Here are some thoughts from the book that are worth sharing:
Not that many consumers care to dwell on where their fruit has come from, much less where their shirts have been made or who fashioned the rings which connect their shower hose to the basin. The origins and travels of our purchases remain matters of indifference, although – to the more imaginative at least – a slight dampness at the bottom of a carton, or an obscure code printed along a computer cable, may hint at processes of manufacture and transport nobler and more mysterious, more worthy of wonder and study, than the very goods themselves.
What renders the ships and ports invisible is an unwarranted prejudice which deems it peculiar to express overly powerful feelings of admiration towards a gas tanker or a paper mill – or indeed towards almost any aspect of the laboring world.
Observation of work could be as stimulating as anything on a stage or chapel wall – a relief from a contemporary view which tightly associates tourism with play and therefore steers us away from an interest in aluminium foundries and sewage treatment plants in favour of the trumpeted pleasures of musicals and waxwork museums. Its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.
Our understanding of their genesis has diminished almost to the point of obscurity. We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude, and guilt. Critical to both our imaginative impoverishment and our practical enrichment is the field of endeavor known as logistics.
We gave up on awaiting sporadic gifts from above and sought to render any pleasing sensation immediately and repeatedly available. World of abundance has hardly turned out to be the ebullient place dreamt of by our ancestors.
The brightest minds spend their working lives simplifying or accelerating functions of unreasonable banality. The alcohol-inspired fights that break out in market towns on Saturday evenings are predictable symptoms of fury at our incarceration. They are a reminder of the price we pay for our daily submission at the altars of prudence and order – and of the rage that silently accumulates beneath a uniquely law-abiding and compliant surface. There is also, a broader failure to appreciate the interest and incidental beauty of the working world.
Even in an era of increased political transparency, businesses remain uninterested in acquiring observers. It is the almost conspiratorial silence regarding this achievement that intrigues and provokes me.
The author, Alain has a great sense of humor as he describes his encounter with another person as follows:
One might have supposed that our mutual premature baldness would have led to a rapprochement, but the shared disability only generated an unwanted point of identification.
The author goes on to share the lessons he learned from a biscuit factory. He mentions how much biscuits are about psychology and personality than just food. He also describes biscuits as a snack, which respected the realities of life even as it offered temporary relief from them.
Emotional longings that could subsequently be elaborated into the organizing principles of a new product. While the idea of answering psychological yearnings with dough might seem daunting, biscuits do have a personality as subtly and appropriately nuanced as that of a protagonist in a great novel.
Again, the author hints about specialization in jobs. He explains how different manoeuvres carried out in one’s kitchen has been isolated, codified, and expanded to occupy entire working lives and has given rise to esoteric job titles. There are pros and cons to this, though.
The unremitting division of labour resulted in admirable levels of productivity. A society would grow wealthy to the extent that its members forfeited general knowledge in favour of fostering individual ability in narrowly constricted fields. In an ideal Paretan economy, jobs would be ever more finely subdivided to allow for the accumulation of complex skills, which would then be traded among workers. It would be in everyone’s best interest that doctors not waste time learning how to fix boilers. In a perfect society, so specialised would all jobs be, that no one would any longer understand what anyone else was doing.
However, we are meaning-focused animals rather than simply materialistic ones that we can reasonably contemplate surrendering security for a career helping to bring drinking water to rural Malawi aware that when it comes to improving the human condition a well-controlled defibrillator has the edge over even the finest biscuit and how meaningful the lives might feel as a result. There can be less exalted ways to contribute to the furtherance of the collective good.
This specialization of tasks has given rise to a new problem of motivation that is associated to work.
A question of motivation appeared: whether the company could succeed in providing its staff with a sufficiently elevated set of ideals in whose name they were to exhaust themselves and surrender the greatest share of their lives.
Here’s how the HR departments can play the role of an artist to motivate people.
It is left to the painter, working in a quieter, more observant idiom, to rescue what the film has encouraged its viewers not to see.
The author raises a critical observation on how our economy has been overloaded with products that satisfy our lower level needs and this can lead to waste of labor. He also, mentions that we must celebrate the skills involved in domestic service.
Why in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things, and why the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity at the heart of the Industrial Revolution so seldom extended beyond the provision of commonplace material goods like shampoo or condoms, oven-gloves or lingerie.
‘Of all wastes, the greatest waste that you can commit is the waste of labor. To waste the labor of men is not to kill them.” Is it not? I should like to know how you could kill them more utterly’.
This mechanisation had been introduced not so much because human beings were unable to perform the tasks in hand, but because labour had grown prohibitively expensive.
An imaginative recognition of these facts ever crossed their minds when they glanced at the profit-and-loss figures in their offices in Manhattan and whether they might even, at the close of their careers, derive a particular pleasure and a sense of responsibility from their investment unconnected to any financial considerations.
Here’s how religions viewed work.
In Catholic dogma, the definition of noble work had mostly been limited to that done by priests in the service of God, with practical and commercial labor relegated to an entirely base category unconnected to the display of any specifically Christian virtues. By contrast, the Protestant worldview as it had developed over the sixteenth century attempted to redeem the value of everyday tasks, proposing that many apparently unimportant activities could, in fact, enable those who undertook them to convey the qualities of their souls. In this schema, humility, wisdom, respect, and kindness could be practiced in a shop no less sincerely than in a monastery. Salvation could be worked out at the level of ordinary existence, not only in the grand, sacramental moments which Catholicism had privileged. Sweeping the yard and arranging the laundry cupboard were intimately related to the most significant themes of existence. Were there not more important ambitions to be met before Death showed himself on the horizon in his black hooded cloak, his scythe slung over his shoulder?
The author then, expresses his empathy for all of us, the working professionals and why we are heroes in our own right in the following quotes:
At the heart of biscuit salesmanship lay an imperative which was undoubtedly both urgent and simple enough to qualify as meaningful – namely, survival. The ancient task of trying to stay alive, in a consumer economy, is overwhelmingly based on the satisfaction of peripheral desires, a series of activities all too easily confused with clownishness.
Modern commercial endeavours may not be of the kind that we have been taught to associate with heroism. They involve battles fought with the most bathetic of instruments, with two-for-the-price-of-one specials and sticker-based bribes, but they are battles nonetheless, comparable in their intensity and demands to the tracking of furtive animals through the deadly forests of prehistoric Belgium.
Our work has affected modern civilization in the following way:
What a peculiar civilization this was: inordinately rich, yet inclined to accrue its wealth through the sale of some astonishingly small and only distantly meaningful things, a civilization was torn and unable sensibly to adjudicate between the worthwhile ends to which money might be put and the often morally trivial and destructive mechanisms of its generation. It was in the eighteenth century that economists and political theorists first became aware of the paradoxes and triumphs of commercial societies, which place the trade, luxury and private fortunes at their center while paying only lip service to the pursuit of higher goals. From the beginning, observers of these societies have been transfixed by two of their most prominent features: their wealth and their spiritual decadence. The self-indulgence of the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centred and the childish ones, have, off the back of their donuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines. And yet despite their frequently amoral policies, their neglect of ideals and their selfish liberalism, commercial societies have been graced with well-laden shops and treasuries swollen enough to provide for the construction of temples and foundling hospitals.
Exceptional fortunes are built up in industries with very little connection to our sincere and significant needs, industries where it is difficult to escape from the disparity between a seriousness of means and a triviality of ends, and where we are hence prone to fall into crises of meaning at our computer terminals and our warehouses, contemplating with low-level despair the banality of our labour while at the same time honouring the material fecundity that flows from it – knowing that what may look like a childish game is in fact never far from a struggle for our very survival.
However powerful our technology and complex our corporations, the most remarkable feature of the modern working world may, in the end, be internal, consisting of an aspect of our mentalities: in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. It could be something much more than a punishment or penance. We should seek to work even in the absence of a financial imperative. Our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that the most insistent question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were but what they do, the assumption being that the route to a meaningful existence must invariably pass through the gate of remunerative employment.
However, things were not always this way.
