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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 27, 2002

Romantic Labor / Romantic Leisure

Sous la direction de Robert Anderson

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/006560ar

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Article

'Alternate Labour and Relaxation': An Introduction

Robert Anderson

Oakland University


1

If the Creature could be said to have any happy moments in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, they would clearly take place during his residency in the hovel attached to the De Laceys' cottage. The list of possible sources of this happiness would have to include what David Marshall has called the "surprising effects of sympathy." There are many indications, however, that that happiness is a result of the balance he struck in his "mode of life" between labor and leisure. Not only are the Creature's accounts of the activities of the De Laceys filled with descriptions of their labor (gathering wood and collecting milk, working in their garden) and leisure activities (playing music, reading, conversing), but he describes his own activities in terms that emphasize these activities. As the Creature explains,

My mode of life in my hovel was uniform. During the morning I attended the motions of the cottagers; and when they were dispersed in various occupations, I slept; the remainder of the day was spent in observing my friends. When they had retired to rest, if there was any moon, or the night was star-light, I went into the woods, and collected my own food and fuel for the cottage. When I returned, as often as it was necessary, I cleared their path from the snow, and performed those offices that I had seen done by Felix. I afterwards found that these labours, performed by an invisible hand, greatly astonished them; and once or twice, I heard them, on these occasions, utter the words good spirit, wonderful; but I did not then understand the signification of these terms.

76-77

2

The allusion to Smith's economic theory, articulated both in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and in The Wealth of Nations, in which an "invisible hand" reconciles for the public good the competing agendas of separate individuals pursuing their own self-interest, is one indication that the passage aspires to engage in dialogue with ambitious social theories. Daniel Cottom reads this passage as a representation of the invisibility imposed on the laboring classes who make possible the recuperation of aggressive individualism for the public good (66-67). But the Creature's labor here is a special case because it is voluntary in the strictest sense. It is motivated by sympathy for the De Laceys and not by the demands of subsistence. Although the Creature is unseen, the De Laceys' good is secured by what Wordsworth called "the labours of benevolence"—and not by an abstracted "invisible hand." What is more, this labor is presented as part of a mutual relationship (even if the De Laceys are unaware of the part they play)—the Creature's efforts to liberate the cottagers from the necessity of laboring allow both parties to strike a productive balance of labor and leisure.

3

But if the novel complicates the reciprocal relation of the Creature and the De Laceys, then it is even more aggressive in blurring the relation between labor and leisure. The cottagers' leisure is filled with activity: playing music, engaging in conversation, and the instruction of language. Significantly, in Frankenstein, rather than an aggregation of individual self-interest-seekers advancing the general good, here the "invisible hand" recuperates individual labor devoted to the public good for individual benefit. The Creature's gifts of leisure to the De Laceys secure him the instruction he sees as vital for his future success. Even the structure of the passage seems significant in its alternation—then blurring—of activities of labor and leisure (he watches while they work; he works so they can pursue leisure activities).

4

Even more important than Shelley's nod to, and critique of, Adam Smith's social theory is the allusion to her father's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in this passage. According to Godwin's examination of the relationship between labor and leisure, the Creature's life in the hovel is ideal:

The situation which the wise man would desire, for himself, and for those in whose welfare he was interested, would be a situation of alternate labour and relaxation, labour that should not exhaust the frame, and relaxation that was in no danger of degenerating into indolence. Thus industry and activity would be cherished, the frame preserved in a healthful tone, and the mind accustomed to meditation and improvement. But this would be the situation of the whole human species if the supply of our wants were fairly distributed.

