Personal story

Reflections on 2018 – 1. self-portrait at 55

The year is drawing to a close, so time to begin reflecting on what the year’s stream of images, texts and events meant to me. Where has this year left me, and what has it left for me to say?

I am ending the year in a bit of a slump, one of those periodic recessions of belief in my thoughts and courage in my voice. Bold declarations of judgement are not coming to mind. I have retreated into the timidity of retweeting. “This too will pass” I say to myself,  although with the chorus of my madness singing, “… And this too will return.”

I have reached an age and a stage in my working career when I no longer expect worldly success. I am overlooked and disregarded, neglected, isolated and forgotten. The strange peripatetic life I have made through so many issues of policy has only marked me out as a mostrosity in the world of executive courtiers. The progressive princelings of the court see me, I suspect, as unworldly, and as a complaining survival of another era. Untimely meditations, indeed.

Outwardly, I have been conferred with a status in the bureaucracy that I have not held before – for a time a senior executive, and, more still, the trustee of an independent review. It is an honour for an exile, and it is as an exile from my times that I must live out, or so I fear, the last ten to fifteen years of my working life; if not an ordered exile, then a voluntary exile that I want to embrace, though with regrets.  I am like Li Po, who the emperor Xuanzong suspected of supporting the An Shi rebellion, being sent into exile in Yehlang, where he would live out the last years of his poetic life.

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain

The birds have vanished down the sky.

Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains

Li Po (702-762)

Amd is not exile the true destiny of those who “speak truth to power”? In truth, power does not care so much for speakers of truth, who only mar power’s vengeful reforms of reality. Power indulges courtiers and clowns, not sages and poets.

The world in which I make my career has seemingly grown more hostile to me this year. Government institutions have developed a culture to which I no longer wish to belong, and yet I cannot renounce my attachment to the values and the people they have lost. Its organisations are led by brats and bullies, and all the decent people, and as many people over 50 as possible, have been pushed aside. In the minor provincial government in which I am but a lowly under-castellan, a party and a governemnt are in power that scorn intellectual tradition and constitutional convention, and practise a ruthless form of modern populist clientilism. And they have been affirmed by the electoral calculus in the most stunning way. “Four more years”, their supporters shout triumphantly, and I shudder knowing that what will come is more partisanship, more patronage, more pranks, more vandalism.

So, internal exile it is to be. And I try to comfort myself that the best works of political philosophy have been born from the ordeal of prison cells and exile’s wanderings. The task before me next year is to realise this dream.

And I do comfort myself with the lines from Pound’s Cantos that I featured in my post Cantos from a cage:

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
From Ezra Pound Canto LXXXI
Image Credit: Francis Bacon, Three studies for a self-portrait

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