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Dante Alighieri didn’t know the half of it. The wolf that barred his way in the Wood of Error at the outset of his Divine Comedy represents Lust, who never satiates her dreadful appetite and is hungrier after feeding than before. To evade this predator, the poet journeys through Hell and Heaven, classifying in high scholastic style the sins of humankind.
He missed the big one, the mortal sin that motivated two dozen suicides in 2009 at France Telecom, the dullest place in the habitable world, where people go to do nothing and make a living at it. Twenty-four employees at the French monopoly killed themselves in the past 18 months, and another 13 have attempted suicide. The France Telecom suicide wave – the subject of endless public controversy in France – is one of the iconic events of 2009, the sociological quirk that sets in relief the mortal flaw in the Western character.
Lust is the least of the problems in 21st-century Europe. The insatiable predator whom feeding makes more ravenous is not sex, but sloth. Dante doesn’t condemn the slothful to Hell; we find them instead in Purgatory, with eventual hope of entry to Heaven. Among the risk-averse Europeans, who favor nanny-state paternalism, the most risk-averse choose to work for state monopolies. But the global economic crisis has shaken the foundations of state finances in Europe, and bloated entities such as France Telecom must adjust. A consistent pattern informs the suicide notes of France Telecom workers: the fear of downsizing, demotion and reassignment is too much for them to bear. The desire for security is an addiction: the more security one obtains, the less secure one feels.
France Telecom management “had argued, quite reasonably, that the company had to move with the times: customer demand for mobile phones rather than fixed lines meant massive restructuring was inevitable,” wrote Gill Corkingdale in her Harvard Business School blog. “The company avoided imposing mass redundancies, but asked staff to retrain for Orange call centers and, in some cases, change locations. Fairly reasonable, you might think. Yet this did not stop one worker from stabbing himself repeatedly in the stomach when he was told he was being transferred to another post in the same town.”
Although the company went private long ago, telephone workers are considered government employees. Two-thirds of them have civil-service status and cannot be fired. Nonetheless, the monopoly cut 22,000 jobs between 2006 and 2008 and reassigned many more workers to menial jobs with longer hours. ”Engineers who spent 20 years doing repairs to phone lines are being reassigned to work in call centers, and some of them struggle with the change,” France Telecom physician Monique Fraysse-Guigline told London’s The Times last September 14.
On September 28, for example, a 51-year-old France Telecom employee left a note complaining that he could not bear his new assignment to a call center and jumped off a highway bridge into rush-hour traffic. In July, a telephone worker in Marseille left a suicide note stating, “Overwork, stress, absence of training and total disorganization in the company. I’m a wreck, it’s better to end it all.”
The dead worker’s sister told The Guardian newspaper on September 18: “There was this pressure from the top to slim down operations by destabilizing workers; people were undermined to the point that they got ill. He told me he was regularly sent messages from managers suggesting he find work elsewhere. Once they suggested he open a rural guesthouse. He accepted a far too heavy workload out of fear of losing his senior job. He had no other problems, no money worries, no family concerns.”
A healthy middle-aged man – he ran in marathons as a hobby – with no money problems could not bear the thought of losing an overpaid sinecure at the phone company. For the fretful French, The Guardian wrote, his “suicide note has become the defining message from the grave.”
Given Europe’s fiscal crisis, which is creeping up from the near-bankrupt countries of the Mediterranean (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, now dubbed the “PIGS” by Wall Street wits), the downsizing of France Telecom will be repeated throughout the risk-averse continent. By 2012, Moody’s estimates, France and Germany will spend nearly 10% of gross domestic product on debt service. For that matter, the budgetary collapse of US states and cities imperils the one economic sector to add jobs during the past decade. The US private sector shed jobs during the 2000s, and the slack was taken up by state and local governments riding the real-estate boom.
Lust, contrary to Dante, is the least of today’s problems: if only the late France Telecom manager had devoted himself to concupiscence to take his mind off his problems, he would still be alive today. Even the crassest and cheapest sort of sexual relations require a modicum of human intimacy.
