In honor of what would have been his 86th birthday, a translation of one of his ‘dear words’, touching on his own love of work.


One of the most beautiful and interesting meanings in which the word ‘work’ is used, seems to have to do the least with the activity and toiling that usually comes to mind when we hear that word. In this case it’s more so used for an undergoing than for a doing. Wood, for example, has been said, in Dutch, to always keep ‘working’. I can still hear a wood specialist sneeringly add to it that it’s because wood is not a civil servant. In that expression ‘work’ does not represent the execution of a more or less productive activity, but rather the undergoing of outside influences. Wood working means it is not as unchangeable as a lifeless piece of stone, but that it reacts to for example drought or warmth in its environment by shrinking and moaning. This working is a putting to work of what occurs and the reality is that which can be put to work. With such a word all kinds of deep thoughts can present themselves about the essence of things. Just the mere fact that it is used for both the active influencing or bringing about effects, as for the passive undergoing of influences, is a compelling reason for that.

With both one and the other, the accomplishing and the undergoing, we usually appear to think of big efforts and moaning and therefore more of the process of toil and sweat than of work the result of which can fill the hard worker with exceptional pride and that can surprise him as an unexpected gift. Perhaps toiling invokes such sad associations because nothing in the process points unequivocally in the direction that the result of the work will be something to be proud of. You cannot indicate a necessary connection between the amount of effort and the quality of the result. I think that even the human desire to work, to toil and to abide, cannot be completely explained with the certainty that it will ever lead to something exceptional. Humans too are in their nature not civil servants. Getting acquainted with the obstinate reality in the form of putting it to work and undergoing it is no less dear to them than the glory of the result. Their hands’ work is also dear to them by the efforts they have put into it, or by the fact that, despite all insecurities, it has succeeded. This is where a comparison between sport and work becomes obvious.

Where work, as opposed to sport, is exclusively seen as a groaning expended effort, it also becomes obvious that the work sooner or later ends up in the rather uninspiring social context of coercion and slavery. There it loosens from the stimulating chance of succeeding, ahead of time others are already counting on the results and the word starts to mean something like: painful servitude to another who will pluck the fruits of your labor, who himself will not have to work to the sweat of his brow, or: belonging to the labouring class that would rather not work, for they are not working for themselves. For also the history of labour and the words for it are full of sweat and moaning in favour of another who is the boss and employer. The phrases that go with it are if possible even more ruthless than the harsh reality itself. In them, labour is a curse or a fate granted only to mankind. Work is not desire, but duty. And whoever is allowed to quit working or gets a holiday, returns according to a new version of an old myth, back to a paradisiacal state.

Cornelis Verhoeven


1 Comment

Filed under essay, words

One response to “Work

  1. Wederom bijzonder knap vertaald uit ‘t origineel (pagina 482)
    Heel mooi x

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