Ideas for a brighter future for all

The trap of rational recreation: Griffith Review 81

Here’s a scene from a film or television show that you’ve almost certainly watched: little kids joyfully bomb a resort pool, the arc of their descent one long plea for their parents’ attention. They’re ignored because Dad or Mum, or both, are on the phone (or, latterly, Zoom), talking about spreadsheets in a business voice until an accidental, but definitely moralising, splash lands on their face or, ruinously, the laptop they’re anxiously scanning. Anger flashes, the kids are crestfallen, the other parent looks on despairingly; the holiday mood is soured. A variation: a group of reverent birdwatchers pad through the undergrowth, peering up into the forest canopy until the silence is shattered by a man shouting into, and then at, his phone. He storms off swearing, hand upthrust in a fruitless search for signal, while just behind him a fabled bird settles on a branch, unseen. In both cases, and in the multitude of variations on this theme (not all of which implicate the pernicious effects of technology), we witness the judgement – the shaming – of those who squander the gift of family, friendship or nature when it is cocooned from the invasive demands of the workplace.

These corrective vignettes argue that leisure, properly appreciated, is a space of exemption from the impingements of the world. Of course, we know that isn’t the case for all sorts of reasons, not least of which that leisure is inevitably the product of someone else’s toil. That realisation, too, occasions further judgements on leisure’s uncritical consumers in all their environmentally ruinous and culturally insensitive enactments (see season one of The White Lotus which, helpfully, anthologises versions of all the above examples). What I want to suggest here is that although shame appears to be the consequence of betraying leisure in the name of work, its regulatory function is – and always has been – intrinsic to the idea of leisure and its reformist potential.

Land of Cockaigne
Land of Cockaigne (Luilekkerland); Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567.
"These corrective vignettes argue that leisure, properly appreciated, is a space of exemption from the impingements of the world. Of course, we know that isn’t the case for all sorts of reasons, not least of which that leisure is inevitably the product of someone else’s toil.."

If you were a European peasant living in the Middle Ages, you would have heard a lot about the Land of Cockaigne. Its exact location varied, but it was always someplace remote and temperate of climate. In Cockaigne, where work was forbidden, rivers of wine bubbled past golden buildings formed from sweet pastry, while the beasts in the verdant fields proved ready roasted and delicious. Everyone wore magnificent clothes, sex was freely available and no one aged or fell ill. In his account of Cockaigne, the Dutch literary historian Herman Pleij describes the way that these fantasy worlds of perfect leisure proved powerfully consoling in the face of the frankly miserable circumstances of everyday life. Cockaigne was not in itself an answer to persistent questions about the scale of human suffering to be endured, but perhaps mentally occupying these utopias made it all a little more bearable, either as a kind of hyperbolic raillery among friends or a private reverie. By contrast, the Church’s explanation for misery rested more narrowly on the lasting consequences of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from a place not without its Cockaigne-like resemblances.

Depressingly, by the time the Cockaigne stories were recorded at the end of the Middle Ages, their meaning had flipped. They were no longer provocations to fantasise, for example, about worlds so innocent of food scarcity that literally everything the eye could see was edible. Instead, they summoned an upside-down world that detailed the opposite of what was desirable, and how one was not supposed to behave. That is, the stories were now understood in the shaming light of Christian teaching concerning unregulated desire generally, with gluttony in particular as the very worst of sins. Gluttons, it was said, defied the First Commandment by worshipping their bellies above God. So, even before the advent of modern leisure, when for most it only existed as a kind of thought experiment, it nonetheless furnished a space for moral instruction, a kind of shame trap to make ‘better’ people. This meliorist aspect of leisure persists in many forms but I’m going to focus on just one: the museum.

Head over to Griffith Review 81 to read the rest of this article.


Dr David EllisonDr. David Ellison is a senior lecturer in literary studies and cultural history in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University. He is also a member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. His interest in leisure dates from a catalogue essay he wrote for photo-media artist Anne Zahalka’s series Leisureland.


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