What ever happened to work?
In the current issue of First Things, Irish-born writer John Waters does indeed get back to one of the first things: work. And he wonders about what has happened to it in this post-post industrial age. And why so many men his age feel so uneasy in this world they never made, a world full of tangible objects that neither he nor anybody else fashioned but that now seem to exist only in electronic form:
“In 1974, the year I turned 19, I took my first real job in the goods store of a railway station in County Mayo. in the west of Ireland. I was pleased to be off my parents’ hands, but uneasy in my position. The tiny goods office was an anthill of activity, with a constant flow of locomotive engineers, lorry drivers, forklift operators, milesmen, checkers, shunters, and inspectors—muscular, perspiring males who carried their illkempt clipboards with nonchalant disdain. And then there were the clerks, of whom I was one, nominally supervising the chaos but, in reality, remote from the dirty and dangerous work of packing, stacking, counting, booking, charging, discharging, wagon-decoupling, gantry-unloading, and cleaning up after pilferage and damage-in-transit. Our hands were as soft and clean as our speech when we joined in with the dirty talk of our ‘subordinates.’”
Karl Marx was one of the first to diagnose this condition of modern man; he called it alienation—not just from the work of our hands but from our fellow men. And it reduces him to the suspicion that he has become useless, unlike his father’s and mother’s generation. For it still respected a division of labor that seemed based on simple biology: Men worked at their trade and provided for their families, while women bore and raised children, concerning themselves with cooking, cleaning and the other myriad tasks of being what was then called, quite accurately, a homemaker.
“I was aware that some men worked in offices,” John Waters writes, “yet I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the jobs we clerks did were dispensable. If I went AWOL for a month, there might have been a tailback of paperwork, but no crisis. If the signalmen failed to show, the trains would be left hooting for the road at the outer home. Truth to tell, in a different part of my head, I felt a little superior to all these bustling, grumbling, swearing men, but still there was this unease. I did not grasp that I was experiencing the psychic disintegration of the culturally displaced, the alienation of those unaware they have been born at the end of an epoch.” An epoch that would make them unnecessary to the work of the world.
“With both of my parents emerging from long lines of small farmers,” John Waters notes, “I was the first male on either side to end up in sedentary work. My father had in his 20s moved from County Sligo to take a job as a mechanic. Two of my uncles spent their lives building the motorways of England. Two more uncles served in WWII, one with the British and the other with the U.S. Army. All these men had made their livings from physical exertion, strength and sweat. They had remarkable talents for making and fixing things, for using their hands and their senses to intervene in the world in real ways and leave concrete traces behind. My father was a self-taught carpenter, electrician, draughtsman, and mechanic. He had green fingers and calloused palms; my hands remain as crushed velvet.”
My own father had come to this new world from a long line of cobblers; his father and his father before him had been shoemakers. He not only could tell a good shoe-repair job from a bad one but could identify the shoemaker up the street who had done it by the way he’d run the stitcher or brought the shoe to a high finish. The resulting product could pass for what today would be a piece of art in a museum. Or surpass it. How I wish I had inherited one of his talents—how to work with the same sense of concentration and devotion with which he prayed. For he did both with kavanah—clear, uncluttered intention. I can identify with John Waters’ nostalgia for a vanishing world when he writes: “Now here I was, a pen pusher for life, but still unaware of what that might mean. I understood that my parents were trying to boot me up from the stratum of society they belonged to. Education was the thing, and education meant stuff you learned from books rather than at a bench or atop a ladder.”
But just what education is for remains a subject of contention, for is its purpose only to fill soul-killing job openings, or something higher? Why not get into this debate, which shows no sign of abating? It’s been going on at least since Socrates. Gentle Reader can make a real contribution to the discussion if only he or she will work at it.