Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Must-Read Interview: Alain de Botton with Chris Bucci (& very sharp look at the workday world)

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Must-Read Interview: Alain de Botton with Chris Bucci (& very sharp look at the workday world)

By Chris Bucci

In just over a decade Alain de Botton has established himself as one of the most erudite and popular non-fiction writers in the English-speaking world. Applying his philosophy of the everyday to subjects as diverse as travel, status and architecture, he allows readers to see themselves and their world in a new light, while crafting some of the deftest prose one will ever read.

In his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he turns his eye to the workday world that occupies so much of our time, effort and dreams. He points out that in the modern world we have come to identify most strongly with what we do, even though, for most of us, the decision of what career path to follow was made as a sixteen-year-old. Following a tuna on its path from the sea to the dining table, and notions of work from Socrates to the present, de Botton once again crafts a thoughtful, philosophical take on a subject we think we know, only to discover that we have to ask the questions again.

I had the chance to interview him about his book and his work.

CB:

Can you describe your work process? How do you go from initial idea to finished draft?

ADB:

The process isn't entirely smooth. There are many false starts, but eventually, on the basis of lots of thinking over two to four years, a book takes shape. It's an organic messy project. I wish it wasn't. My dream is to know exactly what I want to say from the start, but in truth, one works it out in the process. All a bit chaotic....

CB:

What do you see your project as? What are you working toward by writing the books you do?

ADB:

I see my project as broadly therapeutic: aiming to bring beauty, truth and goodness to the world. This is a rather unlikely project. I don't want to entertain so much as enlighten (though entertainment might be a good tool for that). I am inspired by the ancient Greek idea of the philosopher as an analyst of the state of the soul.

CB:

At times throughout the book you seem anxious about your choice of profession, yet you seem to have a successful and contemplative career that allows you to pursue the things that interest you. Why so anxious?

ADB:

Anxious because nothing is guaranteed in the future. It all depends on me and my ability to harvest good ideas. It's very bad when a whole life (plus children and wife) are tethered to something as flickering as my creativity.

CB:

Is this the career that your sixteen-year-old self would have imagined for you? What would it have been?

ADB:

I would have thought that anyone with the life I had would be happy all the time, when I was sixteen. This shows the tragedy of expanding ambitions or simply the realisation that one has very complex needs. At sixteen, I was also quite interested in architecture and (strangely) advertising.

CB:

What would that sixteen-year-old self think of you?

ADB:

He'd find me remarkably similar, perhaps frighteningly so. I think he was sweet and I feel sorry for him because he was having a miserable adolescence.

CB:

Early on in the book you write, “We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.” Later you make specific reference to Marx’s theory of alienation – can you explain his theory and how it influenced the book?

ADB:

Marx's theory of alienation argued that much modern work is boring because it destroys the connection between the worker and the object he or she produces. One no longer has an emotional or physical connection with one's work - and this creates a certain kind of psychological disturbance, a sort of deadness, which Marx calls alienation. This feels like a wonderfully rich idea - not least, it's great to find an economist and political theorist talking so psychologically about our feelings towards work.

CB:

You write of work’s “extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principle source of life’s meaning,” but you seem to imply that we are destined to be disappointed by this search. Is this so? If so, why?

ADB:

The book shows that for thousands of years, work was viewed as an unavoidable drudge and nothing more, something to be done with as rapidly as possible and escaped in the imagination through alcohol or religious intoxication. Aristotle was only the first of many philosophers to state that no one could be both free and obliged to earn a living. Holding down a job, any job, was akin to slavery and denied one any chance of greatness. Christianity added to this analysis the yet grimmer conclusion that the misery of work was an unavoidable consequence of the sins of Adam and Eve. A more optimistic assessment of work as a whole had to wait until the eighteenth century; the age of the great bourgeois philosophers, men like Benjamin Franklin, who for the first time argued that one's working life could be at the centre of any ambition for happiness. It was during this century that our modern ideas about work were formed - incidentally, at the very same time as our modern ideas about love and marriage took shape.

