What Are We Working For “At Eternity’s Gate”?

Edward Curtin

Willem Dafoe as Vinvent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate (2018)

One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work.”
John Berger, “Vincent Van Gogh,” Portraits

Ever since I was a young boy, I have wondered why people do the kinds of work they do. I sensed early on that the economic system was a labyrinthine trap devised to imprison people in work they hated but needed for survival. It seemed like common sense to a child when you simply looked and listened to the adults around you. Karl Marx wasn’t necessary for understanding the nature of alienated labor; hearing adults declaim “Thank God It’s Friday” spoke volumes.

In my Bronx working class neighborhood I saw people streaming to the subway in the mornings for their rides “into the city” and their forlorn trundles home in the evenings. It depressed me. Yet I knew the goal was to “make it” and move away as one moved “up,” something that many did. I wondered why, when some people had options, they rarely considered the moral nature of the jobs they pursued. And why did they not also consider the cost in life (time) lost in their occupations? Were money, status, and security the deciding factors in their choices? Was living reserved for weekends and vacations?

I gradually realized that some people, by dint of family encouragement and schooling, had opportunities that others never received. For the unlucky ones, work would remain a life of toil and woe in which the search for meaning in their jobs was often elusive. Studs Terkel, in the introduction to his wonderful book of interviews, Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do, puts it this way:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

Those words were confirmed for me when in the summer between high school and college I got a job through a relative’s auspices as a clerk for General Motors in Manhattan. I dreaded taking it for the thought of being cooped up for the first time in an office building while a summer of my youth passed me by, but the money was too good to turn down (always the bait), and I wanted to save as much as possible for college spending money. So I bought a summer suit and joined the long line of trudgers going to and fro, down and up and out of the underground, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and light.

It was a summer from hell. My boredom was so intense it felt like solitary confinement. How, I kept wondering, can people do this? Yet for me it was temporary; for the others it was a life sentence. But if this were life, I thought, it was a living death. All my co-workers looked forward to the mid-morning coffee wagon and lunch with a desperation so intense it was palpable. And then, as the minutes ticked away to 5 P.M., the agitated twitching that proceeded the mad rush to the elevators seemed to synchronize with the clock’s movements. We’re out of here!
On my last day, I was eating my lunch on a park bench in Central Park when a bird shit on my suit jacket. The stain was apt, for I felt I had spent my days defiling my true self, and so I resolved never to spend another day of my life working in an office building in a suit for a pernicious corporation, a resolution I have kept.


“An angel is not far from someone who is sad,” says Vincent Van Gogh in the new film, At Eternity’s Gate. For some reason, recently hearing these words in the darkened theater where I was almost alone, brought me back to that summer and the sadness that hung around all the people that I worked with. I hoped Van Gogh was right and an angel visited them from time to time. Most of them had no options.

The painter Julian Schnabel’s moving picture (moving on many levels since the film shakes and moves with its hand-held camera work and draws you into the act of drawing and painting that was Van Gogh’s work) is a meditation on work. It asks the questions: What is work? What is work for? What is life for? Why paint? What does it mean to live? Why do you do what you do? Are you living or are you dead? What are you seeking through your work?

For Vincent the answer was simple: reality. But reality is not given to us and is far from simple; we must create it in acts that penetrate the screens of clichés that wall us off from it. As John Berger writes,

One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second, distant, far away. This opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for materialists as for idealists. For Plato, for Marx. Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés.

These screens serve to protect the interests of the ruling classes, who devise ways to trap regular people from seeing the reality of their condition. Yet while working can be a trap, it can also be a means of escape. For Vincent working was the way. For him work was not a noun but a verb. He drew and he painted as he does in this film to “make people feel what it is to feel alive.” To be alive is to act, to paint, to write. He tells his friend Gauguin that there’s a reason it’s called the “act of painting, the “stroke of genius.” For him painting is living and living is painting.

