On the Renunciation of the Political World – a choice for us all

I wrote this essay on the renunciation of the political world in 2019. It is even more true today as well all face our world we cannot control and choices about how to husband and not derange our minds and the gardens of our culture.

I was editing it for my next collection of essays, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat that I will publish in the first half of 2023.

Since I was very young I have been drawn, like a moth to light, to the world of politics. It has not done me much good. True, I have made a career of sorts in the margins of government; always on the periphery, even when I was truly close to the fabled centre of power; and never accepted by the executives who live by a modern warrior code. But politics has always disappointed me.

They say that disappointment is a great teacher, and points to the frustration of expectations. My expectations of politics were laid down sometime in my childhood for reasons of which reason knows nothing. I remember as an early primary school schoolboy I listened to the political news on the radio, absorbing into my very character the intricacy of calculation and the grandeur to shape events of the world through nothing but orders and words. I recall, when I was somewhere between 10 and 12, I played in the local park a game, adapted somehow from king of the hill, where I imagined myself the ruler of a principality or city state bounded by pine trees and BMX tracks.

I went on through adolescence to read the Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope, and to identify with the rising, young Anglo-Irish member of parliament, Phineas Finn, and then, even more so, with Plantagenet Palliser, the conscientious, intelligent, shy, awkward aristocrat-politician who eventually became, through the rivalry of other candidates and the compromise of events, the Prime Minister. Yet Palliser was too sensitive to perform the role, and ultimately was driven from office by the more worldly, less noble characters who knew how to conspire, cheat and grasp whatever they want. Palliser was like Arjuna hesitating before the great battle of the Mahabharata, but no Krishna whispered the truths of dharma into his ear. Palliser was both driven and destroyed by his belief – or was it a dream? – that the unworldly can make a life of virtue in the world of politics. And so have I been driven certainly, if not yet destroyed.

In late adolescence I got involved in student politics, briefly circling around, in painful introversion, some young stars of left-wing politics, one of whom would later go on to be a rather disappointing Prime Minister. Again, I felt drawn to this world, but did not belong and could not reconcile the perspectives I had gathered from books and life on the strangeness of the psyche from the uncomplicated ambitions of these apprentice politicians. They would listen to Bruce Springsteen and talk about unions and pragmatic economic policies, but I would go back and listen to Nick Cave or The Pop Group and think about Foucault, madness and redemption through literature. I was fortunate to be defeated in a student election. After my defeat, I turned away for the first time from the political world.

I let go of my political friends – or associates, to be more accurate – and committed myself to the life of scholarship, writing and experiment in thought. These were good years, even if racked by despair and disorientation in this world of academic careers, where I was unable to find the patrons needed for success and unwilling to ally my ideas with any gang of professors. So, the world of politics came looking for this wanderer again, in the form of a second – or was it a third? – career in the bureaucracy.

Now, nearly thirty years later, the disappointments have accumulated like a library of great books, and I am standing at my window wondering whether to renounce the outside world of politics, or to turn to the inner light and study my disappointments like holy writ, or to find some other place in which to lead a responsible life of ordinary virtue.

Yet there are other choices, other ways of finding engaging meaning in the greater world beyond politics and government and bureaucracy. I do renounce these worlds as places in which I strive to fulfil an obscure, beating desire. I may still make my way through these worlds, like a wandering mendicant teacher. But my mind will turn to the more meaningful worlds I encounter in the immediate reality of my limited life and in the infinite conversation of literature, narrative, history, and reflection on the deeper questions that make for a meaningful life. On this longer journey, which may take the rest of my life, the world of politics will change its colours, as from summer to autumn, and become not the saṃsāra of drifting, defeat, and disappointment, but rather the source for the greatest books of my life.

As it is written in the Bhagavad Gita,

Weapons can cleave it not,

Fire can burn it not,

Waters can drench it not,

Winds can dry it not,

Eternally stable, immobile, all-pervading,

Unmanifest, unthinkable, immutable it is…

From the Bhagavad Gita (II,22-25)

Or again, I may learn from Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509) , who indeed renounced the world of official service during the brilliant Ming Dynasty to care for his widowed mother.

White clouds sash-like

wrap mountain waists,

The rock terrace flies in space

distant, a narrow path.

Leaning on a bramble staff

far and free I gaze,

To the warble of valley brook

I will reply, whistling.

How do you sustain yourself in the darkness of these troubled times?

During the week I tweeted on the theme of how culture is upstream of politics.

The Burning Archive @ArchiveBurning

@HorcherF Culture is the river. Politics is the feral city built on the banks of the river. Religion is the mountain in the distance that the city dwellers believe uncertainly the river springs from.11:29 PM ∙ Dec 14, 20222Likes1Retweet

What do you think?

Leave me a comment below.

Image Source: Poet on a Mountaintop, Shen Zhou (沈周, 1427-1509), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) – Wikimedia Commons

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