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John Waters: Manual work is an art like no other

The following is an extract from John Waters’ book “Give Us Back the Bad Roads“, which takes the form of an extended letter to his late father, describing the state of Ireland three decades after his death. 

17. The Mechanic’s Heart

I came across a remarkable book in an Oxfam shop that ís nearly having as much of an effect on me as The Swiss Family Robinson. It is Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford, who ís both a motorbike mechanic and a philosopher, and equally serious about both disciplines. The book was published in America in 2009, and subsequently this side of the Atlantic under the unwieldy and death-kissing title The Case for Working With Your Hands, Or Why Office Work is Bad for You and Fixing Things Feels Good. (Penguin, 2010). It was published in Italian under the title Eulogy to the Carburettor, which better captures the poetry of it.

I don’t want to do an injustice to Crawford’s thesis by pinning it down too neatly, but it’s along the lines that something fundamental, indispensable and non-replaceable happens when a human being uses his or her hands to make or fix something. He quotes the philosopher Alexandre Kojéve on the ‘man who works’, by which he means the man who takes a task from the beginning to the end through a set of skills that he’s spent some time acquiring and perfecting, and in doing so intervenes in the world in a way that leaves a mark behind: ‘The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work; he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.’

Crawford writes about working on his motorcycle, about being ‘drawn out of oneself and into a struggle, by turns hateful and loving, with another thing that, like a mule, was emphatically not simply an extension of one’s will’.

You had to conform your will and judgement to certain external facts of physics that still presented themselves as such. ‘Old bikes don’t flatter you,’ he declares, ‘they educate you.’

But fixing things, unlike making things, has another facet that, as a byproduct of the process, can be beneficial for society. Like the doctor, the ‘temporary jobsman’ does not fix things for good and so becomes guarded against conceit. I remember that in your lexicon the word ‘conceit’ also stretched to naming something that seemed to be among the worst of sins: the tendency of certain people to big themselves up, to overstate their talents or achievements. ‘You could go into that fella’s house and not find as much as a hammer,’ you would say. I thought it a vanity of your own, but now I see something else. For you, fixing things was compatible with a modest ambition to adhere to the laws of reality, not to set yourself above it, or drag it down. You’d like Crawford. He says: ‘The experience of failure tempers the concept of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself’.

This familiarity with limits and fragility serves to moderate any tendency to claim either omniscience or omnipotence, and is clearly nowadays missing from our cultures, where the illusion of having mastery – by virtue of possession over a machine that someone else has designed and built – is enough to send people into a permanent orbit of self-importance. The involvement of the doctor or the mechanic, Crawford stresses, is an ethical one – the mechanic’s perception is not that of the spectator, but an active process rooted in his bank of knowledge of root causes and telltale patterns. It is driven not by an abstract quest for clues or symptoms but fundamentally by the fact that he cares about his ‘patient’. And this caring is related in turn to a deep pride in the calling and its responsibilities and demands.

A repairman of the old kind, Crawford reminds us, needs to develop a relationship with objects that involves a real understanding – not ownership or a claim of dominance, but a sense of how these objects fit into the logic of the world. ‘For this very reason,’ he writes, ‘his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin every job by getting out of his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.’ The repairman, then, represents a threat to the modern narcissist: ‘The problem isn’t so much that he is dirty or uncouth. Rather, he seems to offer a challenge to our self-understanding that is somehow fundamental. We’re not as free and independent as we thought.’

