Work

1. The Donnelly Manufacturing Company

          I was a graduate student.  I needed money, a summer job.  The clerk at the state unemployment office frowned at my questionnaire, grumbled that I was overqualified for what was on offer.  I said I didn’t care.  So, he sent me to the Donnelly Manufacturing Company where, for half the summer, I worked the night shift in the Paint Room. 

          The shift began at 8 o’clock as the saved daylight faded.  The first break was from 10:30 to 10:45. We scrambled outside for the fifteen minutes, though the parking lot reeked of industrial solvent and essence of heavy metal, spiced by fumes from the semis Dopplering up and down the nearby highway.  The air was gravid with humidity and the asphalt was a flattened fist clutching a full day of July heat.  Nevertheless, the lot was paradise compared to the Paint Room where the temperature would have stirred Dante’s memory. 

          Donnelly’s Paint Room featured a dumpster filled with a boiling chemical concoction at one end and a studio-apartment-sized kiln at the other.  Steel units, pressed into shape elsewhere and hooked to an overhead conveyer glided into the Paint Room like carcasses in a slaughterhouse.  They moved slowly, deliberately, relentlessly, dipped down in the dumpster, then came up into a power spray.  They had to be hurriedly yet thoroughly wiped dry before moving on to the spraying area.  The painters were pros, not summer hires or transients like the rest of us.  Wielding special holding rods to keep the fresh paint untouched, we lifted the things from their hooks, fitted them on a wheeled cart, and rolled them into the oven.  It was a matter of some dispute as to which was the worst and the hottest job.  It usually came down to the wipers, who had to stand by the dumpster and rub the hot metal, or the tenders, whose task was to roll the baked steel out of the infernal oven.  

          I lost fifteen pounds in four weeks.

          Our foreman was a man so perfectly fitted for petty authority that he didn’t appear credibly human.  He stood well over six feet tall, rigid and unsmiling as a pharaonic statue and nearly as silent.  He carried a clipboard and grudgingly told us when to knock off as if the break personally cost him ten bucks a minute.  He summoned us back with a whistle he made sound both urgent and hostile.  His manner exuded the conviction that management and labor were sworn enemies and we were on the wrong side, especially us college types, hippies and Bolsheviks.  I remember attempting to describe him to a classmate by saying you wouldn’t be all that surprised to find that he had only one eye in the middle of his forehead.

          Apart from letting us out and calling us back as if we were so many dogs, what did the foreman do?  Well, no physical work like the rest of us.  He oversaw; he was an overseer, in the biblical sense.  He showed up at random times, ducking in and out of the Paint Room, always scowling.  He was making sure that production wasn’t slowing down, that there was no left-wing malingering.  All temporary workers he addressed as you; pros he called by their surnames.  But when it came to dispensing suspicion and contempt, he was impartial.  I liked to picture him at home fawning on and being manipulated by two little girls.  I liked to imagine him being ordered around by his wife.  

          I was about a week into the job when one night, as we filed back in from our break, I felt temporarily rehydrated and daring.  Something had been eating at me.

          I stepped up to the foreman standing by the dented metal door.

          “Excuse me,” I said. 

          He looked down at me like Ramses on a cockroach.

          “What?”

          “Well, I was just wondering.”

          “Hurry up.”

          “I was wondering if you could tell me what we’re making?”

          This question provoked the most revealing moment of my stint at Donnelly Manufacturing Company, Incorporated.  The heretofore rocklike, self-possessed, contumacious foreman blinked and shifted his eyes to the right and back.  He did it twice.  It was obvious that he had no idea what we were manufacturing for Donnelly, what all those metal hulks we cleaned, dried, sprayed, and baked were.

           “Get back to work,” he barked but the tone said, “What’s it to you?”

          A half-hour later, as I stood at my post by the steaming dumpster, our foreman strode into the Paint Room, clipboard held before him like Achilles’ shield, came right up to me and said, “Casings for copying machines.  Feel any better now?”

          I appreciated his asking me that, even though the question wasn’t kindly or unrhetorically posed.  I answered candidly.

          “Yes, it does,” I said.  “A little bit.”

