CARLOS SOTO-ROMAN is a Chilean pharmacist (químico farmacéutico), and poet. He holds a Master of Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania. He has published in Chile La Marcha de los Quiltros (1999), Haikú Minero (2007), and Cambio y Fuera (2009); and in the States Philadelphia’s Notebooks (Otoliths, 2011). His chapbook Con/Science is forthcoming by Corollary Press this summer. He is also a translator and the curator of the cooperative anthology of US poetry Elective Affinities. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.
I find it extremely difficult to talk about work. I’ve always seen work as something negative; or rather I’ve always made a clear distinction between work that is supposed to pay the rent, the so called “productive” work, and creative work, which is the one that feeds my soul. For some reason I can’t explain, I just can’t mix them. The work that pays the rent will always be a sort of imposition, a bitter responsibility, a divine punishment, and a burden. On the other hand, creative work is always idyllic, challenging, rewarding, satisfying, full of joy. Perhaps as a way to protect that dream bubble, I’ve never wanted to put those two worlds together, never wanted to mix pleasure with business. Maybe my Judeo-Christian background has something to do with it. Maybe not. The fact is that those two worlds coexist in me in parallel and in confrontation. There is no conversation between them. No truce either.
In order to talk about work, I must first define work. I look for the marrow and this is what I find. The Spanish words trabajo (work, job) and trabajar (to work), both from the Old Castilian word trebejare (effort, strive, to make an effort) are not derived from the Latin labor. They come from a torture mechanism used in ancient Rome whose name was tripalium (tres palos, three stakes), and from the verb tripaliare (to torture or self-torture). This partnership between work and suffering (or between work and pain) is also reflected in the English word labor, which also refers to the efforts of childbirth, experience that is recognized as one of the most painful ordeals that can be handled by someone. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the antonyms of a word that carries such harmful connotations are indeed auspicious words: play, relax, laze, have fun, take it easy, loaf, etc. words that are commonly associated to the second world, the creative work; the one that I like to do.
I haven’t had many jobs. Some of them were quite unusual. I have worked as a metalworker, as a seasonal worker, picking up tomatoes and corn, as a personnel officer in a juice and jam factory, as a waiter, as a Christmas card salesman. I have also been a Guinea Pig for lab experimentation and have worked for two international pharmaceutical companies. As a teenager my parents made sure I didn’t start to work soon. It was like smoking. The later you start the better – I was told – You’re going to have the whole life to do it. I quit smoking three years ago. It’s been 7 months since my last paid job.
But I do work. Domestic work mostly. I cook, I take care of my kids, I do the cleaning but nobody pays me for that. So I don’t work. At least my mother-in-law thinks so. According to her I was working when I had an office, when I was attending business dinners at fancy restaurants, when I was traveling to different countries in executive class. But now I work. Really. I do work. I write poems, I do translations, and I’m doing some visual stuff now. I put people in touch. I have a blog that is a kind of anthology where I invite others to show their work, a place where they can give their opinion, say what they think about their craft, about their work. Jane Sprague told me once “that thing you do is activism”. I try not to think about it. I just do what I do because I like it. And because I need to.
I don’t hate money (and certainly don’t love it either) but unfortunately it’s a necessary tool. When I have enough it's OK. And when I don’t, well, then I have to figure out things in some other way. When I do have money I can buy good food, take my kids to the movies, buy books (which is something that I really love), drink a couple of pints in a bar with friends (ditto), and when I don’t have any money, then I just can’t. But the thing is, I don’t feel a special connection with money; I don’t feel a particular devotion to it, nor to work as a mechanism of monetary enrichment, and even less as a manifestation of social success or status (showing off material goods obtained because of it).
