In the unemployment office of a West London borough, on a musty sofa covered in flecks, Robert Morus sat, one tweed trouser leg crossed over the other. Glancing at his pocket watch, he sighed loudly and folded his arms.
‘It’s a damned disgrace,’ Robert said to the pensioner beside him on the sofa. ‘I have no doubt that these degenerates are deliberately wasting our time. I suppose they consider it an apt punishment for not conforming to their ‘work-ethic.’’
The old man smiled politely at Robert but said nothing.
“Week in and week out they carry out this charade!” he spluttered. ‘They interrogate us as if we were criminals, for God’s sake. It is our right to claim these subsidies, and yet one is made to feel like a vagabond just for exercising his freedom as a citizen of this once-great nation.’
Robert had become quite excited by this point, and was shifting his considerable weight across the sofa. The old man clutched onto the armrest beside him to resist the chasm which Robert had opened.
‘I tell you, if I have to wait another minute longer, I shall walk out. Don’t try to stop me. I would sooner be penniless than suffer much more of this indignity. You know, it could do a man of my reputation considerable damage if I were to be seen in here by one of my colleagues.’
The old man shifted in his seat uncomfortably and glanced toward the window at the far end of the room. It was a small box window flooded with sunlight. He couldn’t see through the brightness, but outside birds were chirping in the morning mist.
Robert sunk back into the sofa. ‘What brings you here?’ he asked.
The man cleared his throat. ‘Rheumatism.’
‘As I suspected,’ said Robert, becoming quite animated again. ‘I suppose they expect you to work, even in your state, the heartless bureaucrats. Any reasonable person can clearly see that you’re unfit for any kind of practical application.’
Robert had begun to wave his hands wildly as he spoke, narrowly missing the old man’s face with each gesticulation.
‘You are quite obviously decrepit, and possibly approaching senility. It is simply unreasonable to expect someone such as yourself to be able to perform even the most basic public function. It’s not fair on society, let alone yourself.’
The old man began to interject, but Robert went on.
‘I am of the opinion that people of your age and ー’ he looked the old man up and down ‘ ーability, should be properly taken care of. Firstly, you should all be rounded up and deposited in several communal homes for the elderly. No doubt you live alone in a large house with just your wife?’
The old man shook his head. ‘Dead these ten years.’
‘Worse! An entire residence for just yourself is hardly fair on the rest of us. No, I thoroughly believe in elderly-communal living,’ said Robert, buttoning up his jacket. ‘As well as opening up the housing market for those of us who still have our lives ahead of us, it would provide a greater quality of life for the elderly. For instance, you are no doubt incredibly lonely living at home all by yourself. Am I correct in this assumption?’
The old man shifted in his chair and looked straight ahead.
‘I thought so. Now imagine living in a household surrounded by those who share the same interests; bridge, crosswords and television soap-operas. You would never want for company again! You could all work together to perform simple tasks that would be impossible to perform as individuals, such as taking baths.’
The old man had pulled his cap over his eyes.
‘The government of course, would fund the project, and you could live very comfortably indeed amongst yourselves. And with all that body heat filling the house, you’d never complain of cold again.’
Robert’s energy had peaked, and he began now to grow bored of the subject. He went over to the water-cooler in the corner of the room and filled a plastic cup.
‘Of course, I offer these ideas freely to the officials here, but they never listen. Their minds are too embedded in the sludge of routine and uniformity to consider any radical solutions to their problems.’
He took a sip of water.
‘It’s a shame really.’
Robert leaned against the water-cooler and surveyed his environment. The sofa was pressed up against a whitewashed wall near the corner of the office. It overlooked hedgerows of grey slats that cordoned off each employee’s cubicle. Above them a ceiling fan hummed lazily along with the sounds of keys being hit, papers being shuffled. He looked at the old man who had retreated now into the collar of his duffle coat as the thump of stiletto on carpet grew louder.
‘Robert Morus.’ A neutral voice.
