Reading notes (2020, week 51) — On our bizarre need to feel busy, why it pays to play around, and healing our wounded planet

Mark Storm
25 min readDec 18, 2020
Jura limestone wraps around the concrete interiors of David Chipperfield Architects’ long-awaited extension for the Kunsthaus Zürich. The building’s monolithic form takes its cues from the city’s 19th-century cantonal school at the north of the site and is intended to provide the square with a “clear urban edge.” (Photograph courtesy of Dezeen)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: What hunter-gatherer societies can teach us about work, time and happiness; mind-wandering and why it pays to play around; win seeking a means to heal our wounded planet, look to the painstaking, cautious craft of art conservation; finding balance and belonging through direct experience of life’s wholeness; Beethoven’s masterful use of small motifs; a linguistic outpost, surrounded by alien sounds; the loneliness of urban life; and, finally, John le Carré’s consistent love.

Our bizarre need to feel busy

In How Civilization Broke Our Brains, Derek Thompson wonders where our bizarre need to feel busy, or to feel that time is structured, even when one is sprawled on the couch on a weekend afternoon, comes from.

“To answer that question, we would have to understand the texture of human life for most of our history, before civilization and workweeks edged their way into the picture. We would need a participant-observer from our era to live among hunter-gatherers and experience their relationship to work, time, and joy,” Thompson writes.

“The anthropologist James Suzman has done a version of that, devoting almost 30 years to studying the Ju/’hoansi ‘Bushmen,’ a tribe whose members lived an isolated existence in Namibia and Botswana until the late 20th century, when incursions by local governments destroyed their way of life. In his new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, Suzman describes the Ju/’hoansi of yore as healthy and cheerful, perfectly content to work as little as possible and — not coincidentally — ingenious at designing customs that discourage competition and status-seeking. Combining careful anthropological research with excursions into sociology and psychology, he asks how we’ve come to find ourselves more harried — and seemingly more unhappy — than the small-scale communities from which civilization emerged. If there is some better way of handling modernity’s promises and pressures, perhaps the Ju/’hoansi can light the way.”

Suzman’s firsthand research and also other ethnographies show that the Ju/’hoansi spent an average of 17 hours a week finding food — 2,140 calories daily — and devoted another 20 to chores. “This left them with considerably more downtime than the typical full-time employee in the U.S., who spends about 44 hours a week doing work — and that doesn’t include domestic labor and child care. In that downtime, the Ju/’hoansi remained strikingly free, over centuries, from the urge to cram it with activities that we would classify as ‘productive’ (or, for that matter, destructive). By day, they did go on walks with children to teach them how to read the canvas of the desert for the footprints of animals. But they also lounged, gossiped, and flirted. During firelit evenings, they sang, danced, and told stories. One anthropologist studying another hunter-gatherer tribe, the Hadza people of northern Tanzania, described its members in the 1960s as habitual small-stakes gamblers whose days were filled with one particular pastime: winning and losing arrows in games of chance.”

“Work, Suzman observes, is what distinguishes animate organisms, humans above all, from inert matter: ‘Only living things actively seek out and capture energy specifically to live, to grow and to reproduce.’ Yet it is the million-year history of labor’s counterpoint, leisure, that holds the key to humanity’s exceptionalism — its record of remarkable progress, and the discontent that seems to have accompanied those strides.” — The Ju/’hoansi people have lived in southern Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. Traditionally, they would move camp eight or nine times a year. But it is only in Namibia’s Nyae Nyae conservancy, where they retain rights to their lands, that it is still possible to hunt and gather all year round. (Photograph by James Suzman)

So how did we move from that world to a culture in which leisure exists for the sake of work?

“Suzman calls attention to the changing nature of work. He draws on the writing of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who pointed to a crucial difference between ‘primitive’ and complex societies called interchangeability. For hunter-gatherers, chiefs and shamans could, and did, moonlight as foragers and hunters. Overlapping duties preserved a strong sense of community, reinforced by customs and religions that obscured individual differences in strength, skill, and ambition. Shared labor meant shared values.

