culture, literature, Personal story

Day Three of Thirteen Days of Looking at a Bureaucrat

The third chapter of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat is the title essay, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat’. It plays with Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, and seeks to open up the reader’s mind to the many unexpected, even poetic ways you can look at this plain, humble, even despised personality, the bureaucrat.

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I wrote on day one that I wrote this book in response to finding no good books on bureaucracy. Here is a brief excerpt from the book that expands on why I turned to Wallace Stevens to help me.

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, 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, and in which I have made 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 grant him the title of statesman and grandee, 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.”

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 honour 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, 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.”

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