News from the debt crisis in Spain and the rise of a global response
The most pleasurable work
Por DIAGONAL English

By J.M. Lander / translated by Christine Lewis Carroll

How do we live and how could we live was William Morris’s reaction to the industrialisation of his native Manchester in the 19th century.

Two different words mysteriously meet to become synonymous. The voyage abounds in meanders, ambiguities and hidden meanings, always bordering the narrow strip which separates a concept from its opposite. The words ‘work’ and ‘pleasure’ are symptomatic of this problematic journey to synonymy. There once was a time of craftsmanship, in the Middle Ages, when these two terms were a natural prolongation of each other, but with the arrival of industrialisation, they were considered antonyms. The irruption of mills did not only make the landscape ugly, contaminating skies and rivers, but it also severed any hint of personal development in labour activities.

The thinker William Morris, who witnessed the sad spectacle of his bucolic native Mancunian countryside being transformed into a grey mining emporium, advocated the necessity to recover the lost fraternity between the word work and the word pleasure. It was not an easy task. He lived during the industrial 19th century, when the idea of progress was worshipped with the same intransigence as other divinities had been venerated in earlier centuries. The axiom that machinery would liberate us seemed unquestionable and anyone opposed to this new biblical commandment was accused of being a dangerous reactionary. But Morris, a century before Chaplin, envisaged another kind of slavery, protected by that veneration: that of the worker handcuffed for life to a degrading job which makes his existence miserable and drives him to the psychiatrist’s. Capitalism had just been born and it already seemed a disease rather than an economic science. Morris, like the precise and steady hand of a surgeon, applied the scalpel of his keen analyses to denounce the schizophrenic nature of that economic system based on the absurd idea of producing disposable things nonstop. What he lamented most about that senselessness was that society, intent on embracing that productive madness without criticism, lost the joy of living, which should evidently imply the joy of working.

Morris’s books should be compulsory in entrepreneurship training to stop personnel managers from being so inhumane. They would learn the basic moral lesson that work is a wasted effort if it does not contain something of the person who carries it out. Fortunately, this lesson, celestial music full of good intentions for today’s many cynics, is alive and kicking, and its rich sap has conquered the sensibility of new and enthusiastic readers. Morris’s essays have just reached their 4th edition in Pepitas de calabaza.

This renovated interest in his work is due for the most part to the unpretentious way he approached his texts; his clear writing lacks academic varnish to take the more accessible form of a conference. Morris was concerned his reflections did not remain just theory but stimulated his fellow citizens to alter the stultifying direction of their lives. For this purpose, his tone is that of an unaffected, colloquial speaker who addresses his reader with a realistic and optimistic attitude. Within every word throbbed the heart of utopia, in Mumford’s meaning of a good place for a full and satisfactory existence, where we will neither tire from leisure nor die from work. In this dreamland, described in my book Noticias de ninguna parte, all deserve a job that makes them happy and creative. Because, for Morris, pleasurable work surmounts the strict framework of the economic sphere and adopts the more flexible fibre of an artistic discipline. “Art is the expression of delight in work”, he wrote.

It is not surprising that this thinker, of such refined taste for things well done, missed the aesthetic principles of medieval craftsmanship. He also shared a similar idea of beauty, based on the idea that to be beautiful, an object should bring together two apparently antithetical elements: usefulness and symbolism, hence his admiration for craftsmen, capable of uniting popular art with the intellect through manual skills. Morris wanted to recover the notion of handmade beauty, lost as a result of the rise of manufactured materialism, by making beautiful products that were also necessary. So much ugliness inflicted on the world by the rusty gears of the capitalist system frightened him. He thought the sacrifice of so many workers would not even leave monumental pyramids to posterity, only piled-up waste on tips. How right he was!

The magnificent film Wall-E relates how the rubbish dump is the symbol of our times, our sad legacy to future generations. We are now surrounded by waste. And we expect an artistic and essential revival will emerge from the stench of this dump. Morris indicated the way: pleasurable work. Let us start today by planting lettuce, writing poetry, reading Morris. Because reading Morris is, of them all, the most pleasurable work.

[This article was originally published in Spanish on April 5th, 2014]




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