The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
10.4 (Fall 2007)
Work, Holidays, Leisure, Recreation, and the Search for Meaning in Late Modernity
Mark Wegierski is a freelance Canadian journalist working out of Toronto . His book reviews and essays about pop culture, science fiction, and political and economic theory have frequently appeared in Praesidium.
This article will be looking at some issues around work, holidays, leisure, and recreation in late modern societies—mostly focussing on the United States , Canada , and Western Europe .
We should begin, first of all, by looking at holidays as they existed in earlier societies, and trying to distinguish between a few main types of holiday as they exist today. In the English language, the word “holiday” is derived from the word “holy day”. In earlier European societies, traditional holidays were usually bound up with the Christian religion—or what could be considered a social-cultural-religious-political complex called “Christendom”. Like with many other religious traditions on the planet, the Christian holidays (in addition to their explicitly religious provenance) were organically tied to nature and the rhythm of the seasons. Christmas represented the point when the Sun (the source of life) began to return—with the days slowly growing longer after the nadir of the Winter Solstice. Easter, which fell in the spring, was obviously tied to the rebirth of nature after the winter. Like in many other religious traditions, the Christian holidays were either tied to mortification (Advent, Lent) or, of course, feasting and celebration (Christmas and Easter). Indeed, the term “feast-days” was used for major Christian holidays. There was also the regular “pause-day” of Sunday—when work was definitely frowned upon. Insofar as the Industrial Revolution tended to break down the organic, mostly agriculture-based rhythm of life set by the Christian calendar, Christianity has tended to wither, although it did bravely endeavor to take the fight to the cities, so to speak, as exemplified in the De Rerum Novarum encyclical of Pope Leo XIII.
There are all sorts of interesting social, psychological, and health-related reasons for fasting, and for prohibitions against certain types of foods. Obviously, the period of Lent fell in the period of scarcity of late Winter and early Spring, when there was often very little food available. The ban on red meat on Fridays encouraged the healthy consumption of fish. Most interestingly, the Polish Wigilia (Christmas Eve celebration) combines elements of restraint and exuberance—the ban on red meat, but of course the hope of having a filling feast of (among other foods) fish. Wigilia has been a very special time for Poles; and it has been noted that, even in the direst of circumstances, such as in Soviet slave labor camps, Poles tried somehow to mark the holiday.
With the emergence of sharply defined nations from the Middle Ages, there arose a series of patriotic, so-called national holidays that marked momentous occasions in the life of a given nation. In Polish national life, these have come to include such holidays as May 3rd (commemorating the Constitution of 1791—a brave attempt to reform the Polish state before the night of the long Partition period set in), and November 11th (commemorating Poland’s regaining of national independence in 1918, after 123 years under Partition).
Another aspect of holidays is that of joyful recreation, which sometimes moves into a “transgressive” edge. This can be seen in the Roman Saturnalia, the medieval Lords of Misrule, and the Carnival before Lent. Premodern societies were, of course, normally characterized by very severe strictures on behaviors and multifarious levels of hierarchy. The brief “carnival” type of period was probably very important psychologically in making the other times of the year somewhat more bearable. A rather interesting holiday in the Irish tradition was Halloween, which later came to America and Canada .
It cannot be denied that life in premodern periods was often far harsher than it is today. The amount of time available for so-called leisure and recreation in premodern societies for the majority of the population—such as, for example, the poorer peasants –was usually nugatory.
From one perspective, it could be argued that disposable leisure hours have vastly increased, especially in countries like America and Canada . Nevertheless, as in the case of many tendencies in this confusing and contradictory period of late modernity, one could perceive a “hypertrophy” in the advance of the amount of time available for leisure and recreation, as well as a massive withering of what is considered the meaning of a “holiday” today: i.e., the abundance of such time may be both excessive and unhealthy.
Obviously, with the decline of the sacred in Western societies, the august, sublime aspects of religious as well as national holidays have vastly diminished. At the same time, the advance of technology and commercialism has made a “24-7” trading mentality ever more prevalent and actually possible. The “market” seems to demand that commercial activities must go on without interruption. At the same time, there has occurred a massive commercialization of such holidays as Christmas, where it is expected that young children, for example, will receive computers, cell-phones, or MP3 players as gifts. There is also a war in America and Canada being waged by the “politically correct” against the use of traditional terms such as “Merry Christmas”—which is supposedly “offensive” to non-Christians. The Afrocentrists in America invented in the 1960s a ridiculous holiday called Kwanzaa, which is supposed to counteract the “whiteness” of Christmas. An example of a long-standing national holiday in the U.S. which has been virtually annihilated by “political correctness” is Columbus Day. So “holidays”—as they have been traditionally understood—are under a many-sided assault.
