Heavenly tasks

Routine work can open channels of creativity, inspiration and insight that theory cannot begin to offer, believes George Watson

January 13, 2011



Credit: Paul Bateman


All theorising is flight, said a philosopher in Iris Murdoch's first novel, and by theorising he plainly meant something grand.

That was in Under the Net (1954), when Murdoch had decided to give up teaching philosophy at the University of Oxford and took to writing novels instead. She was in her thirties and tired of adolescent Marxism and of existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre had been the subject of her first book, and by then she was in no mood for Utopias or theories that thought they explained everything.

Hugo Belfounder, the philosopher-sage in her first novel, finally decides to leave London for Nottingham to live by mending watches. He loved watches. "God is a task," he tells someone. "God is detail."

The remark is reminiscent. But of what? It has been attributed to Gustave Flaubert but is not in his writings. It has been ascribed to Michelangelo, which would be marvellous if it were true, and to Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the German architect, in an obituary. Ernst Gombrich, who became director of the Warburg Institute, recalled Aby Warburg saying it, although he did not think it originated with him.

The remark sums up those decisive moments when intellectuals, bemused with utopian visions, give up looking for the answer-to-everything (as Belfounder did) and turn to answers instead. It inverts the familiar phrase "the devil is in the detail", meaning it all looks easier than it is.

So God has been in the detail for a century or so, meaning that you find spiritual fulfilment not in grand theory but in digging the garden, mending watches or knitting. You find salvation through the commonplace business of work.

That reflects the academic mood of the times. Students used to crave grand theory, now they want answers. There are still survivors from the age of ideology, and there are still a few who can remember a time before that - a post-war age when research in the arts was seen as bleak and dull. In the US the doctorate was cynically dubbed a union card, and in the 1950s Tom Lehrer of Harvard University wrote a song to be bawled out at drunken faculty parties:

"Plagiarize,

Let no one else's work evade your eyes,

So don't shade your eyes,

But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize...

Only be sure always to call it please 'research'."

It was the Vietnam War that turned minds ideological, and in the 1980s, when an attention to detail returned, there was nothing godlike about it. The buzzword was creativity, and honest pedantry was for those who were unfit for anything else.

Which brings us back to Belfounder wilfully abandoning bohemian London to mend watches in a provincial place.

It is a choice to ponder - a sage who once acted in experimental theatre and inspired books of moral philosophy who chooses to become a provincial artisan. Murdoch had already done something like it when she abandoned Oxford seminars for fiction. By then she had met Sartre and Wittgenstein and reflected deeply on the limits of metaphysics. "We all know that the real lesson to be taught is that the human person is precious and unique," she ended her 1953 study of Sartre, "but we seem unable to set it forth except in terms of ideology and abstraction."

She meant that moral philosophers like her friends and colleagues were unable. D.H. Lawrence had noticed it years before. The novel, not the treatise, was the one bright book of life; it does not nail things down, said Lawrence, as philosophy, religion or science do. "If you try to nail anything down, in the novel it either kills the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail."

In The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Murdoch refined that exuberant view. Moral judgement is not based on theory or principle: that comes later. Morality is a matter of paying due attention to the real world; great artists such as Michelangelo and Tolstoy pay "a selfless attention which is easy to name but very hard to achieve".

The record suggests that she is right. Shakespeare's business affairs show that he was interested in practical detail and did not lose his head in creativity. Samuel Johnson worked in the Thrale brewery in Southwark, cheered by a bookkeeping routine as well as the income, and in 1813 Wordsworth took a humdrum job as a distributor of stamps in the Lake District.

A.E. Housman wrote A Shropshire Lad (1896) while employed in London in the Patent Office. In his 1911 Cambridge inaugural, he derided critical theories as straitjackets for maniacs, and when Angus Wilson was teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia half a century ago he would urge students to take an ordinary job after graduating and to retire (as he did) into the creative life only when they could afford it. "If you don't do that you will believe for the rest of your life that giving and taking orders is difficult, and it isn't."

By chance I had taken his advice before I met him, being of farming family, and never noticed that feeding pigs and chickens or taking plough horses to the river to drink inhibited a life of mind or independence of judgement. Doing what you are told liberates the mind to think about something else. Those who suppose that routine is soul-destroying should try a little routine. A woman who knits is very unlikely to be thinking only about knitting.

So the news about higher tuition fees, although grave, is not grim. There is inspiration in routine. God is a task, God is detail, and mending watches, editing text or feeding hens is a lot better than staring at a blank sheet and wondering, as down the years so many have wondered, what on earth to do with it. But I would still like to know who first used the phrase, and still hope it was Michelangelo.

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