But in industrial economies, lawyers don’t tag in for brain surgery, and drill sergeants don’t harvest wheat — and the different jobs people do, requiring different skill sets, command (often vastly) different pay. As specialization spread and superior performance was rewarded, a cult of competition emerged: High achievers believed they could and should always toil harder for a fatter raise, bigger house, higher honor, or more wondrous breakthrough. Where rest once beckoned, now restlessness did. The productivity mode thrived — and it just might deserve credit (along with luck) for almost all scientific progress and technological ingenuity. But it also bears the blame for what Durkheim called a ‘malady of infinite aspiration,’ which by now we’ve discovered is chronic. When a recent Pew Research Center survey asked about the secret to happiness, most Americans, of all ages, ranked ‘a job or career they enjoy’ above marriage, children, or any other committed relationship. Careerism, not community, is the keystone in the arch of life.”

“Even the present-oriented hunter-gatherers, it turns out, had to develop communal strategies to quash the drivers of overwork — status envy, inequality, deprivation. When a Ju/’hoan hunter returned with a big kill, the tribe perceived a danger that he might think his prowess elevated him above others. ‘We can’t accept this,’ one tribesman said. ‘So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.’ This practice became known among researchers as ‘insulting the hunter’s meat.’” — Hunting expeditions are rarely a solo affair, but men still frequently set off in pursuit of oryx. In a world of digital affluence, perhaps we can take inspiration from the old-time ways of the Ju/’hoansi. Working a whole lot less might be a place to start. (Photograph by James Suzman)

“At the aggregate level, high expectations for the future have surely made the world a better place. Despite routine complaining from the 21st century’s inhabitants, modern civilization has produced quite a lot to be thankful for. […] But at the individual level, Suzman offers the tantalizing promise that the Ju/’hoansi have something to teach those of us whose brains have been dizzied by the vertigo of civilization.

[What] Suzman’s foray into humanity’s past reveals is that leisure has never been the ready default mode we may imagine, even in the chillest of cultures. The psychological cost of civilization, the scourge of the Sunday scaries, and the lesson of the Ju/’hoansi converge in an insight worth taking to heart: Safeguarding leisure is work. While progress depends on pinning our hopes on a world that doesn’t yet exist, those who cannot stop planning for the future are doomed to labor for a life they will never fully live.

Mind-wandering and why it pays to play around

Play is so important that nature invented it long before it invented us, Andreas Wagner writes in Why It Pays to Play Around, an adaptation from Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity (Basic Books, 2019).

“One hallmark of play is that it suspends judgment so that we are no longer focused on selecting good ideas and discarding bad ones. That’s what allows us to descend into the valleys of imperfection to later climb the peaks of perfection. But play is only one means to get there,” Wagner writes.

“Less deliberate but just as powerful are the dreams that we experience in our sleep. It is no coincidence that the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, whose trailblazing research helped us understand how children develop, likened dreaming to play. It is in dreams that our minds are at their freest to combine the most bizarre fragments of thoughts and images into novel characters and plotlines. Paul McCartney famously first heard his song Yesterday in a dream and did not believe that it was an original song, asking people in the music business for weeks afterward whether they knew it. They didn’t. Yesterday would become one of the 20th century’s most successful songs, with 7 million performances and more than 2,000 cover versions.”

On 18 December 2020, Paul McCartney released his new studio solo album, McCartney III, a new collection of stripped-back songs all written, performed and produced by the ex-Beatle, 50 years after his first solo album. — Family Life: Paul playing with his children Stella and James at the family’s farm in Scotland in 1982, by Linda McCartney

Similar to playing and dreaming is the wandering of our minds, which is often considered a harmless quirk, as in the cliché of the scatter-brained professor. Apart from the negative consequences — absentminded people perform less well on tests that require focused attention, such as reading comprehension tests — mind-wandering also has an upside, at least for well-trained minds.

“Indeed, many anecdotes of creators like Einstein, Newton, and eminent mathematician Henri Poincaré, report that these scientists solved important problems while not actually working on anything. The common wisdom that the best ideas arrive in the shower is exemplified by Archimedes’s discovery of how to measure an object’s volume. (OK, he was in a bathtub.) But while Archimedes’s discovery was triggered by the rising water as he entered the tub, other breakthroughs surface apropos of nothing. Take this well-known quote from the Poincaré describing a period in his life when he had worked without success on a mathematical problem:

‘Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought of something else. One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with … brevity, suddenness, and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indeterminate ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.’

The apparently idle period before such insights arrive has a name: incubation. If hard and seemingly futile work on a difficult problem is followed up with a less demanding activity that does not require complete focus — walking, showering, cooking — a mind is free to wander. And when that mind incubates the problem, it can stumble upon a solution.

