These are, as noted by many, salad days for pessimists, and especially so for one of the most graceful writers among them, who just happens to have a new book out called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. British philosopher Alain de Botton’s tome arrives at a time when far fewer people than only a year ago are experiencing anything at all from work. It’s as good a time as any for de Botton’s bracing message: we invest too much emotionally in something that can be taken abruptly, impersonally, clinically snatched away from us in moments. And to what result? “To be out of work means, quite literally, to be a nobody: one is what one does,” he notes. But for all the emotional distance he recommends keeping from work (best to think of it, he says in his cheerfully pessimistic way, as something that puts food on the table while filling the time until “the inevitable cataclysm, personal or planetary”), his remarkable book doesn’t stint on work’s pleasures simply to build up its sorrows.
He’s particularly good at recapturing a child’s evaluation of jobs, the way the very young always regard interesting occupations more highly than the merely lucrative, “judging with favour the post of crane operator” over, say, banker. De Botton doesn’t share what he calls “the terrific prejudice still against the machine age—we’re rarely prepared to admit that machinery, factories and the like can have their own beauty. Our ideas of beauty remain very pre-industrial. In a modest way, I was tugging my reader to recognize the overlooked beauty of some of the furniture of modern society.” So he was quite happy to join a pylon devotee on an eye-opening, 572-pylon-long walk from a nuclear power plant in Kent to a substation in east London, following the path of one of Britain’s most important power lines. De Botton was even enthusiastic to get a move on when he met up with his companion, once he noticed the worrying state of the Dungenes plant—its outside pipes rusting in the sea air, the large cloth tied in a knot that appeared to be all that was holding a cooling tower upright. “It seemed a particular folly that the English had been allowed to involve themselves with fission technology. For what people could be less appropriate to toil in this precise and rule-bound industry, given their instinctive distrust of authority, their love of irony and their aversion to bureaucratic procedure? It was evident that the field should more wisely have been left entirely in the hands of the Teutonic races.”
De Botton, as that passage shows, never loses his own sense of irony or, equally British of him, his fair play. Both are at the forefront as he visits cookie makers (“Biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking,” an executive sternly advises him), insurances offices, entrepreneurial inventors’ fairs and those engaged in the peculiar career of career counseling for others. De Botton examines office anomie and office flirting with equal sympathy and insight.
As for what he really makes of what he encountered, the answer may lie in his blackly comic account of one tuna’s fate. De Botton is with the poor fish from the moment it’s landed, in his presence, on the deck of an Indian Ocean trawler, through its processing in a local fish plant, its journey by air and truck to a Bristol supermarket—where de Botton pops up as soon as shopper Linda Drummond lays her hand on it, so he can explain Marx’s theory of worker alienation and ask if he can accompany her home to watch the fish’s final destination—the plate of Drummond’s eight-year-old son Sam, who “hates tuna, but not as much as he hates salmon.” A bleak portrait of human toil’s end result, perhaps, or maybe de Botton’s just passing the time.