The all important “far niente”

I know that whoever adapted Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love for the screen got there before me with the phrase “il dolce far niente,” but you can never explore quite enough the importance of this idea. Besides, in the film (which disappointed me no end), the phrase is introduced in a barbershop by a man who somehow equates it with going to sleep with his friend’s wife while a listening Julia Roberts eats nonstop and grins—a collection of actions which pretty well sums up the meager point the film-makers wish to make about this country: you eat, you have sex, and you’re happy. Not that these activities don’t contribute to one’s well-being, but how one-dimensional and off the mark can you be?

Il dolce far niente. Il bel far niente. Literally, “the sweet, or beautiful, (act of) doing nothing.” In the film, it’s translated “the beauty of doing nothing” because that’s about as close as you can get in English. But it’s not really correct. The noun here—and the nugget of the idea—is not beauty. It’s the infinitive “to do” (fare)…far niente…to do nothing. Sweet idleness is what we’re talking about here.


To me, il dolce far niente deserves a more serious expression of its depths. Doing nothing isn’t about recklessly wasting your lunch-hour in the act of adultery, which is, in my book most certainly a way of keeping yourself busy. It’s about fermentation, meditation, and observation. It’s about being mentally still long enough for life to wash over and through you. You may be briskly walking or lazily stroking a dogs head or gazing absently at the sky, but your mind isn’t focused on ticking items off the endless To Do list that becomes the script of our lives. It’s about allowing the gathering clouds of your own thoughts to pile randomly one upon the other until they can’t help but release the blessed rain. It’s the opposite of doing and keeping busy. It’s the absence of mindless productivity. It’s the liberation from duty, from “must.”

The presentation of the notion was so horrifically superficial in the film, that I didn’t give it another thought. But this morning, while re-reading Brenda Ueland’s magnificant book If You Want To Write (1938), I was overcome with the desire to revisit it. Ueland’s aim is to encourage would-be writers to write. But in taking on this task, she lovingly wraps her arms, mind and heart around the whole difficult issue of creativity and freedom of spirit. She challenges—without once ever falling into the by-now hideous rut of self-help parlance—everything about our lives that enslaves and paralyzes us. She speaks eloquently and convincingly about setting yourself free, and a huge part of that effort is giving yourself time, as she charmingly says, “to moodle.”

You won’t find il bel far niente or il dolce far niente translated as “moodling” anywhere else on the internet, but I’m going to suggest it here. Ueland writes: “I don’t want to warn you against action. I just want to cheer you up by saying that nervous, empty continually willing action is sterile and the faster you run and accomplish a lot of useless things, the more you are dead.” She says, earlier, “…great and creative men know [that] what is best for every man is his own freedom so that his imagination (it can also be called the conscience or the Holy Ghost) can grow in its own way, even if that way, to you or to me, or to policemen or churchgoers, seems very bad indeed.”

It is not easy advice to follow. We are hard-wired not to do nothing. And yet, how much richer we might all be—richer in spirit and art and love and human cooperation—if we stopped and contemplated and let the freedom of non-accomplishment loosen our creative powers and insights. The gift Italy gives us is not endless meals and bottomless bottles of wine and carefree idiotic laughter (thank you Hollywood). Italy’s gift to the world is a cultural predisposition toward understanding, allowing, even encouraging—at times—the doing of nothing which is inextricably linked to the creation of art and healthy human relationships and simple mental health. And if that sentence is too cumbersome, there’s this: when I finally get around to letting myself do nothing at all, it is very, very dolce indeed.

[If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Tranquility.”]

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9 Responses to The all important “far niente”

  1. anna says:

    Charlotte, I could not agree more… about “moodling” and about the wonderful recognition of how important it, and far niente, is by Italians. Ironically, you gave me that book years and years ago and I cherish it still. I remember when I came to visit you in the late nineties, you were taking a class in the mornings and I was left to wander the streets of Milan and make my own discoveries. I found a lot of shops closed for several hours for the midday meal and at first thought about how inconvenient it was to have to come back later (sometimes much later) and then it struck me as absolutely wonderful that these people took the time to live their lives! That it was not all about making money, about selling as much as possible (like it is in the States, where there is 24/7 shopping, where you can find most anything at any hour of the day or night), but about spending time with family, taking a break, having the time to recuperate, to think, to not think.
    And I, also, was really disappointed with the movie.

  2. bagnidilucca says:

    I think it is partly because of this attitude to life that Italians live longer than some other people. I don’t believe it is the Mediterranean diet, it is more to do with the way they think. I absolutely loathed the book Eat, Pray, Love. I saw the shorts to the movie and it nearly made me sick. What cliched rubbish! What a narrow way to look at the world. India and Bali didn’t fare any better than Italy. What surprised me most is that som many people (women) liked this book. No wonder there are so many unhappy people if they think this is a way to improve your life.
    I love your explanation of this delightful saying. It is like lying in the warm sun and seeing your eyelids red from the inside.

    • Anna and BdL, I’m so glad you guys re with me on this critique of Eat Pray Love. I felt kind of “alone” in my assessment of the book and film. I’m happy for the real Elizabeth Gilbert to have found happiness in her life, but it kinda stops there. I had many, many problems with the book and the film, the least of which was the “far niente” scene in the movie…As for the concept of doing nothing, I hope I didn’t come of preachy. If anything, I was lecturing myself. It is such a valuable idea, and one that it’s hard to put into practice. Maybe we can help each other…A digital “far niente” encounter group.

  3. anna says:

    I agree with “bagnidilucca” about Eat Pray Love (the book was poorly written and trite, but I thought the movie might fare better and decided to give it the benefit of the doubt for what seemed like a positive premise). Watching the movie with my son, who had traveled to Bali, it was amazing to see how many things were misrepresented or distorted and why could they not use real Balinese actors? Oh well, Hollywood trying to make a quick buck as usual.
    Back to far niente and Italy: the real way to live and appreciate life.

  4. Lori says:

    Thank you for a reminder to go back and read more of Brenda Ueland’s book “If You Want to Write.” (I tend to read things in pieces and forget to go back to them for something “shinier and new” — and maybe with pictures!) I did recognize the book from the first photo in the blog, before you could read the lettering in the 2nd photo. Maybe I’ll even try to do the two rules that it said Brenda Ueland followed (per the back cover of the book): “…to tell the truth, and not to do anything she didn’t want to do.”

    Thanks to Anna for forwarding this blog link to me!

    • Lori, thanks so much for jumping in! I often read books the same way, especially non-fiction. And this one has been on my desk, next to me for years. When I started at Wieden + Kennedy (Anna worked there too), Dan Wieden gave it to me. He gave it to everyone who came to work in the creative department (or maybe to everyone. That would have been correct given the premise of the book, and very much like him). In any case, I keep it next to me as a sort of talisman or touchstone. But I haven’t re-read it in quite a while. What a powerful book it is. And pretty much what I needed to “hear” right now, in my life. Thanks to Anna for forwarding the blog, and thanks again to you for speaking up.

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