There is a story about an aged playboy who, when a conversation with a friend is interrupted by a telephone call, asks incredulously: “You mean, when that thing rings, you answer it?” Few people have ever been able to afford to be so insouciant: for nearly everyone, work is a burden from which there is no escape. Still, the playboy’s reaction is not as flippant as it might seem. If most people’s everyday experience is the test, it is the idea that work is the chief route to personal fulfilment that seems frivolous.
It is only in modern times that work has been seen as the definitively human activity. The ancient Greeks believed fulfilment was to be found in leisure, and for that reason would never be achieved by the mass of humanity. The nearly universal rejection of this view today is a consequence of the triumph of the bourgeois notion – notably endorsed by Marx – that happiness is found in work. As Alain de Botton writes, “The bourgeois thinkers turned Aristotle’s formula on its head: satisfactions which the Greek philosopher had identified with leisure were now transposed to the sphere of work, while tasks lacking in any financial reward were drained of all significance and left to the haphazard attentions of decadent dilettantes.” Bourgeois life promises to all the fulfilment that has historically been the privilege of a few. What it offers, however, is not idleness, a life of pleasure of the sort cultivated by leisured minorities in the past. Instead, it is the prospect – or illusion – that labour can be made intrinsically satisfying, a type of self-expression that everyone can enjoy.
Bourgeois life has always been de Botton’s subject. One of our most consistently illuminating writers on contemporary culture, he dissects the paradoxes that result when individualism becomes a mass philosophy, with a delicacy and humour that conceal the depth of his seriousness. Perhaps predictably, he is not without detractors, who see him as dispensing morsels of platitudinous philosophy to readers anxious for reassurance. But if there is a message in his writings it is hardly reassuring, for he deflates with unsparing irony the pretensions that sustain the way we live. If bourgeois culture differs from what has gone before, it is in claiming that personal happiness is a universally achievable goal. In earlier writings, de Botton turned a sceptical eye on the quintessentially bourgeois notion that happiness can be found in romantic love. He now examines the other main tenet of the creed: the belief that it is work that gives meaning to life.
Nothing says more about the way we live now than the importance that is given to work. It’s not just that we define ourselves socially by how we make a living, it’s more that work has colonised the inner life. Anxieties and fantasies about work dominate the interior monologue with which we make sense of the passing day, crowding out thoughts of other things. If the claims of work are often given priority over other aspects of life – family and personal relationships, for example – the reason is not only economic necessity. It is that these other engagements finally count for less, in the subjective accountancy of our lives, than success or failure in work.
A complex of rituals and practices through which life is structured and judged, work has acquired many of the attributes of a popular cult. De Botton approaches this cult, as he does the subjects of all of his books, by way of the seemingly random observations of a cleverly crafted literary persona. As he appears in his writings, he is a slightly ineffectual figure. Succumbing to melancholy in dreary hotel rooms, scrambling to secure interviews with bored business leaders who, when finally cornered, address him as if they were in a meeting of executives, struggling through desultory office parties on a diet of crisps and nuts, he seems stunned by the banality of ordinary working life. Yet this discomfiture is only one strand in the novelised reportage that makes up his book, because the narrator soon reveals his harder side.
One episode covers the time the author spent with a career counsellor, “a professional dedicated to finding ways of ensuring that work will be synonymous with fulfilment”. Describing a session with Carol, a private client, “37 years old, a tax lawyer, in charge of a department of 45 in an office near the Bank of England”, de Botton recounts how Carol suddenly stared to sob as the counsellor “watched her with his kindly eyes, and outside, the neighbour’s cat took a stroll round the carp pond”. The counsellor has dedicated his life to the belief that work is a quest for self-enactment, a way of becoming who we really are. The trouble is that, like many of his clients, Carol seems perplexingly diffuse in her interests, and it is not clear whether there is a self concealed somewhere within her that is waiting to be enacted. Worse, it is unclear whether, if such a self does emerge, anyone will have any interest in it. These uncertainties extend to the counsellor himself who, in return for allowing de Botton to sit in on the sessions, asks to be referred to a literary agent who could promote a book on which he has been working. Twelve agents are contacted, and each replies with polite enthusiasm. The book remains unpublished.
Commenting on this episode, de Botton writes: “For the rest of history, for most of us, our bright promise will always fall short of being actualised; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary projects or organisations. It will remain no more than a hope carried over from childhood.” The deftness with which he slips in such hard truths is part of the charm of de Botton’s writing.
It is not that the book is filled with reflections of this kind. Most of the pages of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work evoke the poetry that lies in prosaic things. Like those Victorian painters who discovered beauty in sooty cityscapes, de Botton finds a kind of splendour in the mechanical processes of 21st-century mass production. He records his rapt meditations on the allure of warehouses and motorways, the thrill he experiences when he first hears the surprisingly loud hum of electricity pylons, and the epiphany induced by the spectacle of a factory where eleven hundred biscuits roll down the conveyor belt every minute. There are many similar passages, which – interspersed with more than a hundred of Richard Baker’s photographs – make for a book that can be read with unalloyed delight.
Given such a background, it is easy to pass over the author’s underlying seriousness. Much of the book pokes fun at the idea that work is a search for personal meaning. But de Botton is not denying that work can be meaningful; more subtly, he is asking in what its meaning consists. Discussing the biscuit factory, and noting the clownish publicity stunts that are devised to sell the factory’s product, he writes: “It was wise to remember that at the heart of biscuit salesmanship lay an imperative which was undoubtedly both urgent and simple enough to qualify as meaningful – namely, survival. Workers were occupied with the ancient task of staying alive.”
De Botton does not need telling that work is a brute necessity for nearly everyone. He knows, however, that work has another role denied in the bourgeois narrative of self-fulfilment:
To see ourselves as the centre of the universe and the present as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries, to read only sparingly, to feel the pressure of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference agendas marked “11.00am to 11.15: coffee break”, to behave needlessly and greedily and then to combust in battle – maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom.
The true goal of the bourgeois life, in other words, is not self-enactment, but diversion. Most people need the organised distraction of work (if they can find it). Idleness – the life of the playboy who doesn’t answer the phone – is simply too demanding.
“Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” is published by Allen Lane (£20)
John Gray, has joined the New Statesman as one of our new lead reviewers.