Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

Do Sancho Panzas Trump Don Quixotes?

In Stendhal‘s The Charterhouse of Parma, the Conte says to ‘our hero’ Fabrizio:

A half brainless individual, but one who keeps his eyes open and day in day out acts with prudence, will often enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over men of imagination. It was by a foolish error of imagination that Napoleon was led to surrender to the prudent John Bull instead of seeking to escape to America. John Bull, in his counting-house, had a good laugh over that letter of his in which he quotes Themistocles. In all ages, the base Sancho Panzas will, in the long run, triumph over the sublimely noble Don Quixotes.

The Conte’s opening claim is a familiar one: the practical, the grounded, the concrete, the earthy, trumps the idealistic, the wild and woolly, the speculative; the force of the practical can fill the sails of the sluggish and race them past the bold; the worker ant equipped with a superior work ethic will find greater rewards than a brilliant, but lazy, genius; the giant, like Napoleon, can be brought down by an army of determined and united midgets.  The Conte does not specify the domains to which his remarks apply but the open-ended way in which  he makes them suggests a generality extending across the political, the creative, and the artistic.

Sports fans, of course, are used to these sorts of judgments: the histories of many games are littered with stories of dazzling stars whose flashes of brilliance ensured several glorious moments in the sun, but no extended success, while journeymen weekday performers, persistent to the point of dullness, racked up numerically superior careers and thus dominated the recordbooks. Thus, the endless debates about whether statistics lie, whether the greatness of a sportsman should be judged by a cold table of numbers or by the pleasure brought to viewers. But sports at least offers a temptingly objective standard for comparison because of its statistics. (These have not ended debate however, but rather, sparked an efflorescence of ever more baroque statistics with which to wage these endless battles.)

Matters are perhaps more complicated elsewhere. How are we to assess the truth of the Conte’s remarks in  creative domains such as writing or the arts? Are the rewards for the worker ant to be measured in terms of monetary gains or recognition by peers or posterity? There are no objective statistics here to rely on. Might one dazzling, Supernova-like novella, featuring one display after another of verbal pyrotechnics and piercing insights into the human condition, written by a dissolute Quixote, outweigh an entire corpus of stolid prose written by a persistent Panza? Is the worth or the importance of the artist measured by a body of work–and its corresponding influence in its domain–or by an outstanding production that by virtue of being an outlier skews the scales in its favor? Answers to these questions are not easy for they often bring us into contact with one of the oldest and most intractable of all questions in the arts: What is it that makes a work a classic over and above its persistence and endurance through time?

Note: Excerpt from Penguin edition (1958); translated by Margaret R. B. Shaw