Dangerous nonsense about work
The celebrated film director, Jean-Luc Godard, is back. The film critics are happy with the news. Judging from the reactions of an audience at a recent showing of "Every Man for Himself" and those of my wife and myself, I would say that we were less than happy. The cliches of the '60s stretched taut over the thinness of the film, are now stultifying and life-defeating. One of the essential cliches is the view that all work in the modern world is boring and useless. It is high time this infantile, dangerous nonsense was answered.
To begin with, the Romantic view of work as tedious and meaningless (which follows from the view of 19th-century Romantic writers and poets that bourgeois life was tedious and meaningless) rests upon a fallacious and shallow view of the medieval and ancient worlds. Specifically, this view holds that man's -- and woman's -- labor before in the Industrial Revolution was gloriously exciting and infinitely rewarding. All workers sang at their jobs. All were as merry as the village smithy celebrated in verse.
Early this year I had an opportunity to test this theory. On a round the world tour, I spent six days in China, a fair amount of it on trains passing endless green rice field and small villages. If ever there was a place to study primitive human labor it is China! For human muscle -- back, shoulders, thighs -- is still the main source of energy and production in that land.
On a canal in Suchow I saw four men with ropes attached to a long concrete slab attempt to raise it some 15 feet from a boat to land. The strain in their gaunt faces proved more than I could bear. I screamed out in English that to work in this way was wrong. I pantomimed the action of a crane to raise the pre-cast concrete slabs. The Chinese watching the scene understood at once, smiled and nodded vehemently in agreement. I saw countless other examples of the "glory" of work without machines. It should happen to Jean-Luc Godard. He might make more meaningful movies.
Movies was written just a short time ago about how unhappy automobile workers were on assembly lines. True, such work is horrendously boring. Yet I wonder how worried about boredom the more than 300,000 unemployed auto workers are now. Something is being done, incidentally, to render work more tolerable on prodcution lines.
If I may say something personal about labor, I know very well from exerience the tedium of production work. But work also offered me precious values -- camaraderie, a sense of identity, of accomplishment, and, finally, the encounter with workers and their depths of character.
To return to Godard, there is a laughable contradiction in his film. If work makes people so wretched, how come his hero, never seen working or productive, is so vile and unhappy? Obviously, the tedium of work is not the problem. It is rather typical that those who hold work to be without value are themselves empty.
Speaking of film, it is interesting to note that recent American moview which deal with the lives of working people implicitly place a high value upon work and human relatedness. (Would it not appear to be a truth that those who cannot connect to work cannot relate to others?)
The vicious, negativistic, anarchic view of labor, seen so often in films foreign and domestic, has exerted, I am certain, a powerful influence upon young people, convincing them that "The Establishment" merits nothing but contempt. To tell young people that labor is without meaning is to tell them that life is without meaning. And that message is evil.