Incubation is as unconscious as it is real, and it enhances creativity. In one experiment making that point, 135 college students took a psychological test for creativity that required them to find unusual uses for everyday objects, like bricks or pencils. A few minutes into the test, the psychologists running the experiment interrupted some students and gave them an unrelated task. The new task did not take much effort — the students were shown a series of digits and had to tell which of them were even or odd — but it distracted the students from the test. After that interruption, the students continued with the creativity test, and they found more-creative answers than a second group of students who had not been given the distracting task.

Students in a third group got a break like the first, but they were given a harder task that required more focus. And, lo and behold, their answers were less creative than those of the first group. The conclusion: Undemanding tasks — easy enough to require little attention, but hard enough to prevent conscious work on a problem — can free a mind to wander and solve a problem creatively.

If mind-wandering impacts creativity, then its opposite, the control of attention practiced in mindfulness meditation, should have the opposite effects, both good and bad. And indeed it does. A 2012 study showed, for example, that mindfulness meditation, by reducing mind-wandering, can improve scores on standardized academic tests. In contrast, less mindful individuals perform better on creativity tests like that just mentioned.

The message is clear: Just as biological evolution can require a balance between natural selection, which pushes uphill, and genetic drift, which does not, so too does creativity require a balance between the selection of useful ideas — where a focused mind comes in handy — and the suspension of that selection to play, dream, or allow the mind to wander.”

Healing our wounded planet

As Liam Heneghan, a professor of environmental science at DePaul University in Chicago, became despondent about the limited prospects for accomplishing nature restoration, he was thinking about how ecological restoration could be informed by other cultural practices.

Over the years, Henegham had become a regular visitor of Art Institute of Chicago, and an aficionado of decay, taking copious notes on broken art. “I developed a fascination with the work of curators and art restorers, and the decisions they make about intervening in an artwork’s life,” he writes in Can we restore nature?

“I discovered that there are important parallels between the theory and practice of repairing damaged art and that of repairing damaged nature. But there’s an important difference. The environmental sciences investigate processes of nature that have endured billions of years, and yet scientific thinking about the repair of ecosystems is but decades old. Artistic production is, on the other hand, of relatively recent origin, yet systematic thinking and writing about the repair of tarnished art is centuries old. It seems very likely that ecological restoration can learn a considerable amount from this senior literature.”

“The Roman emperor Hadrian (r. A.D. 117–38), who embraced Greek intellectual pursuits, popularized the beard among men young and old, who had previously been clean-shaven. The beard quickly became a fashionable style as well as a sign of one’s interest in classical learning, leading elite Roman men to have themselves portrayed in the guise of philosophers.” — Portrait Head of a Philosopher, second half of the 2nd century CE; marble, 33 x 19.1 x 22.9 cm. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Portrait Head of a Philosopher (second half of the 2nd century CE) provoked Henegham’s interest in links between the conservation of cultural objects and those of nature. “If an artefact as relatively uncelebrated as this marble is subject to a dense history of decay, rejuvenation, repair and, indeed, the reversal of repairs, then to visit any museum is to immerse oneself into a sea of relentless curatorial industry,” he thought.

“As I became more and more uneasy about ecological restoration, I became curious if art conservators’ approach to the task of managing artworks might be helpful for biodiversity management, and emailed Mark Pascale, a curator in the Art Institute’s Department of Prints and Drawings, to explain my odd purpose. Pascale wrote: ‘My colleagues in conservation would bristle at your use of the word «restoration», because that is not what they do. If anything, they work at reversing restoration that may have been done in the past.’ […]

The discovery that cultural conservators now use the term ‘restoration’ circumspectly, if at all, seemed, at first, to undermine my project. Viewed another way — one more hospitable to my venture — the caution regarding the term ‘restoration’ in art conservation might prefigure a similar fate for the restoration of nature. If the reputation of art restoration was tarnished by a history of calamitous interventions on important cultural works, a future generation might regard the outcome of ecological restoration with a similar wincing dissatisfaction.”

“Damaged art might offend the sensibilities; damaged nature has consequences for the thriving of all species.” — Portrait Head of Emperor Hadrian, 130 CE–200 CE; marble, 36 x 27.5 x 27.3 cm. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

“In contemporary art conservation practice, decisions about the management of objects are customarily taken by practitioners and curators (who are often more theoretically inclined) working collaboratively.


