Death Pass Me By
I have a friend who is a workaholic. You’ve met him before in the pages of The Chrysalis. He feels the devil’s riding crop on his backside continuously. Work is the monkey on his back. Everywhere he sees problems needing to be worked out where others see no problem at all. His very fear of being sinfully idle creates problems then needing to be resolved by more work.
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil’s riding crop
Get ready for the future:
it is murder — Leonard Cohen, The Future
He feels that his industriousness and his “work ethic”, as he calls it, is something to be admired and emulated by others, whereas I see it as a compulsive and chronic sickness. He secretly desires slaves but must be content with employees, who he confuses with slaves. He has a hard time keeping employees, consequently. He believes his work is productive and efficient, whereas most of his busyness is merely a compulsive and pointless drivenness, and a kind of unproductive and inefficient busyness for busyness’ sake alone. He professes to be an atheist, but his whole conduct and thinking are saturated with the detritus and residue of dead pieties and an anachronistic religiosity. His “work ethic” is, in effect, the merely unconscious, but now habitual worship of the corpse of a dead God. Like all religious fanatics and fundamentalists who he claims to despise, he thinks singing and dancing, sport and play, are a sinful waste of time and energy which could be better expended working on “projects” (as he calls his own busyness). He shares that contempt and disdain for joyful play with Puritans and the Taliban, too.
My friend is terrified of dying, and having developed a debilitating palsy recently, he senses his mortality and the approach of death even more acutely than before. But rather than sobering him up and opening his eyes, as so often happens with others, the prospect of imminent death makes him even more obsessive about work, with busyness, and with inventing work needing to be done and more busyness.
He seems to think that if Death might see that he’s far too busy to die, then Death will pass him by.
My friend is a lot like everybody else, despite the fact that he thinks he is unique. Rather, he is a tragic symptom of his times. Although his “god is dead”, he clings to the old pieties of the religious work ethic and its framework of theological justifications — man is saved by works not faith; work is redeeming of man’s guilt and fallen state because of original sin; hard work is the worship of God; profitable work is the providence, reward, favour, and blessing of God. Work becomes religion, and I suspect that much that is today called “workaholism” and the “work ethic” has its roots in old theologies about the redemptive power of work. Both capitalists and socialists equally believe in the redemptive power of work and the idol of productivity. “Arbeit macht frei” — the old lie — was even posted over the gates of Auschwitz.
Arbeit macht frei, or hard work is redemptive, is the vain hope of the slave and the cynical promise of the slave-master.
As my workaholic friend’s health has deteriorated, he has also developed plans for another “project” — a secret scheme for a perpetual motion machine. I call it, rather, his “eternal life machine”, as this is what it is. It is, in his mind, his secret bargaining chip with the Devil or God or Death, or their Trinity (they all seem to be one and the same to him). He has made no effort to work on it, strangely enough. He’s still “too busy with other things”, absurdly. But as long as he has this secret — this additional supreme “project” as his destiny to realise — he seems to think that Death or God, in awe of his genius and his secret unfulfilled purpose, must pass him by.
I am at times tempted to inform him that Death already knows he has no secret plan for a perpetual motion machine qua “eternal life machine”; that his own “work ethic” and workaholism is this “perpetual motion machine” as totem of his desire for permanence; that his secret project for a “perpetual motion machine” is his ego’s devious attempt to hustle and con Death into passing him by; that his perpetual motion machine is Egyptianism — the vain and futile hope of the pharoahs to live forever as preserved bodies in their “houses of millions of years”, the pyramids, with all the luxuries of their mortal life.
The Denial of Death, as Ernest Becker described it, and the description of this denial is pretty consistent with my friend’s thinking and behaviour,
“By embarking on what Becker refers to as an “immortality project” (or causa sui), in which a person creates or becomes part of something which they feel will last forever, the person feels they have “become” heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to their physical body that will one day die. This, in turn, gives the person the feeling that their life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.” (from Wikipedia entry)
The denial of death, in this fashion, is perhaps the basic delusion of our society, for it poses a great obstacle to spiritual growth and leads to infantilisation. The wisdom tradition, on the other hand, always teaches that mortality is something to be embraced fully — death is the teacher. Only in the context and consciousness of death and morality, of the full awareness of impermanence, does life acquire its true value and its power, maturity, and nobility.
The work ethic, industriousness, the belief even in the salvific and redemptive value of work in itself as “pleasing in the sight of the Lord” — these anachronistic beliefs persist (even now as sicknesses) despite the fact that the society in which they might even then have made some sense has long since passed away with the “death of God”, and now persist only as superstitions, and even as Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles“. Arbeit does not make frei.
Nietzsche saw that with “the death of God” the old forms of worship and homage to that God would become anachronisms and superstitions, and saw the necessity for a “revaluation of values” as a consequence — a work ethic into a play ethic, and work transformed into play. Homo ludens — man the player. Not work, but play and “gay science” would become homage and worship of the divine (for despite the “death of God”, Nietzsche still believed in the holy, the sacred, and the divine). Not mere productivity but creativity would be the form of worship — and of redemption, too.
It is not coincidence that the “work ethic” denied the value of play or trivialised it (as does my friend) as “unproductive” or a “waste of time”, and dismissed play as “entertainment”, or “diversion”, or “amusement” and saw no value in it except as a contradiction to earnest industriousness and the seriousness of productive work and the work ethic. That conservative reactionaries today have become increasingly agitated by the dismissal of their nostalgia for “absolute” and “traditional values” of hard work, the work ethic, of “God”, of the profit motive as obsolete anachronisms, and as being nothing more than irrational superstitions and self-contradictions….
But to come to perceive all reality as play — that is revolutionary.