Monday, May 02, 2005

Love as Work

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster remarks that the "main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death." This is the set-up for his profound and very amusing comparison of homo sapiens and homo fictus. The latter species
is generally born off, he is capable of dying on, he wants little food or sleep, he is tirelessly occupied with human relationships. And – most important – we can know more about him than we can about any of our fellow creatures, because his creator and narrator are one.
(The sixth main fact about human life is that, unlike our fictional cousins, "we are people whose secret lives are invisible.")

What is missing from Forster's list, most strikingly of all, is work. It might be thought that this falls under the rather abstract rubric of "food". But that implies a formidably impoverished conception of work ("a man's gotta eat, don't he?") and in any case conflicts with Forster's interesting description of love:
When human beings love they try to get something. They also try to give something, and this double aim makes love more complicated than food or sleep. It is selfish and altruistic at the same time, and no amount of specialization in one direction quite atrophies the other.
Work is as complicated as love, or can be – love can also be uncomplicated, when it goes wrong – and Forster's words might in fact apply to both. In work, we try to get something and also to give something, and this makes work more complicated than mere survival, or getting through the day.

Philosophers have sometimes tried to deal with love, and while much of their writing is strictly false, it can also be insightful and even profound. They have a had much less to say about work. This strikes me as dissonant. Forster complains that homo fictus is madly obssessed with love, love, love; and that people are not like this.
Passion, intensity at moments – yes, but not this constant awareness, this endless readjusting, this ceaseless hunger. I believe that these are the reflections of the novelist's own state of mind while composes, and that the predominance of love in novels is partly because of this.
How can novelists and philosophers then miss the importance of work, which is present to them all the time? Is it because they are too immersed in it, just as one cannot see the outlines of a shape if it is pressed against one's eye?

The problem may be more serious: in neglecting work, philosophers and others are prone to misunderstand love, to be romantic about it. Here I defer to Rilke:
Like so many other things, people have misunderstood the position love has in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure are more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, precisely because it is the supreme happiness, can be nothing other than work.
I want to say: this passage does not conflate love with the loving relationship, or not illicitly. Love is not an attitude. When people remark – as a cliché – that one must work at love, they do not speak metaphorically. Unlike attitudes of belief and desire, love is subject to the will. One can decide to love; though, like all decisions, this one is bound to be constrained. There are necessities of will.

Unless we concede these points, and think of love as itself a kind of work, it will be impossible to imagine how – except perhaps by extraordinary luck – a marriage can be good; and a core of human life, the part the happens when the novel of romance is done, will hardly make sense at all.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Matt Weiner said...

My suggestion: Novelists are simply too far from most kinds of work to make sense of it. Their work is writing novels--hard to dramatize--and the work of their non-novelist friends just isn't close enough to draw their attention. (I don't mean this as a slam on novelists. What I mean is: If I were to try to write a story about a character who wasn't an academic and didn't work at a magazine, I'd probably make an ass of myself if I wrote a lot about her working life. And I'd have to set the magazine worker story in 1993.)

I'm now going to contradict myself by citing a couple of examples:

Rememberance of things past, in one way, is largely about the struggle to find satisfactory work. The narrator needs to find something to do with his life--the triumphant ending comes when he realizes he can write the book you have just read.

Moby Dick is all about work. (In the parts they cut out of the abridged version, which are the good parts.

Also, some philosophers have had something to say about work.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contrary to Matt, I don't believe that lack of experience is the reason novelists shy away from writing about work. Rather, it is lack of interest. I've never met a novelist (and only the rare academic) who could make 5 minutes intelligent conversation about office life, yet great dramas and all of human life exist there.

Writers of fiction other than novels have written a lot about work: Look at TV. Arguably, work has featured from its earliest days to the present: The Lucille Ball Show, Bonanza, Hawaii 5-0, Dallas, LA Law, The West Wing, The Office, etc.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Hi Matt, and Anonymous,

I shouldn't have said that novelists don't write about work, only that Forster ignores the fact. Writing-as-work is the subject of a lot of fiction, as is work of other kinds. And yes, Marx. Forgot about that guy. I was thinking of contemporary philosophy.

But more than that, I wasn't thinking of work as an economic phenomenon, which political philosophers continue to say interesting things about, but work as part of Forster's "life by values".

I like the observation that television is all about work. That's one reason I love watching it. Promissory note: a post in praise of television.

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Zena said...

I think there is something in E.M.'s neglect of work, despite the fact that like the rest of you, my head is now filling with literary discussions of work. The main problem is that work, no matter how significant a part of real life, is boring to read about. Or perhaps just not what we are looking for in literature. Consider the work of relationships. I think I would enjoy Jane Austen novels much less if the 'happy ending' was extended to show how much real work went into making e.g. the marriage of Emma and Mr Knightly successful.

