Life’s Work

An excerpt from the painting Diogenes, by John William Waterhouse, 1882

I’m working on my photography and my writing… writing yet another of what look to be my unpublishable books. Unpublishable? But why? Well, I can’t think of any compelling reason why anyone should read them. They’re not how-tos. They’re not explications of scientific fact. They’re not calls to arms. They’re just books I have to write. Some sense I have to make of this world I was hurled into and am passing so quickly through.

Tetman Callis

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her book The Human Condition, divided human life into three different modes of activity in the world. Being a philosopher, she used the Latin to name those modes, and so we shall as well.

The first mode of effort she called the animal laborans, or laboring animal. Following Marx, she described the “futile necessity” of assembling resources for life. We all work to provide sufficiency for ourselves and our families, but that on its own does not differentiate us from birds or beavers. Labor is a necessary but not sufficient marker of what it means to be human—we all must do it, but only as a part of our work.

The second mode of effort she referred to as homo faber, or man the maker. There are some things that we take on with greater purpose than survival; we hope to leave behind something enduring, some mark of our intentions. We conceive of and create a thing that we hope will be of value, whether that value is economic or emotional or cultural. This is an important and uniquely human mode, but isolating. It makes us perpetual individuals, hoping to place our faint mark on the permanent record.

The third, and Arendt believed the highest, mode of effort is what she called the vita activa, or the life of action. And she means something specific by the term action, something that in English might be more akin to engagement, an investment of ourselves in some larger social purpose. Whether at the grand scale of public policy and public persuasion, or at the smallest everyday scale of comforting a friend, Arendt claims that our highest duty is intervention in the affairs of the world.

When we think of what artists do, we often think of their works. But the vast majority of art will go unrecorded, and largely unseen. There aren’t all that many enduring works, Led Zeppelin IV’s or Nighthawks, Grapes of Wraths or Mary Tyler Moore Shows. Here’s a quiz: what do these have in common?

  • A Spool of Blue Thread
  • A Little Life
  • The Fisherman
  • The Year of the Runaways
  • Satin Island
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings

These six books, now largely unread, were the six finalists for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, only five years ago. The six best English-language books of that year, now mostly lost to time.

Yesterday’s London Times lighting today’s wood stove. Last week’s New Yorker in this week’s toilet basket in next week’s recycling bucket. Literary quality and craft all around us, consumed and discarded. Did it change its readers along the way? Did it give us our moments of wisdom, or insight, or simply of pleasure? Did it contribute to its ecosystem during its brief appearance?

A few years ago, I happened across a stack of CDs at our local transfer station, maybe 25 of them. (Glen often pulls things aside from the waste stream that he imagines someone else might find a use for.) I browsed through them quickly, not recognizing any of the musicians or knowing anything about their genres. “What are all these?” I asked.

“Oh, those are CDs that musicians sent in who wanted to be part of this year’s Solarfest.” Twenty-five musicians and musical groups all putting their best work on the table for consideration at a decidedly lower-tier music festival (actually, a solar energy/sustainability festival that had some music), all passed over and stacked at the dump. Did they imagine that they had created their version of Kind of Blue? Were these the lost artifacts of desired immortality?

Those of us who make things are asked to live in two worlds at once. We create the very best version of whatever it is that we do, something worthy. And at the same time, we have to recognize that our work, as all human work, is ephemeral. A restaurant meal at Atelier Crenn is finished in two hours, as is an evening at a performance of the Hiromi Uehara Trio. We make a sculpture that is viewed in three minutes, write a book that is read in a few hours. How has it contributed, during its moment, to the lives of the others who have swum through its waters?

That judgment, I think, may not be for us to know, as much as we might want the surety of that knowledge. We can only work with our odd combination of rigor and generosity, and then turn our labors over to the great, invisible world.

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