Is work salvation or a distraction from thinking about it?

N. C. Wyeth

N. C. Wyeth illustration of “Robinson Crusoe”

In his chapter on Daniel Defoe in The English Novel, literary critic Terry Eagleton writes brilliantly about the anxieties and assurances of the Protestant work ethic in Robinson Crusoe:

Nature is no longer an open book, but an obscure text to be deciphered with difficulty. The Protestant gropes anxiously in darkness for ambiguous signs of his or her salvation. Yet the whole point of a secularized universe would seem to be its contingency – the fact that nothing in it is actually ‘meant.’ An author like Henry Fielding uses the formal design of the novel itself to imply a pattern in events; but the result, as we have seen, is an ironic gap between the events and the pattern. All one now seems to be left with is secular experience – whatever one can taste, feel, and weigh; yet it is in this unpromising domain that one must search for symptoms of salvation. 

You must look for the divine in the very sphere which seems to deny it, since this is all you really have. In the literary realm, this poring over material fragments and psychological nuances, scanning them for their concealed significance, is known as realism. In the non-literary realm, it is known as Protestantism. Is the world a matter of accident or design? Or is God somehow present in the very contingencies of his universe? Could it be, paradoxically, that the more worldly one becomes – the more one accumulates wealth, climbs the social hierarchy and gains the respect of one’s fellows – the more all this can itself be seen as a sign of God’s favor?

This, in a word, is the famous Protestant work ethic; and like much about middle-class society it is anxious and self-assured at the same time. There is anxiety because you can never be quite certain of your salvation, given the obscurity of the divine plain. Signs, in this world as in some modernist literary text, are always bound to be ambiguous. This is one reason why you never stop working, since even if you have no assurance of salvation right now, you future labors might always issue in one. Tropical islands are generally associated with indolence, but not in Crusoe’s case. He is forever improving and extending his labors (‘I really wanted to build my barns bigger’) – so much so, indeed, that the obvious question poses itself: ‘What for?’ Crusoe is not a capitalist – it is an odd kind of capitalist who has no wage-laborers, markets, commodities, competitors or division of labor; but though he has no competitors, he behaves as though he does. Who would have thought that a fable of one man alone on an island could be so action-packed?

What all this unwittingly goes to show is just how futile and irrational the whole process of labor is, however rational it may be in its local details. Crusoe works a lot of the time for the sake of working, as capitalists accumulate for the sake of accumulation. Success in work may be a sign of salvation, but it is also a welcome distraction from the whole vexed business of heaven and hell. It saves him from having to think about his salvation. This compulsively laboring hero is like a man en route to execution who pauses to fasten his shoelaces and meticulously check the knots. Defoe’s protagonists concentrate on the means of life rather than inquiring about its end. In fact, as in capitalist society in general, the means of life rapidly become the end. This is partly because there are now no ‘natural’ ends to life, just as there are none to narrative.


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