Saturday, November 18, 2006


Sloth is a part of series of books published by Oxford University Press on the seven deadly sins (Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Envy and Greed), which attempt to rescue their reputations and shed new light on their relevance and place in the modern age. Beasides that, this book is also a hilarious parody of the self-help genre of books. The author Wendy Wasserstein claims that this will be the last self-help guide you will ever need in your life and then goes on to prove it. It works very well as a satire about the contemporary society too, a society where we have either over-achieving idiots or else pathetic couch-patatoes. Although I am not too sure about her real intentions. She might even be sincere in her advice.

Link to the publisher's page and also a review of the book.

Some quotes from the book to give you a feel of its humour:

"As long as I can remember, I have been searching for the right self-improvement plan. I always felt I was on the verge of finding happiness, if only I could lose weight, develop a better vocabulary in thirty days, have tighter abdominal muscles and buns, speak Spanish, achieve inner peace, schedule my day more efficiently, become more assertive, communicate more clearly, express the full range of my emotions, get a man to marry me in ten dates, get my daughter into Harvard at age twelve, understand the subtext of everything a man said, eat only organic produce, have the heart of a rollerblader in south beach, Florida, learn the joy of having sex in four hundred different positions and loving every one of them, find my inner child, renew my outer adult, come to terms with bad things happening to good people, embrace the Hebrew God, embrace the Christian God, embrace the Muslim God, and learn to write poetry like the actress Suzanne Sommers."

"What's so great about the Sloth Plan, and why this plan is the fastest growing lifestyle change in the civilized world, is once you've got the idea, it can apply to every aspect of your life, not just exercise. Are you one of those supermoms who works all day, makes a delicious low-carb dinner for your family, does home-work with your teenager, gives your husband a blowjob, and then stays up to do the dishes? Well, get ready to have the power to say to your kid "do your own homework" and to leave the dirty pots and pans for somebody else. Unfasten your seat belt, kiddo, because the Sloth Plan will, for the first time in your life, allow you to hang loose."

"Forget about all the shoulds in your life. I should work harder, I should believe in God, I should make more money, I should get an erection, I should fit into size four, I should have four children at Yale. The Sloth Plan says have the courage to look should in the face and say, "Go to hell! I'm not getting up for you!""

The topic of sloth may sound light and fit for some exercises in humour but not many people know the history of how it came to be included in the roster in the seven deadly sins. Wasserstien touches on the historical side very briefly too but disappointingly doesn't go into the details. In the original usage sloth, or rather the latin word "Acedia" which preceded it, meant apathy, disinterest and melancholy. Acedia was distinguished from "Tristia" which is normal sadness resulting from a reaction to some real loss and which was seen more favourably since it brought people back to God. Acedia and melancholy were considered sins and blasphemies because the melancholic's despair suggested his faithlessness, and that he was not suffused with joy at the certain knowledge of God's divine love and mercy, and that he didn't believe in salvation. Dante mentions sadness in Purgatorio too, and calls it a sin originating from the absence of love, the love of one's soul and of God. (I can't find the exact lines from Dante though.) Update: Here is the chapter from Purgatorio.

If interested here is a link to a chapter in Summa Theologica where Thomas Aquinas explains why Sloth is a sin. Another nice and informative article about "fighting the noonday devil" here.

The phrase Noonday Demon has an interesting history too. I am copying a paragraph from the book The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (highly recommended btw). (Next time you feel weary and listless in the afternoon, remember this.)

"In the fifth century, Cassian writes of the "sixth combat" with "weariness and the distress of the heart" saying that "this is 'the noonday demon' spoken of in the Ninetieth Psalm," which produces dislike of the place one is in, disgust, disdain, and contempt for other men, and sluggishness." The section is question occurs in Psalms and would be literally translted from the Vulgate: "His truth shall compass thee with a shield; thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night./Of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday demon"--"ab incrusus, et daemonio meridianno." Cassian presumed that the "terror of the night" refers to the evil; "the arrow that flies in the day" to the onslaught of human enemies; "the business that walketh about in the dark" to fiends that come in the sleep; "invasion" to possession; and "the noonday demon" to melancholia, the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your sould away from God."