          Later, I realized my question must have gotten under his skin, that his not being able to answer it had rankled, maybe embarrassed.  At least it troubled him enough to make him find out what we were making.  He wouldn’t have done it for my sake alone, though; he must have wanted to know too, for himself.  The right question can do that, not just make the one who’s asked aware of what he doesn’t know but make him want to know.  Socrates was adept at that sort of thing.  I wonder if finding out what he was overseeing might have made our foreman feel just a wee bit better, too.

          My half-summer on the assembly line helped me understand a point on which, I later discovered, the originator of capitalist theory and its chief opponent agreed.  At the level of working human beings, it doesn’t matter whether the factory belongs to a bloated plutocrat or the classless state.  The condition Marx called alienation will be just the same.

          An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is a vast book, but the only paragraph regularly cited is the one with the “invisible hand” in it, the seductive metaphor that appears to sanctify selfishness and assures us that private greed will do more to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number than the altruistic spirit of philanthropy, regulation, or reform.  Corporations, market fundamentalists, and all those averse to government meddling love Smith’s metaphor.  They like the idea of replacing Divine Providence with an Unbridled Market.  They always have.  Smith’s point was adduced as an argument against a proposed law forbidding the shackling of children to the textile machines.  Smith was a professor of moral philosophy.  I like to think he would have objected loudly had he still been alive.

          Smith did believe—or at least hoped—that his “system of perfect liberty” could benefit a society economically while also democratizing it.  It is well to recall that in 1776 he was reacting to the inefficient and oppressive mercantilist system, not supporting conscienceless multinational corporations.  Yet Smith also foresaw pretty clearly what might go wrong with his system, that the wealth capitalism is so good at generating would concentrate at the top, that it might tend toward monopolies, corrupt government, and neglect the public need for such unprofitable things as public education and sewer systems.  When I got around to reading Smith, his prescient anxieties put me in mind of my summer job; I flashbacked to that foreman’s flicking eyes. 

          Writing decades before industrialization really set in and long before Dickens, Smith saw in the new factories how stupefying work was about to become for most people in advanced economies.  He even went so far as to say that something should be done about it and also by whom.         

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. . . But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it. 

          I could have understood Smith without my summer job, understood him with the top of my neocortex so to speak, but not physically as I did when these words took me back to my brief Season in Hell.  The unemployment clerk was right to say that I was overqualified for the job, not because I’d had too much education, but because anybody would be.

          People who do intellectual work for a living frequently find satisfaction in manual labor—chopping wood, repairing a lamp, changing the oil, mowing the lawn, replacing the flapper.  They like to talk about it, too, almost brag.  They contrast the immediate and palpable results—the neat lawn, the non-leaking commode—with the uncertain and far-off fruit of sustained mental effort.   But this is only because the chopping, changing, and mowing are temporary and freely chosen.  Working in a factory for a living is nothing of the kind.

          What worried Adam Smith enraged Karl Marx whose criticism of industrial working conditions goes beyond deplorable de-skilling to downright dehumanization.  If humans are, as he believed, “defined by their production”—that is, by their work—then how were the laborers in the “dark Satanic mills” of Marx’s time to be defined?  While I was working the night shift at Donnelly, what was I?  Even more poignantly than what I found in Smith, Marx’s words took me back to those sweltering nights which were bearable chiefly because I knew they would soon come to an end.  Marx also illuminated my exchange with the foreman when I discovered that both of us were ignorant of what we were producing.

Firstly, labor is exterior to the worker, that is, it does not belong to his essence.  Therefore, he does not confirm himself in his work, he denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. . . .  He is at home when he is not working and when he works he is not at home. . . . Finally, the external character of labor for the worker shows itself in the fact that it is not his own but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that he does not belong to himself in his labor but to someone else.

          We were making copying machine cases and didn’t know it, much less where they would wind up or what corporation’s logo would go on them or what they would cost.  In fact, we weren’t making anything at all.  We were repeating limited tasks that made up a tiny portion of a process whose complexity and extent we didn’t even try to grasp because it had nothing to do with us.  We wiped, painted, and sweated because we needed the money.  We for sure weren’t there to “confirm ourselves.”  We knew that you have to be pretty lucky to get paid for expressing yourself. 

          Not all Marx’s sentences are prolonged by subordinate clauses.  Some are simple declaratives, capable of evoking emotion, the kind of analytic poetry charismatic revolutionaries can summon.  For instance, these two sentences had a more than intellectual effect on me:

The worker becomes a commodity that is all the cheaper the more  commodities he creates.  The depreciation of the human world progresses in direct proportion to the increase in the value of the world of things.

