The Hollow Man September 12, 2015Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
Stop and try to describe exhaustion. Not the animal pleasure of worn muscles, the kind that stands sipping a beer over some job well done, or the sort that loses itself in an almost scalding shower after a hard work out at the gym. Mine is a hollowness, an absence rather than a sensation, a blankness that comes from sitting too long at a task, the repetition of which has absorbed more than a decade of my life. I was once very good at it but it is work, not a sport. You can play a lifetime of tennis and even if you are far beyond the ability to jump a net, never lose interest. Working alone and from home it is hard to sustain enthusiasm. Your team are voices on the telephone. Those like me who have been cast off into contracting are denied the chumminess of an office, where some flabbergasted co-worker might someday utter, “Wally writes poetry?” Working as I do everything becomes increasingly distant and unreal, except the walls of my living room office. Those are omnipresent, the walls of a cell neither monastic nor penitentiary, with no promise of redemption. More of a box, really, and mine painted the same dull cardboard color as the boxes that deliver the shopping you have no time to do except online. To work alone in a brown box is to recognize you have become a commodity, something purely utilitarian and disposable, a rechargeable wireless device sold for the improvement of someone else’s lifestyle.
Cut loose from a community of co-workers, you feel like a broken toy in a book you once read your children and long to be found, the missing button of a real life–stepping out to lunch, lingering at the coffee pot in conversation–tenderly sewn back on. You are not a corduroy bear, are far beyond such innocence, have no expectation of a happy ending. You labor long hours for some unrealistic deadline and, whoops, at the last minute, when you have swallowed the last cup of coffee you think you can stand, They move the deadline those of us toiling to reach it knew was unrealistic. A new date is set. Begin again. Lather, rinse, repeat: the old code-monkey’s joke, the inescapable zombie deamon loop that repeats until all resources are exhausted.
Exhaustion: that is where we began and how we end. I am on the wrong computer. I cannot believe I am on a computer at all, but typing is the quickest way to capture a thought. The other computer sits in its bag next to me, untouched. If I don’t open it I will have dumped a huge pile of work on the one person in this situation who is a friend, my assigned partner in a real office. She is the only reason the other computer is here. There are things I must do this weekend, not for my current owner, but for her. A single mother in over her head in the world of projects, she is why I am reluctant to just up and quit. My friend, who has worked for the company her entire life, is a single mother with two small children and a mother who does not speak English and must be chaperoned to the doctor. She cannot just up and quit, and if I were to walk away today or tomorrow all of my work would fall on her. A good arrangement for Them, this pairing of the hired guns with an employee, calculating the value of manipulated human emotions like cash assets with the virtuosity of someone accomplished on the ten-key. That is why, for at least another week, until the next deadline, I will go back and try to push the rock up the mountain one last time.
Today it is hard to start because the hollowness is not just an abstraction, but something tangible. It can be measured by a phone app in sleep debt, in white blood cell count and hemoglobin 1Ac, in bottles of antibiotics, a system stretched to the breaking point. This is the sick root of exhaustion as hollowness. It almost reached a crisis point two Saturday’s ago when I felt at once the fullness of the hollow shell, and a frightening numbness, as if the shell were filled with laughing gas, the cause quite clear but the symptoms undiagnosed until I stumbled into my physical this week. I spent part of Thursday and most of Friday in shock, and then the exhaustion conquered coffee and obligation, and I begged out of the rest of the day. Still, after a few cups of coffee and an aimless morning walk, I jumped in my car and ran home to get the other computer. There is that rock of obligation, almost two days lost, and bills to pay. And however crappy the high-deductible health insurance the agency which hires me out provides, I am genuinely sick and fear going on without a net.
T.S. Eliot coined the term but the real hollow men are not that lost post-war generation coming to cold intellectual terms with a godless mechanistic modern world. We are the products of that godless, mechanistic world, a machine run out of control gobbling up everything in its path to fuel itself until it will someday reach that desert in which there is nothing left and swallow up Eliot’s red rock. Until then, the machine feeds itself on a steady stream of anxious young people who are deep in debt to my employers for an education they finds buys them–instead of a job, perhaps an internship–as the machine churns on, trying to squeeze blood out of a red rock. My kind are valued for our long experience, only because we are available and disposable, because we are an example to the remaining employees of what might happen to them, because we will labor in our brown boxes to keep body and soul together until worn out. They can always order replacements.
We are the hollow men.