Bent Work

"'All keep the mines open; it is a work to be shared. But each digs for himself the thing he wants for his work. What else would he do?''It is not so with us.''Then you must make very bent work.'" ~ Out of the Silent Planet, p.105

This year, I have a personal goal to read through 5 books that are all 500+ pages. The first of these was a re-read of The Lord of The Rings (and at the time of writing, I'm more than halfway through the second, an abridgment of Journey to the West titled The Monkey and The Monk). The post below was partially inspired by that, but draws on numerous other sources as well.

Start With Love

The title of this post comes from a conversation in Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis. Let me set the context a bit then I'll share the conversation with the key part bolded. In Out of the Silent Planet, a professor in England named Ransom gets kidnapped and taken to Mars. There he meets three sentient species: Hrossa, Sorns, and Pfifltrigg. The latter look sort of like frogs and act like classical dwarves (with occupations as miners and craftsmen). One is carving a statue of a human using Ransom as a model and they get into a conversation about language (Ransom's academic specialty) that shifts to discussing politics and work.

The denizens of Lewis' Mars exist in a state of nigh-prelapsarian innocence. They aren't immune from accidents and tragedy, but because Earth (the titular Silent Planet) is under a celestial quarantine, deliberate oppression and exploitation are unknown among them. So their languages don't have much vocabulary around wrong-doing, and the best way they have of describing something that has gone awry or isn't as it should be is to call it "bent".

(A few further explanations: Malacandra is the in-story name for Mars. Sun's blood and stars' milk are their names for two different minerals (perhaps gold and silver). A handramit is a deep canyon (and has been referenced on this blog before).)

'You are right,' said the creature. 'Once we all had different speeches and we still have at home. But everyone has learned the speech of the hrossa.'
'Why is that?' said Ransom, still thinking in terms of terrestrial history. 'Did the hrossa once rule the others?'
'I do not understand. They are our great speakers and singers. They have more words and better. No one learns the speech of my people, for what we have to say is said in stone and sun's blood and stars' milk and all can see them. No one learns the sorns' speech, for you can change their knowledge into any words and it is still the same. You cannot do that with the songs of the hrossa. Their tongue goes all over Malacandra. I speak it to you because you are a stranger. I would speak it to a sorn. But we have our old tongues at home. You can see it in the names. The sorns have big-sounding names like Augray and Arkal and Belmo and Falmay. The hrossa have furry names like Hnoh and Hhihi and Hyoi and Hlithnahi.'
'The best poetry, then, comes in the roughest speech?'
'Perhaps,' said the pfifltrigg. 'As the best pictures are made in the hardest stone. But my people have names like Kalakaperi and Parakataru and Tafalakeruf. I am called Kanakaberaka.'
Ransom told it his name.
'In our country,' said Kanakaberaka, 'it is not like this. We are not pinched in a narrow handramit. There are the true forests, the green shadows, the deep mines. It is warm. It does not blaze with light like this, and it is not silent like this. I could put you in a place there in the forests where you could see a hundred fires at once and hear a hundred hammers. I wish you had come to our country. We do not live in holes like the sorns nor in bundles of weed like the hrossa. I could show you houses with a hundred pillars, one of sun's blood and the next of stars' milk, all the way ... and all the world painted on the walls.'
'How do you rule yourselves?' asked Ransom. 'Those who are digging in the mines - do they like it as much as those who paint the walls?'
'All keep the mines open; it is a work to be shared. But each digs for himself the thing he wants for his work. What else would he do?'
'It is not so with us.'
'Then you must make very bent work. How could a maker understand working in sun's blood unless he went into the home of sun's blood himself and knew one kind from another and lived with it for days out of the light of the sky till it was in his blood and his heart, as if he thought it and ate it and spat it?'
'With us it lies very deep and hard to get and those who dig it must spend their whole lives on the skill.'
'And they love it?'
'I think not ... I do not know. They are kept at it because they are given no food if they stop.'

Kanakaberaka wrinkled his nose. 'Then there is not food in plenty on your world?' (p.104-105)

Note as well that Out of the Silent Planet was written before the Green Revolution, so it was actually pretty reasonable for an educated man like Ransom to be uncertain about the answer to the question at the end of this excerpt.

From this conversation, I see two crucial pre-requisites for avoiding "bent work".  The first is an intimate knowledge of the raw materials you are working with, ideally through first-hand experience with obtaining it. The second is avoiding oppressing or exploiting others in how you obtain your inputs. There is also an implication that you should love your vocation.