In fact, there were remarkable similarities between the two realms of love and work. In the pre-modern age, it had widely been assumed that no one could try to be in love and married: marriage was something one did for purely commercial reasons, to hand down the family farm or ensure a dynastic continuity. Things were going well if you maintained a tepid friendship with your spouse. Meanwhile, love was something you did with your mistress, on the side, with pleasure untied to the responsibilities of child-rearing. Yet the new philosophers of love now argued that one might actually aim to marry the person one was in love with rather than just have an affair. To this unusual idea was added the even more peculiar notion that one might work both for money and to realise one's dreams, an idea that replaced the previous assumption that the day job took care of the rent and anything more ambitious had to happen in one's spare time, once the money had been hauled in.

We are the heirs of these two very ambitious beliefs: that you can be in love and married, and in a job and having a good time. It has become as impossible for us to think that you could be out of work and happy as it had once seemed impossible for Aristotle to think that you could be employed and human.

Our ambitions aren't necessarily crazy, they are merely very ambitious ... in other words, quite unlikely. We need to handle them with a care, a modesty, we frequently can't muster. And so we get very hurt, bitter and angry.

CB:

What should we seek from our work?

ADB:

A feeling of meaning: One of the great sources of satisfaction in work is the feeling that we are making a difference to people's lives, that we have - at the end of the working day - somehow left the planet slightly healthier, tidier, saner than it was at the beginning. I'm not necessarily talking of huge changes; the difference might merely involving sanding a stair banister, removing the squeak on a door or reuniting someone with their lost luggage. Industrialisation has made some of these feelings of helping others far less accessible, simply because of scale. Take biscuit manufacture. I spent time looking at the U.K.'s largest biscuit manufacturer, which employs 15,000 people across twelve sites in the land. Making biscuits used to be an artisan's task: it would be done in a small workshop, and those making the biscuits would see and perhaps even know those who bought their products. This is hardly the case now at United Biscuits, and it helps to explain the feelings of lassitude and occasional despair I picked up on, especially in departments like those dealing with accounts or transport where a worker is very far indeed from sensing the ultimate 'meaning' of their activity.

Then again, a lot of your satisfaction at work is dependent on your expectation. There are broadly speaking two philosophies of work out there. The first you could call the working-class view of work, which sees the point of work as being primarily financial. You work to feed yourself and your loved ones. You don't live for your work. You work for the sake of the weekend and spare time - and your colleagues are not your friends necessarily. The other view of work, very different, is the middle class view, which sees work as absolutely essential to a fulfilled life and lying at the heart of our self-creation and self-fulfilment. These two philosophies always co-exist but in a recession, the working class view is getting a new lease of life. More and more one hears the refrain, "it's not perfect, but at least it's a job...."

CB:

About ten years ago, an Irish friend of mine came to live in Canada for a year and about a month into his stay, he said he found it rude that the first thing everyone in Canada seemed to ask was, “What do you do?” You’ve pointed to that question as well and said that among other things it shows how intimately our work is tied to our identity. When and why did this become the case?

ADB:

Aristocratic societies were very much defined by blood lines and by places (their wealth was bound up with land). Therefore, it wasn't important what someone did: the assumption was they didn't do anything, they just "owned." But now, in a bourgeois society, wealth is made in a different way - by people making things through their own intelligence and ingenuity. Therefore, it is the job that starts to matter and define the human. In other words, it is the means of production that dictates our view of our professional identity.

We aren't talking in an academic context, so I can pin down the date to "somewhere in the middle of the 18th century" in Europe.

CB:

What do we stand to gain by following the process of getting the tuna from the sea to the plate, as you do in the book?

ADB:

That fish taken out of the water only a few hours ago could get halfway across the world in a few hours is evidence of nothing short of logistical genius, based on a complex interplay of technology, managerial discipline and legal and economic standardisation.

It is the silence around this achievement that intrigues and provokes me – and hence gave birth to a desire to seize hold of a fish and follow it more sedately backwards into the sea. It might of course have been something else - steel rolls in the car factories of Bavaria traced to the scrub of the Australian desert or cotton in the looms of Mexico trailed to the irrigated fields of the Lower Nile. The tuna’s lessons, while played out in particularities, are general ones about the value of swimming upstream to reconnect with the odysseys of crates and the secret life of warehouses and hence of alleviating the deadening, uniquely modern sense of dislocation between the objects heedlessly consumed in the run of our daily lives and their unknown origins and creators.

I decided to anchor my journey around images, for it is experiential details of which the logistical field seems most deprived. Hence a photo essay whose sole ambition is to alter for a second or two some of the thought-processes that might unfold the next time one is confronted with an object that has been transported mysteriously and at implausible speed around the planet in the darkness.