There is an elegiac, almost nostalgic undertone in Marx that reminds me how certain things become beautiful only when they are obsolete—WWII fighter aircraft, celluloid collars, manual typewriters.  Marx seems sometimes to romanticize the pre-industrial craftsmen, admiring their skill and even their inefficiency, saying less than he might about the narrowness and misery of medieval life.  Adam Smith too seems to have regretted the passing of an earlier era when skilled carvers made wooden spoons but both men understood that the changes they witnessed were unavoidable, a matter of so-called historical necessity. 

          As for us workers in the Paint Room, we had no thought of signing our work nor would it surprise us to know that the Donnelly Mfg. Co. Inc. valued us less than a copying machine, less even than a casing for one.  But we didn’t think about such things.  Thinking was frowned on at the factory.  What are we making?  What’s it to you?

          Of course, I didn’t like the job, but I was glad to have it and meant to keep it until September brought release.  But then I was unexpectedly rescued and given an entirely different kind of task to do, work I enjoyed and undertook all the more gladly because I wouldn’t be working at night or in a paint room, because it was work that neither mortified my body nor ruined my mind, even though, as Marx would be quick to remind me, it belonged to somebody else. 

 

2. Letters from a French Spy

           While I was toiling and melting away at Donnelly Mfg., Professor Benjamin Hoover and his wife were vacationing in Europe.  During their sojourn in Paris, the professor came up with a clever way around scholarly impasse.  That this solution also got me out of the sizzling Paint Room and into the cool basement of a university library was no part of the professor’s intention, but it was one of its happy effects.

          Benjamin Hoover, now an emeritus professor at Brandeis University, is a Samuel Johnson scholar, a specialist on Johnson’s parliamentary reporting.  He published a monograph on the subject in 1953.  As the acknowledged expert on this facet of Dr. Johnson’s career, he was chosen about ten years later by Yale University Press to edit the full text of Johnson’s reporting for their edition of Johnson’s complete works, an enterprise not unlike a Gothic cathedral in that volumes have appeared spasmodically for over a half a century now and the project is still unfinished.  In fact, Volumes XI through XIII comprising Johnson’s reporting were only published in 2012 (and can be had new for a mere $351.35).  No one could object that the work was done too hastily.  Publication has come forty-five years after Professor Hoover had his aforementioned Parisian epiphany and gave my summer a second act.

          Between July 1741 and March 1744, The Gentleman’s Magazine published speeches based on actual parliamentary debates.  The orations were written by a thirty-something Samuel Johnson, who needed the money.  There was no official record of Parliamentary debates at the time; in fact, in 1738 Parliament made it unlawful to print accounts of them.  Johnson’s work was disguised as “Debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia” with speakers’ names easily decoded into those of British politicians.  Johnson did not personally attend Parliamentary debates.  He worked from notes provided by a hireling of the magazine.  These were skimpy, recording scarcely more than the issue and the speakers, so that Johnson had to deploy his imagination and rhetorical dexterity to construct the speeches and give each debater an individual voice.  Like Thucydides, Johnson did not record what was actually said but what ought to have been said.  This must be why no member of Parliament ever complained about being misrepresented or of having Johnson’s words ascribed to him.

          The series proved popular. The magazine got new subscriptions, Johnson some badly needed cash, the public information on the conduct of public affairs, and politicians better reputations for cogency and eloquence than they merited.

          The problem for Professor Hoover as he undertook the work of a definitive edition was to determine how much of his parliamentary reporting was accurate and what Johnson made up.  After all, those interested in Samuel Johnson are drawn to a literary figure, not a journalist.  The difficulty lay in finding a way to compare what Johnson wrote to what was actually said in the absence of any official record.

          Perhaps the light bulb lit up for Professor Hoover as he and his wife were walking through the 7th arrondissement and spotted the Quai d’Orsay, seat of the Foreign Ministry.  Britain and France went to war sporadically for centuries. In the 1740s, they were rivals and, at the time, the most heated debates in Parliament concerned military budgets, the raising and posting of troops, the size, maintenance, and stationing of the fleet, and the pursuit of Continental alliances against France.  There were hawks and doves.  Who, Professor Hoover asked himself, would be most keen to know precisely what was said in Parliament?  The answer was obvious. 

