At university in the 1970s the rallying cry was, “Leisure is the basis of culture.” We thought that technology would enable creativity and soften the hardship of the world. Alas, technology chained us to work, created precarious jobs and the robots didn’t work for us but for the bosses who used them to replace workers. And after varsity the reality of having to earn a living wage loomed.
One piece of advice I won’t ever forget came from an older hack when I first started working in journalism. “They pay us for it because it’s hard.” This is the professional view of work. You shouldn’t expect to enjoy it. You work to enjoy life outside of work.
But what if your vocation, your dharma does not supply all or any of your material needs and wants?
WB Yeats summed it up in his short poem The Choice.
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
Trust poets to put work in its place. South Africa’s own Karen Press writes in her book of verse The Little Museum of Working Life:
Mostly through the eyes of a child
working life is so big,
full of worry and machines.
Be quiet daddy’s tired.
And Philip Larkin in Toads, asks the question we all want answered:
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
But as the Frances McDormand character Fern in Nomadland says, “I need work. I like work.”
One guess would be that the veneration of work found in official attitudes, certainly in the US, is a result of puritanism, materialism, the replacement of aristocratic and clerical values with those of the bourgeoisie. Also, the idea that commerce and industry are for lesser beings entails exploitation.
But there’s more to the attraction of work than morality, God’s punishment for original sin balanced against not relying on charity. The title of the WB Yeats poem, “The fascination of what’s difficult” points to the lure of strenuous achievement. Allied is, I think, the idea that difficult tasks bring out the best in us.
Where, however, do we see housework in all of this – the underpinning of our domestic lives, usually done by women or those who used to be called “servants”?
Renee Moodie in her blog Safe Hands writes, “Powerful, invisible, undervalued – this is the nature of work done in the home. But I yearn for a world in which all work is valued, in which a clean kitchen is as valuable as a pay-cheque. A world in which chores are a daily walking meditation on the value of life, rather than things we do because we have to do them. A world in which men and women can together clean house and honour the goddesses of the hearth.
I was once a freelance “char” in the UK, working for an agency that sent me and others to the houses of people who desperately needed help with cleaning. I was grateful for the work, found in it the proverbial challenge, and did it as best I could. But I could see, too often, in the eyes of middle-class housewives, trapped inside by children, marital expectations and British weather, that this was because I was coming from the outside and each house was a novelty.
I hope that during the hard lockdown the chores were evenly spread among the inhabitants, even to those who cannot load a dishwasher properly.