Friday, June 22, 2007

The Leisure Class(es)

Alan [Burgess] remains the consummate lowballer, a grand master of the art of getting by, living proof of Eric Beck’s oft-quoted dictum, “At either end of the socioeconomic spectrum there lies a leisure class.” Alan, observes his ex-friend Gordon Smith, “has no visible means of support; he never seems to do any work, yet somehow he always scrapes by. It’s a bit of a mystery how he manages it, really.”

One way he manages it is to spend most of his time, even between expeditions, living in Nepal with Sherpa friends. “I suppose I average about six or seven months a year over there,” Alan says. “It’s a lot cheaper to stay in Nepal between trips, living on three dollars a day, than to fly back to the West. Of course, to get by on that you have to be willing to eat the same things the Sherpa’s eat, and eating potatoes and lentils and kurd three times a day can get a bit boring. And that kind of money won’t allow you to drink beer...”

Jon Krakauer
Eiger Dreams

There aren’t two leisure classes—one among the rich and one among the poor—because there are lazy people with money and lazy people without money. Well, that’s not the whole reason. The more important reason is there are people passionately committed to various so-called “leisure” activities both among the rich and the poor. Such people don’t want to work a day job fifty weeks a year and then take two weeks vacation and devote themselves for just two weeks to the activity they love. Such people want to devote their whole life to the activity they love.

Of course, the traditional, “Establishment” advice is to get a degree in something “marketable” and then try to devote your life to whatever you love and you’ll always have your degree to fall back on when you need a “real” job. As “sensible” as such advice sounds—and actually might be—it seldom works out in the real world. Once a person has made the educational and financial commitment to getting a degree, it’s so much easier to take a serious day job than scrape by at the kind of low pay, grunt work that leaves you a lot of free time to pursue your dream that almost everybody ends up taking the serious job with the intention of pursing their dream in their “off” hours.

And for every Charles Ives who wrote great music while being a successful insurance executive there are hundreds—thousands?—of sad, failed musicians who discovered that there are only so many hours in a day and only so much energy in even the most passionate human being.

And for every Wallace Stevens who wrote great poetry while being a successful insurance executive there are hundreds—thousands?—of sad, failed writers who discovered that there are only so many hours in a day and only so much energy in even the most passionate human being.

So you get the two leisure classes, rich people with no jobs who use their freedom to pursue whatever their dreams might be. And poor people with no jobs who FIND WAYS TO SCRAPE BY while pursuing whatever their dreams might be.

The poor people who succeed always make great “success stories” in the pop culture press. So, mountain climbers like Alan and Adrian Burgess become legends among mountain climbers. Writers like Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick become legends among writers. Heck, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs become legends among business people.

But there’s a dark side to the poor leisure class. Among the rich, even people who fail have a safety net of capital that will catch them. William Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch” after living a life that someone without the Burroughs family fortune almost certainly wouldn’t have survived.

Philip K. Dick wrote extensively about the dark side of the second leisure class, the poor who fail, the poor who make bad choices, the poor who don’t have a safety net to catch them and give them a second chance. He wrote with his eyes wide open and made no excuses and it’s all the sadder for his honest commentary. This is PKD’s afterward to his novel, “A Scanner Darkly:”

This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed—run over, maimed, destroyed—but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it. For example, while I was writing this I learned that the person on whom the character Jerry Fabin is based killed himself. My friend on whom I based the character Ernie Luckman died before I began the novel. For a while I myself was one of these children playing in the street; I was, like the rest of them, trying to play instead of being grown up, and I was punished. I am on the list below, which is a list of those to whom this novel is dedicated, and what became of each.

Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular life-style the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,” but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory. It is, then, only a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence. It is not different from your life-style, it is only faster. It all takes place in days or weeks or months instead of years. “Take the cash and let the credit go,” as Villon said in 1460. But that is a mistake if the cash is a penny and the credit a whole lifetime.

There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were. In Greek drama they were beginning, as a society, to discover science, which means causal law. Here in this novel there is Nemesis: not fate, because any one of us could have chosen to stop playing in the street, but, as I narrate from the deepest part of my life and heart, a dreadful Nemesis for those who kept on playing. I myself, I am not a character in this novel; I am the novel. So, though, was our entire nation at this time. This novel is about more people that I knew personally. Some we all read about in the newspapers. It was, this sitting around with our buddies and bullshitting while making tape recordings, the bad decision of the decade, the sixties, both in and out of the establishment. And nature cracked down on us. We were forced to stop by things dreadful.

If there was any “sin,” it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I love them all. Here is the list, to whom I dedicate my love:

To Gaylene - deceased
To Ray -deceased
To Francy - permanent psychosis
To Kathy - permanent brain damage
To Jim - deceased
To Val - massive permanent brain damage
To Nancy -permanent psychosis
To Joanne -permanent brain damage
To Maren - deceased
To Nick - deceased
To Terry - deceased
To Dennis - deceased
To Phil - permanent pancreatic damage
To Sue - permanent vascular damage
To Jerri - permanent psychosis and vascular damage

... and so forth.

In Memoriam. These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The “enemy” was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

Philip K. Dick
afterword of A Scanner Darkly

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