Column: On working while tired or sick

Published on January 14, 2014.

Like many others, I was down with the flu last week. Having to slog through work that cannot be postponed or reassigned is not an unusual experience; many of us have been there, done that, more than once. But last week, for some reason, I was forcefully reminded of a book I had first read in college, which taught me a lesson or two in “working while tired or sick.”

That phrase which kept sounding in my head was, as it turns out, the title of the 10th chapter of “A Student’s Guide to Intellectual Work,” by the late French Catholic philosopher Jean Guitton. “To this point [he begins the chapter], I have talked about working while one is well. Ours is a time of anxiety and weariness, however, and people rarely find themselves in an optimum working situation. More often, the mid-twentieth-century man must cast about him to find how despite obstacles he can still carry on with his job.”

Apologies for Guitton’s unaware gender bias; mid-twentieth-century man indeed. But having had my share of visits to the school infirmary, I welcomed Guitton’s guide when I was first introduced to it not only for his insights on how to take notes while reading or his teaching of the theory of the paragraph when writing but also for his promise, on the second page of the Introduction, “that there is no human state or condition in which it is impossible to think (and that is why we will talk about how the mind can work in periods of fatigue or trouble).”

In the 10th chapter, he shows us how. But to a generation growing up on a diet of listicles, Guitton’s process may prove somewhat elusive. Here, for example, are five key passages from a span of five pages, in which the points are made but the real focus is on the discussion.

“There is a state of rather relaxed, slightly absent thought which assists memory, invention and writing. It is probably what Descartes used to call ‘admiration.’”

“If this is true, then it is possible to study when you are tired or ill. Fatigue does not inhibit sustained thought, and all you need is a pencil and note pad by your chair to sketch out the dream or idea, not bothering unduly about form but being rather relaxed, which will coax your ideas forth.”

“Copying is an even easier operation, and can be very welcome if you are feeling at low ebb. You cannot copy without becoming a part of the thing copied …”

“Illness, fatigue, moments in which you feel empty or absent—and all of you know such times—make it easier for you to achieve this state of docile vacancy, when you can look about for a helpful influence—that is, for a current flowing in the direction of your own that therefore strengthens it.”

“We all know more than one author who despite frail health has left his mark no less decisively than others perfectly sound in constitution, for the true strength is the strength of the spirit.”

Insightful, but not exactly the sort of story that will make Buzzfeed.

* * *

Guitton’s little guide reflects two of the author’s formative biases: he taught high school students for many years, and he was a practicing writer his entire life.

The first bias can be glimpsed in the all-but-irresistible appeal to the young student-reader with which he starts his book.

“To be dissatisfied when you are young with the way you are taught is both necessary and honorable. Flawless teaching would be ineffectual in forming a man; if the child is to attain his full adult stature, he needs to be treated adeptly—but ineptly, too …. So thank heaven that your early teachers have defects and inadequacies, for otherwise you would have nothing to react against. Conflict is an essential of first-hand experience.”

The second can be seen in the title of the chapter which the paragraph above begins: “Watching Others Work.” Guitton understood how artists learn to work because he was an artist himself; he was not only a renowned writer but an accomplished painter. “Those of us in camp (he meant prison, which is where he spent most of World War II) who were engaged in intellectual pursuits profited from studying the artists as they worked. Schools know nothing about this. The reason is that the educational process consists precisely in snuffing out the child’s taste for the artist’s methods, which seem disorderly on the surface, in order to teach him schedules and rules and good habits.”

* * *

The English translation by Adrienne Foulke, published in the Philippines by Claretian Publications, turns a solid 50 this year; it carries minimal information on the original. It never occurred to me to look up Guitton’s original, until last week. As it turns out, Scribd has a copy.

The original title is “Le Travail Intellectuel,” or Intellectual Work, evenly subtitled “Advice for those who are studying and those who are writing.” Each of the 11 chapters, plus the Introduction, begins with epigraphs; the book is punctuated by footnotes. (Both epigraphs and footnotes are missing from the English version.) And the date of publication is 1951. In fact, the phrase “mid-twentieth-century man” is really “the man of 1950.”

So what is it that we can learn from this mid-century guide? Let me copy Guitton’s own brief. “You will see that the mind must learn to concentrate and, whatever the subject matter may be, discover at what point to approach a problem; that it must make leisure as well as the mere passage of time contributes to its own maturing; that to know itself it must express itself, for form and substance cannot be separated … and, finally, that there is no human state or condition in which it is impossible to think.”

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