The Art of Lying in Bed | Artist Podcasts

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the essay entitled “On Lying in Bed” by G.K. Chesterton, published in 1909…

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience, if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic apparatus. I have fancied that it might be accomplished with several buckets of paint and a broom. But if one worked in a really sweeping and masterly way, and laid on the color in great washes, it might drip down again on one’s face in floods of rich and mingled color like some strange fairy rain; and that would have its disadvantages. I am afraid it is necessary to stick to pencil drawing for this form of artistic expression.

To that purpose, a white ceiling is of the greatest possible use; in fact, it is the only use I can think of a white ceiling being put to. And but for my beautiful experiment of lying in bed, I might never have discovered it. For years I have been looking for some blank spaces in a modern house to draw on. Paper is much too small for any really allegorical design; as Cyrano de Bergerac says, “Il me faut des géants” (I need giants).

But when I tried to find these clear spaces in the modern rooms such as we all live in, I was continually disappointed. I found endless patterns and complications in the form of small objects, hung like a curtain of links between me and my desire. So many walls were already covered with wallpaper—hideous paper filled with uninteresting images, and all bearing a ridiculous resemblance to each other.

I could not understand why one arbitrary symbol (a symbol entirely devoid of any spiritual or philosophical significance) should be sprinkled all over my nice walls like a sort of small-pox. The Bible must be referring to wallpaper, I think, when it says, “Use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do.” Everywhere that I went forlornly, with my pencil or my paint brush, I found that others had unaccountably been there before me, spoiling the walls, the curtains, and the furniture with their childish and barbaric designs.

Nowhere did I find a really clear space for sketching until the occasion when I prolonged beyond the proper limit the process of lying on my back in bed. Then the light of that white heaven broke upon my vision, that breadth of mere white which is indeed almost the definition of Paradise, since it means purity and also freedom. But alas! like all heavens, now that it is seen, it is found to be unattainable, appearing more austere and distant than the blue sky outside the windows.

My proposal to paint on the ceiling with the bristly end of a broom was immediately discouraged—never mind by whom—and even my minor proposal to put the other end of the broom into the fireplace and turn it to charcoal was rebuffed. Yet, I am certain that it was from people such as me that all the original inspiration came for covering the ceilings of palaces and cathedrals with a riot of fallen angels or victorious gods. I am sure that it was only because Michelangelo was engaged in the ancient and honorable occupation of lying in bed that he ever realized how the roof of the Sistine Chapel might be made into an awful imitation of a divine drama that could only be acted in the heavens.

The tone NOW commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary matters of conduct, at the expense of very great and primary ones, including our tragic human morality.

If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. This is especially so, in matters of hygiene and personal health; notably such matters as lying in bed. Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and temperament, it has come to be regarded as if it were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning—but there is nothing good about it or bad about its opposite.

Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed, while its spirit grows more fickle. A person’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative. The things that should be unchangeable are our principles, our ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch habits stay the same.

I should like all men and women to have strong and rooted principles, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon. This alarming growth of good habits really means too great an emphasis on those virtues which mere custom can ensure and too little emphasis on virtues which custom can never quite ensure—like those sudden and splendid virtues of inspired sympathy or inspired candor. The kind of which we now so often fail at when called.

Anyone can get used to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. But few can very well get used to being pilloried for their opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to the possibilities of the heroic and unexpected—and dare to say when we finally get out of bed, “I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.”

For those who study the great art of lying in bed, there is one emphatic caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed (like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done in bed (such as professional trapeze artists), it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional. But that is not the caution I mean.

The caution is this: if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick. But if a healthy person lies in bed, let them do it without a shred of an excuse; then you will get up from your repose as a healthy man or healthy woman. If you do it for some secondary hygienic reason, or if you have some scientific explanation for it, then you will get up as a hypochondriac.

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