          He applied at the Quay d’Orsay for access to confidential communications from London between 1741 and 1744, was told that they existed but—hélas, Monsieur—were still classified.  Somehow, he nevertheless managed to obtain a microfilm of the letters sent to the Ministry by its agent in London.  In the 1960s, it wasn’t hard to smuggle the bit of microfilm out of the country.  What the professor needed next was someone to transcribe the microfilm into a usable format.  It would be helpful were such a person to have some familiarity with la langue français.  Professor Hoover put out the word among the graduate faculty that he needed a research assistant with passable French and some blessed body gave him my name.

          We met.  Professor Hoover told me the above story, offered me almost as much money as I was making at Donnelly and we struck a deal.  The second half of my summer was spent in the basement of Brandeis Library in front of a microfilm machine writing in my own rough hand the words set down more than two centuries earlier in the elegant script of France’s spy in Parliament, a man who, unlike Johnson, actually attended the debates and, unlike the agent of The Gentleman’s Magazine’s, made comprehensive notes.

          The appeal of my new job was twofold:  first, it wasn’t the Paint Room, and second, I enjoyed the work; in fact, the more I read of my spy’s letters, the more I relished them and liked him.

          The letters were no less rich than Johnson’s imaginary reports.  The spy had personality, opinions, scope; it would be surprising had I not become inclined toward him.  He was a gossip, an intriguer, a patriot, and a partisan of peace.  Moreover, he was a fine prose stylist in an age when epistolary standards were high.  He admired and deplored with both vigor and grace.  He was volatile, an idealist one moment, a cynic the next, but generally a level-headed realist in the end.  While he made the debates absorbing, for me the most entertaining parts of his letters were the paragraphs with which he concluded each of them.  Here is a reconstruction from memory that can be taken as a generic version of dozens of similar appeals:         

          “Your Excellency, you cannot doubt the profound sincerity of my devotion to our glorious King and likewise to you, whose far-seeing intelligence constitutes the stoutest bulwark of France’s security.  You know well that I am never tardy with my reports nor stinting of my efforts to make them of use to you.  Moreover, I have reason to believe that they have found favor with you not only for their comprehensiveness and detail but also for those humble commentaries I affix to the arguments and, more particularly, my sketches of the characters of the foremost parliamentarians.  To gain such information requires that I attend public events and cultivate those with information to impart, even that I spread a little silver where it will accomplish the most good.  Moreover, those who see to the safe delivery of these epistles have raised their rate for the service.  For these reasons, as well as those adduced in prior epistles, I appeal to you for a slight increase in funds.

          “Certain of your generosity and sure of your gratitude for my modest contributions to your immense work, I remain, as ever, your most obsequious and steadfast servant. . .”

          Every letter concluded with some variation on this entreaty.  The anonymous agent, with whose sympathies and needs I couldn’t help identifying, was even more inventive in formulating his appeals for money than in devising novel flatteries for his paymaster.  All the same, not once did I find him thanking his boss for so much as a single extra Louis d’or.

           Work is both boon and bane.  We resent it when we have it, regret it when we don’t.   Even work that is anything but alienating—writing an informal essay like this, for example—we may shy away from out of laziness or self-doubt.  While there may be nothing I want to do more than to write, there are days when there’s nothing I won’t do to avoid it.  Yet, even in the Paint Room, there were benefits beyond the meager salary.  There was a degree of camaraderie as well as the self-respect and dignity conferred by all useful work.  My job in the library basement was less physically taxing, more mentally stimulating, less sweaty but also more isolating.  My imagination was engaged along with that portion of my brain that could turn French into English.  I was happy doing this work which, though it may not have “belonged to me” in Marx’s sense, felt as if it did.  I knew what I was making and why.  It was good to have no overseer but I missed having someone to whom I could point out my favorite passages.

          Marx’s memorable account of the alienation of factory work under laissez-faire capitalism, work that destroys body and soul, that brutalizes and undoes evolution, is one side of what work is, a side I understood better after I’d engaged in it.  An equally compelling view of the positive role of work in our psychic and social lives can be found in a footnote in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents

No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work; for his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community.  The possibility it offers of displacing a large amount of libidinal components, whether narcissistic, aggressive or even erotic, on to professional work and on to the human relations connected with it lends it a value by no means second to what it enjoys as something indispensable to the preservation and justification of existence in society. 

