Well I guess it’s tough having all these demands placed on one to perform, again, that which has caused the demand in the first place. Every job has its grunge work, doesn’t it?: ER surgeons get sick of blood and bandages, teachers get sick of grading mediocre papers, clerks get sick of filing the same forms, Led Zeppelin had to sing the same damn “Stairway to Heaven” for the 10,000th time to the same arena full of the same stoned, shirtless fans, who all looked alike. One more ditch to dig, one more washing machine to repair, one more bolt to fasten on the refrigerator assembly line. Back and forth all day, one row after another, behind the mule or on top of the tractor. One more poetry reading. Same old shit. “A terrible applause pulls Henry’s ear,” he says, then addresses his old friend in blackface: “Why don’t we fold us down in our own laps, / long-no-see colleague & brother?” This has been Henry’s go-to mode under pressure: Fold away, diminish, collapse, crawl into a hole. Get drunk. “—I don’t think’s time to, time to, Bones. / Tomorrow be more shows”. More papers, more bandages, another song to sing. Keep plowing.
“—The grand plough // distorts the Western sky.” Even the constellations of the night sky remind us: “the history of the Species: work, work, work.” Well—depends on who you talk to. American Indians saw these white intruders coming and set out, as you would expect, to learn what these people were like. They saw the women working all the livelong day on household chores, children in school all day learning how to work and how to tolerate all that work, the men out working all day long, and the Indians thought, this is crazy! Life is a feast, the land and sky are fresh and sacred, and how do these maniacs spend it? Working? Like—ALL DAY??? And their work is their religion? But, oh crap, when they decide it’s time to bend their industry to your destruction, they’re focused, driven, maniacal—dangerous. The intruders still wouldn’t have won the continents except they had plague on their side, a ferocious potent ally that eased their way to victory. But they credited their own work and their own determination. Well, the victors tell the stories and propagate their own self-proclaiming myths. That’s always how it works.
Sometime long ago, in my late-teen era, I read an essay by Isaac Asimov about work and labor. I can’t relocate it, but I remember the premise well enough because it struck a chord. His main idea was that the agricultural revolution instituted the foreign concept of labor into human culture. Before agriculture, labor was unheard of: Hunting was hard, often dangerous and grueling, but it was never the back-and-forth repetition of plowing, sowing, and reaping, a new and alien mode of being which settled into the human psyche and established itself as the norm. It wasn’t work. Now, work folds all through our behaviors: We’ve come to live in patterns of repetitious regularity. Asimov, from his optimistic moment in the 1950s, figured that automation would supplant the need for labor, rescuing us from the endless, Sisyphean repetitions that Thoreau marveled at in Walden:
What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach”; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars—even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.
Thoreau ends by claiming, “But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”
I was wide open to the thoughts of Asimov and Thoreau on the foolishness and waste of work, and I was also wide open and vulnerable to the accusation that immediately follows, that if you don’t work, you’re lazy. You’re not an ant, you’re a grasshopper. Sloth is one of the seven deadlies, you know. The opposite of work is damnation. Someone very close to me said about her family, “You can tell how much they love you by how hard they work for you.” The question of whether work is an expression of love or a replacement for it arises, but I’ve always chosen to assume the former from a good person and her good family. But there’s an expression for you of just how deep the association of holiness and love with labor has penetrated. There are scores of good people (Thoreau’s snark aside) who don’t feel the need to uproot the work ethic. Just work. It doesn’t matter what work you do. Just work.
“There’s a bell” B. writes. The bell has historically regulated our time in relation to work. Later in the same stanza, B. uses the word “knell”—the tolling of the church bell to mark a funeral—so B. is connecting work with death. “All right, I’ll stay. The hell with the true knell, / we’ll meander as far as the bar.” He’ll do his work, his reading, as expected, staving off for awhile the true knell of death and replacing it with the ersatz business of his poetic work, work, work. The bar waits, with its backlit selection of fine amber whiskies. It ain’t true as the knell, but it’s adequate compensation for a life spent working. That it slowly kills you also is a kind of tormented validation of Thoreau and Asimov. Thoreau in reference to his “Squire Make-a-stir” gets the last word:
Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared with the shipping interests? Does not he drive for Squire Make-a-stir? How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a fame won by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.
We internalize it, it kills and hollows our spirits, and we’re helpless against it. Get back to work.