The modern world, in fact, has found a cure for lust, the she-wolf that Dante considered impassable. It is the desire for nothing, which, after all, is what suicides desire. A favorite theme of post-feminist authors in the United States is the sexless marriage. Japan, in fact, holds the world championship in this league, with more than a third of Japanese couples reporting no sexual relations at all in the past year, and three-quarters reporting frequency of relations of a month or more.
I do not propose to demean Dante, in many respects the greatest of all European poets, perhaps the greatest poet of all time. But he wrote for a world in which certain things, such as the desire for life, were taken for granted. The sin of suicide draws his passing attention in Canto XIII of “Inferno,” where he passes through a wood of gnarled and brittle trees encasing the souls of those who took their own lives. Following Aristotle, who argued that dissipation of one’s wealth was a form of suicide, Dante depicts a pair of notorious contemporary spendthrifts who killed themselves.
But it is not dissipation of one’s substance, but the desire for security that accounts for the two dozen suicides at the French telephone company. It seems inexplicable that healthy and affluent people would end their lives over the prospect of having to go out and find a new job, unless we consider that there is a bit of death built into the craving for security to begin with. Life is risky, and to withdraw from it is to embrace death. That is why the sort of person who seeks a lifetime sinecure at a state monopoly is more likely to tumble into despair at the first intrusion of uncertainty.
In the modern world, we observe that willingness to assume risk and love of live go together with religious faith. By “modern world” I mean those countries in which education and occupation are determined by choice and talent, rather than tradition and compulsion – the industrialized nations, in short.
The United States and Israel produce the most babies and the most entrepreneurs per capita in the industrial world and are also the only two industrial countries in which religious faith still occupies the public square. This is true by construction: Israel and the US, uniquely in the world, were created by immigrants motivated in large measure by religious faith. Unlike the peoples of Europe, who were assimilated into the Christian religion by political agreement more than by individual conversion, the founders of the US and Israel selected themselves as citizens of a new country.
If we construct a crude “love of life” index by comparing the fertility rate (on the premise that people who love life also love babies) against the suicide rate, Israel is off the charts in the upper-left-hand quadrant; the United States has the second-highest fertility rate and one of the lowest suicide rates.
Israel and the United States share another distinction: they are the world’s principal venues for entrepreneurship. As Professor Reuven Brenner of McGill University writes in the February issue of First Things:
Today Israel’s venture-capital industry still raises more funds than any other venue except the United States. In 2006 alone, 402 Israeli high-tech companies raised over $1.62 billion [US] – the highest amount in the past five years. That same year, Israel had 80 active venture-capital funds and over $10 billion under management, invested in over 1,000 Israeli start-ups. By 2007, with 71 companies listed on NASDAQ, Israel had become second only to the United States, having leapfrogged now-third-place Canada.
There is a deep affinity among love of life, risk-friendliness, entrepreneurship and religious faith. To misquote G K Chesterton, if you cease to believe in God, you will believe in everything. Spengler’s corollary to Chesterton’s doctrine states that if you cease to fear God, you will fear everything. Why should we take risk to begin with? Life is not only risky, but by definition it is a losing proposition, because it will end in failure (namely death) despite our best efforts to the contrary. Life, moreover, is uncertain at the best of times. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in his marvelous ditty “The Song of the Inadequacy of Human Striving,”
Da mach dir einen Plan
Sei nur ein Grosses Licht
Denn mach dir einen Zweiten Plan
Gehen tun die Beide nicht.
(“Make yourself a plan
Just be a shining light
Then make yourself a second plan
Neither of them will work”).
If anything can happen (and it usually does), nemesis may strike at any moment, and everything is a prospective source of terror. The pagan, as Etienne Gilson put it, lived in a god-infested world; modern neo-pagans live in a world infested by demons.
People of faith believe that although God’s purpose is unknowable to human reason, a plan of salvation for mankind somehow underlies the seemingly random procession of triumphs and disasters that constitutes life. Life is risky – fleeting, or hevel in the word of Ecclesiastes – and we are better off if we cast our bread upon the waters.
