Reading notes (2020, week 52) — On the uncanny allure of our unlived lives, images of the future, and how to avoid living in the past

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The incredible contrast between the old Siheyuan structures and MAD’s daring new architecture is felt throughout, augmenting an already progressive kids’ learning experience. “The ‘borderless’ learning space, ubiquitous reading environment, and curriculum focusing on learning through exploratory play, not only enriches the interaction between children, but also allows teaching and learning to take place in an optimal atmosphere,” the firm explains. (Source: Best of 2020: Top 10 Architecture Projects of the Year) — YueCheng Courtyard Kindergarten (2020), Beijing, by MAD.

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 2020’s final curation: Imagining our alternate selves can be fuel for fantasy or fodder for regret; the future posing as today’s speculative solutions to yesterday’s wicked problems; Søren Kierkegaard wants us to put our trust in the unfolding moment of life; the four thinkers who reinvented philosophy; philosophy is a practice; an organic and simple way to find your life’s purpose; Bob Dylan and the aura of a work of art; how did Balthasar become black?; and, finally, Julian Baggini revisits Sartre’s waiter.

The uncanny allure of our unlived lives

“The thought that I might have become someone else is so bland that dwelling on it sometimes seems fatuous,” the literary scholar Andrew H. Miller writes in On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives. But if phrased the right way, the thought has an insistent, uncanny magnetism, argues Joshua Rothman.

“We may imagine specific unlived lives for ourselves, as artists, or teachers, or tech bros; I have a lawyer friend whose alternate self owns a bar in Red Hook. Or we may just be drawn to possibility itself, as in the poem The Road Not Taken: when Robert Frost tells us that choosing one path over the other made ‘all the difference,’ it doesn’t matter what the difference is,” Rothman writes in What If You Could Do It All Over?

“Carl Dennis’s poem The God Who Loves You tries to make that difference concrete. Dennis poses a question to his protagonist, a middle-aged real-estate agent: ‘What would have happened / Had you gone to your second choice for college?’ A different roommate, a different spouse, a different job: could it all have added up to ‘a life thirty points above the life you’re living / On any scale of satisfaction?’ Only ‘the god who loves you’ knows for sure. It’s an unsettling thought; Dennis suggests that we pity that all-knowing god, ‘pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives / You’re spared by ignorance.’

Swept up in our real lives, we quickly forget about the unreal ones. Still, there will be moments when, for good or for ill, we feel confronted by our unrealized possibilities; they may even, through their persistence, shape us. Practitioners of mindfulness tell us that we should look away, returning our gaze to the actual, the here and now. But we might have the opposite impulse, as Miller does. He wants us to wander in the hall of mirrors — to let our imagined selves ‘linger longer and say more.’ What can our unreal selves say about our real ones?”

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“As Sartre says, we are who we are. But isn’t the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real,” Joshua Rothman writes in What If You Could Do It All Over? (Illustration by Golden Cosmos for The New Yorker)

“Their mere presence in our minds may reveal something about how we live: ‘Unled lives are a largely modern preoccupation,’ Miller writes. It used to be that, for the most part, people lived the life their parents had, or the one that the fates decreed. Today, we try to chart our own courses. The difference is reflected in the stories we tell ourselves. In the Iliad, Achilles chooses between two clearly defined fates, designed by the gods and foretold in advance: he can either fight and die at Troy or live a long, boring life. (In the end, he chooses to fight.) But the world in which we live isn’t so neatly organized. Achilles didn’t have to wonder if he should have been pre-med or pre-law; we make such decisions knowing that they might shape our lives.

Among secular people, the absence of an afterlife raises the stakes. In Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, the psychologist Adam Phillips warns that ‘once the next life — the better life, the fuller life — has to be in this one, we have a considerable task on our hands.’ Given just a single shot at existence, we owe it to ourselves to hit the mark; we must not just survive but thrive. It’s no wonder that for many of us ‘the story of our lives becomes the story of the lives we were prevented from living.

It’s likely, Miller thinks, that capitalism, ‘with its isolation of individuals and its accelerating generation of choices and chances,’ has increased the number of our unlived lives. ‘The elevation of choice as an absolute good, the experience of chance as a strange affront, the increasing number of exciting, stultifying decisions we must make, the review of the past to improve future outcomes’ — all these ‘feed the people we’re not.’ […] The nature of work deepens the problem. ‘Unlike the agricultural and industrial societies that preceded it,’ Miller writes, our ‘professional society’ is ‘made up of specialized careers, ladders of achievement.’ You make your choice, forgoing others: year by year, you ‘clamber up into your future,’ thinking back on the ladders unclimbed,” Rothman writes.