I think of Matthew Crawford as being essentially you with a philosophy degree. He strikes me as being, first of all, a tradesman, a mechanic, but then as someone who isn’t satisfied that what he’s engaged in is just doing things with his hands: he has to understand where the urges come from, why it feels good, where it takes him in himself, and after that the place of these processes of doing in human culture. He sets out an impressive stall of philosophical thought, which he had investigated with the same assiduity you might bring to the conundrum of an overly rich mixture in a set of twin carburettors. I think of your thinking as being grounded in the experiences you gleaned from kneading and planing and filing reality into a more congenial shape for the purpose you intended. All your thoughts, great and small, about the big questions and the little ones, had this characteristic about it. I suppose you would call it common sense – the presumption of coherence that must accompany any exploration of the world – scientific, spiritual, artistic or otherwise. Crawford brings his mechanic’s heart along in pursuit of the idea that this coherence can be traced backwards in thought-time as well as forwards, at arm’s length, under the bonnet, the sink or the cistern, that it is bedded in a concrete frame of seeing and speculating that once invaded our patterns of thinking without our having a clue about this. Like all great thinkers, he takes the view that there is more to the obvious and the axiomatic than meets the eye. He is alert at all times for the repetitive rattle in reality that indicates a problem of timing or understeer or the possibility of an elusive looseness in the universal joint. He needs to know not merely what is to be known, but what it means to know and how this knowledge relates to the texture and mixture and shape of real things, their true purpose, their mode of operation, the way they communicate a slippage from full functionality. This is fundamentally a moral endeavour. ‘For humans,’ Crawford says, ‘tools point to the necessity of moral inquiry. Because nature makes only ambiguous prescriptions for us, we are compelled to ask, what is good?’

To practise a trade or craft is to enter into a relationship with a world that exists independently of yourself.

To get better at something is to be drawn closer to an understanding of how the world works in practice. To be an apprentice to a master is to be guided along a path of learning. A carpenter is bound by the evidence of his level, an electrician by the irrefutable witness of the circuitry he has assembled. Do the lights work or not? The individuality of the tradesman is expressed in his engagement with a world he shares with other similarly engaged beings, a world of which understandings are stored and exchanged. The defining spirit is a sociable individuality based on mutual passions. It’s not the same as autonomy, which Crawford says denies that we are born into a world that pre-existed us. ‘It posits an essential aloneness: an autonomous being is free in the sense that a being severed from all others is free. To regard oneself in this way is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world, and commit the moral error of ingratitude. For in fact we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each on a world that is not of our making.’

Forty-odd years ago, when I left the education system, such as it was, I thought nothing of the fact that I was coming away without a tradable skill or craft. Had I considered this at all, I would probably have regarded it as close to a virtue. In this sense I was pretty typical of the late twentieth-century generations of school-leavers. I sensed I was missing something, yet had no idea what it might be. I now understand what it was I lacked: your capacity to integrate your view of reality with the objects you manipulated and the things you did with your hands. In you, the processes of thinking and doing were fully integrated; in me they were not, or at least not entirely. Your view of politics and economics was rooted firmly in your sense of how a door frame should be mortised together, how a valve should be ground, how a tree should be pruned

I often watched you examining your own work or someone else’s – the attention you paid to the feel, the action, details, finish. You used the same head for politics, and that was why your thoughts exhibited a coherence that is nowadays missing from almost everybody. This is where the senselessness of modern political life arises from: when everyone is allocated just a tiny discrete part in a process, it is unreasonable to expect them to contemplate the entire systems. Each thing is merely its own narrow self: democracy, equality, free speech, compassion, rights. The idea of an interconnected apparatus, such as is implied by the idea of a constitution, is, by definition, completely alien to such a culture. The idea of the republican – an autonomous yet dependent man (I mean a human being) who governs himself in accordance with a clear view of his createdness, his givenness, who lives in full awareness of being dependent, who looks askance on anything that threatens to steal his freedom – such a human being is anathema to such a culture.

In this context, Crawford speaks of what he defines as the true republican man, who is both creature and creator: possessed of given gifts and talents, he follows their logic in search of the new. He masters his own hands so as to become the servant of something that is not simply another man, or other men. He is the artisan of ideas, the craftsman of culture and the journeyman of the truth. Without him, ideals wilt, culture atrophies and the truth disappears from plain sight.

John Waters’ book, “Give Us Back The Bad Roads”, is available for purchase at this link.

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