Not surprisingly melancholy is a serious topic in religious studies. I always used to wonder whenever I saw monks and priests as a kid, as to how they could go on living alone, without being bored, doing the same thing over and over again for a being who doesn't even exist (I was stubbornly faithless even then.) There is an unforgettable and moving portrait of this religious melancholy in Bergman's Winter Light, which I saw sometime back but didn't write anything about. It's a must-see film if you haven't seen it. I am now curious about what Hinduism has to say about melancholia and insanity.


Cheshire Cat said...

Three things.

1. Your post got me to advance "The Anatomy of Melancholy" close to the head of the queue of books to read. (I used to marvel that someone who had known the charms of Scheherazade and/or Elizabeth Taylor could produce something so dry.)

2. I've long been under the impression that the "tamasik" quality discussed in the Bhagavad Gita refers to depressiveness. The Gita comes down hard against it. But then again my knowledge of scripture is feeble...

3. The sloth is an amusing creature.

Alok said...

1.Ah, but the three Burtons have nothing in common other than the surname... still it is amusing :)

I have actually already tried the book but it requires a long break into the solitude and serious effort and concentration. In the meanwhile you can read an amusing extract from the book about "the Misery of Scholars, and Why the Muses Are Melancholy"

Also a nice poem from the book here. Scroll down to "author's abstract on melancholy" It sounds great if you sing it like a nursery rhyme :)

2. I thought Tamasik referred to demonic. There must be some connection.

3. :)

jyothsnay said...

"The sloth lives his life upside down. He is perfectly comfortable that way. If the blood rushes to his head, nothing happens because there is nothing to work on."
-- Will cuppy
Is nt less sloth is more Alok?

am tickled by the title's image..will read this notes soon as I want to finish ur latest one on Thomas Bernhard...J

wildflower seed said...

Melancholy and sorrow are rajasic, not tamasic, qualities.

To your question, Alok, about the place of melancholy in Hindu philosophy, there is a certain view which argues that there are three planes of existence - the animal, the mental, and the spiritual. In the mental plane, the intellect has managed to overcome the animal urges of the body, and turns its attention towards the world around it. I quote from Yogi Ramacharaka's "Lessons in Raja Yoga" (explanations in brackets are mine):

In this second stage, Man soon becomes perplexed. He finds problems that demand an answer, but as soon as he thinks he has answered them the problems present themselves in a new phase and he is called upon to "explain his explanations"...Man finds himself traveling around and around in a circle, and realizes that he is confronted continually by the Unknown. This disturbs him, and the higher the stage of "book learning" he attains, the more disturbed does he become....The tortures of the man who has attained the mental growth that enables him to see the new problems and the impossibility of their answer, cannot be imagined by one who has not advanced to that stage (meaning Man of the animal plane).

The man in this stage of consciousness thinks of his "I" as a mental thing, having a lower companion, the body. He feels that he has advanced, but yet his "I" does not give him the answer to the riddles and questions that perplex him. Such men often develop into Pessimists, and consider the whole of life as utterly evil and disappointing - a curse rather than a blessing. Pessisim belongs to this plane (the Mental plane, i.e.), for neither the Physical Plane man nor the Spiritual Plane man have this curse of pessimism. The former man has no such disquieting thoughts, for he is almost entirely absorbed in gratifying his animal nature, while the latter man recognizes his mind as an instrument of himself, rather than as himself, and knows it to be imperfect in its present stage of growth. He knows that he has in himself the key to all knowledge - locked up in the Ego - and which the trained mind, cultivated, developed and guided by the awakened Will, may grasp as it unfolds. Knowing this the advanced man no longer despairs, and, recognizing his real nature, and his possibilities, he laughs at the old despondent, pessimistic ideas, and discards them like a worn-out garment. Man on the Mental Plane of consciousness is like a huge elephant who knows not his own strength. He could break down barriers and assert himself over nearly any condition or environment, but in his ignorance of his real condition and power, he may be mastered by a puny diver, or frightened by the rustling of a piece of paper.

Szerelem said...

Sloth huh? how apt =D
I should be studying. I should be getting my travel plans in order. I should be on a diet. well, chuck it.

Alok said...

wfs: thanks a lot for the extract. I am obviously in the middle stage right now :)

I liked this line, I think this is the key, may be it will take some time to reach there...

"while the latter man recognizes his mind as an instrument of himself, rather than as himself, and knows it to be imperfect in its present stage of growth."

jyothsna: i loved that cover too, i laugh everytime i look at it.

szerelem: so you have already learnt the lesson. :)