Jack Saturday

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Writers Exchange

writers on work

Email exchange with F.B. ("Bat Man"):

F.B. ("Bat Man"): Good morning.

Jack Saturday: Good morning to you!

F.B. ("Bat Man"): I have rapidly read through the writers' page on your website and I feel I must tell you that I disagree with much of what I read. Among the quotations you might add these by George Bernard Shaw:

"A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of Hell"

"The secret of being miserable is to have the leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not."

Jack Saturday: Hey Bat Man--

Nice to hear some genuine arguments, thanks for the material. I have to tell you that I agree with you!

There is a dividing line in talking about "work," that once pointed out, is obvious.
In the last couple of hundred years of "moralizing the proletariat," Industrialists and church authorities have very cleverly slipped in an imperative identification of the very word "work" with commodity labor, that is, "selling yourself to a boss" or to clarify, "to sell yourself to a master"-- and that propaganda, often beaten into children, has rejected all other forms of work. Working for a boss = obedience, so it would be more precise to speak of an "obedience ethic" than a work ethic. So to play "Shaw quotes toss," Shaw said: "Disobedience is the rarest and most admirable of the virtues."

Therefore, when someone just doesn't want to sell himself or herself to a master, the propaganda which over the centuries has become "self-evident," is a silent premise, that one is "lazy" or "doesn't want to work"-- or is "idle."

So there comes a time to point out the elephant in the room. Selling yourself to a master is one (unfortunate) form of "work." Outside of that, all over the world, are as many forms and sorts of work as you can imagine. "Work" generally means the overcoming of obstacles. Working on your garden is work, but not according to capitalist economists, whose job is to intellectually police the job (obedience) system. Learning to play a musical instrument is work, but not according to capitalist economists. Parenting, the most important work of all, is hard work, but according to capitalist economists, parents are "idle" or "doing nothing."

Study, learning of any kind can be work, but you have grown up immersed in the idea that it is "idle" if it isn't on the commodity market or through school (obedience training) toward the commodity market.

Buddhist meditation, according to one guru, is "virile effort." But not according to capitalist economists.
F.B. ("Bat Man"): It is very arguable that idleness is the ideal situation for producing even the most elevated form of art of any kind.
Jack Saturday: Indeed. Idleness is not productive at all. Artistic production is active and energetic. Incubating the art, though, that is, daydreaming, can appear "idle."
F.B. ("Bat Man"): Take Shaw himself, or Trollope. I seem to remember that Seneca was a swordsmith or something, but I can find nothing on this right now so may be confusing him with someone else. Primo Levi was a very happy chemist and worked till pension because he liked it. He wrote:
"Apart from prodigious and unique instants that fate can bestow us, to love one's job (which unfortunately is the privilege of few) constitutes the best concrete approximation to happiness on earth: but this is a truth not known to many."
Jack Saturday: Good example. "The privilege of the few" is no argument for the many, is it? -- despite that such an argument underlies the absurd excesses and profound miseries of the profit system in an age of abundance.

F.B. ("Bat Man"): I agree that not many people are lucky enough to have a fulfilling occupation, but Levi also says that it is not known to many that love of one's job is a practical path towards happiness--as opposed to idleness for instance. Work--to some extent, any kind of work--and thinking about other people are if nothing else a way to relieve tension and find meaning. This is psychology, not religion. Maybe Kafka would have gone crazy and killed himself if he'd been "fortunate" enough to share a room with his ego all day.

Jack Saturday: There are all kinds of things in Maybe-land, you seem to prefer the most miserable.
F.B. ("Bat Man"): Most people wish they could do nothing all day and work to earn the kind of money that will allow them to do so,

Jack Saturday: "Most people"-- but not you, perhaps? I personally have never met anyone who wants to do nothing all day.