A woman had appeared from the isle between cubicles and was looking around vaguely. A rather obese woman, Robert noticed. While she can’t have been older than thirty, she had the look of a woman with her best years behind her. Her mammoth arms collapsed into sinkholes at the elbows; her bulbous face had lost all discernible features during expansion, and so she had taken to crudely painting them back on. This was someone, Robert thought, who hadn’t the faintest possibility of ever looking attractive again. She had been bloated beyond any reasonable retraction, most likely by bovine growth-hormones.
‘Robert. Morus,’ she said again, between breaths.
‘Yes,’ he said, eyeing her.
‘Please follow me,’ she said, already turning away.
Robert followed her down the aisle, darting looks into the cubicles left and right at the workers hunched over their ancient computers. The woman stopped outside a cubicle and gestured for Robert to enter first, as if he might try to escape.
‘Take a seat, please’ she said. After a moment, he did.
She collapsed in her desk chair and swivelled round to retrieve a pile of papers from a drawer before dumping them on the desk.
‘We have reports,’ she said, leafing through the papers, ‘from several of your prospective employers.’
Robert shifted somewhat in his seat.
‘According to them, you have failed to show up for even one of your arranged job interviews. In addition to that,’ ー turning more papers ー ‘the employers to whom you have claim to have applied to yourself, tell us that they have never even heard of a Robert Morus.”
She picked up the stack of papers and dropped them conclusively in front of him.
‘I did not receive my funds this morning,’ he said.
‘There will be no more funds, Mr. Morus,’ she said, clearly savouring the exchange. ‘You have failed to hold up your end of the bargain, and so your benefits will now be terminated. I suggest you find employment as soon as possible.’
Robert breathed sharply through his nose and let out a slow, deliberate exhalation.
‘How dare you,’ he muttered, under his breath.
‘How dare you!’ he thundered. ‘How dare you cut my funding at such a crucial stage of my research.’
‘Yes, my research! For the past two years that I have been a recipient of your funds, I have been conducting a most important study of our present culture of narcissism. Without my continued recipience of funds, hundreds of hours of work will be lost.’
The woman paused for a moment to process this statement.
‘I’m sorry, Mr. Morus, but that is not sufficient reason for us to continue sending you payments. Now, we have tried our best to find you employment, but you have been uncooperative at every turn. Just last month you turned down a work placement at one of our -’
‘You expect me to eat into valuable research time by working voluntarily? I shall do no such thing. I am not a customer assistant, I am a flâneur, madam.’
‘A flâneur,’ he repeated. ‘I conduct my studies from within the herd. I assimilate.’
The woman behind the desk looked at the man in the tweed suit opposite her and shook her head.
‘I am afraid, that unless you show an interest in finding employment, we cannot help you. On the other hand,’ she said, pulling yet more papers from the drawer, ‘If you decide you are interested in work, I have just been contacted by a cement manufacturer looking for someone to do clerical work. It’s an entry-level position, but there are plenty of opportunities for career progression at the company. Someone of your education could, in five or ten years time, find themselves in a comfortable middle-management position with a very generous pension plan.’
‘Listen to me,” said Robert, leaning forward and planting in index finger on the table-top. ‘I am not interested in paper pushing. My proximity to the crowd is already dangerously close. If I assimilate myself further I am at risk of -’
Robert leaned in closer and whispered soberly, ‘- going native.’
Simon Morus, née Miller, was cooking breakfast in the pristine kitchen of his wife’s two-bedroom house. He cracked an organic egg into the pool of sizzling butter, wiped the yolk from his hands and onto his striped apron. Simon whistled a loose rendition of Good Morning to himself as he tipped the pan back and forth to coat the egg in butter.
Simon’s step-son was absent this Saturday morning, or else he was being unusually quiet, and so he had taken the opportunity to cook his still sleeping wife breakfast in bed. He tossed the egg onto a plate and began frying some low-fat organic bacon. To think it had only been six months since he and Barbara had been married filled Simon with an anticipation of the future, and one that was not without some trepidation. He would not make the same mistakes again. He would be vigilant, unwavering. Never again would he let affection dissipate. He would feed those flames constantly, be dutiful, and place his marriage above all other things. The toaster popped.