Aristotle defined an attitude that was to last more than two millennia when he referred to a structural incompatibility between satisfaction and a paid position. For the Greek philosopher, financial need placed one on a par with slaves and animals. The labor of the hands, as much as of the mercantile sides of the mind, would lead to psychological deformation. Only a private income and a life of leisure could afford citizens adequate opportunity to enjoy the higher pleasures gifted by music and philosophy. In the biographies of great artists, men like Leonardo and Michelangelo, we hear the first references to the glories of practical activity. Diderot laid bare his motives in an entry on ‘Art’, lambasting those who were inclined to venerate only the ‘liberal’ arts (Aristotle’s music and philosophy) whilst ignoring their ‘mechanical’ equivalents (such as clock-making and silk-weaving): ‘The liberal arts have sung their own praise long enough; they should now raise their voice in praise of the mechanical arts. The liberal arts must free the mechanical arts from the degradation in which these have so long been held by prejudice’. It now seemed as impossible that one could be happy and unproductive as it had once seemed unlikely that one could work and be human.
The aspects of evolution in attitudes towards work had intriguing parallels in ideas about love.
They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit and that there could hence be romance within marriage – just as there could be enjoyment within a paid job.
The author goes on to explore the job of a career counselor. He describes him as:
a professional dedicated to finding ways of ensuring that work will be synonymous with fulfillment.
There is a need for this profession because:
the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed to us in a ready-made and decisive form, which would, in turn, render us permanently immune to feelings of confusion, envy, and regret. ‘It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement’. Concerns about money and status would long ago have extinguished most clients’ ability to think authentically about their options. In searching for their aptitudes, his clients were to act like treasure hunters passing over the ground with metal detectors, listening out for what he called beeps of joy.
A career counsellor uses the emotion, envy to find out the problems of his clients.
It wasn’t the place, in itself, that held any special appeal for Carol; what impressed her was the example of someone who had taken the risk to build a business around a personal interest. Envy’s useful role in alerting us to our possibilities was too often censored out of priggish moralism. Without envy, there could be no recognition of one’s desires.
Here is the importance of career counselling profession and it’s non-glory in today’s world.
The discussion of arid abstract ideas, an ordinary human’s everyday confusions had at last found a forum in which they were being accorded the methodical consideration they deserved. An enterprise devoted to the interpretation of the critical, yet troublingly indistinct, radio-transmissions of the psyche. Career counselling might do for all of us: in Nietzsche’s words, help us to become who we are.
Most Britons were resigned to spending their entire adult lives working at jobs chosen for them by their unthinking sixteen-year-old selves. One might be doomed not by a lack of talent, but by a species of pessimistic pride.
Whatever over-cerebral understanding we may sometimes apply to our functioning, we nevertheless retain some humblingly simple needs, among them a prodigious and steady hunger for support and love. It was to the archaic part of our personalities that Symons’s motivational exercises appealed, the side which requires neither eloquence nor complex logic and which will forgive ungainly sentences so long as they are imbued with the necessary, redemptive doses of hope. To continue to deny the significance of barely perceptible childhood abuses was to manifest the same robust and foolhardy common sense which had once led our ancestors to scoff at the notion that there might be deadly colonies of microorganisms thriving in drops of saliva no larger than pinheads. It owed its existence less to kindness than to practical necessity. Like the rearing methods of every age, it was intended to ensure that the young would be granted the optimal chances of survival in a hostile environment. What should have been one of the most admired professions on earth was struggling to attain the status open to a travel agent.
The author then empathizes with the most of us whose dreams may always fall short of being actualized.
Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality).
The author describes beautifully his awe for the scientists and their profession at the rocket launch center.
What talent and insolence it was on the part of the white-coated fraternity to have succeeded in generating an impression of mystical awe with the help only of an ammonium perchlorate composite. The work of years was about to condense itself into an instant.
The rocket rose, and there was a collective gasp, a most naive, amazed Ahh, inarticulate and primordial, as all of us for a moment forgot ourselves – our education, manners and sense of irony – to follow the fine white javelin on its ascent through the southern skies. The scene brought to mind the moments of smoke and fire which the Old Testament prophets had invoked to make their audiences shudder before the majesty of their Lord. And yet this modern impression of divinity was being generated by the most secular and pagan of machines. Science had taught us to upstage the gods. The engineers had learned how to make a home for one of our machines in the most inhuman of places.
It seemed too easy to claim that there was nothing new under the sun, that any material progress would inevitably be counterbalanced by spiritual regress, that our spear-wielding ancestors had been as wise and good as ourselves and that the onward march of rational thought had brought with it nothing but tragedy. I felt my allegiances shift to the engineers and technicians around me, these new medicine men who often sported baseball caps, and had a tendency towards unsophisticated humor – but who had nonetheless mastered the workings of the universe. What astonishing creatures they were! What extraordinary horizons they had opened up!
The author also talks about how it might be possible to feel jealous of a rocket.
Her bitterness smacked of bruised egocentricity. The only topic she appeared comfortable with was mosquitoes. Though tales of the bites of others are usually no less wearing than those of their dreams, she boasted at length about how she had been devoured during the launch, and proceeded to show off her ankles, hopeful that the interest of so many minute beings might stand as a last, desperate proof of her continued magnetism.
Over time, our awe has shifted from nature to technology and its creations.
For thousands of years, it had been nature – and its supposed creator – that had had a monopoly on awe. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime had ceased to be nature. We were now deep in the era of the technological sublime when awe could most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets, and particle accelerators. We were now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves. We had learned to feel respect for circuit boards and pity and guilt towards glaciers.
Despite many accomplishments, science, and its effects may not be regularly felt in our daily life.
I felt keenly the painful psychological adjustments required by life in modernity: the need to juggle respect for the potential offered by science with an awareness of how perplexingly limited and narrowly framed might be its benefits. I felt the temptation of hoping that all activities would acquire the excitement and rigors of engineering while recognizing the absurdity of those who, overly impressed by technological achievement, lose sight of how doggedly we will always be pursued by baser forms of error and absurdity.
Yet I felt the awkwardness of having to look up to rocket engineers and technicians as our ancestors might once have venerated their gods. These specialists were unlikely and troubling objects of admiration compared with the night sky and the mountains. The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its members the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be nothing next to the grandeur of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of veneration than our brilliant, precise, blinkered and morally troubling fellow human beings.
The author then takes us on a tour of an artist’s profession. He beautifully paints a word picture of a typical day in the life of an artist.
In time, there will be no reminders of the fleshly origins of painting. The dark magenta stains on the artist’s fingers, the red speckles on his shoes, the glutinous green and blue smears on his palettes – all of these will be dissolved away, leaving the paintings to stand by themselves, as silent about their material parentage as a newly laid-out country road.
It is not unusual for Taylor to forget to eat while he is working. At these times, he is nothing but a mind and hand moving across a square of canvas. The Past and future disappear as he is consumed by the tasks of mixing paint, checking its color against the world and settling it into its assigned place in a grid. An insect may crawl unmolested across his hand or take up temporary residence in his ear or neck. There is no more ten in the morning, no more July, but only the tree before him, the clouds above, the sun slowly traversing the sky and the small gap between one branch and another, whose resolution and completion will constitute a whole day’s work.
Taylor is tormented by a sense of responsibility for the appearance of things. He can be kept awake at night by what he sees as an injustice in the color of wheat or an uneasy fault line between two patches of sky. His work frequently puts him in a tense, silent mood, in which he can be seen walking the streets of Colchester. His concerns are difficult for others to feel sympathetic about, however, for few of us are primed to feel generous towards a misery caused by a pigment incorrectly applied across an unremunerative piece of stretched cloth. His progress is slow: he can spend five months on a canvas measuring twenty centimetres square. But his painstaking approach is in truth the legacy of over twenty years of research. It took him three years just to determine how best to render the movement of wheat in a gust of wind, and even longer to become proficient in color. Whereas a decade ago he would have used at least ten shades of green to paint the tree’s foliage, he now relies on only three, and yet his leaves appear all the more luxuriantly dense and mobile for this reduction in complexity.
