When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
There is a strange book out there, which, if I ever develop these blogged posts into a more scholarly collection of essays, I suppose I will have to read, and it is called On the Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Written by an American activist academic, David Graeber, who describes himself as an “anarchist anthropologist”, it declaims the “total bureaucratization” of the world. This is the utopia of rules, in which there is a strange marriage between the worst of Capitalism and the worst of Bureaucracy, both accented with pantomime capitals.
It is very much a view from outside bureaucracy; the libertarian anarchism that seems so prevalent in American culture, and the resentment of constraints by rules and resources that is so common among the modern salaried professoriat. As a way of looking at bureaucrats, it is strangely unconvincing.
For a start, it misses the mark in describing the people who it caricatures. There are plenty of Graebers who I have encountered within the bureaucracy, who make it their mission to deregulate and strip away all constraints on the creative destruction of the merchants who they adore from afar. Far from utopians of rules, some bureaucrats are utopians of markets. I am not claiming there are not silly rules in all forms of modern bureaucracy, but these accounts of petty, rule-bound bureaucrats obsessed with process and paperwork are little more than thoughtless sneers. They bring us no closer to understanding the importance of law, as a repository of Edmund Burke’s compact between the past, present and future; nor do they really help us understand the strange and more pervasive role of utopian fallacies in modern bureaucracies.
These ways of looking at the bureaucrat suffer a conceptual hostility to the state that is itself utopian, or at least suffers from the born free fallacy described in Roger Scruton’s ever-useful, The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope. So John Gray’s review of Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules isolates the book’s account of bureaucracy as a utopian vision of the world ruled by rational principles. Graeber extends his anarchist vision to believing in the deformation of of the true “insurrectionary moment” by the deviation of revolutionaries from their true lawless path through the maze of bureaucracy. So Graeber quotes Lenin scornfully saying he wanted to run the Revolution “like a postal service”. And John Gray scornfully corrects Graeber in believing that such martinet exclamations were the real cause of the disappointments of the Revolution.
The state, law and strong bureaucratic institutions are gifts of the political world. They are the artefacts that make freedom possible, not the curses that suppress it. They are the associations in which negotiated solutions to our many conflicts may be discovered, beyond the limited vision, however utopian, of any one mind. As John Gray observes:
“But does it follow that state power is always and only repressive? Can’t it sometimes also be liberating? Turning away from these awkward questions to a fantasy of unfettered freedom, Graeber joins hands with the neoliberals he scorns.”
John Gray has in mind some specific examples of bureaucratic institutions, such as the United Kingdom’s post-war National Health Service, that are threatened by both the libertarianism of the merchants, the follies of the spin-doctors and a more pervasive utopia of Reform. And it is here that I begin to see more connections with my own experience.
“In Graeber’s neo-anarchist view, the state is a demonic force thwarting human freedom. This seems to me a simple-minded philosophy, but perhaps it explains why he says so little about the public services that were created as part of the postwar settlement in Britain. Not entangled in government directives as almost every public body is at the present time, these were genuinely autonomous institutions. Regulated by those who worked in them, they weren’t burdened by the bloated bureaucracy that strangles them today. But they were able to enjoy this freedom only because a public space had been created for it by the use of state power.” John Gray
I work in one deformed successor to such an institution, although its origins are further back in the nineteenth century. The Health Department of Victoria has had many incarnations, and like public health departments around the world, it has long been at the heart of the modern state. It has used public resources, rules, professional expertise, imaginative action and the authority of the state to improve the lives of the community it serves. There is no clearer measure of this than the exceptional growth in life expectancy since the mid-nineteenth century.
Yet today this public institution and its best traditions are entangled in overheated grand plans, a bloated senior executive court, and a poisonous growth of bureaucratic utopianism. This poison is not Graeber’s Utopia of Rules, but a Utopia of Reform. It is a poison not of pettiness, but of grandiosity.
This Utopia of Reform is not an exclusively bureaucratic phenomenon. The Utopian plans, visions, “systems reforms” and targets to eliminate all blights on the human condition come from many sources – politicians, activists, lawyers, academics, the not-for-profit sector, even some business leaders. There is not a single Utopia pursued, but many Reforms – projected into a “future state” which these once prudent, proud institutions now kowtow before. All of these reform ideas commit the utopian fallacy, as Roger Scruton describes it:
“Hence the utopian fallacy, which tells us that the ideal is immune to refutation. We need never turn back on our utopian aims, since utopia itself can never be realized and thus never disproved. It serves instead as an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism
It may seem surprising to describe the upper courts of bureaucracy as infected by Utopianism, but that is what I see around me. It is not necessarily a Utopianism without pragmatism, without cynicism, without opportunist careerism. To present yourself as a reformer, as an advocate of “change”, is the badge that marks belonging to the executive class of the bureaucracy today. And like group markers everywhere, this apparent idealistic, enthusiastic embrace of change is a declaration that those outside the club are the enemy of all their striving.
