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‘I have travelled a good deal in Concord, and everywhere, in shops and offices and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.’
Thoreau
, Walden
































































































































































































































































































 

disoccupation

All my life I have been a sticker, and now I am a quitter.

Both are valid forms of resistance – sullen protest or quick flight, take your pick. You can thumb your nose at the commandant or make it out in the staff car (or both, if you're John Mills); just don’t be one of the guards.

sticker or quitter

 

 

By the time I quit my job I had wormed my way deep into the belly of my own failure. Failure is signal clarity nourishing, an indulgence, a validation; it can become a structure as threatening to the peace of your existence as success itself.

You will only be roused from such lotus-eating by a moment of acute and signal clarity. That this moment may in my case have been the product of obscurer psychological processes should be stated at once; but a moment of clarity it nevertheless was; and what, after all, is intellectual clarity if not emotional or psychological clarity stated in other terms? Terms, however, which afford the subject a certain leverage, or coercive power – or let us say, tactical advantage - over himself.

So it was that I experienced my moment of clarity. In summary, it was this:

ideal city - urbino

I wanted my life henceforth to look like this.

 

 

When I walked from my job I had no idea how I would occupy myself. Or rather, my only idea was that I would not occupy myself, because it was occupation that had necessitated my moment of clarity in the first place.

Living with a job had been like living in an occupied city. It was an unremitting, low-key pretence. There was nowhere to escape to – the world of work is the Roman Empire of our days – but my life was nevertheless an exercise in managing the impulse to escape. I was most alive, I started to notice, when disengaged from my surroundings, staring out of the window, say, or day-dreaming at my desk; looking through people, not at them.

Perhaps everyone else was play-acting as well, tuning in to me as I tuned in to them, for scraps of intelligence. But it does not seem possible that we could all have been in thrall to a chimerical idea – the idea of the job. For some, I suppose, the idea must have been real enough; someone had to be benefitting.

Of one thing I am sure, however: it was never work that I did or was expected to do in my job. I know what work is. Work is problematic, slow, painstaking, arrhythmic; it allows for the perfection of an object.

slow and painstaking

Or it is rapid, repetitive, directed; or it is concealed like a ball which is smuggled from one person to the next through a confined space with a twinkle of political skill, a skunkworks of cleverness; work can take many forms, but it is, one way or another, pleasing; and it has very little to do with a company, an institution, a job.

For me the job was at best a fuddle of activity. I went through the motions, smiled, talked, appeared to listen; I became an adept at responding appropriately to the stimulus of questions, prompts, emails; it was as though every interaction had been rehearsed, repeated over and again; it was memorised.

Something had to change. It was simple enough. If there was nowhere to escape to, no rival town where things were different, I could still descend like a marauding nomadic Scythian on the orderly, oppresive fold of my life, with my strange ululations and my mangy dogs of war, and torch the whole thing.

 

 

So I quit my job and watched not just my career but the whole complex of society and its ambitions and goals recede into the past, the distance. I was not unemployed, not resting, not breaking down. I was properly and thoroughly disoccupied, an indecipherable fragment of the lost civilisation that had been my life.

I had some modest savings, a bit of credit, belongings I could sell; enough to stretch a reduced and spare existence over the span of eighteen months, perhaps two years if I did nothing, went nowhere.

I regarded it as an experiment, with no control, and which would provide data at once interesting and useless. An experiment in wholesale, purposeful, quitting.

 

 

My failure was both professional and personal.

Professional, in that I was a teacher at university of Renaissance Studies who, in failing to publish much of anything, to get anything finished, to drive his research into the public arena, to nail down a tenured post, to make a name for himself, had sunk to the bottom of the pile.

Personal, because that was all I had.

It was not just a career. I had been working on a Great Project for a number of years, a vast book in which I made an attempt to read art history from the quattrocento Renaissance to the Baroque as a history not of deep structures or forms of thinking or god help us movements in the human spirit but simply as a history of ornamentation, deriving the structural (emerging, if you like, probabilistically) from the chaotic accretions of decorative marginalia. It ranged over, to give merely a flavour of its extent, decorative motifs, friezes, architectural embellishments, floors, mosaics, marquetry; costume and jewellery; palaeography, typography, page setting in the early presses, spoglia, inscriptions, etymologies, philology, technology, emblems, rebuses, ornamentation in music. Everything trivial, superficial, gratuitous, redundant.

trivial, superficial, gratuitous, redundant

As Great Projects go, mine was a bit confused, and was, I suppose, mapped on to some messiness of mind generally that unsuited me for Academia, in which you are expected to think tidy, in the main.

It was never even remotely completed: it deliquesced over the years into a turbulence of notes, scraps, files. Perhaps that did not matter. I can see now that it was never intended for publication. It was a zone I could enter where none could follow, an untidy private study of the mind that functioned as a refuge, a simulacrum of the sort of life I had once represented to myself as the true end of my endeavours.

Within a few weeks of leaving my job I made a bonfire of those notes, files and scraps. It was like a classical purification of the excrescence and ornament of my life and, as I had suspected, it left no structure gleaming in its wake.

 

 

The cities painted by fifteenth and sixteenth century Italians are for the most part stage sets hosting scenes from the  great biblical careers - Christ and his saints and oppressors, locked into stories of beheadings and stonings and griddlings and flagellations, conjurations and refutations and annunciations. And so on.

and so on

 

The città ideale, by contrast, is properly empty.

A firm line has been drawn under all that history and meaning. Or better still, it never happened. You would walk across that square and there would be only the sound of your own footsteps and perhaps a breath of wind, and there would be the reassuring chill and clarity – I take it – of a lucid dawn. People will shortly emerge - as they do in the associated panel in Baltimore - and go about their work (they do not have jobs, just lives and work), under no illusions of salvation, no pretence of fulfilment, just intent on inscribing with their routines a little transient shape on the stone city.

transient shape

There might even be, from time to time, an emergent sense of purpose.

But it would be no more than a form of local sanity, because by eliminating the typological resonance, the pregnant history, the opaque struggle for salvation - the grand narrative frameworks, in other words, of universal success and failure - the city reverts to a comprehensible size.

There are no tyrants to flee here. And there are no jobs to quit. This is the Norbiton of our dreams.