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“Most of us aren’t haunted so acutely by the people we might have been,” Joshua Rothman writes in What If You Could Do It All Over? “But, perhaps for a morning or a month, our lives can still thrum with the knowledge that it could have been otherwise. ‘You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife,’ David Byrne sings, in the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime. ‘And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?’ Maybe you feel suddenly pushed around by your life, and wonder if you could have willed it into a different shape. Perhaps you suddenly remember, as Hilary Mantel did, that you have another self ‘filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that wouldn’t work after the opening lines.’ Today, your life is irritating, like an ill-fitting garment; you can’t forget it’s there. ‘You may tell yourself, This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife,’ Byrne sings.” (Photograph: David Byrne, right, and band in American Utopia; courtesy of AP)

“Jean-Paul Sartre said about the allure of imaginary lives:

‘A man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing. No doubt this thought may seem harsh. But on the other hand, it helps people to understand that reality alone counts, and that dreams, expectations, and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations.’

Sartre thought we should focus on what we have done and will do, rather than on what we might have done or could do. He pointed out that we often take too narrow a census of our actions. An artist, he maintains, is not to be ‘judged solely by his works of art, for a thousand other things also help to define him.’ We do more than we give ourselves credit for; our real lives are richer than we think. This is why, if you keep a diary, you may feel more satisfied with the life you live.

And yet you may still wonder at the particular shape of that life; all stories have turning points, and it’s hard not to fixate on them. Sartre advanced those ideas in a lecture called Existentialism Is a Humanism, which he delivered in Paris in 1945, when he was only locally famous. On arriving at the venue, he discovered that he would have to push through a brawling crowd that had gathered in a sort of mini-riot. (‘Probably some communists demonstrating against me,’ he speculated, according to Annie Cohen-Solal’s Sartre: A Life.) He considered leaving the event but then decided to press on, spending fifteen minutes making his way to the front, receiving a few kicks and blows along the way. The lecture was a sensation and made Sartre an international superstar. That might not have happened if he had decided, reasonably, to leave. Like facets in a jewel, such moments seem to put our lives into prismatic relief. They make us feel the precariousness and the specificity of the way things are,” Rothman writes.

“As Sartre says, we are who we are. But isn’t the negative space in a portrait part of that portrait? In the sense that our unled lives have been imagined by us, and are part of us, they are real; to know what someone isn’t — what she might have been, what she’s dreamed of being — this is to know someone intimately. When we first meet people, we know them as they are, but, with time, we perceive the auras of possibility that surround them. Miller describes the emotion this experience evokes as ‘beauty and heartbreak together.’

The novel I think of whenever I have this feeling is Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay, its central character, is the mother of eight children; the linchpin of her family, she is immersed in the practicalities of her crowded, communal life. Still, even as she attends to the particulars — the morning’s excursion, the evening’s dinner — she senses that they are only placeholders, or handles with which she can grasp something bigger. The details of life seem to her both worthy of attention and somehow arbitrary; the meaning of the whole feels tied up in its elusiveness. One night, she is sitting at dinner, surrounded by her children and her guests. She listens to her husband talking about poetry and philosophy; she watches her children whisper some private joke. (She can’t know that two of them will die: a daughter in childbirth, a son in the First World War.) Then she softens her focus. ‘She looked at the window in which the candle (ames burnt brighter now that the panes were black,’ Woolf writes, ‘and looking at that outside the voices came to her very strangely, as if they were voices at a service in a cathedral.’ In this inner quiet, lines of poetry sound:

‘And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be
Are full of trees and changing leaves.’

Mrs. Ramsay isn’t quite sure what these lines mean, and doesn’t know if she invented them, has just heard them, or is remembering them. Still, Woolf writes, ‘like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside her self, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she said different things.’ We all dwell in the here and now; we all have actual selves, actual lives. But what are they? Selves and lives have penumbras and possibilities — that’s what’s unique about them. They are always changing, and so are always new; they refuse to stand still. We live in anticipation of their meaning, which will inevitably exceed what can be known or said. Much must be left unsaid, unseen, unlived.”

