"Nearer, My Couch, to Thee



The New York Times Book Review, 6 June 1993, pp. 3, 57. [Pynchon's essay was the first entry in a summer series devoted to the seven deadly sins] The Deadly Sins/Sloth

"Nearer, My Couch, to Thee"
By Thomas Pynchon IN his classical discussion of the subject in the "Summa Theologica," Aquinas termed Sloth, or acedia, one of the seven capital sins. He said he was using "capital" to mean "primary" or "at the head of" because such sins gave rise to others, but there was an additional and darker sense resonating luridly just beneath and not hurting the power of his argument, for the word also meant "deserving of capital punishment." Hence the equivalent term "mortal," as well as the punchier English "deadly." But come on, isn't that kind of extreme, death for something as lightweight as Sloth? Sitting there on some medieval death row, going, "So, look, no offense, but what'd they pop you for anyway?" "Ah, usual story, they came around at the wrong time of day, I end up taking out half of some sheriff's unit with my two-cubit crossbow, firing three-quarter-inch bolts on auto feed. Anger, I guess.... How about you?" "Um, well ... it wasn't anger...." "Ha! Another one of these Sloth cases, right?" ". . fact, it wasn't even me." "Never is, slugger -- say, look, it's almost time for lunch. You wouldn't happen to be a writer, by any chance?" Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. They are approached all the time on the subject, not only for free advice, but also to speak at Sloth Symposia, head up Sloth Task Forces, testify as expert witnesses at Sloth Hearings. The stereotype arises in part from our conspicuous presence in jobs where pay is by the word, and deadlines are tight and final -- we are presumed to know from piecework and the convertibility of time and money. In addition, there is all the glamorous folklore surrounding writer's block, an affliction known sometimes to resolve itself dramatically and without warning, much like constipation, and (hence?) finding wide sympathy among readers. Writer's block, however, is a trip to the theme park of your choice alongside the mortal sin that produces it. Like each of the other six, Sloth was supposed to be the progenitor of a whole family of lesser, or venial, sins, among them Idleness, Drowsiness, Restlessness of the Body, Instability and
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We sell our dreams.pomona. in the way of venial sin and bad judgment. Philadelphia. for which Poor Richard had scant use. for example what Aquinas terms Uneasiness of the Mind." which. just kept piling up like a budget deficit. materials and labor going in. there is nothing to be found under "Dreams. was here all rectified." but not until arriving on the shores of America did it take the next important step in its evolution. eventually pushing us to where we will do anything.. But Sloth's offspring. and at a higher level of intensity.pynchon." And Sloth. not much in the course of its flow could have been called nonlinear. unforgiving. unless you counted the ungovernable warp of dreams. by Franklin's time. So real money actually proceeds from Sloth. consolidating itself as a Christian capitalist state.that is. When he was not merely repeating well-known British proverbs on the subject. a loss of spiritual determination that then feeds back on in to the process. where idle exercises in poolside loquacity have not infrequently generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue. The city was becoming a kind of high-output machine. although this transformation is said to be even more amazing elsewhere in the entertainment sector.") Spiritual matters were not quite as immediate as material ones. which was considered time away from accumulating wealth. which got everybody early to bed and early to rise. In Frances M. Sloth over the next few centuries after Aquinas had a few big successes.to paraphrase the Shangri-Las -.. In the idea of time that had begun to rule city life in Poor Richard's day.style outbursts of his own -. though bad -. whereby whatever was evaded or put off now had to be made up for later. "You may delay. getting advice from Beyond. one-way. even as acedia was in the last stages of its shift over from a spiritual to a secular condition." It is of course precisely in such episodes of mental traveling that writers are known to do good work. solving formal problems. visiting in 1842. sleep. while the dimensions of the inevitable payback grew ever less merciful."O Lazy-bones ! Dost think God would have given thee arms and legs if he had not designed thou shouldst use them?" Beneath the rubato of the day abided a stern pulse beating on. Barbour's 1974 concordance of the sayings. soon enough producing what are currently known as guilt and depression. deliberately self-directed. Poor Richard was not shy in expressing his distaste for Sloth. uniform. lies about a century of early America. to Thee" http://www. The urban mazework of London. notably "Hamlet. My Couch.are not always evil. answered less and less to the religious vision that William Penn had started off with. traffic inside flowing briskly about a grid of regular city blocks. Poor Richard. to avoid the discomfort. and Melville's doomed scrivener. Bartleby. "Acedia" in Latin means sorrow. having hypnagogic adventures that with luck can be recovered later on. is called curiosity. "After walking about in it for an hour or two. he was contributing Great Awakening. "if it pertains to the imaginative power. Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do.edu/uncollected/sloth. but time will not. orthogonal.html Loquacity. in general not reversible -. like productivity! Sloth was no longer so much a Sin against God or spiritual good as against a particular sort of time. or "rushing after various things without rhyme or reason." dreams being as unwelcome in Philly back then as their frequent companion. against clock time. goods and services coming out. leading into ambiguities and indeed evils. remarked."Nearer. As a topic for fiction. time that had to be tithed back into the order of 2 of 5 3:38 PM . ineluctable. sometimes even their best. being continual evasion.. I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street. (Dickens. where every second was of equal length and irrevocable. turned away from God. Between Franklin's hectic aphorist.

