk mythology in a Mexican setting. This is not to associate Nietzsche or Lawrence only with those most vilified aspects. I would not wish to get into the pros and cons of whether Lawrence was a fascist here; just to say that there are some who argue that you cannot take Lawrence at his ideology as Jad Smith does. Lawrence included complications in the narrative and at least some ‘aesthetic distance’ from the subject matter.
There is also a visionary undercurrent and direct reference back to the most ancient stellar cults. To Daniel Pinchbeck, in his book about 2012, Quetzalcoatl “unifies perceived opposites – Heaven and Earth, Spirit and Matter, light and dark, science and myth. He is the god of the wind and the morning star, the dispenser of culture, with a special affinity to astronomy and the planet Venus.” The link to Venus, as the morning star is significant because of the Venus transit in 2012; and the link to Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail, referring to grand cycles of return, across aeons of time. The cult of Quezalcoatl, and the ancient gods, and the Stellar Cults, to whom the serpent was sacred, is more or less hijacked in the novel by General Cipriano for political and propaganda purposes, but it will outlive him and resurface in another age.
I get the sense there was more that Lawrence, with Venus as his presiding planet, wanted to say about how the land which is rich, volcanic, and produces Tequila, Peyote, Magic Mushrooms and Salvia is teeming with potentially psychonautic energies. For Dyer, the world has got Lawrence the wrong way around; it is not his novels that make him great, but the numerous other bits and pieces- the travel writing, the letters and the poems -which he would just dash off with barely a correction, that are the key to his appeal. Plus that indomitable spirit of his for getting up people’s noses and of just going on and on with his life no matter what.
Now might be a good time to reread Lawrence just to see if any fresh juice can be extracted that has nutrients to offer the early 21st century, at least those that have not already been argued to death. But surely it is better to put it off? That’s right, to defer or delay gratification is claimed to be a sign of higher development. Think in terms of actions versus non-actions. Both have impact. It might be better to take the view of Rilke, whom Dyer quotes,“I often asked myself whether those days on which we were forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity?”
My own feeling about Lawrence is that his words were like stones dropped into a deep pool of the imagination – the reverberations keep on pulsing outwards to today. He is a hierophantic writer, and while a bit on the preachy side, he is a shaman of his own words on the page. Poets know this instinctively; but also, what makes him interesting to me is that that he wasn’t born into class privilege, unlike most of the writers who are applauded in the UK tend to be, including Dyer himself who went to Cambridge. Lawrence was the son of a semi-literate coal miner, and that makes me think of anyone having the chance to prove they can be a primal mover and shaker, through the force of their mind and pen. That gives hope to any who stand outside the class system, and even me as the son of a man who helped to build the M6 motorway. He did pretty well for a procrastinator, and the books he left behind speak for themselves.
© Kieron Devlin,
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kieron Devlin arthealswounds.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content in accordance with a Creative Commons License.
Should there be any images from sources not mentioned, please message the author so that the image can be credited accordingly.