“The ideal remains forever on the horizon of our experience, unsullied and untried, casting judgement on all that is actual, like a sun that cannot be looked at but which creates a dark side to everything on which it shines.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism
The blackbird files out of sight of the institutions which they have coerced into their dreams, and marks the edge of the future circles from which the actual people of those institutions are excluded.
Is it any wonder that there are political revolts around the world against these Utopias of Reform that have come to dominate our bureaucratic and political elites over the last thirty years? People realise, as Scruton says, that “Behind the utopia there advances another aim altogether, which is the desire for revenge against reality.” (Uses of Pessimism)
This virus of reform cannot be effectively opposed by dreams of liberation from the state, but by a restitution of the institutions of law, good government and bureaucracy. It requires a defence of the tradition of bureaucracy, governing and authority that I am groping my way towards understanding in these posts. This is necessary since, as Scruton argues, the reform solutions of the bureaucratic utopians destroy the institutions that enable us to resolve our conflicts one by one.
Rather than pursue the disappearing circles of our utopian blackbirds, we need to restore a bureaucratic tradition of sober judgement, cautious authority, prudent thought, and respectful talking to strangers.
“The solution to human conflicts is discovered case by case, and embodied thereafter in precedents, customs and laws. The solution does not exist as a plan, a scheme or a utopia. It is the residue of a myriad agreements and negotiations, preserved in custom and law. Solutions are rarely envisaged in advance, but steadily accumulate through dialogue and negotiation. They are a deposit lad down by the ‘we’ attitude, as it unfolds through norms of mutual dealing. And it is precisely this deposit, in customs and institutions, that the utopians set out to destroy.”Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism
The antidote to the Utopias of Rules and the Utopia of Reform is thus not liberation, freedom or markets, but law, institutions and a modest belief that we are all blackbirds.
“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.”
Image source: Gitksan woman Shaman and Chief, Kispiox, British Columbia, 1909, by George Thornton Emmons Collection no. 131 (University of Washington Libraries) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Why do we write poetry? In a world of inexhaustible archives, where we are overwhelmed with voices, why would we ply our own into the unending and infinite conversation? Why do this when although we have control over the words we write, we have no control over their reception in the world or the fruits of the work?
“Alas! What boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?” (Milton, Lycidas)
My last post on conceptual poetry prompted me to think on this, since there is a way in which the proponents of the cutting edge have abandoned the thankless muse and turned their poetry into a species of barren, mechanical marketing. They abolish the anxiety of authentic authorship by turning everything into a cheap showman’s trick.
My post also prompted thoughtful responses from one of my readers, Daniel Paul Marshall, who says, quite beautifully, that “my entire reason to write poetry is due to Wallace Stevens saying it isn’t everyday the world forms into a poem.”
Daniel also pointed me towards the Inflectionist Review, which does articulate a sense of poetry as belonging to a long and deep tradition of infinite conversation between readers and writers, who are readers, rather than a ceaseless war of the new against the old, of radicalism against tradition.
At the Inflectionist Review they say, in describing their poetry movement:
The literary tradition is as ancient as our capacity for verbal communication. Through ages, most of the core human concerns have remained the same, although our ability to analyze and discuss them has evolved. Poetry has remained essentially the same in that it elicits our reaction by appealing to those concerns indirectly.
They also say “Poetry seeks to represent the type of human interaction that causes a positive spark, an epiphany, a sense of growth.” This connection of poetry to psyche or to soul seems to me, as I discussed in an earlier post, what Wallace Stevens referred to when he spoke of nobility in poetry. The poet’s special privilege and responsibility is an ecstatic freedom of the mind, and the worst forms of literary avant-gardism abandon and abuse this privilege.
Now, I am not one to raise an aesthetic war banner and plant it in the ground, but I do see my poetry – and my writing more generally, my prose and whatever the art form that this blog is attempting to shape – as part of a longer, humbler and more secret tradition than the loud brash declarations of the avant-garde.
When I write I belong in Milton’s homely slighted shepherd’s trade, and to the spirit worlds of all the unknown shamans of the world, who sang their chants, beat their drums, and went on unknowable journeys into the night.
Instead of a statement of an aesthetic philosophy, my mind turned to a poem I wrote some years back, and included in my self-published e-book, After the Pills. It was the first poem in the second half of that collection, which were poems written after I began to take medication for my mental illness. It was one of the first poems I wrote after that time, and it marked, perhaps even broke open the ground that made possible, the beginning of a more productive, more enjoyable, more free writing life.
