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What Are We Working For "At Eternity's Gate"?

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By Edward Curtin


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"One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work."

- John Berger, "Vincent Van Gogh," Portraits

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Ever since I was a young boy, I have wondered why people do the kinds of work they do. I sensed early on that the economic system was a labyrinthine trap devised to imprison people in work they hated but needed for survival. It seemed like common sense to a child when you simply looked and listened to the adults around you. Karl Marx wasn't necessary for understanding the nature of alienated labor; hearing adults declaim "Thank God It's Friday" spoke volumes.

In my Bronx working class neighborhood I saw people streaming to the subway in the mornings for their rides "into the city" and their forlorn trundles home in the evenings. It depressed me. Yet I knew the goal was to "make it" and move away as one moved "up," something that many did. I wondered why, when some people had options, they rarely considered the moral nature of the jobs they pursued. And why did they not also consider the cost in life (time) lost in their occupations? Were money, status, and security the deciding factors in their choices? Was living reserved for weekends and vacations?

I gradually realized that some people, by dint of family encouragement and schooling, had opportunities that others never received. For the unlucky ones, work would remain a life of toil and woe in which the search for meaning in their jobs was often elusive. Studs Terkel, in the introduction to his wonderful book of interviews, Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do, puts it this way:

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"This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us."

Those words were confirmed for me when in the summer between high school and college I got a job through a relative's auspices as a clerk for General Motors in Manhattan. I dreaded taking it for the thought of being cooped up for the first time in an office building while a summer of my youth passed me by, but the money was too good to turn down (always the bait), and I wanted to save as much as possible for college spending money. So I bought a summer suit and joined the long line of trudgers going to and fro, down and up and out of the underground, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and light.

It was a summer from hell. My boredom was so intense it felt like solitary confinement. How, I kept wondering, can people do this? Yet for me it was temporary; for the others it was a life sentence. But if this were life, I thought, it was a living death. All my co-workers looked forward to the mid-morning coffee wagon and lunch with a desperation so intense it was palpable. And then, as the minutes ticked away to 5 P.M., the agitated twitching that proceeded the mad rush to the elevators seemed to synchronize with the clock's movements. We're out of here!

On my last day, I was eating my lunch on a park bench in Central Park when a bird sh*t on my suit jacket. The stain was apt, for I felt I had spent my days defiling my true self, and so I resolved never to spend another day of my life working in an office building in a suit for a pernicious corporation, a resolution I have kept.

***

"An angel is not far from someone who is sad," says Vincent Van Gogh in the new film, At Eternity's Gate. For some reason, recently hearing these words in the darkened theater where I was almost alone, brought me back to that summer and the sadness that hung around all the people that I worked with. I hoped Van Gogh was right and an angel visited them from time to time. Most of them had no options.

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The painter Julian Schnabel's moving picture (moving on many levels since the film shakes and moves with its hand-held camera work and draws you into the act of drawing and painting that was Van Gogh's work) is a meditation on work. It asks the questions: What is work? What is work for? What is life for? Why paint? What does it mean to live? Why do you do what you do? Are you living or are you dead? What are you seeking through your work?

For Vincent the answer was simple: reality. But reality is not given to us and is far from simple; we must create it in acts that penetrate the screens of cliche's that wall us off from it. As John Berger writes,

"One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second, distant, far away. This opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events - which is what one means by reality - is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond - and this is as true for materialists as for idealists. For Plato, for Marx. Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of cliche's."

These screens serve to protect the interests of the ruling classes, who devise ways to trap regular people from seeing the reality of their condition. Yet while working can be a trap, it can also be a means of escape. For Vincent working was the way. For him work was not a noun but a verb. He drew and he painted as he does in this film to "make people feel what it is to feel alive." To be alive is to act, to paint, to write. He tells his friend Gauguin that there's a reason it's called the "act of painting, the "stroke of genius." For him painting is living and living is painting.

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Edward Curtin writes, and his work has appeared widely.

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