What ever hap­pened to work?

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - PAUL GREEN­BERG

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.

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