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Wendy Wasserstein, Sloth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, $17.95, 114 pages, ISBN 0-19-516630-2)Donald P. Gagnon, Western Connecticut State University


Having already secured authors as diverse as Michael Eric Dyson and Robert A. F. Thurman to contribute to its series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Oxford University Press turns to Wendy Wasserstein to parody / unpack / deconstruct the sin of sloth. Something of an oxymorona work about not workingSloth illuminates "the fastest-growing lifestyle change in the civilized world" [4]. Wasserstein's narrator (masculine in gender if not masculinist in attitude) diffuses early possible charges of hypocrisy by claiming that he wrote the book entirely lying down. Furthermore, he states, "I dictated half of it and my assistant made up the other half" [14]. Indeed, the necessity of recognizing the difference between Wasserstein and her narrator is paramount here, as the parody is slick but the satire is sharp. While the humorous and slim volume eschews strenuous burlesquing of the self-help genre and generation (of course, there should be nothing strenuous in a work about sloth), Wasserstein's penchant for precision in targeting her humanist jabs at an often blindly indifferent culture is functioning in high gear, as she parodies an entire genre of pseudo-literature while simultaneously shaking the shoulders of a sleeping generation (or two) of Americans who seem to feel that doing nothingthe true antithesis of progressis a viable option for living in the 21st century. To Wasserstein's credit, we need only look at the results of the last United States presidential election to see where only minimal effort was needed from the electorate to discern the administration's dishonesty to and contempt for the electorate, yet such an effort was sloughed off in favor of slick media representation. The result: George W. Bush was effectively "slothed" back into office for four more years of the same. While Wasserstein's book is limited in its humorous scope, it is as timely as it is lively.

Sloth is the sixth a series of re-written lectures on the Seven Deadly Sins sponsored by Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library, now in print for those of us who were slothful enough to not attend the lectures. However, this is no diatribe on a neo-Lockeian, post-Camus sense of responsibility, nor an exercise in existentialist circumlocution. Rather, the slim volume uses a pointed wit to slice through the subject and extract wisdom beneath the witticisms. Wasserstein explains the value in her narrator's philosophy: "No one was ever murdered or killed in the name of sloth. Furthermore, sloths don't go on religious crusades […]. Hate takes energy. Destroying the ozone layer takes industry. Therefore, slothdom can save humanity" [38]. As she wrestles decadents, aesthetes, activists, capitalists, and the generally well-intentioned into lethargic submission, every twist cleanly wrests the withered ethics of an American generation into full, battle-bruised view. Why bother with ethics, she seems to ask, when our media tell us how to respond and what to respond to? "It's not a bad idea to read about famous sports stars," according to Wasserstein's narrator, "because it eliminates your own urge to play […], The New York Post, for instance, which often features large stories about the New York Yankees, is useful for this kind of transference activity reduction" [66].

Wasserstein also provides a guide to behavior, highlighting a host of non-sloths whose audacity to preach and practice active (if not activist) lifestyles has led to dire consequences for those of us who now have to live under their shadows and live up to their examples. Among the guilty anti-sloths in the "Too Much Ten," a list ranging in subjects from the sublime to the ridiculous, are Marie Curie ("If she had laid off the research and Nobel prizes, she would've led a longer and happier life" [80]), Shakespeare ("Perhaps if he had rested a little bit more, there'd be less chit chat about Christopher Marlowe" [81]), and exercise guru Jack LaLanne who, she claims, made people feel as if they had to get into shape: "Through his example, he made it possible for Arnold Schwarzenegger to ultimately become the governor of California" [81]. With tongue resting (of course) firmly in cheek, Sloth subversively attacks intellectual and physical pursuits in Wasserstein's quest to encourage new generations to recapture a sense of personal responsibility. The humor is evident in her choices and reasons for inclusion in the "Too Much Ten," but when those reasons are interrogated, the irony offers more than a little bite. As we have been counseled, for wickedness to triumph it is necessary only for good people to do nothing (or in a historical sense, silence equals death). While Sloth may seem initially to be a mere bauble, the stakes it sets are staggeringly high: If we allow momentum to continue to carry us along the path of least resistance, we could be facing crisis just a few steps down the road.

What Wasserstein accomplishes here is much more than a parody of the self-help sub-genre that has infiltrated the corners of our cultural sub-conscious. In fact, her introduction establishes the conceit that the text is a revised version of Sloth: And How to Get It, a self-help manual she discovered after an incident at the Santa Monica pier. Rather, she is challenging the mindset that allowed such an infiltration in the first place. Wasserstein's narrative voice functions outside of the discussion in one significant way: he is divorced from this culture. What could be seen as an overly extended joke takes on greater heft when seen in the context of Wasserstein's true aim. Her narrator may want to lead us down the unweeded primrose path, but the author is clearly calling attention to our need to revisit our own public and private acts and imbue them with greater vitality.