This theme of love is front and centre in the following passage from The Lord of The Rings. It takes place just after the battle of Helm's Deep. During the fighting, Gimli the dwarf got separated from his companions and, together with some men of Rohan, fought a rear-guard action into the caverns there. When he is reunited with Legolas the elf, what is on top of his mind is not the battle, but the beauty of these caves:

'Strange are the ways of men, Legolas! Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm's Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. Aye indeed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance!'
'And I would give gold to be excused,' said Legolas; 'and double to be let out, if I strayed in!'
'You have not seen, so I forgive your jest,' said Gimli. 'But you speak like a fool. Do you think those halls are fair, where your King dwells under the hill in Mirkwood, and Dwarves helped in their making long ago? They are but hovels compared with the caverns I have seen here: immeasurable halls, filled with an everlasting music of water that tinkles into pools, as fair as Kheled-zaram in the starlight.
'And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floor under the echoing domes, ah! then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities, such as the mind of Durin could scarce have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come. And plink! a silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes: they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass on into another chamber and another dream. There is chamber after chamber, Legolas; hall opening out of hall, dome after dome, stair after stair; and still the winding paths lead on into the mountains' heart. Caves! The Caverns of Helm's Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes me weep to leave them.'
'Then I will wish you this fortune for your comfort, Gimli,' said the Elf, 'that you may come safe from war and return to see them again. But do not tell all your kindred! There seems little left for them to do, from your account. Maybe the men of this land are wise to say little: one family of busy dwarves with hammer and chisel might mar more than they made.'
'No, you do not understand,' said Gimli. 'No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin's race would mine those caves for stone or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap - a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day - so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock. And lights, Legolas! We should make lights, such lamps as once shone in Khazad-dum; and when we wished we would drive away the night that has lain there since the hills were made; and when we desired rest, we would let the night return.'
'You move me, Gimli,' said Legolas.
'I have never heard you speak like this before.' (p. 534-535)

I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that Gimli is infatuated here. He claims that his reaction to such splendor would be the reaction of any dwarf, so that none would want to work in such a way that would mar the natural endowment of the caverns.

There is a stark contrast to this love and respect for what is pre-existing later in the same chapter when the companions arrive at Orthanc. It features mighty works of men of Westernesse that Saruman marred:

This was its fashion, while Saruman was at his height, accounted by many the chief of Wizards. A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, from which it ran and returned again. One entrance only was there made in it, a great arch delved in the southern wall. Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron. They were so wrought and poised upon their huge hinges, posts of steel driven into the living stone, that when unbarred they could be moved with a light thrust of the arms, noiselessly. One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl: a mile it measured from rim to rim. Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake. But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman. The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron, joined by heavy chains.
Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunnelled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors. Thousands could dwell there, workers, servants, slaves, and warriors with great store of arms; wolves were fed and stabled in deep dens beneath. The plain, too, was bored and delved. Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead. For the ground trembled. The shafts ran down by many slopes and spiral stairs to caverns far under; there Saruman had treasuries, store-houses, armouries, smithies, and great furnaces. Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapour steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green. (p.541)  

Modes of Production

Let's move from fictional examples to a discussion of how stuff gets made in the real contemporary world. Because of the places my job takes me (industrial sites all around Canada and the US and sometimes beyond, looking at wastewater treatment for them) as well as some hobbies I have, I feel comfortable saying that I spend a lot more time thinking about modes of production than the average person does. There are a couple of different modes of production that we can apply the insights from the previous section to, ranging from artisanal to industrial (of course there are many types of work in the modern economy that don't produce any kind of physical artifact, but I'll be focusing on work that has a tangible product).

Artisanal production is easy to idealize. Now that it usually occurs in a hobby context or as the freely-chosen vocation of someone following their passions, it is likely done with love. And the opportunity to get hands-on with many stages of the work (if not always all the way to the raw materials) allows one to gain intimate familiarity with the materials being used.

Stool I built recently

For an example of the artisanal mode, the stool in the photo above is something I made as a recent DIY project. I think it makes a good illustration of tacit knowledge; because I was doing everything myself, I didn't need to draw out detailed plans in advance, just a rough idea to go on, which I filled in as I went based on experience with previous projects. The end result was that a single board (which can be thought of as 2 dimensional since the thickness is small compared to the length and width) became this complex and useful 3-dimensional object. Reflecting afterwards on all the steps that I'd done, it involved cutting the board into 8 pieces, then drilling 48 holes (for 24 dowel pegs) and chiselling out 2 dadoes to connect them in the right configuration (this is just for the main structure; I'm not listing the steps for making the decorative cut-outs, bevelling the edges, etc.). Doing all this oneself really gives a feel for how the material behaves.

When it comes to the modern industrial mode of production, it's no secret that Tolkien—and other English literary greats—viewed it with suspicion. Personally, I don't see it as intrinsically "bent", but it perhaps needs more care to avoid becoming so. Obviously I have some bias here due to my livelihood being tied up in it, but I also believe that the answer to Kanakaberaka's final question in the opening excerpt now being a firm yes is a strong argument in its favour.

