Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Speaking of ways to provide meaning in our lives, I’ve just finished reading Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Judging by the holds queue at the Council library it’s currently a very popular book – I joined the queue at somewhere around number 42 (about the same number, incidentally, as for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for which I’m still waiting).

It’s interesting that what is basically a work of sociology cum philosophy should attract such a crowd, and suggests how important our work is to us. It’s also a fascinating and elegantly written book. De Botton takes us on a virtual tour through people’s working lives – the workers in the biscuit factory; the transmission engineer and pylon enthusiast who takes him on a walking tour of the transmission line form Kent to London; the career counsellor who helps workers get in touch with their inner selves along with helping their bosses to fire them; a painter who spends years painting a single oak tree; and my favourite, the Iranian inventor who devised a pair of shoes that enable the wearer to walk on water and was detained at the airport as a suspected terrorist.

I was caught, however, by his closing comments.

“To see ourselves as the centre of the universe and our present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries…- maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom. it is paying death roo much respect to prepare for it with sage prescriptions. Let it surprise us while we are shipping wood pulp across the Baltic Sea, removing the heads of tune, developing nauseating variety of biscuit, advising a client on a change of career, firing a satellite with which to beguile a generation of Japanese schoolgirls, painting an oak tree in a field, laying an electricity line, doing the accounts, inventing a deodorant dispenser….

“Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes of perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.”

De Botton has found a different, and in his summation dubious, antidote to the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of death. We work at our allotted tasks, and they distract us from bigger questions which we have now way of answering.

I immediately thought of Samuel Beckett’s opposite-to-immortal line in Waiting for Godot:

“Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.
Vladimir. (impatiently) Yes yes, we’re magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget…”

Is that it?