The “hypertrophy” of leisure and recreation mainly occurs as a result of the cretinization or stupefaction of large portions of the American and Canadian population by a combination of factors which it is sometimes difficult to fully identify. There is the idiotic pop-culture, the failure of schools, libraries and other cultural institutions to nurture an appropriate “counter-ethic”, and the valorization of the lowest sorts of tastes and needs as equally valid with those involving reflection, contemplation, and real human sympathy.
The official unemployment rates in Canada and the United States (which may in fact be somewhat understated) are usually about 8% and 5%, respectively. These are, after all, societies of great prosperity, where the presence of pockets of poverty is probably greatly exaggerated by the media. The economic situation for very many people in Poland , Ukraine , or Russia , is clearly far, far worse. It is not very popular to state that much of the poverty in Canada and the United States is a subjective state that usually afflicts either those with severe mental problems (about 50% of the homeless are former mental patients whose “de-institutionalization” has probably been of rather dubious benefit to them) or those with various character problems. Since the discourse of character and responsibility has largely disappeared from Canadian and American society, the afflicted are not likely to find encouragement to change their ways.
There has usually been a very broad variety of employment available in Canada and the United States . The employment situation is curiously contradictory. For example, the “white-collaring” of most available work has not necessarily served the interests of those in the traditional working class who would probably be happy and competent working in the factory. It should also be remembered that around 45% of the population in Canada and the United States has some kind of post-secondary education—but the corollary of that is that the true meaning of such an education has greatly diminished. It has been estimated that, in America today, a person with a B. A. degree is roughly on the knowledge level of a high school graduate in 1951.
What is to be noticed is that there is virtually no discernible drive for self-cultivation among most of the persons in Canada and the United States who receive welfare support that is vastly more generous than that available, for example, in Poland or other East-Central European societies. (Except for the retirement pensions of certain former state officials, we should not delude ourselves about the “generosity” of the “welfare-state” in Poland , or other East-Central European societies.) Whether because of deficiencies of character or the stupefying nature of the mass-media and mass-education system, the typical welfare recipients are sunk into a morass of apathy.
Turning to the so-called middle classes in North America , one often finds some modicum of technical skills or competence, combined with unbelievable levels of shallowness, and the willingness to follow “politically correct” fads like sheep, regardless of common sense and human nature. Among many of the wealthier persons, and even among so-called “creative types” or “intellectual types”, one finds astounding levels of shallowness and faddish political conformity.
There are some people in North American society, such as “the working poor”, who are working very hard indeed. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, many Americans are extremely hard-working. There are many jobs at the lower end of the social scale that may not be particularly pleasant, yet many Americans work diligently at them. They are not shirkers. Hard work in America is frequently enough “rewarded” by the company’s outsourcing of one’s job abroad (typically to China) or the “in-sourcing” of one’s work at two levels: the more menial jobs go mostly to illegal Mexican immigrants, while computer industry jobs typically go to persons brought in from the Indian subcontinent, frequently on the basis of the so-called H1-B visas. Indeed, most U.S. corporations are international or transnational in their outlook and mentality. The ones that are more “national” in orientation are likely to be part of the “military-industrial complex”—i.e., their “patriotism” is flagrantly contingent on their receipt of lucrative government contracts rather than based on any more intrinsic love of the country and its people.
There are also such occupational groups as lawyers or stockbrokers, who are well rewarded financially, but work punitive hours. One wonders whether they are natural “workaholics” or if they are driven by the need for more and more money to support a ever more lavish lifestyle. On the other hand, there are some occupations where the work is comparatively light and lackadaisical. In Canada , for example, it is very common for those not working at government jobs to despise civil servants, whose positions are seen as rather cushy. Some have snidely argued that most government jobs in Canada could disappear without having any negative impact on the society; that, in fact, considering the meddlesome social engineering the government frequently engages in, the loss of such would probably improve Canada socially and culturally.
Paradoxically, we are seeing – in different parts of current-day society—such trends as “the end of work”; “the rise of leisure and recreation”; and “the end of leisure” — at virtually the same time.
Although Western Europeans are considered to be devoted to their recreation and leisure, relative to North Americans, the current-day Western European embrace of recreation and leisure does not appear to be leading to much of an intellectual and cultural renaissance. Most Western Europeans seem just as sunk in “vidiocy” and pop-culture drivel as the stereotypical American. About the best that can usually be achieved is that “sophisticated” Western Europeans become epicures rather than gourmands in their self-indulgent decadence.
