The Weekly Machen

What is the point of work? In our strange times, this question, like many other old answers newly disputed, has been forced to the fore of our public discourse. The thoughts offered by Arthur Machen in the following dispatch will certainly displease ideologues, for our apostle of wonder situates the solution to the riddle within the context of “good vs evil,” – another foundational concept under attack these days. Furthermore, Machen’s words may cause us to consider his feelings toward the profession of journalism in which he was unhappily engaged. And, finally, not for the first or last time, the Rabelaisian hieroglyph of the Holy Bottle appears in an Evening News article. In the coming weeks, we will read of Machen’s ongoing quest to acquire it while journeying through a world of lies.

The Joy of Life
Arthur Machen
May 14, 1913

The primæval occupation of man is falling into contempt.

A paragraph in the papers announce that a gentleman living Llandudno wants a gardener, and he has applied to a Welsh nurseryman to get him a gardener. But the nurseryman says that there are no gardeners to be got.

We have been advertising for men lately,” he writes, “but not one of those replying was of any use. Some had been grocers, packers and warehousemen, and wanted a change to outdoor life. Men simply will not tackle work now, and lads will not learn a trade. At the present time we are breeding and encouraging ‘wasters’ and unemployables.”

So far the nurseryman; and I am afraid that there is a good deal in what he says. Mr. Masterman has stated that not only the arts but also crafts have departed from the fields and villages. It is not merely that the country folk can no longer execute the carven and golden work which once made their parish churches glorious: they can’t even prune a tree or graft a tree; they are forgetting how to make a hedge.

And then in town: the L. C. C. offers admirable facilities for boys leaving school to learn to be waiters, and, as I understand, the boys can’t be bothered; there are more scholarships than applicants. And, turning to the girls, how many “generals” display true generalship, tactics, or strategy in their dealings with the potato? They can’t be bothered to learn their simple job; it is much if they exert themselves so far as to comprehend the difference between water that boils and water that doesn’t boil.

And now it appears that the country lads will not be bothered to learn gardening. This is sad hearing; for one could say that the gardener’s craft approached very near to perfection. On the one hand, it has plenty of good exercise for all the muscles of the body, it provides abundance of that fresh air for which everybody professes admiration; and on the other hand, there is no business with finer opportunities for the ingenious and contriving mind. Think of the joys of “hybridising”; of the day on which, after curious experiment, the new orchid flames with new colours in the hothouse; or the new peach, the very finest peach that the world has ever tasted, grows dusky red on the garden wall. And the lads of the village will not learn such a craft as this! So much the worse.

But let there be no mistake; I have not been converted by a course of Smiles, I am not become a prophet of the gospel of work for work’s sake – or for money’s sake either. I shall never be a good American, nor believe that hustling is in itself a virtue and that money, the result of hustling, is the supreme end of life. We live well when we fulfill the command that Rabelais made the motto of his great book – “Vivez joyeux,” live joyously. Joy is the end of life: everything that leads to that end is good, everything that turns a man from it is evil.

So work may be either an evil or a good. If a man finds some kind of work that his hand delights in, and does it with all his might and his muscle and his mind, then that man is living joyously and well. The work may be painting a picture, or playing Falstaff, or cooking a dinner, or composing a symphony, or making a hedge; the sort of work doesn’t matter much so long as one’s heart be in it; if it is done with a joy, it is a good thing.

But if it be some employment which is not loved for its own sake, which is a means to a bare living or a means to excessive luxury, then work is evil. A necessary evil, maybe; we have all got to earn our board and lodging: and it is one of the chiefest curses of this age that tens of thousands – say, rather, millions – of men have to gain their bread and cheese and beer by being slaves of machinery. Still, as such toil is evil, and the man who does it is to be pitied as the victim of an evil system. One need not discuss the case of Jones who toils, not for bread, but that Mrs. Jones may drive a smarter car than Mrs. Smith, her neighbour. Jones is not so much to be pitied as pitiable; and contemptible also. Joyousness, then, is the criterion and touchstone of work and of all life.

But be it remembered that Pantagruel and his companions in the epic of Rabelais only obtained the Oracle of the Holy Bottle after voyaging through the strange and desperate seas. They passed through storm and tempest and faced fearful dangers before the priestess Bacbuc taught them that “Drink” was the Lost Word of humanity, that by wine – that is, ecstasy – man alone becomes divine. The joyous life most emphatically does not mean the loafing life, a sort of sublime lubberland, where everybody swings all day in hammocks ans is given cool drinks at intervals.

On the contrary, the loafing man, rich or poor – it is mere common Liberalism or lying to pretend that all loafers are rich people – is the bored man, and the bored man is emphatically the miserable man. The joyous people are the men of desperate adventure and of desperate effort in things physical; martyrs and great poets and Arctic explorers; of such is the company of those who are glad at heart.

The Weekly

Previous: The Bugle and the Birds

Next: God and the War

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “The Joy of Life

  1. This reminds me of an invaluable remark of C. S. Lewis’s. He says in a letter that —

    There are things you have to do.
    There are things you don’t have to do but ought to do.
    There are things you like to do.

    Too often we do things for other reasons, such as because other people do (e.g. we read books that are not really of interest to us because we think other people are reading them and we want to be “with it”).

    Machen and Lewis were on the same page about some other things too, which perhaps I’ll comment on here ventually.


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