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Creativity Crisis

Chapter 10

WASTE

We waste so much time and potential in education. From childhood, many thousands of hours have been spent attending school and university; and a great deal of that time—and especially the hopes and talents that filled it—goes to waste. We often seem to learn little and, largely discouraged from using our imagination, we forget what we learn because it has no part in anything else that we need to know or imagine doing. The knowledge sits in limbo for a while and then slowly dissolves into cognitive entropy. Fear of this waste is part of the reason for our enthusiasm for constructive alignment: it promises to stop the waste, because when we are asked to learn something, we are assured that it has a purpose and is assessed in agreement with the delivery, activities and learning outcomes. Learning and teaching become efficient: we know what we are expected to learn, we learn it and are assured at the end of it, via assessment, that we have met the learning outcomes. The problem is that the very constructive alignment that promises to attenuate the waste also stifles the creative development that would provide imaginative ownership of the material on offer.

Of course, we cannot stop the waste, because not all learning outcomes are matters of personal sympathy and, if we gather no love for them in the course of the program, it makes no difference to identify them and organize all the activities and assessment around them. There will still be waste because, without affection for the material that grows around our imaginative potential, we will still have difficulty retaining anything instructive and we will have no chance of building it into lifelong learning. So it turns out that the extra layer of fuss over learning outcomes is yet another instrument of waste, a whole administrative palaver that only constructs learning as a kind of drill, where we get told things that we do not really want to learn and are given no real chance to divert the commitment from its rigid course into our individual imagination, where it nourishes our sense of personal potential.

It would suit my case to describe the compromised position of creativity in our educational systems as chronic waste, indeed the worst kind of waste because it is the waste of potential. How many Nalinis does it take to figure out that the cost of discouragement is high and unnecessary? So many lively minds that could be encouraged to find new energies, new pathways and generate ideas and images are suppressed. It is a sad waste. But while deploring this waste, it is also necessary to scrutinize the structure of waste itself as a theme, in fact to deconstruct waste, because the spectre of waste haunts us in everything we do; and creative endeavour is inherently vulnerable to its menace. In a world that has many pressing problems, creative things never seem, strictly speaking, necessary. They are also extremely precarious, because, as Nalini discovers with a humanities essay, your best efforts go to waste. When the field is directly creative, the risks of waste escalate. Art students, for example, can spend all the years of an honours degree diligently applying themselves with long hours to arduous projects, involving expensive equipment, studio and materials; upon graduation, however, the whole creative endeavour is slowly seen to be unsustainable, because very few aspiring artists become professional artists. For me, this investment is not waste—because the failed artist can add to cultural capital in other ways and, on a personal level, nothing goes to waste if it adds creative potential—but it is easy to imagine how the frustration could be construed that way. When enthusiastic students become discouraged, that could also be considered a case of waste, a waste of energy, hope and potential. Of course, we have to countenance the ups and downs of opportunity; and it could be argued that a core part of being an artist is the ability to withstand discouragement. Further, we cannot always insulate everyone from disappointment because everyone would otherwise be encouraged to have unrealistic ambitions. It was ever thus: hope sits in an economy of rejection and with the mismatch of aspirations and opportunities comes much waste.

We feel bad about this write-off but creativity is intransigently wasteful, especially as we educate ourselves. As a poet, you could expect to spend ten years of writing high-minded rubbish before you find resonant subject matter that accords with your techniques and so becomes publishable. It is stressful but who is so blessed that a beautiful poetic idiom emerges immediately from high school and all those desperate hours can be saved? Waste is intrinsic to discovery and while we resent misspent time—remembering that we may never be the poet that we had hoped to become—we have to make our peace with waste. In ancient times, poetry itself was positively identified with a form of waste, celebrated as idleness (otia nostra) in Latin and Italian humanism.

In contemporary culture, when we think that one person’s waste is another person’s starvation, waste seems immoral and we are always uncomfortable with the thought of it. Even when successful, there is a strong sense that the arts are a luxury. It lies deeply within Western tradition to despise waste and to circumvent this antipathy. We always have to defend the arts and humanities as not a luxury but a necessity.1 But if we disavow luxury and capitulate to the pressure always to eliminate waste, the arts and humanities are reduced to agitprop and we would have an uncreative culture. It seems necessary to wrestle with the idea of waste to accommodate creativity, especially when it enters the university under the banner of the graduate attributes. It is highly dialectical, almost the mirror of production, that production which Marx identified as dialectical and not merely mechanical. We must come to terms with waste in its stressful history before being able to manage its effects in a delicately creative university.

Waste is a difficult term with a difficult history. The greatest things that humanity has wrought can all be deemed wasteful if we do not identify with the purpose. The Pyramids, as grand as they are, can easily be seen as superstitious folly; and the labour and lives that were spent upon their construction could be considered a moral scandal. But a broad demographic still today admires them, rightly or wrongly, and finds them inspiring; and similar thrills and chills attend the prospect of stately palaces in Europe, analogous to the way that big-budget films or large sporting spectacles such as the Olympic Games are specifically engineered to secure wow-factor, only with the serene air of permanence and a lofty claim on eternity. So, on the one hand, we are mightily impressed by the grand design, as the architects and patrons intended; but on the other hand, if we thought of the thousands of dispossessed peasants who starved because funds were directed to the royal estate rather than their urgent need, we might scruple over our enthusiasm. Could the vanity of princes, even though resulting in such a lasting contribution to culture and promoting tourism ever since, be considered a kind of waste?

There is seldom agreement about what is waste and what is a brilliant investment, because waste is an inherently unstable term, rooted in the material world but expressing moral values. Depending on what we value, we might either applaud or deplore a large expenditure; so much depends on the premises—your point of view and subjective esteem for a project— that the judgement is not always shared by those who begin with different premises. Waste is simultaneously a discourse about resources and efficiency and a discourse about priorities, things that do not exist because they represent potential.

