Lives of the Civil Servants: The Choices We Make

Jesse Browner

But say you are the kind of person who, unlike me, does not shrink from tilting at such taboos. Say you are brave enough to sit yourself down and ask, What would I rather have been doing? How would my life and/or my work have been better if I had chosen to live otherwise? Once you’ve dared to cross that threshold, you might as well try to posit an answer. Well, you would have spent more time writing, of course—not only the books, but maybe also the reviews, the essays, the scholarly articles at which you might have tried your hand had your life not been an ongoing exercise in triage, in which everything that is not absolutely essential has had to be jettisoned. And even then, you probably would have had more time than you do now for the other things you love, such as cooking, gardening, reading, traveling. Yes, having opened this can of worms, you’d have to acknowledge that having been able to do all this—to do anything you wanted to do, without reference to anyone else’s comfort or happiness—might have been a sweet way to live, and a lot closer to the ideal of the artist’s life that you’d outlined for yourself in the first flush of young adulthood. But wait, there’s more. If you had really gone ahead and done it, your writing would have benefited immensely, because all the love and energy you’ve spent half a lifetime devoting to lesser things—your family, your job, repairing the injuries of a difficult childhood—would have been invested in the only thing that matters in this life: your art. Think how happy you’d be now, and how good your books would be, if only you’d been more selfish.

Let’s face it, isn’t that what we’re really talking about? Most artists’ biographies fall short when trying to describe the creative process and the mind of a genius, but rise magisterially to the occasion of detailing every last opportunity seized by the artist to behave badly. Perhaps the vicarious thrill we get from reading these lives lies in the fact that, whereas genius is elusive and beyond the grasp of most of us, we can all imagine ourselves acting selfishly and irresponsibly, at least once, even if we are not in reality prepared to accept the consequences. The failed marriages and discarded children, the drug and alcohol abuse, the multiple mistresses, the dismissive gesture, the egotism, the haughty acceptance of glory as one’s due—setting aside the life’s work, you could identify the great artist by his foibles alone, the exceptions proving the rule. In this reading, the bohemian artist is elevated to the status of romantic hero who has sacrificed himself for a cause that is nobler, higher, and more enduring than the bourgeois comforts. We all know, or think we know, that the history of Western culture demonstrates the near perfect impossibility, especially in the modern age, of being a creative genius without devoting yourself immoderately, excessively, self-destructively to the muse. And if you fail to do so—as my fellow civil servants Kafka and Melville did—the muse will punish you with ignominy, crushing self-doubt, and oblivion in your own lifetime.

Part of me wishes that I could dismiss this as the bullshit it probably is, but I have drunk the Kool-Aid. Part of me really does believe that a great artist has to be selfish, or at least more protective of his gift than I have been. Part of me is convinced that, in addition to talent, hard work, tenacity, a thick skin, and conviction, selfishness is an integral attribute of greatness, while compromise is an insuperable indication of weakness, fear, and mediocrity. Part of me wants to acknowledge that, if I had not spent the past twenty years as a civil servant, I might have brought whatever talent I had to fuller fruition. But the rest of me knows full well and with utter certainty that if I have spent twenty years as a civil servant, it is because that is what I must have wanted to do—surely not exclusively or ideally, but in the balance. I have not always been happy, and have often come close to giving way to bitterness and despair, or been tempted to blame others for the wrong choices I have made, but of course every way of life—most especially including the one I did not choose—offers ample opportunity for anger and recrimination. I don’t and can’t know if my work would have been any better or more interesting; I strongly doubt that I, or my family, would have been better off. That might not matter to everyone, but it has turned out, twenty years later and to my great surprise, that it matters to me. So I get up every day at four and make the most of my two hours, and if it isn’t good enough, then so be it.

So let’s say a young writer, fresh out of college, does seek me out one day. “Do your best” is probably not the most inspiring send-off for a young artist at the dawn of her career, and not likely to be what she’d been hoping to hear. I’m not sure it’s very useful to someone who has passionate ambitions but no experience of the obstacles and distraction that the real world of rent, student loans, and rejection slips has in store. “Hold on to your dreams” might be more practical, and more in line with what she’d been gunning for, but I don’t think I could bring myself to suggest it. Perhaps, in coming to me for advice, she’d mistaken me for someone else—someone like Geoff Dyer, who, if Scott Sherman is to be believed, might tell her to flee all obligations and responsibilities, devote herself exclusively to her art, and, as he claims to have done for himself, find a way to get paid to live her life. That sounds like pretty good advice to me, and would be more likely to conform to what she’d expect from an established and respected author with a lifetime’s worth of wisdom to impart.

The truth is, I know nothing about Dyer and his life. I think I know someone who knows someone who knows him, so I suppose I could look into it if I were moved to, and confront him about the truth of his perfect bohemian existence, but I daresay that neither of us would emerge satisfied from such an encounter. I have no idea whether he is happy with the path he has chosen, or whether it has fulfilled his expectations, or whether he has a family and a job waiting for him at home that he is not telling anyone about. And to be fair to Dyer, there is nothing in the evidence to suggest that he has ever offered anyone a prescription for living on the basis of the course he has chosen to pursue for himself. On the surface, judging from the quality and rich variety of his work, it seems to have worked out very nicely for him, and if that’s true I am very happy for him.

But once the young writer to whom I have told, “Do your best” has rejected my advice with a wince of pity and disgust, and moved on to Dyer, I cannot predict what he might tell her. Maybe, if he honestly feels that he has successfully upheld his side of the bargain, he will suggest that she emulate his example. But it is also possible that in midcareer he, too, has come to entertain doubts and misgivings. Is he lonely, broke, alienated, rudderless? I sincerely hope not. When Sherman says that Dyer “has ranged too widely and written too much,” or that he “is extremely gifted, but he is also a writer in search of his ideal subject,” does Dyer experience a pang of self-recognition and regret? Again, I would be sorry if he did, because I don’t think it’s entirely true. But if he should, and should subsequently find himself speechless before the acolyte seeking wisdom at his feet, I hope he would think to come to me for comfort. I would know exactly what to tell him.


Jesse Browner is the author, most recently, of the novel Everything Happens Today (Europa Editions, 2011). He lives in New York City.