This is the seventh in a series of articles analyzing the lyrics from the 1993 Carcass album Heartwork.
Arbeit Macht Fleisch
Prognathous gears grind
So diligent and serrated they mesh
Toothed cogs churn
So trechant, against soft flesh
Worked to the bone
Up to the hilt, depredated
To stoke the furnaces
Life slowly slips away
In this mechanized corruption line
By mincing machinery industrialised – pulped and pulverised
Enslaved to the grind
Blood, sweat, toil, tears
Arbeit macht frei/fleisch
Grave to the grind
Inimitable gears twist
To churn a living grave
Stainless cogs shredding
Scathing pistons bludgeon and flail
Stripping to the bone
Retund mandrels levigate
Just raw material
Your pound of flesh for the suzerain
Life slowly dissipates
In a corruption line, mechanized
By mincing machinery, industrialized – crunched and brutalised
A grave to the blind
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” ~Winston Churchill
The ghoulish, omnipresent nature of the Protestant work ethic is everywhere you look in these last days of our dying empire. It’s offered as the panacea for all that ails the American spirit. After all, those who worked hard built this great land; if we simply do more, exert ourselves, we can attain our dreams. That house with a trampoline in the backyard and the smiling kids and the really big television can all be yours. We go to our jobs, acting out our lives, pacing, stammering about how we’ve been here since 6 a.m., afraid to appear to be idle even for a moment, repeating our actions over and over with terminal efficiency. All the while we run headlong towards our own demise, with only the better mousetrap we’ve built as proof of our worth. If one takes a step back from the banality of modern life they might quite honestly want to ask the question Is all this effort worth it?
This question is at the core of the Carcass song “Arbeit Macht Fleisch”. The title is a play on words based on the expression was emblazoned above the gates of Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz. The original expression, Arbeit Macht Frei, translates to “work will make you free”. While I strongly doubt Carcass was looking to compare the Holocaust to life in the modern world, I believe the deeper idea is that work is often mindless drudgery which can, over time, deprive someone of the human experience. It is a series of meaningless, mechanistic actions that create nothing more than the need for more meaningless, mechanistic actions. Most people are familiar with the rags to riches Horatio Alger stories so deeply engrained in the myth of America. A person who works hard will eventually attain the American Dream, or so the story goes. In this song, Carcass proposes another horrific possibility. They offer the idea that work will not make someone free, but it will make one’s flesh (fleisch) a part of a great senseless pageant. Certainly, all work is not pointless as all jobs are not mindlessly dull, but it is fair to say many careers are built on the endless drive to create things that are simply not needed based on illusions that, held up to the light, hardly seem worthy of a lifetime of stress and strain.
If this idea has a measure of truth to it and those experiencing it recognize this, what makes them move forward and continue to show up day after dreary day? One possibility is the sheer power of the mythology that surrounds work. In America, work has taken on nearly chimerical significance. It is often assumed that those who are the most successful are those who have worked the hardest. The perception of someone’s work ethic has become, on some level, the measure of a man or woman. Those who possess the least resources are perceived to be lazy and apathetic. Those on top of the ladder seem to be entitled to whatever they own because of their Herculean fits of labor. Sure, there are your occasional lottery winners or millionaire heiresses, but the system itself is basically fair. When a person’s worth becomes defined by a characteristic, they are motivated to push harder. After all, no one wants to end up like “those people”, the ones who give no effort and are rewarded with lives of poverty and destitution. They are the ones who deserve blame and scorn. They are the ones who have failed the American Dream; it certainly has not failed them.
Being able to buy into this myth—and it most certainly is a myth—comes with a cost. The cost is paid in hours, minutes and seconds. We are given so little time to be alive, a pittance in the larger flow of endless time. So much of this time is spent chasing a fantasy; not just the delusion of material paradise on Earth, but also the promise of worthiness that indeterminate spasms of labor supposedly grant. However, we can never prove ourselves in this arena because the finish line keeps moving forward. Just out of our grasp. So close we nearly taste it, but never close enough to touch.
I doubt that Carcass intended this song to be a complete renunciation of the importance of work. They are talented musicians who must have spent untold hours honing their craft to the point where they could create a masterpiece like Heartwork. However, elevating work to a central position in life, and its use as a defining characteristic in the worth of the individual is a driving factor in our perpetual race to nowhere. Our value should not be based on what we create or do for a living, but rather for the very fact that we exist. Each life, regardless of what it is used for, is a life worthy of respect, adoration and esteem. It is this outlook that offers us access to compassion and empathy for those of us traveling together through the formidable struggles, terrible humiliations and unyielding indignities that comprise life in our world.
[Author Keith Spillett probably made you believe a hilarious lie about Rick Santorum at The Tyranny of Tradition. ~Ed.]