When you write do you need to sit at a desk? Or, are you a lie-on-the-bed, laptop-on-your-chest kind of writer? George Pendle writes for Cabinet that when Gustave Flaubert declared “One cannot think and write except when seated”, it so inflamed Friedrich Nietzsche that he attacked Flaubert in his book Twilight of the Idols: “There I have caught you nihilist! The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”
Nietzsche’s rant against what he perceived as cultural decadence sparked a debate about the ideal physical mode for inspiration that has spilled into our modern ideas about work. Hemingway proclaimed that “writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.” He was joined by Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll in his Nietzschean preference for active creativity. But Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, and Truman Capote liked to write while lying down. Indeed, Capote called himself a “completely horizontal writer.”
In 1968 designer Bob Probst unwittingly echoed Nietzsche when he bemoaned the grid-like layout of American office spaces, which “blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” So, he designed the Action Office System, whose moveable partitions were intended to inspire workers to stand and move around. When it came to the link between creativity and physical engagement, it seemed, Nietzsche was right.
However, the ideas behind the Action Office System were quickly co-opted into a means for cramming as many workers as possible into one space. The dream of active work turned into the dreaded cubicle. Sedentary inspiration, it seems, has prevailed.