Without doubt, the worst form of waste is war. Millions of lives—and with them their hopes and the love that they shared with family—are squandered in a terrible disagreement which could undoubtedly have been avoided with better will on both sides. But the belligerents believe passionately in the war. They do not see the war effort as a waste but a necessity, an absolute priority, precisely a matter of life and death. In the framework of a war, good patriots will also believe that the greatest efficiency in despatching the enemy means the least waste of their own resources; so the hideous perversity prevails within the antagonistic mindset that a great efficiency on one side is produced by maximum waste on the other.

The motif of war and destruction is not introduced for dramatic colour and effect. War and destruction are intrinsic to the very development of waste as a word in European languages. The closest that we come to waste in ancient Greek, for example, is a form of destruction (ἀπώλεια, like ὄλεθρος or φθορά, the verbs πορθέω, πέρθω)2 which, like the Latin root of perdition, could also mean loss3 or doom.4 Our own word waste is derived from a similar motif, incorporating the desert (waste or wasteland), as in the Latin uastus—whence we get our vast—but more pressingly in devastation, de-vastate (peruastare), which also has an equivalent in Greek where the desert itself is in the verb (ἐρημόω). Our language leaves a trace of this military violence in the term ‘to lay something to waste’, meaning to destroy it, typically a city, to turn it into rubble, waste in the sense of wreckage, debris to be raked up and dumped somewhere; and in poetic literature, the image of destruction is, as Shakespeare would say, ‘enlink’d to waste and desolation’5 or ‘waste ground’.6 The motif of a deserted place suggests that nothing fertile strikes root, which presses upon the metaphor, as in ‘the wild and wasteful ocean’.7

For all humanity in all epochs, one experienced different kinds of waste. Your olives could be wasted in the sense of the trees being razed by the Spartans; but the olives could also be wasted by poor husbandry or disorganization or irresponsible priorities or even cold commercial sense. For example, someone in a London office might decide that the profit from processing the olives is not worth the cost of the harvest, treatment and storage. Nobody wrecks the groves by axe or bulldozer but the good fruit go to waste just as certainly as if someone hacked the boughs down. Of the two motifs, the Greeks really only knew the first, or at least under the term of waste (ἀπώλεια) they only contemplated active destruction.

In the fascinating overlap between Greek and Hebraic culture, however, the word in question (ἀπώλεια) is used at least once in its modern sense. The instance is a famous passage from the New Testament when Mary Magdalen anoints Christ with expensive unguents. The disciples stridently object: ‘they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste (ἀπώλεια)? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.’ Jesus however answers them: ‘Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.’8 Nevertheless, the modernity of this use of the word waste (ἀπώλεια) is perhaps deceptive. One might also translate the term as ‘consumption’, simply using something up. The very word waste in English was frequently used in the sense of something being devoured or spent, without any necessary moral fault, as when the bard says that ‘March is wasted fourteen days’,9 meaning that half the month has gone by.

Technically, the disciples are right: the perfume could be sold and the takings distributed to those in need. In what remains a great paradox of economics, the translation of a precious object into money is rational but the price achieved bears only an oblique relation to the value that a person may experience as the beneficiary. The disciples only see the material value of the myrrh but Christ sees its symbolic value as oblation, which turns out to be necessary in honouring his divine mission. Maybe this is not a good example if you consider the higher religious purpose an irrational superstition; nevertheless, the point is made that definitions of luxury are relative. What is a luxury? The criteria are never absolute. What looks like money-down-the-drain for one purpose is essential for another. Anything prestigious could be deemed a luxury and condemned accordingly. It is a puritanical foolishness which Jesus himself considers shortsighted.

Even without those symbolic associations, and whether they are sacramental or not, luxury is in the eye of the beholder and so is waste. Wherever we talk of luxury, we can talk of waste, and to speak thus is also ancient. The Greeks certainly recognized outlandish spending (καταναλίσκω)10 or at least imprudent allocation of resources, as when Epimetheus is accused by Socrates of squandering his resources on horses.11 In all epochs, thrift was recommended, else we should be destitute in lean times. In epochs that were more materially straitened than our own, there was always consciousness of thrift, which the ancient Greeks respected alongside simplicity of living (λιτότης) and the Romans also recognized in the value of saving (parsimonia), which remained an element of the renaissance development of household capital (masserizia) and is also a cornerstone of the prolific investment in the industrial age, where capital would cease to be localized but would spread from the holdings of small and frugal savers to large manufacturing ventures wherever credit was extended.

Against these ingredients of good domestic management and the aggregated wealth of communities, waste is pernicious. It represents everything that would weaken a community, from the moral to the material. Through waste, one would have fewer resources to contribute toward productive ends and defence; and through its luxurious corollaries, one would also have a soft and derelict population, used to being feather-bedded and spoilt rather than disciplined and motivated, courageous and self-sacrificing, altruistic and hard-working. This decadence is already captured in the Greek term for living softly or in excessive comfort or indulgence (σπαταλάω),12 which was also associated, arguably especially through Hebraic culture, with wantonness and luxury.13 In pagan sources of a later date, the word turns up designating a certain kind of wasteful person who luxuriates wantonly (σπάταλος) and is lascivious as well as prodigal.14

Reaching into the renaissance, Stoic philosophy recommended modesty irrespective of wealth, which reflects a psychological distaste for wasteful habits. The families who built the wealth of the renaissance, no matter what their personal fortunes, seem to have tussled over correct and decorous expenditure and often favoured frugality. The very family unit resembled a contemporary corporation, with a rich management structure looking after numerous stakeholders in many ventures, which included banking and finance. Increasingly dedicated to the theme of magnificence, the large families remained cautious about extravagance and were fond of savings.

An example is the aristocratic Alberti family. In the third book in Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On the family,15 Giannozzo and Lionardo agree that the whole family, irrespective of its size, should live under the one roof for economy’s sake, and for the family members to gather rather than spread out within the house, so that only a single fire needs to be lit in order to heat so many souls, rather than three fires. Typically, the treatise does not use a word for waste but the argument is clear.

