On industry and sloth


[Brueghel's Harvesters]

Oblomov is a funny book, for Oblomov is a funny man. Ivan Goncharov's tale of poor Ilya Ilyich Oblomov mirrored perfectly my month of May. It began lugubriously, and restlessly. In between terms, free from teaching (freedom which has turned out to be an unforeseen burden), supposedly researching and rewriting a paper on Spinoza, lazily reading Hume's Treatise (is that possible?) and deeply, deeply, restless.

I was feeling quite sunken until I began reading Oblomov's tale. He was a man far further sunk than I, and far more willing to remain in such a state. He longed to be left along in his shabby dressing gown, free of the odious intrusions of 'venomous' Zakhar, free of the responsibilities of '300 hundred souls,' free of the demands of ever-visiting friends, free to rest on his sofa, staring or not staring, dreaming or not dreaming, sleeping or not sleeping.

The more I read of Oblomov grown dusty and fat, then gleeful and refreshed, then lovesick and conscience-torn, then plump and ignorant, and so on, the more I felt the itch to be at my work, to be doing and not resting. I thank Oblomov for my own reinvigoration, and for being the surprisingly charming fellow that he is. Perhaps it was also the descriptions of the ever-industrious landlady, with her plump elbows, bare neck and constant smile -- baking, ironing, sweeping, grinding -- always making and mending.

I found myself making and mending -- pulling out the sewing machine, baking bread, pickling onions, ironing clothes (something I have never, ever done). I also found myself volunteering to work at the aquarium here, happy to participate in 'icebreakers,' group brainstorm sessions, and the ubiquitous team-building, group-cementing activities of training.

From whence this industry? I'm not too concerned with origins, but rather happy with the results. It also got me to thinking about handiwork, about how many of the blogs I love to read speak of baking and canning and sewing (not of writing and reading). I thought about the resurgence of handcraft -- of carpentry and metalsmithery, artisan baking, homemade butter, mushroom foraging, and garden-planting. People are made happy through these activities, they are, for many, the substance of a life well-lived. A life lived in small scale perhaps, but with good people, good food, and houses that are homes.

Then I thought of what these small movements are a turn away from -- they are a turn away from the mechanized, packaged lives that many hate to live. A turn away from microwave dinners, evenings in front of a television, of a life made faster, more efficient, more productive, to the exclusion of all other virtues. They are a turn away from the life advertised to us. It was strange to think of how many modern conveniences were made to help the newly liberated woman -- the woman still seen in those awful KitchenAid commercials, who will have a career, raise a family and put the pot roast (or the cupcakes) on the table at 6 sharp. There was even a denigration of the household work -- it was the sign of woman's all-too-recent enslavement.

As I watched Oblomov's landlady through his eyes -- her busy elbows, covered with flour, dimpled, never ceasing, while he lay upon the sofa watching and admiring and dreaming his little dreams -- I thought of how drastically we swung from homemade lives to machinemade lives. I thought of how unhappy those lives can be -- and of how unhealthy they can be. We perhaps skipped over the many spaces in between, and in doing so, handed over a great deal of our control over our lives -- how we cooked and what we ate, how our children played and learned, what we had in our homes and how we spent our days, evenings, weekends.

I count myself endlessly lucky to have grown up in a family where there was no full-scale transition, where the pasta was homemade when it could be, where vegetables came from the garden, where pies were baked and muffins made, where cushions, pillows and curtains were often sewn and not bought, where the house was most definitely a home. I count myself lucky for the knowledge I have because of that life -- not just the helpful facts about planting or cooking or making, but of what will last in memory and in life -- of what makes a life well-lived. Handmade is often well-made, and almost always well-loved.