Patricia Hampl

The Art of the Wasted Day

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The Art of the Wasted Day Summary

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The Art of the Wasted Day (2018) is a memoir by American author Patricia Hampl. Taking as its central theme the value of leisure and daydreaming, Hampl weaves reflections on history’s greatest idlers—from essayist Michel de Montaigne to pioneering geneticist Gregor Mendel—with reflections on her own life as a thinker and writer. Hanging over the memoir is the shadow of grief for Hampl’s recently deceased parents and husband. The Art of the Wasted Day has been hailed by critics as a “captivating and revelatory memoir” (Kirkus Reviews).

The book begins with Hampl’s childhood memory of idling away an afternoon under the beechnut tree in the yard of her parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota. She reflects on the “pure pleasure” of childhood daydreaming, “this effortless flight of the mind,” and asks how it is that this pleasure drains from us as we age?

Hampl recalls the shock of learning, as she studied the Baltimore Confession in advance of her first confession, that daydreaming was a sin. She recalls also her immediate rebellion against this idea. Now, as an adult, she articulates her rebellion with a forceful defense of daydreaming, which, she says, “sees things. Claims things, twirls them around, takes a good look.”

Yet, she confesses, she too has lost the “pure pleasure” of daydreaming with age, giving in to the “foolish vanity” of busyness, the “scrum of tasks jittering down the day.” Newly aware, in the wake of her husband’s death, that life is short, Hampl asks what “real life” is—the life of tasks and busyness or the idle life of the mind?

To explore this question further, Hampl goes in search of a personal idol, the 16th-century French writer and thinker Michel de Montaigne. She tells his story: in his late 30s, this cheerful aristocrat retreated to an unluxurious stone tower in order to think about the meaning of life. His written notes on this process, collected as the “essais” or “attempts” (from which we get the word “essay”), were the first modern works of first-person non-fiction (which happens to be Hampl’s own genre). Hampl praises Montaigne’s writing for its ability to render the “inner tick-tock of thought,” and she argues that the great French writer was “the first modern daydreamer,” citing his own confession that “No one could tear me from my sloth, not even to make me play.”

After Montaigne, Hampl considers the other great daydreamers of history. Her roll call of American daydreamers includes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Walt Whitman (the “un-Ben Franklin,” as she calls the latter), and argues that the special quality of American daydreaming is the urgent intellectual or spiritual search: “The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.”

As she considers many of these writers, she tries to follow in their footsteps, visiting Montaigne’s tower, William Blake and Emily Dickinson’s houses, a garden connected with Henry James. As well as literary writers, Hempl investigates the saints of the Catholic Church, following Saint Paul (a recurring figure in Hempl’s work) through Greece and Turkey.

Science, too, is found to have a debt to daydreaming. Hampl focuses especially on Gregor Mendel, the discoverer of the rules of genetic heredity: “My modest monk,” Hampl calls him, with “his pea plants in the Brno monastery garden.”

A lengthy section is devoted to the 18th-century “Ladies of Llangollen,” Sarah Ponsonby, and Lady Eleanor Butler. These two women fled from their well-to-do families to live together as “romantic friends.” While modern historians view the pair as lesbian lovers, Hampl argues that this is anachronistic, and furthermore ignores the real existence of an asexual form of intellectual love. Hampl instead focuses on the shared leisurely and mental pursuits of “the Ladies”: walking and gardening, reading and writing, sketching and painting.

Interspersed with these stories is the travelogue of Hampl’s journey. This travelogue is a series of vignettes of striking moments that testify to the power of daydreaming or idleness to lead us “down the rabbit hole of thought.” On the landing outside the apartment where Freud lived in Vienna, she reflects “Just here, on the turn of the stone landing, his patients must have stopped too, pivoting from the session back into their… lives.”

Many of these vignettes are drawn from Hampl’s past, too, such as the moment from her childhood when, while skating with friends, she realized that unlike her companions, she never wanted to have children. Most of these memories concern Hampl’s late husband of 30 years, Terrence Williams. She recalls how they met: they both rented apartments in the house that had once belonged to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grandmother. She remembers years of idle conversations over meals and coffee. Nevertheless, she is determined not to indulge these memories too far: after Williams’s death, she says, she became “allergic to widow books, determined never to write one. Though—look at me.”