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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

THE HOMERIC IDEAL



I spent last New Year's Eve with my boy Jason and his family. Damn has it been that long? His mother, Hedda, whom I have known since we were prepubescents, asked me why I was without a woman in my life. Before I could reply, Jason's girlfriend said, "Because he doesn't need one." I couldn't have said it better myself. 

So often guys shack up to have someone to help them with all the cooking, cleaning, shopping and general housekeeping that needs to be done. Or to do them altogether. Because rare is the man who is the do-it-yourself type. Including Jason, whose idea of a home-cooked meal is boiled spinach. At least it's nutritious. 

I pride myself on being self-sufficient, and there is a historical precedent to uphold. In the world of Homer, that unparalleled Greed tragedian, the heroes of his tales, in addition to being great conquerors and world travelers, assist in the erection of their houses, while princesses perform such menial tasks as washing clothes. All this belongs to the self-sufficiency of the Homeric ideal, to his independence and the "autonomic supremacy of his person," to quote an authority on the subject, who is also a woman. No work is beneath one if it means greater independence. Household work might well be a sign of slavishness if not personal independence but merely getting through the day is at stake: if it were not an expression of sovereignty but mere subservience. Nowadays a sign of superiority is the ability to delegate these tasks to the labor class, and hope they at least speak broken English.

Not so with me. I love to work in the garden. It affords me time in nature, and I get to make the roses look just the way I want them to be. And they've never looked better. Also it spares me the task of having to hire a gardener to invade the yard each week with his power tools. For someone who practically lives in a glass house, often naked, such invasion means being seen in my birthday suit more times than I care to admit. But the fact that I like to spend time pruning and weeding and planting around my house hardly means that I would enjoy making a living as a gardener. The work is back-breaking and though it gives me pleasure to regard the clean yard after hours spent sweeping and watering, the job is otherwise thankless, since it is never done. 

Similarly, I'd never want to be a dish washer, although cleaning up after myself is part of the process of eating and digesting. Otherwise it would be slavery. Indeed "the institution of slavery in antiquity was an attempt to exclude labor from the conditions of the free person's life. What humans share with all other forms of animal life was not considered to be human." Less activity meant more time for contemplation, which the ancients prized above everything as the ideal life. The Greeks praised the "gentleman-farmer, who stays at home, keeps away from adventures of the sea as well as public business in town, and minds his own business." And while many pine for the easy life, the "life of the rich and famous," such a soft existence loses in vitality, in closeness to the good things of nature, what it gains in luxury and leisure. As my neighbor says, work away, for by the sweat of your brow you cleanse the soul. I didn't know mine was even dirty.

People say I'm a writer. I find such a classification limiting, if not demeaning. I write, but I don't define myself as such. Also, I don't make any money at it, which seems to be part of the standard definition. I wasn't born a writer. Besides, even when I write I only do it a mere fraction of the time (like however long it takes to finish this, time's a ticking). Hell, I wasn't even born speaking. Anything that I supposedly am today I once was not. It is merely a learned behavior. And so I can drop it on a whim. I often go months without putting pen to page. Harper Lee went decades. And she's considered one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. And was a millionairess. While I have hardly any money of my own, and this is the real reason why I'm alone.

The problem with the current way is that we are defined by our jobs, we spend the vast majority of our waking hours making a living, which leaves precious little room for rest and recreation. And so we forget how to relax and have a good time. Then when it comes time to retire, we watch 49 weekly hours of TV, the average for the senior citizen. That's 7 hours a day. Like many day jobs, only here the office chair is exchanged for the overstuffed couch. 

My father refuses to retire, partly out of fear. He watched what happened to his father, who was a millionaire by 40, quit work and became a general malcontent with a gambling addiction. And so my dad still practices law at nearly 80. His days begin at 1 pm and rarely penetrate into the evening hours, so it's more of a semi-retirement, offering an excuse to get out of the house, put on a dress-shirt, problem solve, socialize and make a little money - if his clients pay, and everyone knows that one's lawyer is the last to get paid after the IRS. He does this also by necessity, since a life spent in the work force has left him without any hobbies. 

I on the other hand have enjoyed free time since meandering through college. I've never had a career, unless you count that year I worked as a doctor, but it was so grueling I'd just as soon forget about it. Consequently I've never developed tunnel vision, become one dimensional. I've always had hobbies - exercise, reading, sunning, meditating. I don't define myself by any of these. They are merely things to do, ways to occupy my time. While I am merely content to be. And it's not easy, just being. But it has its rewards, see for yourself.

Nowadays whatever we do is for the sake of making a living. This is the verdict of modern society. It is sad that success is measured by the size of one's bank account, a gauge of specialization - as athlete or musician or numbers cruncher or entrepreneur - when instead success should be judged by the degree of well-roundedness. Where have our Renaissance individuals gone? Most specialists would be lost if you deprived them of their bevy of assistants, servants, gardeners, housekeepers, cooks and drivers. And most members of even the lower middle class outsource some if not all of these essential tasks. I don't know about you, but the idea of having someone cook my spinach for me makes me feel powerless. And also hungry.

Karl Marx envisioned a future in which all professions would become hobbies. There would be no painters but only people who among other things spend their time also painting; people, that is, who "do this today and that tomorrow, who hunt in the morning, go fishing in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, are critics after dinner, as they see fit, without for that matter ever becoming hunters, fisherman, shepherds or critics." Socialism has gotten a bad rap since the Soviet experiment failed, and it was based on the illusion that if you don't exhaust yourself on the drudgery of life you will nourish other higher activities, like meditation. But the truth is that the spare time of most is hardly ever spent on anything but consumption, as of salty snacks and Seinfeld reruns.

The ancients also knew that the secret to happiness is a body free of pain and a mind free from worry. If whatever you do does not tend to one or both of these supreme goals, then leave it alone! And all-too-often, specialization results in the exact opposite: that is, a bad back and a headache.

The Renaissance, and the Homeric ideal, can survive in you. But you must allow yourself the occasional day off. Just go easy on the TV.

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