Working with Meaning (Part 6)

 As we think about the idea of work, we should look at a peculiar scene in David Lean’s WWII epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson and his men are held as prisoners of war by the Japanese army and ordered to build the bridge stated in the film's title. Initially, the men are not taking their work seriously and are even trying to undermine their enemy’s command. 

Nicholson realizes this and orders them to stop thwarting the effort and begin taking pride in their work. Shortly after, Clifton, a physician, notices the progress of the bridge and questions Nicholson:

CLIFTON: The fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as, forgive me sir, collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity. 


NICHOLSON: Are you alright Clifton? We are prisoners of war, we haven’t the right to refuse work. 


CLIFTON: I understand that sir, but must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they can build themselves? 


NICHOLSON: Would you prefer to see this battalion disintegrate in idleness? Would you have it said that our chaps can’t do a proper job? Do you realize how important it is to show these people that they can’t break us in body or in spirit. Take a good look, Clifton. One day the war will be over and I hope the people who will use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers even in captivity. 

 

How is the viewer supposed to interpret this odd scene? On one hand, Clifton is
right. The bridge will help their enemy. On the other, we again hear echoes of Price’s grandfather from “Good Work” in that how one works is just as important as the work itself. Likewise for Nicholson, “shoveling shit” or building a bridge- “work is work” and the value isn’t just in what’s accomplished but in the way it’s accomplished. 

Could we go a step further and suggest that Colonel Nicholson is an artist? An artist wishing to create something functional, yes, but also something beautiful; a monument to hard work and craftsmanship, independent from any military or political objective. Nicholson’s men only see the bridge within utilitarian terms- a passageway from point A to point B. The bridge isn’t a work of art at all which makes it easy to undermine and eventually destroy. Conversely, Colonel Nicholson only sees it as a work of art. Even though their enemy is using the bridge with the intent to destroy the Colonel’s own military, the bridge has inherent value in and of itself- art for art’s sake in other words.  

There is a certain absurdity in Colonel Nicholson’s ideas which provides a nice segue to another absurd story regarding work- the myth of Sisyphus. A tragic hero forever destined to push a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down once he reaches the top. Up and back down, and up again- for eternity. Is there a more apt metaphor to describe the drudgery and monotony, the daily grind, many associate with the job they do (redo) everyday? 


The German Existential philosopher, Albert Camus contemplated what Sisyphus must have thought each time he labored to push that great stone up the hill, and each time he followed after it when it rolled back down. One of his conclusions may surprise you. Instead of assuming Sisyphus felt cursed or a sense of dread, Camus wrote: "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Sisyphus happy? Camus imagined a counter-interpretation to the story. Philosophy professor Robert C. Solomon explains: 

Camus makes it very clear…that Sisyphus is what is called the Absurd Hero and why we might readily agree the situation is absurd- What is it that makes him a hero?  [For Camus] Sisyphus puts himself into his labor and one can imagine Sisyphus as he rolls the rock up the mountain, coming to notice and appreciate and even love the various contours and markings on the rock itself. He comes to study and appreciate and even become very fond of, the various bumps and levels that the rock has to proceed along. There is a sense that he throws himself into his labor, and the consequence of this, Camus tells us, is that Sisyphus must be considered happy.  "No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life." The Great Courses Narrated by Professor Robert C. Solomon. Lecture 4. 

Camus imagined Sisyphus happy as he kept track of each trip within his mind, comparing the number of steps and pace with the one prior. He imagined Sisyphus knew exactly how few steps his quickest trip was and that each subsequent one was an attempt to best it. He envisioned Sisyphus feeling the at times rough, at times smooth texture of the stone against the side of his face, the traction upon the slope of the ground as he used his legs and shoulders to gain leverage. 

Camus’ Sisyphus, like Colonel Nicholson, finds meaning, not only through an arbitrary act of willpower, but more importantly through a sort of redefining or reinterpretation of the act he's doing. A faith like we discussed earlier, once again returning to the idea that meaning isn’t dependent on outcome, but the effort and intent put into it. 

Isn’t there something sort of liberating here?  


Whether working in a garage for minimal pay or building a bridge that may destroy you or pushing a rock only to know it will roll back down the hill- Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your might…. This quote by King Solomon from the Book of Ecclesiastes goes on to say ...that for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. I would like to think that Colonel Nicholson and Camus and King Solomon for that matter would interpret the passage as- "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with of your might even though you are going in the realm of the dead, where… there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."  Sisyphus knew the rock would roll back the down the hill and Colonel knew the bridge may cause his own defeat, yet each used all of his might. 

 

How about connecting these ideas to It's a Wonderful Life, another movie about work and ambition? I know it may initially sound ridiculous to draw parallels between George Bailey and Camus’ Sisyphus, but there's more in common than you might think. At first, it’s easy to consider Bailey as a hero embodying the American Dream. He starts with unbridled ambition- wanting to travel the world, be a captain of industry, to “lasso the moon” no less. An American Dream to be sure. The problem though is that he does none of it. None of his initial dreams come true.  You could actually argue it’s sort of an anti-American Dream story.  

This is easy to recognize when you contrast it to Citizen Kane, a film that actually is about the American Dream Are there two characters more drastically different in cinema than Kane and Bailey? While their origins and initial ambitions parallel each other, all similarities end there. Bailey doesn't obtain his American Dream but is saved while Kane does, but dies alone in despair. Interestingly enough, Kane actually resembles the antagonist- Mr. Potter more than George Bailey.

It sounds strange but isn’t the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life simply a reckoning between the standard interpretation of Sisyphus and Camus' reinterpretation?  Isn’t the despair that leads George to contemplate suicide nothing more than the drudgery of pushing a proverbial stone up the hill? What does Bailey realize? The same as Camus- that pushing a small rock up the hill in his hometown can be just as valuable and meaningful as pushing a boulder up a mountain in a metropolis. In other words, the moon George wants to lasso (and does) is just as big in Bedford Falls as it is in New York City. 



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