Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs places primacy on self-actualization — the vague yet compelling idea of “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
But according to Victorian author William C. Gannet — and his collaborator, the Countess of Aberdeen — the highest virtue, the greatest of man’s aspirations, is to become, in his own words, a “drudge.”
Blessed Be Drudgery, an obscure pamphlet published in Glasgow in 1890, countermands a drive towards hand-wavey self-actualization, imploring readers to instead seek solace in life’s most grinding, grueling, and petty of pursuits.
In a kind of Victorian-Zen hybrid ideology, Gannett revels in the culture of non-culture, the soulful ascendancy lurking within the drab and the pedestrian. Where many might scoff at the sordid brocade of mortal toil that overcloaks our daily waking, he sees a glistening tapestry of joy, rather than fifty shades of gray.
“A magician’s wand is put in our hands,” writes the Countess of Aberdeen in her preface, “and if we will but consent to use it, we shall see everywhere about us in that lot which seemed so dark but a little ago, gems and treasures inestimable, which only wait to be ours by our use of them.”
Culture, in the mind of Gannett, resides not in the activities that free us from our drudgery, but lies instead within the act of drudgery itself:
Our prime elements are due to our drudgery, — I mean that literally; the fundamentals, that underlie all fineness, and without which no other culture worth the winning is even possible. These, for instance, — and what names are more familiar? Power of attention; power of industry; promptitude in beginning work; method and accuracy and
despatch in doing work; perseverance; courage before difficulties; cheer under straining burdens; self-control and self-denial and temperance. These are the prime qualities; these the fundamentals. We have heard these names before!
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are very handy, but these fundamentals of a man are handier to have; worth more; worth more than Latin and Greek and French and German and music and art-history and painting and wax flowers and travels in Europe, added together.
Drudgery seems every bit as much of the modern world as it did in Gannett’s — work hours increase evermore (even as the labor force shrinks), the grind refers as much to daily toil as to the intoxicating brew of coffee oft required to endure it, and the office, despite decades of the best intentions, remains, rather ingloriously, “at once harmless and ominous,” according to Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.
If labor then persists in its alienation — if the environment of work is hardly an environment worth speaking of — might one seek solace in the wistful words of Gannett? For just as a shift in perspective can presage a shift in reality, an embrace of life’s most drudgeful elements might allow one to finally appreciate them as Culture, freed from the imperative lust towards wax flowers.