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Disorganization Man.

On Richard Berengarten’s The Manager
A Fortnightly Critical Dossier.

.

By ANTHONY WALTON.

The time is fast going by for the great personal or individual achievement of any one man standing alone […]. And the time is coming when all great things will be done by that type of cooperation in which each man performs the function for which he is best suited, each man preserves his individuality and is supreme in his particular function, and each man at the same time loses none of his originality and proper personal initiative, and yet is controlled by and must work harmoniously with many other men.

—Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (140-141)

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

—William Blake

IN THE FALL of 1982, my college roommate began his first professional job as a chemical engineer at General Electric. At the time it seemed the most uneventful of beginnings, another of my college friends venturing into what we called the real world, finding work at a big corporation; though this also seemed a certain coup, as GE was the most robust and stable of blue chip companies. He would be able to learn his trade, assume greater degrees of responsibility, and over time be paid adequately to support his dream of providing a solid upper-middle class foundation for a large family.

In fact, my friend had stepped, without knowing it, straight into an epochal shift in corporate management technique and practice. General Electric, just the previous year, had hired a new chief executive, unknown to all but company insiders: John F. “Jack” Welch. Over the next two decades Welch would become world-famous and would implement ways of managing large corporations that would change the way in which almost all institutions in the United States, Europe, and eventually the world were governed.

Welch’s innovations would include severe engineering- and math-based “rationalizations” of every possible work process: the relentless application of computer business systems and a ruthless and unforgiving financial pressure and control placed on all aspects of the corporation, including the demand for unending cost-saving and profit increases and the ultimatum that all GE business units be number one or number two in their respective fields or face sale or closure. As I watched my friend’s career unfold, moving from plant to plant within GE, then to Allied Signal to find a more humane work environment (though this company was then promptly purchased by the rapidly expanding GE) and Boston Scientific, I began to understand that I, a writer and academic, was witnessing something new. I did not yet understand that this was the culmination of a century-long revolution in the perception of what work was and how it should be performed.

Richard Berengarten was writing a poem that would give a sense of the human cost of not only the new way of doing business, but also of an entirely new way of seeing the world.

At the same time, a writing professor of mine had begun composing a book-length poem that would evolve into a more than two-decades-long project, a poem that would help define his career and would ultimately have an uncanny confluence with my roommate’s difficult career path. Richard Berengarten (then Burns) was writing a poem that would delineate and give a sense of the human cost of not only the new way of doing business in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but also of an entirely new way of seeing the world. It is a poetic accomplishment that I believe will only loom larger as time passes and we come to understand just what has happened in our corporations, hospitals, universities, and in fact, in almost every institution at every level of society across the globe.

IT HAS BEEN posited by Francis Jones, among others, that Berengarten’s The Manager is a great poem of the Thatcher period of English history: “The protagonist of The Manager […] despite being both product and victim of a superficially British every-man-for-himself late-Thatcherism, is also the European Everyman” (Jones 287). To extend and build upon this insight, it can also be said that Berengarten has written a great poem of “Welch-ism,” that revolution in business and finance that first took hold in the U.S. during the early 1980s, as well as of “Taylorism,” Frederick Winslow Taylor’s earlier theory and practice of scientific management upon which Welch-ism was built. As mentioned above, Welch-ism can be defined as the never-ending rationalization, automation and financialization of all processes within a given organization. These streamlined and accelerated work processes contributed to the massive technological innovations of the late 20th century and so to the overabundance of material goods, information, and opportunity (for travel, sex and economic accumulation) of today’s postmodern era. Berengarten, in his tracking of Charles Bruno’s loss of self, has explored the psychic effects of this post-Welch, postmodern overabundance, and the incorporation of important contemporary ideas of “the saturated self,” to use a term coined by social psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen. The Manager uniquely illustrates, through its examination of both the work and personal realities of today’s world, why so many citizens of the West (and increasingly of Asia) feel overwhelmed in their professional and private lives, at times to the point of despair.

Early in the poem, we learn that the protagonist, Bruno, has recently been promoted or “moved up. Fresh blood just what’s wanted and so much the better if you’re making a bit of a go at it” (10). But rather than excitement, what Bruno seems to feel in his new middle-management position is frustration, if not disgust:

How I piss myself off. Being so polite to them. The Directors and
Deputy-Directors. The Customers Clients End-Users. The Strat-
egists Tacticians Negotiators. (14)

His list of work positions continues for three full stanzas:

……………………………………..[…] The Specialists and Expert Con-
sultants. The Marketers and Marketeers. The Banker-Member-
Racketeers. The Arbitrators and Advisers and Researchers and
Developers. […] (14)

This kind of work-place specialization (along with its wealth of titles) was born of the innovations of the engineer and industrial theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), who declared, “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first” (7). Taylor’s system is principally built around the idea of “rationalization,” or the mathematically-defined pursuit of efficiency in every single process by eliminating every possible “unnecessary” worker and piece of equipment. It distills the activities of any office or factory (with the exception of the very highest management jobs) into small enough steps—with highly focused designations and titles—that the necessary work could be performed by any individual. Rather than being reliant on the talents (and cooperation) of creative thinkers or craftsmen who were independent and able to perform a variety of skilled functions, labor could be arranged in simple enough portions that anyone could do the work.

These are the “Admen and the Admin-Men,” as Bruno complains, “Who with almost no exception see themselves as // Models of Efficiency” (14). Bruno feels the increasing pressure of Welch-ism as work processes around the globe continue to be rationalized and accelerated:

[…] all these Paladins of Global Bullshit
..have to keep haring around faster faster
..faster in order not to collapse not sink not
..drown on the spot. As if the whole world
..were a quagmire they were shit-scared of
..getting muddied in. (14)

This new workplace clearly does not, in Bruno’s experience, lead to Taylor’s idealistically theorized “development of each man to his greatest efficiency and prosperity” (140).

