On Work as Craft

For this Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, three thoughts on the meaning of work as craft…

1. Work is not meant to be worship in what Matthew B. Crawford calls the “cult of the sovereign self”; rather, work is meant to develop intellectual and practical virtue as we learn how to submit to (and be humbled by) realities outside ourselves. This is what I mean in speaking about work as craft. As Crawford expands upon the point in his marvelous book, Shop Class as Soulcraft:

The idea of agency I have tried to illustrate…is activity directed toward some end that is affirmed as good by the actor, but this affirmation is not something arbitrary and private. Rather, it flows from an apprehension of real features of the world. This may be something easy to grasp, as when a master plumber shows his apprentice that he has to vent a drain pipe a certain way so that sewage gases don’t seep up through a toilet and make a house stink. Or it may be something requiring discernment, as when a better motorcyclist than I explains, from a rider’s point of view, why it would be good to decrease the damping in the front end of the motorcycle (p. 206, emphasis added).

2. It is not only the so-called manual arts that can be considered as craft. The making of literature is also a craft, as Evelyn Waugh well understood. As a young man Waugh was fascinated by manual crafts, at various points thinking he might become a printer, a furniture maker, and a graphic artist. He was always impressed by excellence in craftsmanship, and he brought this attitude into his writing. Nearly every sentence he crafted has the simplicity, rigor, and brilliance of a well-wrought 18th-century cabinet–the fruit of Waugh’s submission to the possibilities of style inherent in the material of the English language.

Consider the following segment from Waugh’s 1962 interview with The Paris Review:

WAUGH

But look, I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.

INTERVIEWER

Does this mean that you continually refine and experiment?

WAUGH

Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.

INTERVIEWER

I gather from what you said earlier that you don’t find the act of writing difficult.

WAUGH

I don’t find it easy. You see, there are always words going round in my head: Some people think in pictures, some in ideas. I think entirely in words. By the time I come to stick my pen in my inkpot these words have reached a stage of order which is fairly presentable.

3. As Waugh also discovered, devotion to craft has its analogue in the liturgy, and in the spiritual life generally–and in Waugh’s case, served as a critical preparatio evangelii. In a letter to a Catholic newspaper at the time of the liturgical changes of Vatican II, Waugh wrote this about the motivations behind his conversion:

I was not at all attracted by the splendor of her great ceremonies–which the Protestants could well counterfeit. Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love (see the account of Waugh in Ian Ker, The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, esp. p. 170).

The work of a master plumber, or that of a literary artist, thus has a connection to (what Father Ker calls) the work of the priest as craftsman. Plumber, writer and priest all must humbly submit themselves to “an apprehension of the real features of the world.” For the plumber this might be the recalcitrance of a drain pipe; for a writer it might be the way in which one verb choice rather than another best captures the human character he is representing; and for the priest, it is the recitation of a precise formula by which the real Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ become present in the confection of the Blessed Sacrament.

In such way do even the humble tasks of a carpenter prepare us for the Wood of the Cross.

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  • Pargontwin

    I do I ever understand about being “obsessed” with things like grammar and word choice.  Yes, there is a profound difference in the subtler meanings of synonyms.  The difference between “eating” and “dining,” for instance.  The profundity of “cogitating” versus simply “thinking.”  Writing is indeed a craft, and language its most important tool. 

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