May 13 2010

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White

Brendan Boyle

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"Comes over one an absolute necessity to move." And yet most times one does not. I was myself not moving—though the desire was there—when I met this sentence, the first in D. H. Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia. In my case, moving meant reviewing The Thief of Time, not moving meant reading Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, a book about the "serious business of putting off writing my study of [D.H. Lawrence]." And so it began, putting off writing by reading about putting off writing, all with a familiar irritation and indignation.

But The Thief of Time has to bear some of the blame. I went to it sure I'd find a lucid account of why procrastination derails writers. The volume, after all, has a bit of a "here's a problem and the philosophical cavalry is riding in to stamp it out" kind of feel. But how philosophers can disappoint! In this instance, with deadly-serious reference—in the first chapter, no less—to three papers that no amount of procrastination will ever bring me to read: "Impulse Control in Pigeons," "Procrastination by Pigeons with Fixed-Interval Response Requirements," and "Procrastination by Pigeons: Preference for Larger, More Delayed Work Requirements." Why all the pigeons? Isn't this a book of philosophy? Yes, but it turns out that pigeons demonstrate a virulent strain of something called "hyperbolic discounting," which is a way of modeling how we value long- and short-term rewards. It gets complicated rather quickly, but that shouldn't stop you from whiling away an entire day trying to understand it.

Out of Sheer Rage has to bear some of the blame, too—for being as astonishing as the pigeons were dismal. Yes, this is what writing about procrastination ought to look like, because this is what it is like to drown in its sweet, immobilizing sea: "Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel . . . so I went from making notes on Lawrence to making notes for my novel . . . all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either . . . until, after an hour and a half of this, I would turn off the computer because the worst thing of all, I knew, was to wear myself out in this way."

But isn't this beautiful writing just a bugle call for philosophical help? Please, dear experts, tell us why we live this way. And so, dutifully, back to the coop I flew. The pigeons were still there, but so, too, were some humane attempts to make sense of why that "absolute necessity to move" leaves us stranded. Is it utter irrationality or some milder failing? Philosophers excel at making these distinctions, and this collection is no exception. But some of the philosophers show a knack for answering questions that writers (who, as a rule, are not much concerned with their irrationality) find more pressing. Why, for instance, does procrastination plague not only those activities we most loathe but also those, like writing, that we most cherish? For this last question, one contributor, Elijah Millgram, supplies a lovely answer. The problem, as he sees it, is not with us, but with the puzzling structure of the most important human goods. These virtues—like writing or child rearing—are somehow much more valuable than the sum of their component activities, each of which is something of a hassle (finishing this paragraph or getting the kids off to school). Because of this strange construction, the human motivational engine doesn't quite know what to do. And so, frequently, it does nothing, and the paragraph, the page, the novel, remains unfinished.

Millgram calls these activities "jam-yesterday-jam-tomorrow" goods, referencing the White Queen's puzzling plan in Through the Looking-Glass to pay Alice jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today. Millgram's is a thoughtful observation, and one wonders whether that's because his is the most writerly essay here, the one that would take Dyer's lament seriously, as well as this sigh of Rilke's, one that consoled Dyer and, I hope, consoles the great keyboard-bound throng: "I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction."

Brendan Boyle teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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