F.B. ("Bat Man"): except that when they succeed or they win a lottery, they sometimes spend the money in six months and do drugs etc. Because--thank God!--most people have no significant artistic tension and, however much they complain of their jobs, they wouldn't know what to do with their time. They have no calling so that they can at least "bear" jobs that are objectively horrid. Although--no, not "objectively": I suspect that if a man were intelligent and observant and perceptive enough, no job would be completely alienating.
Jack Saturday: The joy of working for Wal-Mart and going "home" to sleep in their car because they can't afford rent? The pleasure of writing ads with subversive messages to children that it is cool to smoke? The delight of working making weapons to drop on innocent families abroad? Make a game of it, make it fun! How about Hitler's promise of jobs for depressed Germany? Helpers hired at Auschwitz were quoted as saying something like "a job is a job." Maybe Primo Levy would approve! I hope that that particular example reveals that the loose term "work" has been glued to selling labor to a master, and then stuffed with morality, so that people don't even question the morality of the job itself, or whether it has a positive or destructive effect on the community. Obey! Do what you're told, and you're cool. Only wage-slavery is honorable work. Hitler gave us all a peek into the results of "virtuous" obedience. Arbeit Macht Frei is the motto over the entrance to Auschwitz. Eichmann argued the "virtue of obedience" at his trial in Jerusalem.
It's probably right that your choice of words excludes at least half-- more now-- of the working population, women, 50% (in Canada) of whom are sexually harassed on the job, and afraid to file complaints for fear of being fired. Perhaps they are not intelligent or observant.
F.B. ("Bat Man"): Also, hardships have been a blessing for scores of writers. Including Kafka: who knows what vapid prose he would've written had he not had exactly that sort of job.

Jack Saturday: Maybe-land! I'll try it myself: If freed, Kafka would have written superlative, joyful brilliant prose expressing happiness and guiding us to freedom. "Ode To Joy" in novel form. I like my Maybe-land story better than yours.
F.B. ("Bat Man"): Or Dickens, or Jack London, or Shakespeare, or Mark Twain. Dostoevskij went to prison. Take Hemingway: he couldn't have had much time to write when he was a small-time reporter, but he killed himself not then but when he was a rich writer who had all the leisure in the world to write... what? The good life is almost invariably a curse for an artist. Some of the people you quote seem to be contending that living and its demands are an obstacle to writing, but I think that you can only write yourself, and if you're nothing you can write of nothing. Many writers have turned drunkards when they got into some money and "finally" could devote all their time to writing--except they hadn't a single decent line in them any more.
Jack Saturday: Here's a transcription of a bit from a Robert Bly talk, starting by quoting William Blake: "Too much sorrow is like a blight in the tree. Was the tree ever helped by its blight?"-- "and don't go round and say now that the fruit is the consequence of the blight. That's what the confessional poets did, they did so much damage that way-- saying their art came out of their blight, and Blake says 'don't you lie to me.'"
F.B. ("Bat Man"): I myself write. I have never been published and I never may be published, but I don't believe anyone owes me anything--the world, or the "system" or anyone else. Besides, if "it" owed _me_ something, everyone else would deserve as much.

Jack Saturday: Exactly! Notice that my site is titled, "The World Owes You A Living." You-- and me both. And everyone else on the planet.

Ever use a road, Bat Man? Did you build it yourself? A car--or a bicycle-- built it from scratch, did you? A telephone-- strung it up yourself? A computer-- cooked it up independent of the thousands of inventors and laborers who came before you? You "earned" the billion-dollar systems you use and take for granted every day? Ever read a book from a library? Use an electric light? It is too obvious for many to see the tremendous wealth they take for granted that came from the laborers and inventors of history, whom they can never pay. History gave you those things, from hydro systems to transportation systems bringing you your food to combines that farm it-- whether or not it "owed" you these things. You got them anyway. I suggest you give up all that stuff and go naked into the woods, if you think it spoils people to accept our industrial heritage.

F.B. ("Bat Man"): I do believe that writers should be supported more, but it's a very fine line between getting a shelter and money because you write and writing because it affords you a shelter and money. But mostly I wanted to write to you because I felt the main idea in most of those quotations--at least when you read them all together so that they form a sort of pattern--is that work is bad.
Jack Saturday: Wage-Slavery is bad-- not work. I don't believe writers should be supported any more than anyone else; everyone, none excluded, should be supplied with the living essentials, and decent hygienic systems-- why? Because humans have created a horn of plenty, and it is immoral to keep that huge supply to 1% of the population who have so little imagination and so much power that they try to kill the imagination in generations of children.
F.B. ("Bat Man"): and that ideally most people ought to have the possibility of doing whatever they chose with themselves. Thank God they can't! Saramago mentions "most of the earth's inhabitants": they "work to get by" trapped in the drudgery of their meaningless jobs. For one thing, it's your choice to attach no meaning to _whatever_ you do; also, if those people could do without their jobs, most of them would shoot heroin rather than write the Divine Comedy over again.

