Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A Place to Come Out Strong

Dickens' Mark Tapley's is a conundrum with which anyone might sympathise: he's looking for a spot to be jolly in; a place where he can come out strong. It's what drives him far off from the fulsome, warm fires and welcoming breasts of his landlady-lover, and out from the cellars and jovial toasts of the pub he revived with his presence. It's what leads him to cast in his lot with a one who has learned to think little for others, and be Martin Chuzzlewit's "& Co." in a project ill-planned to bring fame and small fortunes. It's what makes him so strangely alive in the coffin in which they traverse the Atlantic, and brings him so brightly to bear on the back-stabbing Boston that meets their arrival. But all the time, still, Mark desires to move on, to a place where a man can be jolly, to a spot he can come out and strong! To Eden he must therefore go, for only such promise of heavenly earth will answer to Mark's life's ambition.

And to Eden they finally make it, having bought "some of the finest land in the country" from "one of the most remarkable men in the country," to start life in "the finest darned country of all." Throttled with dankness and dark, sodden with damp and disease, circled by wild beasts and wilder-still men, fit for no growth but the strangling kind, dotted with hovels that sink as they're built, and peopled with shadows that wait for their death: Eden is Mark's looked-for home, and almost - not quite, but really almost - a place where there's credit in coming out strong and reason to feel oneself jolly. Through sickness, depression and hopeless despair, he steps forth with a grimly bright eye; through early death, crop failure, rot and ruination, he sings us a steely bright tune: Mark Tapley is coming out jolly and strong, at last in a place that allows it.

In the end, our two travellers, Martin and Mark, turn their gaunt eyes and thin cheeks towards home, though our hero (that's Mark) feels some twinge of regret that his jolly ol' junket is over. But, wait! Mark, some hundred years and then a half, and it will only just now be beginning. For as the hallmark of Eden is its pure disregard for the gap 'tween what's sold and what's bought, and the stamp of America its endless immersion in reports of great men and their visions and values; if what's said in The Standard is what really counts, and what's down on the contract is what really is, and what's hoped for by settlers is what's really there, and what's canvassed by public men what's really on: then Britain will let you be jolly, and its Great be no less a true herald of promise than was Eden a picture of heaven. As Mark passes back through the town they were duped in to purchase their wet, rotten plot, he's struck no more forcibly by the sad contrast between its adverts for heaven and the dull death they've just left behind than he would be, right now, by the manner in which representations of wealth and health, of learning and friendship, which are what we here learn to pursue, are so starkly accompanied by their foils: poverty of outlook; medicalisation; functional illiteracy; and networks.

This is a spot to be jolly indeed; a place made for coming out strong.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Put Thought to Work

The separation of labour from thought is one of the tragedies of the modern age, famously identified by Marx as effecting the mode of alienation peculiar to industrialised capitalism, whereby the worker is so far expected to leave her thoughts at home that processes of production abound actually premised upon the inhuman capacity to not think. Today, as Britain faces the prospect of unprecedented cuts in the public sector, there curiously arises the opportunity of restoring labour to thought.

But only if we cease our presumption that thought - Thought Itself, as we learn now to think it - is its own kind of labour. This is the nonsense of contemporary academia, where "staff" - to the extent that this word implies work done, it is often the wrong word - begrudge every hour that takes them from their "work," by which they mean to resent every task that disturbs their research. Teaching is an inconvenience, for students cannot understand - let alone contribute to - the thoughts of thinking men. (Hardly surprising, when those thoughts are Thought Itself, and share the distaste of their originators for all things concrete and worked.) As for administrative duties - and they do proliferate obscenely under contemporary forms of institutional control - these are judged so to humanise the inhuman thinkers of our universities that the very memory of them, the very prospect of them, disturbs thought in its tower and weighs it right down with two feet made of clay.

From Marx, we have learnt that work without thought is the way to make machines out of men; and yet, in those very university departments where such insights are said to be cherished, thought without work would make monsters of men. Trollope worked in the Post Office for most of his life, writing when time would permit him; no task in his many enterprises was beneath the attention of Dickens, who endured unanaesthetised rectal surgery in the middle of his working week; and Emily Bronte kept her household in bread, of a quality for which (oh! the shame - how can Thought Itself bear it?) she was locally famed.

For thought, if it's worth it, will out, and be all the more substantial for being the fruits of some labour!