CB:

You write: "It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centered 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." Why has that been the case?

ADB:

There's an unfortunate way in which the "noble" pursuits of life can't be industrialised and therefore can't generate the sort of huge profits that have made the world rich and therefore less prone to starvation. This is something one can't forget when considering the effects of industrialisation. We owe a big debt to the machine and it has exacted a big cost, too.

CB:

The book is essentially ten individual essays about specific industries; how did you pick them and how do you feel they inform each other? Which of the jobs you investigate would you do, if necessary, and why? Which is lowest on your list and why?

ADB:

I love my children/chapters equally... I chose them as a way of investigating a number of big themes about work. So, for example, I went to look at biscuit manufacture because I wanted to look at businesses that make a lot of money from selling something very small. Often the reason I chose one business rather than another was pragmatic in the extreme - because they happened to let me in whereas others blocked me!

CB:

In the book you ask: “When does a job feel meaningful?” And then answer: “When it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” With the global economy shedding jobs daily, do you think this is a good time to ask this question, or does the answer become, of necessity, more tied to a paycheque?

ADB:

There's never a bad time to ask this question, but yes, the cheque will loom larger in a recession, but quite quickly, once one has assured a basic income, one starts to look for meaning. Think of the extraordinary history of religion and all the clergy who took vows of voluntary poverty for the sake of meaning. This is something quite stubborn in our psyche.

CB:

The notion of specialisation in the contemporary workforce comes up a number of times – it makes the satellite possible through the special work and knowledge of the scientists, but also contributes to the distance between our daily lives and those of others. Is your role to bring the two worlds together so that they can understand each other?

ADB:

Yes, it does seem very sad when people simply can't understand what their fellow humans do. One of the tasks of the book is to introduce people to each other as it were - to make people see the connections between their jobs and those of others who might superficially seem very alien. We are all workers in our own bit of the giant hive.

CB:

In the chapter on accountancy you describe an accountant going home at the end of the workday and say that for him it is “Of course impossible to read.” If not for him, who do you write for?

ADB:

I haven't given up writing for the accountant, and indeed for anyone who cares to pick up my books. It's just that I wanted to give space to the idea that not all jobs allow one to read the sort of book I have written. Some jobs are so draining, demand such focus that one returns home and all one is fit for is the television. This is not an indictment of individuals or workplaces, more just something that flows from our industrial arrangements - and which we should face up to honestly.

CB:

You’ve called for a new fiction of the workplace. What are our writers missing or avoiding by not writing about the workplace?

ADB:

If a proverbial alien landed on earth and tried to work out what human beings did with their time simply on the evidence of what is recorded in the literature sections of an average quality bookstore, he or she would come away thinking that we devote ourselves almost exclusively to leading complex relationships, squabbling with our parents and occasionally murdering people. But what is too often missing is what we really get up to outside of catching up on sleep, which is going to work in the office, retail space or factory.

It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life. From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace. Their books covered the same territory as is today featured at copious length in the financial pages of newspapers or in the breathless commentaries of the 24-hour newscasters, but their interest was not primarily financial. The goal was to convey the human side of commerce, where money is only one actor in a complex drama about our ambitions and reversals.

Yet writers seem to be losing their nerve. There has been an unfortunate inward turn. Unfortunate because if much of life’s value rests in work and if novelists are concerned with forging a literature of meaning rather than romance or aesthetic gestures, then they should turn their eyes to material quite unlike what we imagine that stories could be weaved from. It would be literature alive to new varieties of sensory deprivation, melancholy, boredom, passion, eroticism, vindictiveness, charity, triviality and seriousness. This new genre would not only invigorate literature, it would more broadly enrich our lives, for the result of the literary silence has been a form of alienation from the working process. We may know the sliver of the working world that we ourselves occupy, but the wider picture grows obscure.

***

Alain de Botton has published six non-fiction books: The Architecture of Happiness, Essays in Love, Status Anxiety, The Art of Travel, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and The Consolations of Philosophy, three of which were made into TV documentaries. He has also published two novels: The Romantic Movement and Kiss and Tell. In 2004, Status Anxiety was awarded the prize for the Economics Book of the Year by the Financial Times, Germany. Cambridge-educated, de Botton is a frequent contributor to numerous newspapers, journals, and magazines. His work is published in twenty-five countries.

Chris Bucci is a literary agent and freelance editor who works in Toronto.

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