Working Up Work

Work and Play: Ideas and Experience of Work and Leisure

by Alasdair Clayre
Harper & Row, 217 pp., $11.00

Here is a book on a subject of obvious importance; it is based on serious though unobtrusive research and meditation; and it is written in a lucid and unaffected style. Reading the early pages one has little doubt that one is in for a quite memorable course of instruction, and that one had better be thinking of the appropriate ways of celebrating an investigator of insight and originality. However, something goes wrong: the author’s hand, elegantly opened, stays open, the fist is never made, and the material dribbles away.

Mr. Clayre undertakes to examine the notion, which according to him is about two hundred years old, that work should be the central interest of every life. The antithetical faith, which he takes to, be of more recent origin, holds that the right course is to drop out of the cycle of production and consumption into freedom and nature. In between there is a third term, the “instrumentalist” belief that the object of working is to finance leisure and pleasure.

The first task of the book is to look at the tradition of the primacy of work. This tradition is middle-class-intellectual, to be sought among people who talk about physical labor rather than do it. Such people, says Clayre, are apt to dismiss any dissenting views held by the workers themselves, attributing them to alienation or self-estrangement or “false consciousness,” concepts which he thinks have not traveled well down the years that have gone by since the end of the sixteen-hour day. Believing that workers are entitled to their views, Clayre wants among other things to measure the gap that exists between those views and the doctrines of the intellectuals.

Many of the theories about work that are still current have eighteenth-century origins. Rousseau, who believed that membership of society entailed an obligation to work, wanted Emile to be a carpenter and avoid monotonous and repetitive labor, even though this was before the power-machines came in. Schiller argued that individual liberty would be possible only after a transformation of the state, and also introduced the notion of play—creative activity of a disinterested, Kantian kind—as the sole satisfaction of the legitimate demands of men living in society, and indeed an index of their humanity. Fourier thought work and play need not be divided and set great store by variety of tasks. The early Hegel saw machines as mechanizing workers, and sketched the concept of alienation.

Evidence of this kind suggests to Clayre that there may be “a tendency in critical concepts to outlive the cosmology and methods of argument which gave them their original force.” This is in fact a commonplace of the history of ideas; it might even be said to have outlived its own epoch. The classical instance is the survival for centuries of antithetical primitivisms, labeled “soft” and “hard,” and reflecting complementary attitudes to work. Both kinds are involved in the story of Adam, who lived in a paradise of pleasure but had to cultivate it …

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