Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Working, living, praying

GOR has published a series of wonderful comments under my post One last thing from Friday, and I refer you thereto. Now, far be it from me to disagree with the venerable GOR who is a faithful, old soul and regular visitor to this blog. Still, I'm not sure he isn't being a little too hard on the Europeans and a little too easy on the Americans.

But that is in a way beside the point. Something tells me the ancient Romans probably sloped off in the afternoon for a snooze, and it didn't stop them from building an empire which, for its time, was something of a minor success. I wouldn't be surprised if the Greeks on the other hand were at their desks by 7am and gave way to breakfast meetings with Spartans and Trojans alike. Nevertheless, sic transit gloria mundi. The fall of empire and the defeat of efficiency are as certain as the call of nature. The second law of thermodynamics has its effect even on culture. While it looks like the French are, technically speaking, lazy buggers, and Americans practically invented the Rodent Olympics - or the rat race ;-) - we still find Prozac is consummed in massive quantities in France and that the Americans gave us the La-Z-Boy. Entropy, moral and physical, is everywhere.

Perhaps the difference lies ultimately in contrary attitudes of soul, and in that respect it might be that neither the French (the Europeans) or the Americans have got it right. My starting is from Pieper: leisure is the basis of culture. That doesn't give the victory to the Europeans, although it does suggest the European vice of vacationing is more like the virtue of leisure than the opposite (just as prudery is more like purity than its opposing vice of laciviousness). Leisure is the basis of culture because we are not machines; our encounter with higher things takes time. It is in the nature of culture to require contemplative space of one kind or another. When Socrates declared that the unexamined life is not worth living, he didn't mean that statistics, pie charts and spread sheets were what we needed (or their ancient equivalent the abacus!).

I suppose this is what underpins the European conviction that the American way is brutalising: brutalising in the sense of rendering us into brutes. But then one could say that what American industriousness highlights is the value of responsibility. Don't get me wrong, I invariably defend American culture against European prejudice. And here is one of the reasons why: the European vacationing culture is in some ways connected to their assumptions about the providential State. Whilst looking like the old European instinct for cultural leisure, it can sometimes take on the dynamic of a child who refuses to be weaned. If the American way brutalises, the European way infantilises. Again, entropy, moral and physical, are lurking in the wings.

We have no control over these things now. Most of us now live in systems which are omnipresent and unavoidable. All I suppose we can do is to steal back from the blackhole of entropy the humanity which brutalising forces drain from us and the responsibility which infantilisation drains from us. Here we are grateful for the private spaces where we can hide away and pray to the Father. And, as John Senior says somewhere, that is our 'agenda' (things to be done): life won't be balanced, whether at work or on vacation, until we pay our tithe of time to God.


GOR said...

Excellent rejoinder Ches, and I commend your balanced approach!

I was perhaps a little too harsh on Europeans in general and the French in particular. I do believe in the maxim: in medio stat virtus. However determining where the medio is in which the virtus should stat - given the vagaries of human nature - does not admit of mathematical precision. Nor do I mean to extol indiscriminately the American ‘work ethic’ which is usually prefaced by WASP- (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant…). As a nation we have become much less WASP-ish than heretofore and the much-vaunted work ethic may be witnessed more in the breach than in the observance in many places.

And in pursuit of the medio I do warn about the danger of work-obsession. I fear for the younger generation these days. Given modern means of communication many are never ‘away from work’ even when they are physically away. That is not healthy. You’re right, we do need time for relaxation and reflection – all work and no play etc. Life should be more than work. Even God rested from His labors!

While I, too, put in many extra hours in my younger days seeking to climb the corporate ladder, I always sought to avoid bringing work home, which wasn’t always possible once pagers were invented and I had to carry one at times. Near the end of my career the practice of ‘working lunches’ became common and was something I resisted strenuously. Lunch was my time away and I guarded it jealously - driving some miles from my place of employment to leisurely study Irish grammar while consuming a spartan meal.

And lest it be concluded that I am dismissive of all things French, be it known that I do appreciate their vin et fromage – having been known to consume substantial quantities of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Brie and Camembert… And when it comes to the Thespian world I have always had a soft spot for Catherine Deneuve, not to mention a schoolboy crush on the kitten herself – Brigitte Bardot - as all of us of a certain age had as schoolboys (oo-la-la!, so to speak). Which I probably shouldn’t bring up to one about to assume the bonds - er, holy estate - of Matrimony……:)

Moretben said...

the ancient Romans probably sloped off in the afternoon for a snooze...the Greeks on the other hand were at their desks by 7am and gave way to breakfast meetings...

Surely the reverse, Ches? Wasn't it the Greeks accusing the Latins of vulgar, unreflecting hyperactivity? In any case, I learned the heroic habit of mesimeri in the see of the Areopagite, and have found the breaking of it on return to Saxon lands detrimental and dispiriting.

Having married the first time into the Bronx, and subsequently into Mauriac country, I can't be suspected of knuckle-headed partisanship. I hesitate, in addition, to give offence to GOR, who is clearly a good and decent sort.

However, as Malcolm Muggeridge observed, every social evil characteristic of the post-war period has been wafted over the Atlantic, not the Channel. If the French are being arraigned for decadent self-indulgence (the point about entropy being well made), I ask the impartial arbiter to consider which springs more immediately to mind - France or America - when considering such phenomena as obesity, divorce, abortion, teen suicide/massacre, environmental rapacity, urban violence, the drug culture or (latterly) the rehabilitation of torture?

Moretben said...

Oh, and by the way - "hard work never killed anybody"? What planet does this originate from? Clearly one where they don't have access to attractively inexpensive branded trainers...

GOR said...

No offence taken, Moretben. While I believe there is much good in America (otherwise I would not have remained here nigh on 40 years…) I am not oblivious to what is bad here also. As with most countries, however, the bad gets more press than the good and opinions are frequently formed by the mainstream media which has become increasingly untrustworthy.

I recall how during the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland people here would say: “how could you live there?” I expect people felt the same way about the US some time back during the riots in assorted cities here. Much as I feel that way about Mexico right now when I read of the wanton destruction of life due to the drug wars going on there (40 people killed in just three incidents in recent days).

And yes, there is something to be said for the afternoon siesta, which I embraced wholeheartedly when living in Italy!