Richard Ellsworth, a professor of management at Claremont Graduate School, offers this insight into why a middle manager’s career can be so disheartening:

Welch has created a cadre of professionals and […] has told them that GE will make them better professionals, more marketable professionals, and has subjected them to intense pressures to perform. But he has not given them a sense of loyalty to the organization, to some higher goal of the organization. He is still hammering away at being number one, competing and winning, but what he may not realize is that the message to managers is “look out for yourself, win at any cost, do whatever you have to do”. (Lowe 168)

Bruno’s ongoing complaints echo this sense of a hollow core. He describes his colleagues as psychically lobotomized:

……………………………………………………………[…] All carrying on non-stop

As if the top halves of their heads were permanently sliced off.
..All
..behaving as if Pure Dosh were the Total Be-All and End-All.
..Like Hey You Guys I Mean. We All Have The Right. To
..Survive. Make Ends Meet. (14-15)

He groups himself with them when he comments, “But why are they – or we – All such arseholes?” (15).

Bruno, like most middle managers who have identified with the top, seems surprised to find himself under so much pressure:

My name? Homo aspirans. Incipient man. With warts
..on my hands. As I drive in and out of this city.
..And from one city to another. Across dangerous
..deserts between fixed appointments. Wildernesses
..between known addresses. Mined No Man’s
..Lands between filling stations.

If I go on at this rate I’m going to bust a gut. (46)

But this is the new world, the new corporation, and he is expected to produce or accede to his own mortality. Even as he endures mounting work pressure, he is aware that he is replaceable, one part of a fragmented whole with nothing unique to contribute. Sitting in a management meeting, he thinks: “Whatever needs saying will get said by someone or other. Sooner or later. I very much doubt whether it will ever be me” (73).

The business revolutions of Taylor and Welch and the constantly humming machines and technological innovations that followed have created a consumerist culture, a proliferation of labels, and an overabundance of opportunity…

Bruno’s work life is one driving force of his disaffection and disintegration; it is the transfiguring force he struggles against in his search for redemption. But there are other, equally significant strands of postmodern life at work in The Manager. While Bruno experiences effacement in his profession, the society he lives in is also undergoing a seismic shift in terms of the amount of information and the sheer number of choices the individual psyche is subject to and responsible for. The business revolutions of Taylor and Welch and the constantly humming machines and technological innovations that followed have created a consumerist culture, a proliferation of labels, and an overabundance of opportunity that Bruno struggles to manage in his personal and emotional lives.

This wealth of goods and opportunity at first seems comforting on a personal level to Bruno. In an early love poem to his wife, he marvels at “[o]ur evenings together” as a kind of “economic miracle” (8). The couple watches television on Sunday nights, “a one-way window that never opens”, showing a great range of programs including

………………………………………[…] Songs of Praise (which this week
..comes to us beamed down from the parish of Bishop’s Cleaving

With a final five-minute appeal for the Distressed Mortgage Hold-
..er’s Fund,

a show about African life “state subsidized for our educational benefit”, and

[…] our favourite Late-Night Classic, The Sabbatarian
[]…Spinechiller,
.timed to prime us with suitably resonant nightmares

For the onset of our workweek. (8)

This variety of pre-packaged experience readily available for viewing in the living room seems to offer a kind of liberation not only from work but also from the burdens of the self—more specifically, the Romantic view of the self as defined by social psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen, “one that attributes to each person characteristics of personal depth: passion, soul, creativity, and moral fiber” (6). Bruno almost gleefully states that with television’s offerings so neatly packaged “for our regular Emotional feastings monitored by digital watch, who needs Freud, needs Guilt” (8).

But when society’s abundant goods and labels (which Berengarten at times highlights through his use of capital letters) next present themselves in the previously-mentioned section (Eight) of Bruno’s early work complaints—“The Directors and Deputy-Directors. The Customers Clients End-Users” (14)—it is with a more ominous tone, and this tone continues in Section Twelve, depicting the Topsett real estate prospectus. With the increased salary of his new managerial position, Bruno seems to consider “moving up” to a new neighborhood, one the prospectus touts as offering “Self-Ownership With A Difference.” Topsett’s “Residences” are advertised as being “uniquely and individually styled” (21). But as the document continues, we see how much of it is boilerplate, containing the same language common throughout the real estate business and, it’s implied in Topsett’s sale of “Self-Ownership”, the same dreams common to all:

_______________________________________………………………………….._____[…] both pastoral
and metropolitan benefits […] guaranteed to meet the widest variety of specialist and
day-to-day requirements ranging from super pied-à-terre penthouses, studios and
condominiums for enterprising singles

To 4- and 5-bedroomed homes both detached and semi with spaciously enclosed
private gardens front and rear. (21)

The prospectus concludes with a daunting list of security precautions—“CCTV burglarproof monitoring system including wall-to-wall emergency search-beams wired to your own internal alarm panel”—and of “unambiguously worded notices” placed throughout the property to discourage outsiders—“Private Keep Out No Entry No Parking Reserved for Residents Only Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted Guard Dogs Patrol These Grounds” (21-22). This intense focus on security speaks not just to what is walled out of Topsett, but even more to what is walled in, a pervasive fear that is in itself a kind of confinement for the families huddled inside these narrowly-defined dreams.

Labels and jargon shape not only Bruno’s work and home life, but also most of his interpersonal relationships. His conversation at a bar with an acquaintance early in the poem consists almost entirely of ad-speak and platitudes: “Try one of these antacids. New stuff. Swiss or German. Take two each night // Regularly mind. Works wonders you know” is followed closely by “Wilkie’s not a bad stick. […] Always on time with his orders // And always sticks by the book” (10). Even the consolations he offers to a friend in marriage trouble—a man whose wife Bruno also happens to be sleeping with—become mired in jargon and cliché. In one of the most personal of conversations, in the coded confidences shared between men, intimacy has been evacuated by readymade language:

You are a true blue brick Tony and she knows which side her
bread’s buttered on. […]

[…] As she dreams of your large lawn and studies
double-glazing. Well indeed you both manage

Mortgage estate and marriage. Your joint account in Prospect Natio-
nal also comes in handy. As does your Maplan Policy.

