Friday, May 6, 2011


Last night, probably for the first time in about four years, I opened my copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. Evans's photos and Agee's lyrical, impassioned, exhausting prose document the lives of several white sharecropper families in the South--in 1936.

The second passage I flipped to surprised me in its relation to our discussion in class of repetitive, menial work and its effect on the worker. Agee states that "This arduous physical work, to which a consciousness beyond that of the simplest child would be only a useless and painful encumbrance, is undertaken without choice or the thought of chance of choice" from generation to generation for nothing more than the bare necessities of life.

Interestingly, his word choice hints that he perhaps finds subsistence farming that produces no surplus more horrific than industrial work, or maybe more plausibly that he thinks working for a community is better than being exploited by a landlord:
I say here only: work as a means to other ends might have some favor in it, even which of itself dull and heartless work, in which one's strength was used for another man's benefit: but the ends of this work are absorbed entirely into the work itself, and in what little remains, nearly all is obliterated; nearly nothing is obtainable; nearly all is cruelly stained, in the tensions of physical need, and in the desperate tensions of the need of work which is not available.

(I recommend reading his text aloud.)

Of his own description of the brutal and futile work, he says
I have said this now three times. If I were capable, as I wish I were, I could say it once in such a way that it would be there in its complete awefulness. Yet knowing, too, how it is repeated upon each of them, in every day of their lives, so powerfully, so entirely that it is simply the natural air they breathe, I wonder whether it could ever be said enough times.

So he tries one more time:
The plain details of a task once represented, a stern enough effort in itself, how is it possibly to be made clear enough that this same set of leverages has been undertaken by this woman in nearly every day of the eleven or the twenty-five years since her marriage, and will be persisted in in nearly every day to come in all the rest of her life; and that it is only one among the many processes of wearying effort which make the shape of each one of her living days; how is it to be calculated, the number of times she has done these things, the number of times she is still to do them; how conceivably in words is it to be given as it is in actuality, the accumulated weight of these actions upon her; and what it has made of her body; and what it has made of her mind and of her heart and of her being.... and [her eyes] are to be multiplied, not losing the knowledge that each is a single, unrepeatable, holy individual, by the two billion human creatures who are alive upon the planet today... of whom the huge swarm and majority are made and acted upon as she is: and of all these individuals, contemplate, try to encompass, the one annihilating chord.

He wants people to feel, as "the iron anguish and guilt of your existence" that we can only make up for "what she has suffered at your hands, and for what you have gained at hers" by doing everything we can to make this injustice right.

Oh, and this is her (or one of her):

He wants you to meet those eyes.

I loved Agee's prose as a sixteen-year-old (it quickly became my absolute favorite book ever that I couldn't make it even nearly halfway through), and I still love it--but it strikes me as more melodramatic now. (One line I memorized when I first read it, that goes something like "lugubrious, almost surreptitious, he is making a statement he so misbelieves it is almost a question that expects no answer save the utter scorn and denial of silence" describes the first rooster to crow every morning.)

However, I am sure that repetitive hard, hopeless labor does wreck the body and the mind/heart/being--in everyone from a migrant farmer or slaughterhouse worker to a secretary with carpal tunnel. I guess there's two components in that: gruelingness of job and probability of social mobility. And how grueling a job is, as Agee points out, depends on many factors, including who's benefiting from it.

What do people think about Agee's emphasis on repetition, across one life and then multiplied across many lives, as a centrally horrifying component of labor? In the White reading, for example, there was an emphasis on the dangerousness of the jobs, the deaths and injuries that occurred. That's what I tend to think about when I think about bad working conditions: the physical conditions of the workplace, the risks involved, the lack of access to adequate food, shelter, and healthcare. The discussion in class and the passage above sparked my interest in the degrading impact of sheer repetition as a similarly serious problem.

1 comment:

  1. Bruce used to talk about the difference between 'Toil' and 'Work". Toil was what you did for the man, and work was what you did for yourself.

    Mike Taub