The eternal triangle: love, art and work

It seems that after all Sigmund Freud did not say that the goal of therapy or the standard of a successful life was: to love and to work. Erik Erikson did once report Freud saying something along those lines, but the memory of disciples is unreliable. The closest expression in Freud’s voluminous writings to this formula for the sex- and career-mad Götterdämmerung of our times was this sentence from Civilisation and its discontents (1930):

“The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love…(Standard Edition v XXI, p 101)

In our commonplace experience, work might be an activity practised as both love and necessity. Sometimes we have good days, and sometimes we have bad days. Yet we dream that work might become pure vocation, the expression of our life’s purpose, the realisation of ourselves in an artform of living.

We deceive ourselves, and make ourselves miserable in these fantasies. Ananke’s child was Adrasteia, and it was she with her fellow nymphs who distributed rewards and punishments in the world.With our poor kenning we compound rewards and necessity, and hope our always frail attributes will be rewarded in this world. When we see ourselves rewarded and recognised in our jobs, we see fate and vocation smiling on us. And when they do not, we long for that job that will bring meaning, recognition and wealth to us. In truth, Adrasteia hands out her laurels and her whips with no regard for what happens in our minds, as befits the fickle whims of an uncontrollable goddess-nymph. But we cannot escape our bonds to necessity.

We may be more content knowing these bonds for what they are – lifelong shackles that we learn to get by with over time. They tie us to our master, but allow us to roam freely in other domains of life. Perhaps it is our Romantic and democratic dreams of a universal aristocracy, where everyone can live like a movie star on their vacation, that makes us so miserable at work. For most of human culture, work has been unequivocally the servant of the dark Greek god, Ananke. In ours it serves a three-faced god. We want it to give a sense of belonging and love, of connection with our true kindred spirits. We want work to be the studio where we realise our gifts. And we want it to reward us more than all the other Joneses so that we may sit atop a social hierarchy of our own devising. We forget Freud’s words  – that we suffer the compulsion to work, created by external necessity. We come to believe we choose to work as an act of inner freedom.

But over our long working lives – and the boom in life expectancy has also been a curse of longer years in the office cubicle – we slowly learn that work cannot be these things, except for a few legendary people who have become our modern pantheon of role model heroes. It is rather a daily grind. A cruel social lottery. It is a theatre of cruelty and of the absurd. It is a graveyard of disappointments, grand illusions, organisational reforms, and the long and deadly march through the marshes, driven by the ambitious and the crazed.

Yet we must endure it. We have no choice. Ananke stands over our withered bank balances and sends us out to keep the wolf at the door. But in enduring it, we do not need to succumb, not to its illusions, not to its drudgery, not to its confusion of necessity with love or with art, not to dark Ananke’s will to dominate our lives.

We endure our working lives by reaching for the other points of the eternal triangle that has long driven human culture. We reach for love and art. They are the deeper veins of living purpose. They are the true lodestars by which we navigate our troubled oceans.

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