Essay: Wistfulness in These Strange Times

For philosophical counselor Andrew Taggart the pace, pressure and squeeze of contemporary life leaves no room for reflection. That necessary disquiet, however, may a more sustainable way to live

This morning I awoke in a wistful mood. The birdsong coming through my bedroom window reminded me of something softer and higher but also, and less faintly, of something long absent. When I’m feeling wistful, my mind gets older and, without my consent, returns to Larkin’s empty church. In ‘Church Going’, a poem set in the years following World War II, the speaker describes his experience in this once-sacred space. He steps inside, has a look around, yet remains outside its meaning. Recalling the old rituals, he says, “‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant” and hears “The echoes snigger briefly,” then wonders what ends church used to serve and pictures what aims, if any, it could fulfil in the coming years. Is it destined to become a relic? A ruin? In any case, “A shape less recognizable each week.”

During quiet moments, disquieted and contemplative, I come back to the poem, reading it silently and aloud, mumbling the words, certain that, if nothing else, it records with accuracy and feeling our historical moment. Walking beside the speaker who recognizes a divine aura but who has forgotten how to pray, we also intuit the absence of a previous way of life—the rituals and ceremonies we once knew, the words we once learned, the virtues we once possessed, the higher things we used to love—as well as the longing for a new, equally holy way of life amid the “unignorable silence.” The church may not express our spiritual sentiments, yet the ends it once fulfilled have not been entirely forgotten nor has it been turned–not yet anyway–into a museum or a tomb. My morning mood, the speaker’s reticent wonderment, our cultural moment: all these partake of the “no more,” the “not yet,” and the “what now.”

Oh, what now! Our state of confusion concerning how to live is revealed most clearly in our understanding of and our attitude toward work. In my philosophy practice, I hear plenty of creative types, lawyers, and investors speak about being at wits’ end and feeling burnt out. They are not alone. In an article that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Mother Jones, coeditors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery claim that companies are in the midst of a “great speedup,” with each worker being asked to be more productive and to work longer hours so that the company won’t have to fire old employees or hire new ones. (Meanwhile, Bauerlein and Jeffrey also report that corporate profits are up 22 percent over the past four years.) This “great speedup” is taking place at the same time that organizations, in step with neoliberal doctrine, are hollowing themselves out, replacing full-time employees with a mélange of unpaid interns, in-house freelancers, per-project contractors, and highly paid consultants. In effect, this has meant that full-timers are now collaborating increasingly with strangers, allies, and rivals. Meetings are beginning to resemble meet-and-greets and speed dates and meet-ups. Name tags are obligatory.

The picture gets even darker when one combines the work-life scenario described above with the escalating responsibilities associated with family life. Given the increasing demands of the work world, it would seem natural that parents would devote less time to raising their children or would farm out the housework and child-rearing to nannies, cooks, tutors, day-planners, camp organizers, and housekeepers. Among wealthy professionals, this is no doubt the case, but the broader historical trend points in the opposite direction. According to a University of Southern California study cited by The New York Times, from 1965 to 2007 “the amount of child care time spent by parents at all income levels—and especially those with a college education—has risen ‘dramatically’ since the mid-1990s.” In my work with creative types, I have begun calling this three-fold situation—being damnably overworked, having to collaborate with freelance colleagues/rivals, and feeling the crushing demands of being good parents and caring spouses—“the work life crucible of the new economy.”

It is clear not just that this model for individual and social life is structurally unsound but also that it cannot be sustained indefinitely. In economic terms, the model is based (metaphorically, that is) on extending lines of credit, accumulating considerable debit, and deferring the day of reckoning until the next fiscal year. It is Greece personified. In psychological terms, the model leads to anger, anxiety, and depression; in sociological terms, to anomie and alienation; and in philosophical terms, to nihilism, that supreme form of meaninglessness and despair. Fuck it, why bother, get out, piss off.

At some point, though, we cannot consent to more, cannot be any more efficient or more productive or more motivated unless we know the reason why we are being asked to be more efficient, more productive, more motivated in the first place. We may be inclined to explain why modern work is structurally untenable by tracing, by means of a chain of efficient causes, the crisis back to neoliberalism or, if we are feeling especially ambitious, back even further to the rise of industrial capitalism. Yet though this answer would clarify our historical moment, it would fail to satisfy our deeper spiritual desire to know what meaningful work ought to look like in our time. For this, we would need to hit upon an explanation that moves in the direction of final ends: things valuable for their own sake, good-enough reasons for laboring and toiling and going on.

In Naming the Movement, my friend Keith Kahn-Harris explores our disquietude with the modern world and describes the non-hierarchical, anarchic forces that, should they manage to reflect upon their collective aims and initiatives, may be able to sustain themselves. In a way, Keith’s question is how thinkers who think aloud can learn to think together, how dancers can become a dance, how movers can become a movement. To name a collective sentiment, therefore, is to try to raise language to a poetic register in order to name our present complaints and constraints, to give voice to our sense of living in common (sensus communis), and to imagine how new rituals, practices, and forms of life could unfold.

