Montaigne hasn’t actually written an essay on the glorification of work, at least not that I’ve seen. I just felt compelled to share a couple observations on our perception of work that have been troubling me recently. I realize that I’ve already written about work—in fact, it was an essay about work and “ourselves as a job” that brought about the revitalization of this blog—but plenty of people write about the same topic numerous times, and here this is only my second essay on it. I won’t claim to have exhausted all of my thoughts on a topic in a single essay!
At the time of that essay I was in favor of this idea of “ourselves as a job” for tricking us into improving ourselves, and I still do like this way of viewing ourselves as improvable. However, the obsession with work is conveyed by some as being what makes us essentially American. Take this new Cadillac commercial for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGJSI48gkFc
Sgt. Buck here is trying to tell me that I should buy myself a Cadillac because I’m an American—an American because I work hard and I think it’s feeble-minded and overindulgent to take off the entire month of August and to stroll home from work along a wide tree-lined boulevard and stop at a café on my way. A true American would blaze powerfully along the streets in a sparkling new Cadillac, without a second to spare for genial conversation at a café. Work work work! Buy buy buy!
I realize that it’s not a new idea or a new complaint, but since when is working the be-all end-all? And don’t get me wrong, I see the value of good, hard work, but I’m allergic to being manipulated and taken advantage of. So when I hear these exhortations to work, what I really hear is, “Sacrifice your happiness, your time, and your life so that you can work harder and make more money and buy more things. And what if I don’t want things? What if I want time and life and conversation with friends? What if after work I’m too tired to do anything that I want to do—too tired to treat myself as a job, to improve myself? I would be exhausted from perfecting skills that have no basis in humanity, skills like rapid word-processing and excel-sheet manipulation that were once inconceivable because they did not exist, skills that will soon be obsolete because of some new invention that’s on the way. Is exhausting myself with perfecting these skills really better than exhausting myself in the study and practice of philosophy, happiness, and healthy relationships? Cadillac wants me to believe this, because if I work more I can spend more on their cars.
Perhaps it’s just a television phenomenon, though, since my next example is from a tv show. I also observed the glorification of work last night in an episode of House of Cards. One of the congressional aides is having an informal interview with a higher-up in the White House. This higher-up is speaking in a calculating way. Knowing that the job is stressful and demanding, she paints a bleak picture of it for this poor congressional aide. The intention of this bleak picture is two-fold: to scare away the weak, and to entice the ambitious. “The job is so terrible,” I paraphrase it in my memory, “that you will work more than you can handle, you’ll earn less money than you can afford, you’ll sleep less than you should, you’ll be expected to look prettier than everyone, and you’ll lose all your friends.” But in watching this, what are we meant to feel? We want her to say, “Yes. I know. I’m accustomed to adversity and I can handle it. Whatever it takes.” And we don’t only want her to say it, we want to have the opportunity to say it ourselves. But what good would that effort be? The government in House of Cards isn’t exactly working tirelessly for the public good; all of this effort and adversity will be endured purely for the sake of advancing the power of your party in the capricious political battleground. Is this good? Healthy? Is this what we want our lives to be like?
In reading this book, L’Ecume des jours (translated as: Froth on the Daydream), by Boris Vian, published in 1947, there’s a scene that I’ve roughly translated as follows below. They’re talking about workers at a copper mine that they’ve just passed in their fancy car.
“But don’t you think they would prefer to stay home and kiss their wives and go to the pool and to other diversions?”
“No,” said Colin, “because they don’t think of it.”
“But is it their fault that they believe it’s good to work?”
“No,” said Colin, “It’s not their fault. It’s because we told them : ‘Work, it’s sacred, it’s good, it’s beautiful, it’s what counts above everything, and only workers are entitled to everything.’ Only, we arrange things so that they work all the time and can’t profit from it.”
“But so they’re foolish,” said Chloé.
“Yes, they’re foolish,” said Colin. “It’s because of this that they agree with those who make them believe that work—work—is what’s best. It’s what helps them avoid thinking and searching for ways to progress and to make them no longer have to work.” **
It seems to me that the people who have it truly figured out are the ones who don’t have to work. That’s not to say that they don’t do anything worthwhile, but they don’t have to slave away in a system that’s only interested in its own preservation—not in the happiness of the people who constitute it.
** And for those of you who are interested, here’s the original French:
— Mais tu crois qu’ils n’aimeraient pas mieux rester chez eux et embrasser leur femme et aller à la piscine et aux divertissements?
— Non, dit Colin, parce qu’ils n’y pensent pas.
— Mais est-ce que c’est leur faute si ils croient que c’est bien de travailler?
— Non, dit Colin, ce n’est pas leur faute. C’est parce qu’on leur a dit : le travail, c’est sacré, c’est bien, c’est beau, c’est ce qui compte avant tout, et seuls les travailleurs ont droit à tout. Seulement, on s’arrange pour les faire travailler tout le temps et alors ils ne peuvent pas en profiter.
— Mais alors ils sont bêtes, dit Chloé.
— Oui, ils sont bêtes, dit Colin. C’est pour ça qu’ils sont d’accord avec ceux qui leur font croire que le travail, c’est ce qu’il y a de mieux. Ça leur évite de réfléchir et de chercher à progresser et à ne plus travailler.