Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

We can learn quite a lot about ourselves by examining a single word: work. Our sense of this very simple word has undergone a tectonic shift – and we’ve changed right along with it.

In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good.” Thus we have work’s dialectical structure: art and investigation – a study, the creation of a thing, a building or a bridle, a poem, music, and so on – and the moral action that binds these in relation to a justification. This is a covenant between the pre-knowledge or desire that motivates one to an art or an investigation, the art/investigation itself and the result, some good, which is a moral bind. Skills are good; nurturing the “faculties,” as Aristotle calls medical science, military science, arts and sciences – our academic disciplines today – is good.

For Aristotle, the responsibility in maintaining a healthy, meaningful covenant resides in the individual. S/he must never neglect her/his work; doing so will hinder one’s journey toward self-fulfillment and a more complete self. Neglect would also hurt the community because, says Aristotle, “For even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.”

Sublime: elevated or lofty in thought, languageetc.; impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.. That’s the supreme goal, the ultimate good.

But we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a covenant with work to the detriment of our communities and ourselves. We’re not in control of our destiny, which is key to Aristotle – and later to Aquinas.

The major shift in our appreciation of work is this: we have moved far from work as sublime, something finer for the greater good of the community that, in turn, would elevate each and everyone one of us towards a higher, more enlightened sense of self, to the sense that work is practical, for survival, for riches and comforts – something we have to do, earn a living. Work is subjugated by earning.

Work has moved away from its more philosophical, moral origins and presently complies with the needs of individuals, first. Understood this way, work cannibalizes rather then nurtures; it pits one against the other in fierce competition; and it undermines, ironically, the actual legitimacy of the individual because the worker must comply, not with dreams, aspirations and creativity, but with ruling ideologies. Ideologies have redefined work by colonizing consciousness. “The result,” says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, “…is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of public good.”

Work is exhausting, drudgery, uninspiring. College students choose courses that will pay off, not spiritually, not even intellectually, but rather financially, complying with some imagined future full of material possessions. Despair reigns among those seeking employment: far too many young people are either not employed or under employed. “I’ll take just about anything right now,” we hear. Current unemployment is at 7.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Take a tour of vacation advertisements, too. Three days here, there; 5 cities in 7 days; bungee jumping, scaling mountains in a day; Hawaii today, Alaska tomorrow – see nature’s wonders, run past a bear feeding on salmon. A quick picture with a cell phone. Onto Facebook. These vacations, meant to release stress, create it and openly promote the conveyor belt psychology that privileges “growing adoration of self-interest.” It’s solely about me.

If we think clearly, we shouldn’t need – or want – a vacation from work that’s sublime, should we? We wouldn’t want to leave it, rather we’d want to take it with us wherever we go because we’re nurtured by it, we grow with it.

Our understanding of work, in part, has lead to the existential crisis we’re experiencing as Americans – who are we? where are we going? why?

What is happiness today?

And where should work fit into a sublime journey of self-discovery, which is, after all, what life is – a journey in which each stage moves us deeper into an understanding of our relationships with the world around us – and prepares us for a dignified death, our final life experience? It’s suppose to lead us to greater empathy, rather then away from it. Work like this is spiritual in nature. But there are many obstacles.

We can date this change, and begin to see the obstacles, by looking at three seminal texts that mark a societal transformation towards hyper-individualism, away from the greater good and towards a more intense – and systemic – narcissism: Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899, published in seriel fashion in the 1000th issue of Blackwood’s Magazine; in 1902, included in the book Youth: A Narrative, and Two Stories), Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the text that opens the floodgates, Sigmund Freud‘s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) .

These three crucial texts, at the doorstep of World War I, announce the individual’s retrieval from a sense of the public good – even from the public sphere – and towards a perverse solipsism that pushes aside any notion that work is somehow linked to sublimity.

Truth is hard to come by as we transition into industrialization, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Conrad, James and Freud chronicle a veering in our understanding of work and point to an increasing need for reclusive spaces to rest, think and create. Even in Freud we see that the artist, for instance, retreats, leaves society, the community, to create. And we see the need to work through objects in order to get a better sense of the world, some grounding – be it Marlow in Conrad or multiple storytellers speaking simultaneously in James so as to highlight the artificiality of the world.

It’s important to understand that as these texts are acclaimed and debated publicly we are marching towards the first mechanized war, a terrifying thought that was held only in the imagination then. But we now know better. From World War I to the present, we transition from tanks and mustard gas to drones and satellites, post-modern prophylactics for killing, a more nuanced, perhaps, repression of the moral conditions of our times. Besides cultural, political and financial unrest throughout Europe signaling the encroaching storm of war, also bringing this period to the forefront is the Paris Exposition – Exposition Universelle – of 1900, which celebrated the achievements of the past century and ushered in the new – escalators, the Eiffel Tower, diesel engines, film and telegraphones.

The individual finds himself in nebulous times at the turn of the century; insecurity is made even more pronounced by experimentation in art and music, as well. Think Stravinksy‘s Rise of Spring, which premiers in Paris in 1913; Baudelaire is tried for obscenity for certain poems in Le Fleurs du mal (1857); the transition from the Impressionists and van Gogh to Picasso, who says that, “through art we express our conception of what nature is not.” This a very confusing challenge to one’s sense of self – another turn of the screw, we might say. The artificial becomes the norm, even a religion. Composer Hans Pfitzner describes “the international a-tonal movement” as the “artistic parallel of the Bolshevism which is menacing political Europe.” The avantegarde assault on the senses is confusing because art is based on structures, order, not disorder – yet the individual, aesthetically, politically, and spiritually is being dislodged, asked to re-think “the Order of Things.”

“In our dreams,” writes Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance.”