The actual paintings that he made are almost beside the point, as all creative artists know too well. It is the doing wherein living is found. The completed canvas, essay, or book are what is done. They are nouns, still lifes, just as Van Gogh’s paintings have become commodities in the years since his death, dead things to be bought and sold by the rich in a culture of death where they can be hung in mausoleums isolated from the living. It is appropriate that the film ends with Vincent very still in his coffin as “viewers” pass him by and avidly now desire his paintings that encircle the room that they once rejected. The man has become a has-been and the funeral parlor the museum.

“Without painting I can’t live,” he says earlier. He didn’t say without his paintings.

“God gave me the gift for painting,” he said. “It’s the only gift he gave me. I am a born painter.” But his gift has begotten gifts that are still-births that do not circulate and live and breathe to encourage people to find work that will not, “by its very nature, [be] about violence,” as Terkel said. His works, like people, have become commodities, brands to be bought and sold in a world where the accumulation of wealth is accomplished by the infliction of pain, suffering, and death on untold numbers of victims, invisible victims that allow the wealthy to maintain their bad-faith innocence. This is often achieved in the veiled shadows of intermediaries such as stock brokers, tax consultants, and financial managers; in the liberal and conservative boardrooms of mega-corporations or law offices; and in the planning sessions of the world’s great museums. Like drone killings that distance the killers from their victims, this wealth accumulation allows the wealthy to pretend they are on the side of the angels. It’s called success, and everyone is innocent as they sing, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.”

“It is not enough to tell me you worked hard to get your gold,” said Henry Thoreau, Van Gogh’s soul-mate. “So does the Devil work hard.”

A few years ago there was a major exhibit of Van Gogh’s nature paintings at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts – “Van Gogh and Nature” – that aptly symbolized Van Gogh in his coffin. The paintings were exhibited encased in ornate gold frames. Van Gogh in gold. Just perfect. I am reminded of a scene in At Eternity’s Gate where Vincent and Gauguin are talking about the need for a creative revolution – what we sure as hell need – and the two friends stand side by side with backs to the camera and piss into the wind.


But pseudo-innocence dies hard. Not long ago I was sitting in a breakfast room in a bed-and-breakfast in Houston, Texas, sipping coffee and musing myself awake. Two men came in and the three of us got to talking. As people like to say, they were nice guys. Very pleasant and talkative, in Houston on business. Normal Americans. Stressed. Both were about fifty years old with wives and children.

One sold drugs for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies that is known for its very popular anti-depressant drug and its aggressive sales pitches. He travelled a triangular route from Corpus Christi to Austin to Houston and back again, hawking his wares. He spoke about his work as being very lucrative and posing no ethical dilemmas. There were so many depressed people in need of his company’s drugs, he said, as if the causes of their depression had nothing to do with inequality and the sorry state of the country as the rich rip off everyone else. I thought of recommending a book to him – Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How big pharma has corrupted health care by Peter Gotzsche – but held my tongue, appreciative as I was of the small but tasteful fare we were being served and not wishing to cause my companions dyspepsia. This guy seemed to be trying to convince me of the ethical nature of the way he panned gold, while I kept thinking of that quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

The other guy, originally from a small town in Nebraska and now living in Baton Rouge, was a former medevac helicopter pilot who had served in the 1st Gulf War. He worked in finance for an equally large oil company. His attitude was a bit different, and he seemed sheepishly guilty about his work with this company as he told me how shocked he was the first time he saw so many oil, gas, and chemical plants lining the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and all the oil and chemicals being shipped down the river. So many toxins that reminded him of the toxic black smoke rising from all the bombed oil wells in Iraq. Something about it all left him uneasy, but he too said he made a very good “living” and that his wife also worked for the oil company back home.

My childish thought recurred: when people have options, why do they not choose ethical work that makes the world more beautiful and just? Why is money and so-called success always the goal?

