There’s a rather obscure and unattractive synonym for procrastinator that makes the word seem like an even more opprobrious pejorative –– or ‘scornful expression of contempt or disapproval.’ That word is cunctator. Who would want to be called such an awful sounding word as that? And yet it was, in fact, a great compliment when it was coined.
Cunctator –– which means delayer –– was an honorific bestowed upon the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (275-203 BC). He won this esteemed recognition by both delaying and harassing Hannibal into submission without ever engaging in battle with him. It was through the fine art of procrastination that he ultimately triumphed over one of the greatest military commanders in all history.
Battling with ourselves against the tendency to put things off can be a lifelong engagement. “I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after,” are famous words attributed to both Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde.
Personally, I enjoy writing in verse and prose for my own entertainment and upliftment with no looming deadline to run from or toward. In fact, writing is my way of running from a whole lot of other things I’d rather not do. And as I have found, escapism –– even from pleasurable endeavors –– has much to recommend it, for you never know where it may lead you.
One of my favorite forms of escape is the ongoing PBS series, Masterpiece Theatre. I have been enjoying it for decades and particularly appreciate the period dramas created by the BBC. They are my escape into an era of greater elegance in costume and decor as well as eloquence in manner and speech.
One day, while watching a featured program from the series, I chanced to discover that PBS had also made available a new adaptation of The Woman in White, based on a mystery and ‘sensation novel’ written in 1859 by Willkie Collins. I’d never heard of sensation novels till I did a bit of online exploration. Then, I learned that such novels usually incorporated elements related to crime, opium, secret marriages, forged wills, disputed claims and other dark matter of that nature.
As soon as I began watching this series I was hooked. So, I allowed it to crowd out my more productive inclinations and activities, which at the time focused on writing essays around obscure words to see where they would carry me. And I did so even knowing the price I’d have to pay for my digression.
Usually, if I let something interrupt my creative flow, as I did on this occasion, I may find it hard to pick up the thread and regain momentum. When I’ve gone ‘cold’ on a project, the words appear lifeless on the page rather than being the vital, animated energies that are so enlivening and informing when I focus on them intently for an unbroken period of time. So, though I tried to get back to my writing in between episodes, I simply could not do it. Thus, I acquiesced to my inclinations and binge-watched the entire series.
The Woman in White concerns a lovely young heiress richly endowed with creative gifts. Predictably, she falls in love with the young artist who has been hired by her guardian/uncle to assist her and her sister to become more proficient as painters.
The mutual affection she shares with him is doomed –– because she has been promised in marriage to a lecherous old man of ill repute by the late father she so loyally loved. So, she obeys the dead man’s commandment in the face of her own more healthy inclinations. Only later do we learn of her father’s callous motives for foisting this union upon her.
As I watched the story of her trials and tribulations, I wondered about my own unconscious association of marriage with death. Had that come from a prior life –– or even this current one?
On those rare occasions when I did contemplate marriage as a young woman, I always dreamt of a funeral. This turned out to be a very useful early warning signal and fortunately I heeded it. For having grown up in a dysfunctional family in the 1950’s, I did not gain much ability to discern quality and integrity in another person.
I’d also been acculturated to lavish devotion on a man at the expense of my own creative inclinations and expressions. And I was advised quite specifically by my mother to always let a prospective romantic partner believe he was more capable and intelligent than I was. Having little sense of my own value and intelligence, this was not difficult to do.
Another realization I had while watching The Woman in White was that once upon a time I equated a woman’s frailty and traumatic victimization with her attractiveness to a man. As perverse and disgusting as this sounds to me today, I didn’t invent the notion. I just bought into it fully as it was quite pervasive when I was growing up.
In Idylls of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, author Bram Dijkstra analyzes the art and literature of the era to demonstrate that feminine frailty and fidelity were images of ideal womanhood in Victorian England. This led to a generation of wealthy women who required the constant ministrations of nurses to survive. The weaker they became, the purer they were perceived to be.
Dijkstra referred to these women as ‘Household Nuns.’ By physically embracing such paragons of virtue, their husbands sought to purify themselves from the necessary evils of predatory behaviors in the marketplace. Thus, wives were the sacrificial lambs of vulture capitalism.
Such prevalent yet pernicious beliefs that kept women from health and self-actualization were echoed in –– and predated by –– the Cinderella fantasy, which evidently dates back to the 17th C. The archetype is of the orphaned and abused –– yet innocent and obedient –– beautiful young victim-woman who ultimately wins the heart of a prince.
In 1990, Pretty Woman was the highly popular Cinderella story of the era. It told of a smart, handsome, wealthy man who falls in love with a beautiful, uneducated prostitute. As a result of their physical attraction, a whole world of love, wealth –– and the respect that money brings –– opens up to her.
When Pretty Woman was in her heyday, I was working at a Psychic Hotline located in a large call center in Los Angeles. I received numerous calls from poorly educated young women who believed that their beauty was the only currency they needed to snare a prosperous prince of commerce. It was my job, as I saw it, to gently free them from that self-deception and encourage them to cultivate their own inner wealth and sovereignty in every way possible. It definitely makes for a better life.
Until watching The Woman in White, I’d all but forgotten what a romantic notion a helpless, dependent woman had been in my own imagination. Then, I thought back to the Flash Gordon TV series from the 1950s.