Likewise, consider how seldom work is depicted for its own sake in literature. There is work that serves some dramatic purpose, like law trials or war or politics or detective work or the hunt or psychotherapy, none of which seems like the kind of work we are interested in. Then there is work such as artistic work that plays some key role in the character's development (Proust, To the Lighthouse, etc.) But this work is still not portrayed as *Work* with all of the tedium, backtracking, detail work, petty failures, petty successes, etc. Non-dramatic work of the kind portrayed in Moby Dick is very rare (and it can't be a coincidence that Moby Dick is often thought a boring and unreadable book.)

I try to imagine an appealing literary account of writing a philosophy paper, for instance, and I come up short. Or of working on a relationship. Or of working in a coffee shop. "It took me quite a long time to learn to make cappucino by my boss's standards. A series of customers complained ... my boss took me aside and said ... I learned at last that the coffee had to be tamped before brewing, but not too hard, just until a few grinds were pushed to the side; and that the steamer nozzle should be circulated gently around the steel pitcher." Am I crazy to think that past novelists have spared us all this for a reason?

The point about TV is well-taken; there must be some deep difference between TV and literature that makes work bearable or even interesting in the first case but not the second.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Zena said...

I guess my suspicion is: we have enough of work in real life, and we look for something else in literature.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But Zena, detective novels are about work (of a particular kind) and most people do not find these boring to read. Quite the reverse, in fact.

I still maintain that the problem is with the writers, not the readers, of novels. Writers of serious fiction are in general not interested in the world of (most) work, and so do not write about it, or do not write about it interestingly.

1:59 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Is work boring to read about? I take the point that it could be, and that we might not be moved, for instance, by detailed accounts of accountants. I'm afraid I was thinking of something more pretentious and more abstract: work as finding something to do with one's life. But when you put it this way, it's even more obvious that novels do address the matter. So I was wrong about that. In any case, people love to read non-fiction about the details of work: the New Yorker has stuff like this all the time. I found Zena's description of coffee-making quite tantalizing. Can we have more?

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Zena said...

Excuse me, Anonymous, but I don't think we've been introduced. So please address me as 'the distinguished commenter previous' rather than by name.

The reason why detective work is not boring to read about is that it is dramatic; it has a special relationship (excuse the vagueness) to suspense and mystery and all the other good things that hold plots together. That these things happen to be generated in some cases by a particular type of work seems beside the point. We want to read detective novels because they are dramatic, not because they are about work. Work as such essentially involves tedium, repetitition, petty failure and compromise, and to this extent work as such is not usually a desirable subject for literature.

Kieran has outed me, alas; the above description of cappucino-making is from a forthcoming essay of mine in the New York Times Magazine called "The Gentle Grounds", about how a tenderly-made cappucino can be the best consolation for frustrated ambition, divorce, or life under foreign occupation.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear "the distinguished commentator previous":

You say: "The reason why detective work is not boring to read about is that it is dramatic". My point exactly! All work is dramatic, not just detective work. I spent two decades in industry before returning to academia, and I have a 1000 dramatic stories, stories interesting, exciting, humorous, sad, tragic and wonderful, which any half-competent novelist could spend a life-time writing about. I didn't work as a detective, but as a management consultant. As I said earlier, I've never met a writer or an academic interested in any of these. They don't even know how to ask the questions, in my experience, let alone wait around for the answers.

Sitting in attic may help get the writing done, but it sure doesn't help to understand life, or even to recognize it.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Gillian Russell said...

Not all work is dramatic, but then things can be interesting to the reader of a novel without being dramatic. Lots of us don't know that much about the different lives that people live. I don't know, in any detail, what it's like to be a vet, a factory farmer, a sweat-shop employee, a wine-buyer or a jockey.

Even if the work itself may involve "tedium, repetitition, petty failure and compromise" (as Zena said) it doesn't follow that reading about it involves those things. Just as reading about torture is really not like torture, so reading about awful work need not be awful.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Stephen Frug said...

Great post, great blog, great discussion.

Previous commentators have come up with some very good examples of books about work -- detective novels, books about writing (lots of those), Moby Dick. But it does seem true that in general a smaller percent of prose fiction is about work than television is. My guess is that this is because television is (for both social & technical reasons) slightly closer in feel to nineteenth century novels -- lots of main characters, comparatively objective viewpoint/narration, a focus on plot -- than twentieth century novels, which in general are more inward. (These are extremely broad generalizations with hosts of counter-examples, of course.) And it is in the twentieth century that work took a bigger place in more people's consciousness -- particularly that subset of people with the time, literacy, etc, to read novels. (Jane Austen's characters for the most part didn't have to work -- not the heroines, anyway. (Except for the 'love as work' angle.))

Personally, I agree that it'd be great to see more work in prose fiction.

In one subset of fiction -- science fiction -- in which one sees work as rarely as in other fiction (Philip K Dick is a good example of an exception; there are others, e.g. Maureen F. McHugh's China Mountain Zhang has a lot of portrayal of mundane work in it.) -- has a natural type of work that it could readily portray: science. Kim Stanley Robinson has pointed out that (too) few SF novels show actual scientists doing science; he has also written some very good ones which are exceptions to that (the Mars books, Antarctica, and his most recent, Forty Signs of Rain, not as good a novel as the others but some *wonderful* portrayals of science & other work.) But there are some other good exceptions, too: Timescape by Gregory Benford is all about *doing* science, for example.