Having seen At Eternity’s Gate, I now see what Van Gogh was trying to tell us and Julian Schnabel conveys through this moving picture. I see why these two perfectly normal guys I was breaking bread with in Houston are unable to penetrate the screen that lies between them and reality. They have never developed the imaginative tools to go beyond normal modes of perception and conception. Or perhaps they lack the faith to dare, to see the futility and violence in what they are working for and what their companies’ products are doing to the world. They think of themselves as hard at work, travelling hither and yon, doing their calculations, “making their living,” and collecting their pay. It’s their work that has a payoff in gold, but it’s not working in the sense that painting was for Vincent, a way beyond the screen. They are mesmerized by the spectacle, as are so many Americans. Their jobs are perfectly logical and allow them a feeling of calm and control.

But Vincent, responding to Gauguin, a former stock broker, when he urged him to paint slowly and methodically, said, “I need to be out of control. I don’t want to calm down.” He knew that to be fully alive was to be vulnerable, to not hold back, to always be slipping away, and to be threatened with annihilation at any moment. When painting, he was intoxicated with a creative joy that belies the popular image of him as always depressed. “I find joy in sorrow,” he said, echoing in a paradoxical way Albert Camus, who said, “I have always felt that I lived on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.” Both rebels, one in paint, the other in words: “I rebel: therefore we exist,” was how Camus put it, expressing the human solidarity that is fundamental to genuine work in our ephemeral world. Both nostalgic in the present for the future, creating freedom through vision and disclosing the way for others.

And although my breakfast companions felt safe in their calmness on this side of the screen, it was an illusion. The only really calm ones are corpses. And perhaps that’s why when you look around, as I did as a child, you see so many of the living dead carrying on as normal.
“I paint to stop thinking and feel I am a part of everything inside and outside me,” says Vincent, a self-described exile and pilgrim.

If we could make working a form of such painting, a path to human solidarity because a mode of rebelling, what a wonderful world it might be.

That, I believe, is what working is for.


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Jams O'Donnell
Jams O'Donnell
Jan 12, 2019 10:15 AM

As ‘BigB’ indicates above, nothing about work for most will change without a comprehensive and radical restructuring of world society.

Jams O'Donnell
Jams O'Donnell
Jan 12, 2019 10:16 AM
Reply to  Jams O'Donnell

“below”, I meant.

Jan 11, 2019 6:44 PM

While I agree entirely with Curtin, and have spent most of my life “working” at what I love, I believe that everyone should have an early Curtin experience or worse – working at an unrewarding, preferably difficult job under unenlightened conditions. There is great danger in never experiencing that side of work – the danger of not growing as a human being, not seeing oneself as part of the human family. Think of young Silicon Valley geniuses with nary a thought that they share the planet with others who have few to no options. They merely dismiss them as uncreative, as fodder for their manipulations.

Jan 11, 2019 6:01 PM

“Work begins when you don’t like what you’re doing. Tension, a lack of honesty, and a sense of unreality come from following the wrong force in your life. As an adult, you must rediscover the moving power of your life!” Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion I would use different terms because what I ‘like’ does not necessarily come into it. Resentment is hate. Conflicted dissonance rather than tension – which is the symptom of being out of integrity and persisting in it. Of course the ‘wrong force’ is only recognisable as such when no longer self-protected. Fear can and does express itself in very complex ways, and joy can be redefined in terms of getting something or becoming something – and thus sacrificed for a future that never comes. The unfolding Now is awareness of being and not the focus in being or… Read more »

Jan 11, 2019 3:47 PM

”One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second, distant, far away. This opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for materialists as for idealists. For Plato, for Marx. Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés.” I’ve already expressed my debt of gratitude to John Berger (and Ed Curtin for reminding me) for my appreciation of the authentic aesthetic (as opposed to the bad-faith (and bad taste) embourgeoised art world ‘pickled’ (‘Hirstian’) aesthetic). Apart from that incipient Marxist appreciation, Berger, as much as anyone (Joe Cambell, Jung, R D Laing, Vincent himself …) stimulated my lifelong focus on painting and the ‘real’: as opposed… Read more »

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig
Jan 11, 2019 2:51 PM

Ooops! Looks like somebody forgot the tag.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig
Jan 11, 2019 2:51 PM
Reply to  Seamus Padraig

Ooops! Looks like the EMPHASIS tag didn’t appear my comment above.

