29 June 2009

Gösta & Sture abroad

Sture wishes he had a sister like this one...

...or like that one...

.... or this one.

WhaT is A Nice BirD like yoU doIng in a Place lIke tHiS?

Sture wants to trade jobs with everyone he sees. Sture wants to be a middle aged stern lady who sits in a soviet-designed butka overlooking the metro escalators. Sture wants to shout NELZZZJA! (It is forbidden!) & devour the effect. Sture changes his name to Galina (Galja to family, Sedovaja to you). Galja looks into her monitor. Galja is the ruler of the earth. She is the great Avenger. Galja knows the Law. Galja IS the law. Galja eats sandwitch. She drinks tea from a thermos. With jam. The youth of today. No good. She built BAM in her day. She was born in Sverdlovsk. Galja is engineer. Galja is rocket scientist. Galina is tough. She knows the rules. She knows how to break the rules. Galja says NO. Galja says YES to a certain someone. Galja knows all secrets. Knows all the people. Those who count. Borja & Aleksej & Petja Andreevich. Her job is sitting. She sits. She watches. "Do you know if...." "NO!!!!!" You'd better watch out. This is Galja's place. It's her kingdom. You are her humble guests.

Sture is a league of his own when it comes to snapping photos that bring out the beauty and intrigue of Moscow's main sightseeing spots. Sture is a pro. An observing eye, capturing a sense of balance. Harmony of perspective. Sture knows beauty when he sees it and he knows how to present it to the viewer in an enticing way. Sture is what we call a true aesthete, lover of beauty and beautiful things.
Sture wonders whether the nice police officer over there will ask him in for tea & cake.
No, Sture feels the chill in his bones.
Gösta advises Sture to get the hell away from here.

Sture & Gösta on the train. 7 days. Woods. Lakes woods. woods lakes. Sture Gösta. Gösta Sture. Alone in the compartment. Noodles from a cup. Gösta eats too much borstj. His stomach explodes. No borstj. The personnel: chinese. Chinese pop music is blasting from the speakers. The same batch of songs over and over again. Gösta hums along, already recognizing the melodies.

Gösta sleeps like a baby on the train. Sture listens to Nebraska. 'From the town of Lincoln with a sawed off .410 in my lap / Through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path.' Sture listens to the ka-bom, ka-bom. Sture feels the contours of his bones on the hard bed. Sture peeks out the window. The ominous darkness. Gösta dreams about hippos and tax collectors.

Gösta & Sture are quiet. Outside: nothing. Gösta longs for the fresh air of the steppes. Next door: the smoking area. Their comrades are elderly Dutch people and a Russian middle aged couple who restlessly patrol the wagon. Gösta & Sture speak the language of their grandmothers. Gösta is Annie and Sture is Anna-Lisa. Anna-Lisa is younger than Annie and has a brighter outlook on life. Annie is utväntad while Anna-Lisa rustar sig. Annie is resignation and Anna- Lisa is action. Annie sighs and Anna-Lisa chuckles. Sometimes there is a little intermission of obscenities and sometimes they just say Yesno and Noyes. The nothingness of the steppe is filtered through a layer of window's dirt. At regular intervals, they fetch water from the samovar. They drink silver tea because there is no tea.

The fresh-looking water of the Baikal tempts Gösta. Gösta imagines a different journey, alone with the birds.

The border of Russia & Mongolia. The first creatures we meet are cows. The cows graze happily outside government buildings. I envy the cows. The cows are suddenly brusquely brushed aside by an angry bureaucrat. I buy beers from the store. Sibirskaja corona provides me with sufficient consolation to carry me through the six or so hours of waiting. The cows have disappeared. The mosqitoes haven't.
Morning. Day 6. Gösta & Sture are grumpy. A greasy sunset. Endless steppes. Bohren's Black earth sets the mood.

The Gobi desert. Sand storms. Every object in the wagon covered with dust. Gösta & Sture play Texas Hold'em with their new mates. A young woman from Ulan Baator and a packpacker who barely utters a sentence without the inclusion of "Austin, Texas". He talks about how he was food poisoned after a pig roast. Pig roast pig roast pig roast. Our Mongolian friend treats us to delicious meat rolls that her grandmother has made. She studies accounting but her dream is to study marketing. The guy from Austin, Texas chuckles & chuckles, flirtatiously teasing the girl. Gösta is an adventurous gambler of Texas Hold'em. Gösta is a stranger to fear. Gösta loses - big time. Gösta is in a bad mood until the border of China. They fill in 5 or six documents while border administration scurry through the corridor like rabbits. What is that noise? The formerly gravely border administration gang - are giggling! Our ears fall off.

28 June 2009

Alain de Botton: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009)

I'll confess right away: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is the only book by Alain de Botton I've read. Somehow, reviewers of his work have not evoked my interest in the slightest. The only thing I know about him is that he is a best-selling author and that he has written one book on Proust and another one on the consolation of philosophy (apart from one on travel, another on love and a third one on architecture). I picked up a copy of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work as I was aimlessly ambling through the luxurious shops of Hong Kong airport, eager to hop onto my plane and forget all about the place. And even though the book did not live up to my fears - that it'd be 300 pages or so of self-help-ish musings on how to make work more fun - it still fits the restless, chilly and blasé atmosphere of an airport.

So, what is this? It is not self-help lit nor is it philosophy. de Botton writes what I would call a philosophical style of journalism. Among the ten chapters in the book we find essays on biscuit manufacturing, career counselling, entrepreneurship and rocket science. The intention of the book seems to be to address aspects of work that are somehow overlooked in the day-to-day business of our lives.