484

5

The claim that Shelley is attempting to embody her father's theory is made more reasonable when we consider the uses to which the Creature puts his relaxation. The "balance" of labor and leisure that I have been discussing is, actually, a challenge to the very distinction. If one element of a definition of "leisure" is the voluntary disposition of time (as opposed to carrying out someone else's directives), then the Creature's labors are as leisurely as are his enjoyments of music and studies of language. At the same time, his studies are laborious and productive, clearly under no risk of "degenerating into indolence." Just as "the wise man" fuses labor and leisure, the Creature spends his leisure time studying "the godlike science" of language, saying, "I applied my whole mind to the endeavour" of learning to speak, read, and write as well as to the project of introducing himself to the De Laceys (76). The Creature's language here seems especially relevant: both "I applied my whole mind" and "the endeavour" emphasize the laboriousness of the process. This difficulty of distinguishing between labor and leisure—figured in the oddity of pursuing this "endeavour" while reclined on the ground (since, as he explains it, the hovel was so small that "he could with difficulty sit up in it"; 71)—is not new to any academic, especially those devoted to the labor of studying texts designed for leisure.

6

What is more, Godwin's writings on the subject of labor and leisure suggest that, in a kind of ironic twist, by freeing up the De Laceys to pursue leisure activities conducive to their improvement, he is providing the most important service one can provide for the poor. Giving the poor more work to increase their income, as many recommended, only increases their servitude. Since, as Godwin argues in The Enquirer, leisure is the only meaningful measure of wealth (167), sharing their labor would allow them to pursue those leisure activities that accustom their minds "to meditation and improvement" (Political Justice 753). In his discussion of property in Political Justice, Godwin makes explicit the political nature of his analysis of the ideal relation between labor and leisure:

Laborious employment is a calamity now because it is imperiously prescribed upon men as the condition of their existence, and because it shuts them out from a fair participation in the means of knowledge and improvement. When it shall be rendered in the strictest sense voluntary, when it shall cease to interfere with our improvement, and rather become part of it, or at worse be converted into a source of amusement and variety, it may then be no longer a calamity, but a benefit.

753

7

As I argue in a recent essay in The Wordsworth Circle, for Godwin, this concern for a balance of labor and leisure involves a redefinition of both terms: labor must become "voluntary" and a "source of amusement and variety" and leisure must become productive (10-11). Godwin's concerns for redefining the concepts of labor and leisure were taken up by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth's "wise passiveness," for example, must surely owe something to his reading of Godwin. Coleridge's "Lines Upon Having Left a Seat of Retirement" echoes Godwin's concern that "the supply of our wants [be] fairly distributed" in its apocalyptic wish that all have a cottage—which represents both a physical possession and a place of leisure—like the one whose rest he abjures in joining "head, hand and heart" in the "bloodless fight" and "honourable toil" of working for justice, freedom and equality (60-72).

8

Ideally then, in this Godwinian context, the interpenetration of labor and leisure should qualify the Creature for full acceptance into and participation in civil society while preparing the De Lacey family to accept him. But it is not clear what we are to make of the disastrous outcome of this blurring of labor and leisure for the Creature. There is no indication that a rigorous guarding of the separation would have somehow ensured his acceptance. What appears to be certain, however, as the essays collected in this special issue indicate, is that this refusal of the binary division of labor and leisure is characteristic of the treatment of the subject by both Romantic writers and romantic scholars.

9

If the contributions to this special issue are at all representative of either our current critical perceptions or of the preoccupations of writers during the Romantic period, then Blake, who figures in two excellent essays, is another important source for exploration of Romantic treatments of labor and leisure. Indeed, in a passage that he first drafted for "The Four Zoas," and later included in plate 65 of Jerusalem, Blake sets up a political analysis of labor and leisure in terms that recall Godwin's, although there is no evidence that Blake ever read Godwin, and claims about their interaction in the Johnson circle are hotly disputed. The most sustained discussion of the possible lines of influence between the two writers can be found in Mark Schorer's William Blake: The Politics of Vision. While Schorer hesitates to claim any direct lines of influence, he clearly suggests some kind of relation. He describes Godwin's influence as "a focus for Blake, not a 'source'" (152). More relevant to this discussion, Schorer situates both Godwin (especially in his 1805 novel, Fleetwood) and Blake in relation to industrialization and the effects of mind-numbing labor (197-215). In describing the complicity of industry with the forces of war, the passage describes the activities of the Sons of Urizen who have left "the plow & harrow the loom/ The hammer & the Chisel & the rule & compasses, [. . .] changd [. . .] all the arts of life [. . .] into the arts of death" and

