Ichabod's Kin
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WORK, WORK, WORK

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

                                      Thoughts on Labor Day 2013

    Hesiod said the first mortals were made of gold. That would be totally good news but Kronos was king of heaven and had a habit of eating his own children, so it was wise to exercise caution. Otherwise these first humans lived like gods, carefree and free of toil, eating sumptuously without fear of want until, as he notes, untroubled by pains of old age as we know it, they died as if overcome by sleep. Sort of like actors and entertainers, before they enter rehab.

    Ovid confirmed that lives of early mortals were spent in firm content and ease amid an eternal spring with rivers filled with milk and nectar. Damn! We really were promised a rose garden! As late as the early 18th century, John Woodward, a natural historian, agreed that the earth in that early time was much more fertile, the surface soil luxuriant and abundant, and toil unnecessary.

    Now who would mess up a thing like that? Well, our boy, and our girl: so we’re told in the good old Judeo-Christian tradition. What a religion! We sure can pick ‘em, can’t we? In that Garden, God made One Thing off limits, and they just had to do it. Not that it was a desperate case, a Promethean situation where you’re in a bad spot, pinned to a rock for eternity trying to figure a way out; or like Sisyphyus, condemned forever to push a rock uphill.

    In the annals of all creatures that ever walked, crawled or flew, Adam and Eve made homo sapiens the biggest losers, ever. And part of the curse for life on earth would be painful toil, what we call “work,” struggling for our substance by the sweat of our brows.

THE MAN WITH THE HOE

    That will do if you need a religious story. The other reason was that the mythical age of Gold was followed by the very real age of Iron. And Hesiod’s tone changed: would that he were dead, he wrote, “for now it is a race of iron,” and our ilk would never cease from toil and misery day or night—while the gods give us harsh troubles. Progress has its price.

    Work is an expenditure of energy, usually at a level and extent we would not prefer. And for ages since we have quarreled over whose work is the hardest. But as John Masefield wrote,

    “To get the whole world out of bed
    And washed, and dressed, and warmed, and fed,
    To work, and back to bed again,
    Believe me…costs worlds of pain.”
    
    The end result is Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” and its lament of the worker-as-victim:

“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
    Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
    The emptiness of ages in his face,
    And on his back the burden of the world.
    …dead to rapture and despair
    …Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox…
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
    …There is no shape more terrible than this…
    Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop
    …this dread shape humanity betrayed…
    How will you ever straighten up this shape;
    Touch it again with immortality…
    How will the future reckon with this Man?
    How answer his brute question in that hour
    When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?…
    How will it be with kingdoms and with kings…
    When this dumb Terror shall reply to God…?”
    
    Oh, poppycock, said Henry Ford: Work dignifies a person! Certainly Henry’s did but he was at the top of the production chain and  he was looking for people for his assembly lines. And with the automobile, Henry had One Great Idea while all the rest of his notions were rather odd. For one thing, he considered history to be “bunk,” but of course if we took his name out of our history books, he would probably turn over in his grave. He ventured there never will be a system that does away with work, and a sense of satisfaction always should be taken from a day’s labor.

THE PROMISE OF LEISURE

    Ford also played down the side effects of repetitive work on mind, body and spirit, and said that his observations proved otherwise. Modern research methods show that to be “bunk,” but Henry has already made his fame and fortune and is long beyond caring what we know now. And we should mention the prediction of John Maynard Keynes that, with any luck, economic problems would be solved in a hundred years (he said that in 1930, in case you’re counting) and that the real problem will be what to do with our leisure. O happy day! It would fulfill Samuel Johnson’s observation that, “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” Certainly that would work for me.

    And it sounds like a return to Hesiod’s age of Gold. If so, we’ll have little use for Dickens and his stories. Dickens kept his eye on companies and their owners and managers and revealed the vulnerability of the worker. It was not a pretty sight, and work did not tend to “dignify” the worker. Bob Cratchit was one of many parents with one or more sick or handicapped children and forced to work for abusive bosses like Scrooge. Ebenezer, as we know, wasn’t happy unless he could be on someone’s else’s back and he spent a lifetime as an obnoxious little creep. But he held all the cards. He was a creep because he could be.

