July 14, 2009
Alain de Botton: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
If there is any longer such a thing as a much-talked-about book, then surely this is it. But discussion of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work has centred less on the book than on the author. This year he has acquired a reputation (“Alain de Botton is the new Jeanette Winterson” – Daily Beast) of making bad-tempered responses to his critics. The most renowned of these spats is succinctly reported here, and includes de Botton’s reaction to the whole affair. There were others too. Irrespective of the merits of his complaints, they make him look touchy and petulant. What seemed a shame to me was that some of the criticism of de Botton suggested that because of his privileged background – because unlike most of us, he would not have to work if he did not choose to – he was not entitled to write about the world of the wage-slave. I wanted to read the book myself, to judge it, as far as possible, on its merits.
Perhaps it stems from recent work wobbles of my own, meaning that the book came at just the right time, but I am coming down on de Botton’s side with this one. The impetus behind The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was, it seems, to address the fact that work is rarely represented centrally in literature. “If it does appear in consciousness, it does so via the business pages of newspapers. It does so as an economic phenomenon, rather than a broader human one.” To try to discover what work means to us, de Botton spends time with various occupations – an artist, a logistics firm, an aviation sales fair, accountants, biscuit designers, and others. He has observations to make and statistics to despatch, some hypnotically boring to reflect the automated, depersonalised world from which they come. There is a strange poetry in lines like this:
The aisles of an average supermarket contain twenty thousand items, four thousand of which are chilled and need to be replaced every three days, while the other sixteen thousand require restocking within two weeks.
It is a job of selection and excision for the author. Herein, it seems, lies the controversy. The review which got de Botton’s goat accuses him of “mockery” of some of his subjects in the book. But it seems clear to me that these objections to the book were based on a misreading, in particular on the chapter on biscuit manufacture. Yes, there is a sly sense here that such attention to trivial matters is ridiculous, is unworthy – but that can be extended to any non-essential human endeavour. Close attention to the ‘unimportant’ is inherently absurd, just as brand names are inherently comic (ask Victoria Wood). In this chapter you need get no further than the end of the first paragraph to see that de Botton is viewing it all with a raised eyebrow, when he writes of visiting “the corporate home of United Biscuits, the number-one player in the British biscuit market and its second-largest producer of bagged nuts.”
That polite disrespect might itself seem offensive if it weren’t so honest. Most of us would find it hard to keep a straight face when being passionately regaled on the relative market placement of Savoury Biscuits v Crackers and Crispbread. What is key, however, is that by the end of the chapter de Botton has completed a voyage of discovery – experienced an epiphany, almost – concerning the place of such menial work in all our lives (“what may look like a childish game is in fact never far from a struggle for our very survival”), and in civilization generally:
It was in the eighteenth century that economists and political theorists first became aware of the paradoxes and triumphs of commercial societies, which place trade, luxury and private fortunes at their centre whilst paying only lip-service to the pursuit of higher goals. … Their self-indulgence has consistently appalled a share of their most high-minded and morally ambitious members, who have railed against consumerism and instead honoured beauty and nature, art and fellowship. [But] it is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centred and the childish ones have, off the back of their doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.
What follows from this is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, on career counselling, which details the brilliant work done by Robert Symons. De Botton, leading on from the understanding he experiences in the world of biscuits (see? Biscuits are intrinsically funny), discusses with historical context the modern conflict so many of us suffer from: “the widely held belief that our work should make us happy.” This is the key. Symons runs a business which can help people understand what they really want from work, rather than what they think they want, and his skill and empathy are a revelation. He has a quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow on his wall: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It’s a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” (I think I will pin that to my wall too.) So it’s uncomfortable to have de Botton comment on the boiled cabbage smell of Symon’s home office, or on the multiple rejections his book typescript has suffered. (These elements too are singled out in the New York Times review.) Yet they turn out to be pertinent. The modesty of Symons’ surroundings reflects on the absurdity that
in our society something as prospectively life-altering as the determination of a person’s vocation had … been abandoned to marginalised therapists practising their trade from garden extensions. What should have been one of the most admired professions on earth was struggling to attain the status open to a travel agent.
His failure to get published is relevant because it shows that this man, so attuned to helping others learn what they want to do with their lives, has frustrated and probably misplaced ambitions himself.
However de Botton does sometimes get it wrong. There are observations which seem to be there only for the purpose of winking at the reader – such as a man whose hobby is tracing the routes of electricity pylons, who tells de Botton that his marriage broke down because of “a lack of shared interests,” or an exchange with a woman in United Biscuits which leaves her looking inarticulate in the face of de Botton’s intellectual curiosity. What is clear is that where de Botton passes judgement on others, or on what they do, he also passes judgement on himself. (He also mocks his own pseudish reputation.) The book is his personal journey, and he places his own preconceptions, which many of us would share, plainly for the reader to see.
Some of the chapters did not engage me, even where they have a worthwhile point to make, such as the story of rocket engineering, which emphasises the collective value of otherwise anonymous individual jobs. Elsewhere however, the writing soars, as in the chapter on accountancy, which I found both moving (in de Botton’s cinematic narrative sweep of one accountant’s morning and journey to work: “the start of work means an end to freedom, but also to doubt, intensity and wayward desires”) and elegiac (when another reflects that “he will perhaps only ever do one thing well in his life”). This is fine writing, and delivers the sort of intellectual and emotional punch which we have been looking for all along.
Elsewhere, de Botton is at his best when looking at issues in a refreshing way. His overall conclusions may not be shocking – for example, that work distracts us from intimations of mortality – but there is plenty to chew on along the way. He reflects on the inadequacy of everyday language in comparison with technical symbology; or on the “marginality of the stories in the daily paper, which has no option but to focus on murders, divorces and films, for its readers cannot be expected to follow in detail any of the real developments which unfold obscurely in the realms of science and economics and on which our future depends.” In a chapter on entrepreneurship, he observes that in this business-oriented world, “our era is perverse in passing off the exception as the rule.”
The likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not … cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.
Here too is where the occasionally spotted mockery – does a handful of dubious lines invalidate an often fascinating book? – seems almost entirely justified. Some of the entrepreneurs would never get past the top of the stairs on Dragons’ Den, such as the innovator behind the Crisp Bar (“Now you can have your cupboard back! Your favourite snack without the hassle”). Frankly, these people need all the amused discouragement they can get. Someone’s got to stop them. De Botton, I think we’ve found the perfect job for you.