Does Bartleby Know Best?

“I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” –From Herman Melville’s story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

I was fortunate last week to take in Sean O’Casey’s classic Irish drama, Juno and the Paycock, at London’s National Theatre. The play features the roustabout Captain Boyle, an impoverished genius allergic to work. In a time when solid employ is hard to come by, news of a decent job comes his way. He just has to show up. Nonetheless, the boisterous Boyle is happy to avoid it, feigning leg pain and practicing actual habitual drunkenness.

It made me think: Who really wants to work? I work hard, even at the things I don’t necessarily enjoy, for many reasons, just like 99 percent of humans on this odd globule. I simultaneously lust after big work opportunities with big payoffs and the most wonderful period of my life, that of great useless idle.

Stormtrooping has gone the way of phonograph assembly and VHS tape rewinding.

In my mid-twenties, I had a stint of unemployment. I moved out of my first career in marketing, clumsily stumbling into a “career” in writing and academia (which was not to be) and utterly unable to find appropriate work to sustain myself.

Everything I found was either above me or below me. There were no perfect jobs for me as I imagined them, such as, say, Professional Unpublished Novelist, or King Ice Cream Taster. While I still practice both on an amateur basis, I never found a soul wise enough to pay me for my vital contributions to society.

Looking back now, my ten months of unemployment and underemployment were pure heaven. In the moment, however, they were unadulterated suffering, worry, and resentment. I now fondly reminisce about those simpler days.

In that time, I had random jobs that taught me valuable lessons, time to learn, to think, to plan. I had time. I also had great shame in living with my father and operating “below my station” in life, but I had this grand amorphous sense of possibility.

I don’t want to be insensitive to the plight of the at least 8.6 percent of Americans who are currently without work and wish to be working. With optimism that gainful employment lurks just around the corner, not working would certainly be more pleasant. Unfortunately, that’s not the general sentiment among the majority of our currently non-working citizens.

I also don’t here mean to confuse the openness of the world associated with pre-family-of-your-own youth with the dreadful unease of the stricken provider. Unemployment always sucks, though it’s (arguably) easier to stomach and recover from when we’re young. But it’s impossible to enjoy while it’s happening at any age, which is a bummer.

What I can’t truly figure out is, would I be happier as a man of leisure or a celebrated, highly productive workhorse? Aspects of each appeal to me, of course.

I got angry this past weekend when I realized that the little Mexican restaurant near my place is really good and I’ve never had time to eat there. A year passed, with dozens of yummy quesadillas gone uneaten like so much melted cheesy snow.

My next thought was a stupid one: If I didn’t work so much, maybe I’d have more time to enjoy the world around me.

My next thought was a smart one: If I didn’t work so much, I wouldn’t be able to afford the world around me.

Per the norm, The Smatter has no answers, just questions, so we pose:

What is the work-life balance, in a world where we often have no choice?

Or do we have more choice than we realize?

Perhaps if I applied nose to grindstone I could come up with a more instructive analysis of unemployment and a modest solution for some aspect of it.

Alas, I’d prefer not to.


6 thoughts on “Does Bartleby Know Best?

  1. Unemployment is a blessing: take it from us! We’ve had time to watch Dr. Oz … take long walks … watch wildlife … create new blogs and — something Washington and Wall St. seem unable to do — create jobs (no pay, but highly satisfying). We’ve started a blog about unemployment, in a bid to launch a national conversation about record joblessness in the richest country on earth. Thanks for your provocative comments, Matt.

  2. I quit my full-time job in September and have been working only part time since the beginning of October. Aside from the fact that my apartment still isn’t clean, it has been amazing. I have started my own business, taught several writing classes, designed and written for five special sections of my local paper and a local newsletter and on the weekends I wait tables. I’m also working toward starting my own local magazine and my apartment is cleaner today than it was last week. I kind feel unemployed even though I’ve been really busy. I mean I have real leisure time and I’m probably only “working” 30 hours a week and it’s pretty great. The waitressing pays for my bills (I have really simplified my lifestyle) and the rest is gravy. I can’t believe I was so scared for so long to quit that job. Silly me.

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