Taylor found his teachers on museum walls. The great dead masters are generous instructors: it is not uncommon for one of them to impart a piece of technical wisdom to a pupil born five centuries after him. Works which ordinary gallery visitors might regard as inert entertainment are, for artists, living prescriptions. It was Titian’s Man with a Quilted Sleeve (1510) that taught Taylor how to paint leaves. Titian taught Taylor about the economy, about how to imply things rather than explain them. He taught him that a painting of a tree should be the story not of each individual leaf but of the dynamic mass of the whole. There are only five blues in Titian’s sleeve; the genius lies in the careful choice and judicious combination of these hues, so that while the lower folds appear flattened and empty, the upper ones manifest the presence of an arm so clearly that a viewer might almost think it possible to reach into the painting and grasp its bulk. Taylor defines Titian’s place in the pantheon with the greatest compliment he knows: the artist was able to look at a piece of clothing as if he had never seen its like before. Precise delineation is central to Taylor’s conception of painting. The sky is never simply blue, he explains. In the region nearest the sun, at the top of a canvas, he uses ultramarine, to which he adds increasing amounts of turquoise as his brush descends towards the earth.
‘For most of my adult life, I have worked on certain observations of the physical world. In particular, for the last ten years, I have been interested in changes of light as you look towards and away from the sun’ – a summation of ambition finely poised between self-deprecation and megalomania.
The specialized vocabulary of biology is dear to Taylor. It is a sign of attention and of a community ready to honor details. Technical terms do not in his eyes insulate us from the natural world, they merely help us to cleave with greater fidelity to its most precious and discrete phenomena. He sees his art as born out of, and hoping to inspire, reverence for all that is unlike us and exceeds us. He never wanted to paint the work of people, their factories, streets, or electricity circuit boards. His attention was drawn to that which, because we did not build it, we must make a particular effort of empathy and imagination to understand, to a natural environment that is uniquely unpredictable, for it is literally unforeseen. His devoted look at a tree is an attempt to push the self aside and recognize all that is other and beyond us – starting with this ancient-looking Hulk in the gloom, with its erratic branches, thousands of stiff little leaves and a remarkable lack of any direct connection to the human drama.
Here is a description of the artist’s studio. What a beautiful language!
Despite its diminutive size, it is a particularly pleasant room. There are few jobs in which years’ worth of labor can be viewed in a quick scan of four walls and even fewer opportunities granted to us to gather all our intelligence and sensitivity in a single place. Our exertions generally find no enduring physical correlatives. We are diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to. We confront our lost energies in the pathos of the retirement party. How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object – whether a square of canvas, a chair or a clay jug – and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years, and hence feel collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing one could hold or see.
Taylor knows that he is creating things which exceed him. He has a chance to get himself right on the canvas in a way that he cannot in the run of his ordinary life. He is not always the perceptive, patient observer. His social self is beset by frailties. He is nervous around others and apt to mask his anxieties behind an exaggerated laugh. Nor is he conventionally powerful. His journey has been dogged by peculiarly English discomforts. Achievements which might in other countries have come more easily – leaving behind a provincial, working-class background and asserting his artistic identity in cultural and intellectual circles – have been hard won and remain fragile. Yet when he is at his easel, he can, without arousing any impression of arrogance, say that he knows how to paint. At such moments, his peers are no longer just his drinking companions from the local pubs, and he is not merely the penniless son of a postman and a shop assistant; he is the confidant and heir of Titian.
On that note, what is art for?
There are people out buying coffee, sandwiches, papers or new heels for their shoes, servicing their essential and practical requirements. In the midst of such activity, it seems logical enough to ask exactly what Taylor’s art might be for. To help us to notice what we have already seen. The tree paintings endeavour to excite and command our attention. They are in a sense comparable to advertising billboards, though instead of forcing us to focus on a specific brand of margarine or discounted airline fares, they incite us to contemplate the meaning of nature, the yearly cycles of growth and decay, the intricacies of the vegetal and animal realms, our lost connection with the earth and the redemptive powers of modest dappled things. We might define art as anything which pushes our thoughts in important yet neglected directions.
Nevertheless, Taylor is suspicious of any attempt to summarize art in words. He insists that a worthy painting will automatically render all commentary inadequate because it must influence and affect our senses rather than our logical faculties. To convey the particularity of artistic work, he quotes Hegel’s definition of painting and music as genres dedicated to the ‘sensuous presentation of ideas’. We require such ‘sensuous’ arts, Hegel suggested, because many important truths will impress themselves upon our consciousness only if they have been molded from sensory, emotive material. We may, for example, need a song to alert us in a visceral way to the importance of forgiving others, a notion to which we might previously have assented purely in a rote and stagnant way after reading of it in a political tract – just as it may only be in front of a successful painting of an oak tree that we are in any position to feel, as opposed dutifully to accept, the significance of the natural world. The great works of art have about them the quality of a reminder. They fix that which is fugitive: the cooling shadow of an oak on a windless, hot summer afternoon; the golden-brown tint of leaves in the early days of autumn; the stoical sadness of a bare tree glimpsed from a train, outlined against a heavy gray sky. At the same time, it is forgotten aspects of our own psyches to which paintings can seem mysteriously conjoined. It can be our unspoken longings that surprise us in the trees, and our adolescent selves that we recognize in the hazy tint of a summer sky. It is hard to buy paintings when one knows so little about what prestigious forces think of them.
Here is how some of us give importance to art.
During the last week of the show, the smallest oak of all, a mere ten centimeters high, made up of oil paint on board, is bought by a dentist from Milton Keynes. Susan hangs it in the living room, where it coexists, and competes for attention, with television, a set of wooden camels from Luxor and Noddy and Tessie Bear’s village. Susan enjoys showing the work to friends. This has nothing to do with vaunting wealth or status. In a sense which is not entirely clear to her, she wishes to tell others that she is a bit like the painting. She has seen the tree before. It is the tree from her childhood in Somerset which she passed on her way to school. It is the tree she saw on cycle rides through the Durham countryside at the University. It is the tree which stood in a field across from the hospital when she gave birth to her first son. Like a modern, secular icon, the painting creates a magnetic field around itself, proposing a fitting attitude and code of conduct for its viewers. The ordinary business of the day normally intrudes insistently on the goings-on in the living room. The television is a jealous screen. Noddy rarely misses a chance to make himself heard. Yet occasionally, late at night, when the rest of the household is in bed, Susan will linger a few moments over the painting and feel herself subtly aligning with its personality and recovering thereby an amplified sense of her history and humanity.
Can we really put a price for art?
Backdated across two years, Taylor has earnt the equivalent of the annual salary of an unsuccessful plumber. There is an impractical side of human nature particularly open to making sacrifices for the sake of creating objects that are more graceful and intelligent than we normally manage to be. Taylor is undaunted by his fortunes.
On to the next profession – an electrical engineer. As usual, Alain de Botton’s language can make anything sound absolutely amazing and worth paying attention to.
He was a founding member of the Pylon Appreciation Society, a group which, despite its meager resources and frequent opprobrium, organized walks along power lines and looked forward to a time when curiosity about electricity transmission would granted a place in the pantheon of legitimate interests. Ian pointed out that whereas our culture openly invites us to be aware of birds and historic churches, it places no comparable emphasis on pylons, despite the fact that that they often rival, for ingenuity and beauty, many of the more established objects of our curiosity.
The real-life analogies the author draws for this profession and its mute industrial objects are interesting.
There are distinct human personalities, and moreover, that our eyes are in the habit of assessing these inanimate structures by some of the same criteria we resort to when evaluating our flesh-and-blood acquaintances. The unspoken challenge for transmission engineers seemed to be to fashion a pylon which would subliminally read as possessing much the same blend of psychological and physical virtues as one might search for in an ideal friend or lover. The corona discharge, as the phenomenon was called, prompted Ian to think of his recently concluded fifteen-year marriage. He explained that it was to this crackling sound, under the line running between Torness power station and the outskirts of Edinburgh, that he had first kissed the woman whom he had been abruptly left by a month previously. He brought out a fluorescent strip from the back of his car and held it up above his head, the household bulb flickering into life as it drew invisibly on the airborne current, the fragile vessel of milky luminous glass lighting up the couple as they moved towards their first embrace against the inky backdrop of the Lammermuir Hills.