I was a pharmacist once. I had to dispense prescriptions, take care of dangerous drugs, answer questions, do inventories, budgets, and deal with the (im)patients (here they are just called customers), the technicians and the worst boss I’ve ever had; a jerk who constantly pushed me to sell more and more, no matter what. I hated that job. I hated the ambiance. Working with disease (the disease of others) can be something noble but it’s also the opposite. It’s vile, dirty, tedious, and distressing. It’s hard. When people in Santiago are ill for example, they believe the solution to their problems lies in a pill. In Buenos Aires there are cafés on every corner. It’s like Paris. People sit in the tables outside and talk sipping espressos and munching croissants. In Santiago de Chile, we have pharmacies. Actually we have more pharmacies than sick people. And when the sick outnumber pharmacies, then we open more pharmacies.
The Japanese, another society alienated by work, have described a massive health epidemic called Karoshi. Karoshi is death caused by too much work. It’s formed by the words ka = excess, ro = labor and shi= death. In 1969, an employee who worked in the packaging section of a newspaper of wide circulation, died at the age of 29 after a heart attack. He had worked more than a month without resting a single day. The case was immediately called “occupational sudden death”. That was just the beginning.
Throughout history the phrase “work dignifies man” has been attributed to several celebrities. Some people say it belong to Marx, some others to Benjamin Franklin. Others, however, state that Saint Francis of Assisi, the advocate of the poor, was the first to publicly say it. I honestly don’t care. What I do care is the contradiction the phrase carries. We all know that our time is limited. Why then, do we spend time doing something that we don’t like? Is it possible to find any dignity on that? Can you imagine somebody telling a slave that his slavery dignifies him? Well, you know, I have some issues with work. But I have to come back to my distinction here. One thing is the “productive” work and another is the creative one. Borges said that the work of a poet, unlike others, is constant because poetry knows no rest, because poetry is in everything. I know many poets who work almost 24 hours a day. Half of that time, just to survive, and when they finish they go home to start their real job.
But working today is not easy. I’m reading an article published by Fundación Sol, a non-profit organization that conducts research on the labor market in Chile. According to the article there is a general lack of job security, which causes vulnerability. The consequences of this insecurity are considerable. The anticipation of job loss causes anxiety and some argue that also affects character in a negative way. Insecurity also affects the family budget and threatens the organization of vital time generating a sense of suspense and exacerbating competition for the remaining opportunities for secure jobs. There is also the gap between wages. While businessmen and owners' earnings seem to keep rising, the workers earnings remain stagnant, or even less over time, requiring additional hours per week just to keep up.
In a different life I joined a group of friends and started a literary website they named Lanzallamas, honoring the Argentinean writer Roberto Arlt. One of the first things we published was a dossier about work and leisure. I wrote a column titled “Coffee Break or the Queens of the hive”. The column began with a phrase that I had read in an anarchist tabloid: “If work were so pleasant, the rich would keep it for themselves… try to strive as little as possible, enjoy absenteeism from work, practice sabotage, put a high price to your labor’s strength…”
One day I saw a work by British artist Damien Hirst. It was a room-sized installation called Pharmacy. The installation represented a real pharmacy. I never thought I could make art with something that to me belonged to another world. I began to incorporate more chemistry into my poems. To include molecules, reactions, atoms, and elements... the periodic table, pictures of cells, cycle’s diagrams, flowcharts, spectroscopy, electrophoresis. Somehow I had found a way to establish a dialogue between those worlds. I started to write poems about medical conundrums, I reached a point where I needed more arguments, more philosophy. I left my country and came here. I signed up for a master’s degree in bioethics. I completed it. Now I’m trying to finish my book, a strange fable about two conjoined twins who were separated against parents’ wishes. I’m also getting ready to return to my country: a beaten country that is just now beginning to wake up. After a year of student demonstrations; after an earthquake and many political scandals; after so many deaths in prisons, in demonstrations; after being spit on the face by a moral dictatorship that the oligarchy wants to impose; after being able to watch all this and to meditate about it from a distance, for the very first time in my life I have absolute certainty that I have a job to do.
Maybe it was a coincidence and maybe not. But the day I saw the installation of the pharmacy… that day I went to work with a smile. That was also my last day at the pharmacy.