In the fourth book of the same treatise, Giannozzo identifies the wickedness of certain priests whose habits are wasteful. The priests are extremely avid (cupidissimi) and vie with one another not on proper virtues or reading but who can outdo the others (soprastare) in pomp and ostentation. They want the largest number of plump and liveried cavalcades; they want to go out in public with a great army of parasites; and together they cultivate desires by too much idleness (per troppo ozio), that are lascivious, audacious and rash (inconsulte). They are without boundaries (incontinentissimi) and, with neither saving nor accumulation (risparmio o masserizia), they only care about satisfying their stimulated appetites (incitati apetiti). To feed their lust and vice (libidine e vizio) they burn with a marvellous malice and have perpetual competition and division in the house. In their obscene and dishonest life, besieged by wasters and wicked sycophants (perditissimi e sceleratissimi assentatori), the expenses are greater than the income (più sono le spese che l’ordinarie sue ricchezze). Thus, it seems befitting to them to be rapacious elsewhere; but when it comes to decent spending (onestissime spese) for the assistance of the family or friends and to bring relatives to a fair and honourable state, they are inhuman, tight (tenacissimi), late and miserly.

The shameless practices are beneath contempt. Curiously, Alberti has no time for the rich priests even when their spending sustains the lesser folk who are their retinue. These hangers-on are described as a great army of eaters (mangiatori), that is, parasites, people who get into the confidence of the powerful and consume without yielding any profit to anyone but themselves. This archetype of the ingratiating good-for-nothing was observed in ancient Greece and finds its way onto the comic stage still in the eighteenth century, where they were known as urbane scroungers (scrocchi).16 Though we all need to eat, we ought to earn our place at the table; and the people who merely wangle their way into the banquet with a subtle understanding of favours could be described as wasters, whence Alberti—like Goldoni centuries later—has sympathy neither for them nor their indulgent patrons. A century later again, Nietzsche would consider hospitality to be partly a negative virtue, ‘the danger of dangers among cultured and rich souls who handle themselves wastefully, almost indifferently and drive the virtue of liberality to the point of being a burden’.17

In the Italian invectives against various shades of waste, however, a direct word for waste is seldom used. The Italian language provides plenty of verbs and nouns (sprecare, sciupare, spreco , sperperare, scialacquare) but they hardly ever feature in poetic or satirical literature, including by moral authors like Dante and Machiavelli, narrators like Boccaccio and Bandello, or even ostentatiously lavish baroque authors like Marino. In an amusing line in a long poem, Goldoni explains that a narrative is compre-hensible even if it contains esoteric words. Wasting (sperperare) is one of the three words that he chooses, suggesting that the term was uncommon in popular speech.18

Similar points can be made of French, where plenty of words exist to describe wasting (like gaspiller) or wasteful (gâcheur) but none is used in moral authors like Montaigne in the sixteenth century or La Rochefoucault or La Bruyère or their contemporaneous tragedians in the grand siècle; and such terms have to wait to the nineteenth century before they are much exploited in poetic literature, as in Baudelaire (once), where in any case gaspiller could be translated as spill.19 Occasionally, one finds the term dépense used to mean waste, as in La Bruyère, who speaks of a waste of time,20 or Racine who says that three quarters of your fortune is wasted or spent;21 but mostly the term simply means expense. Derived from the Latin dispendium, like the Italian dispendio, the French shares its root with our ‘spend’, and is not structurally burdened with an evil or damaging principle, like our ‘waste’.

Between the renaissance and the enlightenment, baroque feeling on waste is powerfully expressed in English, where the word grew with colour and curiosity. In Shakespeare, waste is gorgeously convoluted and paradoxical, as in Romeo’s ingenious counterpoint ‘that sparing makes huge waste’,22 which also acknowledges that the antonym of waste is sparing or saving, rather than preservation. Although in Shakespeare waste retains the physicality of something lessening, it gains a great sense of the unnecessary, which is a key quality in our contemporary understanding of waste. As Mercutio says: ‘in delay / We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day.’23 There is no point using artificial light when the sun provides brightness enough. This superfluity is waste in the contemporary sense, though it must be admitted that the image of the candle still supports the idea of waste as ‘getting less’ or ‘becoming thinner’ as it burns.24 The motif of diminishing is integral to waste in other languages, as in the etymology of the German verb for waste (verschwenden, from schwinden, to wane, to shrink, dwindle or fade).

Shakespeare often contemplates the superfluous, the preposterously unnecessary and even counterproductive, which his Salisbury characterizes as being ‘possess’d with double pomp’ and as ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess’.25 Shakespearean language lets us witness the transition of waste from a physical decrease to a moral concept. You can sense the movement in Shylock’s line ‘to waste his borrow’d purse’,26 meaning to make the purse thinner by consuming the money therein, already morally dubious by virtue of the fact that the contents are on loan. Similar tensions of significance arise in King Richard’s line confessing that ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’,27 meaning that I passed time up without profit and now time shrinks my fibre and prospects in revenge. Likewise in Falstaff’s witticisms confusing the two meanings of the one phoneme, waste and waist, where the Chief Justice says: ‘Your means are very slender, and your waste is great’, to which Falstaff replies that ‘I would my means were greater, and my waist slenderer.’28 Even when we speak of time, the waste is not necessarily frowned upon, as in Puck’s happy line that ‘A merrier hour was never wasted there.’29 In moral terms, the waste is neutral.30 This neutrality explains the apparent contradiction in Rosalind’s line: ‘the burden of lean and wasteful learning’.31 The learning is not wasteful in the sense of pointless but in the sense of consuming your hours without muscular engagement, which causes the body and the candle to become weaker, what we might still call wasting away.

The pointlessness of an action, however, does attract the word waste, especially over words spoken in vain, as in Angelo’s ‘you but waste your words’32 or Portia’s ‘Waste no time in words’.33 And in fact, the prime com-modity that attracts fear of waste is time, the cause of moral reproach, as in Olivia’s feeling that ‘The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.’34 While sometimes this waste of time is also neutral, like the whiling of time,35 there are good reasons for the preoccupation. Of all the resources that are available to us, time is the one that measures us, that is our life, our youth or whatever remaining age we have. In an age that sought constantly to remember that we die (memento mori) any waste of time was felt acutely, much resented with someone unworthy,36 even if wasting other people’s time was a privilege that the powerless had to put up with.37 The idea of something being inherently a waste of time is not so much in evidence, or nothing to compare with Büchner’s dismissive ‘what a total waste of time!’ (Was ’n Zeitverschwendung!) in the nineteenth century.38 Nevertheless, sometimes strong feelings are associated with waste in the baroque, as when a dagger wound wastes the blood of McDuff, ‘ruin’s wasteful entrance’;39 and Shakespeare even associates waste with a personality type, ‘a wasteful king’,40 and speaks ‘of raging waste’41 when it comes to money.