Yet the pylons said nothing of where they had come from or were going, this mystery typical of a landscape mottled with mute industrial objects, though one regretted how easily a placard could have been fixed to them, inscribed by a poet of modern life, who could, in a few lyrical couplets, have shared with passing ramblers some of the meaning and direction of this electrical peregrination. Ian remarked that the close observer of power lines must of necessity become a frequent witness to sides of human sexuality which find no easy expression within the parameters of our supposedly liberated society.
I spotted cream-coloured pages covered with a latticework of algebraic equations whose incomprehensibility had the incidental benefit of freeing me to admire them from a purely aesthetic point of view, as the uninstructed might appreciate a musical score or a piece of classical Arabic.
Here’s a closer look at an electrical engineer’s nature of work along with mindblowing poetic analogies.
Transmission engineers were unusually blessed in having at their fingertips a highly precise, efficient and universal vocabulary with which to convey even the most labyrinthine electrical scenarios, so that from Iran to Chile, Ψ referred to electric flux, μ to permeability, to permeance, and ά to the temperature coefficient of resistance. I was struck by how impoverished ordinary language can be by contrast, requiring its user to arrange inordinate numbers of words in tottering and unstable piles to communicate meanings infinitely more basic than anything related to an electrical network. I found myself wishing that the rest of mankind would follow the engineers’ example and agree on a series of symbols which could point incontrovertibly to certain elusive, vaporous and often painful psychological states- a code which might help us to feel less tongue-tied and less lonely, and enable us to resolve arguments with swift and silent exchanges of equations.
There seemed to be no shortage of feelings to which the engineers’ brevity might be profitably applied. If only a letter could have been identified, for example, with which elegantly to allude to the strange desire one occasionally has to elicit love from people one does not even particularly like (β, say); or the irritation evoked when acquaintances seem to be more worried about one’s illnesses than one is oneself (?); or the still vaguer sense one can sometimes have that different periods of one’s life are in coexistence, so that one would have only to return to one’s childhood home to find everything the same as it once was, with no one having died and nothing having changed (?). Possessed of such a notational system, one would be able to compress the free-floating nostalgia and anxiety of a typical Sunday afternoon into a single pellucid and unambiguous sequence (β + ω + ξ × 2) and attract sympathy and compassion from the friends around whom one might otherwise have grunted unhelpfully.
More contemplation on this profession is as follows:
But we headed instead to a residential neighborhood in the northeastern suburbs, through which the authorities, reluctant to let modernity intrude on the city’s medieval skyline, had insisted on routing the cables. It was a place where, as often and inexplicably happens in small communities, everyone had chosen to enter the same profession – in this case, hairdressing – as a result of which most enterprises appeared to be close to bankruptcy. Luckily, we found a teashop advertising homemade cakes and what was termed an Old World atmosphere and took our seats at the back. How cheerful one would have needed to be in such a place in order not to regret existence.
Despite the counterweight of two centuries’ worth of romantic art and song crystallising the desire to escape the darkness of small towns, Sittingbourne remained for her an insurmountable foe, as stubborn as the congealed sauce which she was doing her best to wipe from the floor – her struggle representative of a greater, losing battle against the resistant forces of her life. They revealed that the hotel, which one could otherwise have taken for an aberration, in fact, belonged to a chain with affiliates in thirty-four countries. Comparable charm and service were promised as far afield as Denmark and Venezuela, the entire globe seeming promptly smaller and more compromised as a result. I concluded that there were few troubling situations in contemporary life from which one could not distract oneself by wondering where the electricity had arrived from. It swayed in the wind, a satisfyingly obvious symbol of stoicism in adversity.
The author reminds us about how we take electricity for granted especially in the more developed nations and why it’s worth singing praises for this necessity in our lives.
The only humans truly in any position to feel grateful towards it was likely to have died a long time ago, in the 1950s, for it is rare to admire a technology which was already well established when we were children. The bulb is dependent for its prestige on a contrastive grown-up memory of the candle, the telephone on that of the carrier pigeon, the plane on that of the steamship, suggesting that histories of technology should usefully identify not only when a particular innovation was introduced, but also, and more interestingly, when it was forgotten – when it disappeared from collective consciousness through familiarity, becoming as commonplace and unremarkable as a pebble or a cloud.
The Beauty of Electricity Pylons in the Dutch Landscape was a defence of the contribution of transmission engineering to the visual appeal of Holland, referencing the often ignored grandeur of the towers on their march from power stations to cities. Its particular interest for Ian, however, lay in its thesis about the history of the Dutch relationship to windmills, for it emphasized that these early industrial objects had originally been felt to have all the pylons’ threateningly alien qualities, rather than the air of enchantment and playfulness now routinely associated with them. They had been denounced from pulpits and occasionally burnt to the ground by suspicious villagers. The re-evaluation of the windmills had in large part been the work of the great painters of the Dutch Golden Age, who, moved by their country’s dependence on these rotating utilitarian objects, gave them pride of place in their canvases, taking care to throw their finest aspects into relief, like their resilience during storms and the glint of their sails in the late afternoon sun. It was works such as Abraham Funerius’s Het Bolwerk Rijzenhoofd te Amsterdam and Jacob van Ruisdael’s Molen bij Wijk bij Duurstede which had inspired the Dutch to accord decisive respect and aesthetic attention to their life-giving machines. Ian concluded that it would perhaps be left to artists of our own day to teach us to discern the virtues of the furniture of contemporary technology. He hoped that photographs of conductors might be in the future hang over dining tables and that someone might write a libretto for an opera set in the grid.
The author makes a case for accommodating the possibility of alternative forms of beauty.
Everywhere there were signs of the prosperity of the bird watchers’ society: it had its own publishing sideline, it ran gift shops, it traded in tea towels. Next to the coffee machine, a large plastic robin with beseeching eyes urged patrons to drop money through a slit in its head. The organization had seized on a minor occasion of individual gratification at seeing a bird and managed to transform it into a formalized and commercially robust activity, one which moreover tacitly claimed a distinct moral superiority over other leisure pursuits. It had done the archetypal work of culture: taking on an unformed, isolated interest and affording it a communal language and respectability. How woefully immature the Pylon Appreciation Society seemed by comparison. It had only a handful of members, it had no cafeteria, it could barely afford to send out a newsletter. As a result, a sympathetic response to an electricity pylon remained for most of us a haphazard and unsupported impulse, an epiphany which might last for a minute on a drive along a motorway or on a walk along a moor, but to which no prestige could be attached and from which little of merit could emerge.
In an essay entitled ‘The Poet’, published in 1844, the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented the narrow definition of beauty subscribed to by his peers, who tended to reserve the term exclusively for the bucolic landscapes and unspoilt pastoral scenes celebrated in the works of well-known artists and poets of the past. Emerson himself, however, writing at the dawn of the industrial age, observing with interest the proliferation of railways, warehouses, canals and factories, wished to make room for the possibility of alternative forms of beauty. He contrasted the nostalgic devotees of old- fashioned poetry with those whom he judged to be true contemporary poetic spirits, deserving of the title less by anything they had actually written than for their willingness to approach the world without prejudice or partiality. The former camp, he averred, ‘see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the beauty of the landscape is broken up by these, for they are not yet consecrated in their reading. But the true poet sees them fall within the great order of nature not less than the beehive or the spider’s geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own’. We confided to each other that we were unexpectedly sorry to say good-bye, feeling that we had experienced things together which would be hard to share with others. As it passed, the current would perform the ultimate act of generosity: it would absolve its consumers from having to give it any thought, it would ensure that none of them would ever need to dwell on the idea of a run of steel-grey pylons tracing their origins back across the landscape to the southern coast, to a monolithic power station on the edge of a shingle beach, enduring the mutinous Channel waves and a corrosive wind while emitting a steady and ominous hum.
On to the next profession – an accountancy firm. Here is a word picture.