           Freud loved his work; perhaps he was as addicted to it as to cigars.  The passage may be both autobiographical and universally true.  After all, Freud was not only the first shrink but also the first shrink’s first patient.

          The kind of work that Freud praises resembles my job transcribing the spy letters.  If I say that it was isolating, he could reply that this only means it was more likely to engage my “narcissism” than any outer-directed forms of libido.  The urge to mock is strong; and yet Freud’s words call to mind research done on the early telecommuters.  It was found that after three months or so, many of them began to invent excuses to go into the office. 

          Freud extols work that is not done under duress or undertaken out of grim necessity, work like his own.  He also explains how salutary even work in a paint room can be for our psychological hygiene.  No one has praised work better.  Nevertheless, Freud concedes that fulfilling work is not available to most people and admits that even those lucky enough to do the work of their choice may evade and resent it.

Professional activity is a source of special satisfaction if it is a freely chosen one—if, that is to say, by means of sublimation,it makes possible the use of existing inclinations, of persisting or constitutionally reinforced instinctual impulses.  And yet, as a path to happiness, work is not highly prized by men.

          I can’t claim that my work for Professor Hoover was chosen freely, but it was welcome and freely agreed to.  In retrospect, Freud may even be right about it making use of some of my inclinations and instincts the Paint Room did not.  Perhaps that’s just what we mean when we say of people that they are happy in their work.

 

3. Work Experience, Experience of Work

           Freud pursued the universal rather than the particular.  Though his topic was subjectivity and he was steeped in literature so that almost everything he says is a metaphor, he was nevertheless a scientist and so wanted to be objective about our inner life.  Therefore, he looked for the rule and not the exception.  Not, what is work to my novelist friend Roman Rolland, but what is work to everybody, to “men.”  Marx also objectified people into classes, wrote of abstractions like “the urban proletariat,” and “the industrial bourgeoisie.”  Though the generalizations of Marx and Freud are indispensable, I think the attitude toward work—especially one’s own—is an individual affair. 

          I wonder, for example, how the foreman at Donnelly felt about being a foreman.  Was he proud to have attained that rank or did he loathe getting up late in the afternoon to spend half the night honchoing a gang of temps and regulars making something neither he nor they knew or cared about?  Were the hostility and contempt he exuded due to the kind of displacement Freud described, an instinctual aggression devoted to productivity, a libidinal attachment that made him a company man?  Is it because I saw him as such an ogre on the job that I pictured him as cowed at home, docile and dominated by women? 

          I wonder too how my nameless spy felt about his work.  Was he really as fervently patriotic as he claims in his letters?  Did attending the debates at Westminster become a species of entertainment for him, a melodrama with Whigs to root for and Tories to boo?  Did he persuade himself that his work was helping to maintain a precarious peace or did he think of himself as contributing to victory in an inevitable war?  Was the fellow a technician, collecting data, analyzing it, but essentially indifferent to what was done with it?  Did the affection and regard his letters express for certain members of parliament change his view of Britain to something other than the once and future enemy?  I would like to know how he earned his living before being recruited as un agent de l’état.  Was he an idle aristocrat, a second son looking for patronage?  Was he a cheese-maker or carpenter with his feelings on becoming a spy akin to mine on moving from the heat of the factory to the cool of the library? 

          Memories of the two summer jobs I had five decades ago have proved lasting.  The contrast between them has colored my thinking about work and helped me to appreciate the insights of Marx and Freud.  I know that intellectual labor can take a toll but that it seldom ruins the body.  So, when some academic proposes that Social Security funding can be assured for decades by simply raising the retirement age to seventy or seventy-two, I think of the lifers in the Paint Room, of roofers, masons, jackhammer operators, waitresses, truckers and hod-carriers.  And when, as happens more and more, I’m compelled to explain why I have no urge to retire, I can point to how work helps me to sublimate all my worst inclinations and affords me a place in the world.  Would I give up weekends, vacations?  Certainly not.  And, though I have read how unhealthy it is to tie one’s identity up with one’s work, I dread a farewell as heartbroken as Othello’s when he concludes that his occupation’s gone. 

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About Robert Wexelblatt

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections; two books of essays; two short novels; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and a novel, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. A collection of Chinese stories, is forthcoming.

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