The history of ideas allows us to triangulate the concept of waste in a zone bordered on the one side by destruction or physical diminishing and on the other side as the opposite of thrift. But at the base of the triangle is another concept again, which creates the foundation of moral opinions on waste, which is plenty, bounty or luxury, themselves both good and bad according to cultural estimation.

Still today, we have much ambivalence over luxury. Few concepts are so fraught with moral and aesthetic contradictions. Luxury, though sought with envy and cultivated competitively by all the advanced economies, has long attracted criticism. The equivocation is so deeply a part of European culture that it finds an expression in the very language by which the idea is communicated. Our word luxury derives from the Latin for plenty (luxus) which spawned a derivative (luxuria) that already indicates a kind of rank superabundance, a sense retained in the English term luxuriant, as in describing thick undergrowth or a prolific pot of basil. In the renaissance, however, the somewhat wanton and overgrown associations of the Latin overtook the root, so to speak, to express an outrageous libidinous energy, impulsively lusty and expressing lack of control. The Italian term lussuria expressed lust or ‘illegitimate lewdness’, as Cesare Ripa says in his book of emblems from the early seventeenth century, which became a famous source-book for artists.42

Our age does not look upon hedonism so reproachfully and it is much encouraged by commerce. Is luxury good or bad? You can almost see the development of language neurotically hedging its bets over this dilemma. To get around the embarrassment that we do not know, that we simultaneously want to admire luxury (and to possess it) but also to abhor and stigmatize it, the European psyche hatched two terms which might take care of the equivocation. Let lussuria be disgusting and lewd; let it go wild and convulse, whence it indicates moral abandon and fornication alongside the randy appetites of goats and rats. Meanwhile, let us—as people of culture and aspiration—have the luxury of things, lusso, grand halls bedight with pictures and stucco and replete with tables bearing unaffordable sweetmeats.

Although the idea of luxury as a purely material superfluity—untainted by erotic excess—retained a separate term (lusso), in fact this form of privilege was also not without anxious suspicions and concerns for social control. Anything good, by the neurosis of western culture is also something bad, because it might be owned by the wrong people or put to the wrong effect. In the fourth book of his influential treatise The courtier, from the early sixteenth century, Baldassare Castiglione implores us to ‘temper all superfluity’ for economic reasons, because wasting resources lays cities to ruin.43 Around lusso, he includes over-sumptuous private buildings, banquets, excessive dowries and pomp in jewelry and clothes. Productive capital would be tied up in aesthetic nonsense or vanity.

In the exorbitant decorative century that followed, lusso would remain under suspicion, even with such a flamboyant poet as Marino, who saw ‘soft luxury and barbarous ornament’ as a phantasm that seductively gets into his hero’s nostrils;44 though Marino is not such a hypocrite that he does not also express his fondness for ‘superb luxury’ elsewhere45 because he flagrantly demonstrates his liking for it. Whatever one decries as unnecessary one can equally extol as superlative. It depends on your expectations and values, which are likely to be in contention in all epochs.

This ambivalence explains why Shakespeare, whose language is at least as luxuriant as Marino’s, sings: ‘Fie on sinful fantasy! / Fie on lust and luxury!’ or complains of ‘hateful luxury, / And bestial appetite in change of lust’,46 always associating luxury with libido. As if remembering the etymological link with lust, Shakespeare associates ‘the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger’ with lechery.47 It is why old King Hamlet’s ghost associates luxury with erotic vice in the lines: ‘Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / a couch for luxury and damned incest.’48 And it is also why Lear makes an apology for lechery and ‘luxury, pell-mell’, because adultery could not produce worse offspring than his own treacherous surviving daughters, who were nevertheless ‘Got ’tween the lawful sheets.’49

The uncanny sexual stress inside the concept is not just a quirk of philology and, up to a point, the archaic confusion of luxury and lust persists. Infuriatingly, in fact, expensive consumer goods or services for the socially aspirational are associated with sex through advertising. One capriciously represents the desired product or service with the vector of naked legs or youthful cleavage. So strong is this appeal that decades of feminism and rational reflexion are to no avail. Wealth and power are popularly considered to have aphrodisiac properties, so the archaic link between luxury and lust is not likely to disappear any time soon, no matter how much we recognize that the connexion is illogical.

The ancient critique of luxury as an inappropriate way of spending resources also has a contemporary counterpart. We are wary of many luxuries for reasons of sustainability. The more luxury we desire, the more luxury is produced, the more energy is consumed and emissions are produced. One is anxious about the exponential global consumption of goods and services, which is now reckoned to be unsustainable and also impossible to arrest. Luxury is extensively subjective and dependent upon prior values. In a comedy by the eighteenth-century playwright Carlo Goldoni, a shrewd English noble, Milord Wambert, says to his sceptical creative compatriots: ‘Friends, if you so detest fashion and luxury, if you so love the common good and reformed custom, why do you yourselves make such rich works which wreak such waste (recano dispendio) and cause damage? You earn your bread with silver and gold. You study unusual ways of shaping shoes. Therefore, O wise and prudent heroes, luxury is only harmful when buyers don’t spend on you!’50

The accusation was that costly foreign trends are wasteful and therefore bad for the prudent management of the economy. But if you succeed in achieving profits by producing very similar artefacts to the ones that you condemn, all of a sudden you no longer need to be so critical. A case of hypocrisy, then, that translates to various degrees of sanctimony today: you deplore luxuries that you do not have or that you have no interest in; meanwhile, you forget all the luxuries that you have accrued and continue to invest in almost unawares.