Providing her shelf of huiles and crèmes in recently pink-tiled
bathroom. With perfect patterned matching suite

Of shower bidet and vanity cabinet.

[…]

No she will never leave you. One hundred percent reliable. You’ve
invested well there boy. (38)

This kind of fragmenting and crossing of vocabularies—the interweaving of the personal with the impersonal and even commonplace jargon—is tied by Kenneth J. Gergen directly to the sheer abundance of experiences afforded the individual by recent technological innovations. Cell phones, TV, omnipresent advertising, and the internet “saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien” (6). These pervasive voices don’t just affect the self, they overwhelm it such that “[t]he center fails to hold” (7). Gergen uses the term “vocabularies of the self” to track the history of this profoundly disruptive shift: from the 19th century romantic self of “depth […] and moral fiber,” the twentieth century witnessed a move towards a “modernist worldview” in which “the chief characteristics of the self reside not in the domain of depth, but rather in our ability to reason—in our beliefs, opinions, and conscious intentions” (6). This modernist stance is where Bruno seems to begin his journey at the outset of the poem, freed from a Romantic’s “Guilt” and with his seemingly rational and reasoned purposes of “moving up” in his work life and living situation.

But Bruno in fact exists at the crossroads of the modern and the postmodern, and his every attempt at self-starting towards a rational goal seems to devolve into disarray. “Social saturation,” notes Gergen, “furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become part of us and we of them” (6). Bruno’s dreams and experiences are not only his own but also those he’s viewed on TV, overheard in airport waiting rooms, and read about in marketing brochures or online. And amidst his constant busyness, he begins to suspect and question the omnipresent jargon shaping his work, his interpersonal relationships, and his very self-conception:

Hello. Hello. Are you really there. Is that really you. What is the good
of the traffic

The rushing to urgent meetings. The mortgages and bank loans. The
..research and the investments. The trees blossoming and fruiting.
The in-tray and the out.

The percentages and bids. The train journeys to and from work. The
car journeys to and from home. The gossip liasions secrets.
Mowing the growing grass.

The records signatures messages. The wavelengths and vibrations.
..(80)

Bruno’s fragmented musings enact—and relay—Gergen’s “incoherent and unrelated languages of the self,” a cacophonous polyphony. A work memo is directly followed by a personal (though jargon-filled) conversation, a conversation with a lover, a real estate prospectus. These alternating modes occur throughout, acting out Berengarten’s intention, as he commented in an interview about the poem, “to present a kaleidoscopic composition made up of many apparently separate parts of contemporary life” (Limburg: 20). This “kaleidoscope” could be seen as dazzling and liberating for the individuals who now have the freedom to explore and move between such varied realms of experience—but instead, Bruno (like many of us who live within this postmodern abundance) increasingly finds it confining, even deadening. We are, as Gergen writes, “pull[ed] […] in myriad directions, invit[ed] […] to play such a variety of roles that the very concept of an ‘authentic self’ with knowable characteristics recedes from view. The fully saturated self becomes no self at all” (6).

This disconcerting lack of coherent personhood is evocatively depicted towards the middle of the poem, when Bruno waits in the airport to pick up a client. Watching the crowd flowing through the entrance gate, Bruno comments on the

[…] variety of voices! Each the print of a Being – born,
breathing and unique. I mean how amazing how
fantastic to be a passer-by in Babel. (88)

But this brief glimpse of uniqueness and human diversity quickly devolves into commercial jargon as Bruno, reading the signs around him, continues,

[…] Let alone to

Fly Club Class! With Fast Track Ticketing and Use of Priority
..Lounge! To be a Passport-Carrying Member of the Commu-
..nity Of Cloud! (88)

Bruno’s next phrase, “Never upon This World had I known life had unleashed so many,” is an intriguing echo both of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (“I had not thought death had undone so many”), and Dante’s Inferno (“I should never have believed death had undone so many”). In this dazzling postmodern world, it is no longer “death,” but “life,” with its constant proliferation of voices, choices and labels, that leads to “oblivion”: to “this gate from the No-Man’s Land of infinite possibilities. All rapidly disappearing headlong into oblivion” (88).

Bruno has from the beginning sought to escape—and to humanly populate—his mechanized work and personal life with extra-marital affairs. Some of the most moving (and jargon-free) sections of the poem are aubades and glimpses of moments with lovers:

As she stripped she seemed to take off everything.
….Including death and memory.

[…]

All she kept on was her smile, until in haze, it haloed her, then
….swallowed us both, weightlessly. Her embrace, firm and
….yielding, was total as the touch of water. […]

[…] I fell, or soared, unforgetting, into precognition, into a
….storyless zone, before birth or conception. (31)

Affairs have been a theme if not a staple of modern literature from Madame Bovary through The Great Gatsby and the novels of John Updike. The essayist and novelist Edward Abbey offers one way of understanding this omnipresence of affairs in literature that aptly describes Bruno’s struggles against the confines of his world: “Modern men and women are obsessed with the sexual; it is the only realm of primordial adventure still left to most of us. Like apes in a zoo, we spend our energies on the one field of play remaining; human lives otherwise are pretty well caged in by the walls, bars, chains, and industrial culture” (Abbey: 22). On his way to one assignation, Bruno

………………………………………………….[…] glide[s] inside the stately
gates of Topsett. Destination Pamela. Maisonette 74. Gas Central
Heating Double Glazing and Own Private Veranda. Verandah. I
brake

………………………………..[…] Halt beneath sign RESERVED
FOR RESIDENTS ONLY. (24)

