What do you do when you quit, not just your job, but most of your life? You can probably imagine how you would spend your time, but how do you organise it? Do you shave every morning and dress for dinner like an imperialist in the jungle? Do you set an alarm? Or do you just let the new routines distil over time from the unbounded chaos of your new existence?
The Anatomy of Norbiton is partly a description of the new order and the new structures [Norbiton: Ideal City] that emerged from the rubble of the old [both Accidental and Empirically Real Norbiton]. But I had no inkling of any of this when I quit my job, or in the months following. And so to provide myself with some new co-ordinates by which I could situate myself, I found myself using the Classical distinction between otium and negotium (disengagement from and engagement with the world, respectively; see glossary) to rough out the zones of my life, give it some sort of broad form: like scratching out the perimeter of a new city in the dry earth with a pair of oxen and a plough.
I should also note, however, that, day to day and less grandiloquently, I gave my life structure and order by watching a lot of Star Trek. Or rather, watching all if it. The Original Series (TOS), The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), Voyager, Enterprise. All of it, in order, episode 1 to episode 727.
Sometimes you just find structure lying around.
Clarke accuses me of over-subtlety. He snorts at my distinctions, between Accidental Norbiton and Empirically Real Norbiton, and Norbiton: Ideal City; between failure and the Failed Life; between otium and negotium.
And while I disagree, believing an accurate taxonomy to be a form of understanding, my fresh distinctions are admittedly rooted in my confusion.
The six months I passed after quitting my job – the Star Trek months - I thought of at the time as a period of otium. I see now it was, more accurately, desidia (idleness). But if I emerged (at the inception of the Ideal City) from desidia directly into negotium, did that mean that I had sidestepped otium entirely? And how then to characterise my working life? Pigrizia? Accidia? Torpor Negligentiae?
And if I need to distinguish between laziness, idleness, and negligent torpor, should I not also distinguish between the acedia of the scholastics and the more melancholy, more graceful accidia of Petrarch?
In short, the more leisure (vacatio) I have, the more time I spend filleting and anatomising its body.
You can see why I was confused, even if you can’t see why I was confused. Perhaps Clarke has a point.
The Star Trek months were, psychically speaking, a necessary idleness, an uncoiling, not unlike sitting motionless in the woods, waiting for woodland life to reassert itself, one squirrel at a time. I set no limits and had no expectations.
Part of the matter which was taking form was a tendency, on my part, to schizoid retreat. It was a tendency to which, in quitting my job, I gave full rein.
Schizoid has nothing to do with schizophrenic, apart from the etymology. As I understand it, it is characterised by a pronounced preference for your own company.
Carl Jung, psychologist and noted schizoid, allowed himself to fantasise a room in a tower on an island (a fantasy he partly realised in his lakeside tower dwelling at Bollingen, his "confession of faith in stone"); you reached the room through a trapdoor in the floor which could only be locked or opened from the inside. You would go up into your study, shut the trapdoor, and enjoy the silence, for days and weeks and months if you remembered to bring enough tins of pemmican with you.
In my own case it was sufficient merely not to answer the door or the phone. No one wanted to bother me anyway. I spent twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two hours a day in my room, and felt wholly unconstrained. If you do not rub up against people or the obligations which people entail, you do not notice your own discontents. It is the shoe that pinches the foot, not the other way around. Allow your life to splay out over a boundless inner space and, assuming you are not troubled by the infinite blandness of being and do not crave or require the presence of others to remind you that you exist, then your life will find its own level.
Which brings me to Star Trek. A friend from work, a paranoid Irish anarchist history lecturer called Irvine Brearley leant me the DVDs, box by box, after I left the university. I watched all 80 episodes of Kirk and Spock and then all 184 episodes of Picard and Riker, then spooled through the movies which he also had on DVD. By this time I had started downloading Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the spin-off series, and then Star Trek: Voyager. And then Enterprise, the cauterisation of which after season four left me vaguely grateful, as though for a medical procedure.
It was towards the end of this powerful initiation that I met Clarke. He says of my Star Trek habit that it was the result of not being allowed to play enough as a child. He said that the fact I was an academic (a failed academic, I reminded him), that I had probably had academic parents (not so), that they had probably made me do my homework; all of this confirmed his hypothesis: that the play instinct had become etiolated in me, and quitting my job meant nothing more to me than playtime.
