Arbeitselig, or, Blessed at Work
Originally published as “Arbeitselig”, Der Sozialist, May 1, 1913.
Apart from their rough general meaning, all words have finer supplements and shades expressing emotions from pleasure to indifference to various forms of displeasure.
Every era of a people has different cultural layers, next to and above one another. This applies to the words that are being used as well. Words are full of nuances that have strong effects, yet people do not pay attention to these unless someone points them out. The word Heim (home/house), for example (a word that is slowly disappearing from everyday speech, entering the realm of “poetic” language), no longer evokes feelings of joy and comfort, but of yearning and alienation. We just need to look at the word Heimarbeit (housework), which refers to something unpleasant, shameful, full of privation. It is not that the home loses grace, comfort, and tranquility because of the work, but the work is considered dishonorable and dangerous instead of acceptable and endurable, as it would be if it occurred outside of the home. If we pay attention to these subtleties, we understand more deeply what the bare facts should already tell us, namely that, today, the home is a beautiful reality to some, the object of occasional nostalgic longing to all, and a cause of great concern to parts of the working class.
How about the word Arbeit (work)? In itself, it has become a neutral term. What is important is how it is used, that is, the sentence, in which it appears. This is what makes the implications clear; implications that may differ greatly. On the one hand, there might be an artist who, after domestic quarrels or problems with friends, pulls himself together, flexes his muscles, and says with utter conviction: I still have my work! On the other hand, there might be a factory worker who, after spending a few minutes in the early morning hours with his wife and children, tears himself away from the family by explaining: I have to go to work.
In Middle High German, Arbeit had stronger connotations of heaviness, drudgery, and hardship than it does today. The Latin word labor emphasizes the pain related to an activity, rather than the activity itself. This is still reflected in the German loanword laborieren (to suffer from something). The French term labourer does not mean to work in general, but to work on the field and, more broadly, to be in distress. When we think of the work of Hercules, we think of his efforts and of his pain, not of his achievements. We think of work as a test. In order to express creation, production, and accomplishment, Middle High German has different words; words that today only survive as “lyrical” or “festive” expressions, such as Wirken (to act), Werken (to work in a more sophisticated, crafty way), and Werk (opus, oeuvre).
If we want to understand the Middle Ages fully, we need to look at the word stem froh (glad, happy). First of all, Fro means Herr (master), both in a religious sense (Fronleichnam = the Body of Christ) and in a worldly sense (Fro = the aristocratic, merciful, generous, forgiving Herr). Second, Fro also means the air of the master: Freude (joy) was originally the feeling of Herrlichkeit (glory, magnificence). Today, people use the word frönen if they wallow in vice, but they are not aware that they are actually worshiping vice as a master, although the revealing phrase einem Laster huldigen (to pay homage to a vice) also exists. To pay homage to a master means to accept servitude. This is why the worst kind of work during the Middle Ages was called Herrenarbeit, or Fron: work that was not done for oneself but for one’s master; work that can only make the receiver froh but not the worker.
It has already become clear how the word stem froh is related to the church, to feudalism, joy, and work. The one word that is still missing in order to capture the Middle Ages in their entirety is the word Frau (woman), which descends from Frouwe: the companion or representative of the Fro, or, the Herrin (female master).
Considering that the word “work” was more closely related to hardship during the Middle Ages than it is today, it is astonishing – and telling – that Middle High German also had a word that we are lacking today, namely arbeitsälig. Just like mühselig (laborious, ardent), which derives from Mühsal (hardship), it means to live in constant misery and anguish. The morpheme sal in words like Trübsal (affliction) and Mühsal is probably the same as in words like Geselle (companion, friend) and Gesellschaft (company, society), referring to an act or state of concentration and unity. We do not to claim that Sælde (Middle High German for “happiness bestowed by fate”) is also related to sal, which would suggest a connection between a word for happiness and salvation and words for community, cooperation, and togetherness – yet the similarities still give us reason to ponder. In any case, the word arbeitsælec/arbeitsälig has two very different meanings: on the one hand, it means to accept hard work; on the other hand, an arbeitsälig man is pleased with his work, joyful despite of the heavy loads he carries, happy in the anguish he experiences. In other words, an arbetsälig man finds bliss at work. This is expressed in the term selig (blessed), which we still use. Selig does not derive from Seele (soul), but from Sælde, and is therefore related to happiness, salvation, mercy.
When it comes to our contemporaries, can we hope for anything more than for them to find bliss at work, Arbeitseligkeit? Can we wish for them than being able to see Fron and froh, work and happiness, and the master’s pride reunite?
Today, the best among us do not find joy and happiness at work, in society, in the union with others, but in solitude. When they escape the company of others and find their innermost essence in solitude, they do, of course, discover humanity; they discover that all peoples of all eras are one. Yet, how many of them are aware of this? How many realize that their retreat must not be their final act, but the beginning of a new form of community, which we, as individuals who have found ourselves and therefore others, must create?
We can only be arbeitselig when work is filled with responsibility, independence, intelligence, and organization. Mass labor, the cooperation of thousands, can only become happiness if Sælde becomes society, separation becomes community, and community becomes the source of well-being and salvation for all.
There is another word we need to consider: Spiel (play, game). Today, work and play are seen as opposites. But to play means to scrimmage, to move, to exercise. When Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the German “father of gymnastics”, looked for a word for the activities he propagated, he could have used spielen as much as turnen (originally, to turn, rotate; today, to do gymnastics). In order for men to be arbeitselig, is not enough if the machines get to play, for example in the form of fast-moving spindles. For men to be arbeitselig, work itself must become playful, a game and a sport, a pleasant activity that produces purposeful goods and therefore also has purpose in itself; a lively play of nerves and muscles.
For men to be arbeitsälig, yet another step is needed: we need to realize that we are Gesellen in play; Gespielen (playmates) in common labor. Gespielen was once a word for lovers, and carefree love will reign where work, play, independence, and community become Seligkeit (bliss). Then, Sælde will have arrived. Until then (that means, probably for a long time), we will have to be arbeitsälig in the other sense: accepting of the hardships and of our struggles in order to remain strong and determined enough to find joy even in the midst of oppression and danger.
We wander between the ages. Let us acknowledge our destiny and fulfill our calling: to be Mühselige in more than one sense: plagued by anguish and blessed in anguish.
Translation by AAP (October 2013)