Heinrich Böll's short story Anecdote to the Decline of the Work Ethic was written in 1963 for a May Day program on German Radio. I had originally planned to post it on May Day earlier this year, but it slipped my mind. The story is pretty well known — Wikipedia informs me that it's been widely circulated on the Internet — so perhaps some of you have already read it (or heard some version of it).
Anecdote to the Decline of the Work Ethic is one of the most successful stories I've come across in terms of exposing the absurdity of not just wage-slavery but any life built upon, and comprised of, quiet accumulation. With its very simple story and very simple language it strips bare the lie of increased productivity, revealing a life of increased net worth as its own kind of slavery. The story also reminds me of an argument I had recently at a wedding where someone told me that, in a world without money, there would be no incentive to work and people would become lazy. Böll's short story urges us to think about "work" and "laziness" in ways very different from how we're normally asked (or taught) to understand them.
Daniel Quinn once asked a powerful question that also pairs nicely with Böll's story: Why does civilization grow food, lock it up, and then make people earn money to buy it back.
* * *
In a harbor on the west coast of Europe, a shabbily dressed man lies dozing in his fishing boat. A smartly dressed tourist is just putting a new roll of color film into his camera to photograph the idyllic picture: blue sky, green sea with peaceful, snowy whitecaps, black boat, red woolen fisherman's cap. Click. Once more: click and, since all good things come in threes and it's better to be safe than sorry, a third time: click. The snapping, almost hostile sound awakens the dozing fisherman, who sleepily sits up, sleepily gropes for his cigarettes, but before he has found what he is looking for the eager tourist is already holding a pack under his nose, not exactly sticking a cigarette between his lips but putting one into his hand, and a fourth click, that of the lighter, completes the overeager courtesy. As a result of that excess of nimble courtesy — scarcely measurable, never verifiable — a certain awkwardness has arisen that the tourist, who speaks the language of the country, tries to bridge by striking up a conversation.
"You'll have a good catch today."
The fisherman shakes his head.
"But I've been told the weather's favorable!"
The fisherman nods.
"So you won't put to sea?"
The fisherman shakes his head, the tourist grows more and more uncomfortable. It is clear that he has the welfare of the shabbily dressed man at heart and that disappointment over the lost opportunity is gnawing at him.
"Oh, I'm sorry — aren't you feeling well?"
At last the fisherman switches from a sign language to the spoken word.
"I feel fine," he says. "I've never felt better." He stands up, stretches as if to demonstrate his athletic build. "I feel terrific."
The tourist's expression grows steadily more unhappy, and he can no longer suppress the question which, as it were, threatens to burst his heart: "But why, then, do you not put to sea?"
The answer comes promptly and briefly: "Because I already put to sea this morning."
"Did you make a good catch?"
"My catch was so good that I need not put to sea for a second time. I had four lobsters in my baskets, caught nearly two dozen mackerel..."
The fisherman, finally awake, is now thawing, and slaps the tourist soothingly on the shoulder. The worried countenance of the latter seems to him an expression of inappropriate, yet touching, anxiety.
"I have enough even for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow," he says to relieve the stranger's soul. "Do you want a cigarette?"
Cigarettes are being put into mouths, a fifth click; the stranger, shaking his head, sits down on the rim of the boat, and puts down the camera, for now he needs both hands to give his speech emphasis.
"I do not want to meddle in your personal affairs," he says, "but just imagine if you put to sea today for a second, a third, or perhaps even a fourth time, and you catch three, four, five, maybe even ten dozen mackerel. Just imagine that!"
The fisherman nods.
"You put to sea," continues the tourist, "not only today but tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, indeed, on every favorable day two, three, of perhaps four times — do you know what would happen?"
The fisherman shakes his his.
"In one year at the latest you would be able to buy a motor, in two years a second boat, in three or four years you may, perhaps, have a small trawler; with two boats or the trawler you would, of course, catch a lot more — one day, you would have two trawlers, you would...," for a few moments his enthusiasm leaves him speechless, "you would build a small cold store, perhaps a smoke-house, soon afterwards a marinating factory, fly around with your own helicopter, making out the shoals of fish and giving orders to your trawlers by radio. You could buy the fishing right for salmon, open a fish restaurant, export lobster directly to Paris without a middleman — and then...," once again his enthusiasm leaves him speechless. Shaking his head, saddened in the depth of his heart, and almost bereft of this holiday delights, he looks on the waters rolling peacefully into the harbor, where the uncaught fish jump merrily.
"And then," he says, but again his excitement leaves him speechless. The fisherman slaps him on the back, as one would slap a child choking over his food. "What then?" he asks in a low voice.
"Then," says the stranger with restrained enthusiasm, "then, without a care in the world, you could sit here in the harbor, doze in the sun — and look at the glorious sea."
"But I'm already doing that," says the fisherman. "I sit here in the harbor without a care in the world and doze — it was only your clicking that disturbed me."
And so the thus enlightened tourist walked pensively away, for at one time he had believed that he was working so as to someday not have to work any more; and there remained in him not a trace of pity for the fisherman in shabby clothes, only a little envy.