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histoire du repos

30 november 2022

Histoire du repos, but "A History of Repose" isn't right, in English; it's too formal. It's not "A History of Relaxation" either, though Alain Corbin's topics include relaxation. "A History of Rest" is accurate but more idiomatic would be "A History of Resting." We rest for any number of reasons, but Corbin is most interested in the course of the rhetoric of putting your feet up, in Western culture.

The archetypal rest is the Sabbath, which meant abstention from work every seventh day and leaving fields fallow every seventh year (I hope in some sort of rotation, or the eighth would have been a very lean year). The Genesis passage about God resting from his creation of the world seems to be a just-so-story tacked on to explain this rather arbitrary injunction.

For medieval Christianity, rest equals requiem, the deserved sleep of the just. But in the 17th century, says Corbin, a tension arose in thinking about rest. Rest could be a mystical state of perfect peace with one's self God, as in thinkers as diverse as Blaise Pascal and Theresa of Avila. Or resting could be a false comfort waiting to lull believers to hell, as Bishop Bossuet argued.

Retirement is an early modern concept, advocated by Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld, put notably into practice by the emperor Charles V. Obviously too a concept based on privilege, "au sein des classes favorisées" as Corbin puts it (72); most people worked till they couldn't take care of themselves anymore. The concept of retirement shares two French words, feminine retraite which means a pensioned old age but also "retreat"; and masculine retrait which means "withdrawal." Elements of both circulate in early-modern thinking about retirement – it is not just quitting a job for good, but a drawing-back of one's interests and scopes of activity.

As he moves into later early-modernity, Corbin introduces a series of themes, many of which sort different kinds of resting into the motivations and constraints that produced them. One might rest because one was in disgrace at court. Or because one was imprisoned or otherwise confined (one imagines that Histoire du repos was composed at least partly during the COVID confinementin France). Was the 18th-century mania for seaside resorts in England a kind of fad for resting? Here Corbin thinks not; early sea-bathing regimes were pretty athletic, and miniature versions of the English Court were recreated at places like Brighton, so you didn't go there to escape the social ramble, either. But the 18th century did see increasing emphasis on comfy furniture and on bedrooms as places to escape to (and here Corbin's interests converge with those of Michelle Perrot).

In the 19th century, rest as respite from labor became problematic. Older forms of artisanal and agricultural labor might involve frequent organic "micro-interruptions" (74) for restorative purposes. It strikes me that Corbin thinks here only of free labor; slaves could always be worked till they dropped. In any case, constantly-productive factories and, later, assembly lines brought work that could not stop, and thus formal provision for breaks where the workers had the leverage to demand them, or managers had the foresight to recognize their efficiency. Corbin's last theme is the repose associated with sanatoria: the institutionalized "rest cure" for tuberculosis, often in surroundings designed to be as pleasant and stress-free as possible, now thankfully obviated by antibiotics.

Naturally, this accumulation of newer ways of thinking about rest didn't erase older ones. People still sing and even compose requiem masses today; there's no mail on Sundays and in Texas you can't even buy beer till 10am. Active and contemplative religious life remain in tension; more people retire than ever (in the first world); comfy furniture and days at the beach undergo constant refinements, etc. The result is a huge mass of complicated notions and traditions involving taking a load off and setting a spell. Each seems "natural" to us, but each is the result of substantial negotiation and cultural construction.

Corbin, Alain. Histoire du repos. Paris: Plon, 2022. Kindle Edition.