We trade unionists are so occupied with the daily struggle for better wages and working conditions that we do not have time to reflect much about what work means for mankind. According to the Bible work is considered as a punishment given by God to Adam and Eve when they still were living in the earthly paradise. The story tells us why mankind was doomed to work for a living.
17. “To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
18. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
19. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
20. Adam named his wife Eve,because she would become the mother of all the living.
21. The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
22. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
23. So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
(Genesis 3: 17-19)
So far the Jewish/Christian view on labor. The Mexican poet, writer and Nobel prize winner Octavio Paz wrote about the view on labor of the pre-Colombian culture of the Totonac tribe in the Mexican region of Veracrus on the Atlantic coast in an essay called "Laugh and Punishment", a preface to "Magia de la risa" (Magic of Laughter) a book with pictures of pre-Colombian Mexican figurines, Mexico 1962). I read a Dutch version of this essay in Octavio Paz, The Art of Mexico, Meulenhoff, 1993.
Paz starts with an analysis of the smile that he sees on the faces of ceramic figurines found in many places in Veracruz, Mexico. He wonders what that smile means. He believes that the laughter of the figurines is a kind of 'cosmic smile', a smile that can be compared with children's laughter.
"Today, only children laugh in a way that recalls that of the Totonac figurines. The smile of the first day, a fierce smile that was close to the first cry : in agreement with the world, a dialogue without words, fun (...) The child's laughter restores the unity between world and mankind, but also announces their final separation. Children play the game look to each other in the eye: first laughs lost. Laughter has a price. The laughter has ceased to be contagious. The world has become deaf and can henceforth only be conquered with effort or sacrifice, labor or rite. "(page 68)
Here Paz goes from laughter to work or labor. His conclusion that the world has become deaf and laughter has ceased to be contagious is perhaps a bit exaggerated but contains some truth. Our laughter is often acidic, just to hide embarrassment or to make others ridicule or even demonic. Laughter is usually not giving us a sense of freedom even though we sometimes do our best to make us feel free. Laughter is also close to crying. Sometimes you are surprised how quickly a smiling child changes in a crying child. It seems that laughter and crying are each others counterpart.
The gods are free to laugh everywhere and as much they want. Gods exist with laughter. We people are no longer awarded with the gift of free laughter after we have broken with the gods. We can only exist through labor and "as the sphere of labor expands, is that of laughter limited. Being human means learning to work, learning to behave seriously and formally. "
After this conclusion Paz goes further. "By humanizing nature (through work) work deprives mankind literally from his humanity. And not just because work changes workers into wage slaves ( Marxism has a especial eye for this), but because through working, life and profession become confused . It makes mankind inseparable from his tools, brands him with his own tools, and all tools are serious. Work destroys the essence of mankind: his face tightens, prevents him to cry or to laugh.”
To a certain level Paz is right but I believe that work still can also be a way of playing freely with nature and world, not only artists but also artisans who dare to turn their phantasy into reality by building cathedrals, palaces and houses but also bridges, cars or computers. Work is the way we build culture and culture is not just punishment. Culture in the boadest sense of the world makes us human.
Paz too has an eye for this. "Sure, mankind exists thanks to his work: but there must be added that he only can be human when he can disengage himself from his job or when he knows how to turn his job into a creative game" (p.68) . This conclusion is a nice answer to our question whether work is punishment. It is a punishment when we don't know how to work playfull or when we can't work playfully because of conditions created by ourselves or others. Then work becomes deadly serious and our smile a grimace and yes that is a punishment.