Though even in these temporary escapes, this breaching of boundaries, Bruno still often finds himself confined: Pamela greets him not with unbounded sexuality but with a string of platitudes:

[…] Terrif

To See You I’m perfectly Tickety Boo You Must Be Absolutely
….Chinkers How Ghastly Poor Duck You’re Frozen Just Guess
….What Happened In Town Today […] (25)

WHILE BRUNO’S AFFAIRS are an attempt to flee the pressures of the postmodern world, they are also, paradoxically, enabled by the very technologies that have created and sustained that world, most notably phones (mentioned throughout the poem) and transportation. Bruno is constantly physically on the move, whether it’s in his treks: “As I drive in and out of this city. And from one city to another. Across dangerous deserts between fixed appointments” (46); or taking a lover for a ride in an airplane: “[w]ind at ground level 15 knots. Around zero three zero and gusting a bit” (27); or having sex with a foreign client in a hotel room with “[g]rooved wood shutters and walls. […] Clothes everywhere. Her suitcase, my suitcase” (90). These kinds of peregrinations are defined by Kenneth Gergen as yet another aspect of the “saturated” self:

[…] the technologies of social saturation […] furnish invitations to incoherence. In a humdrum moment, the Vancouver tax accountant can pick up the phone and rekindle a relationship in St. Louis; within less than an hour the restless engineer can drive to a singles bar thirty miles away; on a tedious Friday a New Jersey executive can decide to fly to Tortola for the weekend. Through these and other means, one confronts myriad avenues pointing the way out of the immediate context. (173)

Bruno’s pursuit at various times of each of these escapes from “immediate context” complicates his difficulties at work and with his family because he is not paying attention.

As his affairs accrue in number, Bruno becomes more aware of the fleeting respite they provide: “This bed smells of Eleni Deirdre Jane. I wonder will they come again. Rest me in heart’s ease. Relieve my pain” (74). Not only is the relief the affairs offer Bruno just temporary, but they have a direct impact on his marriage, contributing to a series of bitter fights—“Your whole life’s One Big Act,” his wife accuses, “And you act as if you’re not pretending” (43)—and ultimately to her own infidelity and decision to leave him for another man.

GIVEN HIS GENERAL lack of attentiveness to his wife, it surprises the reader—and, it seems, Bruno himself—what a crushing blow her departure proves to be. He has been much more dependent on her than he’s realized. Looking at a photograph after their separation, he reflects:

[…] There is no corner of anything does not
___remind me of you. You have locked your image inside me

And thrown away the key. I wear it under my skin. I cannot
___dismiss or banish it. I rot and shrink in your shadow. (81)

The loss of his wife also means the loss of his children, who will be moving away with her. In a plangent section (Fifty-Five) about flying a kite with his son shortly before they leave, he registers this understanding:

…………………..[…] Oh a day like this is heaven

Except for the dead under grass. Whom always I hear weeping.
__And except for the children of the living dead. Who cry out

Now it’s my turn Dad. (92)

On a final trip to town with his daughter, another moment both lovely and painful occurs when she picks out

A little silver locket, unengraved, unadorned. The kind of thing
__I’d have gone for too. […] Then we drove

Back to the house, full of her mother’s boxes. Cleared the living
room table and sorted through old photos. Selected one of
each of us. […] And carefully

Stuck the images in their silver spaces. (93)

Bruno has, for much of the poem, simply been drifting along the prevailing currents of the postmodern world in his work, home, and love life. Though he has occasionally railed against these currents to himself (“This is no damn good. I will not just go on doing this” [46]), the loss of his family is the first personal blow that spurs him to take action. In Section Fifty-Seven, immediately following his last day with his daughter, he refuses to submit to a mandated Human Resources evaluation, the sort commonplace in the Taylor/Welch business world. Not only does he refuse, he fires off what might be considered the first rough outline of a manifesto:

That yr explicit instructions in each case to ‘mark the statement that is closest
……to your opinion and the statement that is furthest from your opinion’ are
……entirely meaningless to me bearing in mind that not one single one of the
……aforesaid statements even remotely coincides with anything I think now or
……have thought ever or am likely to think in future

And these all being equally alien to me my first subjective response was to
……experience acute feelings of guilt confusion and fear followed swiftly by
……serious moral and ethical misgivings about the whole exercise combined
……with a sense of absurdity which then concatenated into Total Outrage. I
……therefore regret that I decline to submit myself to this test. (95)

But breaking away from previous patterns of thought, behavior and even self-conception at work and in his personal life won’t be easy. Standing outside the prevailing social currents means that Bruno is, in profound and unaccustomed ways, standing on his own, and in this new solitude he finds himself increasingly plagued by thoughts of mortality: “There go the dead again. Wailing. Constantly I hear them. Even when not listening. Even in this blind side of the partition wall” (96). He mentions feeling a “despair” he can only partly lift himself from

………………….[…] by saying No to myself. No I shout at
shutters brick walls drainpipes gutters. […]

……………………………….[…] No at signs barking Private
No Entry One Way Keep Out.

If No could change history I’d dial God and tell him my
If No. Hey You there God I’d tell him. No to this pile of
If rubbish. No to tomorrow’s promises lies the same as
If today’s. (99)

After the end of his marriage, a second personal blow that pushes Bruno still further from his previous modes of being comes with the death of a close friend by suicide, “a green plastic garden hose taped from exhaust into air duct” (102). The friend’s suicide note holds uncomfortable echoes of Bruno’s own subjective state: “for what I am about to do nobody else is responsible other than me. i just couldn’t take any more pain” (102). Bruno’s sleeplessness and suffering after this become more pronounced: “Sleep is a monster who tortures before devouring. […] // The telephone rings and rings. I will not answer it. Though it says, You’re not dead yet but we’re waiting for you baby” (103). On another sleepless night, he feels

Damnedness and madness. Higher onto sleephill I trycrawl. I cry-
trawl

Calfing in my own blood. But never itch to the top. I will I want I
….wish I need I fail. Three a.m. (121)

A doctor he later turns to for help diagnoses

………………[…] a psychosomatic condition called
historylessness, which is defined as total lack of
realization and perspective

On the necessary political situation prevailing
….through all sectors of the masses, as well as
….in classes professional and managerial.
(125)

This “condition” is a striking echo of Gergen’s saturated self, with its unrooted drift through the present, its essential incoherence and “ever-shifting, concatenating, and contentious currents of being […] bear[ing] the burden of an increasing array of oughts, of self-doubts and irrationalities” (Gergen: 80).