On entering the building, one encounters a lobby designed so that the head of any newcomer will ineluctably lean backwards to follow a succession of floors rising up to apparent infinity, and in the process dwell – as the cathedral-builders once invited one to do with their vaulted naves – on the respect that must be owed to those responsible for putting up and managing this colossus. However, unlike at Chartres, quite what one should be honoring is unclear. Perhaps hard work, precision, a certain ruthlessness and the surprising intricacies of the audit process. A plaque affixed to a wall declares, ‘We like people who demonstrate integrity, energy, and enthusiasm.’ To judge by the number of people seated on the lobby’s red-leather sofas, it isn’t unusual to be kept waiting awhile for an appointment, surreptitiously to enforce an impression of the importance of one’s hosts on the upper floors. A receptionist, no less aware of the solemnity of her role than a priestess at the Temple of Delphi, is on hand for a short initiation ceremony, handing you a badge and directing you to the sofas with a tenuous promise of rescue. There are free newspapers and bottles of water emblazoned with the firm’s name. Waiting feels like the oldest of human activities, stretching back to the senators pacing outside the emperor’s quarters in imperial Rome and the merchants lined up to see the caliph in the marble-lined palaces of medieval Córdoba. In the background, a bank of lifts emits random pings as security guards patrol the turnstiles, hoping for a confrontation to interrupt the tedium of their day.
Everything in the accountants’ building appears elegant and well-maintained. There are none of the cobwebs endemic to the ordinary world. People cross the corridors and elevated walkways with purpose. In the wider view of the public, accountancy may be synonymous with bureaucratic tedium, but from close up, this particular conglomeration of numerical talents presents the observer with a case-study of the discrete charms of offices, with their intriguing blend of camaraderie, intelligence and futility. The headquarters on the bank of the Thames is the setting for a range of behaviors at least as peculiar as anything that an ethnographer might uncover among the clans of Samoa.
A few insights to the nature of this profession, an accountant.
As one does in a doctor’s surgery, one may be tempted to look at one’s fellow visitors and wonder about the problems that have brought them here. They are unlikely to be straightforward. The accountants don’t cater to life’s superficial needs. Their jobs did not even come into being until late in the history of business, only after millions of people had gathered in cities and been grouped into industrial phalanxes – for, until then, accountancy merely occupied a few sporadic moments at the ledger by candlelight in a back room. The advent of dedicated financial specialists, who are unable to fish or build a house or sew a coat but are entirely committed to answering questions of amortisation, standard engagement revenue and transaction tax, seems a culmination of a long history of the division of labour, which began in Ancient Egypt three millennia ago and, in oases like these, at least, has generated spectacular returns and some distinctive psychological side-effects.
Here’s how the commute looks like when an accountant goes to work.
With an accuracy, her waking mind could never have mustered. It is a wonder that we manage to be so outwardly docile, an arm or leg only infrequently stirring, while we travel on such ghost trains.
Once the alarm has rung, the accountant has little choice but to head for the bathroom without doing justice to her visions. Sentimental associations and impossible longings are shut down, and the self is reassembled as an apparently coherent entity, with stable commitments and a prescribed future.
There is something improbable about the silence in the carriage, considering how naturally gregarious we are as a species. Still, how much kinder it is for the commuters to pretend to be absorbed in other things, rather than to reveal the extent to which they are covertly evaluating, judging, condemning and desiring each other. A few venture a glance here and there, as furtively as birds pecking grain. But only if the train crashed would anyone know for sure who else had been in the carriage, what small parts of the nation’s economy had been innocuously seated across the aisle just before the impact: employees of hotels, government ministries, plastic-surgery clinics, fruit nurseries and greetings-card companies.
Newspapers are being read all around. The point is not, of course, to glean new information, but rather to coax the mind out of its sleep-induced introspective temper. To look at the paper is to raise a seashell to one’s ear and to be overwhelmed by the roar of humanity. These accounts, so obviously demented and catastrophic, are paradoxically consoling, for they help us to feel sane and blessed by comparison. We can turn away from them and experience a new sense of relief at our predictable routines; we can be grateful for how tightly bound we have kept our desires, and proud of the restraint we have shown in not poisoning our colleagues or entombing our relations under the patio.
And, as soon as the accountant reaches her office:
The employees proceed upstairs without looking around them. To feel at home in the office is not to notice the strange silver sculpture in the lobby and to forget how alien the place felt on the first day. The start of work means the end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires. The accountant’s ten thousand possibilities have been reduced to an agreeable handful. She has a business card which she hands over in meetings and which tells other people – and, more meaningfully perhaps, reminds her – that she is a Business Unit Senior Manager, rather than a vaporous transient consciousness in an incidental universe. How satisfying it is to be held in check by the assumptions of colleagues, instead of being forced to contemplate, in the loneliness of the early hours, all that one might have been and now never will be. She has a meeting scheduled with a team from an insurance brokerage in half an hour, leaving her time to buy a muffin and coffee from the cafeteria. The start of the day in the office has burnt off nostalgia as the sun evaporates a coat of dew. Life is no longer mysterious, sad, haunting, touching, confusing or melancholy; it is a practical stage for clear-eyed action.
It isn’t easy to encourage the accountants to expand on what they do. They feel that any curiosity shown by a civilian must conceal mockery – yet more of what they have been used to encountering from the wider world since they first announced their career choice at graduation. But with perseverance, their reflexive self-deprecation gradually gives way to a more earnest pride in their mastery of a labyrinthine craft.
Capitalism could not function without her, she smiles. The procedures used for audits are identical the world over, enabling accountants to work seamlessly with foreign colleagues, as pilots might. The rules have been codified into a four-thousand-page Bible, the Global Audit Methodology, which I take to reading in bed.
The author shows his admiration for this profession as follows:
It is hard not to admire the dedication directed towards the small print. Levels of commitment that in previous societies were devoted to military adventures and religious intoxication have been channeled into numerical needlework. History may dwell on stories of heroism and drama, but there are ultimately few of us out on the high seas, and many of us in the harbor, counting the ropes and untangling the anchor chains. It is apparent that accountancy lends its practitioners a particular way of looking at the world. The accountants ask me not how or why one writes a book, but whether the tax on a title is payable across a few years or must wholly be paid at the moment of publication. They are like renal surgeons for whom one is first and foremost always a kidney. More impressively, they seem to have no desire to undertake the kind of work which makes any claim to leave a lasting legacy. They have the inner freedom to exercise their intelligence in the way that taxi drivers will practice their navigational skills: they will go wherever their clients direct them to. They may be asked to deal with the financing of an oil rig one week, the tax liability of a supermarket or fibre-optic cable plant the next – without being detained by pressing internal projects and the pathologies and suffering these entail. They have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future. They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in the audit.
The author addresses the issue of motivation at work and the role of HR departments in the following passage:
For most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip. So long as workers had only to kneel down and retrieve stray ears of corn from the threshing-room floor or heave quarried stones up a slope, they could be struck hard and often, with impunity and benefit. But the rules of employment had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be to a significant degree content, rather than simply terrified or resigned. Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumors, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not profitably be sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental well-being of employees commenced being a supreme object of managerial concern.
The jobs in the world’s glass office towers cannot be administered by the fear of an external power. Watchtowers are of no use in encouraging staff to engage their higher faculties in the drafting of annual tax-deferment schedules, requiring senior managers to handle their charges with patient and costly respect. These overlords have been deprived of the cavalier attitudes of eighteenth-century ship owners, who were enviably free to propel their slaves into the mid-Atlantic at early signs of scurvy. The new figures of authority must involve themselves with day-care centers and, at monthly get-togethers, animatedly ask their subordinates how they are enjoying their jobs so far. Responsible for wrapping the iron fist of authority in its velvet glove is Jane Axtell, head of the accountancy firm’s Human Resources department, based on the sixth floor. She recently organized a landscape- painting competition to help the auditors to release their untapped creativity, and is now, in an effort further to boost morale, engaged in lining the building’s corridors and reception areas with plaques bearing the legend ‘Our Values Statement: Who We Are and What We Stand For’.