Goldoni was acutely aware of this hidden devotion to luxury in his countrymen. Italians, he considered, were ridiculous spendthrifts both on unnecessary fashions but also on ways of spending time. In four of his comedies, the Venetian humourist reserves particular scorn for holiday houses. These vacationers are pure indulgence, which cause families to forget their business in town, seek abandon in unproductive sports, gambling and consuming prodigious amounts of wine, meat and chocolate, plus the sequestered capital on the property. Today, he says in the preamble to The malcontents, ‘holidaying has arrived at an excess of luxury, waste and liability’.51 Echoing ideas that he would express in his play Crazes for the country holiday,52 he indicates that it might have been fine for the idle aristocracy to enjoy such indulgences but for the aspirational productive community to consume its scarce resources in this frivolity is a recipe for calamity.

Paradoxically, the very economic vigour that Goldoni recommended ended up generating more luxuries, especially in the burgeoning industries of the British Isles that he so admired. The industrial revolution which began in the north at the time of Goldoni’s late plays promoted the very motif that he despised in middle-class Italian communities, namely, as Nardo says in The country philosopher, that country folk are content to remain as they always were, whereas city people always want to be something else, something more, something different, ‘oppressed by luxury, ambition and appetite’.53

We could therefore answer Goldoni with an existential question: why be so industrious and parsimonious if it is not ultimately to win some greater comfort, welfare, amenity and enjoyment for ourselves and community which may also be a kind of luxury? We can add the principle: luxury is justified if it makes us think and feel, if it adds curiosity and vision, like philosophy itself, which contributes insight and wisdom to culture and is therefore not a luxury in any dispensable sense.

Alas, Goldoni’s own characters answer him in more pragmatic terms. In Crazes for the country holiday, scene after scene shows the gentry overspending, living beyond their means in trying to sustain ostentatious holidays involving new outfits, coach trips, banquets, hangers-on, expensive chocolates and coffee, above all, countless idle hours which mean income foregone, plus the dormant capital tied up in the property. From time to time, sometimes by the prudent and redemptive figure of Fulgenzio, they are caused to scruple. If it is a case of not being able to afford a new dress for the holiday or a holiday at all, the justifications for proceeding with the extravagance are passionate. The dear old figure of Filippo is persuaded to reconsider the promise of the holiday, which he personally hangs out for; but, resolved as he is to exercise restraint, he cannot deny his daughter, Giacinta, who comes back at him with a powerful argument:

what will the good tongues of Montenero say about us? Signor Filippo no longer holidays; he’s finished, no longer has the means. His daughter, poor thing! Her dowry is frittered; who will take her? Who would want to have her? They must eat little and go out less. What we saw was smoke, not roast. I can hear them. I feel a cold sweat coming on.54

While the hedonism of the holidays is the superintending motif, Giacinta thinks of her marriage prospects. Not to show off (fare la figura) means accepting lower stakes in the neighbourhood, less prestige, less social mobility. For a nubile person, the case, in its own terms, follows reasonable and natural Darwinian logic. It is a strategy of finding the best opportunities for perpetuating your gene-stock: in your social milieu, you have to be able to project the air of privilege, else you will not attract a partner with the privileges and best opportunities for your future. You want to marry up.

If it is really reasonable and natural, why does Goldoni make fun of it and bring his personages to the brink of ruin in order to illustrate the vanity of their aspirations? He considers the holidays a waste because the reasons that Giacinta provides, though internally consistent, are also mad. At what point would the pretence end in order to bid higher in the market for eligible men? Why not use smoke and mirrors in order to secure a count or a prince? At a certain point, we need to make a moral judgement about the probity and wisdom of whatever luxury and call it waste or folly. Goldoni is sanguine in his aversion to the folly and in no doubt about satirizing it.

Despite the sharp consciousness that the eighteenth century brought to the theme, the history of waste is not linear. Through metaphor, the word changes its meaning from physical lessening to the supply-side of economic failure; but there is no pattern of wasteful behaviour that accompanies this shift. Culture does not begin with an archaic love of luxury and somehow end with the parsimony of the nineteenth century, often stereotyped through puritanical values, an abstemious century of wowsers, keen on engineering and social machinery. If anything, the prolific ornament of the great nineteenth-century cities of Europe and America—like Paris and New York, reaching into the 1920s—testifies to the ‘double pomp’ of capital, effortlessly erecting stately buildings of fabulous dimensions and then filling them with rich commodities for sale, endlessly aspirational, with promotional organization and distribution networks.

The age of the middle class or the industrial revolution—which we are still a part of—was not so hostile to waste. The very motor of industrial progress was based on what Marx famously termed surplus value, the margin of superabundance that makes capital; and while Marx himself would condemn the non-use value of marketed objects as fetish, the very basis for economic development was a margin identified as unnecessary. The word waste is not even always used in a pejorative sense, especially in German, where the noun (Verschwendung) also has benign connotations of lavishness and extravagance, which can easily be used in positive senses. Authors use the adjective (verschwenderisch) in admiration, say, over heavenly bounty. So in the second part of Goethe’s Faust, a youthful driver allegorically describes himself as ‘Waste (or Lavishness): I am poetry’, explaining that as a poet he is fulfilled when he throws away his property; but he is immeasurably rich, comparable to Pluto, whom he enlivens with ornament, dance and banquet, dispensing to him whatever he lacks.55

Sensitivity to the harmful effects of waste is not universal. Around 1800, it rather belongs to the passion and fury of Sturm und Drang to throw caution to the winds and see waste as a sign of integrity and strength of feeling rather than the suppression of instinct that reason might otherwise insist upon. Thus Werther scorns the philistines who counsel the rationing of time spent with a girlfriend when passion excites a young heart to become totally dependent on her, to be with her at all times, to lavish (or waste, verschwenden) all of his powers and fortune and to express his devotion at all moments,56 while the unimaginative advises the young man to divide his attention between love and work. To follow this advice would be less than love.

