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Inspiration, Indolence, and the Torment of Toilet Texting
The guilty muses of John Keats
If you see a young adult heading to the bathroom, there’s only a 10% chance they’re not bringing their phone with them. That’s according to a survey that found that 90% of Millennials, 82% of Gen Xers, and 57% of Baby Boomers “use their phone on the toilet.”
Every time we do this, we rob ourselves of inspiration. Boredom is a muse, and bathrooms are sacred founts of inspiration. As one interpretation puts it:
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Showers are a safe place that provides “a dopamine high, relaxed state, and distracted mind,” factors that are ideal for the creativity and idea formation. Dopamine, critical to creativity, is released when we’re relaxed, feeling great, listening to music, exercising, and yes, taking a shower.
It’s in Infinite Jest where a tennis player, mid-evacuation in a bathroom stall, examines the straining ankles of a man in the stall next to him and reflects on how the smelly sublime of defecation is a universal experience that unites all of humanity.
Toilets are rancid rites of singular thinking. When phones serve as the altars of our supplication, we practice division and distraction, even in the basest of human actions. Because why waste time just sitting there and staring at our feet? Why let our minds wander, anywhere or any time, when we can let our thumbs scroll?
In our search for inspiration in palm-sized windows, we become blind to it. Rarely, now, do we see the value in what we cannot measure.
We measure calories. We measure text response time. We measure likes, followers, fans, favorites, and minutes watched, spent, engaged, passing. We measure REM sleep and light sleep, web traffic and credit card activity. We measure distance from home and distance to home, hours working and hours watching. If we could measure exactly how many days we had until we died, we would open the app each day.
In a digital culture delirious with quantification, we feel guilt for unmeasurable activities: lying in the sun, reading, staring, thinking, listening to music without working. Creating for the joy of creation, as Kurt Vonnegut wished in a letter to highschoolers, must only be justified as part of a hustle.
But to just do something and then destroy it? For the sake of creating it? Who has time to do that, much less be bored or, worse yet, lazy? After all, most people under 45 receive 85+ texts a day. We depend on our phones to grind our free time into progress - whether we’re managing a social media presence, digesting the latest news and curating choice bits for reaction with a chef’s eye, or scrying the screen for stimulation.
Six out of ten millennials say they can never “truly” relax, because of their phones. Research shows that our brains interpret mobile devices as a source of labor. We get tired and bored when we use them. It’s easy to test this out: pick up your phone right now. Put it down. Where did you go? Was it relaxing?
The hunger for hustle was the goal. As Steve Jobs explained:
We made the buttons on the screen look so good you'll want to lick them.
In the faulty fulfillment we find in our phones, we forgo the leisure that allows us to think creatively, in diffusion, to find the truth, find ourselves, and not panic about not accomplishing something, not responding or reacting, not expanding ourselves in a world where we are constantly reminded, by our phones, that we’re all going to die relatively soon.
London-born poet John Keats (1795 - 1821), who had much less time than most of us, struggled with this debate until his death. But it’s his indolence that became him, not his hustle. Had he brought his phone - or his parchment - to the toilet, one wonders if we would know him at all.
Ode to Indolence
After spending six years studying medicine, John Keats decided to quit everything and live the life of a full-time poet. He was tortured by the choice, feeling selfish and worthless and always wondering if he made the wrong decision, writing:
I have the choice as it were of two Poisons (yet I ought not to call this a Poison) the one is voyaging to and from India for a few years; the other is leading a feverous life alone with Poetry—This latter will suit me best—for I cannot resolve to give up my Studies. It strikes me it would not be quite so proper for you to make such inquiries … Yes, I would rather conquer my indolence and strain my nerves at some grand Poem.
Three years later, he was dead from tuberculosis. This followed the tragic destiny of his family:
“[Keats’s] father died when he fell from a horse in 1804, and his grand-father died a year later. In 1810 his mother succumbed to what was probably tuberculosis, Keats having nursed her through her illness. His maternal grand-mother died soon after taking the Keats children under her roof, and Tom died after contracting tuberculosis while John watched helplessly.”
Aged twenty-five, Keats spent his final months coughing up his lungs and weeping when he woke to find himself still alive. At the time of his death, he had sold only about two hundred copies of his poetry collections.
Although prolific during his short career, and now one of the most studied and admired British poets, his reputation rests on a small body of work, centred on the Odes, and only in the creative outpouring of the last years of his short life was he able to express the inner intensity for which he has been lauded since his death. Keats was convinced that he had made no mark in his lifetime.
Disgusted by his own destiny, knowing he was dying, Keats wrote his fiancée in 1820:
I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd.
Rather than tuberculosis, Percey Shelley (1792-1822), another Romantic poet, blamed his friend’s death on bad reviews. Lord Byron (1788-1824), the Hemingway to Shelley’s Fitzgerald, couldn’t help but snipe at the sin of sensitivity, writing that Keats was “snuffed out by an article.” Before there were mean tweets, there were literary reviews in 1800s.
Just take the example of Scottish writer John Gibson Lockhart, the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott. When reviewing the Keats poem “Endymion” (1818), he called the piece "imperturbable drivelling idiocy" and suggested Keats did indeed make the wrong choice and should have become a pharmacist, not a poet:
It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes."
Sure, the tuberculosis was the cause. But were mean reviews a contributing factor?
Percey Shelley lamented the premature fate of Keats in his poem “Adonais” (1821).
The loveliest and the last,
The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew
Died on the promise of the fruit.
Shelley, at age twenty-nine, would die one year later.
In the three years between John Keats’ decision to quit his job and pursue poetry, it’s the odes he made in the last year of his life, when he dwelled on both indolence and inspiration, that made him immortal. As T.S. Eliot explained, the odes Keats had written in 1821 were:
Certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet.
We remember Keats not for his career aspirations, but for the poetry he created in his own quest for the anti-hustle and the laziness that shamed him so much yet produced the work that would become his legacy. Keats illustrates the guilty muses of boredom and the inspiration of indolence with 1819’s Ode to Indolence, which dwells on the pointlessness of poetry and the powerlessness of art in the form of three figures:
The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name;
The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,
And ever watchful with fatiguèd eye;
The last, whom I love more, the more of blame
Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek,—
I knew to be my demon Poesy.
In the poem, Love is unreachable. Ambition is exhaustion. Poesy is a malicious, joyless demon urging Keats to create.
O folly! What is Love? and where is it?
And for that poor Ambition! it springs
From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit;
For Poesy!—no,—she has not a joy,—
At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons,
And evenings steep’d in honey’d indolence;
Keats feels the pain of pointless days - just as his narrator in Ode to Indolence. Even after being shown Love, Ambition, and Poesy, our hero tells them all to get lost.
So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise
My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;
For I would not be dieted with praise,
A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce!
Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more
In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn;
Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store;
Vanish, ye Phantoms! from my idle spright,
Into the clouds, and never more return!
The irony of Ode to Indolence is that it is in boredom itself that Keats located a legacy. Indolence became inspiration that begot this creation. Meditating on his malaise, Keats found the poetry that made him live forever. In sloth, we see ourselves better.
Do you believe in the hustle? What is “hustle” to you?
Keep your phone out of the bathroom and try indolence sometime. See what poetry you find in peace, not panic, staring at your feet centered on the earth in the universal experience of yourself.
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