Tuesday, July 21, 2015

`Servant to the Devil'

It’s probably a mistake to assume that civil servants and others holding public office ought to be at least as intelligent, educated and well-read as we judge ourselves to be.
“Book learning,” as my father and working men of his generation would have said, is overrated, and a taste for Proust is no preparation for public service. We’re already drowning in over-educated bureaucrats. C.H. Sisson entered the Civil Service in 1936 and, after enlisting in the army and serving in India, resumed working in Whitehall in 1945. He rose to the rank of Under Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and retired in 1972. In 1959, Faber and Faber published Sisson’s The Spirit of British Administration, a seemingly dry treatise that makes for unexpectedly good reading. Gauge the multiple layers of irony deployed in the following:

“It would be amusing to set out a new scheme of liberal education which might be supposed to produce minds sufficiently open and sufficiently trained to understand the trickles of thoughts behind the streams of opinion which determine political action. It would be possible to maintain that the requisite degree of understanding of what is going on in this country could only be found in young men who had read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and [Gregory Dix’s] The Shape of the Liturgy as well as, say, the Republic and the essays of Montaigne.”

I like the notion of artists holding down jobs outside academia and, even more importantly, outside the arts, and exercising real-world responsibility. It’s no guaranteed antidote to narcissism, but at least it would wean writers and others off art-welfare subsidies and contributes to their socialization. Consider the American examples of Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens, neither of whom ever attended a workshop. (Kingsley Amis in Jake’s Thing: “If there's one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop. After Youth, that is.”) Some of Sisson’s strongest enthusiasms are for such gainfully employed figures as Marvell, Swift, and William Barnes of whom he wrote: “The avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.” In a chapter titled “The Mind of the Administrator,” Sisson quotes from Some Do Not. . . (1924), the first volume in Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End: “Abstractions caused by failing attention to the outside world are not necessarily in a writer signs of failing, as a writer.” Here are Ford’s subsequent sentences, not quoted by Sisson, regarding the novelist Mrs. Wannop, mother of Valentine:

“It may mean merely that she is giving so much thought to her work that her other contacts suffer. If that is the case her work will gain. That this might be the case with her mother was Valentine’s great and secret hope. Her mother was barely sixty: many great works have been written by writers aged between sixty and seventy. . .”

Ford, like Sisson, is a deft ironist, one who enjoys upending self-importance in himself and others. See the satirical couplet he wrote around the time of The Spirit of British Administration and published in The London Zoo (1961):

“Here lies a civil servant. He was civil
To everyone, and servant to the devil.”

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