Revisiting The Voice of the Machines

Draft of 2007.05.04 ☛ 2015.07.01

May include: readings&c.

I mentioned Gerald Stanley Lee’s The Voice of the Machines in a pub conversation a couple of days back, and I see awareness of it starting to seep out through the del.icio.us network. From the time almost a year ago when Lee Spector mentioned the book, to when I had it in my hands and scanned it, and passed it through the machine of Distributed Proofreaders and Barbara made it what you see today, I’ve wondered what will come of it.

Let awareness of it spread. That will be a pleasant answer.

As I said months ago, but feel obliged to say again: go read it.

The truest definition of a gentleman is that he is a man who loves his work. This is also the truest definition of a poet. The man who loves his work is a poet because he expresses delight in that work. He is a gentleman because his delight in that work makes him his own employer. No matter how many men are over him, or how many men pay him, or fail to pay him, he stands under the wide heaven the one man who is master of the earth. He is the one infallibly overpaid man on it. The man who loves his work has the single thing the world affords that can make a man free, that can make him his own employer, that admits him to the ranks of gentlemen, that pays him, or is rich enough to pay him, what a gentleman’s work is worth.

The poets of the world are the men who pour their passions into it, the men who make the world over with their passions. Everything that these men touch, as with some strange and immortal joy from out of them, has the thrill of beauty in it, and exultation and wonder. They cannot have it otherwise even if they would. A true man is the autobiography of some great delight mastering his heart for him, possessing his brain, making his hands beautiful.

Looking at the matter in this way, in proportion to the number employed there are more gentlemen running locomotives to-day than there are teaching in colleges. In proportion as we are more creative in creating machines at present than we are in creating anything else there are more poets in the mechanical arts than there are in the fine arts; and while many of the men who are engaged in the machine-shops can hardly be said to be gentlemen (that is, they would rather be preachers or lawyers), these can be more than offset by the much larger proportion of men in the fine arts, who, if they were gentlemen in the truest sense, would turn mechanics at once; that is, they would do the thing they were born to do, and they would respect that thing, and make every one else respect it.

While the definition of a poet and a gentleman—that he is a man who loves his work—might appear to make a new division of society, it is a division that already exists in the actual life of the world, and constitutes the only literal aristocracy the world has ever had.

It may be set down as a fundamental principle that, no matter how prosaic a man may be, or how proud he is of having been born upon this planet with poetry all left out of him, it is the very essence of the most hard and practical man that, as regards the one uppermost thing in his life, the thing that reveals the power in him, he is a poet in spite of himself, and whether he knows it or not.

So long as the thing a man works with is a part of an inner ideal to him, so long as he makes the thing he works with express that ideal, the heat and the glow and the lustre and the beauty and the unconquerableness of that man, and of that man’s delight, shall be upon all that he does. It shall sing to heaven. It shall sing to all on earth who overhear heaven.

Every man who loves his work, who gets his work and his ideal connected, who makes his work speak out the heart of him, is a poet. It makes little difference what he says about it. In proportion as he has power with a thing; in proportion as he makes the thing—be it a bit of color, or a fragment of flying sound, or a word, or a wheel, or a throttle—in proportion as he makes the thing fulfill or express what he wants it to fulfill or express, he is a poet. All heaven and earth cannot make him otherwise.

That the inventor is in all essential respects a poet toward the machine that he has made, it would be hard to deny. That, with all the apparent prose that piles itself about his machine, the machine is in all essential respects a poem to him, who can question? Who has ever known an inventor, a man with a passion in his hands, without feeling toward him as he feels toward a poet? Is it nothing to us to know that men are living now under the same sky with us, hundreds of them (their faces haunt us on the street), who would all but die, who are all but dying now, this very moment, to make a machine live,—martyrs of valves and wheels and of rivets and retorts, sleepless, tireless, unconquerable men?

To know an inventor the moment of his triumph,—the moment when, working his will before him, the machine at last, resistless, silent, massive pantomime of a life, offers itself to the gaze of men’s souls and the needs of their bodies,—to know an inventor at all is to know that at a moment like this a chord is touched in him strange and deep, soft as from out of all eternity. The melody that Homer knew, and that Dante knew, is his also, with the grime upon his hands, standing and watching it there. It is the same song that from pride to pride and joy to joy has been singing through the hearts of The Men Who Make, from the beginning of the world. The thing that was not, that now is, after all the praying with his hands … iron and wood and rivet and cog and wheel—is it not more than these to him standing before it there? It is the face of matter—who does not know it?—answering the face of the man, whispering to him out of the dust of the earth.

My emphasis. Lee’s words.

“The face of matter, whispering to him out of the dust of the earth.”

That is why we try, and keep trying, and are forever looking out at things and transforming them. Not just the matter of the world on which we walk, but the matter from which we ourselves are made and remade; the dust of institutions, the bits of networks, the layers of communication. For the sake of conversation with the world, of mutual interrogation. We whisper to one another: the makers, and the world that’s made.

Why the best of us remain programmers, mathematicians, engineers, scholars, humanists, neuroscientists, educators, painters, game designers, world builders, critics, mothers, biologists, cinematographers, or even politicians? Not for the company of our own kind, or even the thrill of the work itself. It’s the sense that the world, whether shaped by or resisting our efforts, has given us a sign of approval, acknowledgment, acquiescence.

Even the effect one man’s writing can have on another… that’s an answer. That’s the echo of a life’s work.

Any result is an answer. The best of us listen, and appreciate that the world has taken time to respond. The resulting conversation is, for the best of us, the most important Machine.