Is de Botton a successful philosophical journalist? Um, no. de Botton's style is eloquent and lofty, and the overall impression I get from reading the book is that he looks down on work with humorous contempt. As another reviewer has pointed out, de Botton's approach towards work is like one would ask Oscar Wilde to write a report about the manual labor done in a cookie factory. As a social reporter, de Botton's book lacks depth and direction.
de Botton perceives work as potentially admirable - he writes about the hidden impressiveness of pylons, the grandeur of cargo ships along with the intricacies of accounting and the awe elicited by aviation. But as much as he expresses his admiration of work, the text abounds with an endless string of remarks about the futility and frivolity of work. Every now and then, the author chooses to talk about the work people do from a "cosmic" perspective. And, de Botton tirelessly reminds us, career planning or cookie industries or accounting crumble to dust from the perspective of eternity. Accountants, he writes, are reconciled with the thought that their work will leave no trace in history. "They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit." I react to this in the same way as I react to the style of thinking about work in Hannah Arendt: if we cannot admire work for the heroic traces it leaves in history, we are left in the dark. In distinction to Arendt, de Botton opts for a glorification of the fleeting, oh-so-futile sense of meaning that work, no matter how dull and absurd the tasks that occupy us, somehow fills us with.
But why is it this angle, or that of history-from-stone age-onwards - that looms over the text? Frankly, I have no answer but that this is an expression of a peculiar form of aesthetic view of life subscribed to by de Botton. The sad thing is, that even though some passages could have developed into sound critique of work-related phenomena (alienation/consumerism...) his way of writing nivellates every thing that has to do with work to what comes to appear as a pile of waste. Towards the end of the book, I am not surprised at all to read a litany of the following kind:

Death is hard to keep in mind when there is work to be done: it seems not so much taboo as unlikely. Work does not by its nature permit us to do anything other than take it too seriously. It must destroy our sense of perspective, and we should be grateful to it for precisely that reason, for allowing us to mingle ourselves promisculously with events, for letting us wear thoughts of our own death and the destruction of our enterprises with beautiful lightness, as mere intellectual propositions, while we travel to Paris to sell engine oil. We function on the basis of a necessary myopia.

Sorry, Alain, but this comes across not as a quietly sobering "existentialist" meditation, but as depressing blurry-eyed resignation. If you want to say that we are necessarily suffering from myopia, go ahead, but I don't find that attitude very far-reaching philosophy-wise - or any-wise.

Of course, I do recognize this way of talking about work. But when expressed by my parents, the idea of work as a necessary distraction does not take the shape of a philosophical "truth". Rather, it is an expression of a overwhelmingly regrettable pessimism that I fight not to inherit from them. But, by contrast, de Botton invests nothing in his "revelation". It is deeply unclear what he takes himself to be saying. What is the aim of the book? Is he critical of any particular phenomenon? Well, sometimes he fires away one or two sour remarks about the folly inherent in the gravely manner in which we deal with the topic of work. Amen, I say to that, but de Botton leaves it at that. Nor does he seem to be interested in structures of power/ inequality/ oppression, even though he dedicates one chapter to the uncanny journey of a tuna from the Maldivian seas to a supermarket in London. Do I learn anything about tuna fishing & the transportation of consumer goods? Well, to be honest, not a great deal, over and above what I already know: many consumers have but a hazy idea how the content of their shopping bags ended up there.
de Botton is very successful in evoking the Uncanny: he leaves me with something utterly fuzzy - he serves eloquent platitudes rather than evoking an urgency in the reader to struggle with her own feelings about work. When I am finished reading his book the impression overwhelming me is that of dread and fatigue. I find this very counter-productive, because I am not led into any new or interesting ways of thinking about the world of work. Instead, de Botton lures me into glaring onto the world as a place that can be admired if we are lucky enough to take the position of observers but if we get into details what people do is either silly or boring - and mostly, de Botton seems to say - both.

According to the blurb on the back sleeve, de Botton sets out to investigate what makes work fulfilling or soul-destroying. And even though he pays visits to a biscuit factory, an aviation exhibition or a large accounting firm, I never get the sensation that de Botton is really interested in what those he talks to has to say. One passage is especially revealing. He meets up with an employer, called Renae (most male workers are not referred to with their first name only) who is involved in biscuit brand performance. For some reason, de Botton has made up his mind that "Renae" is a meaningless cog in the cookie-wheel, that the value of her existence is crushed under the business weight of Cookie Brands. Let me quote de Botton:

I wondered out loud to Renae why in our society the greatest sums of money so often tended to accrue from the sale of the least meaningful things, and why the dramatic improvements in efficiency and productivity at the heart of the Industrial Revolution so seldom extended beyond the provisions of commonplace material goods like shamoo or condoms, oven-gloves or lingerie. [....] Renae had little to add to this analysis. A terrified expression spread across her features and she asked if I might excuse her.

But hello! Mr de Botton, you scurry into this lady's office, lecturing her on the insignificance of her work - and then you have the guts to point out her lack of reply. In fact, we know nothing about "Renae's" ideas - nor about her thoughts about Mr de Bottons elegant "analysis". In quite a few places, the same pattern is repeated; instead of giving a serious and honest report about his interlocuters' thoughts and feelings, he delivers shallow and belitteling smirks that in quite a few places elicit embarrassment - on behalf of oneself and on behalf of the author.

So: my verdict upon this book is that it is entertaining to a fair extent - the photos that accompany the text are pleasant to look at, for example - but it does not reveal very much about the world of work, not from a social perspective, nor from a philosophical or political point of view. And if we are to take de Botton's perspective in this book seriously, one might end up with a bullet in one's head. Life is a frivolous affair, after all, as biscuit, shopping and tax tables, if we listen to de Botton, occupy the most important place in our lives.