In early 2017 I wrote a series of posts – or let us call them essays – on Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat. I wrote it still aiming to revive a career in the bureaucracy, but perhaps gripped by the fates to know, as I know with high resolution tonight, that poetry and runic prophecy better suited my disposition. I hope you enjoy this series – there are links to all thirteen of the essays at the end of this post.
You can listen here to the great Wallace Stevens himself reading, at quite a clip, this great poem of images and perspectives.
13 Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat – a series
“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.”
Read the whole series though the links below
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat