Labor, Ennui, and Bourbon

I’m not sure yet whether to think of the weblog as a genre unto itself, or whether it is more helpful to conceive of the weblog as a writing space in which a variety of genres manifest themselves.  In any case, one of the uses to which I find a blog post particularly suited is the juxtaposition of two or more passages that seem to benefit from being placed in conversation with one another.  It may be that I’m not entirely sure how best  to articulate the relationship, but an intuition leads me to set ideas side by side to see what may emerge.  Or, it could be that I have already some sense of how the ideas relate.  It could also be that the intuition ends up being a blind alley and it is not until I write through it that the dead end emerges.  So with this in mind let me lay two passages side by side for your consideration and mine.

The first from the prologue to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.  She is addressing “the advent of automation, which in a few decades [she is writing in the late 1950’s] probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of labouring and the bondage to necessity.”  This development, however, will not yield what it seems to promise.  Arendt continues:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.  The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating.  It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaninfgul activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.  Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.  Surely, nothing could be worse.

Alongside that observation consider an excerpt from an essay by Walker Percy that I recently came across thanks to Alan Jacobs at Text Patterns.  The essay is titled simply “Bourbon, Neat” and you should read it on its own terms, but here’s the part to consider in light of Arendt’s analysis:

Not only should connoisseurs of bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth—all real enough dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of bourbon drinking, that is, the use of bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cure the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”


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