Images of the future

“Images of the future are images of the totally other, and they are revolutionary and radical in nature, or they are nothing at all.” — Fred Polak, The Image of the Future

“Just as there is no single future, only many different possible futures, there is no single design action that can account for the future. We can aggregate designs about the future, but there is no collective consensus or composite picture of the future that emerges. And this condition seems particularly true today,” according to Andrew Blauvelt in Defuturing The Image of The Future, an essay for Designs for Different Futures at the Walker Art Center.

“Our need to invent the future, or to design it, is of relatively recent origin. Acts of invention and design underscore the human agency necessary to ground future-making in the here and now, a concept that emerged during the Enlightenment as conventional religious views receded enough for reason, individualism, and skepticism to advance. Studying Western cultures across history, the sociologist Fred Polak, in his epic two-volume treatise The Image of the Future, chronicled the transformation in how the future has been envisioned from ancient times to the twentieth century. According to Polak, for millennia the strongest image of the future was conceived of mostly in otherworldly terms, in religious prophecies that were to be realized in the afterlife. This changed over time, with images of the future increasingly constituted on this side of the ethereal divide, most often in the form of utopian proposals — a pursuit of paradise here on Earth. But Polak saw in the twentieth century a marked rise in negative utopia and, uniquely, a dearth of images of the future compelling enough to instigate its realization: ‘Our time is the first in the memory of man which has produced no images of the future, or only negative ones.’ He concisely prophesized the consequence of such a lack of vision: ‘The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image of the future is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full blossom. Once the image of the future begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture cannot long survive.’

Polak was writing in the 1950s and 1960s, having evaded the Nazis [Polak spent the war years in hiding] and survived World War II. He did not live to see the current state of affairs or the recently issued apocalyptic forecast for life on Earth if the factors contributing to human-induced climate change are not soon reversed. The image of the future today is one of the end of life and civilization as we know it — not as a religious reckoning from God, but as a result of human actions. Polak’s prediction for the end of Western civilization through a historically unprecedented lack of images of the future now seems sadly prescient,” according to Blauvelt.

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“[We] once thought it was possible to visit this future. The grandest gatherings of designed artifacts and experiences were assembled in the Victorian period and continued well into the twentieth century at the international fairs and expositions that arose during the industrial age, concurrent with the birth and rise of industrial design itself.” — Photograph: Visitors line up to enter the General Motors pavilion at Futurama, by the architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates, 1939–40; courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

“Paradoxically, today we seem to be awash in a sea of images about the future. Billionaires plan for life on Mars. Scientists contemplate terraforming Earth. Technologists ponder the Singularity. Our images of the future are, perhaps appropriately, post-human and post-nature. They are by turns pessimistic and optimistic, fateful and fanciful. Although decidedly futuristic, such images of the future are survivalist strategies and presumptive forecasts. They are the future posing as today’s speculative solutions to yesterday’s wicked problems. It is telling that inhabiting a faraway planet with a hostile environment is somehow easier to imagine than a future here on Earth that requires changing our thinking, behaviors, and priorities. The increasing anthropocentrism that centuries ago allowed us the agency to envision our own futures has delivered its endgame in the Anthropocene. Polak would likely not see such apocalyptic visions as images of the future, which, as he describes, ‘picture another world in another time radically different from and, in being vastly ameliorated or even approaching perfection, which is absolutely preferable to the present one of the here-and-now.’ For Polak, images of the future contain the seeds of a progressive perfection of the human condition. Perhaps, then, they are not really images at all but something more sweeping, visions in the broadest sense — grand narratives that usher in a more perfect future. Such visions by their nature are blue-sky prophecies and cannot yet depict the mundane reality of a future lived in the weeds. Images, on the other hand, like design itself, try to convince us with their detail and verisimilitude. They are like props for a script about the future in which we are invited to play along. At best, they give us only a convincing slice of the future with the greatest possible detail. Provocatively, Polak considered images of the future to be ‘powerful time-bombs’ created by people and societies with ‘little control over when, where and how they will explode.’ Thus the future is neither predictable nor controllable; in short, it is not designable in conventional terms.

Polak’s concept of defuturizing […] also describes the foreclosure of futures, but through a stubborn presentness:

‘We mean by the term [defuturizing] a retreat from constructive thinking about the future in order to dig oneself into the trenches of the Here-and-Now. It is a ruthless elimination of future-centered idealism by today-centered realism, an elimination of all thinkers about the future as poets and dreamers who are out of tune with the times. What the world really needs, we keep hearing, is realists, and above all realistic politicians; also specialists, social engineers, organizers, builders, architects, regional planners, managing directors and general staffs.’