I want also to discover a poetic language that can make sense of, without doing a disservice to, our historical moment. I am reminded of William Blake’s radiant thought that working is worshipping. It is a thought that travels across England from Blake to Carlyle and Ruskin and on through Gill and Coomaraswamy and that finds a home in the US with Wendell Berry and Peter Nadin. In 1992, the English ex-pat and the artist-farmer Nadin left the art world and went upstate to cultivate an art farm with his wife. He explains, “A carrot is not a work of art,” but they are “both results of the same process.” Can we, like Blake and Nadin, like Gill and Berry, find space in our lives for “re-animating” work, for reconnecting work with fine and excellent things, for seeing carrots and paintings as of a piece? After the death of God, the work-worship formula may sound nostalgic, conservative, and shamelessly New Agey, yet the Japanese tea ceremony says otherwise. It says that the most mundane objects—tea leaves and tea things—and the most ordinary practices like sitting and drinking can, to quote the poet Pindar out of context, be “raised up to the liquid sky.”

First, though, I want to dwell a little longer on our feeling of disquietude in order to understand it more fully. Our wistful mood flows from the incongruity between the modern world and our conceptual schema, from the latter’s inadequacy in the face of the former’s irreducible complexity. In the 21st century, for instance, “Anglican church” or “Catholic church” fails to pick out our punctual spiritual experiences, the “corporation” fails to make sense of our work experiences, the “bourgeois family” of our experiences of love or coupling, the “state” our understanding of politics. To cope with this irreducible complexity, our 21st-century response was to train scores of experts in theology, politics, economics, health care, nutrition science, risk management, executive leadership, and in other fields. Yet, more recently, our faith in expertise—our rants, our melancholy, our exhaustion—and thus in analytic knowledge has been brought into doubt not only by the economic collapse and the rise of terrorism, not just because of the glut of information and the prioritization of choice for its own sake over the choiceworthiness of things, but also by the erosion of virtually all forms of binding authority. All this has led, in the realm of politics, to the reactionary backlash—the Tea Party movement in the US, the English Defence League in the UK, the riots in north London—now playing out before us. The puzzle is that we no longer trust our basic concepts but neither do we grant legitimate authority to the expert class. And so, we have come to rely increasingly on sentiment, habits, cognitive biases, rules of thumb, siloing, and folk wisdom. The criterion we apply is not apodictic certainty; it is survivalism, a knack for getting by with whatever is we find at hand.

Yet, alongside the fervent nationalism and the ignorant armies, I feel stirrings of higher things. ‘Innisfree’ is not so far off. Neither is Walden. Thoreau still entreats us to simplify, thus giving words to a longing for elementals, thus enjoining us to live according to what is most essential to living well. In the early 21st century, can we, as Epicurus insisted we must, do more with less? Can we examine our set of desires in order to distinguish the natural and necessary (good work, aesthetic appreciation, leisure) from the non-natural and unnecessary (excessive wealth, high status, extreme vulgarity)? Can we surround ourselves with friends for whom food is not just energy but that which is mouthed and tongued, for whom books not just fetishes but textures and shadings, land not just resource but earth and soil, home more than refuge, hosting a venerable art of welcoming? And can we, for a time at least, turn down the volume on all the buzzing and all the hurrying, all the anger and the strife, and can we, in this stillness, relearn self-sufficiency and self-reflection as well as the social virtues of honesty and sincerity?

Getting rid of my mobile phone would be a start. I knew, however, that I couldn’t do this unless I had put my life in order. First I would have to say good-bye to the cancellers and re-schedulers, to the self-absorbed and the chronically late; these were not friends nor could they be. Then I would have to build a philosophical practice that was based on working with nourishing individuas, not exhausting and dispiriting them. Each day, I would need to transform the mundane objects of my existence—the trees I run past, the “after-you’s” I hear, the payments offered and received—into beautiful experiences worthy of adoration. Finally I would have to make room in my life for leisure, for Sabbath, for the achingly slow rhythms of the mind in solitude. To settle in, then, in my own skin.

I know that simplicity is not the final word on our strange time; it is not an ultimate solution to the problem of disquietude, not a good-enough recipe for living well. At certain moments, it feels quixotic and insignificant, cloying and bathetic. At others, though, it seems just about right: a time of stillness, a wistful, reflective mood that may reveal the way forward, the means by which we may struggle again, the manner in which we may commit ourselves once more, this time with more energy, greater hope, and more humility. A scene in the middle of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels (1990) captures the softness of the mood:

Daisy quarreled much less than most people with time. The past did not occupy her thoughts unless it had to, nor did the future. At the present moment she was on a country walk, and she wanted to do things right.

Till now, we have had to quarrel with our time; this has been our burden. Now, we want to do things right. Our life-task, so large, so urgent, is to make up the how.

Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counselor living in New York. He is currently writing a book on philosophy as a way of life.


  1. says

    i enjoyed reading this; it draws on interesting references to illuminate an otherwise familiar argument and the whole unfolds in a lovely informal manner that creates a kind of ambient critical wash.

    but this passage doesn’t convince:

    ‘Getting rid of my mobile phone would be a start. I knew, however, that I couldn’t do this unless I had put my life in order…I would have to build a philosophical practice that was based on working with nourishing individuals, not exhausting and dispiriting them. Each day, I would need to transform the mundane objects of my existence—the trees I run past, the “after-you’s” I hear, the payments offered and received—into beautiful experiences worthy of adoration.’

    i’m not sure that this is the case. i’m pretty sure you could just throw the bloody thing away…

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