In various metaphoric ways, overspending or lavishness or waste is celebrated in poetic literature: ‘don’t waste the darts of your eyes’;57 or, in Kleist, the delirious enchantment of the mob lavishes itself (sich verschwendet) upon your great name.58 For Goethe, there is something marvellous about the nature of passion that heeds waste not at all; and toward the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche would identify the special quality of nature with superabundance, excess and waste: ‘strong contrasts, harsh changes from day and night, brightness and colour, the glory of everything sudden, secret, terrible, the speed of disruptive storms, everywhere the lavish spilling over of Nature’s cornucopia’, against which our culture is clean and cold.59 A similar estimation arises with respect to reality, which ‘reveals an enchanting wealth of types, the lushness of a lavish play of form and change’.60 Even the proud powers of the German people can be described thus.61

The case cannot be overstated because elsewhere Nietzsche uses the word to mean wasteful in a negative sense, as when art goes to waste.62 The interesting element is again that language inherently equivocates; sometimes the word condemns and sometimes it celebrates. For Nietzsche, the equivocation is almost essential, because it expresses a deeper uncertainty in the very point of existence. The existential dilemma can be explored in other words, as when Nietzsche looks into the ultimate pointlessness of humankind and one sees one’s effect on the world as waste (Vergeudung). But even this despair is somehow noble, and it belongs specifically to poets to extrapolate from the individual and to see the same waste in the flowering of nature.63 Normally, this word (Vergeudung) is unequivocally pejorative, a frittering away, a squandering which attracts no redemption, right down to the ‘noble’ waste of Greek life in war.64 But when it comes to the chaotic profusion of nature, the word ends up being positive.

The reasons are existential. It seems silly to Nietzsche that the Stoics ever wanted to live according to nature, because ‘nature is wasteful beyond measure (verschwenderisch ohne Maass), indifferent without measure, without intention, reflexion, without clemency and justice, fertile and barren and uncertain all at the same time’.65 One should not look to nature to fill in existential gaps because, as he notes elsewhere, one should see nature in its whole wasteful and indifferent grandeur.66 Nor should one look to artificial purposes. Nietzsche finds, for example, that he wasted ten years as philologist: how useless, how arbitrary! He is ashamed of his false modesty.67

These agonies prefigure contemporary consciousness, where waste is simultaneously anathematized as wanton68 and yet spooks our economy in our dependency on consumerism (or spending) and growth, as if a necessity of thriving nations as well as an ideal of ambitious individuals. The condemnation of waste arises on the political right as much as the left. Conservative parties are quick to identify waste in any form of spending by the left, especially if it relates to welfare, which is always a cheap electoral issue. Meanwhile, the left is understandably concerned with the waste of the world’s natural resources and the damage that over-consumption wreaks on natural systems.

The history of waste tells us that these ideas in contention are not new. There are structural reasons revealed in the very language that we use, sometimes destructive and sometimes winsomely lavish, where even nature is suspected as the archetype of pointless overproduction and wasteful superabundance, against which moral resistance is a kind of reciprocal perversity. But at the same time, there is no escaping the discourse: one has to worry about waste. Our time is running out, as in Simonides’ exhortation in Shakespeare: ‘we sit too long on trifles / And waste the time, which looks for other revels’.69 As individuals, we always have to evaluate our personal time, else the prime chance slips by. It is part of the neurosis of living in a competitive society, where our every moment is potentially agonized as either yielding profit or waste.

Up to a point, we require insulation from this reality; otherwise, we might well go mad with the preoccupation, and our personal teleology would crush us. It would be like an overactive superego, menacing the ego in the famous Freudian economy of a threatening voice inside us that compounds with libido and the challenges of the outside world to produce neurosis. To handle this psychological embarrassment, society produces prolific narcotics, which are also very marketable, that enable us to forget any exigence in decisions over time and other resources. Leaving aside the literal social drugs, like alcohol, or medical drugs to make us feel more relaxed, we have television which constantly gives licence for the relief of worry. You do not need to feel that you are wasting time watching a ball game when apparently the whole nation—so you would imagine from the media—is hysterically involved to an equal degree. With such public momentum driving the interest, you quite forget that devoting hours to the idle spectacle is a waste; instead, it is valorized as valuable recreation with representations of fervour, bonding, passion, goals, ambition, heartbreak and glory.

These medialized drugs are a linear extension of the economy that Goldoni satirized in the eighteenth century. No less than in old Italy, middle-class Anglophone people today also have holiday houses and spend—in his terms squander—large amounts of time and money that could be directed to productive ends, such as enhancing cultural capital. But once a market develops around a behaviour, every incentive is brought to bear to support the wasteful interest, to normalize its extravagance as something that everyone would want. Thanks to a combination of advertising and the contagious enthusiasm that is culture in the wider sense, people begin to tell themselves that their desires are normal, even though they are historically confined and as stupid as Goldoni’s shrewd maids and butlers recognize.70

There are strong reasons to talk about waste to offset equal and opposite incentives not to. To talk of waste in one’s personal life is often to bump up against an ontological barrier that seems to protect us from peering into a chasm. Further, as history indicates, there is much vanity tied up in our view of ourselves; and any identification of waste is likely to be experienced as a criticism of ourselves. The topic has risks of great offence, looking down on people’s tastes, national conventions and private fun. Consequently it has risks of disenfranchising the very people whose cooperation you will need. It was the invidious job of Fulgenzio in Goldoni’s plays; and only the financial collapse of two families forced others to listen to him.

In our own age, as noted à propos luxury, there are pressing needs in relation to sustainability to identify waste and stop it. If we do not really need to meet someone interstate or overseas but can use telecommunication instead, we must save the jet fuel and desist from travel. There is a moral incumbency that induces us to come back to the theme of waste with a vengeance, where all forms of waste have to be scrutinized, as they are all somewhat interrelated. The task has never been so urgent; and, though history reveals that we are not particularly well prepared for the challenge, the need to examine waste in education is pressing in counterintuitive ways, facing a deep ambivalence about the values around creativity.