    Dickens told also of men who toiled like shadowy demons at the great factory furnaces; of people in bad apprentice situations or attached to people wealthy by luck of birth, from whence to observe the differences between those lives and their own; and of those who had to live by their wits and at odd jobs. He told of the up and coming “young gentlemen” primed to take the place of the old, whose lives are lived by “Shares;” going to boards of directors meetings to talk about Shares; being sent to mysterious meetings in London and Paris that are about Shares; and who have no principles, but have a hell of a lot of Shares!—and hence are justified at their end of an unequal world. My god, if we ever stop reading Dickens, where in the world will we get an appropriate sense of guilt?
    
    But he also had some delightful moments with humor in the workplace, as in Great Expectations and the way ordinary entrepreneurs “conducted business” by watching each other: one keeping an eye on the saddler, who in turn eyed the coachmaker, who stood with hands in pockets monitoring the baker, who was watching the grocer, before it stopped with the watchmaker who, hunched over his magnifying glass, was the only person on the street, said Dickens, “whose trade engaged his attention.”

WOMEN AND WORK

    The world came to sympathize with Dickens’ not-so-fictional characters, but it took longer to muster empathy for women as laborers. An Irish street ballad is longer than this but begins:

    “I heard a man the other day…savage as a Turk,
…grumbling at his wife…’She never did any work…’”

but after a litany of daily chores, ends with,

“…don’t grumble at your wife…I’m sure
there’s none of you can tell the daily labour
that a woman has to do.”

    An earlier ballad was simply titled, “A woman’s work is never done.” Now all of this overlooks the good face put on women’s role in the labor scheme of the Bible. From the beginning when God rested only one-seventh of the time spent in creation, and the circumstance that brought us to earning our bread by sweat of brow, St. Paul admonishes the early Christian community that those “who don’t work should not eat.”

    For women, this was in spades, and the lengthy verse in Proverbs regarding the “virtuous woman” could have been written by Henry Ford: her toil was repetitive, demanding and filled with pressure, responsibility and no wage; but if she did it without complaint, she got the prize of being called “virtuous” —but hardly a day off, sorry to say.

THE TORTURE OF SISYPHUS

    Simone de Bouvoir called housework the “torture of Sisyphus,” a “furious war against dirt” that makes the homemaker “bitter, disagreeable and hostile…(and) the end sometimes is murder”—a sobering thought if ever there was one. And I don’t recommend reading Thomas Tusser’s 16th century take on the Tudor Housewife’s Day, which will leave you with the urge to slap someone. Indeed, a question that Boswell put to Samuel Johnson that the latter could not answer, was why women servants made so much less than men when clearly they worked so much harder.

    But as women found other work, it often was considered next to loafing, as was that of men in similar occupations. I refer especially to the profession of writing, including journalism. And I refer specifically to two distinguished women, the first, Harriet Martineau, one of the most popular English journalists of her day.

    Among her topics were political economy and taxation, but felt it important to defend mental work as being laborious as any, and that her interviews with physicians confirmed the toll on minds and bodies.

LABOR AND THE MIND

    Indeed, H.L. Mencken declared writing to be “the most dreadful chore inflicted on human beings… exhausting mentally and fatiguing physically,” at end of day leaving one empty of brain and stiff of neck and back, all so “that babies may be fed and beauty may not die.” He mourned that writers suffer alone, working a cappella, and said he never knew an author “who was not a hypochondriac.”

    Then there was Louisa May Alcott: her descriptions, in Little Women, were testaments to how, from earliest age, girls were prepped for unpleasant roles as unpaid domestics and homemakers. It was her own literary success, however, that kept her entire family going, as long as she lived.

                             TO WAKE NO MORE

    And you had to look hard for any sympathy given to slaves, whose lives indoors or out were spent in debilitating toil. Booker T. Washington was at a loss in the face of questions about what sort of sports and amusements he enjoyed as a boy, because he hadn’t had any. As a young slave, he was not as strong as others and overwhelmed even by lighter tasks he was made to do. As a free man, Douglass was shocked at Northerners’ idea that slaves sang because they were happy; out of his own experience he could assure them that the singing was out of sorrow and misery.