Here Polak is evoking a criticism typical of his time, namely, that Western society was an increasingly technocratic operation governed by scientific pragmatism and bureaucratic management techniques. [He] seems to suggest that one group of people, these specialized technocrats, have displaced another group, the poets and dreamers, as the traditional gatekeepers of visions of the future. When Polak states that a ‘today-centered realism’ dismisses those who seek to envision the future as ‘poets and dreamers who are out of tune with the times, this asynchronicity implies a potentially different problem.”

Blauvelt believes that what is needed now more than ever are images of the future — those images Polak could not find — that can act as ‘powerful time-bombs.’ “I believe the cycles of influence need to be reversed, however, with the long and the slow compelling the short and the fast ‡. We need to defuse those time bombs set in motion decades or centuries ago.

If today’s dire forecasts for the end of the world as we once knew it hold true, then civilization has been defutured by an all-powerful nature. Given that sobering forecast, our images of the future today are not time bombs awaiting some distant detonation — for that future has already been unwinding — but should be prescriptions for defusing a future we know we do not want, but are certain now is coming.”

‡ Here, Blauvelt refers to Stewart Brand’s 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now, in which he cites the work of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson to support what he would eventually call ‘pace layering’: the interactions among faster and slower segments of civilization as they shape our understanding of change over time.

Life lessons from Kierkegaard (2013, Macmillan), by Robert Ferguson, is part of a series of primers from The School of Life. These books emphasize ways in which wise voices from the past have urgently important and inspiring things to tell us.

“I could never follow Kierkegaard or try to be a ‘kierkegaardian.’ In too many respects what he believed in is simply too extreme for me,” Ferguson writes in the Conclusion. “But I never cease to be fascinated by the great whirlwind of questions he raises about the meaning of life, and by the passion with which he advocated the solution he himself chose — to believe that Christ really was the son of God. I read him the same way as I swim in the sea, with no expectation of understanding the vastness of what I’m experiencing, but filled with gratitude and pleasure at being able to understand — and use — the little bit of it I do. I hope you feel the same way too.”

Here’s chapter three (unabridged) from Life lessons from Kierkegaard, larded with fragments from Kierkegaard’s 1843 book Repetition, which he published under the pseudonym Constantin Constantius to mirror its titular theme.

One of the great myths of rationalism is that there is a trick or a knack to being happy, and that if only we could learn this trick we should be happy for the rest of our lives. Publishers make fortunes from books that promote the idea. The trouble is that our happiness seems to be as arbitrary and illogical as the weather. We really don’t know why happiness suddenly manifests itself, and we don’t know why it as suddenly disappears either. With typical irony Kierkegaard gives a personal account of his own experience of the sensation of passing happiness in a passage in Repetition:

“Anyone who has given the matter any serious thought will know that I am right when I say that it is never given a person to be absolutely and in every conceivable way completely content, not even for one single half-hour of his life. I hardly need add that for such a state of affairs to arise something more than sufficient food and clothing is required. I did come close to it once. I rose one morning feeling quite unusually well; in defiance of all previous experience this sense of well-being increased as the morning advanced; at precisely one o’clock I reached a peak, a dizzying maximum previously unrecorded on any known barometer of well-being, not even on the thermometer of poetry. My body felt weightless, as though I had no body, precisely because every function savoured its own complete satisfaction, every nerve delighted in itself and in the whole, every beat of my pulse and all of the inner restlessness only memorialized and defined the joy of the moment. My walk was a soaring, not like the flight of a bird that cuts through the air and leaves the earth but like the billowing of wind over a field of corn, like the longing rocking of the sea, like the dreaming drifting of the clouds. My being was as transparent as the depths of the ocean, as the self-satisfied silence of the night, as the silent monologue of the midday. Within my soul each mood rested in melodic resonance. Every thought was open to me, each one inviting, with the same joyous exuberance, the silliest whims as well as the greatest profundities. I sensed the coming of each new impression even before it arrived and awoke inside me. All of existence seemed to be in love with me, everything moving in a preordained rapport with my being; all was prescient in me, all riddles resolved in a microcosmic bliss in which all was explained, even what was most disagreeable: the dullest remark, the most repulsive sight, the most calamitous conflict. As noted, it was at precisely one o’clock I reached a peak and had intimations of the most exalted of all when, suddenly, I got something in my eye, an eyelash or a speck of dust, something or other, I don’t know what it was. What I do know is that at that selfsame instant I plummeted to the depths of despair — easy enough to understand for anyone who has been up as high as I was, and even at that precise moment preoccupied with the theoretical question of the degree to which it is possible to attain absolute and complete contentment. Since then I have abandoned hope of ever knowing complete and universal contentment. I have abandoned even the hope I once entertained of knowing, if not complete contentment at all times then in isolated moments, even if, as Shakespeare says, ‘A tapster’s arithmetic may soon bring his particulars therein to a total.’’ (Repetition, 1843)

