The dirtiest, most mind-numbing work I’ve ever done was in high school when I had a weekend job in an aluminum foundry. The owner was a friend of my father and I was paid in cash, under the table. My co-workers, all of them older by several years, were black and Puerto Rican, and happy to have jobs. Previously I had delivered newspapers and worked as a towel-man in a carwash, but nothing prepared me for this. The owner once chewed me out when he found me slumped in a corner late in the day, almost passed out from exhaustion.
The experience taught me several things: I liked making money for myself, I enjoyed the art of bantering with co-workers, and I knew I never wanted to work that hard again, which may explain why I became a journalist. I learned that hard work is neither ennobling nor degrading, though I can’t imagine I would still be alive if I had stuck with that foundry job from more than forty years ago. All of which leads me to Helen Pinkerton’s “On Breughel the Elder’s The Harvesters (1565) in the Metropolitan Museum” (Taken in Faith, 2002):
“Little thanksgiving here. To labor, feed,
Quickly, to sleep, rise, scythe and gather grain—
The swathe and shocks still to be done again—
Leaves only the blunt will to survive and breed.
Fatigue, deep as disease, maims mind and bone.
Such work-dulled eyes and gestures I have known.
My Celtic folk, brothers to these, do you
Rest well, incorporate with the crops you grew,
Or do you live in me, singing now—in my ease.”
Half of my forebears were Irish, the rest Polish. The fellow sprawled beneath the tree (“Fatigue, deep as disease”) might be among them. He looks incapacitated from illness or drink. Into the twentieth century many in my family labored as grindingly as Breughel’s harvesters, without a choice in the matter. Their entry into the middle class was deferred by history. What Pinkerton – and Breughel – describe contains much of human history. The tone is anti-heroic but not as a pretext for political posturing. Breughel renders his people from a perspective slightly above ground-level, panoramically, none in close-up. They represent a community that disappears into its work, apparently without complaint: No work, no food, “the blunt will to survive and breed.”
In Barbarian in the Garden, Zbigniew Herbert contrasts Piero della Francesca’s foregrounding of his figures with the way Breughel treats them almost like pieces of the landscape:
“Knowing that geometry devours passion, Piero never placed important events in perspective (unlike the ironist Breughel, vide The Death of Icarus). The significant figures of his dramas stand in the foreground as if right in front of footlights.”
Breughel’s people, and mine, are obscure, anonymous and exhausted.