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.”]