The writer Alain de Botton has, by middle age and across a series of books (How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety), more or less perfected a form of freewheeling, though not flabby, rumination upon a chosen subject. His work embraces, without limiting itself to the understood boundaries of, philosophy, autobiographical meditation, literary criticism and travel writing, generating a fluid and fertile compound of all these elements. The criticism that has been made of his writing is that it has too much synthesis, and too little original thought and legwork. But that is not an objection that can be made about his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
De Botton has set out to write “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace”. It is also an investigative report into our highly industrialized, synchronized and globalized civilization. As de Botton says, we live our days surrounded by machines and processes “of which we have only the loosest grasp”. Is specialization of labour making for a life of dignity, prosperity and independence, or are we being turned invisibly into cogs in the wheel, alienated, as Marx argued, not just from each other but from the very goods and services we produce? What is the ever-expanding reach of the hyperbolic language of advertising and PR-speak doing to language itself and our capacity to trust in words? These are some of the questions taken up by de Botton.
Armed with a photographer (the book has about a hundred black-and-white photographs), de Botton sets out to explore activities as diverse as fishing in the Maldives and logistics management in supermarket warehouses, career counselling and entrepreneurship. His study of supermarkets suggests to him that, even as our access to goods from around the world has grown enormously, our understanding of their origins and history has shrunk. “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,” he remarks.
Certainly there is plenty of wonder in de Botton’s narration. Sitting in the cockpit of a commercial plane, he notes how the open sky is revealed, through the flight instruments, “as a lattice of well-marked lanes, intersections, lay-bys, junctions and beacon signals”—it is almost like a road. Following a painter who has spent years in a wheat field in England “repeatedly painting the same oak tree under a range of different lights and weathers”, de Botton comes to the conclusion that “there is an impractical side to 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”. At a biscuit manufacturing company, he learns the British biscuit market is technically divided into five categories of biscuit, and does not know whether to be amused or distressed by one high executive’s contention that “biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking”. Of course, the same could be said about many other consumer goods.
De Botton is not a Luddite or killjoy; he is willing to believe, and frequently attests to the fact that human invention and initiative is praiseworthy and on occasion beautiful. What he wants to do is engage with, or recover the possibility of, attitudes and processes related to labour which we might have neglected. It might be said that he wants work to contain within itself the possibility of transcendence just as love does.
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