In my memory, Flash’s girlfriend, Dale Arden, was captured by the minions of the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless. She was then placed in a semi-paralytic state and prepared for marriage to this evil despot. Fortunately, of course, Flash rescued her in the nick of time from a fate worse than death. How sexy is that?! Fortunately, Dijkstra’s book revealed to me that I wasn’t the only ‘twisted sister’ who fell under the spell of that perverse mythology.
The idea of devoting oneself in subservient submission to a man may sound completely ridiculous and repugnant to young women today who were not born under the domination of that illusion. However, there are plenty of other pernicious illusions that have diminished our sense of wholeness and autonomy, some of which we are only beginning to recognize and release.
For instance, there is the widespread thought-virus I refer to as the ‘Not Enuff Stuff.’ This perpetual sense of inadequacy is both emotionally and financially impoverishing. Yet, it is this illusion that fuels the economy. Similarly, the widespread belief in an inborn deficiency that derives from ‘Original Sin, keeps people in the bondage of perpetual repentance and the hope of ultimate redemption from a divine external source
People who have not been indoctrinated in a Western religious persuasion may still be under the sway of the psychological paradigm that believes that our mind and spirit –– once broken by trauma –– can never be return to wholeness. Thus, we are reduced to dependency on a lifetime of expensive and often questionable therapeutic strategies, along with an array of pharmaceutical ‘antidotes’ that may jeopardize our health and sanity as an inadvertent side effect.
What if all these accepted ‘truths’ are actually all make believe? What if we’ve simply lost our way in a dream we’re creating with our thoughts and empowering with our emotions and convictions? Several years ago I was introduced to a perspective called the Three Principles, which leads to greater psychological freedom in ‘normal’ neurotics as well as in people with extreme diagnoses in mental hospitals and prisons.
The 3P’s is based on the awareness that the mind, like the body, is basically self-repairing once we awaken to the recognition that our innate wholeness is indestructible. This understanding helps people remember that our essential nature can never be lost or broken –– just forgotten and overshadowed by the critical inner chatter that incessantly parrots our inherited, self-diminishing beliefs.
Our true nature is characterized by the same qualities we see in healthy young children: A loving spirit, innate wisdom, inquisitiveness, aliveness, uniqueness, imagination, unbounded creativity, resilience, eagerness to explore, grow, and learn –– and even intimations of greatness. But how could we remember this with our endless focus on fixing our broken thinking about ‘what’s wrong with us?’
There’s one more realization I received from binge watching the final three hours of The Woman in White: By taking time away from the writing I’d been focused on –– with the ‘stick-to-ativity’ of a limpet on a rock –– I inadvertently created the necessary space and breathing room for new insights to come to me. These insights enabled me to figure out what to do with one of the essays I’d been writing around obscure words –– that had grown too large and unwieldy.
This then led to a whole host of breakthroughs in the ideas I was entertaining for the series of essays I’d been writing around obscure words. And as I played with all sorts of interesting concepts, a bigger theme began to emerge about what these essays were collectively illuminating.
So let’s hear it for Productive Procrastination, as it also led me to entertain myself –– and hopefully other logophiles –– by writing this little essay celebrating its value.
Shortly after I finished an earlier draft of this piece, I listened to an episode on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain in which I learned that one of the behaviors shared in common by innovators is procrastination –– the Time Out that makes room for new ideas to spontaneously ‘occur’ to us. Of course, many more people procrastinate than innovate. But letting ourselves ‘off the hook’ makes it easier for fresh ideas to emerge.
Another synchronicity was the discovery the next day that my housemates had also watched The Woman in White at the same time as I did –– though we were at separate locations and hadn’t been in touch with each other. Also, as it turns out, they were watching the film version of the story from the late 1940s while I was engrossed in the latest BBC/TV adaptation of it. How weird is that?
Perhaps stranger still was the fact that my housemates’ black cat, which lives downstairs with them, had somehow –– for the first and only time –– found its way into my bedroom and startled me by appearing under my writing desk. How and why the cat crept in remains a mystery. Perhaps the fact that my mind –– enthralled by a gothic tale –– was exerting an electro-magnetic influence that was compelling to the archetypal black cat could have something to do with it.
The last gift I gained from watching The Woman in White –– instead of doing what I thought I should be doing –– is the discovery of the hidden motivation behind Sensation Novels. Evidently, they reflected the prevalent anxiety in Victorian society about the meaning, permanence and manipulation of identity.
This anxiety was activated by an increase in bureaucratic record keeping going on at that time. This is perfectly in sync with our own well-founded paranoia about our extreme loss of privacy and ever-growing vulnerability to invasive manipulation and control by the corporate state.
We are living in a time of great foreboding –– of ever-greater evil. I wonder what would happen if we all decided simultaneously to be cunctators when it comes to paying taxes this year? Could we possibly de-fund the fascistic predation? What other sorts of liberation might this current COVID time-out inspire us to activate?
Perhaps, in the midst of our time wasting, we might recognize what an incredible waste of time our ‘normal’ lives have been –– as reluctant wage earners and wage-burners trying to get ahead like a hamster on a wheel. What if we were to access in our idleness the genius that resides in every heart? What viable alternatives might we find for ourselves when we have nowhere else to go –– but within?
 A fascinating film from 1998 on that subject is Dark City with Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connolly and other notables