There would certainly have been less for a diarist such as Saint-Simon to report on in Louis XIV’s court had Axtell been present at Versailles. Thanks to her, the company now has in place a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying and gossip, a twenty-four-hour hotline for distressed employees, forums in which complaints may be lodged against colleagues and a tactful procedure by which a manager can let a team member know that his breath smells. Underlying these innovations is the belief that workplace dynamics are no less complicated or unexpectedly intense than family relations, with the only added difficulty that whereas families are at least well-recognised and sanctioned loci for hysteria reminiscent of scenes from Medea, office life typically proceeds behind a mask of shallow cheerfulness, leaving workers grievously unprepared to handle the fury and sadness continually aroused by their colleagues.
Contrived as the strategies instituted by the Human Resources department may seem, it is, in fact, their very artificiality which guarantees their success, for the labored tone of away-day seminars and group feedback exercises allows workers manfully to protest that they have nothing whatsoever to learn from submitting to such disciplines. Then, like guests at a house party who at first mock their host’s suggestion of a round of Pictionary, they may be surprised to find themselves, as the game gets under way, able thereby to channel their hostilities, identify their affections and escape the agony of insincere chatter.
There are, admittedly, few historical precedents for Axtell’s job title or her professional lexicon (‘client relating’, ‘personal branding’) – a scarcity which may lead one to judge her as an unnecessary sickness. But this would be to misconstrue the sheer distinctiveness of the contemporary office, a factory of ideas dependent upon the ability of tens of thousands of employees to communicate properly amongst themselves in order to fulfil the needs of intemperate and exacting clients and so, by extension, an entity acutely vulnerable to internecine fighting, to the petty withholding of information between departments, to the nurturing of poisonous grudges over inequitable pay scales, to the appearance of dandruff on the collars of managers, to the splitting of infinitives in company releases and to the offering of clammy hands to crucial contacts – and hence an entity not above the communal salve discreetly embedded within karaoke nights and ‘Employee of the Month’ schemes, which reward their winners with river cruises and boardroom lunches with the chairman.
Next, the author sees things from a leadership point of view.
A quote from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt, in which the president spoke of the need for every man to strive for excellence and, ‘if he fails, at least, he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat’.
The sight of the chairman’s furniture brings to mind W. H. Auden’s poem ‘The Managers’ (1948): In the bad old days it was not so bad: The top of the ladder Was an amusing place to sit; success Meant quite a lot – Leisure And huge meals, more palaces filled with more Objects, books, girls, horses Than one would ever get round to, and to be Carried uphill while seeing Others walk…But Auden knew where leadership was headed. In modern times, he wondered, Would any painter Portray one rising triumphantly from a lake dolphin, naked, Protected by an umbrella of cherubs?
Of course, power has not disappeared entirely; it has merely been reconfigured. It is by posing as a regular employee that the chairman stands his best chance of preserving his seniority. His subordinates admire the sincerity with which he pretends to share their fate while he privately recognizes that only a convincing show of normalcy will prevent him from ever having to be normal again.
The chairman has also been forced to surrender his right to bark orders. He cannot scold graduates of INSEAD and Wharton. The one tool left to him is persuasion. Three or four times a month, in various corners of his empire, he therefore steps up onto a podium, takes off his jacket, looks out across an audience of three thousand accountants and, against a backdrop of PowerPoint slogans, tells them what admirable professionals they are, before adroitly slipping in a recommendation for improvements to their methods in the humble and supplicating manner of a preacher in an age of declining faith. It is evident that success in his job will ultimately depend less on anything he might do than on his relative luck in aligning his reign with auspicious currents in economic history. He is like a general on a battlefield vainly striving to maintain an appearance of control amidst the chaos of sporadically exploding munitions.
Perhaps the chairman senses my concerns. He seems to regard our interview not as a chance to impart useful information but as a perilous test of his ability to avoid saying anything which might return to haunt him – in other words, to be as boring as possible. He persists in speaking to me in the same congenial but impersonal tone he might use to address a crowd. I ask him to expound on the company’s future: ‘No one is under any illusion that we face some significant challenges. However, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that we also have some fabulous opportunities.’ What is his ambition for his employees? ‘All of our people and partners want to be part of a winning, successful organization, an organization that is winning market share and is, therefore, growing opportunities for all of its people.’ Does he like traveling? ‘We are fortunate that we are already part of a successful global business, but we must do more to commit fully to our global organization and the global market.’ How does his firm differ from its competitors? ‘Our people are our brand in our clients’ eyes, and a differentiated client experience can only be created through our people living our values.’
After twenty minutes of this, I am tempted to ask when he was last troubled by his bowels in a meeting. But perhaps he speaks like this not so much because he wishes to keep secrets as because years of circumnavigating the earth, breathing conditioned air and headlining conferences, have hollowed out his personality. It may have been a decade since he was left alone in a room with nothing to do. I feel my boredom turn to pity for someone who one might otherwise imagine had precious little to be pitied for. Although the sums at stake here are incomparably greater than the ones dealt with by ordinary retailers or telephone salespeople who beg for custom in the soiled world below, the partners have learned to adopt the serene and detached air of doctors or university professors.
A perspective on recruitment in such firms:
Hiring Mark to think on your behalf will cost you five hundred pounds an hour, whilst Guilherme can be had for just seven pounds – a difference explained not only by the history and relative prosperity of the two men’s native countries but also by Mark’s three years of studying for a legal degree, a further two years spent at BPP College in King’s Cross to acquire command of PAR (Principles of Auditing and Reporting), his membership in the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and fifteen years’ worth of graft, as he ascended from associate to partly qualified executive, from qualified executive to assistant manager, from manager to senior manager and finally from partner to senior partner. Such numbers express a truth about office life which is no less irrefutable – yet also, in the end, no less irrelevant or irritating – than an evolutionary biologist’s proud reminder that the purpose of existence lies in the propagation of our genes. The starkness of the year-end accounts only emphasises the extent to which generating money is really an excuse to do other things, to rise from bed in the morning, to talk authoritatively in front of overhead projectors, to plug in laptops in foreign hotel rooms, to give presentations analysing market shares and to yearn at the sight of Katie’s knee-length grey woollen shorts. Long before we ever earned any money, we were aware of the necessity of keeping busy: we knew the satisfactions of stacking bricks, pouring water into and out of containers and moving sand from one pit to another, untroubled by the greater purpose of our actions.
The author addresses the interesting concept of ‘office sex’ and its psychological underpinnings.
The feelings elicited by Katie’s shorts are incendiary because they threaten to subvert the firm’s entire rationale. They risk bringing to light an awkward truth: how much more interesting we might find it to have sex than to work. There is nothing surprising about the corporation’s jealousy. Every society historically has had to regulate the sexual impulse to get anything done. It is only our naive belief in our own open-mindedness which prevents us from recognizing the extent to which an old-fashioned sexual repression has to be buried in our codes of professional conduct. Yet equally, and paradoxically, such repression has disproportionately sexual consequences, for it is an essential feature of the erotic that it thrives most fully precisely where it is most forbidden. There were few places in the fourteenth century as sexually charged as the convents of the Mother of God, just as there are few settings today as libidinous as the laminated open-plan spaces of our corporations. The office is to the modern world what the cloister was to medieval Christendom: a chaste arena with an unrivaled capacity to excite desire.
If these two institutions have imposed harsh penalties on those who display signs of transgressive behavior, it is because each is, or was, the locus of its society’s most cherished values: the teachings of Christ on the one hand, and money on the other. Money is to the office as God was to the nunnery – and whether physical desire is condemned in the language of a sexual-harassment policy or in terms of sin and Satan, it stands as a comparable heresy, for it has dared to deny canonical goals, impudently implying that there may be elements more valuable in the world, and more consuming, than the stock price or the Redeemer. The repression has paid dividends in one area, at least: logically enough, the office and the nunnery have been singularly popular in the imaginations of pornographers. We should not be surprised to learn that the erotic novels of the early modern period were overwhelmingly focused on debauchery and flagellation amongst clergy in vespers and chapels, just as contemporary Internet pornography is inordinately concerned with fellatios and sodomy performed by office workers against a backdrop of work stations and computer equipment.
