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Work, holidays, leisure, recreation, and the search for meaning in late modernity: Part Three

By Mark Wegierski
web posted December 15, 2008

It's clear that a given culture can be evaluated not only by the nature of its work, but also 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 abase himself before various politically-correct shibboleths to keep aggressive government prosecutors off his back. About the most intelligent and reflective billionaire one can recently think of, was probably Sir James Goldsmith.

It does appear today that the reflective, humanities-oriented traditionalist has become a "superfluous person."  While they 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 reductively-defined 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 almost stereotypically portrayed in Tom Wolfe's novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) has become especially raucous and base. We are very far from the times of the 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 take up something that they would feel would be more creative labor, while for others, no matter how successful they are at their career, or in fact, how immensely wealthy they become, they would not rise above a culturally vapid and shallow level. 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 they make. The upholding of the taboo is probably out of the recognition that that 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. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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