But there is a bit more (or perhaps I mean a bit less) to it than that. I realised through watching Star Trek that the great tragedy of my life is that it has not taken place in Space. Nowhere like Space, I should think, for indulging your existentials. My Star Trek episode, in other words, was not about escape, but about the imaginative play of the schizoid in my soul.
I think of it like this. You could fit out a ship for a five-year journey, and glide through space, hidden and protected by the whole apparatus of shields and cloaks and sensors and phasers and quantum torpedoes. In the last episode of Star Trek: Voyager the ship is fitted with something called ablative armour – purloined from The Future - which seems to make it impervious to everything.
And then there’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where there is talk of a Starfleet prototype phased cloaking device, whereby a ship and its contents would not merely be invisible but would be fractionally out of phase with normal space-time, and would be able to pass through solid matter.
I’d have all of that. Imagine the serenity.
And so it was that I sat in my apartment drinking tea, reading whatever it occurred to me to read, watching Star Trek, talking to no one. As an existence it was happy, in the sense of fortunate: I had plenty of time to sit and think. I was master of my own hours; there was no imperative to stir myself. It was like waiting for the sun to go nova.
When this otium, this prolonged vita contemplativa, came to an end, I was surprised. At a certain point in your life you imagine, for the most part correctly, that all of its key elements are now assembled: you have met all of the important people you will ever know, you will not generally surprise yourself with unknown abilities or character traits, you know yourself professionally and socially, it is too late to learn a new skill such that it will be life-defining and not merely an ornament, a hobby; and so on.
The seismic shocks of experience can strike at any time – someone might die, or a bank fail, or a flood come – and change the balance of elements irrevocably. But these are predominantly negative events, removing blocks and spars from your stock of building material. New constructive elements or principles or technologies do come along from time to time, but any new element that is added will be brought within the powerful gravitational system of what already is. All that remains is to shuffle things around, hoping perhaps for cabalistic enlightenment if you are an optimist, otherwise merely passing the time and reflecting on what has been.
I see now, however, that my period of otium, in removing as it had the great delirium of work from my life, had not just cleared ground per se but had cleared ground that someone would sooner or later want to build on – perhaps me.
There would came a point, in other words, where I needed to enter the world again. Just that. Enter the world and take my station. Dock with the Enterprise and report to the bridge. Keep my schizoid ship ready to sail in one of the cargo bays, perhaps, in case I was required to make a quick exit, but take my station nonetheless.
The end of those six months marked the laying of the first stones of the Ideal City, as will be related, but that does not mean that I had formulated a plan. Rather, I merely harboured a hope that, in the course of whatever time remained to me I would be able to map the complex geometries of my life – no more complex, I should say, than anyone else’s; that, I would be able to lay down, as Yourcenar’s Stoic Hadrian has it, not a philosophy by which to live, but rather a coherent cluster of techniques with which to exist.
Hospitality at its most rudimentary is a form of pragmatism rather than a duty or a virtue. It offers a contractual guarantee of your safety and freedoms, not the lure of warmth.
It is on these terms that we welcome you to the Anatomy of Norbiton, portal or gateway to the Ideal City.
Homer, it has been noted, uses the cycle of hospitality as one of his repeating tropes - one of the rooms in his oral memory space, if you like. His anti-example of hospitality (and of civility) is Polyphemus and his fellow Cyclopes, groping around out there on the margins of civilisation. Here is Pope’s translation:
The land of Cyclops first; a savage kind,
Nor tam'd by manners, nor by laws confin'd:
Untaught to plant, to turn the glebe and sow,
They all their products to free nature owe.
The soil untill'd a ready harvest yields,
With wheat and barley wave the golden fields;
Spontaneous wines from weighty clusters pour,
And Jove descends in each prolific shower.
By these no statutes and no rights are known,
No council held, no monarch fills the throne,
But high on hills or airy cliffs they dwell,
Or deep in caves whose entrance leads to hell.
Each rules his race, his neighbour not his care,
Heedless of others, to his own severe.
book IX 119-132