Franklin.of the remote control and the VCR. and we pass them by. for sleep. a failure of public will allowing the introduction of evil policies and the rise of evil regimes. fiction. My Couch. Proust. Though it has never lost its deepest notes of mortal anxiety. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating. is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener -. Hemingway. thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth. acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Any discussion of Sloth in the present day is of course incomplete without considering television. sucking it all in. chiefly owing to the timely invention -. though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism. nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order. to 1 A. fantasies.edu/uncollected/sloth. his employer.M.html things to purchase 20 hours of productive waking. eating too much.who. will pass by -. to Thee" http://www. committing the six other deadly sins in parallel.Sloth is our background radiation..it is everywhere. re-enacting in reverse the transaction between dream and revenue that brought these colored shadows here to begin with so that we might feed.M. lusting after images. finally. though the Vietnam era and the Reagan-Bush years are not far behind. a deliberate turning against faith in anything because of the inconvenience faith presents to the pursuit of quotidian lusts."Nearer. presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Television time is no longer the linear and uniform 3 of 5 3:38 PM . for it is despair bought at a discount price. to 5 A. the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia.this writer! -. but persist in sorrow? "Bartleby" is the first great epic of modern Sloth.M. envying the celebrated. Musil and others„take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you're bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time. along with its creature and symbiont. Sartre. Sad but true. accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life. and no longer noticed. angry at the news. The other major nonwork block of time was four hours. maybe there is hope after all. coveting merchandise. BY the time of "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853).there would seem to have been no other room for speculations. a man of affairs and substance. Fiction and nonfiction alike are full of characters who fail to do what they should because of the effort involved. perversely proud of whatever distance we may enjoy between our couches and what appears on the screen. Right in the heart of robberbaron capitalism. In this century we have come to think of Sloth as primarily political. or as real.pomona. according to the "Autobiography. chiropractic fodder. During the Poor Richard years." was allowing himself from l A. it never gets as painful as outright despair." While his options go rapidly narrowing. the worldwide fascist ascendancy of the 1920's and 30's being perhaps Sloth's finest hour. How can we not recognize our world? Occasions for choosing good present themselves in public and private for us every day. Tales spun in idleness find us Tubeside. Life in that orthogonal machine was supposed to be nonfiction.stay still enough and the blade of the scythe. the notorious Couch Potato. dreams. 9 P. devoted to the Evening Question.M. Acedia is the vernacular of everyday moral life. our easy-listening station -.not a minute too soon ! -. "What good have I done this day?" This must have been the schedule's only occasion for drifting into reverie -. "I would prefer not to. a person who collaborates with the root of all evil. supine. Yet.pynchon. or one who does nothing. uncritically. somehow. The compulsive pessimist's last defense -. with its gifts of paralysis. angers and the rest.

even imagining that we can escape it. fast-forward. there to be exploited forever. but that it has only retreated from its long-familiar venue. even those about superheroes of Sloth back in Sloth's good old days. Belief was intense. I sat on the couch in my bathrobe and rode in the parade ! '" *** Sure.. Is some kind of change already in the offing? A recent issue of The National Enquirer announced the winner of their contest for the King of Spuds. speeding and repeating time -.some inner alertness or tension. transcended? Another possibility of course is that we have not passed beyond acedia at all. television.who knows? computer games.ready to pop up again in some new form to offer us cosmic despair on the cheap. Channel-surfing and VCR-jockeying may require a more nonlinear awareness than may be entirely compatible with the venerable sin of Sloth -. the Tuber in question mentions sitting and not reclining. rewind and so forth.. Not when you have instant channel selection. Felt. disposable fantasies. more shadowy environments -. as of someone sitting in a yoga posture. there we'll sit with our heads in virtual reality. What may have seemed under the old dispensation like time wasted and unrecoverable is now perhaps not quite as simply structured.." 4 of 5 3:38 PM . somehow. home and watches a fourth set on the job. If Sloth can be defined as the pretense.' admits the 35-year-old bachelor. obscure trading floors in faraway cities -. glumly refusing to be absorbed in its idle. Sins against video time will have to be radically redefined.edu/uncollected/sloth. who keeps three TV sets blaring 24 hours a day at his Fridley. there is little question that Sloth will continue to evolve away from its origins in the long-ago age of faith and miracle. to Thee" http://www. Unless the state of our souls becomes once more a subject of serious concern. or top Couch Potato in the United States. "'There's nothing I like more than sitting around with a six-pack of beer. "'All l do is watch television and work."Nearer. the fact that twice. despite technology's good intentions. full of leisurely but lethal misadventures with the ruthless villains of the Acedia Squad.html commodity it once was. and is seeking other.pynchon. or in Zen meditation. cult religions. slowing. then we may for now at least have found the illusion. My Couch. The Christian God was near. Thomas Pynchon's last novel was "Vineland. some chips and a remote control. engagement deep and fatal. suggest something different here. that time is one more nonfinite resource.. Minn. when daily life really was the Holy Ghost visibly at work and time was a story. with a beginning.pomona. Perhaps the future of Sloth will lie in sinning against what now seems increasingly to define us -technology. of controlling. They went into my house. Persisting in Luddite sorrow. Sloth -defiant sorrow in the face of God's good intentions -. Is Sloth once more about to be. middle and end. reversing. The TV station even featured me in a town parade. but is it Sloth? The fourth television set at work. in the tradition of American settlement and spoliation. got my couch and put it on a float.was a deadly sin. culled from about a thousand entries. the effect. Video time can be reshaped at will.

pynchon. My Couch."Nearer.edu/uncollected/sloth.html Copyright © 1995-97 San Narciso Community College 5 of 5 3:38 PM . to Thee" http://www.pomona.

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