The hour glass contemnd because its simple workmanship

Was as the workmanship of the plowman & the water wheel

That raises water into Cisterns broken & burnd in fire

Because its workmanship was like the workmanship of the Shepherd

And in their stead intricate wheels invented Wheel without wheel

To perplex youth in their outgoings & to bind to labours

Of day & night the myriads of Eternity that they might file

And polish brass & iron hour after hour laborious workmanship

Kept ignorant of the use that they might spend the days of wisdom

In sorrowful drudgery to obtain a scanty pittance of bread

In ignorance to view a small portion & think that All

And call it Demonstration blind to all the simple rules of life.

364

10

Although Blake may never have read Godwin, there is a strong echo here of Godwin's formulation in his The Enquirer (published in 1797, about the time of one of the dates associated with Blake's unfinished and almost undatable poem[1]) that since labor is the condition of their existence, "the poor are condemned to a want of that leisure which is necessary for the improvement of the mind. They are the predestinated victims of ignorance and prejudice. [. . .] Whatever be the prejudice, the weakness or the superstition of their age and country, they have scarcely any chance to escape it" (167).

11

Mark Lussier's suggestive essay on the "The Four Zoas" nicely articulates the Blakean (and Godwinian) notion of the mutual implication of labor and leisure in his reading of the play Blake works on the poem's epigraph: "Rest before Labour." As if the poem were not daunting enough on its own, Lussier, in the most aggressively theoretical essay in the collection, cautions us against passing too quickly over this crucial passage. Lussier's subtle examination of the difficulty of this simple phrase recalls Derrida's reading, in The Truth in Painting, of Cezanne's statement, "I owe you the truth in painting" (2-13). Lussier uses Kristeva's theories of subjectivity to explore Blake's attempt to awaken the sleeping Albion. Elaborating Freud's notion that "the unconscious labors as the body rests," Lussier's essay shows how Blake's poetic-prophetic enterprise seeks to bring about a state in which the "mental chains are melted in the furies of the dream work." At the same time, however, the essay examines the troubling gender hierarchies which remain in Blake's poem.

12

Brian Goldberg approaches Blake in a very different way. Reading "The Little Black Boy," "The Chimney Sweeper," and "The Ghost of Abel" from the point of view of theological conceptions of labor and leisure in the afterlife, and linking these poems with Byron's Don Juan (especially Canto II) and Cain, Goldberg offers a compelling political and philosophical discussion of the terms, not only interrogating the relation between "labor" and "leisure," but offering insight into what makes these discussions "Romantic." Goldberg attempts to elucidate the "apparent mystery that they should find such divergent roads to the same destination": a "direct, imbedded criticism of political economy based on their shared resistance to these conventions about work." Both Blake and Byron "desire to describe heavenly perfection in the language of labor and leisure." Goldberg's essay is also important for the insight he provides about both writers' complicated relationship to religious ideas about immortality.

13

Daniel Malachuk's "Labor, Leisure, and the Yeoman in Coleridge's and Wordsworth's 1790s Writings" provides a long-view of the tradition of thinking about the political valence of labor and leisure. By drawing upon the Aristotelian-inspired republican tradition which holds that rural leisure is necessary for the cultivation of civic virtue, Malachuk provides important insights into our understanding of the evolution of the political thought of both Wordsworth and Coleridge in the 1790s and provides (con)texture to our understanding of their use of the figure of the yeoman. He persuasively argues that E.P. Thompson's assessment that Wordsworth's and Coleridge's republicanism ended with the Terror, which provoked their "apostasy" holds for Wordsworth, but not for Coleridge, if we consider their writings about "the yeoman and the republican principles he symbolized." Malachuk argues that while Coleridge comes to rely increasingly less on the figure of the yeoman, he continues to insist that "free citizens must use their leisure time for political action."

