Wood burning stoves in literature, the meaning of fire, and the silences in between, Part 3.

 

 In the 1970s, funky anthropologists with chest-length beards and an ideological axe to grind (I’ve been lucky enough to know some of them) set forth unto hunter-gatherer communities in Australia and sub-Saharan Africa to try to calculate their work rate.

Among the !Kung San of the Kalahari they found that, although women worked longer ‘minutes’ than men, the average time spent on what you could classify as work did not exceed an hour a day for either sex. Instead, they had a highly involved social and cultural life, deeply rooted in the environment. There would be time for ritualised activities as well as for napping, chatting, dancing, story-telling, playing, laughing, horsing around, and plenty of fire-gazing once the sun went down.

This turned the received Hobbesian wisdom of ‘primitive’ life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’ on its head, and shifted the pendulum back in favour of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ idea of human nature: by many measures, the technologically simple life of the bushmen, embedded in a rich ecosystem, was far superior to ours, a sentiment echoed recently by Yuval Harari in his masterful history of man ‘Sapiens’, up-ending our usual definition of ‘progress’.

Unfortunately, because we tend to frame our notion of human development by abusing the convenient conceptual template of Darwinism, we have come to think of ourselves as socially rather than just technologically ‘evolved’, and of our evolution as a one way street, rather than something both accidental and oscillating.

However, as George Orwell concluded, ‘The logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle,’ and with modern individual skill-sets devolving to the aforementioned grey blob and an over-articulated pair of thumbs attached to a constantly shrinking attention span (oh, and thereby via an electronic nexus point to the sum total of accumulated human data), and with contemporary philosophers seeking to expand the meaning of ‘mind’ to encompass the digital reach of our iphones and Facebook, you could say that we are well embarked on Orwell’s prescient transformational journey. The monoculture of our environment has become the monoculture of the mind.

At the same time, the promise of technology to liberate is an illusion; we venerate work, deify the tirelessly industrious, devour books on increasing our personal productivity and work longer hours than ever, while bland entertainment uses up our remaining ‘bandwidth’. When economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that by 2030 technological advances would allow people to work as few as 15 hours a week, he should have been right. Why wasn’t he? The answer to why that has not been the case would probably vary according to whom you ask, and would take you straight to the extreme ends of the polemical spectrum. It is a desperately important question which goes right to the heart of our being, individually, existentially, as a species.

Perhaps a more immediate question, given that we do still have ‘free time’ would be what we should do with it. At the same time as Keynes was expostulating on his utopian vision of a largely work-free future, Bertrand Russell was sounding a sceptical, patrician note: ‘To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation, and at present very few people have reached this level.’

Could he have foreseen how television, Xbox and cat videos would come to consume the lion’s share of our leisure time? As psychologist Steve Taylor has observed, the “urge to immerse our attention in external things is so instinctive that we’re scarcely aware of it”.

And for those sophisticated enough to evade these rather subtle forms of population control, there is still the exhortation to constantly improve oneself through tick-box travel or high-minded reading or through production-line exercise on clanking machines or further education to further hone our minds and our beautiful slick bodies. All while attached by the umbilical cord of our smart phones to the demands of work and ‘friends’ and advertisers and other attention-seekers. As the gloriously dismissive John Gray says, ‘It is only lately that the pursuit of distraction has been embraced as the meaning of life.’

Spending a few minutes unwinding in front of your stove at least provides a moment of respite, a semi-colon in the remorseless datafication of life, allowing us to take stock while watching the ubiquitous theatre of fire dance across our eyes, less a distraction than an opportunity to let go, and paradoxically, for once, to focus.

…to be continued…

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