Lacking a cohesive and coherent present, Bruno finds himself turning increasingly toward the past. Childhood memories have been mentioned earlier in the poem—as when Bruno recalls playing hooky from school (34) and being a victim of bullying (78)—but in The Manager’s last sections these memories reach a conscious, deliberate pitch, acquiring the feeling of a quest as Bruno delves for meaning in ways that will ultimately open him to other modes of human understanding:

I have spent much of my time looking for a small piece of joy I seem to
….have lost somewhere. Maybe in early childhood.

Like the jigsaw piece I dropped there. And it wedged between floor-
….boards. And trying to prise it out I pushed it further in

[…]

………[…] Memories erode my vision. And I am sick with longing

To stride back into that house. (104)

He later thinks through other lost childhood objects, a “crayoned paper clown”, a toy soldier that sank to the bottom of a pond, and “silver cufflinks inherited from my father. Gone AWOL” (106). Though none of these, he realizes, can give him now the “perfection” they once seemed to hold:

[…] Aren’t you there, I call. Angels. Won’t you please come
…..in now. But my line to the dead has been permanently
…..disconnected. No sound comes back from the pillow or
…..interceding dark. (107)

A visit to his childhood companion, his sister, now a resident “[u]nder semi-narcosis” in a psychiatric institution, likewise brings no comfort: of her electroconvulsive therapy, he writes, “A garden is my sister. Her head enclosed in barbed wire” (120).

Memories of the more recent past, with his wife, represent another kind of “perfection” that Bruno feels he’s lost and tries to relive or recover through a shifting combination of recollections and dreams. “What I have lost is perpetual and won’t open flower or flesh to me,” he muses. In memory, she’s become an ideal:

Hey, I call. Come back. You I glimpse through summerhaze. You
……friend you darling you comrade. You I once knew better than
….. now I know myself. You I trusted completely

Soul on my tongue tip. You, other. Complement, revealed. Blown
……presence of flowering gardens. Grey eyes flecked green. Face
……half forgotten. My dusty winged angel […] (105)

He takes pleasure in remembering one intimate moment of “pure perfection” when

[…] it’s May and noon

And we have bathed and dressed. And you’ve performed sunny
….ablutions. With soap oil powder creams. And brush comb and
….drier. And smell and look quite divine.

And white blossoms blow through our windows. And the black-
….bird brags in our hedge. And bluebells and wild pansies bloom
….richly in the woods. And tulips in our garden. (110)

But these memories can’t bring the lasting comfort, meaning, and personal cohesion Bruno craves: his dreamlike recollection suddenly shifts with the dreadful yet matter-of-fact logic of nightmare to the memory of her driving away with another man: “He opens the passenger door you climb in sit down fasten your safety belt he walks round the bonnet to take his driver’s seat” (111). Bruno’s insistence that “[t]his isn’t real” brings him back to the stark reality of his loss: “But you just can’t do this, I burble. It can’t be true. It’s not happening. We’re everything together. What shall I do without you” (111).

After a visit to a doctor offers no solace—Bruno is told that his suffering is “quite a common malaise” and that “[t]he only cure really is patience” (125)— he fires off a memo to his company’s Managing Director and Board of Directors that could be read either as a passionate outcry and call for help or a deliberate attempt to break from the company (or both). Bruno’s memo mirrors his desperate attempts to integrate the widely varied strands of his postmodern existence in its blurring of the lines between personal, work, and crime TV (pop culture) diction:

With reference aforementioned item Joy believed by me personally mislaid
…..somewhere in early childhood regret cannot state accurately time date
…..place of loss or mode or exact circumstances thereof

Whether by disappearance metamorphosis theft burglary or other form of
…..misappropriation by noxious agency or person or persons unknown with or
…..without prejudice or other unspecified cause whatsoever

…..[…]

I have filled in no claim forms filed no police reports made no complaints
…..signed no petitions but carried on as usual attempting without
…..misdemeanor or disturbance to keep my affairs in order (126-7)

He specifically details the personal suffering he’s experienced recently in his search for meaning:

Recurrent partial amnesia absence pain rancour rage paranoia depression
…….despair despondency grief guilt regret fear of death of dying loneliness
…….numbness and all their common concomitants and physical

Symptoms and syndromes in their whole range of manifestations. (127)

There is something deeply poignant in the fact that, given both his personal breakdown and the fragmentation of the postmodern society around him, Bruno may feel that there is no authority to appeal to for help—no family, friendship, government, medical or religious ties—other than the corporation. He seems, in one reading, and despite all his dissatisfactions at work, to want to continue with the company—the very same company which has, with its Taylor-Welch practices of minimized and interchangeable work roles and ever-increasing pressure to perform (and conform), been a major contributing factor in his disintegration:

_____________________________________[…] Should
this information involve contract cancellations tender withdrawals
or suspension of or hindrance to any aspects soever of our hitherto

Cordial and mutually beneficial collaborations please advise
__forthwith. I hope however adequate alternative or failing that at
__least surrogate arrangements can be made for satisfaction of all
__concerned parties. (127)

His memo, however, with its urgent emotion and self-disclosure, has no place in the modern corporate world. Bruno is now basically viewed as a part that’s been used up and is in need of replacement (a la Taylor’s Scientific Management): the only official response we see from the company is a memo from a colleague to Bruno’s boss stating that “Bruno appears to have gone bananas,” defining him as a “problem” to be “contained” (134).