No mainstream current of Christianity or Judaism promises that the prayers of the pious always will be answered. The Book of Job is there to instruct Christian and Jew that God’s purposes are so obscure to us as to make pointless the attempt to justify them. But the belief that there exists an ultimate purpose is high motivation to take a chance on the strength of our own efforts. If we do not see God’s purpose in our isolated corner of the battlefield, our children will, or our children’s children. Even if death closes out our part in the drama, God will redeem us from death. People of faith tend to have children; those who are persuaded of the randomness of existence tend not to. I cannot prove the validity of the point of view of faith, but it is instructive to consider the alternatives.
The most onerous expression of idolatry in the modern era was the communist conceit that the scientific ordering of society can eliminate uncertainty. Scientific socialism was supposed to eliminate economic crises and war; instead, it brought about 100 million deaths and reduced once-prosperous countries to penury. Seventy years after its founding, the entire value of the industrial plant of the Soviet Union and its satellites was less than its scrap value, taking into account the costs of environmental cleanup. The life expectancy of Russian men has fallen to only 55 years, and the most frequent cause of death is alcoholism. Russia and its former satellites have such low fertility that their populations will fall by between one-third and one-half by mid-century. Europe’s nanny-state version of social democracy is a low-grade version of the same infection.
J W Goethe’s fictional devil, Mephistopheles, declaimed a fitting epitaph for communism when he admonished God for giving man “the spark of heaven’s light he calls reason,” which “he uses only to be beastlier than any beast.” Whether Goethe compares to Dante as a poet is beside the point; his masterwork Faust, written at the turn of the 19th century, speaks to the central concern of the age of sovereign individual choice. Offered anything he wants, modern man in his freedom will tend to choose – nothing. As God instructs Mephistopheles in the drama’s Prologue in Heaven, “All too easily, human activity simply goes to sleep/Man first of all will choose unconditional rest.” That, God explains, is why he has given man a Devil for a companion: to provoke him out of his torpor.
The Devil is a nihilist. He is the same devil of the Hebrew Bible who tormented Job, but with this difference: whereas Satan tortured ancient man by taking away what he required, he tortures modern man by offering him whatever he wants. I compared Faust and Job in a recent essay for First Things. He offers Faust his choice of pleasures – women, fame, money, and so forth. Faust rejects these; he wants to embrace life in all of its dimensions. At this the Devil expresses astonishment: life, he tells Faust, simply isn’t designed for human beings.
Believe me, who for millennia past
Has chewed on this hard crust:
From cradle to the grave
No man ever has been able to digest this sourdough!
Believe our kind: this whole
Was made only for a God!
He basks in light eternal.
Us he brought down into darkness,
While all you get is – day and night.
Faust, of course, vows to fight the Devil to the end. All his endeavors fail, but he dies saved, with this motto on his lips: “I am wholly dedicate to this purpose/Which is the final conclusion of wisdom:/Only he deserves freedom as well as life/Who must conquer them every day!”
Not so the little people who inhabit the barrows of the state monopolies. Oswald Spengler, who characterized Western culture as “Faustian,” would have been astonished to see today’s Europeans nod in assent with Mephistopheles’ refutation of life. Dante might have expanded his tour of the Inferno with something like the following (pardon a scenario without terza rima):
The Boiling Pots of the Slothful: Dante and Virgil enter an enormous cavern in Hell containing hundreds of boiling pots of pitch. In each pot are thousands of tortured souls writhing in unspeakable agony. Around each pot is a legion of devils with pitchforks. From time to time, a soul will attempt to crawl out of the pitch, and the nearest devil pokes him back into the pot.
“Who are these souls who suppurate in boiling pitch, O Master?” Dante inquires.
“These are the slothful, who bathed in indolence during their lifetime, and for eternity must bathe in foul and stinging pitch.”
Dante notices one pot in the corner boiling along by itself, with no devils surrounding it. “Why, O Master,” he asks, “is that pitch-pot over there unguarded?”
“Oh, that’s France Telecom,” Virgil replies. “When one of them tries to crawl out, the others pull him back in.”