There’s always a risk in a memoir that the inward journey gets so deep to the core of self-absorption that there’s no return to the surface. This happens with younger writers not so much due to lack of experience as it is a compulsion to please, an impulse to reach for connections and elevate experiences that would be better off relegated to simple bumps in the road. How does the memoirist, experienced or novice, deal with variations in daily existence? Is a wasted day the same as a lost opportunity? Time passes slowly for those whose very essence as creative beings is to philosophize and contemplate their existence in the here and now. If there is indeed “art” in waking hours spent wasted, we must also consider the definition of “waste”. For those who have found refuge in solitude, silence, and fervent contemplation, the accusation of having wasted the blessings of existence have come with a heavy cost.
Patricia Hampl‘s The Art of the Wasted Day is a remarkable memoir of loss and renewal. Hampl understands from the start that being human, perpetuating humanity, comes with an obligation. In her prelude she introduces Montaigne, the “father” of the personal essay as we know it, even in those distant days sometime around 1535. Montaigne mused and contemplated and wrote and played sweet music, but he confessed to a sluggishness that might have torn down a less stable man: “No one, he says, ‘could tear me from my sloth, not even to make me play.’ “For Hampl, Montaigne was less a skeptic than he was “the first modern daydreamer”, and she makes a good case for the importance of falling slowly into that waking space of dreams and consciousness.
In the first section, “Timelessness”, Hampl offers the first of many beautiful moments, the kind that should make any conscientious reader furiously annotate with multi-colored pens. She sees words mostly as music, “the mind conducting the world.” For Hampl, “Life is not made up of stories… Really, life is- this. It’s a float…” Her claim that daydreaming sees things and claims things is strong if only because it’s so ethereal. That she takes such a compelling trip starting from such characters as Montaigne and going through archetypal Americans such as as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Walt Whitman (whom she calls the “un-Ben Franklin,) connecting them all together as searchers and pilgrims of a higher level, makes this a text that’s hard to forget. What is an American? Who is an American? What is our goal? Is “happiness” the essential American word? “I was mistaken,” she writes. “The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.”
Hampl understands that this life is about options: the road, not the room, going or staying, understand that if we choose the latter we need to keep our mouths shut “…while the secret door or window of the heart/mind opened of its own volition to reality.” It’s all about the journey. Chaucer knew that with The Canterbury Tales as far back as 1476, and Hampl understands that as she purposefully rambles in the next section, “To Go”. She visits Freud’s couch in Hampstead. She traces the steps of Saint Paul in Greece and Turkey. There’s Therese, Assisi, Anne Frank. Hampl chokes “…on a nut sandwich in a vegetarian teashop built into William Blake’s house.” There’s the home of Emily Dickinson, a garden for Henry James.
Hampl devotes a long section to two European ladies of the 18 th century known as the “Ladies”, understood to be “the two most celebrated virgins in Europe.” They are outliers for sure, in this section, and Hampl skillfully weaves them into her own journeys, her readings of Colette, who wrote a suppositional scenario about them in the ’30s. Who would “The Ladies” be in Colette’s time? They would still be out of place, but more open, more authentic. Hampl brings Montaigne back in this section (though he hovers through the background from start to finish) and concludes (as he did in his “essai” “On Cannibals”) that “Nakedness is Truth.” Montaigne had retreated, and if he was “…the patron saint of modern leisure, surely the Ladies are its enlightenment votaries.” Hampl saw the world of “The Ladies” in a simple way:
Letters were copied and shared, quoted, read aloud to visitors. And of course everyone was keeping a journal…
The Art of The Wasted Day concerns itself with the big picture writers (Proust) and those who collected small takes (Montaigne.) What separated their approaches? The bigger names persist and insist, but there’s also the legendary late Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whom Hampl includes at various points in her text: “‘One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.'”
There’s also the question of whether or not leisure is an exclusive privilege of the ruling class. The biggest concern here is not just the artist in repose, the writer with time to waste as opposed to the political ruler with time to kill. Hampl finds herself in Prague, in 1975, “…determined to describe what was before me. I felt powerfully alone and in charge of things.” She keeps traveling the world, becoming entrenched in situations but never of them, and the reader could easily conclude that the response a person gives Hampl could also be autobiographical: “‘From nowhere,’ he said. ‘People like me are from nowhere.’ “
No matter who comes in and out of this book, it always comes back to Montaigne. Hampl concludes that her subject understood”‘clever people observe more things and more curiously… but they interpret them… they cannot help altering history a little.'” It’s a cogent critique of nonfiction that bears deeper consideration. For Montaigne, the only possible vantage point from which to observe life was from himself. “The essayist sits — he also paces — in his tower. He loafs and invites his soul — as Whitman calls this kind of work three centuries later.” Hampl notes that Montaigne was an obsessive reviser. He knew himself because he was solely of himself, but writers like Goethe were afraid of themselves.
Rather than seeing the personal as political, Hampl sees it as historical. “Maybe the root of the impulse to write is always lost –properly lost — in the nonliterary earth of what we call real life.” There are parts played here by Mendel and Linnaeus, and Hampl finds herself drawn deeper towards the former, “…my modest monk and his pea plants in the Brno monastery garden.” She visits Montaigne’s tower. She visits the home in France of African-American chanteuse and dancer Josephine Baker, who sought refuge in Paris from her St. Louis life of the ’30s and “…achieved the Midwestern Elsewhere.” People come in and out, but Montagne remains. She draws from the title of one of his essays: ” To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die“. She relates a story of how Montaigne’s younger brother died of a cerebral blow: “The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head.”
No matter what is written and how far away we want to get away from it, the truth remains. “The essay is a solo dance, a private pirouette.” Wherever you go, there you are.” In the final section, “To Stay”, Hampl concludes that Americans continue to prefer the possibility of a “tomorrow” over the absolutism of history. She spends time in a monastery and contemplates worship. “Solitude is not only ‘at the heart’ of writing. It is the heart.” Greta Garbo said, “”I want to be let alone” rather than “I want to be alone.” We strive for what we cannot get, and for Hampl the refuge is writing, “…the only absolutely declarative, meaning-beset art form we have.” There is no audience; there is the reader, a sole person, a singular mind, an infinite collection of beings that combine themselves as one. “We all contain multitudes, not just Whitman, Not just Montaigne, that master of contradiction.”
There’s personal grief running through the essence of The Art of the Wasted Day, the unexpected loss of her husband and the involuntary acceptance of widowhood, and perhaps that is the compulsion that drives Hampl. She reads Emily Dickinson’s solitude poem, Walt Whitman’s, sees the sexual love expressed in the latter’s and the serenity in the former’s. She is haunted by a James Wright poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”, which she taught in 1968, the first she taught to a group of students in her infancy as a college professor. Its final line, “I have wasted my life,” would haunt anybody:
At first I thought the final line was a statement of defeat. It seemed brave, if sad. Some years later I… decided… [it was] a cry of triumph… I have the nerve to waste my life.
The Art of the Wasted Day shimmers and glows as it takes the reader through countries, time zones, centuries, almost like the title heroine of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a superhuman who changes genders and wanders through centuries, meeting the best and the brightest minds of various times and taking a little here, a little there, always living on her own terms. Where Orlando intermingled with these characters, Hampl maintains the graceful nature of a solitude that keeps her in the world but never of it. Hampl has given birth here to a beautiful, stunning, intense look at the graceful and sublime responsibilities of a writer who understands the difference between romanticizing loneliness and elevating the literary obligation to craft, solitude, and truth in our allotted time between birth and death.