The city of Sarnia, Ontario has probably the highest concentration of heavy industry of any place I've been so far. It makes a good illustration of how the modern industrial mode of production works. Around the main refineries and chemical plants, there is an entire constellation of industrial supply companies, welding shops, rental places for cranes and heavy equipment, work-wear stores, and labour union halls. Even something like hotels that may seem unrelated at first is an essential part of this ecosystem, so out-of-town contractors have a place to stay. No planner could lay out in advance everything that would need to be included in this constellation, or how many of each, but each business can see its own small piece of the puzzle and consider advantageous places to locate. These considerations multiplied across the whole sector yield what you see in a place like Sarnia as an emergent effect. The famous essay "I, Pencil" describes this effect:

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.  

I don't think it's literally true that no one knows how to make a pencil—the Primitive Technology guy on YouTube can make at least some of the components from scratch—but rather no one has all the knowledge that goes into being able to make over a billion pencils per year, sell them from less than a quarter each, and make a profit. The essay goes on to discuss the "innumerable antecedents" that go into even superficially-simple manufacturing. No one grasps the entire picture, perhaps not even within a firm.

So in this context, how does someone do their work in the way described in the previous section: intimate knowledge of your materials, first-hand experience, avoiding oppression and exploitation, and doing it with love? One thing that comes to mind is to have some awareness and appreciation for the people and steps involved 'upstream' and 'downstream' of your own work. Where possible, getting some hands-on experience with some of these steps is even better. Rotating new hires through different front-line production roles (where feasible) is a good idea in my opinion. In my own professional life, I appreciate that my job includes some occasional fieldwork. Usually I'm using data from others, but several times a year I collect some samples and do some laboratory tests on them. The data from these sorts of tests is an important input to my work, so having a tangible sense of where it comes from and how it is obtained is valuable. Going out and getting dirty—my clothes have been covered in sludge more than once—also promotes camaraderie and lowers barriers with the wastewater plant operators who do the same sort of thing day-to-day. Aside from the fieldwork that is still a periodic part of my job, the hands-on aspects of collecting and analyzing samples was a beneficial part of my graduate education.

We can also look at this whole issue on a societal level. There's something that doesn't sit right with me when people who enjoy all the benefits of modern technology don't want the essential work for provisioning it to take place anywhere near them, or when industries that we all rely on are looked down on (this is not the same as continually pushing those industries to get cleaner or improve in other ways). Conflict minerals and forced labour in overseas supply chains seem pretty "bent" to me, especially when domestic production that could fill some of the same demand is throttled.

Maybe rather than industrialization per se, the problem with how Saruman is developping Isengard (in the second excerpt from The Lord of The Rings included above) is High Modernism, as defined in this widely-cited book review, running roughshod over everything:  

The first part of the story is High Modernism, an aesthetic taste masquerading as a scientific philosophy. The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.
But the High Modernists were pawns in service of a deeper motive: the centralized state wanted the world to be “legible”, ie arranged in a way that made it easy to monitor and control. An intact forest might be more productive than an evenly-spaced rectangular grid of Norway spruce, but it was harder to legislate rules for, or assess taxes on.
An extensional definition might work better: standardization, Henry Ford, the factory as metaphor for the best way to run everything, conquest of nature, New Soviet Man, people with college degrees knowing better than you, wiping away the foolish irrational traditions of the past, Brave New World, everyone living in dormitories and eating exactly 2000 calories of Standardized Food Product (TM) per day, anything that is For Your Own Good, gleaming modernist skyscrapers, The X Of The Future, complaints that the unenlightened masses are resisting The X Of The Future, demands that if the unenlightened masses reject The X Of The Future they must be re-educated For Their Own Good, and (of course) evenly-spaced rectangular grids.
(maybe the best definition would be “everything G. K. Chesterton didn’t like.”)

This was a powerful force at the time the books cited in the first section of this post were written. Out of the Silent Planet was published in 1938 and The Lord of The Rings was published in 1955. For comparison, the projects by Le Corbusier discussed in the linked book review took place in the early 1930s (Moscow) and early 1950s (Chandigarh).

In contrast, the modern industrial mode of production with Sarnia as a concentrated example is less top-down, to the extent it can be thought of as an ecosystem. No one has the end-to-end view like you get with artisanal production, but everyone does freely pursue his or her own specialization.

Imbibing this Ethos

In this final section, I just wanted to share some poetry, music, etc. on this theme of working in a way that isn't bent.  

One poem that comes to mind is Kipling's "Hymn to Breaking Strain" on the importance of knowing the capabilities and capacities of the materials you work with:

THE careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on  the Stuff - the Man!

I also really like this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which conveys a sentiment of love for the diverse tools of various trades (among other things):

Glory be to God for dappled things –
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
     For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                               Praise him.

This original song promotes a "dwarven" mindset to work, including the brilliant line, "Here sweat must flow before the ale, and apron donned before the mail". On a related note, check out the song "Heigh Ho" from the same channel.

Finally, I'll share a link to a previous blog post I wrote on the subject of work, which also draws on some of Tolkien's writings.