Like the line in the Lover Boy song, Witold Rybczynski asks in the book Waiting for the Weekend, “Do we live to work or work to live?”
This book traces the history of leisure and the advent of the all-important weekend that is commonplace in modern society.
The weekend is a temporal break from the mechanization and monotony of the typical 5 day, 8 hour work week. And it is also a spatial break from the office or wherever we spend our work time.
On the weekends, we escape out of the city, go on retreats, to the cabin, to the beach, or simply sleep in and stay at home.
On Mondays, we mourn the passing of the weekend. On Wednesdays, we congratulate ourselves for making it to the “hump” of the week. On Fridays, we look forward to the weekend. It is clear that the weekend structures much of our sense of time.
As a caveat to that claim, I would add that the significance of the weekend depends on one’s occupation – or lack of it. When I was a graduate student, the weekend was only nominally different from the work week. Sure, I might not have classes, but every day there was work to be done. The scenario has radically shifted now that I am finished and looking for work. Every day feels like the weekend because there is no mandatory work.
Or let’s take people that do shift work. If their days off fall on a Monday and a Tuesday, does that become their weekend? Or does the weekend only and always refer to Saturday and Sunday? Is the weekend meaningless without people to spend it with? Does this mean there’s something inherently social about the weekend? For the segment of society that actually works Monday-Friday, I’m sure the weekend does hold a sacred place, but how big really is this segment?
Speaking of the social nature of weekends, in one part of his book, Rybczynski analyzes the Impressionist painting by Georges Seurat called Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
The painting depicts what was an increasing popular subject for the Impressionists – the nature of leisure in an industrial age. Notice that the painting depicts a Sunday – a weekend day. Multiple people of different classes, ages, and dress frequent this beach, but the question is are they here because they want to or because they have to?
According to a review by Alfred Paulet when the painting was first exhibited in the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition, the answer is the latter:
“The painting has tried to show the toing and froing of the banal promenade that people in their Sunday best take, without any pleasure, in the places where it is accepted that one should stroll on a Sunday.”
Paulet offers a strikingly negative commentary on the painting, implying that Seurat is mocking these Sunday vacationers, who, instead of coming to this island out of desire, are coming out of obligation.
This ties in with an interesting question that Rybczynski raises: Has the freedom to do nothing on the weekend become the obligation to do something? More specifically, have we heightened the weekend to such cultural importance that we feel pressure to go away and be seen in certain public places like beaches, parks, or campgrounds?
Seurat may have completed his painting over 100 years ago, but the nature of leisure seems to have changed little. As this Seurat look-alike photograph attests to, people still flock to beaches.
Where did all these people come from on a mid-afternoon weekday in September? Does this image go to show that the traditional Saturday-Sunday weekend is not as universal as we might think, or can this simply be explained by the fact that this is Vancouver, where there never seems to be a shortage of people at the beach?
So anyway, it’s the weekend. What space are you off to?