The legendary Roman dining couch, known as the klinai, was made from wood or stone, covered with cloth, and designed for lying down. I sometimes wonder how comfortable it really was. Then again, since people 2,000 years ago weren’t acquainted with comfort in the modern, well-cushioned sense, they probably enjoyed it much more than we would today. The klinai was perfectly adequate for the purpose of munching grapes, drinking wine, exchanging philosophical opinions, and meeting potential lovers.
As a sophisticated art form, however, lying down was perfected much later. Take the divan. The word means different things under different circumstances: a Turkish divan consists of a mat on the floor or a flat ledge that can run along an entire wall. In a French boudoir, a divan means an upholstered bench, often decorated with tassels and fringe, in the middle of the room. The term can even be used for a row of chairs clustered around a raised platform. Ultimately, divans and couches came to be associated with ‘oriental’ behaviour and a kind of literary dilettantism – thanks to the likes of Thomas De Quincey, the 19th-century English essayist and wastrel, who succumbed to opium while reclining on a chaise. Later, writers ranging from Truman Capote to the former US poet laureate Charles Simicwould confess to producing their best work while horizontal.
Until recently, lying down was seen as the horizontal counterpart to the dreamy rambling of the melancholy flâneur, walking about without pursuing any goal in particular. When we lie on our backs and direct our gaze up toward the ceiling or sky, we lose our physical grasp of things. We relax our state of hyper-vigilance, and our thoughts soar.
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