Probably not as often as we would like, we all have moments of extended bliss like this. And of course, Kierkegaard doesn’t expect us to feel sorry for him once his hour has passed. But rather than this spontaneous manifestation of happiness he wants us to consider our response to another, very different experience of happiness; the remembered happiness of times past, when we ‘think we know why we were happy and make a deliberate attempt to regain that happiness by recreating the circumstances of that previous occasion.

Often this will be because we’re unhappy with the circumstances of our present lives. We didn’t get the job we wanted; our marriage isn’t working out; we’re struggling to pay our bills; we’re getting old and our health is breaking down — or it might be because we’re unhappy or embarrassed or guilty about something we did in the past, the way we treated someone, and wish we could go back in time and change things. All his life Kierkegaard wrestled with the idea that he had treated his young fiancée Regine Olsen badly, and his struggles gave him a peculiarly acute insight into the futility of believing that to go back is a real option for any of us. Even if we make the most careful and scrupulous attempt to recreate the physical conditions associated with a time of happiness in the past — the same house, the same street, the same face at the window — it won’t work. Here he describes a trip he made to Berlin in order to try to relive former pleasures:

“After having concerned myself for some length of time, at least when the opportunity presented itself, with the problem of whether or not a repetition is possible, and whether something is improved or made worse by being repeated, it suddenly occurred to me: But of course — you can go to Berlin, where you were once before, and find out there whether repetition is possible, and what the significance of it might be.

. . .

I want to talk briefly about a voyage of discovery I made to investigate the possibility and potential significance of repetition. Without informing anyone of my plan (and thereby avoiding a lot of chatter that might have invalidated the experiment and in various other ways made the idea of repetition boring) I travelled by steamship to Stralsund and booked a seat on the express mail coach to Berlin. There is scholarly disagreement over which is the most comfortable seat on a coach. My view is as follows: all of them are unspeakable. On the previous occasion I had had one of the outer seats towards the front (in the view of some a great advantage) and for the next thirty-six hours was so comprehensibly shaken together with my neighbours that by the time I arrived in Hamburg I had lost possession not only of my reason but of my legs as well. During the hours that the six of us spent in that coach we were so thoroughly shaken together that we dissolved into a single body, and I was reminded of those simple-minded inhabitants of the town of Molbo who had spent so much time sitting together that in the end they were unable to recognize which were their own legs. This time, in the hope of being a limb on what would at least be a smaller body, I chose a seat in the coupé. That made a change. But still, everything repeated itself. The postilion blew his horn, I closed my eyes and spoke to myself, as I usually do on such occasions: God knows if you’ll survive this, if you’ll really get to Berlin, and if you do whether you’ll ever be a human being again and capable of liberating yourself in the individualism of isolation, or whether this memory of being a limb on a huge body will always be with you.

And yet I did get to Berlin.

Straight away I hurried off to my old lodgings to settle this matter of whether a repetition was possible.” (Repetition, 1843)

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Søren Kierkegaard famously pointed out that the only way we can understand life is backwards — we are compelled to live moving forwards, but attempt understanding by looking at what has happened. (Illustration by Zé Otavio for Harper’s Magazine; from Difficulties Everywhere: Can Kierkegaard tell us how to live?, by Christopher Beha)

[Ferguson continues…]

The first disappointing departure from the script is that his landlord has now married and is using the room he formerly rented, obliging him to make do with a different room. In order to heighten the chance of repetition displaying itself to him he goes to the theatre to attend the performance of a play with which he is already familiar. This looks promising. And yet, as he discovers, sometimes the repetition you get is not the one you wanted:

Der Talismann was to be performed at the Königstädter Theatre. The memory of it awoke in my soul and I saw it all so clearly, just as it had been on that former occasion. I hurried off to the theatre. This time there were no individual boxes to be had . . . and I found myself among a group of people who were uncertain whether to be entertained or bored — the kind one can with complete certainty dismiss as boring . . . I stood it for half an hour and then left the theatre, saying to myself: naturally, there is no such thing as repetition . . . I headed off to the cafe which I had frequented each day on my previous visit . . . Perhaps the coffee would be as good as it was last time. One might almost assume it would be. And yet it wasn’t to my taste.