One reason why setting up a clearly defined narrative persona is so necessary is so that we don't get lost in the humor at the expense of missing the real target of the japes. While the narrator does refer to himself as a "guy" and a "man," he also claims to have had sex with both boys and girls. It's important for us to see the function of such a rhetorical balancing act, for considered in line with her play The Heidi Chronicles, there seems to be an intent to avoid giving primacy to either masculinist or feminist preconceptions, preferring a more central humanist positionality. While the voice is not convincingly asexual (perhaps because it largely echoes Wasserstein's comic style), the light timbre of the narrative voice serves the easy humor of the book: "In high school I had dated both men and women and was currently in deep and serious relationships with both. As far as I was concerned, I was going to be a father and a mother, and when I ran for president I would have a charming First Lady at my side and be escorted by a poet laureate husband" [19]. The narrator is so slothful that he hasn't gotten around to forming a specific sexual identity: "I had also danced the young male and female lead in the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker" [19]. It's this sense of subtle yet effective philosophical shading that keeps the book from succumbing to its one-joke premise. True, sloth may be the limited subject of the parody, but Wasserstein brings to it the firm underpinnings that have shaped her politicized dramatic and other works.

In fact, while the book takes the form of a parody of the aforementioned sub-genre, it exists more successfully as a satire of the culture that allowed such a literary bastard to grow to viability. In the form of a self-help manual, it functions along the lines these works depend (lazily?) upon: background, personal revelation and history, theory, praxis. "I don't want any of you to think that I have come to the Sloth Philosophy without knowing its background," the narrator claims; "I may be lying on my back, but I can still read" [23]. From her tale of the narrator's transition to sloth, she maneuvers through the process of eliminating effort and desire, what she calls "Lethargiosis," the first vital step in attaining slothhood. It is perhaps not so surprising that the first word of Chapter One is "Relax!" [3].

When we deprive ourselves of all activity, we have no little, everyday goals to fixate on. Our imagination then, has to jump to the big stuff, and this is when you've entered lethargiosis. After a few weeks of devouring your grand dreams, your imagination reaches a state of emptiness and becomes void of ambition. This is when you know lethargiosis has been successfulbecause there is absolutely no reason, big or small, to get up. You emerge from lethargiosis a true and complete sloth. [36]

She finishes her lecture on lethargiosis by admonishing us to remember that "lethargiosis is not a trance but an enervated limp" [37].

One challenge with the book is that, on occasion, the "enervated limp" charges forward a tad vigorously, even subverting the narrator's claims to sloth. Wasserstein is shuffling into the persona of her narrator, to the detriment of both. If it is less intellectually hardy and more hardy-har-har than Bertrand Russell's In Praise of Idleness, the book does delve into the historical origins of sloth and its precursors on the list of deadly sins. For four pages, the narrator seems uncomfortably close to appropriating the vigor of his creator in investigating "The Concise History of Sloth." This is not the work of a sloth, tracing the origins of "sloth" to its earlier recognized similarity in the pantheon of deadly sins as "acedia," or "sadness" [25]. This is Wasserstein, not the one-time première danseuse / danseur of the New York City Ballet who serves as her ironic mouthpiece. To his credit, the narrator does beg his audience's indulgence in requesting a break during his literary archaeology, for he is "not used to this kind of mental exertion" [25]. He then details how eight hundred years of Christianity led "sadness" to evolve into sloth: "Interesting then, that deep emotions, which we now go on talk shows like Oprah to express, were considered a sin" [27]. Insightful and true, but in its rigor in tracing the historical headwaters of what we now recognize as sloth, the book moves uncomfortably toward undermining its narrative claims to true slothfulness. "True sloths are not revolutionaries," the author writes. "Sloths are the lazy guardians at the gate of the status quo" [104]. I argue that true sloths are not as concise in their thinking as to philosophize so simply and eloquently. Its inconsistency in tone threatens, though never dangerously so, to diminish Wasserstein's achievement, entertaining though it may be. On the other hand, her rhetorical flourishes clearly allow Wasserstein one of her most trenchant points: that what once was considered negative, even harmful, we now not only allow to exist uncontested but also encouraged. Why should we think that people sharing their misery over the airwaves is entertainment? Wasserstein neatly skewers the desensitization of 21st century existence.

Along her narrator's journey from activity to apathy, Wasserstein targets myriad twenty-first-century foibles, from reality television to the bite-size chunks of information the public now demands in the form of "top ten" lists (the top ten rules of sloth, ten lies about sloth, ten cases in pointlessness, etc.) to professional overachievement and the myth of the American dream as anything but a capitalist nightmare. Indeed, the book seems to specifically refocus perception away from an accepted cultural notion of progress and achievement. The narrator argues that sloth is really one of the earmarks of early-modern, modern, and post-modern societies. "I want you to realize, probably for the first time in your life, that you have the right to be lazy. You can choose not to respond," the narrator argues. "You can choose not to move" [66]. In this sense, sloth flies in the face of Ralph Waldo Emerson's exhortations in "The American Scholar" to find education in books, nature and, to the narrator's concern, action. Wasserstein's narrator finds motivation via other sources and encourages us to do the same: "We're all powerless ants in the grand scheme of the universe. Nothing we can do has any real effect anyway. God is dead. And if you don't believe me, read Nietzsche. But don't read him during the lethargiosis period" [55]. And, he warns us, if the book doesn't make much sense, it's out own fault, not his. "This is the best it's going to get. Don't look farther" [101].

While Wasserstein's narrator has devoted himself to sloth ("the last thing you'll ever have to do again" [xix]), Wasserstein herself has been anything but slothful by keenly targeting a contemporary social ill that may have its roots in ancient and dusky etymologies but remains as relevant and insidious as ever. She rescues sloth from easy connections to simple laziness and energizes it with a cultural zeitgeist that clearly illustrates the true deadliness of the sin: a society content to allow sloth to flourish.    

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