Robert Zaretsky: In Praise of Laziness

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Robert Zaretsky is professor of history at the University of Houston's Honors College. He is author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.]

All history is contemporary history -- even for histories the future still holds in store for us. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the publication in France of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou. The book's subject -- everyday life in an isolated village in 14th-century France -- as well as its narrative (there isn't one) should have led to instant and enduring obscurity.

Instead, the book became a surprise bestseller and remains popular enough to have justified an anniversary edition of the English translation a few years ago. The reasons for this historical investigation's unlikely success in the France of the 1970s have endured through today; understanding them will help us fathom the massive strikes that are currently paralyzing the country and threatening to eviscerate the economic and social reforms proposed by the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Montaillou quietly placed itself in the French literary tradition that treats laziness with the gravity and intelligence it deserves. An earlier representative of this tradition is Paul Lafargue's call to arms, The Right to Be Lazy, while a more recent addition to this genre is Corinne Maier's Bonjour Laziness. While Lafargue's pamphlet was published in the late 19th century and Maier's small book appeared in the early 21st century, they address the same phenomenon: the soul-numbing nature of modern work. Whether it takes place at the factory or office, work has become mechanical and meaningless. Rather than a trend, it is a perennial subject in France.

It is not accidental that the syndicats, or unions, behind the recent strikes in Paris represent France's great mass of fonctionnaires, or white-collar workers whose job it is, well, to make the state institutions function. This is the sort of job, according to Maier, where "qualifications are irrelevant -- the only requirement is that you leave your intellect, personality, and imagination at the door." Lafargue would not have disagreed: The modern workplace, he declared, condemns man "to play the part of a machine turning out work."

But as Ladurie makes clear in his remarkable book, the jig was already up more than half a millennium ago....

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