It is this sense of reality as illusion that parallels our own age; it taints one’s journey towards an understanding of the self; and it skews the philosophical, moral and spiritual classical understanding of work, since the purpose of work, in 1900 and now, is for something outside the self. The individual is expendable.

Heart of Darkness can be accepted as a journey into the bleakest of recesses of the human condition – but only on the surface; it is the illusion of historical documentation. Anti-colonialism, the idea of individual freedom and a fidelity to the work ethic as salvation are traditional readings of Heart of Darkness. But if we approach the text as Marlow, our narrator, does, we find that blindness “is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” In Heart of Darkness, Conrad speculates that in a mechanical universe what is flesh or body, no less soul? All seems already lost. Hard things, resistant things – metal, mechanization – have superseded softness, flexibility, humanity itself. The individual, in Conrad, is tempted to become unfeeling, tough and durable in order to survive. Work, tough work, keeping a distance from any emotional connection to one’s work, is a part of it all – and a violent turn from Aristotle. In Conrad’s story, therefore, human waste is pervasive, the ivory being the central symbol here. The ivory – men work and die for it – is solely for the rich, a luxury, like art. The world of work and who benefits from the means of production have been successfully established.

In Heart of Darkness we transition into the dark side of Modernism and point to our post-modern narcissism. Where else can we go after such terrifying emotional conditions? But before we get to us, we must pass through Hitler and his most radical and unacceptable way of getting rid of Modernism – vehemence, hatred, and violence – mindless persecution. The world, post World War II, then, is forever tainted, having experienced the “daemonization,” as Harold Bloom calls it, of all academic conditioning and the pervasive evil leveled against anyone who supported Modernism. The world after World War II struggles to become more homogenized, more hierarchical and conservative.

For this to succeed, the individual has to be effectively removed from the self. Nowhere is this more evident then in James’s The Turn of the Screw, which begins with a confusing narrative, voice over voice trying to pierce the artificiality of the tale. The story is, ironically, an “apparition,” doubling as a mirror of reality, the Nietzschean sense of “the sensation of mere appearance.” Only this “mere appearance” has repercussions; a “ghost of a dreadful kind” alters the sense of what’s real and what’s not. All known systems of knowledge – reason especially – have broken down.

In Modern and Modernism, my mentor (NYU), Frederick Karl, sees this as a history that exists in the seams of the text, “a secondary apparatus”: ” a way of suggesting how uncertain and discontinuous evidence is; which is another way of saying irony undercuts not only our views of characters but the every day world.”

God is dead. Science is to be questioned – a suspect. Social structures are breaking down. And institutions, though formidable, cannot be trusted. But more importantly for us, the Aristotelian meaning of work is completely lost. We’re looking for the spiritual in artificiality – reality tv, the Kardashians, mediated sports, etc..

Enter Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams. Where else could we be but in a place whereby, as Freud says, “every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life”?

Peter Gay, in Freud: A Life for Our Time, suggests that The Interpretation of Dreams is, “in short,” he writes, “undefinable.” In keeping with the times, Freud’s Dreams is an autobiography, a survey of psychoanalytic fundamentals, “sharply etched vignettes of the Viennese medical world, rife with rivalries and the hunt for status, and of an Austrian society, infected with anti-Semitism and at the end of its liberal decades.”

But key to our discussion on work is what Freud says about “resistance”: “Whatever disturbs the progress of the work is a resistance.” In some ways, Freud returns, through psychoanalysis, to Aristotle’s dialectic [on work]; here, it is both the work of psychoanalysis – patient and analyst working together – and the resistance evident in the patient when attempting to work at defining – or approximating – the repression proper, the first instance that began the reason for the need for analysis.

What is also critical in Freud is the picture we get of psychoanalysis: an affluent client on a leather couch, reclining in a room amidst classic pictures and sculptures (Freud kept these objects on his desk), seeking to find herself or himself; Freud sitting just off the shoulder, unseen by the patient, pipe and pen and pad in hand, scribbling his notes. This is spiritual work removed from the church, by now dead. Here, we also see Conrad’s hard, mechanized world, as well as James’s layered structure of the world – elusive, and an illusion. This is not work in the traditional sense, though I’m aware that I’ve said that Freud returns us to a sort of neo-Aristotlean sense of work.  This is heady stuff, the work of the soul in an increasingly secular world.

For Freud, being that Dreams is his most significant work – not just in psychoanalytic terms, but also in terms of style, literature – it is important to understand that professionally – the world of work – he is trying to “normalize” psychoanalysis. In other words, he is trying to mainstream the work of psychoanalysis. Our collective acceptance of “therapy” as legitimate work begins here.

Peter Gay: “One irresistible discovery, which forms a central theme in The Interpretation of Dreams and of psychoanalysis in general, was that the most persistent human wishes are infantile in origin, impermissible in society, and for the most part so adroitly concealed that they remain virtually inaccessible to conscious scrutiny.”

Thus work is mired somewhere between “persistent human wishes” that “are infintile in origin,” (we need only think about Anthony Weiner here, and Eliot Spitzer), mechanization/technological speed, progress and alienation (we need only think about a couple having dinner while looking into their cell phones), and the chasm between the sublime nature of work and its current, materialistic driven nature (and, here, we need only look at our current political climate to note the disconnect between service for the good of the community vs service to me and my own).

Here we have the nature of work today – nothing we educate people about; we just put our heads down, nose to the grindstone, and persist to the detriment of ourselves and others – and the future. In this example, the story is 115 years old, approximately.

Where will it go, I wonder? Do you know? Can you guess?

2 thoughts on “Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

    • Thanks, Blair! I appreciate it! I’m being asked a lot about “work” these days, particularly by second year students; it’s also something that recent alumni have been writing/texting to me about in a sort of state of confusion … so …

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