Although most on-the-ground restoration efforts will be laudably ‘guided by science’, the admirable ‘roll-up-the-sleeves’ gusto of practitioners can often place them at loggerheads with those conservatively paced scientists who call for deliberative, often experimentally replicated approaches to restoration. I discovered this frustrating disconnect first-hand when I discussed the ill-fated soil experiment with the prairie steward and her advisor.”

According to Henegham, the ecologist Robert Cabin captures this tension between theory and practice in a paper, in which he writes that the “real‐world complexities of implementing land management practices often limit the practical relevance of conventional scientific research.” As an alternative, and echoing one of the first restoration biologists, Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), Cabin proposed “intelligent tinkering” with systems, which can “lead to better science, better ecological restoration, and better relationships between these two cultures.” The sorts of productive dialogue in art conservation between technologists and curators can serve as a model for ecological restoration.

Hemeghan believes that the “[art] conservationists’ hesitation regarding restoration, their more complex relationship with the history of objects, their appreciation, in many cases, of the way objects have been shaped by use, their appetite for technical innovation, their collaborative work practices, their honest (if fraught) recognition of ‘botched’ restorations and their insistence of reversibility could inform a radical new programme for the conservation of nature. This newer form of conservation would disincline from a one-size-fits-all mentality. On some occasions, restored systems might indeed be faithful reconstructions of a humanless past; at other times, a more artful combination of human design and natural flourishing might be desirable. To amplify current efforts towards a more eclectic conservation science, a more deliberate exchange of ideas between art and nature conservation practice would be helpful.”

And also this…

Responding to our fractured sense of reality, in A Ghost’s Life, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee looks to the wisdom of the Chan Buddhism masters to help us find balance and belonging through direct experience of life’s wholeness.

“There is a deep need to turn to teachings that sustain us, that are not born of a fractured consciousness but walk with two feet on the earth. We need to find a pathway that can return us to wholeness, to the simplicity of what is, a landscape where all things can be known according to their true nature, ‘the dharma of all things themselves, that is the Buddha-dharma,’ where our original nature ‘reflects everything, holds nothing’ — this landscape of what in essence is beyond words, beyond truth or lies, and is at the same time ‘everyday ordinary mind.’

Nourished by these ancient teachings, I find the only way to return, to embrace reality, is through what is most simple, most ordinary. By baking bread and cooking soup, by smelling herbs, by gardening, or walking and watching in nature, reconnecting to wild places. By noticing what is around me, the sound of the wind, the rain falling. There is a Cherokee practice that is similar to mindfulness, but different because it is grounded in the earth, called ‘the sound of the green forest humming’: ‘…the awareness of the sound of the forest, the sound of the water and our breath. When people are very well attuned they hear a certain sound and are mindful of that sound. When they don’t hear it they realize they have stepped into a place where their thoughts have become imbalanced.’ [Cherokee peacemaker Dhyani Ywahoo, quoted in Maintaining the Fire, by J. M. White, Parabola Winter 2020–2021]

Ordinary, everyday awareness can return us to a place of balance, where we are part of the living community to which we really belong. A community not of internet bubbles, but of the earth and the clouds and the sun on the water. Whether this is an answer or merely a refuge I do not yet know. I am reassured to find this primal awareness described centuries ago, in teachings and poems that remain outside of time. Today, watching a little ruby-crowned bird looking for food at my feet, I feel true kinship. Focused on her own search, she allows me to come close, without fear or concern. Walking through this gate that is always open, we can return to a quality of consciousness beyond truth and lies, one that is more primal, spontaneous. Here an old man in his garden watching a little green bird can leave behind a strange fractured world of distortions and breathe an air that is not toxic, walk on a land that is still singing.”

“Beethoven was a master — maybe the ultimate master — of the technique of using small motifs (a few notes, a melodic fragment, a rhythmic gesture) to generate an entire movement, even an entire composition. This is something he learned in part from Haydn during the time he spent with the older master in Vienna, as well as from studying and copying out Haydn’s scores, which he continued to do for years,” The New York Times’ chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini, writes in Beethoven’s 250th Birthday: His Greatness Is in the Details.

“But Beethoven took the technique to a new level of sophistication. Concert-goers may not consciously pick up all the recurrences and manipulations of motifs in a Beethoven piece. Still, those interrelated elements come through subliminally, even for those not trained in music. That’s why a wild romp, like the frenetic, dancing final movement of the Seventh Symphony, also seems a cohesive, coherent entity, a truly great piece.