Some light into the after-work hours of modern day accountants.
He feels as if he had been playing a computer game which remorselessly tested his reflexes, only to have its plug suddenly pulled from the wall. He is impatient and restless, but simultaneously exhausted and fragile. He is in no state to engage with anything significant. It is, of course, impossible to read, for a sincere book would demand not only time but also a clear emotional lawn around the text in which associations and anxieties could emerge and be disentangled. He will perhaps only ever do one thing well in his life. For this particular combination of tiredness and nervous energy, the sole workable solution is wine. Office civilization could not be feasible without the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol.
She was not the first of her type I had seen that day, but something about her appearance left me thoughtful. I had until then believed that the vendors’ frequent and deliberate reliance on feminine appeal was merely a vulgar stratagem intended to win over airline executives, through an implicit suggestion that a purchase might bring them closer to intimacy with a sales agent. Now I began to see the matter differently: it seemed obvious that no order, however lucrative, would actually render these women available to buyers, so their presence on the stands took on a more poignant and commercially effective dimension. Their real function was to serve as a reminder of the unavailability of beauty to an overwhelmingly male, middle-aged and harried-looking base of customers. The women were goading the men to lay aside all romantic ambitions and to focus instead on their business and technological agendas. Rather than seductresses, they were in truth Spurs to sublimation, and symbols of everything that the buyers would be better off if they forgot about to concentrate on the thousands of pieces of precisely engineered equipment arranged around the halls.
The delegates danced to forget the anxieties of salesmanship and to shake off the nervous anticipation generated by industry gossip. They danced to stop thinking about the dynamic future of aviation, with its next generation of afterburners and electromechanical flight decks, its promises of low-fuel- burning engines and nanotechnological wings. With the help of the disco ball, we managed to restore ourselves to the imperfect present, as constituted by a dimly lit bar next to a motorway somewhere in the midst of an industrial cityscape of factories and convention centers. We held one another’s moist palms and swayed across the tiled floor, gaining relief through our shared humanity – our stomachs bloated from too many nuts, our waistlines expanding, our digestions unhealthy, our sleep interrupted, our expenses fiddled – creatures who occasionally looked up at the stars but remained essentially and defiantly earthbound.
On to the next profession – of an entrepreneur and its significance in today’s capitalistic world. Also, a brief look at existing businesses.
No essay on modern work could be considered complete if it treated only well-established industries operating in orthodox and mature fields. He urged me to consider the legions of entrepreneurs, many working by themselves in short-let offices at second-hand desks, with only a logo and a business card for legitimacy, who every year bring forward unfamiliar inventions and services, in the hope of transforming our lives and their fortunes.
The range of offerings suggested that capitalism as currently developed remains in its infancy. We may think of ourselves as living late in the history of consumer society, but the most sophisticated contemporary economy stands to be perceived by subsequent generations as no less primitive than we judge Europe to have been in the Dark Ages. It is a mere eighty years since deodorant was introduced, the remote-control garage door has been in existence for barely thirty-five and only in the last five years have surgeons discovered how safely to remove tumors from our adrenal glands and insert aortic keyhole valves into our hearts. We are still waiting for computers to help us identify whom we might confidently marry, for scanners to locate our lost keys, for a reliable method of eradicating household moths and for medicines which will guarantee us eternal life. Untold numbers of new businesses lie latent in our present inefficiencies and wishes. The fulfillment of a significant, and perhaps the most important, share of our needs remains untethered to the mechanisms of commerce.
I tried to reflect on what other consumer goods were currently using up valuable space in air-filled containers and might one day benefit from being compressed into rods, but I lost my train of thought. I moved on to reflect on how the pair behind the Crisp Bar might beat a dignified retreat from this high-point of entrepreneurial energy: how they might fend off the well-meaning and unintentionally humiliating enquiries of neighbours and consider their crisp experience from the vantage point of old age, the sole memento of their venture a box of marketing materials stowed in a corner of the attic next to their children’s cast-off playthings.
However, not all entrepreneurs come up with business ideas that add value to people’s lives. Many ideas are simply redundant and repetitive.
Entrepreneurship appears to be almost wholly dependent on a sense that the present order is an unreliable and cowardly indicator of the possible. The absence of certain practices and products is deemed by entrepreneurs to be neither right nor inevitable, but merely evidence of the conformity and lack of imagination of the herd. Yet the milieu also demands that its protagonists develop a hard-headed awareness of certain intractable financial and legal truths, as well as an accurate sense of what other human beings are actually like. The field seems to require a painfully uncommon synthesis of imagination and realism.
The popularity of the fair (as well as its vigorous promotion by a local authority and a government agency) suggested how closely linked the idea of launching a new business is to the modern notion of fulfilment, being filtered through our society via admiring pro-files of high-flying entrepreneurs, coupled with a relative silence regarding the bankruptcies and not-infrequent suicides of their less-accomplished colleagues. The start-up company may be as central to our contemporary ideals as the ritual of praying for the souls of the dead or the maintenance of female virginity was to the values of our medieval ancestors.
Yet in reality, the likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and, therefore, kinder, about the odds. It did not relentlessly play up the possibilities open to all those with a take on the future of the potato crisp, and so, in turn, did not cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.
Sometimes, we tend to consider exception as the rule and complicate things unnecessarily. This has adverse effects on entrepreneurship as well.
Our era is perverse in passing off an exception as a rule. The statistical probabilities of successfully rerouting commercial reality were laid bare for me by a wry venture capitalist who had come to the fair with few expectations, save for having the opportunity to spend a day away from his office. Of the two thousand business plans, he received a year, he said, he immediately threw out 1,950, scrutinized fifty more closely and ended up investing in ten. Within five years, out of those ten enterprises, four would be bankrupt, another four would be stuck in what was termed a ‘graveyard cycle’ of low profits and a mere two would be generating the significant returns which keep his industry afloat. Here was a vision of success guaranteed to disappoint 99.9 percent of its subscribers. Then again, there was a certain heroic beauty in the exuberant destruction of both capital and hope entailed by the entrepreneurs’ activities. Money patiently accumulated through decades of unremarkable work would, in a rush of optimism inspired by a flattering business plan, be handed over to a momentarily convincing chief executive, who would hasten to set the pyre alight in a brief, brilliant and largely inconsequential blaze. Almost all of the exhibitors at the fair were destined to throw themselves at the cliff face of entrepreneurial achievement and fall flat; for example, people like Paul Nolan, who had come up with a system of tilt-out under-bath shelves on which to store cleaning products and toiletries, or Edward Van Noord, a publican from Amsterdam who had devoted his life’s savings to the development of 1-2-3 Stop Fire, a disposable fire- extinguishing system with a restricted applicability in the real world – just two of the many participants of the fair who would one day be compelled to return to more modest ways of anchoring the motives for their existence. Nevertheless, these entrepreneurs could, at least, be celebrated for embodying an honorably stubborn side of human nature, one which in other areas causes us to get married without duress and to behave as if death might be an avoidable condition. They were proof of the extent to which we ultimately prefer excitement and disaster to boredom and safety.
The society’s members were united by their belief that the manner in which the world was presently organized was in no way representative of its full potential. They were in the habit of scanning their homes and environments for anything which did not function optimally: rubbish bags which declined to close securely, lunchboxes which were too hard to clean or parking posts which would have been better off retracting automatically when lorries backed over them. Although I had never invented anything, as the afternoon drew on (and the after-effects of a few glasses of wine I had ordered over lunch kicked in), I felt able to share with the group some of my own tentative notions for businesses as yet missing from the world economy, including a new kind of holiday company which would take tourists around industrial locations rather than museums; a chain of secular chapels which atheists could visit to appease their confused religious yearnings; and restaurants which would focus on offering diners instruction in the arts of friendship and conversation rather than on the food itself. Even among people as broad-minded as the inventors, my list precipitated a tense silence.
The art of entrepreneurship comes with its own set of challenges.
