I don’t know if are aware of the H P Lovecraft short story “Cool Air.” In it, the narrator explains why it is he has an aversion to cold. He tells the story of meeting a doctor who lived upstairs from him. Through the use of a refrigeration system he has built and continues to build, he keeps his entire apartment extremely cold for unknown reasons. Eventually, the system breaks down and the narrator is forced to help the doctor stay cold with buckets of ice. But in the morning, after getting back with the replacement parts for the air conditioner, he finds the doctor in a hideous state of decomposition because he had actually been dead for 18 years, just keeping himself “alive” with his various chemical concoctions and the cool air.
I find the doctor’s plight very compelling. This constant effort to stave off death. It has a certain similarity to what a junkie does each day to stave off withdrawal. But it is also the way I feel right now with my work. I am producing stuff at an alarming rate. Although I complained recently that I felt like my work was becoming hackish, it is also undeniably true that it is becoming longer and deeper. And to some extent, I see it as an effort to avoid thinking about my life.
The only reason I’m even aware of this is that when I exercise, I am left to my own thoughts. I’ve noticed that the speed that I run is determined by exactly how disturbed I am about whatever it is I am thinking about at a given moment. Much of it is quite trivial. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it is all trivial. I’ve even begun to wonder if all the conservatives are right when they talk about the poor — but not about the poor generally. When John Boehner says the poor don’t want to work, he’s kind of right about me. The truth is that I am not interested in doing yet more work that gets destroyed by the money men. And that is the more pleasant and high paying work. I am also not interested in getting a soul crushing job at the local gas station. All of it makes me think that we have a pretty screwed up society when the vast majority of people do actually pointless work. Really, we should all be working on farms an hour a day and spending the rest of our time writing stories and trying to understand Galois theory.
So I suppress this kind of reflection on the practical matters of my life with mental strip mining. I read and write and read and write. It is an extremely selfish thing. I often think that since others are so interested in practical matters, it isn’t really necessary for me to do so. Isn’t it the case that everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job simply because everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job? Most people think the 40 hour work week was on those clay tablets Moses brought down off the mountain. Tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. And you shall not work more than 40 hours per week unless your employer payeth unto you one and a half time.” The truth is the 40 hour work week is relatively new. So why not a 30 hour work week? Or 20? Or 10? You’ve got to ask yourself why you work so much and why so many people now work on Christmas. We do it because we lack freedom — we lack the freedom that hunter-gathers had twenty thousand years ago.
At the same time, I fear all the excessive “unproductive” work that I do is the only thing that is keeping me from having a nervous break down. Or at least a break down of some kind. And maybe that’s what everyone is doing. The clerk at the gas station goes to work not just because he needs the money (I do understand the practical side of life) but because he’s afraid that if he doesn’t keep working, he may find himself dead. Actually: more than dead. He may find that he died 18 years ago.