Here it is.
The book of my soul
“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.”
John, chapter 3. verse 8.
In a plain bound book
I tattoo white paper in blue
Then wrap myself in this shaman’s cloak
To fly with the eagle to a sky renewed.
I sing words salvaged from the press
In the intervals of Te Deum,
Stolen from its church,
Sung so only its melancholy shines.
Pärt turned to church and tradition
Amidst a century of horror
And I turn to these conjured spirits
In a world polluted by podcast trash.
Inwardly, I turn – not without question.
The simplest words are sewn with elaborate doubt.
But into the image of inwardness
I dive deeper, and there find reasons to go on.
In the mandalas, strange mazes, of this book
I encircle, tame, and then hold fast
The sound of the blowing wind.
If this kind of writing practice makes me a traditionalist or even a conservative, who will never be fashionable, so be it. I do not seek fame or fashion from what I do with my voices, and I draw inspiration from others who do the same. The poem refers to the music of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer, who fled Soviet repression, and produced some of the most beautiful music of the twentieth century, springing from the traditions of church music.
Here is a performance of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum if you do not know it, via YouTube and created by Akademisk Kor, Akademisk Orkester, Nenia Zenana, conductor.
Marianne G. Nielsen, solist. I can think of no more fitting end.
Yesterday I visited the State Library of Victoria and there I read from the Collected Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens.
Wallace Stevens is perhaps my most loved American poet, and certainly an influence on me – his diction, his mix of abstraction with the most remarkable particulars of the beautiful world, his romance of the self, his playfulness with the treasure-hoards of the things of the world and the words that name them.
I have at home both an old copy of his Selected Poems, which I bought in my early twenties from the second-hand bookshop near Melbourne University, and a more recent edition of his Collected Poems. At one point this year I had the mad plan to only read from these Collected Poems and one other book, von Eschenbach’s Parzival. Curiosity, thankfully, overwhelmed this puritanical plan. I learned by heart some years ago “The Idea of Order at Key West”. Its line that “there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and singing, made” is talismanic for me. I might even pin it with some suited image, and display it on the pinboard that sits beside my desk.
Stevens also seemed a role model for me. His life as an insurance executive grounded him in something outside his imagination, and did not defeat his poetic venture. So much of the superfluous romance or self-defeating sturm und drang of writing is unnecessary – belonging to circles, issuing manifestoes, rebelling against the world. The greatest of art and the purest of imaginations can arise from a quiet, normal life.
Still, I had never read any of Wallace Stevens’ prose. Yesterday I dipped into the first of his essays in The Necessary Angel: essays on reality and the imagination, which I have just now discovered is available online in full on archive.org. This essay, “The noble rider and the sound of words” proceeds from a discussion of a figure from Plato of the imagination at work, a noble rider of a chariot in the sky. Towards the end of the essay, Stevens asserts the importance of nobility for poetry, not grandiloquent nobility, but a nobility that sits at the base the call to write poems. In so doing he reanimates contemporary poetry with the dignity of free imagination. He writes that:
There is no element more conspicuously absent from contemporary poetry than nobility. There is no element that poets have sought after, more curiously and more piously, certain of its obscure existence. Its voice is one of the inarticulate voices which it is their business to overhear and to record.” (664)
This is a paradoxical idea, that nobility is an inarticulate voice, which the poet must search for and rescue from shadows of obscurity. Nobility is more commonly seen, if I may use a pastiche of current academic discourse, as a site of privileged cultural power. But Stevens’ idea connects more deeply to the striving I feel when I write poetry, a striving to find some kind of nobility in this life.
Stevens goes on to elaborate what I may be feeling in those moments. He writes:
For the sensitive poet, conscious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege.
I think I am discovering, I hope not too late, that the pursuit of the ecstatic freedom of the mind, that complete and utter freedom, is indeed a special privilege, and a privilege that can confer nobility on, and be claimed justly within, the most ordinary and normal of suburban lives.
So let me close off by transcribing here, as a tribute, one of Stevens late poems, “A quiet normal life.”
A Quiet Normal Life by Wallace Stevens
His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not
In anything that he constructed, so frail,
So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,
As, for example, a world in which, like snow,
He became an inhabitant, obedient
To gallant notions on the part of cold.
It was here. This was the setting and the time
Of year. Here in his house and in his room,
In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked.
And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut
By gallant notions on the part of night –
Both late and alone, above the cricket’s chords,
Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.
There was no fury in transcendent forms.
But his actual candle blazed with artifice.
[From The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens: the corrected edition (2nd Vintage Books edition, 2015), p. 553.]
May all our candles, and our archives, blaze with artifice.
Image Source: Photograph of Wallace Stevens’ home, Hartford Courant