“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” From this primal decree millions of human beings are now liberated. More and more men have more and more leisure.
The working day grows shorter, the week end longer. More and more women are released at an earlier age from the heavier tasks of the rearing of children, in the small family of today, where kindergarten and school and clinic and restaurant come to their aid. More and more people are freed for other things, released from the exhaustion of their energies in the mere satisfaction of elementary wants. No longer is the pattern so simple as that of Longfellow’s blacksmith, who “something attempted, something done, has earned a night’s repose.”
Released from what? When necessity no longer drives, when people own long hours in which to do what they want, what do they want to do? Where necessity is heavy upon men, they yearn for the joys of leisure. Now many have enough leisure. What are the joys they find?
The shorter working day is also a different working day. Nearly all men work for others, not for themselves–not the way a man works who has his own little plot of earth and must give himself up to its cultivation. For many, work has become a routine–not too onerous, not too rewarding, and by no means engrossing–a daily routine until the bell rings and sets them free again. For what?
It is a marvelous liberation for those who learn to use it; and there are many ways. It is the great emptiness for those who don’t. People of a placid disposition do not know the great emptiness. When the day’s work is done, they betake themselves to their quiet interests, their hobbies, their gardens or their amateur workbenches or their stamp collecting or their games or their social affairs or their church activities or whatever it be. When they need more sting in life, they have a mild “fling,” taking a little “moral holiday.” Some find indulgence enough in the vicarious pleasure of snidely malicious gossip. Their habits are early formed and they keep a modicum of contentment.
But the number of the placid is growing less. The conditions of our civilization do not encourage that mood. For one thing, the old-time acceptance of authority, as Godgiven or nature-based, is much less common. Religion is for very many an ancient tale, “a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong,” reduced to ritual or the moral precepts of the Sunday pulpit. There is little allegiance to the doctrine that every man has his allotted place. How could there be when competition has become a law of life? There is incessant movement and disturbance and upheaval. And with the new leisure there come new excitations, new stimuli to unrest.
So the new leisure has brought its seeming opposite, restlessness. And because these cannot be reconciled the great emptiness comes. Faced with the great emptiness, unprepared to meet it, most people resort to one or another way of escape, according to their kind. Those who are less conscious of their need succeed in concealing it from themselves. They find their satisfaction in the great new world of means without ends. Those who are more conscious of it cannot conceal it; they only distract themselves from the thought of it. Their common recourse is excitation, and they seek it in diverse ways.
The first kind are go-getters. When they are efficient or unscrupulous or both, they rise in the world. They amass things. They make some money. They win some place and power. Not for anything, not to do anything with it. Their values are relative, which means they are no values at all. They make money to make more money. They win some power that enables them to seek more power. They are practical men. They keep right on being practical, until their unlived lives are at an end. If they stopped being practical, the great emptiness would engulf them. They are like planes that must keep on flying because they have no landing gear. The engines go fast and faster, but they are going nowhere. They make good progress to nothingness.
They take pride in their progress. They are outdistancing other men. They are always calculating the distance they have gained. It shows what can be done when you have the know-how. They feel superior and that sustains them. They stay assured in the world of means. What matters is the winning.
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”
Victory for the sake of the winning, means for the sake of the acquiring, that is success. So the circle spins forever, means without end, world without end. Amen.
The second kind have it worse. They are the more sensitive kind, often the more gifted. They want their lives to have some meaning, some fulfilment. They want the feel of living for some worthwhile end. But often there is something wrong with the seeking. They too suffer from the intrusive ego. Their seeking lacks adequate sincerity. The need of success is greater for them than the need of the thing that is sought. If, for example, they pursue some art, the art itself counts less than the renown of the artist. They would be great artists, great writers, opera singers, pathfinders. They aim high, but the mark is higher than their reach. When they miss it they grow disillusioned. They are thrust back on their unsatisfied egos, and the great emptiness lies before them.
They try to escape, but they run from themselves. They try to forget, but their only recourse is an excitation of the senses. This stimulant needs to be incessantly repeated. The little spell of liberation, the false glow, the hour of oblivion, leaves them the more desolate and adds new tensions to the returning emptiness. Then there is leisure no more, no relaxedness, no return to the things they once loved, no lingering ease of quiet discourse with friends, no natural savor of living, no perception of the unfolding wonder of things. But instead they pass from excitation to a hollow release, from release to tension, from tension to new excitation. Nothing is itself any more. And no more at the end of the day do they sink peacefully into the marvelous process of slowly gathering sleep.
