Adam Phillips, In Writing

‪Adam Phillips: “Writing needn’t be a world domination project… but just the attempt to find enough people who are interested in what matters to you‬”

This quotation comes from Adam Phillips’ latest collection, In Writing.

I sourced it from the review in The Guardian.

How timely I should stumble on this remark – I have begun to ask: what values guide my writing and what matters to me in writing? These questions came to me in therapy, and Phillips’ practice of writing is a model for my own. It appears I can find company by going sane writing.

Thank you for being interested in what matters to me.

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13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

“Psychoanalysts don’t usually write essays; they tend to write lectures or papers or chapters, or what are called, perhaps optimistically, contributions.” Adam Phillips “Coda: up to a point” in One Way or Another: New and Selected Essays

If Phillips’ invitation, masked in the form of a provocation, is true of psychoanalysis, how much more true is it of my own profession – public servant, civil servant, bureaucrat. Bureaucrats do not write essays, or so some people might believe. They write briefs, presentations, summaries, talking points – in descending order of intellectual significance. Indeed among many of the bureaucrats among whom I have made a kind of living – like some transplanted flower placed by a bumbling gardener in too much sun or too much shade, in the acid soil, where its roots soak all day in water – to write an essay is a phrase to denigrate a staff member who has put too much thought into a paper, and simply cannot reduce it down to memorisable talking points to be scanned for performance in front of your superiors. “Don’t give me an essay…” they will say “just tell me what I need to know.”

Is it because of the general contempt in this profession of contumely for the most inventive and flexible genre of prose that fiction writers have left us more caricatures and few grand characters who are bureaucrats? A few years ago I recall a lifeless panel run by the local institute of public administration that asked the latest bunch of mini (very) celebrity bureaucrats what books they felt best represented life in the bureaucracy. The responses were so pallid, except for one, from a genuine reader, who nominated Hilary Mantel’s rich portrait of that man of affairs, Thomas Cromwell, in Wolf Hall and its sequels. When you search google for best novels about the bureaucracy, you get a rather tired old list. Kafka’s Castle. Heller’s Catch 22. Gogol’s Dead Souls. and then a few references to satires of communist bureaucracy – as if it were only an East European institution – before slipping in a reference to Yes, Minister, or similar light television comedies, including in the Australian context Utopia. A few mention David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Pale King – from which I recall surely one of the funniest literary names for a government department – the United States Office of Unspecified Services – USOUS – which you may well pronounce as youse owe us.

But these representations of life in the bureaucracy have never really registered with me as genuine engagements with the life of the mind as it is practised in our government offices. Yet, it is that very culture, with its foibles and traps and few moments of genius, that I have dedicated the greater part of my working life to. It is that life of the mind in which I have experienced problems as deep, ethical dilemmas as thorny, practical judgements as meticulous as any second-rate university research seminar. But the world would not know this – because bureaucrats do not write essays.

So maybe they should, and maybe I should, and maybe I have already begun. Adam Phillips is an inspiration to me in this task, this attempt, this essay, in more ways than one. He has stepped outside the sterile code of his profession and lifted from its place, discarded on the floor, one of the traditions that exceed the profession’s histories. After all, Freud was a great essayist, perhaps a greater essayist than a psychologist (the opposite may be said of his disciple turned rival Carl Jung). And within my profession – with some flexible interpretation of its boundaries across a long and diverse global history – there have been some great essayists, some great investigators of the human spirit as it is tested in the public life of the mind. There are the Chinese ancients for a start. Confucius was, after all, a public official dismayed at the demoralisation of conduct in public office, who roamed the country for years with his teachings that sought to inspire a nobler spirit of duty. There were the great Byzantine scholar-bureaucrats. Indeed, there is the extraordinary  Anna Comnena and her portrait of her father, Alexiad. There is Francis Bacon  – although we might reach with him perhaps more for the title of statesman and grandee, but still government official he was. His essays speak still across the centuries to the peculiar obligations, duties and privileges of the bureaucrat who offers advice to a modern-day prince. “The greatest trust, between man and man,” Bacon wrote around 1600 “is the trust of giving counsel.” (Francis Bacon, “Of Counsel”, The Essays)

So if Bacon’s essays can endure these 400 years, and preserve a wisp of this peculiar, secreted and yet all too human life that I have led as a government official, surely I should honor this tradition by picking it up from its dusty corner and finding a new reinvention of the essay form to speak of the true experience of bureaucracy.