Jan 13, 2019 6:05 AM
Reply to  Seamus Padraig


Jan 11, 2019 6:39 AM

If you consider the Bible, closest to heaven was Eden. What did Adam do there? – Nothing!

But now work is everything. Alex Carey has written a nice essay on this issue, called (by heart): the protestant work ethic, where he explains that the (sincere) protestant work ethic was replaced mid 20th century by ‘psychology and sociology, aka Human Resources to let people work for little to nothing, while ‘loving’ it.

The love of work, like western Society and all it’s moral, is, paraphrasing Gandhi, a good idea.

Still, genuine love to work is very rewarding, and possible, though we make it ourselves very hard with HR in firm control, and with the idea that the salary does not matter.

Jan 11, 2019 8:39 AM
Reply to  Willem

In addition, here is Chomsky on the issue on whether or not we like to work. We do, as long as work is meaningful, according to Chomsky with which I agree.

But the problem with meaningful is that the more meaningful a job is (like Nursing, teaching, blogging), the less well it is paid. Only the bullshit jobs pay well, but are completely unneccesary, if you take away the ‘obvious’ need to control people by letting them do unneccesary, but exhausting, work.


Jan 11, 2019 5:00 PM
Reply to  Willem

Jordan Peterson also has a lot to say about life in general being meaningful.
If it isn’t meaningful, then it’s depressing and destructive.
Which is why the pursuit of money as the imagined road to “happiness” has produced so many spoilt, psychotic and deadly “leaders” in our society. Many of our “representatives”, for example.
Apologies for using so many quotation marks, but so many things are not what they should be today that we use equivalents to euphemize and beautify them.

Jan 11, 2019 7:29 PM
Reply to  wardropper

Jordan Peterson has plenty to say – tidy your room, pick up your cross, is that a lobster – about getting on with it (manning up) and conforming. He also has plenty to say – about alpha males, apes, and lobsters – to justify that it is as it is, we are as we are, so get on with it. Apart from the embourgeoised fact that it is easy for him to say that, from his white-priviliged entitlement POV …there comes a point in time – already gone – when the choice of what is ‘meaningful’ is already a bad-faith choice for humanity …something he never goes into. His, our, mine, petty bourgeois ‘meaning’ means someone else’s imperialist ‘meaningless’ subjugation …our work is someone else’s redundancy or environmental catastrophe. He says climate change is faked on the basis we have never had it so good economically – which is fallacious… Read more »

Jan 11, 2019 6:18 AM

Nice article. The opening paras remind me of the opening chapters of “A Shepherd’s Life”: a farmer’s son in the Lake District listening to the Careers Mistress telling him to work hard at school so he could move on — when all he wanted was to leave school and stay put on the farm. “How you gonna keepem / Down on the farm / Now that they’ve seen Paree? How you gonna keepem / Away from Broadway? / That’s the mysteree. Picture of VVG reminds me of GBS: “A true artist will let his old mother drudge away to support him rather than work at anything but his creativity.” (Similar to the Stolen Hubcaps incident in Doc Martin”). Vincent was supported by his loyal brother — to whom we owe the vanGogh masterpieces. Paul Cezanne always said his banker father was the real genius — to whom we owe the… Read more »

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Jan 11, 2019 2:27 AM

The magic, and that’s what it feels like, of creativity, is how it arrives unbidden.
It’s as if we are receptors for a greater power.
Call it God, call it Life, call it the Collective Unconscious.
Whatever it is, I have felt it and it’s wonder-full.