June 18, 2010
FEED (June 18, 1999): According to a report published in the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, the Walt Disney Company will likely announce that its latest, much-anticipated Asian theme park will be built not in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, as was previously expected, but in Hong Kong, or perhaps Shanghai. Which will be a tremendous symbolic victory for the modern American notion of leisure over the ancient Chinese ideal of idleness.
Visiting an amusement park — Disneyland being the exemplar of the phenomenon — is an instance of “recreation”: something fun and relaxing one does when free from work. But as political philosopher Sebastian De Grazia points out in his classic work, Of Time, Work and Leisure (1962), it’s important to distinguish between “leisure activities” which are performed for their own sakes or ends, and those which merely restore or re-create the energy which has been drained from us by our occupations. Because “amusement” and “recreation” are made necessary only because of work, visiting a theme park may produce a feeling of relief, but it’s not an action which intrinsically occasions “felicity,” or true happiness. De Grazia concludes that what passes for leisure in the United States — a country that prides itself on working hard and playing hard — is really just a slightly preferable manifestation of work itself.
Chinese scholar Lin Yutang, author of The Importance of Living (1937), would have agreed with De Grazia. In a chapter entitled “The Importance of Loafing,” Dr. Lin scoffs at the American vices of efficiency, punctuality, and the desire for success, which “steal from [Americans] their inalienable right of loafing and cheat them of many a good, idle, and beautiful afternoon.” Shaking his head at the American go-getter, who strives for perfect efficiency even in his so-called “leisure,” Lin suggests that Americans would enjoy living more if they could only learn to be idle — to drink, smoke, and loll in easy-chairs, like the Chinese do. East would meet West soon enough, he predicted, because the rapidly developing “machine culture” would bring with it increased amounts of free time for all — at which point the ancient Chinese “cult of the idle life” would “invade” the Occidental world.
Alas! How wrong he was. Lin’s felicitous “Chinese Philosophy” was anathema even in the very country it extolled, as it turned out. (So much for the stereotype of the indolent, long-fingernailed, opium-smoking Chinaman!) Denounced as a member of the hated intellectual “leisure class” — how he must have shuddered at that particular choice of phrase — he was soon forced to flee to Hong Kong, where he died in 1976. Disney’s latest amusement park — each attraction carefully designed to restore the depleted energy of China’s new middle class — will no doubt be erected directly over Lin Yutang’s grave.
Launched in May 1995, the web magazine FEED — which helped launch the careers of Steven Johnson, Steve Bodow, Keith Gessen, Joshua Micah Marshall, Erik Davis, Christine Kenneally, Alex Abramovich, Chris Lehmann, Sam Lipsyte, Alex Ross, Clay Shirky, Ana Marie Cox, and many others, including yours truly — went offline in the summer of 2001. In June 2010, its archives were made available. This is the first in a series reprinting a few of my own favorite FEED Dailies.