By Ross Barkan
President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he would ask Congress to approve a wide-reaching plan to drastically improve and modernize our nation’s network of railways, roads and airport runways seemed like a cause for celebration in one chamber of my discordant mind. After lackluster and nebulous stimulus bills that really weren’t ambitious enough, President Obama had finally decided to formulate a bill that would not only create jobs like the fabled public works projects of the Great Depression era, but would also bolster our nation’s failing public transport systems which lag behind our international allies terribly. Any Stony Brook student marooned at one of Suffolk County’s pathetic bus stops can attest to this desperate need for better public transportation in the United States to not only make our lives more convenient, but also lessen our dependence on automobiles which pollute our skies and consume finite fossil fuels (as well as keeping us tethered to those chipper, magnanimous middle Eastern oil sheiks).
Ah, a jobs bill, a good jobs bill, just what this country needs, right? More jobs. The pragmatist in me nods. The leftist in me nods. What’s most important—this Press essay begins its life on Labor Day—is to put the millions of suffering and unemployed Americans back to work. We need, need, need to fix the economy, return our nation to its preeminent perch, and continue to innovate and evolve, maintaining our high (and materialistic) standard of living.
Discordant, mentioned in the opening sentence, provides a nice segue into the other chamber of my mind that can’t savor almost anything written in a newspaper these days. This chamber holds all those observations and beliefs that will from time to time be labeled quixotic, Romantic, ignorant, bullshit, or anarchist. This is the chamber for the twin Henrys, my two favorite writers, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Miller.
You might remember Thoreau from those English classes you dozed off in. If you haven’t read Walden or any of his other essays you seriously should. They are required reading for all Americans. Thoreau, whose impassioned treatise about non-violent resistance to injustice and his holy (and fairly scientific) appreciation for the natural world have made him a hero in many circles, is not quite remembered as the radical who would despise the very idea of “economy” that the United States and other industrialized nations champion today. A hero of leftists and libertarians alike, Thoreau nevertheless would be dismayed by the course of history after his death. Industrialization won, regimentation and the modern work week reigned, and generations of men and women (with few exceptions) were condemned to the life of “quiet desperation” he wrote about so eloquently in Walden.
And Miller? He won’t be found in any high school curriculums and probably eludes most college syllabi as well. The writer of Tropic of Cancer, immortalized in many best-of-the-20th century novel lists and Seinfeld, was a spiritual and intellectual disciple of Thoreau (Miller, born in 1891, was significantly younger than Thoreau, who died in 1862) who dropped a few more f-bombs and c-words along the way. At his best, Miller is our greatest writer, soaring, beautiful and profound, a realist and mystic who, like Thoreau, exposed the empty and oppressive nature of modern civilization while celebrating the artist’s quest for independence.
This all comes back to the next jobs bill and subsequent acts passed down by the government to get people back to work. On one level, the government should have a moral obligation to ensure its citizens have a good standard of living. And to ensure this standard of living in the way society is currently constructed, this means working. But should things be the way they are? Thoreau and Miller would say no.
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, and only 1 in a 100 million for a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake,” Thoreau wrote in Walden as he observed the back-breaking and wretched existence of farmers, textile workers and child laborers who were coerced into work they never wanted any part of. He saw the genius of man squandered in menial work, drudgery, losing this gift of life granted to them at birth.
It is tragic, says one part of my mind, that so many people are out of work. But let’s see this from another angle. Why must this be a tragedy? Why must not working full-time be a death sentence in this society unless one is not independently wealthy? Imagine if the work cycle as we know it were eliminated, or scaled back, or revolutionized in some way to give individuals more time to pursue their own interests, spend more time with their family and appreciate the simple fact that they are alive. I am reminded of Miller’s words in Tropic of Capricorn, the companion novel to Tropic of Cancer,
“I felt sorry for the human race, for the stupidity of man and his lack of imagination…If you tell a guy in the street you’re hungry you scare the shit out of him, he runs like hell. That’s something I never understood…That’s what I think about, more than about whose trap it’s going down or how much it costs. Why should I give a fuck about what anything costs? I’m here to live, not to calculate. And that’s just what the bastards don’t want you to do—to live! They want to spend your whole life adding up figures.”
And he goes on to fantasize about a disorganized world without authority, borders, jobs and limitations. Of course, we can’t have society founded purely on anarchy. However, we can begin to think about the nature of organization and why such an enlightened and advanced race of beings has built a socioeconomic hierarchy that exploits the mass of men and women to not only serve the interests of a terrifyingly small minority but also teaches them that it’s perfectly reasonable to sacrifice their natural freedom to wage slavery and a lifetime of occupying themselves with activities they disdain.
“This world is a place of business, “ Thoreau wrote in another brilliant essay, “Life Without Principle.” “What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no Sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work…To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse.” Ah, if only a president could come along who would be capable of actual change. If only a leader could end the American’s slavish dependence on a paycheck to stay alive. Surely, at some point in time, we can devise a more humane system.
On a superficial level, a jobs bill is nice. But we need a leader to transcend such ideas and realize that living is more than the exchange of currency and the construction of a new glittering office building. As Thoreau teaches us from the grave, we must not do things merely. We must have a higher end.
We must liberate ourselves from the yokes we have laid upon our backs.
Welp, in the mean time, let’s enjoy the possibility of quicker trains.