In the deconstruction of waste, it appears that we cannot simply label as waste anything that we do not like. To cast the term waste at any target might only be a cheap form of deprecation because, alas, there is waste in everything that we cherish. Even with the waste of potential there is much uncertainty that anything can be done. For example, students might have enormous potential in science but, in the course of their studies, they are drawn to the humanities. Up to a point, the potential to do science is never realized and therefore in a sense goes to waste. We acknowledge this limit to opportunity without lamentation, because there are necessary choices; and although five years spent learning calculus may end in very little, it is no scandal. It took five years to figure out that the humanities are a better option and, speaking materialistically, less waste will occur with the change of direction; besides, we always feel that no science ever goes to waste.

It is true that waste may be especially inherent in creative endeavour but the same economic rule applies as with any discipline: in describing the overstrike of study in any area in which it turns out our efforts are relatively forlorn, we are talking about a necessary cost rather than waste per se. In that sense, much that looks wasteful can be justified; but haggling over these margins is not our concern. The concern is systematic discouragement of creative impulses in any discipline, irrespective of choice and aptitude. When all is said and done, there is no excuse for discouragement; and education, which should be a furthering experience, is full of disheartening strictures and judgements. We have an educational system which is mostly structured on knocking people back, putting them down in stakes that they did not necessarily agree to. Fatefully, the effect of our negative counsel, in impeccable alignment with learning outcomes, is waste in the ancient sense of devastation (ἀπώλεια), as if the word is destined to return to its archaic violence.


1 e.g. Martha Nussbaum, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities, Princeton University Press, 2010.

2 Aristotle, Nichomachean ethics 120a2, Meteorology 351b11.

3 Aristotle Problems 952b26 (opposite to guarding or watching over or keeping safe (τηρησις).

4 Romans 9.22, 2 Thessalonians 2.3, of a thing lost Septuagint, Laws 6.3 (5.22).

5 Henry V 3.3.18.

6 Measure for measure 2.2.170. Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary … ?’ Measure for measure 2.2.170; cf. the ‘wasted building’ of the Second Goth, ‘a ruinous monastery’ Titus Andronicus 5.1.

7 Henry V 3.1.14.

8 Matthew 26.8–12, famous because sung in Bach’s Matthew Passion.

9 Julius Caesar 2.1.59; cf. ‘some nine moons wasted’, Othello 1.3.84.

10 Plato, Timaeus 36b, Phaedo 72d; use up spend lavish money, Xenophon 1.2.22.

11 τας δυναμεις εις τα αλογα Plato, Protagoras 321C; Plato, Timaeus 1C; consume Aristotle, Generation of animals 763a13, Plutarch 2.160b; one must expend (with the verbal suffix -ωτεον) (την σπουδην εις τα μηδενος αξια) Aristotle, Rhetoric for Alexander 1420b22.

12 Polybios 36, 17.7 (second century BC), Inscriptiones græcæ 14.2002 in Rome, Ecclesiastes 21.115.

13 Ecclesiastes 27.13, 1 Timothy 5.6, James 5.5, but also in pagan sources, e.g. Greek anthology 11.17, Nicharchos, 5.301.2 (Agathon).

14 Greek anthology 5.17 (Rufinus), 5.26 σπαταλωδης soft, self-indulgent Soranus medicus 2.54.

15 I libri della famiglia 3.

16 Goldoni describes Ferdinando thus in Le smanie per la villeggiatura, passim.

17 ‘zum Beispiel unsrer „Gastfreundschaft“: wie es die Gefahr der Gefahren bei hochgearteten und reichen Seelen ist, welche verschwenderisch, fast gleichgültig mit sich selbst umgehn und die Tugend der Liberalität bis zum Laster treiben. Man muss wissen, sich zu bewahren: stärkste Probe der Unabhängigkeit’, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse 41.

18 Esopo alla grata 3.41–51.

19 ‘Sur des fronts ténébreux de poètes illustres / Qui viennent gaspiller leurs sanglantes sueurs’, Le jeu in Les fleurs du mal 96.9–12.

20 ‘la plus forte dépense que l’on puisse faire est celle du temps’, La Bruyère, ‘Discours sur Théophraste’, Les caractères, preface.

21 ‘Les trois quarts de vos biens sont déjà dépensés’, Les plaideurs 3.1.

22 Romeo and Juliet 1.1.224.

23 Romeo and Juliet 1.4.45.

24 as in Hero’s wish to ‘let Benedick, like cover’d fire, Consume away in sighs, waste inwardly’, Much ado about nothing 3.1.78. It explains Puck’s ‘wasted brands’, that is a torch that burns itself out.

25 cf. Goethe’s line where the Direktor defends the Spartan character of the stagecraft: ‘Gebraucht das groß, und kleine Himmelslicht, / Die Sterne dürfet ihr verschwenden’, Faust.

26 Merchant of Venice 2.5.50.

27 Richard II 5.5.49.

28 2 Henry IV 1.2.160; cf. Falstaff’s ‘Indeed, I am in the waist two yards about; but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift’, Merry wives of Windsor 1.3.47.

29 Mid summer night’s dream 2.1.57.

30 ‘To have the expense and waste of his revenues’, Lear 2.1.102.

31 As you like it 3.2.341.

32 Measure for measure 2.2.72.

33 Merchant of Venice 3.4.54.

34 Twelfth night 3.1.141.

35 As Gower says, ‘Thus time we waste, and longest leagues make short’, Pericles 4.4.1, meaning that the passing of time does not need to be so boring. See also Prospero’s charming lines: ‘Sir, I invite your Highness and your train / To my poor cell, where you shall take your rest / For this one night; which—part of it—I’ll waste / With such discourse as, I not doubt, shall make it / Go quick away’, Tempest 5.1.

36 As Malvolio says ‘you waste the treasure of your time with a foolish knight’.

37 As Arviragus says, ‘That they will waste their time upon our note’, Cymbeline 4.4.20.

38 Georg Büchner, Woyzeck beginning lines, spoken by the Captain.

39 Macbeth 2.3.

40 As the Gardener says, ‘Bolingbroke / Hath seiz’d the wasteful King. O! what pity is it / That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land / As we this garden!’ King Richard II 3.4.