BUT BRUNO, IN his essential humanity, is something more than this—and his efforts in the last sections of the poem to reclaim that more and an integral self from the mire of Gergen’s “saturated self,” which “is no self at all,” elevate Berengarten’s poem to the level of epic. If the poem’s first sections, in which Bruno allows himself to be tossed about by the prevailing winds of the postmodern world in his work and personal lives, could be compared to the Inferno—remember the reference to Dante’s gates of Hell as Bruno watches the travelers at the airport’s arrival gate (88)—then Bruno’s profound experience of suffering in the poem’s middle sections has its echo in the Purgatorio. Literary critic Francis Fergusson states that “The Purgatorio, a transition, presents the endless forms of moral change” (5). As Dante’s pilgrim travels through Purgatory, his

reasoned concepts never quite fit, and he is troubled, even in his
rationalizing, by sensuous images of undecipherable significance; by
sympathetic awareness of other persons, by a vague desire for light and
freedom of another order, and by memories of his unregenerate state when
his soul, in the innocence of childhood and with an animal-like unity of
thought and feeling, moved simply “toward what delights it.” (63)

Bruno’s search parallels Dante’s trek in his ransack of childhood memories for lost significances, the failure of his rationalizations, and the language of longing in his restlessness, and in his nightmares.

The mechanized neoliberal turn in the economy leads, among other things, to growing inequality, the continuing liberalization of sexual mores, even among many believers…

But Bruno’s ultimate redemption will come not through the highly structured, clearly comprehended order and meaning of the Paradiso: this postmodern late capitalist world we inhabit in the industrial West operates as a post-religious world, even considering the ongoing prominent role evangelicals, Catholics, Anglicans, orthodox and Zionist Jews and other conservative believers (including conservative Muslims and Hindus) play in those societies. The mechanized neoliberal turn in the economy leads, among other things, to growing inequality, the continuing liberalization of sexual mores, even among many believers, and the dwindling religious participation of the young, all of which contribute to the de-structuring of private life and the unmooring of the individual from guiding institutional practices and beliefs. But Bruno, in learning to embrace the very small but real fragments of beauty contained in the places, objects, and people directly around him, is taking a step—or more—back toward religion. “Although pain be endless,” he muses,

This seedling on my windowsill turns constantly towards the
….light. Its green moment is blessed. And weightless the
….light’s true quality. There is order in being.

I wish I could grasp it forever, this glory the real world
….inflects. I lose it then find it then lose it. It will not come
….ever again like this. Ever. (146)

His road towards personal redemption is first glimpsed, ironically, through an affair. This post-marital liaison, however, seems different from—and measurably more mature than—the others. It comes about as an acknowledgment of, rather than an attempt to escape from, life’s burdens: “After betrayal and after bereavement. After nights of panic and weeping. And their small hours spent rotting and shrinking in shadows” (129). Bruno openly acknowledges his “loss and despair” to this lover and she invites him to join her for a quiet weekend that sharply contrasts with many of his more exalted escapades to date (in McMansions, planes, and foreign hotel rooms): “a cheap B&B. I know we’re both broke but what does that matter. I mean something simple. Nothing too fancy” (129). Bruno isn’t seeking the thrill of conquest he earlier enjoyed (as when one lover moaned, “It has never been like this before not with anyone else before” [20]), but accepting his own limits, accepting that “Now middle age is real” (129). He finds that this letting go of his own grand self-conception frees him unexpectedly to see

………….[…] new ways to live

………………..[…] I rejoice in the beauty of children and young
folk. Hope blooms through their pores. From their speech. In their
eyes. And I can consent, unjealous, to this. (129)

Bruno takes deep pleasure during this weekend retreat in a small side adventure with a guide to a limestone cavern:

Smiling we held hands and followed him back into day, through
….rank moss and fern smells to leaves, grass and light. And,
….south past the quarry, drove to the moor edge. Freed of
….ghosts. Identifying our shadows. (130)

Bruno has much more to struggle through, however, before he can learn to embrace this new found freedom. First and foremost, he has unfinished business with the company that’s shaped and defined so much of his life experience. His weekend away is followed directly by what seems to be an attempt to get himself back into a “work” frame of mind, a list of reminders of all the ways in which, by the strict metrics of the Taylor-Welch corporate state, he has

__________________________.[…] kept my affairs in
Norder. Observed control and decorum in all matters public.
Never asked for perks. Not been too pushy. Driven within
limits. Discreetly concealed expenses in legitimate tax
concessions

Kept spreadsheets straight. Kept the in-tray clear. Infallibly
…..chosen the right tie.

[…]

Carefully consulted with colleagues immediately senior and
_-junior. Never rushed implementation after making and taking
__decisions. (132)

He has additionally worked to

_____________________[…] show a fitting concern for
—-staff

Motivation morale and welfare. Foster competition. Encourage
—–long-term loyalties. Maintain corporate efficiency at
optimum not maximum output. (133)

Following this self-pep talk, he makes a series of attempts to contact his superiors and colleagues at work, presumably still hoping to keep his position there. He’s either unwilling or unable to let the company go.

But he finds himself shut out at every turn: it’s clear that some sort of company-wide directive regarding him has been sent out in the wake of his earlier “bananas” memo: “All the people I need to talk to seem to be unavailable” (135). He’s given an increasingly ludicrous series of excuses:

—————————…——————————[…] They’ve
just popped out of the office. They’ve been moved on to another
department. […]

[…]

They’re engaged in risk-assessment and crisis-control alternatives.
–.They’re formulating and calculating effective mission statements.
[…]They’re installing emergency pass-codes with
instant voice-recognition based on individualized idiolects. (135)

Bruno tries repeatedly, moving from “Informal Insistence Mode. Into offhand downhill preambling and stylishly flattened freewheeling. Into upbeat typecast Yah-speak,” but finds that “however I persist, my inflections bear no fruit” (137). He feels humiliated in the extreme: “I want just to crawl away in unheralded surrender, hide myself in the loo with a furtive filter tip, dissolve forever, unnoticed” (137).