Once they were so eager to make life feel real; now they shun its reality and are driven to pursue phantoms, the will-o’-the-wisp of sense-spurred distraction, the unseeing ghosts of once clear-eyed joys, the phantom Aphrodite.
But it is not only the more cultivated, the more sophisticated, and the well-to-do with their more ample opportunities, who feel the great emptiness. In other ways it besets large numbers who, finding little satisfaction in the daily work, seek compensation in the leisure they now possess. There are many besides, people who win early pensions or otherwise can get along without toil through legacies or rents or other sources of unearned income, women who have no family cares–the new, unopulent leisure class.
They have no training for leisure. They have, most of them, no strong interests or devotions. The habits of their work time convey no meaning to the time of liberation. Most of them live in cities, in drab and narrow confines within which they revolve in casual little circles. They see nothing ahead but the coming of old age. They want to regain the feel of life. Time is theirs, but they cannot redeem it.
So they too betake themselves, in their various ways, to some form of excitation. Having no recourse in themselves, they must get out of themselves. They take the easy ways out because they see no alternative. They have never learned to climb the paths leading to the pleasures that wait in the realm of ideas, in the growing revelation of the nature of things, in the treasuries of the arts, and in the rich lore of the libraries. They must seek instead the quick transport, the dream, the adventure, in the tavern or where the gamblers meet.
They would cover the emptiness they cannot fill. They make a goal of what is a diversion. The healthy being craves an occasional wildness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite, his own little festival of the Saturnalia, a brief excursion from his way of life. But for these others the diversion becomes the way of life and diverts no more. For them the filled glass is not the cheerful accompaniment of pleasant reunions but a deceitful medicine for the ennui of living. For them the gambling venture is no mere holiday flutter but a never-satisfied urge that forever defeats itself.
In 1946, in straitened England, the then equivalent of half a billion dollars was placed in bets on the horses and the dogs. Besides which, vast sums changed hands on the results of football games. For hundreds of thousands of people the major news in the daily papers, day after day and month after month, was the lists of the winners and the betting odds. England was not, is not, alone in this respect. It is only that the figures happen to be more accessible.
A former addict explained in the London Spectator why men do it. The gambler, he said, “gambles because it provides an emotional tension which his mind demands. He is suffering from a deficiency disease, and the only antidote he knows is gambling.” He is trying to escape the great emptiness. An English worker of the semi-skilled category once said to me: “A fellow has to do something, and what is there? Maybe I have a shilling or two in my pocket. Maybe I could buy an extra shirt. It’s no go. So I put them on the dogs.”
By these resorts people do not escape the great emptiness. What they get is a sequence of brief delusions of escape. In time the only thing they can escape to is what they themselves know for a delusion. The resort is only a drug to make them forget the disease. As with all such drugs, the dose must be continually renewed, and it becomes harder and harder to return to the pre-addict stage. They come to look on the great emptiness as something inherent in the very nature of things. That is all life is. Now they know the drug is a delusion, but they do not know that it has bred a deeper delusion.
There are other avenues of escape that, while they may still be delusive, have the merit of not being recognized as such. Which means that the escape is actually made. In every large city, and notably in those areas where people go to spend their retirement, where the climate is mild and sunny, all kinds of special cults flourish and new ones are frequently born.
To these places repair the hucksters of the supernatural and find a ready market for their wares. There are to be found the prophets of mystical union, robed and turbaned preachers of the Light of Asia, interpreters of the Rosy Cross, exponents of the heavenly trance, new healers of the soul, tuners-in of the Infinite, operators in spiritual magics. Considerable numbers flock to them, some to seek a new sensation and then pass on, but some to stay and be. come disciples or devotees.
These last are the credulous ones, the unsophisticate, the suggestible. They search no more. The emptiness is filled. They have undergone a kind of hypnosis. They live in the nebula of their mystical dream. They meet reality no more. But at least, in a manner, they have found their peace.
Back in the days when unremitting toil was the lot of all but the very few and leisure still a hopeless yearning, hard and painful as life was, it still felt real. People were in rapport with the small bit of reality allotted to them, the sense of the earth, the tang of the changing seasons, the consciousness of the eternal on-going of birth and death. Now, when so many have leisure, they become detached from themselves, not merely from the earth.
From all the widened horizons of our greater world a thousand voices call us to come near, to understand, and to enjoy, but our ears are not trained to hear them. The leisure is ours but not the skill to use it. So leisure becomes a void, and from the ensuing restlessness men take refuge in delusive excitations or fictitious visions, returning to their own earth no more.