In the evening I went out to the restaurant I had frequented on my previous visit, and where, presumably from force of habit, I had even enjoyed myself. Having gone there each evening I was familiar with every detail of the place. I knew when the early visitors left, the particular fashion in which they said goodbye to those remaining behind, whether they put their hats on in the inner room or the outer room, or not until they’d opened the door, or not until they were outside. No one escaped my notice; like Proserpine I plucked a hair from every head, even from the bald. It was the same in every respect. Same jokes, same little courtesies, same mild inebriation, the whole place just the same — in short, a sameness within a sameness. Solomon says that the quarrelling of a woman is like a dripping from the roof — who knows how he would have reacted to this still life! Appalling thought, but repetition was indeed possible here.

I was at the Königstädter Theatre again the next evening. The only thing that repeated itself was the impossibility of a repetition. No matter which way I turned, all was in vain. The little dancer who had enchanted me on the previous occasion with a grace that seemed poised to leap had now done her leap; the blind man in front of the Brandenburg Gate, my harpist — I was probably the only one who was concerned about him — was now wearing a greyish coat instead of the light green one that I longed to see in my melancholy, the one that made him look like a weeping willow. He was lost to me.

. . . When all this had repeated itself for several days I became so embittered and bored with repetition that I decided to go back home. What I had learned was remarkable, although not significant. I had discovered that there is no repetition, and I had made absolutely certain of the truth of this by having it repeated to me many times, in numerous different ways.

I vested all my hopes in home. Justinus Kerner tells a story somewhere about a man who grew bored with his home and had his horse saddled up with the intention of riding off into the wide world. After he had ridden a short distance the horse threw him. It turned out to be a decisive moment for him, for as he turned to remount his gaze once more fell on the home that he was so keen to leave. He looked and he saw that it was so lovely that he at once returned. In my own home I felt tolerably certain I would find everything poised for repetition. I have always been deeply suspicious of all upheaval, even to the extent of hating every form of cleaning, and above all the scrubbing of floors. I had accordingly given the strictest instructions that my conservative principles be respected also during my absence.

But what happens? My faithful servant was of another opinion. He presumed that in beginning a ferocious cleaning very shortly after my departure all would be over by the time I returned, confident in his own ability to put everything neatly back just the way it had been. I arrive, I ring on my own doorbell, my servant opens the door. It was a remarkable moment. My servant turned as pale as a corpse as, through the half-opened door, I beheld the appalling sight: everything was upside down. I was stunned. In his bewilderment he had no idea what to do and as his guilty conscience overcame him he slammed the door in my face. This was too much. With my need now at its greatest height my principles wilted and I feared the worst . . . I understood that there really is no repetition, and that my former understanding of life had triumphed . . .

Time passed, my servant made amends for his earlier wrong, and a monotonous uniformity once more descended upon my affairs. Whatever couldn’t move stood in its ordained place, and whatever could, moved in its predictable course: my clock, my servant — and myself, pacing up and down across the floor. For even though I had ascertained that there is no repetition, it will always be the case that inflexibility and a sort of wilful dulling of one’s powers of observation will produce a uniformity that is far more stupefying than the most whimsical of diversions, and that in the course of a lifetime will grow ever stronger, like an enchantment.” (Repetition, 1843)

Kierkegaard often reminds us of the dangers of trying to control life too much, to escape its vagaries and surprises by turning it into a trustworthy and unchanging routine. With an eye to the theatricality of the Danish postal service he offers a personal and beguilingly surreal solution to the whole problem:

