In Praise of Life Work: Against Jobs

Mount Rydal, Wordsworth's home
A Victorian illustraion of Mount Rydal, Wordsworth's home.

Today, walking the dogs, air heavy with a cold mist, moving up a gentle grade into the rising sun, trees in autumn raiment, yellow and fading reds, my eyes are on the road ahead, yet unfocused, not really looking at anything, but ahead of me a Native American (what tribe?) waits in a crouch at the top of the swell.  The thought, a vision, unreal, starts my sensate mind to look with sight.  The body of the Shawnee in a crouch was only un-canned garbage bags, his head formed from a more distant portion of tree trunk, his hair held with a red plastic garbage tie.

All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning’s birth;
The grass is bright with rain-drops;–on the moors
The hare is running races in her mirth;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist, that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

And though it sounds like I made it up this vision in order to start talking about how humans, once as noble as a bear or wolf or eagle as a species living within a bounded and unbounded naturalness, must now only be conceived primarily in the negative as waste-makers and overlords intent on harming all things we touch, I truly did “see” it.

I was a Traveller then upon the moor,
I saw the hare that raced about with joy;
I heard the woods and distant waters roar;
Or heard them not, as happy as a boy:
The pleasant season did my heart employ:
My old remembrances went from me wholly;
And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.

There is no ideal age of course.  There is always suffering.  It is naive to think a pristine North American continent was not also a place of suffering.

But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joy in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low;
To me that morning did it happen so;
And fears and fancies thick upon me came;
Dim sadness–and blind thoughts, I knew not, nor could name.

When Wordsworth wrote “The world is too much with us” he did not mean planet or earth; but where once we might have read “world” as our “social, civilized, industrialized” life too much “internalized” as our ground for action in “getting and spending”, we now should read this as the world has too much OF us.

I heard the sky-lark warbling in the sky;
And I bethought me of the playful hare:
Even such a happy Child of earth am I;
Even as these blissful creatures do I fare;
Far from the world I walk, and from all care;
But there may come another day to me–
Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty.

Democracy as a system of human self-government will not cure us or the world of us.  Life run on fiscal exchange, life managed as a kind of abstraction will not be cured by democracy.  While we privilege the idea of “money” as the greatest benefit, or the greatest way to offer benefit, we only privilege an entrenched system that will find ways to corrupt even our gifts.

My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
As if life’s business were a summer mood;
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good;
But how can He expect that others should
Build for him, sow for him, and at his call
Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all?

I think only a commitment to the idea that the pursuit of Useless Beauty as the highest good can slow us down and reorganize our living to the betterment of every human and every other creature.  I have come to the realization that any “making” beyond the making of art for its own sake is a detriment and leads only to destruction.  Our true gifts are in creating beauty, even in discovering beauty in the world around us and transmitting and translating that beauty to each other.

As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie
Couched on the bald top of an eminence;
Wonder to all who do the same espy,
By what means it could thither come, and whence;
So that it seems a thing endued with sense:
Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself;

I propose we lost our way with ground glass; that magnified sight contorted and distorted a true vision.  We may now “see” into the inner workings of life; we may now gaze into the great nebulaic haze “above” us, vast aeons of the past finding light with our new artificial eyes; but we have lost the gift of limits.

Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead,
Nor all asleep–in his extreme old age:
His body was bent double, feet and head
Coming together in life’s pilgrimage;
As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage
Of sickness felt by him in times long past,
A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.

We no longer see an abyss that stares blankly, uncaring, back at us when we contemplate our “place” on earth, when we ask “why.”  Now we use great lenses and great energy to describe and explain the abyss.  It is our newest mythology and like the hippogryph or Zeus and Loki, and soon too, Yahweh, we have placed the abyss in its proper cage.  The mind of the human.

He told, that to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor:
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance,
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.

We insist on more sight, more future, more human ingenuity.  We do not intend to “recover” our world, as Wendell Berry suggests is our true and necessary work; we have no interest in rediscovering our common humanity.  We insist instead on transcendence.  We insist on other realities and practice them digitally.  Your avatar is your version of heaven

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The old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.

This is the fallacy we celebrate when we praisefully mourn Steve Jobs.

My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
–Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
“How is it that you live, and what is it you do?”

Jobs was not great; he was only another American salesman using gifts granted him by the trickster god, ancient in this American soil, to push us further from our homes.  Jobs claimed to have had “the doors of perception” opened for him by LSD.  And it is claimed that his tech was a constant attempt to capture that experience in the relationship between man and machine; to free the mind of its physical boundaries.  The opposite is the case, though, as Jobs replaced a natural experience with a false, mechanical one that offered only more barred walls keeping us further from the organic experience which he praised.

While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The old Man’s shape, and speech–all troubled me:
In my mind’s eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.
While I these thoughts within myself pursued,
He, having made a pause, the same discourse renewed.

The world is too much with us.  We care not for it and wish to be rid of it.  That wish the world will happily oblige.  Unless…

And soon with this he other matter blended,
Cheerfully uttered, with demeanour kind,
But stately in the main; and when he ended,
I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.
“God,” said I, “be my help and stay secure;
I’ll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!”

*The interspersed poetry comes from Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”.  It is not in proper order or complete.

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  1. Jennifer October 11, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Thanks for this. Website looks great. Your new work is singing.

    1. Douglas Storm October 11, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      Thanks, Jennifer. But that seems a bit extravagant! I’d say it’s too tethered to social ire to be sonorous.

  2. rebecca October 16, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    “any ‘making’ beyond the making of art for its own sake is a detriment and leads only to destruction”

    You are EASILY in line to be my third husband.

    LOVE this post.

    1. Douglas Storm October 17, 2011 at 8:52 am

      thanks so much, Rebecca…when I had the “vision” it reminded me of this poem, but mostly this part:

      As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie
      Couched on the bald top of an eminence;
      Wonder to all who do the same espy,
      By what means it could thither come, and whence;
      So that it seems a thing endued with sense:

      and rereading it I felt it spoke so well to the senselessness in some respects of modern “vocation”.

      We are a species equipped with the capacity to do nothing well, and I mean to “idle” well rather than incapable of doing things. We could make our lives very easy and seek to “do nothing” but play. But instead we’ve created a giant hamster wheel for ourselves.

      1. rebecca October 17, 2011 at 11:13 am

        The image that haunts me is some old painting (how’s that for erudition) of naked bodies lying around eating grapes with leaves in their hair. Why on earth are we not living that every day? I guess because someone has to get off their ass and tend the vineyard? Fah.

  3. Douglas Storm October 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Really, the division of labor shouldn’t be so “laborious” once you understand elements of scale and population. We can grow food to eat and store for winter, but only on a relative and sustainable scale. But we’ve created technologies that allow folks to live where they shouldn’t–deserts!–and choose “industrial animals” over tending with care our sustenance.

    We’ve lost all sense of “care”.


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