Looking in the mirror shortly after this humiliation, he experiences self-disgust and a series of self-revelations that go far beyond disgust:

……………………………………………[…] It isn’t because you hate
yourself.

It’s just that you don’t enjoy it. You don’t hate yourself hard
enough. (140-1)

Questioning the “hyped up hypocrite” he sees in the glass leads him to directly question the very meaning of self and identity in a way he never has before, to question the

_____[…] Time-Honoured Tradition Which Insists You
In Have To Have A Story

In order to function at all. Time, Buddy Boy, you realised, a
In story is a fiction and life is the story and the story of the life
In is a fiction of a fiction made by none other than sweet ole
In you not merely in order to live the damn thing, let alone die
In it or at least die in it, but

So you can become your own father, i.e. Manager of Your
–.Self. (141)

This moment represents either a call to responsibility—to the need to stop relying on the ready-made jargon of the Taylor-Welch industrialized corporate world and to actually manage yourself, create your own identity—or a call to freedom, the recognition that any identity, any assumed self, is a kind of fiction.

But these freighted existential meditations are, intriguingly, followed in the very next section of the poem by a list of small, concrete objects—food—and a quiet family moment. Bruno’s Aunt Mimi has just died, leaving behind an overflowing freezer:

…________________________[…] Frozen bones for stock.
….Stews for a rainy day. Half a kilo of homemade meatballs
flavoured with oregano. Her favourite apple pie, heavily
spiced with cloves. (142)

Bruno finds himself humbled by this wealth of food and the quiet, modest, caring life it represents:

And we who have inherited, what should we do with this
__goodness? Sling it away, waste it? Bury it all with her? Or
__eat it, remembering her, since she with her love prepared it? (142)

He turns away from his previous irony, self-disgust and self-regarding reflections on “The Logo-centric Tradition and Its Viability and Implications” (141) to embrace her “Five white cut loaves. Two mini-baguettes. Boiled gefilte fish. Hunk of salt beef. Unused packets of crumpets,” and to call others to a family meal and prayer. This is his first open acknowledgment in the poem of his Jewish heritage, and may represent a desire to move away from “historylessness” by accepting all aspects of his past as well as his present:

Come, let us feast together, family and friends. For what we are
about
..–.to receive, may the Lord make us jewly thankful. Baruch ata
Adonai,
Elohanu melech ha’olom, ha’motsi lechem min ha aretz. (142)

This section’s focus on an acceptance of limits and the small, good things close at hand builds on the quiet pleasure Bruno first experienced on his weekend retreat to a “cheap B&B.” And the poem’s next section, Ninety, furthers this self-humbling with its plea to an unspecified other—“my cousin, my sister, my unregistered beloved” (143). Many of Bruno’s previous calls to an “other” have involved a kind of grand demand—for “love perfect passion abandonment possession,” for “complete self-surrender to essence of obsession” (26); or again, for a woman to be “my Goddess” (51). But here, he is asking for rather than claiming or insisting on a transcendent embrace “in the unsayable margin of death, when I shall be virgin again, at that instant when I approach inexorable completion” (143). In contemplating the death he’s feared throughout the poem, he can now accept a world that will continue without him, “closing like a book, which no longer contains me, or my name, or my aspirations, or my too weak any words” (143). He understands that the “perfection” he and others have grasped at throughout the poem cannot be experienced in the present except through a “grammar of hope and longing,” and that only death can possibly reveal “all mysteries unknown. And unknot all threads. And clarify all confusions” (143). He is, for the moment, content simply to catch glimpses of this other/beloved in the small things around him, “through the evening light aslant over our hillsides. Among primroses and daffodils marshalled in suburban gardens,” and asks only

[…] for the touch of your eyes kind and warm upon me. Oh
_.beloved, my sister, my cousin, when I come, knocking
_.Upon that door, open to me, I entreat you. Do not turn
_.away from me. Do not ignore me. (143)

The poem’s next section, Ninety-One, further makes it clear that Bruno is emerging from his past experience and personal crisis with a new, more measured sense of freedom and of self. He sings as he walks to the post office to mail a letter that turns out to be his resignation from the company. He has chosen to resign not with a grand protest or call to arms but “blandly,” understanding, finally, that the company with its Taylor-Welch practices and the postmodern world it represents will continue their ever-accelerating march without him: “Am sure you will have no difficulty in finding a replacement as Floating Manager” (145). He feels, in this moment of liberation, none of the Romantic’s urge to project his subjective state onto the world around him, or the Modernist’s drive to reason and explain, but instead what can only be termed a post-postmodern desire: a movement beyond the contemporary world’s rapid currents and saturated self, to make a solid, modest place for himself in the here and now. Bruno is choosing to embrace the limits of his life and, as it were, to make a virtue of them. He is, again, accepting the counsel of the religious traditions. Standing in line to mail his letter, he reflects,

_____________________________[…] I will not project my
On condition

On elsewhere and call it England again. Or Garden or Orchard
….or History or Purgatory or God. This is my city. This my
Onplace of belonging. I must make it liveable. This is where
OnI live and work. (144)

Bruno’s determination to make his city “liveable” leads him, in a seeming paradox, to further contemplations of death in the poem’s next few sections. His new “grammar of hope” for a death that will “clarify all confusions” has been made clear in previous passages—but hope is different from certainty, and Bruno’s desire to build his life on solid ground forces him to fully confront all the ramifications of mortality:

To be not here, or anywhere. Simply not to be here. How incon-
Toceivable and how terrifying. And how very weird and strange.
ToTo disappear, like parents, from presence. Even indeed from
Tomemory.