Long ago – maybe ten years ago – I took it into my head to write one such essay about the real life of the mind of bureaucrats – at least the kind of public official that I aspire to be – that would take its cue from Wallace Stevens “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.” Over the years the yearning to express the true spirit has grown stronger as I have watched public institutions and public culture decay around me, and read other testimony of such decay, as in Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order  and Political Decay. The first impulse of this essay was to speak as a wistful, even comic, challenge to the many “stakeholders” I had met over the years who had treated me and other faithful public servants with sneering contempt. Take a look at the world through my eyes for a minute, if you will. Think of me as Stevens’ manifold blackbird, and do not fixate on a cardboard cut-out image of who I am, what I do, and especially how I think.

As the years have rolled on, however, my thoughts on the essay have turned in different directions. I have wanted to write a “J’Accuse” to all the treasonous clerks who have profited from office, sought to break the greater traditions of the profession, and betrayed the higher purposes of public service. Some even proclaim nonsense like the “public purpose sector” to describe all the consultocrats and tax farming firms who thrive on advantageous government contracts, tolls and partnerships. In yet another mood, “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat” is an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.

Still, what is writing for, if not to write sad songs that honour the traditions that represent the best of who you are? And who can say that my laments may not inspire at least one of my fellow officials to rise above the muck of daily talking points, the ill-considered decisions, the bluff and bluster of those consultocratic courtiers who know no better way?

So with those questions, let me end for tonight, and promise a mini-series of posts – 13 episodes in all – each prompted by that great poem on perspective – “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat.”

Going sane writing

02 adamphillipspix

Adam Phillips says somewhere, perhaps in one of his intriguing essays, perhaps in an interview with the Paris Review, that writing is for him “an experiment in what your life might be like if you were to speak freely.”

It is also a description he gives, in another way, to the process that goes on in the course of psychoanalysis and many other psychotherapies; for fifty minutes you can speak freely and know there is an audience to catch you, to cradle you, to correct you, to chase you to the deepest part of your self.

Phillips’ essays are intriguing for three reasons: their style; the tacit knowledge of the psyche that he brings to them; and his own practice of writing.

The style reflects the pleasure that Phillips states as the only real purpose of his writing. Sentences roll on through enigmas, with never a hectoring voice or a pedantic explanation. Making beautiful sentences is the point of the exercises, and Phillips is true to the essay’s exploratory and experimental genre, playing with and teasing out the silken strands of our stories with which we bind our inner lives. The simple play of his style is there in the title of Going Sane, pleading the paradoxical case that though insanity is well known, the course of developing into a sane person is not. His essays are, like Montaigne’s, peppered with enigmatically selected quotations that point always to this strange artwork that we all practise of making sense of our lives. The epigraph opening Going Sane  is from Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals: “if, by some mischance, people understood each other, they would never be able to reach agreement.”

This deep, tacit knowledge of the strange workings of the psyche makes Phillip’s essays worth reading, where an equivalent stylist’s musings on fluff and fashion or the latest dilemmas of choice in politics are not. Though many of us have had experience of psychotherapy, much that is written about it does not register its subtle entanglement with the imagination. Here Phillips’ sense of style makes him the best ambassador psychoanalysis has ever had. Confidences are not breached, but he does gently share the insights of years of listening to the enigmas and dilemmas of his patients, for whom, he says somewhere, life does not work, and so it is for all of us from time to time.

This unique perspective is also seen in his practice of writing. It is not planned, except that he has a routine that he follows. Every Wednesday he sets aside to write, while maintaining his other profession of therapist. He writes only what pleases him, and is not concerned to persuade or badger or entertain. He claims that the topic of each of his essays or talks is formed in response, and at the moment, of the demand. It is in its own way his mirror of his patients talking out loud, not now as the patient but with a kind of free association of the mind of a very literate and cultured psychoanalyst.

It is this quality of his writing as a free experiment that I most admire; a release of the mind to think on the page; to think freely with compassionate attention to an audience, connected by an unspoken background belief that we do not share stories but share the same endeavour to share stories; but without wanting to force himself into an invented image of the public or marketers. The advice on how to write, how to write to go sane, that began this post is a practice that I will bring to bear on my own writing, with a different professional background, requiring suspension of a whole different set of restrictions on speaking freely.