SF TV is largely an exception to the "TV shows work" rule, alas. It'd be great to see an SF TV show primarily about doing science...

One other side point: Orwell, in his essay on Dickens, makes a similar point to the point Kieren made about E.M. Forster -- namely, that in his portrayal of what people live for and care about, work is notably absent -- despite, Orwell notes, Dickens' own commitment to his own work.

Just a few random thoughts.

SF

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Nancy Weston said...

I am delighted to have found your blog, and your thoughtful voice. (Kieran Healy, over at Crooked Timber, referred readers here.) The pieces you write — for that, instead of ephemeral posts, is what they are — are so thought-provoking, and so gracefully written, that I am moved to think, and respond, at what undoubtedly is too great a length. Please excuse me for that. I look forward to reading more.

The title of your post, and part of its content, refer to “love as work,” that is, the idea that we must work at love, most obviously over the long term, with its bringing of changes and stresses through which love worthy of the name ought nevertheless to persist. True enough, maybe even a capsule description of love: Persistence (of regard and concern and affection) through time.

But what of the converse: The idea of work as love? This — and not simply work as a subject — is what I think is missing, from literature (as you lament), as well as from other cultural explorations of the human condition. (When I was younger and fond of singing my way out of sadness over setbacks, I wondered why all the songs about passion, anguish and joy concerned love, and none, work, for I found all these emotions to arise in work; experiences there were often the immediate occasion for the need for emotional release I sought in song.)

Most of the time that work is mentioned in these cultural productions, it is (as on television) as a backdrop for the human dramas played out at the worksite, or (as in popular music) as a necessary evil, a means of gaining subsistence and supporting one’s family (the site of the main human drama) — but not as itself a site of devotion or anguish.

Consistently, even when work is considered, it is only a quite particular and narrow idea of work, namely one that holds work to be secondary, peripheral to life’s fundamental concerns, and of only instrumental worth as a means of putting bread on the table, to be avoided if possible and exploited if not. That is, what is taken to be work, and to exhaust its possibilities, is instead labor. (Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, provides a well-known discussion of the distinction.)

But this leaves me wondering, not at the limits or paucity of writers’ imaginations, but at the possibility, today, of work still understood otherwise: as calling for one’s devotion to its tasks, over a lifetime — thus, as another (and for some, the chief) site of love. It is difficult to find something worthy of devoting one’s life to, though perhaps no harder than it is to find a mate to whom to give one’s lifelong devotion. But the latter at least remains a recognizable possibility, an aspiration even for those who do not attain it; to judge by my undergraduates (who tend to think of law school as a default plan), the former is nothing they have ever conceived or heard of.

Here again I do not think this is the students’ fault, or failure of imagination, but a reflection of what “work” (that is, now, labor) has become. When, across the array of workplaces, extraction of the last drop of profit from an enterprise comes to be seen not as excessive and miserly but as unexceptionable and admirably business-minded, even as the prevailing guiding principle properly governing all business decisions, the result is not merely that workers too become profit centers, raw material to be deployed for the maximal extraction of gain, but that workers too come to see their own work in this light, as nothing more or other than the instrumental means of gain. That is, they become laborers. In such a condition there is no work about which to write.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Jon Norton said...

A fine literary meditation on work is Primo Levi's novel The Wrench (sometimes translated as The Monkey Wrench).

Based on a period when Levi was working as a chemist in the USSR, it is about a chemist and another Italian worker abroad, who does more manual work. It is simply a series of dialogues about the contrast between the 2 varieties of work: the intellectual, problem-solving variety (the chemist is abroad to figure out why some paint exported from Italy doesn't consistently comes out the wrong colour, or something like that), and the working-with-hands variety.

It does a much better job of depicting the existence of "two cultures", and picks more credible candidates for those cultures, than the tedious spat between F. R. Leavis and C. P. Snow, which was rendered irrelevant by both of them being unoriginal parasites who simply exploited "art" and "science" respectively as means of self-advancement, and had nothing to say about them.

The American edition of Levi's If This Is A Man is published as Survival In Auschwitz and includes Philip Roth's interview with him. There is an interesting exchange in that, where Levi humbly declines to be described as a "scientist", and says he is only a technician, since he never made any true discoveries and only spent his life fixing little problems with his chemical knowledge. Yet the stories he tells in various books make it clear he was a true scientist, as he was able to probe and infer and experiment to solve his problems.

Every time I see some creationist nitwit insisting he "has a scientific background" (civil engineering degree, or probably car mechanics) I think of Levi saying he wasn't one. We can establish a new demarcation criterion: someone isn't a real scientist if he has no doubt that he is one.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

A recent contribution to this debate.

11:13 AM  

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