Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vacation and the absurd man

If you are living an absurd life, then you have nothing to escape from. Hence, the idea of vacation takes on an ironic aspect. We’ve alluded to this in the past, putting the word vacation in quotes or noting, parenthetically, the misnomer of an absurd man on vacation.

In this post, we aim to explore this link between work and play a touch more. In a sense, the absurd man is always on vacation.

If life is meaningless and our struggles – like that of Sisyphus – futile, then what difference does vacation make in this? If the absurd man accepts that life is absurd, then it makes no difference if he is “working” or not. The distinction is arbitrary.

Or, as a far-left-leaning friend of ours would say, “Vacation is a capitalist construct.” On some level, she is right. The idea of taking a vacation only came about when there was a need for it. Man first had to have that thing called a “job.”

The idea, as we know it, is a post-industrial invention.

E.P. Thompson writes about this in The Making of the English Working Class. He looks at different pre-industrial workers, such as silver miners in Mexico. The idea is that while people certainly worked, the modern concept of a job would’ve been a foreign one to them.

Instead, their work was much more irregular and task-oriented. You worked until you completed a task. Then your job was done and you were free to indulge in siestas and drink beer until you found another.

There was no sense in being stuck in a harness pulling for the same master for a paycheck. There was no sense, either, that one would be working all the time or on any regular schedule. As Thompson says, Mexican miners would be “willing to work only three or four days a week if that paid for necessities.”

There were many other ways in which one could spend one’s days – with family, fishing, gardening, playing sports or meeting your buddies at the local watering hole. The point is that the idea that one ought to be working most days of the week was not yet socially normal.

Thompson writes that for most of human history “the work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labor and of idleness, wherever men were in control of their own working lives.” Today, this lifestyle persists among our more creative classes – artists, writers, actors and the like. They tend to work for a time, around a task, and then idle until the next gig.

Now, we don’t know if Thompson is entirely accurate here. We suspect there is some romanticizing of the pre-industrial age. (We think of all the bad teeth, itchy clothing and body odor of those times…) Nonetheless, we think the observation is not so far off the mark. People simply viewed work differently than we do today.

All of this suggests, too, that the idea of vacation came about when we got jobs – jobs so unpleasant that we had to create a means to escape them. Now, people find it normal to go groveling to an employer to ask for time off. Two weeks of annual vacation is normal for many starting out.

It’s an odd thing, when you stop and think about it – especially in light of some of the work patterns of the past, such as those that Thompson writes about.

And for the absurd man, the modern day ideas on work and play take on an especially ironic meaning. We are all dead either way, whether we take a vacation or not.

In light of that, we say play all the time. The concept of work and play are in our heads. Better, we think, to learn to accept the absurdity of life and reject the arbitrary nature of society’s common divisions. It’s all the same. It’s an experience called life. Escapism is an idea antithetical to absurdity.

Some of this may seem unrealistic, difficult and perhaps even naive. But we think one can live an absurd life. Life is absurd. Nothing matters. Not even work. And that is a liberating thought indeed. As Anthony Bourdain put it, “When you don’t give a shit… you win.”

1 comment:

  1. this blog is brilliant (although in the long run it doesn't matter). thank you.