Cultural Caviar

The Bureaucrat’s Point of View

May 12, 2018

Multiple Pages
The Bureaucrat’s Point of View

This is a story with a happy ending.

I was driving through France with my wife when suddenly the thought occurred to me that I did not know where my passport was. I do not know how or why it suddenly came into my head, but it did. We do not need Freud to tell us that not all mentation is conscious.

I had seen the passport the day before, that much I remembered, but had quite forgotten where I put it or what I had done with it. I stopped the heavy-laden car; it was not in the bag in which it should have been and where I normally put it. With mounting anxiety, my wife and I searched through what we thought was everything, but still could not find it. Fortunately, since we lose things in roughly equal proportion, we do not reproach each other for our absentmindedness. We phoned the hotel we had stayed in the night before, the restaurant we had eaten in, and the police station and mairie of the little town, but no one had seen it. The wretched thing had disappeared; perhaps it had fallen out of my pocket. I felt almost as if I had ceased to exist as a real person.

“Bureaucrats are themselves so oppressed by bureaucracy that their only way of finding relief is to make others suffer like them.”

It is amazing how a small circumstance can in a trice overturn a mood from one of equanimity to one of anxiety and irritation. What most upset me was the thought of having to deal with the British bureaucracy in order to obtain some kind of travel document or other. I could just see in my mind’s cinema the drab room in the consulate where a minor official, who hated his work and was thoroughly bored with and disgusted by the procession of incompetents, liars, and con men who day after day appeared before him claiming that their case was particularly urgent or in some way deserving of his special attention, eked out his miserable existence, praying every day for the time of closure of the consulate to approach quickly rather than at its usual snail’s pace. Nominally, of course, he was the servant of the citizenry whose taxes paid his salary, but drawing this to his attention would only have slowed him down and made him more determined than ever to draw out the agony of the scum with whom he had always to deal. The fact is that no Middle Eastern or Central Asian peasant at the diwan of the potentate’s vizier was ever more a powerless petitioner than is the average Western citizen in a situation such as this. The citizen is nothing and the bureaucrat is everything.

I had all kinds of documents with me to prove that I was the person I said I was, namely me; besides which, it was surely obvious, even to the most casual observer, that I was a respectable citizen not given to obtaining travel or other documents by false pretensions. But these days we live under a regime, if not exactly of laws rather than of men, at least of regulations rather than of men, and an official such as the one with whom I would have to deal would be allowed to exercise no discretion in case he thereby revealed his social prejudices. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” said Cicero, which we have changed to “Though the heavens fall, let the forms be filled and the boxes ticked.”

To do my imaginary official justice, I would have behaved just like him if our positions had been reversed. There are many jobs whose sole pleasure or delight must be in disobliging the public. Bureaucrats are themselves so oppressed by bureaucracy that their only way of finding relief is to make others suffer like them. The wonder, then, is not that they are bad, but that they are not worse.

Then a miracle happened. We found the passport at the last attempt. It had somehow insinuated itself into a crevice in the case in which it should have been all along. Suddenly the world regained its bloom—it even seemed more brightly colored—and I forgave the imaginary bureaucrat all his faults. Indeed, I even began to sympathize with him for having to deal so constantly with those irresponsible fools who didn’t keep proper care of their passport and expected him to issue them another in a few moments, as if there were no possibility of fraud and misrepresentation, as if everything were set up merely for their convenience. I forgot immediately the content of the querulous letters of complaint that I had already written in my head to the Foreign Secretary, in which I protested at the callous, indifferent, and inefficient way with which I had been treated by his officialdom, for whose salaries my taxes paid. I began to see things from the bureaucrat’s point of view.

The pleasure of recovering my passport was so great that I wondered whether losing it in the first place had not been a most fortunate event. The Buddha taught that the cost of every pleasure was the pain that succeeded it, and therefore that the price of avoiding pain was the avoidance of pleasure. But could it not be that, by the same token, the reward of many pains (certainly not all of them, of course) is pleasure? Certainly, I had never appreciated the possession of my passport to even the tiniest extent by comparison with my appreciation of it after we found it again, an appreciation that approached ecstasy. I remember also the pleasure I experienced when the crisis of viral pneumonia that I suffered as a young man was over. The crisis was terrible; the bed shook, and the bedding, including the mattress, was soaked through. But I knew beyond doubt the moment it was over that I was cured, that the illness would not return. And though I was still weak, even my weakness was delicious to me, a kind of bliss unknown to those who have never come through a crisis of pneumonia.

Is life more pain than pleasure? There can be no final answer. Not even an individual could provide an accounting until his life has been lived; and not even then, for his final assessment comes too late to be expressible and would in any case be too much colored by his last experiences to be objective. All that one can say is that pain and pleasure are intimately linked, and the possibility of the one implies the possibility of the other.


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