[…]

To create not a blip, nor quavering pause for half-thought, nor
Tomildest interruption in cordial conversation. To elicit not a
Toyawn from schoolchildren. Nor cool neutral stare from glazed
Toeyes of dancers. (147)

His earlier sense of something lost like a crucial puzzle piece from childhood has been tied to his fear of mortality (“my line to the dead has been permanently disconnected” [107]), and he confronts this loss with a trek to his childhood neighborhood, bearing a package “that rocks and rattles”—possibly holding the rest of that puzzle—a trek that feels both real and dreamlike (148). The old man who opens the door, presumably of his childhood home, has eyes that “gleam pitchblack light,” and “[i]n his right arm squats a skull” (148). When he leaves holding that skull, Bruno seems to feel finally free of, or at least at peace with, his own lost past as well as with his future mortality: “Now blessèd I back-walk up Hope Street, alive. My cup runneth over.” (149)

From this point on, his drive to notice and embrace the small beauties around him increases, moving beyond acceptance to an actual love of life as it is and not as the perfect, unified whole he once wanted it to be. Though he states that he’s not “ready” to die, for the first time this is said not out of fear but out of an enjoyment of life:

For[…] I still have things to do.

For example, to call, to bear witness. To this sweet, sultry, old-
Fornew spring, now on the lilac-perfumed brink of spilling
Forinto summer. And

To note how cunningly mingled are the stars above with
Tocloud. Cirrus, cumulus, altostratus. Trout-speckled,
Tomackerelled, frog-skinned. Streaked with slime, silver,
Topromises

And countless other etceteras. So, cousin, I must beg your
Toforgiveness. How can I not be besotted with these
Tomovements of light and shadow […]

………………………………………………………[…] For it
Tois the ordinary spaces

Most call us out to be loved. And the common
Toimperfections
Tothat most shape surprise and miracle. (150)

He ends his journey with a kind of call to arms – “This is a petition. I am to collect signatures. Hey you out there, are you listening. I want to appeal now” (152). But again, he takes his stance not with a romantic or modernist belief that he can actually change the world, but a more modest plea to whoever will listen simply to join him in moving beyond the postmodern “world’s common parlances” to an appreciation of things as they are:

……………………………………………..[…] Not only our pasts
and futures, but this presence is indiscernible. We peep at it like
.toddlers playing peekaboo

With parents from behind familiar curtains. Yet the light In
_.here inheres. […] And all things live this light. If only we
_.could bear

The pressure of its weightlessness […]

We might have the singular grace to call this Glory. And by
_.its
_..chords, even be called back to beauty. For how could it
_.have
_..been doubted that joy is our core of being. And this
_.undying
_light

This grammar underlying our world’s common parlances,
Thnever
Th.pushed by need but being itself velocity, both slow and
Thsud-
Th.den dawning. So we, by dowsing, through air, invisible
Ththreads of light,

Might rediscover the heart’s well, once-upon-a-time called
MiMeaning. And be turned, returned, retuned. (152)

In The Manager, Berengarten has traced the travails of one man trapped inside the ever-rationalizing corporation and society of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and his grueling pilgrimage through the collapse of his life and inner self to a qualified, and by dint of that qualification, all the more profound redemption. Berengarten’s ability to imagine the life of an “average” man, to grant us access to the poetic and varied aspects of his inner experience and suffering, offers an extraordinary—and epic—window to understanding what has happened to human beings since the invention of the steam engine. This achievement allows the reader to apprehend more precisely just what it is these ramifying changes from the industrial revolution through the information age and into our current postmodern era have wrought. New methods of finance, management, and technological networks have wreaked much damage on “homo faber” and “homo aspirans” on both social and individual levels. Bruno faces new pressures in his work, personal and societal environments that force him—that have forced most of us—to question the very foundations of common life. The machinery of the post-Welch, postmodern era, Bruno realizes, cannot be defeated. But The Manager provides one way of coming to grips with this new mode of existence and echoes one of Berengarten’s predecessors and models, William Blake, who acknowledges and addresses, aesthetically, the somatic and spiritual demands of the “dark satanic mills.”

Bruno’s call to redemption through worldly acceptance concludes, quite movingly, in the metaphor of a cloak or quilt:

The aeon lies torn in pieces but you shall mend it with me.
TheWith the slow patience of mothers. Who patch one
Ththreadbare garment

As a gift for a village child. (155)

He signals his concession to the limits of rational understanding, as well as of religious faith and hope, when he states that this is a child “Who may or may not be born. Who may not live at all” (155). And yet, he stands against the prevailing postmodern ailment of “historylessness” with his twin assertions that he has “not surrendered – nor shall abandon – History” (154), and that “the history of humanity hasn’t even started” (155). His future, and the future he calls others to join, is made up of the moments, glimpses, and treasurable details he’s come to love: “It is a patchwork quilt, being stitched together in beauty. A coat of many colours. Life, my veil of splendour” (155).

Return to Dossier introduction and index.


Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey, and co-editor of The Vintage Anthology of African American Poetry. His poems, essays, criticism, and reviews have appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic and many other anthologies, magazines, and journals. The recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Prize, he teaches at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine.

WORKS CITED

Abbey, Edward. 1982. Down the River. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Berengarten, Richard. 2011. The Manager: A Poem. Exeter: Shearsman.

Fergusson, Francis. 1949. The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gergen, Kenneth J. 1991. The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: HarperCollins.

Jones, Francis R. 2011. “In a Balkan Light: Richard Berengarten and the South Slav Cultural Space” in Jope, Norman, Paul Scott Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield (eds). The Salt Companion to Richard Berengarten, Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing: 287-304.

Limburg, Joanne. 2002. “Human above All: Richard Burns’s The Manager” in The Jewish Quarterly 49 (1): 17-23.

Lowe, Janet. 2001. Welch: An American Icon. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. 1967 [1911]. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: W.W Norton.

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