“Hail the post horn! For many reasons, that is the instrument for me. And most particularly for this reason, that one can never be completely sure of coaxing the same note from it twice. There are endless possibilities in a post horn, and whoever puts it to his lips and applies his wisdom to it will never find himself guilty of a repetition, and whoever instead of answering a friend presents him with a post horn for his pleasurable convenience says nothing but explains everything. Praise be to the post horn! That is my crest. As the ascetics of old placed a skull on the desk and devoted their lives to meditating upon it, so shall the post horn on my desk always remind me of what the meaning of life is. Hail the post horn! But the journey is not worth the inconvenience suffered, for one scarcely need move from the spot to be persuaded that there is no repetition. No, one sits quietly in one’s room, when all is vanity and has passed away, and yet journeys more swiftly than one does on a train, despite the fact that one is sitting quite still. Everything shall remind me of this. My servant shall wear the livery of the postal service, and when dining out my only conveyance shall be the post-chaise. Farewell, farewell, rich hope of youth! Why all this haste? That which you chase does not exist, no more than you yourself do! Farewell, manly strength! Why do you tramp so hard on the ground? That which you tread upon is an illusion! Farewell, triumphant resolve, you will not reach your goal, for you cannot take your deed with you unless you turn back, and that you cannot do. Farewell, beauties of the forest, already faded by the time I wanted to see you! Roll on, you fleeting river, the only thing that really knows what it wants, that wants only to run and lose itself in the sea, which will never be filled! Play on, you drama of life, which none call a comedy and none a tragedy, because none have seen how it ends! Hurry along, you drama of existence, where life does not come back any more than money spent does. Why has no one ever returned from the dead? Because life does not know how to fascinate as death does, because life cannot persuade the way death does. Yes, death is a matchless persuader, provided one does not attempt to contradict it but lets it talk on. Its persuasion is instantaneous, so that none have ever raised a word in objection, nor longed to hear the persuasion of life.” (Repetition, 1843)’

Kierkegaard’s idea of ‘repetition’ is actually more than a simple rejection of the desire to live in the past, either by indulging an addiction to memory or by the actual physical recreation of a set of once-familiar circumstances. He uses the term in a special philosophical sense to mean that if we simply put our trust in the unfolding moment of life (or in God’s infinite repertoire of possibilities), then there is no need ever to prefer the past; the most unexpected things may well happen to us just a few seconds from now.”

If you’re interested in Kierkegaard, I recommend Clare Carlisle’s sparkling, penetrative new biography.

“Kierkegaard’s life and writing are a testament to the cruelty, the generosity and the inventiveness of those who believe in the Real Thing, the prophets of authenticity. Carlisle’s timely book gives us a good way of thinking about all this and of thinking about Kierkegaard again,” Adam Phillips wrote in his review for The Guardian.

And also this…

Wolfram Eilenberger’s book Time of the Magicians takes us back to a decade that began with the peace and ended with its disastrous consequences, the stock market crash, and Europe’s final swing towards fascism. In these ten years between 1919 and 1929, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin “thought intently, obsessively and sometimes dangerously about how to answer the oldest questions of philosophy. What is a human being? How should I live? And, possibly most importantly, how, in such conditions, can I even ask these questions?,” Lyndsey Stonebridge writes in The four thinkers who reinvented philosophy.

“None of them really wanted to, despite their (many) vanities. All four wanted to shake things up, but not simply for the sake of show. Each believed that only a fearless rethinking of certainties, a piercing of convention and superficialities, and a puncturing of lies and falsehoods, could push philosophy, and humanity, into a position from which to see the world as it really is.

The magic that these notoriously difficult thinkers pulled off is deceptively simple. Each, in their own way, stripped back philosophy in order to make the world sparkle again. They argued that there are no absolute grounds for being, knowing or living that can be reasoned into the light with the old tools of philosophy: the real magic, they claimed, is there in front of us.”

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“We have perhaps never needed the thinkers of the early part of the 20th century more than at any other time since it ended. Barely 20 years ago it seemed as though we had mastered modernity. Apparently we’d learned to enjoy and profit from the postmodern, free- market world; the quicksands of moral, political or philosophical uncertainty were no longer to be feared. Now, nobody is quite so sure,” Lyndsey Stonebridge writes in The four thinkers who reinvented philosophy. (Image, from left to right: Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin; courtesy of the New Statesman)

“For Wittgenstein, born in Vienna in 1889, it lay in the pristine logic of what language shows, and not in what we assume it to be telling us. Cassirer, born in 1874 in what was then Silesia, similarly rediscovered the mysteries of human life in the rich historical interplay of symbols and speech. Heidegger, born in south-west Germany in 1889, was a darker kind of wizard, and urged that we leap into the nothingness that stares us in the face. We must, he argued, grasp the project of being in the world (Dasein — ‘being there’), alone and unsupported by old metaphysical certainties, anxiously but authentically. Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892, was less persuaded by authenticity. He was enchanted by the redeeming wonders of the everyday, those moments that could seize life back for us, if only fleetingly, in a glance; a shop window, a word.

All knew of one another, even though (with the exception of Cassirer and Heidegger, for a short time) none were friends. One of Eilenberger’s gifts is to put his thinkers into the imaginary conversations we might wish they had had. ‘Imagine, by way of experiment, two young men strolling together through the city,’ he writes, ‘suddenly one says to the other’:

‘How strange that anything exists [‘dass es überhaupt etwas gibt’]! How miraculous: There! And there! Do you see it, too?’