Achieving motivic coherence in his scores was not easy for Beethoven to pull off. Leonard Bernstein made a few attempts to explain this in his televised lectures, including once in a famous 1954 Omnibus program on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when he examined how the opening four notes — the so-called ‘fate’ motif — are used like a ‘springboard for the symphonic continuity to come.’

Then, at the piano and with an orchestra, Bernstein performed passages reconstructed from sketches Beethoven had discarded; he wanted to show how ineffective some of these rejects were — until Beethoven got it right. Bernstein dug deeper into Beethoven’s procedures during one of his 1973 Norton Lectures (broadcast in 1976), when he took apart the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony. He asked the audience to get rid of all its notions that the piece is about ‘birds and brooks and rustic pleasures,’ and proceeded to reveal how the whole movement is constructed out of materials contained in just the first four measures.”

“People often say that Leonard Bernstein was a born teacher, but actually it’s more accurate to say that he was a born student who just couldn’t wait to share what he learned. In his whole life, he never stopped studying,” Jamie Bernstein writes in Leonard Bernstein: A Born Teacher. (Photograph courtesy of CBS)

“Composers after Beethoven were powerfully influenced by this technique, and not just Brahms and Mahler in their symphonies,” Tommasini continues.

“Even today I’ll often read, for example, a composer’s program note explaining that a new chamber music piece written in a single 15-minute movement and an essentially atonal language is based on a five-note motif. Beethoven would approve.

In his late period, Beethoven entered a sphere that seemed almost mystical, and considered himself not just a composer but also a ‘Tondichter’ (‘tone poet’). Yet even when exploring new realms of structure and sound, Beethoven generated these late scores from small motifs. Wagner studied the seven-movement Op. 131 String Quartet obsessively, seeing in it a model for ways to structure a music drama.

It is telling that the last concert I heard before the pandemic closed theaters worldwide was at Carnegie Hall on March 8, when the violinist Leonidas Kavakos, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the pianist Emanuel Ax played, yes, Beethoven, ending with the majestic and awesome, searching and impetuous Archduke Trio. Even if Beethoven’s big birthday has not been what we expected, that superb performance of his trio, just before everything stopped, has kept coming back to me, a lasting party.”

Only last week, I came across a 2015 article from The New Yorker by Jhumpa Lahiri, titled Teach Yourself Italian. “For a writer, a foreign language is a new kind of adventure,” writes Lahari, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her debut collection of short-stories Interpreter of Maladies.

“Shortly before I began to write these reflections, I received an e-mail from a friend in Rome, the writer Domenico Starnone,” Lahiri writes. “I had been in Rome for a year. Referring to my desire to appropriate Italian, he wrote, ‘A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.’ How much those words reassured me. They contained all my yearning, all my disorientation. Reading this message, I understood better the impulse to express myself in a new language: to subject myself, as a writer, to a metamorphosis.

Around the same time that I received this note, I was asked, during an interview, what my favorite book was. I was in London, on a stage with five other writers. It’s a question that I usually find annoying; no book has been definitive for me, so I never know how to answer. This time, though, I was able to respond without any hesitation that my favorite book was the Metamorphoses of Ovid. It’s a majestic work, a poem that concerns everything, that reflects everything. I read it for the first time twenty-five years ago, in Latin, as a university student. It was an unforgettable encounter, maybe the most satisfying reading of my life. To understand this poem I had to be persistent, translating every word. I had to devote myself to an ancient and demanding foreign language. And yet Ovid’s writing won me over: I was enchanted by it. I discovered a sublime work, a living, enthralling language. I believe that reading in a foreign language is the most intimate way of reading.

I remember vividly the moment when the nymph Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree. She is fleeing Apollo, the love-struck god who pursues her. She would like to remain alone, chaste, dedicated to the forest and the hunt, like the virgin Diana. Exhausted, the nymph, unable to outstrip the god, begs her father, Peneus, a river divinity, to help her. Ovid writes, ‘She has just ended this prayer when a heaviness pervades her limbs, her tender breast is bound in a thin bark, her hair grows into leaves, her arms into branches; her foot, a moment before so swift, remains fixxed by sluggish roots, her face vanishes into a treetop.’ When Apollo places his hand on the trunk of this tree ‘he feels the breast still trembling under the new bark.’

