In his new book, ‘Not Working: Why We Have to Stop,’ psychoanalyst Josh Cohen makes the case for embracing inertia.
Laziness is not often thought of as conducive to creativity. But in his new book, Not Working: Why We Have to Stop, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen makes a persuasive argument for embracing inertia.
From his practice in South London, Cohen tells Document how studying the phenomena of sitting still and doing nothing is actually quite hard work. “I’ve never written a book before where the architecture took such a long time to establish itself,” he says. “The thing about inactivity is that it isn’t one thing—it can mean so many different things.”
As both a professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths University in London and a practising psychoanalyst, he’s constantly examining the human condition from multiple perspectives; be it historical, personal, professional, exceptional, or mundane.
Not Working: Why We Have to Stop is a counter-argument to the idea that a perpetually active life is the only one worth living. Through the prism of four different types of inactivity—the burnout, the slob, the daydreamer, and the slacker—Cohen looks at the most prolific and endeared creatives of the past 200 years, and the role apathy had in their successes.
Split up into two further sections—gravity and antigravity—the book methodically and carefully uncovers all types of lethargy. “The idea is that you can either succumb to the force of gravity or resist it by taking flight in a different way,” Cohen explains. “Rather than crashing down to Earth, you could try and fly.”
The perfect example of this is the daydreamer. Cohen uses the example of Emily Dickinson, and her ability to stay within the confines of her room, while experiencing the “outer edges of experience.” A famous recluse, Dickenson only spoke to visitors through doors, and even listened to her own father’s funeral from the privacy of her bedroom. But, as Cohen argues, she travels far and wide in her poetry. “In her mind, she literally goes to every corner of the universe and to the outer edges of experience,” he adds. “We’re so used to the idea that you have to travel geographically far to really experience otherness, and what I find so fascinating about Dickenson is that she doesn’t go anywhere, and she travels further and more dangerously than the most intrepid explorer.”
Cohen also discusses Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, and David Foster Wallace. Despite their prolific outputs, Cohen argues that they are all often driven by a desire to shut down. “Take Warhol,” says Cohen. “He makes an eight-hour film of one of his lovers sleeping, or he trains a still camera for 24 hours on the Empire State Building. He wants to induce us—states of almost catatonic lethargy.”
Cohen thinks the stillness of Warhol’s work goes beyond wanting to evoke a sense of fatigue. It’s about changing your state of mind. “When you stare at anything, for long enough, whether it’s a sleeping body or a building, your perceptual capacity changes, and you start to see things in the margin or at the edges of things,” he adds. “And you start to notice yourself noticing; you get into a much more intimate relationship with your own mind, and with your own senses.”
Each of Cohen’s titans of creativity perpetually oscillates between stillness and mania. Take Orson Welles, who Cohen suggests embodies the character of a slob. A man known for excesses (of women, drink, and food), Cohen doesn’t categorize Welles as your typical couch potato. He clearly admires his ability to “discharge just about every creative impulse he has” as an illustrator, writer, columnist, and broadcaster.
But Welles’ excess isn’t your typical lethargy. Cohen says he was actively trying to rid himself of energy. “I discuss how he does that with money,” he explains. “He’s so excessive and so irrational in his patterns of spending that it’s as though he’s trying to bankrupt himself, not just in the obvious sense, but to deplete himself at every level of money, of energy, of desire.” Cohen goes on to suggest, by doing all manner of things, Welles was in the midst of an exhausting attempt to rid himself of the drive, feeling, or desire to do anything at all.
Despite the book’s long view on the sleepier side of life, it has a clear and affirmative tone. The final chapter explores the slacker, that person who turns their back on the circadian rhythm of society and dares to march to their own drum. “The French writer Roland Barthes talks a lot about living in one’s own rhythm, to let life take you in whatever direction it’s going to take you kind of openness to discovery.”
Cohen doesn’t claim to be a new lifestyle guru. He describes his younger self as a daydreamer, constantly being told off for having his head in the clouds, and was described as being “slow.” Neither is he “trotting it out” as some form of “self-justification.” This isn’t the slacker’s guide on how to tune in and drop out; it’s a carefully mediated look into a world of daydreaming, apathy, and indolence.
In a world where we’re all expected to have a side hustle on top of a full-time career, Cohen is trying to warn us against the perils of festishing productivity. “I’m not a guru telling people, ‘Be like me,’ he explains. “I’m actually writing from inside the problem, telling people what it’s like to be torn between the impulse to do and the impulse to stop.” But as a professional analyst, he’s served up a persuasive selection of arguments in favor of stopping and doing nothing.