The call came and I was told that my second period of furlough had ended. I would return to the workshop for three twelve and a half hour shifts per week, 7am to 7.30pm. The week my boss called, I’d been rereading Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil (1909-1943). Weil was a philosopher who worked in temporary teaching jobs, often being run out of town for her trade union-organising and activism. By the time of her death, Weil had built up a body of idiosyncratic, unorthodox, mystically-inclined theological writing, posthumously collected in Gravity and Grace. I read the final section, ‘The Mysticism of Work’, the day before my return to the workshop. After sitting in my room for three months, going back to such long days would be hard physically, which made it hard mentally; I didn’t want to do it, but I had no choice. At least I’d be able to search for Weil’s mysticism of work.
At 7am on my first day back, my body set to remembering the shapes of the tools, the repetitive motions of planing the wood, my hands folding the paper around the sanding block with its familiar shape. My thoughts were on ‘The Mysticism of Work’, searching for a way to apply it. “Manual labour.” Weil writes, “Time entering the body.” I didn’t feel time entering my body. If anything, I could feel time leaving my body, as though in some sense I was producing time, as when Marx writes,
“Money […] is the phenomenal form that must of necessity be assumed by that measure of value which is immanent in commodities, labour-time”.
I am paid by the hour, not per item. I imbue each item with the time I spend labouring on it. It was half-past eight and I had eleven hours to go.
I can understand that labouring has the potential to open up a space for spiritual growth. There is a long history in various traditions of the crafts of monks and nuns of all faiths: the earliest Christian ‘desert fathers’ plaiting palms in their cells in Northern Africa; the hard, earthy “Chop wood, carry water” philosophy of Zen Buddhism. The repetitiveness of the work is like a mantra, the spinning of a Sufi, the beads on a rosary. “Monotony is the most beautiful or the most atrocious thing” writes Weil,
“The most beautiful if it is a reflection of eternity – the most atrocious if it is the sign of an unvarying perpetuity. It is time surpassed or time sterilized.”
I was back at my workbench after our morning tea-break, looking ahead to our half hour for lunch. The repetition did not surpass time. When I watched the wood spin at 3000rpm on the lathe, it did not reflect eternity. It couldn’t, because as I took each piece out of the lathe, it was five, ten, fifteen minutes closer to our lunch break, the halfway point, halfway to the end of the working day.
By the time our lunch-break was coming to an end, with another six hours to go, I realised it wasn’t the work itself that I dreaded, nor was it the work itself that Weil formed her mysticism of work within. Instead, it was, as Weil describes it, “disgust for work” which provided the basis for her working mysticism, disgust rooted in worker alienation. Weil writes:
“Why has there never been a mystic, workman or peasant, to write on the use to be made of disgust for work. Our souls fly from this disgust […] and try to hide by reacting vegetatively […] This disgust is the burdensomeness of time. To acknowledge it to ourselves without giving way under it makes us mount upwards.”
Weil’s mysticism of work is really a mysticism of disgust for work. Unlike a monk who, working for the benefit of their community, can find eternity in the repetitions of their labours, we are alienated from our labour. We don’t choose what to make each day, creating something reflective of ourselves; we each work only on a specific stage of each product, repetitively performing the same tasks; our pay is no reflection of how useful the product is, nor even how much money someone is willing to pay for it, because we are paid for our time at an abstract hourly rate. ‘Chop wood, carry water’ is no path to enlightenment when we have to do it, not because we need wood and water, but for £8.72 per hour. The alienation of the worker is itself the space in which Weil sees a way to “mount upwards”.
Despite this breakthrough, it still seems impossible to use alienation in this way. Sitting on a low wall opposite the workshop on our final fifteen minute tea-break, I wonder if the impossibility is key. In Weil’s notion of metaxu, each barrier to ‘mounting upwards’ (to enlightenment, to God) is also a bridge, a point of connection and possibility. I understand this by imagining a window: while we cannot go through it, it allows us to see out.
As we approach half-past seven and the end of the first shift, I’m too tired to think about these things. Perhaps I’m “[trying] to hide by reacting vegetatively”, but as we line up to clock-out, I can just about imagine a post-Capitalist future in which we could find a genuine mysticism of work, where through our labours, working to improve people’s lives rather than the profit margins of a few, we could ‘mount upwards’. To do so as things are, it seems to me as I walk home, we’d have to be saints.
Featured Image CC BY-ND 2.0 Franklin Hunting
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