Jack Saturday: Ah! So you are tempted to shoot up, are you? The devil has work for your idle hands, eh? Trace that line back, you'll find yourself in an austere old stone protestant church; that string is tied to the mouldy skeleton of John Calvin, the serial killer and sexual predator, the "father of the work ethic."

F.B. ("Bat Man"):  Saramago himself had his share of boring jobs, I seem to remember. Then he became a successful writer: no doubt he became a happier human being--which maybe is more important than art--but as a writer I have doubts he will survive Steinbeck or Dostoevskij. He writes exactly the kind of thing you'd expect of an idle writer: he has all the time and paper in the world and not a drop of hard-earned wisdom.

Jack Saturday: Perhaps you should write to the Nobel committee and ask them to withdraw his prize.

F.B. ("Bat Man"): Or consider the case of all those university professors turned novelists who are satisfied with their occupations and have enough time to write. They have no real urgency to write creative prose and their novels are ultimately irrelevant in many cases.

Jack Saturday: Irrelevant to whom, my friend? I'm not saying you don't have the right to judge literature and set yourself above, for instance, the Nobel committee-- but hey, everyone has the same credential to judge. But anyone who lets you decide what is relevant to them is an unfortunate case.
 F.B. ("Bat Man"): And what about Henry Miller? "Starve to death"? He may have starved, but not to death; at least not before he turned 88 years of age.

Jack Saturday: He said "starve to death" rather than "earn a living." So he quit a lousy job (read Tropic of Capricorn) and risked starvation to follow a calling, and arrived!

F.B. ("Bat Man"):  Rilke said to the famous "young poet" that "life is always right".
Jack Saturday: Yes, and as I quoted Brendan Behan in the quotes Pages, "A job is death without the dignity."

Among those quotations was Thoreau: "I don't need the police of meaningless labor to regulate me." Calvin said that "the damned must police each other." You sound like a great spokesperson for Calvin's damned police, F.B. and if you have writing talent, perhaps it would be best to find a master to tell you what, when, and how to write.
F.B. ("Bat Man"): I can't explain why I couldn't keep my disagreement to myself, but there it is.

Jack Saturday: Same here!

F.B. ("Bat Man"): Goodbye

Jack Saturday: Take care, F.B.

Here's a chunk of Henry Miller for your further reading pleasure:

Henry Miller: In a few months I was sitting at Sunset Place hiring and firing like a demon. It was a slaughterhouse, so help me God. The thing was senseless from the bottom up. A waste of men, material and effort. A hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat and misery. But just as I had accepted the spying so I accepted the hiring and firing and all that went with it. I said Yes to everything. If the vice-president decreed that no cripples were to be hired I hired no cripples. If the vice-president said that all messengers over forty-five were to be fired without notice I fired them without notice. I did everything they instructed me to do, but in such a way that they had to pay for it. When there was a strike I folded my arms and waited for it to blow over. But I first saw to it that it cost them a good penny. The whole system was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration. I was up against the whole system of American labor, which is rotten at both ends. I was the fifth wheel on the wagon and neither side had any use for me, except to exploit me. In fact, everybody was being exploited-- the president and his gang by the unseen powers, the employees by the officials, and so on and around, in and out and through the whole works. From my little perch at Sunset Place I had a bird's eye view of the whole American society. It was like a page out of the telephone book. Alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But when you looked at it up close, when you examined the pages separately, or the parts separately, when you examined one lone individual and what constituted him, examined the air he breathed, the life he led, the chances he risked, you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano. You could see the whole American life-- economically, politically, morally, spiritually, artistically, statistically, pathologically. It looked like a grand chancre on a worn-out cock. It looked worse than that, really, because you couldn't even see anything resembling a cock any more. Maybe in the past this thing had life, did produce something, did at least give a moment's pleasure, a moment's thrill. But looking at it from where I sat it looked rottener than the wormiest cheese. The wonder was that the stench of it didn't carry 'em off. . . . I'm using the past tense all the time, but of course it's the same now, maybe even a bit worse. At least now we're getting it full stink.
Henry Miller, Tropic Of Capricorn


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