Blog Post

Taking in each other's laundry

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II 

“Take my word for it that making your living is a waste of time. None of the great things in life have anything to do with making a living." —Wallace Stevens

It's amazing, isn't it, the number of mythologies which are about the origin of labor, the number of mythological stories that begin with the origin of labor. Genesis, Hesiod, Ovid to take the three most obvious examples that spring to mind.

This always made sense to me though. It's kind of a shock, that we find ourselves in a world in which we feel more or less at home (also cared for, catered to, idle in), and then find that we have to make a living, and that making a living is hard. Part of the origin of religion, as the myths tell us, is in the surprisingly narrow territory that we occupy: we can survive if we work, but if we don't we won't survive. I can imagine another universe, one where you don't have to work at all—call it Paradise or Elysium or the Golden Age or Heaven. That seems vast enough. No need to toil or to spin to be more glorious than Solomon. And alas yet one more universe, where no work is ever enough to survive: hell, "a city much like London" (as Shelley said, as Blake felt) or like Dhaka, the pit (infernal and sulphurous), Dante's Inferno or Joyce's or even Homer's (Achilles would so much rather be a day-laborer than have his light denied in Book XI of The Odyssey), and of course, here, now, the labor exemplified by the camps: Arbeit macht frei, but it doesn't.

The necessity of labor seems an argument from design, like Paley's watch or the alleged 10^-18 probability or whatever it is that the cosmological constants would be consistent with the evolution of life. There's an infinite fantasy of leisure, justified by the infantile reality of helplessness; and an infinite potential for hopeless work, pressed on us by the endless labor of entropy; but somehow we live in the unlikely region between these two infinities, where Marx is refracted through Pascal. How painfully unlikely is that?

But I guess it isn't: it's a restatement of the theory of evolution. Work is what others impose on us to survive. We have to make a living because if we don't, our rivals will make a killing. Equilibria take work. You can survive if you work, and only if you work, since so much is working against you.

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).