14

Finally, Bridget Keegan's essay on peasant poets situates the terms of this collection in yet another productive historical context, the depictions of rural leisure by laboring poets under the pressure of the ascendancy of work-discipline and the regime of political economy. Most scholarly work on laboring-class poets has focused on "representations of non-literary work or their statements about working-class issues such as seasonal employment or unionization," but Keegan argues that the "question of leisure" needs more attention. It is not "the georgic, the genre of work, but the pastoral and the threats to pastoral forms" that occupies her energy. In this context, leisure, and especially literary representations of leisure, can be seen as a gesture of resistance, and not evidence of the poet's mystification or capitulation to conventional idealizations of rural life. Indeed, Keegan's analysis of the constraints placed upon laboring-class poets—constraints that prevent them from describing their "non-laboring relationship to the natural environment"—suggests a parallel in late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century scholarship which has tended to see leisure as a suspect category. Whereas eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers preferred to see laboring class poets' depictions of labor as a way of reaffirming their polite readers' sense of the poet's subordinate position, critics of our day seem to prefer depictions of labor as a way of challenging the social order. Keegan's essay deftly demonstrates that, as a subject of poetry, representations of leisure and sportive labor can challenge the social order. What is more, Keegan's essay opens up to critical analysis the ecological implications of reconfiguring the relations between labor and leisure.

15

By complicating the binary division of labor and leisure, this collection of essays addresses itself to a profession which lives the contradiction explored in each of the essays. There is no shortage of people who see academic work as a contradiction in terms. And yet, most academics see themselves as constantly working. When leisure becomes the object of analysis, even "rest," as Mark Lussier's essay suggests, can become exhausting work. Indeed, this is a profession founded on the pursuit of leisure. At the same time, however, I imagine that the halls of literature departments are as occupied at night and on weekends—periods normally devoted to leisure—as those of any Fortune 500 corporation—and this image gives new life to both Freud's formulation of the unconscious working as the body rests and to Shelley's image of the Creature laboring while the De Laceys rest. In spite of the frequent critiques of the social and human costs of a work ethic which embodies what Blake calls in "The Four Zoas" "the great Work master" (314), our profession demonstrates a commitment to work which would make Urizen proud. This special issue is offered as a gesture of hope that attempts to ensure that the necessary blurring of labor and leisure will not end only in the conquest by labor of leisure.


 

Notes

[1]

G. E. Bentley (198) and David Erdman (Blake, Complete Poetry 816-17) offer 1796-1807 as dates for the poem's composition.

 

Works Cited

 

Anderson, Robert. "Godwin, Keats and Productive Leisure." The Wordsworth Circle 33 (2002): 10-13.

 

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David Erdman. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.

 

Blake, William. "The Four Zoas." Complete Poetry 300-407.

 

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement." Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Oxford Authors. Ed. H. J. Jackson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983. 29-31.

 

Cottom, Daniel. "Frankenstein and the Monster of Representation." Substance 28 (1980): 60-71. DOI:10.2307/3683905

 

Derrida, Jacques. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

 

Godwin, William. The Enquirer. 1797. New York: Garland, 1971.

 

Godwin, William. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Ed. Isaac Kramnick. London: Penguin, 1985.

 

Marshall, David. The Surprising Effects of Sympathy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

 

Schorer, Mark. William Blake: The Politics of Vision. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1975.

 

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996.

 

Wordsworth, William. "Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree Which Stands Near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a Desolate Part of the Shore, yet Commanding a Beautiful Prospect." Lyrical Ballads, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1991.

Auteur : Robert Anderson
Titre : 'Alternate Labour and Relaxation': An Introduction
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 27, 2002
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/006560ar
DOI : 10.7202/006560ar

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