    Long before either of them, Thomas Day wrote:

    “…my heart sinks, my…eyes o’erflow…
    For I have seen them, (by) dawn of day,
    Rous’d by the lash, begin their cheerless way
    (with) unwelcome morn’s return…
    No eye to mark their sufferings with a tear,
    No friend to comfort (or) hope to cheer;
    …like…dull unpitied brutes repair
    To stalls as wretched, and as coarse a fare;
    Thank Heav’n, one day of misery…o’er
    And sink to sleep, and wish to wake no more.”  

    Mencken lacked the subtlety of a Dickens: all democratic theories include the “dignity of labor,” he said, a delusion that is one of the worst, but without it the worker would have nothing left in his ego but a belly-ache. Brandishing broad generalizations of art and coal mining, he said the artist would go on working with no reward whatever, and often does, but without his pay the miner wouldn’t work another minute just for the sake of “express(ing) his soul in 200 tons more of coal…”

    Now, I could bore you further, but mercy is one of my abiding virtues. What do we make of all this? Is it recognizable, applicable? Well, yes. We still on the hunt for an age of Gold—of abundance and leisure without the kinds of work we don’t prefer. But our reality is the ongoing age of Iron wherein the gods treat us harshly and idleness is atrophy if not death.

A NEW WORLD OF WORK

    We are not slaves in the plantation sense but of the work of our own choosing. At times we fear that, like the slave, our work is killing us. Too often we toil at the giant furnaces of overcommitment and workaholism. Or we are forced to cobble an existence of survival, close enough to those who seem privileged economically, though demonstrably not better people than we. We look with envy on those whose main preoccupation appears to be the “Shares” of a booming economy and a bull market. Or like the writers of yesteryear we may seem to others privileged to easier tasks, when the truth to us is meaner. Or like Dickens’ entrepreneurs, find ourselves in a circle of strivers whose avocation is to watch each other with envy or disapproval.

    Whatever we find distasteful in our work, we are in an age of those who are constantly in, or seeking, jobs, careers, trades, professions, businesses; or the management, often risky, of trading, investments, and portfolios. When forced to idleness, we are threatened in self-respect, self-image, well-being or the survival of our plans and families. All this further complicated in an age of paper, cyberspace and stock market symbols.

WORKPLACE ISSUES

    While work may be work, the workplace and our livelihoods are different. We change jobs, try to balance issues of work and home, and ensuring time with kids. We are working couples, “power couples,” and worry about the self-image of working at home or in full-time parenting. There are headaches of owning a business; stress and illness at work, from business travel and unusual work shifts; of health insurance and other benefits and perks; workplace safety; minimum and living wages; of physical challenges and accessiblity.

    Some of these already have been deemed valid or still meeting resistance and challenge, but seemingly ours is a world far from that of Hesiod and Dickens, of Alcott and Martineau, a world now fought over by pressure groups and politicians.  

    Ben Franklin once wrote a piece in which he remarked on the continuing attraction, in his time, of American society to the life of the Indian on our continent, and how the Indian resisted our way, even when exposed to it, but noted those whites who, exposed to Indian life from capitivity or other circumstance, often opted to stay or to return to that existence.

HENRY’S CHOICE

    When Henry David Thoreau wrote of his experience at Walden, he underscored a similar life. He said he didn’t read books the first summer; he hoed beans. One summer morning he sat in his sunny doorway till noon in reverie, undisturbed solitude and stillness, while birds sang aroundtill the sun fell, and was reminded of the lapse of time. In those seasons he said he grew like corn in the night, “far better than any work of the hands” and silently smiled at his good fortune:

    “I lived like the…Indians, of whom it is said that ‘for yesterday, today and tomorrow they have only one word (which) they express by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the (present) day.’” And all this was deemed sheer idleness by his neighbors, but had he been tried by the standards of the birds and flowers, “I should not have been found wanting.”

    We may feel Thoreau’s life is impossible for us. So, perhaps, is the one we now have. Perhaps somewhere between is a better world altogether.

                                                             *          *          *

Check out:

    Ferber and O’Farrell, with Allen, Work and Family: Policies for a Changing Work Force.

    Hesiod, Works and Days.

    Wells, H.G., Work, Wealth and Happiness.

    Zedeck, Sheldon, editor. Work, Families and Organizations. 1992

One Response to “WORK, WORK, WORK”

  1. JB,

    Love to follow the meanderings of your mind!

    Happy Labor Day!


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