Work is a Curse

Vichy, France, 1942. Lebeau, a painter, has been rounded up by the fascist authorities along with Bayard, an electrician, Marchand, a businessman, and several others, all suspected as Jews. As they wait for their interviews with the army Major and the police Captain, they get to know one another.


You know–you all remind me of my father. Always worshipped the hard-working Germans. And now you hear it all over France–we have to learn how to work like the Germans. Good God, don’t you ever read history? Whenever a people starts to work hard, watch out, they’re going to kill somebody,


That depends on how production is organized. If it’s for private profit, yes, but–


What are you talking about, when did the Russians start getting dangerous? When they learned how to work. Look at the Germans–for a thousand years peaceful, disorganized people–they start working and they’re on everybody’s back. Nobody’s afraid of the Africans, are they? Because they don’t work. Read the Bible–work is a curse, you’re not supposed to worship work.


And how do you propose to produce anything?


Well, that’s the problem.

From Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller (published 1964.)

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 1:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Not Interested in Global Warming

Michael Beard, aging Nobel laureate and wholesale curmudgeon, was initially not very interested in the issue of global warming. Before he realized there was opportunity at hand, here’s what he thought of it:

There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-0f-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant. The end of the world was never pitched in the present, where it could be seen for the fantasy it was, but just around the corner, and when it did not happen, a new issue, a new date, would soon emerge. The old world purified by incendiary violence, washed clean by the blood of the unsaved–that was how it had been for Christian millennial sects: death to the unbelievers! And for Soviet Communitist: death to the kulaks! And for Nazis and their thousand-year fantasy: death to the Jews! And then the truly democratic contemporary equivalent, an all-out nuclear war: death to everyone! When that did not happen, and after the Soviet empire had been devoured by its internal contradictions, and in the absence of any other overwhelming concern beyond boring, intransigent global poverty, the apocalyptic tendency had conjured yet another beast.

From Solar, by Ian McEwan (published 2010).

Published in: on November 27, 2012 at 10:54 pm  Comments (1)  

The Charming Details of Edna Pontellier

Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel of a woman’s inner struggle in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, was — like many people — rather ordinary at first glance but quite charming to the discriminating eye.

The charm of Edna Pontellier’s physique stole insensibly upon you. The lines of her body were long, clean and symmetrical; it was a body which occasionally fell into splendid poses; there was no suggestion of the trim, stereotyped fashion-plate about it. A casual and indiscriminating observer, in passing, might not cast a second glance upon the figure. But with more feeling and discernment he would have recognized the noble beauty of its modelling, and the graceful severity of poise and movement, which made Edna Pontellier different from the crowd.

From The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (published 1899).

Published in: on November 18, 2012 at 8:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

No Trust

Norman Levine, describing Sundays at a Northern Ontario mining camp in the 1950s:

Sunday was just another day. Those who didn’t work on the day shift had chicken for lunch. There was little talk. No hypocrisy. And there was no trust. Everyone locked his door.

From Canada Made Me, by Norman Levine (published 1958)

Published in: on October 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Cats, Dogs, and Anarchy

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who set the tone for street photography for several generations, shunned attention and preferred to live quietly and unobserved. He was also a bit of a provocateur, claiming, among other things, that he never really liked photography. In a 2004 article published in Vanity Fair magazine, writer David Friend recounts a conversation he had with “HCB,” then in his 94th year. Having long since set down his camera, HCB was then dedicating his creative energies to sketching nude models in a studio on the rue de Rivoli in Paris, the same building where Monet, Cézanne, and Pissarro used to work.

He raises his glass, again toasting anarchy. “I’m an anarchist, yes,” he explains. “Because I’m alive. Life is a provocation… I’m against people in power and what that imposes upon them. Anglo-Saxons have to learn what anarchism is. For them, it’s violence. A cat knows what anarchy is. Ask a cat. A cat understands. They’re against discipline and authority. A dog is trained to obey. Cats can’t be. Cats bring on chaos. Libertarianism — c’est la vie.

From “Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment,” by David Friend (Vanity Fair, December 2004)

Published in: on October 20, 2012 at 9:56 am  Leave a Comment  

On Prole Envy

In pre-war England, a “prole” is a member of the proletariat, sometimes disparagingly referred to as a “navvy” (unskilled manual labourer with no fixed employment). The protagonist of Coming Up for Air is an embittered lower-middle-class salary man living in Ellesemere Road, an inconsequential “inner-outer suburb” populated with people very much like himself. They’re neither working class (prole) nor bourgeoisie; they are stuck, uncomfortably, in the middle.

When you’ve time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it’s a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there. Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semi-detatched torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There’s a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class. I’m not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack? The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working. But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.

From Coming up for Air, by George Orwell (published 1950)

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 6:46 am  Leave a Comment