It has often been said that while any fool can have a good idea, only a few great minds have it in them to start a profitable business. The members of the British Inventors’ Society seemed to turn this unflattering equation on its head (pleasingly so in the eyes of a writer, a species congenitally fated to be better at thinking up ideas than at knowing what to do with them). These inventors were elevating the formulation of entrepreneurial ideas to the status of a visionary activity. Though forced to justify their efforts in the pragmatic language of venture capital, they were at heart utopian thinkers intent on transforming the world for the better, one deodorant-dispensing machine at a time.
The next jewel in Sir Bob’s crown was a chain of gyms which made the lion’s share of its money in the two weeks after New Year’s, from people too distracted by their swollen body-mass index to read the small print appended to punitive membership schemes.
Succeeded in becoming one of the wealthiest people on the face of the globe – and had hence merely settled on some suggestions of where his talents lay culled from business books picked up at airport newsstands. Whatever his stated strengths, it appeared that the one area in which Sir Bob excelled was anxiety. He was marked out by his relentless ability to find fault with others’ mediocrity – suggesting that a certain kind of intelligence may at heart be nothing more or less than a superior capacity for dissatisfaction. He admitted to a thoroughgoing distrust of all his employees and subcontractors, to an insistence on personally signing off on all expenses accrued within any of his companies and to a habit of staying up for much of every night scrutinising an array of spreadsheets – no doubt long after Edward Van Noord of 1-2-3 Stop Fire had slipped into an unvexed sleep in his house in the suburbs of Amsterdam.
We tend to cling to the notion that all human qualities should cohere, that we may be at once beautiful and thoughtful, vigilant and relaxed, gifted and well balanced – but it seemed clear that admirable though Sir Bob’s achievements and energy might be, it would surely not be such a treat to be his wife or son. In any area of business he happened to contemplate, he refused to believe that success would be impossible for someone like him. His varied activities had furnished him with an unusually keen sense of how things worked, freeing him of the naive and childish perspective from which most of us still see the world.
He could look out across any landscape and be confident that it was not the gods who had made it, but people a little like himself. He was – in this sense, at least – a true adult.
These individuals were writing their stories in a subgenre of contemporary fiction, the business plan, and populating them with characters endowed with deeply implausible personalities, an oversight which would eventually be punished not by a scathing review by some bright young person from the London Review of Books but by a lack of custom and a prompt foreclosure. In character a judicious fusion of the utopian and the practical, he or she would succeed not only in identifying an important need but also in mastering the challenges of bureaucracy and finance in order to give the resolution of that need an institutional form, and thereby affect others’ lives in ways that theory alone could never do.
The author also expresses his longing to become an entrepreneur himself.
I knew how deeply I admired them, because any accounts of their exploits that I came across in the media or (even worse) heard from old friends at parties had an exceptional capacity to catapult me into spasms of envy and inadequacy. These enterprising types had not – like me – fled back into their own dreams at the first mention of a sales tax or an employee ledger; they had instead managed to survive the challenges of finance, law and recruitment and, as a result, they had been able to give their flights of fancy a lucrative and consequential dimension. These paragons bore much the same relation to the mere intellectual as a restaurant-owning chef might to a writer of cookery books.
If there is any excuse for making such bathetic confessions of envy in public, it is that my feelings in this context are unlikely to be unique. A striking number of us (that is, we who have yet to become who we are) are apt, in our private moments, to express our understanding of how the world could be altered for the better by picturing to ourselves various businesses we would like to start. In our more self-indulgent moods, we may even entertain detailed musings about what the awning should look like above the shop or how the advertisements for the new service ought to be phrased. These pleasing and all-consuming daydreams appear to spring from those very same aspects of our personalities which led us as children to delight in running a grocery store out of a corner of the kitchen or to open a hotel in a cardboard box in the garden – as though there was some sort of innate and enduring human impulse to lend entrepreneurial form to certain of our deeply held enthusiasms and insights.
The book concludes by saying how work can sometimes, offer us consolation distracting us from some serious real world problems such as death.
It was then that large numbers of ruin-gazers, Goethe among them, traveled to the Italian peninsula to admire the remains of ancient Rome, often by moonlight, deriving solace from the sight of once-grand palaces and theaters now covered in weeds and sheltering wolves and wild dogs. The Germans, always a proficient people in the coining of compound words, invented the term Ruinenlust to describe this new passion.
It seems, in fact, that the more advanced a society is, the greater will be its interest in ruined things, for it will see in them a redemptively sobering reminder of the fragility of its own achievements. Ruins pose a direct challenge to our concern with power and rank, bustle and fame. They puncture the inflated folly of our exhaustive and frenetic pursuit of wealth. It stands to reason, therefore, that a visitor to the United States, this most technologically developed of all modern societies, should take a particular interest in the flip side of the nation’s progress. The disintegrating Continental Airlines 747 visible outside of your window seems the equivalent, to me, of what the Colosseum in Rome must have been for the young Edward Gibbon’.
What makes the prospect of death distinctive in the modern age is the background of permanent technological and sociological revolution against which it is set, and which serves to strip us of any possible faith in the permanence of our labors. Our ancestors could believe that their achievements had a chance of bearing up against the flow of events. We know time to be a hurricane. Our buildings, our sense of style, our ideas, all of these will soon enough be anachronisms, and the machines in which we now take inordinate pride will seem no less bathetic than Yorick’s skull. How improbable the thought of his own death would have seemed to him, how contrary to his aerobic body and acute mind. There would have been few reminders or signs that there were a finite number of times that his knees would comfortably bend to pick up a suitcase, that eventually even his most basic thoughts would become too arduous for him to connect, that he was working his way through the ten thousand days still allocated to him and that the small daily jolts of anxiety he experienced when dealing with congestion at O’Hare or bad weather over the Gulf of Mexico would one morning reach critical mass in the form of a sudden and definitive tightening in the chest in a driveway in a Phoenix suburb.
Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done: it seems not so much taboo as unlikely. Work does not by its nature permit us to do anything other than taking it too seriously. It must destroy our sense of perspective, and we should be grateful to it for precisely that reason, for allowing us to mingle ourselves promiscuously with events, for letting us wear thoughts of our own death and the destruction of our enterprises with beautiful lightness, as mere intellectual propositions, while we travel to Paris to sell engine oil. We function by a necessary myopia. Therein is the sheer energy of existence, a blind will no less impressive than that which we find in a moth arduously crossing a window ledge, stepping around a dollop of paint left by a too-hasty brush, refusing to contemplate the broader scheme in which he will be dead by nightfall.
The arguments for our triviality and vulnerability are too obvious, too well known and too tedious to rehearse. What is interesting is that we may take it upon ourselves to approach tasks with utter determination and gravity even when their wider non-sense is clear. The impulse to exaggerate the significance of what we are doing, far from being an intellectual error, is really life itself coursing through us. Good health encourages us to identify with all human experiences in all lands, to sigh at a murder in a faraway country, to hope for economic growth and technological progress far beyond the limits of our own lifespan, forgetting that we are never more than a few rogue cells away from the end. To see ourselves as the center of the universe and the present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries, to read only sparingly, to feel the pressure of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference agendas marked ‘11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.: coffee break’, to behave heedlessly and greedily and then to combust in battle – maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom. It is paying death too much respect to preparing for it with sage prescriptions. Let it surprise us while we are shipping wood pulp across the Baltic Sea, removing the heads of tuna, developing a nauseating variety of biscuit, advising a client on a change of career, firing a satellite with which to beguile a generation of Japanese schoolgirls, painting an oak tree in a field, laying an electricity line, doing the accounts, inventing a deodorant dispenser or making an extended-strength coiled tube for an airliner. Let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves.
If we could witness the eventual fate of every one of our projects, we would have no choice but to succumb to immediate paralysis. Would anyone who watched the departure of Xerxes’ army on its way to conquer the Greeks, or Taj Chan Ahk giving orders for the construction of the golden temples of Cancuén, or the British colonial administrators inaugurating the Indian postal system, have had it in their hearts to fill their passionate actors in on the eventual fate of their efforts? Our work will, at least, have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.
In summary, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton can offer a collective consolation to our souls to appreciate ours and others professions.