“What did I know, what did I know
Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays
Content advisory 18+ Somehow I found myself reading ancient Chinese poetry translated into English. This was years ago. The other day I tried to relocate some of those verses, but not a chance. There is plenty of ancient Chinese poetry to be had, but not the ones I remembered.
Here is why I wanted to find them.. The poems were very short, no more than little glimpses into the life and emotion of some man who lived way back before the time of Christ. Over 2500 years ago maybe. But the translator had had the good sense to render them in such a manner that made them seem almost modern… contemporary — in a simple yet vivid way so that the thoughts of this ancient man spoke directly to me. It is the secret of real poetry, by the way (and paintings, novels, etc.) If it is timeless, then it remains relevant and therefore real. Otherwise, it just hangs around as a curiosity from an earlier period — like a celebrity who is famous merely for ‘being famous’ and so appears on incessantly on dull daytime TV. Of ‘timelessness’, I can give you an example: Though I am hardly what you would call a biblical scholar, one of my favorite verses in the Hebrew Bible of the Old Testament is Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am also known.”
The speaker wrote those words long, long ago, but they still come through; he is in the same room with me (in 2018) and together we “see through the glass, darkly.”
And so, as we return to the Chinaman of that distant epoch, what got me was the way this man, longing to be home with his wife, complained about having to spend so much time at the office. And ”office” was the word he kept using. He could have been any one of us — stuck in our own offices, but there he was, back in some ancient province of a culture as old as stone and dirt, sounding just like…you and me.
There was something haunting about this, and something utterly compelling — having privy to — eavesdropping on, as it were — the mundane thoughts of a businessman who just wanted to go home and have a drink and maybe sex with his young wife. And it was the OFFICE — with its ever-present rigors and demands, tasks and ennui — that the very word “office” conjures up, which made his lines of poetry, under the scalpel of a sensitive and skillful translator, so simultaneously plain and evocative, matter-of-fact and poignant.
O-f-f-i-c-e.. What to make of this word that defines so much of our lives? It is not a pretty word. Like “zephyr.” “Or rhododendron” or “nightingale.” Or even “cunnilingus”.
Just o-f-f-i-c-e. But in this brief locution that sounds a bit like the “oink” of a pig, much, so very much, of the modern world is contained. For multitudes of people the interior of some office holds more chapters of their lives than any seashore or forest or mountain. Or home.
In these offices, the outcomes of whole careers are determined. Sometimes love affairs take place after hours on office couches. Cognac is pulled from drawer if you are The Boss. In offices, pressure and deadlines dictate the rate at which beats the human heart and blood-flow as it spills through human veins. In such offices, especially in today’s corporate culture, more masks are worn than at a Halloween Ball. So, in this sense, the office is a place of eternal falsehood and deception, no more than the streets outside. A place where multitudes of people refine their skill at pretending to be someone other than who they really are.
Sometimes people jump out the window of the office, as they did when the Wall Street Stock Market crashed in 1929 and during 9/11 when the Twin Towers were in the process of collapsing. But mostly people just sit (or pace the floor) and grow old in their offices. Then comes the retirement party, and the young high fliers gaze at you curiously and smile as at a dead frog in a high school science lab as you are presented with the obligatory Gold Watch. They look like pallbearers awaiting the signal to lift your coffin from the rack and carry it to the graveyard.
Or so it was back when a guy would get his foot in the door of some company and stay there his entire working life. 40-45 years with the same corporation, that’s how it happened with my grandfather, for instance. He managed to go from climbing poles on a line gang for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to an office job in the state capital of Charleston with the same outfit. He retired at 65 and I am sure that within a week everyone had forgotten him. But he made it from the dirt road to the Office — and he was proud of that.
It’s not like that now in our world of flexy-time, hot-desking, and teleworking. Going from a small office shared with a group of other working stiffs to the ornate quarters of the Big Cheese was the dream of all the small fry in bygone eras. The door to the boss’s office presented itself as a tremendous barrier between your world and his –like the difference between Purgatory (where you subsisted) and Heaven (his gilded domain). Women rarely saw the inside of those offices where the fluffy red carpet sprawled underfoot unless it was in the role of secretary. Which sometimes could be an ambiguous position….
Anyway, now nobody stays in the same place or at the same job for very long. It used to be that if you had worked for three different companies in five years, the brass at the latest job interview (there was no HR back then) would take you for a fuck-up who couldn’t hang around anywhere very long without pissing somebody off. Now it’s the norm. The headhunters descend on talent like eagles on young bunny rabbits.
And just as religion is adjusted to conform to the shape of our endless reconfigurations of God (jealous, vindictive, and punitive evolving into forgiving, loving, and merciful; mammoth overseer of the medieval world becoming the personal pal you can reach on your smart phone (in America) — so the idea of an office has changed to meet the alterations that life inevitably makes, generation after generation. The smoke-filled rooms of the past are mostly gone, replaced by easy-access cubicles in open space facilities where it is possible to see everyone milling about. Now people bring their toys and teddy bears, frisbies and pillows, family photos, etc., and frequently there will be hammocks and lofts and meditation rooms, and so on, in these offices — as at Google, so they say (never been there myself).
The hierarchy has flattened, I keep hearing and reading, and, more and more, people work from home. Often the office is no longer a room but a computer screen. For example, I am in my “office” at this very moment. Meanwhile, as I work, one dog is at my feet and the other is sprawled on the bed. And the only boss around here is currently downstairs putting on her makeup to go shopping.
So maybe the very concept of the office– like drinking fountains, telephone booths, and airports/schools/football stadiums without massive security — is in the process of becoming an anachronism, what do you think? But I believe that the “office” as a MENTAL room where one works out the vicissitudes of life during the years of productive power, will never subside.
And still the word “office” haunts me in a way that is strangely erotic even when it shouldn’t be — like grim, spare, forbidding Soviet architecture always gets my dick hard for some reason. No idea why.
My father once owned a small airplane and when I visited him in New York City back in the 1960s, he would take me flying over Manhattan. I remember an early morning when we floated across the city as the sun rose and the steam-filled clouds were still draped around the tops of the buildings. The silver silence of those hours encased in the voluptuousness of reddening dawn and contaminated only by wan, pollution-sick angels who had lost their way, made me think of all the staff early and late, even the office cleaners, who must still be inside. I imagined young(ish) women — not glamor girls (I was never looking for a movie star), but not witches and crones either — just (kind of pretty) ordinary city girls finishing working the night on tired feet, and I imagined somehow meeting my true love — the woman I would marry and have children with — if I could just find her among those endless offices, that labyrinth in the sky. Maybe some Irish lass named Rosy O’Grady. Or an Italian called Chiara or Benedetta. But we flew on, and I never found her. O, I was such a romantic.
So I remember the words of that Chinese man who spoke all those centuries ago desiring only to finish the workday and go home to his love. When I taught English classes in Moscow city, I was happy way, way up there, above the world. I loved those mighty buildings. And when I left at night, I would look back up at their tops and try to guess what was going on up there — what mysteries unfolding.
Odd that, because for the most part I knew the answer since I had just been there myself. Nothing was happening, yet it still seemed that Life and all of Life’s Secrets could somehow be found up there.
Among those offices.
===Eric Richard Leroy===