41 ‘to Varro and to Isidore He owes nine thousand; besides my former sum, / Which makes it five-and-twenty. Still in motion / Of raging waste! It cannot hold; it will not.’ Timon of Athens 2.1.4; cf. Roderigo ‘With nought but truth. I have wasted myself out of my means.’ Othello 4.2.

42concupiscenze illecite’, Ripa, Iconologia, 1610 s.v.

43 Il cortegiano 4.42.

44 ‘il Lusso molle e ’l barbaro ornamento’, Adone 6.151.8.

45lusso superbo’, 8.91.7; cf. 12.182.3.

46 The Merry Wives of Windsor 5.5.98.

47 Troilus and Cressida 5.2.55.

48 Hamlet 1.5.83.

49 Lear 4.6.119.

50 Il filosofo inglese 2.3.

51 ‘è arrivato oggidì all’eccesso del lusso, del dispendio e dell’incomoda soggezione’, I malcontenti, foreword.

52 Le smanie per la villeggiatura, preface.

53 Il filosofo di campagna 1.5.

54 ‘Figurarsi! quelle buone lingue di Montenero che cosa direbbono de’ fatti nostri! Il signor Filippo non villeggia più, ha finito, non ha più il modo. La sua figliuola, poveraccia! ha terminato presto di figurare. La dote è fritta; chi l’ha da prendere? chi l’ha da volere? Dovevano mangiar meno, dovevano trattar meno. Quello che si vedeva, era fumo, non era arrosto. Mi par di sentirle; mi vengono i sudori freddi.’ Le smanie per la villeggiature 2.10.

55 Knabe Lenker: ‘Bin die Verschwendung, bin die Poesie; / Bin der Poet, der sich vollendet, / Wenn er sein eigenst Gut verschwendet. / Auch ich bin unermeßlich reich / Und schätze mich dem Plutus gleich, / Beleb‘ und schmück‘ ihm Tanz und Schmaus, / Das, was ihm fehlt, das teil‘ ich aus.’ 2 Faust 1.

56 Werther, 26 May (à propos rules in art); the more conventional use of the word can be found ibid. 1 July and 11 July.

57 Goethe, Torquato Tasso 2.3.

58 Alkmene in Heinrich von Kleist, Amphitryon 1.4.

59 ‘Gewaltsame Gegensätze, schroffer Wechsel von Tag und Nacht, Gluth und Farbenpracht, die Verehrung alles Plötzlichen, Geheimnissvollen, Schrecklichen, die Schnelligkeit der hereinbrechenden Unwetter, überall das verschwenderische Ueberströmen der Füllhörner der Natur: und dagegen, in unserer Cultur, ein heller, doch nicht leuchtender Himmel, reine, ziemlich gleich verbleibende Luft, Schärfe, ja Kälte gelegentlich: so heben sich beide Zonen gegen einander ab.’ Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches 236.

60 ‘Die Wirklichkeit zeigt uns einen entzückenden Reichthum der Typen, die Üppigkeit eines verschwenderischen Formenspiels und -Wechsels’, Nietzsche, Götzen-Dämmerung, Moral als Widernatur 6.

61 ‘dass es den aufgehäuften Schatz von Kraft eine Zeit lang selbst verschwenderisch ausgeben darf ’, Nietzsche, Götzen-Dämmerung, Was den Deutschen abgeht, 1.

62 ‘… wird es Niemanden geben, der die Kunst, die hier verschwendet worden ist, begreift: es hat nie jemand mehr von neuen, von unerhörten, von wirklich erst dazu geschaffnen Kunstmitteln zu verschwenden gehabt’, Nietzsche, Ecce homo, Warum ich so gute Bücher schreibe. 4; cf. ‘eine zu negativen Zwecken verschwendete Kraft’, ibid. 8; cf. also ‘die feinste Künstlerschaft ist wie vor Tauben verschwendet’, Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse 246.

63 Sieht er bei Allem, was er thut, auf die letzte Ziellosigkeit der Menschen, so bekommt sein eigenes Wirken in seinen Augen den Charakter der Vergeudung. Sich aber als Menschheit (und nicht nur als Individuum) ebenso vergeudet zu fühlen, wie wir die einzelne Blüthe von der Natur vergeudet sehen, ist ein Gefühl über alle Gefühle. – Wer ist aber desselben fähig? Gewiss nur ein Dichter: und Dichter wissen sich immer zu trösten.’ Menschliches, Allzumenschliches 33.

64 ‘Der grösste Nachtheil der jetzt so verherrlichten Volksheere besteht in der Vergeudung von Menschen der höchsten Civilisation’, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches 442.

65 ‘“Gemäss der Natur” wollt ihr leben? Oh ihr edlen Stoiker, welche Betrügerei der Worte! Denkt euch ein Wesen, wie es die Natur ist, verschwenderisch ohne Maass, gleichgültig ohne Maass, ohne Absichten und Rücksichten, ohne Erbarmen und Gerechtigkeit, fruchtbar und öde und ungewiss zugleich, denkt euch die Indifferenz selbst als Macht – wie könntet ihr gemäss dieser Indifferenz leben? Nietzsche’, Jenseits von Gut und Böse 9.

66 ‘denn hier wie überall zeigt sich „die Natur“, wie sie ist, in ihrer ganzen verschwenderischen und gleichgültigen Grossartigkeit, welche empört, aber vornehm ist’, Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse 188.

67 ‘Eine Ungeduld mit mir überfiel mich; ich sah ein, dass es die höchste Zeit war, mich auf mich zurückzubesinnen. Mit Einem Male war mir auf eine schreckliche Weise klar, wie viel Zeit bereits verschwendet sei, – wie nutzlos, wie willkürlich sich meine ganze Philologen-Existenz an meiner Aufgabe ausnehme. Ich schämte mich dieser falschen Bescheidenheit ... Zehn Jahre hinter mir’, Nietzsche, Ecce homo, Mit zwei Fortsetzungen 3.

68 Google finds 200,000 instances of ‘wanton waste’ alone.

69 Pericles of Athens 2.3.93.

70 It is the argument in my ‘Holiday house’, The space wasters: the architecture of Australian misanthropy, Planning Institute of Australia, Carlton 2011, ch. 6, pp. 62–68.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson