Essay on Work

by Kascha Semonovitch

labor work action
The other day, lying in bed, my son asked me, Would you rather be a circle or a line? I looked at him. He held up his hand, made a circle with thumb and first finger. Eeenie. Straight line with the finger. Meenie. Circle. Minie.

I thought about it.

Did I want to be a circle or a line? Well, a circle would mean I would go on forever. If I were a circle, I wouldn’t die which seemed to be the source of all my distress lately. If I were a line, though, I could work. I could make something that goes on and out, away from me into the world. I could escape the mere biological cycle of life into which we are born, wake sleep wake, eat do the dishes eat. Says Hannah Arendt whom I respect about most things (except she’s wrong in some ways about children, or at least the having of them). For Arendt, life is the circle, work is line that tries to escape the circle, and politics makes some shape bigger than a single circle or line. You might think it’s natural humans want to work, natural to aim away from nature. But Arendt says, insofar as that is true, human nature isn’t something. It isn’t some thing that we can see, any more than we can see our own shadows. It isn’t a thing at all. It isn’t. Human nature, ontological oxymoron. Of course, most of the rest of my anxiety came from being a circle: get up, feed, eat, dishes, children, sleep, get up, dishes…Not oxymoron, just moronic, boring. Circle. Life. When what I needed, if I had an I, a self, individuated from the biological process, if I were the actor of free choice rather than the product of a species of life, I were not a type of life but a singular pattern deployed within the range of possibilities of life, if I were a line—this line—then, I what I needed was to be more than life.

I feel at times the circlehood, the constraint, the inevitability, the grip of biological process on mental life, my microbiome grabbing my synapses making me the zombie ant climbing the tree and turning its body into a vestibule for the entry of some life form visible only at an entirely different scale.

I feel at times a line. That I am this line. This only forward going pattern in time, not trapped by circulating but also not benefiting from the inevitability of circlehood, the belonging of circlehood, the knowing what came next and in what pattern and why and the relief from the freedom of choice of the line. The line could go out and determine a form in the world that had never existed and draw it and copy it on the paper and the screens and send it out and be remunerated and change course. . .

What do you want to be? He said louder than he was supposed to whisper in the bedroom. I nodded to indicate reflection.

Wasn’t the question what we were already? Wouldn’t that determine ahead whether I could be either, could make a choice about linehood or circlehood? I chose: then, wasn’t I line? And of course, then I couldn’t condemn him to circlehood if that were an inevitable result, if the game weren’t rigged… We had just watch Aladdin, my choice, my suggestion and a poor one because it turns out to have a violent premise and not to be as well animated in twenty years’ retrospect and Robin Williams is really funnier to an adult or at least near adolescent mind. So to make it comprehensible, we had drawn the characters and diagrammed their relationships and then paused it (permanently) at the moment the three wishes were presented. Then, we had interviewed each other and the other members of the household about the possible three wishes. I couldn’t complete my list beyond “To fly and bring company” and my son’s included “Free delivery of new Legos every week until age 22.” But my husband had the best wish: good health for all of us.

This was the best wish because that fits the condition of circle or linehood and avoids most of the possible wish perversions inevitable in all fables. Whether circle or line, whether or how long any of us lived, better to be healthy, to have pleasure and sound mind and in that sense, be sure to be choosing well—line—or enjoying if not choosing—circle…

He nudged me. Hard.

Well, I’m not sure. I’m thinking. It’s a good question…He made the circle and then the line in the dark. We could both just see it.

He wanted to know how I wanted to win. Fair. Fair question. Did I want the eenie or the meenie? I wanted to know how I wanted to win. Moreover, I wanted to know how I could win so that I could let him win. I wanted him to win and as his mother, I was obligated to choose which was better and then choose whatever would be better for him. Would it be better to leave him with the responsibility of linehood, its potential going forth to make a mark in the world, but knowing, knowing even as I birthed him that I had given him only the potential to end and that we worked like circles but we weren’t even circles and even with their horrid repeatability and

Mom! DO YOU WANT TO BE A CIRCLE OR LINE?

Line, I said. I wanted him to go on and on forever.


KASCHA SEMONOVITCH holds a PhD in philosophy from Boston College and an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and a great deal of undocumented experience in motherhood, love and travel.  Her poems and essays have appeared in Zyzzyva, The Crab Creek Review, The Colorado Review, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, among others, and in the chapbook Genesis by Dancing Girl Press.  She has received fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She has taught philosophy at Seattle University and Boston College, edited two collections of philosophical essays, and published numerous essays on early twentieth century thought, most recently “Attention and Expression,” in Simone Weil and Continental Philosophy.

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