Metamorphosis is a process that is both violent and regenerative, a death and a birth. It’s not clear where the nymph ends and the tree begins; the beauty of this scene is that it portrays the fusion of two elements, of both beings. The words that describe Daphne and the tree are right next to each other (in the Latin text, frondem/crines, ramos/bracchia, cortice/pectus; leaves/hair, branches/arms, bark/breast). The contiguity of these words, their literal juxtaposition, reinforces the state of contradiction, of entanglement. It gives us a double impression, throwing us off. It expresses in the mythical, I would say primordial, sense the meaning of being two things at the same time. Of being something undefined, ambiguous. Of having a dual identity.

Until she is transformed, Daphne is running for her life. Now she is stopped; she can no longer move. Apollo can touch her, but he can’t possess her. Though cruel, the metamorphosis is her salvation. On the one hand, she loses her independence. On the other, as a tree, she remains forever in the wood, her place, where she has a different sort of freedom.”

“I think of Ovid, exiled from Rome to a remote place. To a linguistic outpost, surrounded by alien sounds,” Jhumpa Lahiri writes in Teach Yourself Italian (Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe for The New Yorker)

“As I said before,” Lahiri continues, “I think that my writing in Italian is a flight. Dissecting my linguistic metamorphosis, I realize that I’m trying to get away from something, to free myself. I’ve been writing in Italian for almost two years, and I feel that I’ve been transformed, almost reborn. But the change, this new opening, is costly; like Daphne, I, too, find myself confined. I can’t move as I did before, the way I was used to moving in English. A new language, Italian, covers me like a kind of bark. I remain inside: renewed, trapped, relieved, uncomfortable.

Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?

The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me. For practically my whole life, English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it.

And yet I was in love with it. I became a writer in English. And then, rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake. Although it was an honor, I remained suspicious of it. I couldn’t connect myself to that recognition, and yet it changed my life. Since then, I’ve been considered a successful author, so I’ve stopped feeling like an unknown, almost anonymous apprentice. All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible. But a year after my first book was published I lost my anonymity.

By writing in Italian, I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself. I can join words together and work on sentences without ever being considered an expert. I’m bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t torment or grieve me.

If I mention that I’m writing in a new language these days, many people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it. They say they don’t want to read me translated from a foreign tongue. They don’t want me to change. In Italy, even though many have encouraged me to take this step, many support me, I’m still asked why I have a desire to write in a language that is much less widely read in the world than English.

Some say that my renunciation of English could be disastrous, that my escape could lead me into a trap. They don’t understand why I want to take such a risk.

These reactions don’t surprise me. A transformation, especially one that is deliberately sought, is often perceived as something disloyal, threatening. I am the daughter of a mother who would never change. In the United States, she continued, as far as possible, to dress, behave, eat, think, live as if she had never left India, Calcutta. The refusal to modify her aspect, her habits, her attitudes was her strategy for resisting American culture, for fighting it, for maintaining her identity. Becoming or even resembling an American would have meant total defeat. When my mother returns to Calcutta, she is proud of the fact that, in spite of almost fifty years away from India, she seems like a woman who never left.

I am the opposite. While the refusal to change was my mother’s rebellion, the insistence on transforming myself is mine. ‘There was a woman, a translator, who wanted to be another person’: it’s no accident that The Exchange, the first story I wrote in Italian, begins with that sentence. All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin. It was the void that distressed me, that I was fleeing. That’s why I was never happy with myself. Change seemed the only solution. Writing, I discovered a way of hiding in my characters, of escaping myself. Of undergoing one mutation after another.

One could say that the mechanism of metamorphosis is the only element of life that never changes. The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch — of the entire universe and all it contains — is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep, without which we would stand still. The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember. They give a structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.

I think that the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music?

We are searching, through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before. We want to transform ourselves, just as Ovid’s masterwork transformed me.

In the animal world metamorphosis is expected, natural. It means a biological passage, including various specific phases that lead, ultimately, to complete development. When a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly it’s no longer a caterpillar but a butterfly. The effect of the metamorphosis is radical, permanent. The creature has lost its old form and gained a new, almost unrecognizable one. It has new physical features, a new beauty, new capacities.

A total metamorphosis isn’t possible in my case. I can write in Italian, but I can’t become an Italian writer. Despite the fact that I’m writing this sentence in Italian, the part of me conditioned to write in English endures. I think of Fernando Pessoa, a writer who invented four versions of himself: four separate, distinct writers, thanks to which he was able to go beyond the confines of himself. Maybe what I’m doing, by means of Italian, resembles his tactic. It’s not possible to become another writer, but it might be possible to become two.

