[N]o wonder people social-climb in New York, since it has more genuine social mobility than London or Paris, where clothes, accents, and manners reveal all too much about origins and where there are no more than three degrees of separation between any two people. Everyone already knows every single bad thing about you. In all three cities, people practice what Paul Valéry called the “delirious professions,” those careers that depend on self-assurance and the opinions of others rather than on certifiable skills. The delirious professions, I’d hazard, comprise literature, criticism, design, the visual arts, acting, advertising, all of the media…. [T]he delirious professions, having no agreed-upon standards, require introductions and alliance, protectors and patrons, famous teachers or acclaim by someone reputed. In short, they depend upon that most mercurial of all possessions: reputation. (Edmund White, City Boy)
Or, as Valéry wrote:
Paris contains and combines, and consummates or consumes, most of the brilliant failures summoned by their destinies to the delirious professions… This is the name I give to all those trades whose main tool is one’s opinion of oneself, and whose raw material the opinion others have of you. Those who follow these trades, doomed to be perpetual candidates, are necessarily forever afflicted with a kind of delusion of grandeur which is ceaselessly crossed and tormented by a kind of delusion of persecution. This population of uniques is rules by the law of doing what no one has ever done, what no one will ever do. This is at least the law of the best, that is to say, of those who have the courage to want, frankly, something absurd.
It dovetails almost too nicely with the critiques of knowledge work by the likes of Matthew Crawford, whose Shop Class as Soulcraft I found to be quite brilliant. (Too brilliant and close to home, perhaps; it looks like I never blogged about it. I’ll have to correct that one day.)