Mrs. Morus was lying in bed leafing through a glossy magazine when her husband came in carrying a tray. On it, beside her breakfast, he had placed a single Chrysanthemum in a miniature vase.
‘Happy four month anniversary!’ he said, lowering the tray delicately onto his wife’s lap.
‘Thank you,’ she said, planting a kiss on his awaiting cheek.
Simon sat himself on the edge of the bed as his wife ate her breakfast. With the first few bites, she let out an audible hum of pleasure and looked at him, which Simon relished. When she was finished, Simon produced a small envelope from his trouser pocket and handed it to his wife.
‘Oh you shouldn’t have, Simon -’ she protested.
‘Never mind that, just open it,’ he said with the eagerness of a schoolboy.
She ripped the envelope open to find a small, folded, slip of paper. She unfolded it ceremoniously and looked at the print.
‘We’ll be staying in my parents Swiss chalet in Rhône-Alpes that I told you about. I’ve already booked the skiing lessons.’
‘You shouldn’t have.’
‘It’s all taken care of.’
He sat, smiling. Mrs. Morus propped herself further up in bed.
‘What about Robert?’ she said.
Simon’s face sunk somewhat. “What about Robert.” he said, aware of the creeping aggression in his voice.
‘Well – what’ll he do whilst we’re away?’
‘Barbara. Robert is twenty-five years old. He can take care of himself.’ He put his hand on her shoulders and began massaging lightly. ‘You need to think of yourself.’
‘I know, I know,’ she said, leaning into it. ‘He’s just a sensitive boy. He gets agitated when he’s left to fend for himself. That’s why you’ve been such a blessing, Simon.’
‘Well you’ve been an absolute gem around the house since you moved in. I know Robert has some funny habits. Won’t eat this, won’t eat that. I know he’s messy too.’
‘I really appreciate all you’ve done for the boy. Cooking all his special meals; taking his suits to the dry cleaners every week; letting him borrow money every now and again. Simon, that’s beginning to hurt.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, loosening his grip.
The front door opened and then slammed. Robert was home. He thudded up the stairs. As the thuds faded out towards Robert’s bedroom, Mrs. Morus called for him.
The thuds stopped briefly, then turned toward them. Robert’s head appeared in the doorway. He looked at them with mild disgust, as if he had caught them in a post-coital embrace.
‘What is it, mother.’
‘How were things at the center?’ she asked. ‘Did you get everything sorted out?’
Robert dragged his whole body into the doorway and folded his arms, looking at both of them soberly.
‘As a matter of fact, my funds have been terminated,’ he said. ‘I refused to kowtow to their demands and now, out of spite and jealousy, they have ruined me.’
‘What demands, poppet?’
‘They wanted me to work voluntarily for a company, and tried to tempt me with a slim promise of a career following that voluntary period.’
‘They offered you a job? You didn’t say no, Robert, did you?’
‘Of course I did. In fact,’ he said, ‘I got into quite a heated exchange with the employment officer, and I’m afraid to say that things got physical.’
‘Physical? You don’t mean to say you hit him, Robert?’
‘Her,’ Robert corrected. ‘It was a rather beastly woman. And no, I didn’t hit her. I attempted to rectify the mistake she had made of removing my funds by assuming control of her computer. She pulled me away and began the altercation, not that security would believe me. The next thing I knew, we were wrestling on her desk. Needless to say, I am not welcome at that den of bureaucracy any more, which is perfectly fine by me. You know, I am glad, in a way.’
There followed a long silence in which Simon took his hands from Mrs. Morus’s shoulders. He looked thoughtful for a moment.
‘Maybe this is the best thing for you, mate,’ he said eventually. ‘Maybe it’ll give you that extra little push you need to, you know, find some work. I tell you, it’s a blessing in disguise.’
He sat there and smiled at Robert. Robert’s gaze turned to him. He was visibly shaking.
‘Oh, piss off, Simon.’
‘No, it’s alright.’
‘Robert, you will apologise to your step-father immediately.’