It’s clear that a given culture can be evaluated not only by the nature of its work, but by the nature of its holidays, leisure, and recreation. Even at the most stratospheric heights of wealth, one finds unbelievable shallowness. The life of Hollywood movie-stars, rock- and rap-stars, and sport-stars seems to finds its very definition in its “lowness” and “baseness”. Then there is the “billionaire serf” phenomenon—typified by Bill Gates. Not only does he have to spend a huge amount of time and effort to keep his company “on top”: he pretty well has to kow-tow to various politically correct shibboleths to keep aggressive government prosecutors off his back. This means such things as billions of dollars in scholarships to “minority youth”. The most intelligent and reflective billionaire of recent times was probably Sir James Goldsmith.
It does appear today that the reflective, humanities-oriented traditionalist has become a “superfluous person”. While such types often do not have an aptitude for the technical, scientific, or medical—which can usually assure a good income today–they also do not fit well into the “organizational culture” in government, in business, in the current-day humanities and social sciences, in increasingly technicized professions, in law, and in the media.
Nevertheless, apart from such somewhat “esoteric” examples, life in Canada and America is comparatively easy for most people. Towards the lower end of the social scale, it often resembles the life of the lower castes in Huxley’s Brave New World—a period of comparatively light work, and then “entertainment” unencumbered by any sense of the sacred, religion, history, or tasteful restraint. For the higher castes, it is pretty close to the admonition of the Brave New World society, “we should be adults at work, and infants at play.” It has also become possible, to a greater extent than in any earlier period in human history, to “take one’s holiday” in a location very remote from where one usually lives. Hence we see the flooding of Western tourists into various well- and less-trodden vacation spots. What then occurs could be called the “touristification” of indigenous cultures. One possible attitude to the explosion of tourism is that a mind and soul that is mostly empty upon embarking on the tourist trip is not suddenly going to become richly endowed after a trip to even the most spectacular cultural and natural vistas.
One of the main underpinnings of the issue of work vs. holiday today is the clearly “unbalanced” nature of late modernity. Today, some people are still working hard out of sheer necessity, others are working hard because work simply fills up the meaninglessness of their lives, while others are working hardly. It could be pointed out that the ever more raucous and “transgressive” celebration of holidays such as Halloween unbalances the psyche. A social commentator has described current-day America as a “carnival culture”. There was a famous song in the 1980s (by the rock-group Ministry) that proclaimed “that Halloween is every day.” In premodern societies, a comparatively short period of “carnival” offered a necessary psychological relief to the harsh strictures and multifarious hierarchies of those societies. Yet today, what possible social and psychological purpose is served by non-stop “partying” and self-indulgence—especially among popular celebrities? One also notices that life among university students (recently portrayed almost stereotypically in Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons) has become especially raucous and base. We are very far from the times of medieval clerks in the current-day academy, and the Lords of Misrule cannot reign every day of the year.
The issue of finding the so-called balance between work and play is largely conditioned by the fact that most people exist in a vacuum of meaninglessness in late modernity. For many people, work takes up time, and recreation takes up time, but there is a hollow core at the center of their existence. For some people, the curiously uneven dictates of “the market” mean that they cannot sacrifice hours that might otherwise be given to more creative labor; while others, no matter how successful they are at their career, or, in fact, how immensely wealthy they become, would not rise above a culturally vapid and shallow level through any expenditure of time. There is a certain distinct harshness in NOT being able to have one’s creative labor comparatively well rewarded on the so-called “open market”. “Yes, but how much does it PAY?” is a harsh, goading question—and it is pretty well an absolute taboo in Anglo-American societies to ask a person how much money he makes. The upholding of the taboo is probably out of the recognition that pay is usually considered the most important social indicator. One possible response to the crass calculus of orienting oneself to “the practical” or “the technical” or “the politically expedient” is the possibility that a kind of “cunning of reason” operates in society, where even the most supposedly “impractical” interests—if they are truly sincerely and diligently pursued—will eventually be somehow rewarded, perhaps even in financial terms. We cannot all be doctors, lawyers, technical workers, or MBA graduates. Ironically, it could be argued that the current-day frenzy for business studies (such as management and marketing) that is taking place in such countries like Poland , has reduced the concrete value of most such studies in the job-market to almost zero.
Nevertheless, regardless of the “practical” dictates of “finding a job”, most persons are well served by going on the path of a search for meaning through reflection and self-cultivation. It may be remembered that, in premodern societies, “the holiday” often constituted a reminder of the sacred. With society collectively having mostly lost that sense of “holiday” today, most of us are reduced to being individual seekers after something that will give meaning to our lives—whether in our work, holidays, leisure, or recreation.