Oddly, I feel more protected when I write in Italian, even though I’m also more exposed. It’s true that a new language covers me, but unlike Daphne I have a permeable covering — I’m almost without a skin. And although I don’t have a thick bark, I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.”

“Unlike solitude, loneliness is not merely the experience of aloneness. It is a feeling of a gap between oneself and others, the perception of an active, living, aching separation that the lonely person wishes were otherwise,” Richard Deming writes in Struth’s unpeopled photos evoke the loneliness of urban life.

“In her classic paper On the Sense of Loneliness (1963), the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein describes it as ‘the result of a ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state,’ a state of wholeness or completion. Parts of ourselves that feel familiar, yet lost or estranged, are projected on to others and, so the thinking goes, to be wholly accepted by others is to be able to regain those lost pieces and become complete. On this line of thinking, what anyone desires is, primarily, to feel whole, a state that Klein indicates is impossible to actually achieve, and ‘loneliness’ is what we call the frustration that arises from the perpetual yearning for those lost pieces of the self. This is a profoundly human kind of loneliness, a primary, inborn, existential sense that we’re always falling away from one another, always missing, always just missed.”

“With streets and lines stretching into the horizon and away from the viewer, Struth’s photographs of New York emphasise distance — emotional, social, physical — in fairly literal terms. That, coupled with the fact that not a single person is represented in these very urban spaces. Again: ‘Where is everybody?” — Sixth Avenue at 50th Street (1978), New York, by Thomas Struth

It’s early May, when Deming makes his way across lower Manhattan, his mask snug and glasses quickly fogging so the whole city looks hazy and indistinct. A photograph of Thomas Struth floats to mind. “It depicts a deserted West 21st Street in New York’s Chelsea district, a neighbourhood I know well and that’s normally teeming with people. Without people, it is almost unrecognisable. The streets of New York in Struth’s photographs are almost always empty — not abandoned, not exactly, but there is an absence of people precisely where we would expect to see them. When asked by an interviewer in 2015 about the driving force of his work, Struth responded:

‘I’m interested in the relationship between an individual’s existence and the community of larger social entities. I make impulsive, intuitive decisions, but strangely, when I look back at my work it has to do with existential questions about our restless existence’

In Struth’s unpeopled photographs of New York’s streets, we see the space or context where such relationships occur, and trace the signs of human activity in the form of every window and every square of concrete: what remains in the photographs is akin to Rod Serling’s description of ‘that bizarre quality of activity with no actors.’ Having experienced such a feeling by way of Struth’s images, I now recognise it as I pass down the streets of an emptied New York. Oddly, it’s as if I learned through Struth’s photographs a form of empathy for my own feelings.”

West 21st Street (1978), Chelsea, New York, by Thomas Struth

“Given that Struth is ‘interested in the relationship between an individual’s existence and the community of larger social entities’, our act of looking at his images of New York activates that relationship between an individual and the often-unacknowledged feelings of existence of a self among, but always separated from, other selves. The structure for those social entities is present in the buildings and streets and empty cars but, with the people gone, all we have is the absence. What’s revealed is an intrinsic feeling of abandonment that exists everywhere, imperceptible, but lying below the surface of all human spaces.

Where does that leave us, then? In looking at a photograph, we look at something, of course, and inevitably we look as the photographer. We are the seer; we enter into the things seen, even as they enter us. If a circumstantial loneliness can reveal or even manifest a primary, inborn one, then art might allow us to recognise that such a feeling — though always our own — is also something we share with others.”

Third Avenue at 85th Street (1978), Upper East Side, New York, by Thomas Struth
Crosby Street (1978), Soho, New York, by Thomas Struth
John le Carré, the best-selling author of Cold War thrillers, passed away on 12 December 2020, aged 89 — “Breaking from the James Bond mold, he turned the spy novel into high art as he explored the moral compromises of agents on both sides of the Iron curtain,” The New York Times writes. (Photograph by Jane Bown for The Guardian)

“The consistent love of his life was writing, ‘scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk.’

‘Out of the secret world I once knew I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit,’ [le Carré] wrote. ‘First comes the imagining, then the search for reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.’” — From John le Carré, author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dies aged 89, by Richard Lea and Sian Cain

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought