Five days out of the week you go to the same place at the same time to do the same thing. One day you notice this pattern. There is a reason for it, of course, but suddenly the regularity of it, the pattern-ness, is strangely compelling. For a moment you have an impression of a vastness consisting of small repetitions. But no; there is no pattern. On the two other days out of seven you always do something different than the five days of sameness!

Still, as you are driving to work you think that the better clockworks turn out some variety, chiming on the hour for instance. Variety can’t ┬ádisprove the pattern. Your car can be driven so many different places, but its functioning doesn’t really change. Of course, it can only go on roads, which form a sort of pattern of car-movements. Then you think of the road crews, constantly grinding up old pavement and laying down new. Machines to make ways for other machines that carry us through our little revolutions: back and forth, back and forth.

What sort of machines make road-making machines? And then what sort of machines could in turn make those machines? You imagine that the machine to make a thing must be in some measure larger than what it produces, until you follow the thought for a bit and start rapidly conjuring up ever-larger machines arriving, somewhere, at the Largest Machine of All, the All-Maker. You chuckle to yourself at the thought, the All-Maker. A child’s notion of a factory.

Somehow, the complex machines can be made by the simple, and those by simpler yet. Now your imagination runs in the other direction, seeking the crudest of tools: a rock, perhaps. On reaching this further end you feel an uncanny, superstitious connection between the rock and the All-Maker, as though the first rock-swinger were deliberately working to pave the way for the All-Maker. No, there was no intention in it, or at least no eternal intention. But there was a series of intentions, a crazy, sprawling, senseless progress. It is only causality, but still, from a certain point of view, every moment of time is a gigantic machine for producing the next moment.

You are feeling a bit extruded when you arrive home, a bit too produced. You are the product of two people, of course, but what could be more various than human nature? Still, those two people both came from two people. That’s a bit predictable, but anyway its the only common point; all the rest of the matter is free will and human choice. So you shake it off and you move on.

Later you are in the grocery store when it catches you again. You are halfway reaching for an orange when you think how marvelous it is that the oranges keep appearing, as if by magic. Not by magic, of course, but by a strangely relentless process, as though the whole world has been organized and arranged to keep the quantity of oranges in cosmic equilibrium.

It is an amusing thought but your mind wanders on again until you are eating the orange. The peel is off and you break open the cluster of sections, and as you bite into a section you see the ranks of little drops. You are no expert in biology but you start to think of all the subsystems that go into a living body. It occurs to you how our bodies are sort of elaborate machines for living in, and maybe even our brains are too. Human free will can’t exist unless there are humans, can it, and the humans have to come from somewhere, and evidently there is a machine for that called a ‘human’.

What’s the difference between mindless reproduction and a mind bent on reproduction? All the animals in the world frantically eating, eating, eating, just so that they can make some more animals, and so on until they wear out and flop over dead. Two things on the side of the road suddenly look the same, an exploded tire and a threadbare deer. It’s a depressing thought so you begin to wander around your home looking for signs of humanity, something with no productive purpose.

You can spot any number of things without purpose but they have all been produced and you can’t stop thinking of where everything came from. The disease has completely infected your mind. You start examining the doorjamb because at least that’s wood, and wood is organic so that’s something. But you are oppressed by the knowledge that the tree never meant to be a doorjamb until some kind of machine got hold of it. And who was it that said a house was just a machine for living in? Le Corbusier or something like that. A horrible thought. Your professor tried to convince you that the real thought couldn’t be adequately translated from the French, that the point was not to make a house mechanical but to recognize that the purpose of a house was for living, that the house was a system of components brought together for a purpose. But that’s the damning thing of the whole thought altogether, because now everything you look at, no matter how artistic you meant it to be, was brought there by you, it was brought there for you to live with, it is just the crazy bird’s-nest variation in your machine for living. Cars tolerate some variation, computers a little more; biology is an ocean of variation ordered and ranked into regular waves. No matter how much noise you stuff into your house it keeps right on being a machine for living in, a stage for the production of you, a container for life, a husk.

For the living know that they will die;
But the dead know nothing,
And they have no more reward,
For the memory of them is forgotten.
Their love and their hate and their envy have perished,
And forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

Go, eat with gusto and drink with abandon!
For the process is already in motion.
Dress well! Enjoy the company of all your friends,
And true love, every single day
Of your vain life. Whatever you hand finds to do,
Do it with all your might,
For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

There in the roar and the clang of that factory you realize that you cannot even choose love. You have learned some ways to arrange some lovely pleasures but any love worth its name arrives unbidden, stands to no reason, and outlasts all its causes. Love can appear within the machine but it is not a product, it has no purpose and it has no price. You cannot force it and you cannot make it and you cannot choose it, any more than you can choose to become alive.

And then you see that love is the product of the machine, the only product that is not a by-product. When love is finished the factory is done; there will be rest and no more noise. Le Corbusier may have understood that a house was for living but he did not understand what living was for. A machine never makes what it already is. You cannot choose life.

When at last you have finally deconstructed the entire machine you realize that you cannot choose death, either. Death comes when the machine hammers it out, relentlessly and not always when you expect it because the machine has more wheels than you can ever account for. But if the details are confusing the pattern is plain enough: life, death, life, death, life, death, life. You cannot choose life so you cannot choose death, either.

Fortified by this new hope you take a fresh look at the factory stretching in all directions endlessly around you. Yes, the factory’s days are numbered, and all this work will end; but in the meantime you can make the work go a little better, because you are alive and you are here.

One Comment on "Working"

  • Arlan Post author

    When people ask me what I do I have the darndest time trying to explain why shuffling information around in forklift manufacturing is interesting. It is to me. This is my best explanation to date of why I think it’s interesting.

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