‘I shall do no such thing,’ he said, tightening his folded arms. ‘The man is a fool. A pathetic parody of manhood with no autonomy, no character, no passion. The apogee of the modern narcissistic male. And what’s more,’ said Robert, ‘He is a cuckold.’
‘Robert, you promised you wouldn’t bring that up again,’ his mother said.
‘It’s – fine,’ said Simon limply. ‘It’s fine.’
‘Am I to be castigated for speaking the truth? The man was cuckolded, pure and simple.’
‘That doesn’t mean you have to bring it up.’
‘What are you going to do for money?’ his mother said, after a pause.
‘For now I will have to subsist on an extended allowance.’
‘No,’ said Simon, recomposing himself. ‘We are not giving you more than we already do. Twenty pounds per week is more than enough.’
‘I agree,’ said Mrs. Morus, clasping her husband’s hand. ‘It’s about time you got yourself a job.’ She looked at Simon who nodded reciprocally and smiled.
‘Oh well this is unexpected.’ said Robert blithely. ‘Two bedfellows conspiring against me. Who would have thought it?’
‘We only want what’s best for you, Robert.’
‘What is best for me,’ he spat, ‘is the completion of my paper, which, without sufficient funding, will not happen any time soon. I have explained to you before, in the simplest possible terms, that the money you give me will be returned following the publication of my essay. But you have refused to listen, time after time. Plebeian employment,’ he said, ‘will deprive me of the time necessary to complete my studies.’
‘You could work just part-time,’ said Simon. ‘Just enough to keep you going-’
‘I’ve had enough of this nonsense,’ said Robert.
With that, he went to his room and slammed the door behind him.
Robert collapsed in his chair, kicked his shoes off, and crossed his feet on his desk, kicking a pile of paperback books to the floor in the process. His room was a small box with a small window and piles of cheap, second-hand books piled, strewn, and littered everywhere. It smelled like old pulp and tea.
He leant back into his desk-chair and rubbed his temples. He breathed in through his nose for four seconds, held it for seven, and breathed out his mouth for eight. He did this several times until he felt calm, then he hit the power-on button on his laptop computer and began work.
In a society in which standards of success have all but dissipated; a society which no longer recognises the intrinsic value of work, the narcissistic man can only judge his achievements relative to those around him. His employment is not undertaken with the betterment of himself or society in mind, but merely to avoid the fear which accompanies any differentiation from the status quo. In essence it is a negative reinforcement at play, where the satisfaction is continually deferred so that the individual will continually pursue the means of happiness which have been purposefully outlined by the state. That is, to work a job which has been judged as an empirically positive contribution to the construct of society: a scientist, a civil servant, a check-out assistant.
A working narcissist is never self-sufficient. His value does not depend on a recognition of his own work as good, but entirely on vague outside appraisals of his character. He must be “personable”, a “team-player”, a “good-leader”. Rarely can a millennial look upon his own work and judge it for himself. He sits, blind and in a constant state of anxiety, under the auspicious gaze of the bureaucrat standing behind him.
The narcissist will comply to society’s demands that he work an ordinary job, where he will be subject to review, scrutiny, and have no discernable achievements to show for his toil besides a middling paycheque. He will do this on the invisible promise that one day he will “make it”; that by complying to the demands of the state and the market he is working toward “making it”, when in reality he is in stasis. Imbued with the irrational notion that he is somehow “special” or “unique”, the narcissist has faith that one day he will emerge from his self-imposed cocoon, spread his wings and reveal himself to the world as an individual worthy of celebration. This is, of course, a delusion.
To recognise this delusion is to refuse to conform to the work ethic imposed by society. The critic of narcissism should do everything he can to exploit the system to his own ends. He must be able to say “Look at what I have achieved, and what is more, at your expense!” This is the only means of academic and personal progressivism in a society that has lost sight of value that cannot be empirically proven, implemented, and subjugated.
He must, so to speak, take the bribe, but not carry out what is asked of him. And when the hand that feeds him feeds no more, he must bite.
William Guppy is a jumped-up literature graduate and a miserable little sophist from London. He posts frequently on twitter (@w_guppy)