And the other man nods and says:

‘Yes, I see it. It also shows itself to me. And you know, I always think: It is not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is.’

The first young man is Heidegger, the second Wittgenstein. The latter would have been quietly content that both were on the same page; the former, who liked nothing better than to walk and talk, would have seized the occasion to say much more.

All four thinkers shout up at us from their own dark days: just look, really look, at what’s there in front of you, they say. Read, observe, describe, follow your mind, be fearless, critical, creative, wondrous and above all don’t be fooled by easy habits, commonplace clichés, orthodoxies, ideologies, cults, or obscurantist nonsense.”

Plato’s often-overlooked Seventh Letter has proved an enigma for scholars, at least since the great German philologists of the 19th century, Nick Romeo and Ian Tewksbury write in Plato in Sicily.

“While the majority of scholars have accepted its authenticity, few have given its theory of political action a prominent place in the exegesis of Plato.” Today, “The Seventh Letter still serves to remind us that philosophy is a practice, not an instrument. As Plato wrote, philosophy ‘is not something that can be put into words like other sciences.’ Instead, ‘after long-continued exchange between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straight away nourishes itself.’ Rather than the competitive striving and isolation that define so much contemporary academic life, genuine philosophical practice requires friendships and collaboration devoted to advancing the flourishing of an entire community.

For Plato, perhaps the strongest reason why philosophers should be kings is so that they can influence the nature of education. Some of Plato’s proposals for how they should do this in The Republic are not persuasive (for instance, the idea of depriving children of the knowledge of who their parents are so that the young people are more pliable). But education as the cultivation of the soul and the practice of philosophy, which entails the capacity to subordinate Hobbes’s individualistic ‘desire of power’ to the communal pursuit of justice, remains urgently necessary.

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Plato’s Italian voyages “reveal that true philosophical knowledge entails action; they show the immense power of friendship in Plato’s life and philosophy; and they suggest that Plato’s philosopher-king thesis is not false so much as incomplete.” — Illustration: Plato, Neurenberg, 1493, workshop of Michel Wolgemut; letterpress print on paper, 7.3 x 5.5 cm. Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

“In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche declared: ‘Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.’ We still live under the dismal shadow of this belief. Our age of radical individualism and specialisation sanctions the split of knowledge and power, with academics pursuing one as politicians exercise the other. Plato’s Seventh Letter provides a different vision by recalling the intimate and necessary connection between philosophy and politics, community and justice, friendship and knowledge. Above all, it teaches us that action requires knowledge, and knowledge requires action. Knowledge is neither ‘illusion,’ nor merely an instrument for the pursuit of power. It is a collective practice best cultivated in communities of philosophical friendship. An age of democracy doesn’t automatically need to abandon Plato’s ideal of the philosopher-king; we need only to expand it until friendship and education bind together as many people as possible into philosopher-citizens, ruling together in ‘good will’ and ‘without envy.’”

In A Japanese Grandmother’s Punny Yet Practical Advice on How to Feel Young and Fresh Forever, Kaki Okumura, the writer of a Japanese wellness blog, shares a lovely conversation with her mother about finding your life’s purpose.

“I was eating dinner with my mom at home, and kind of blurted it out: ‘I feel like I’m living in a dream, and I don’t like it.’ It wasn’t a serious comment, just something I wanted someone else to relate to.

[…]

At first my mom was silent and I thought she wasn’t going to say anything, or maybe she would tell me that I was being silly, but instead she gave me a thoughtful look, and eventually responded, ‘You know, that reminds me of a newspaper article I read a while ago. I can’t quite pinpoint where, but it was about this 90-year-old grandmother, and she was giving an interview on how to live well and be healthy.’

‘Oh, like those typical newspaper columns they do occasionally.’

‘Exactly, but her advice was so strange it took me a second to get it.’

In the interview, the grandmother was asked how to stay young and active into old age, and she gave a two-word response: kyoyo, kyoiku.

Kyoyo = 教養 (Liberal Arts)

Kyoiku = 教育 (Education)

The grandmother said she kept these two things in mind every day, and I guess it made sense. They say that learning keeps you young, so I nodded my head and went, okay, great. Thanks for the advice mom.

But my mom saw my dissatisfaction and smiled. She corrected, ‘No, no. It’s not the kyoyo and kyoiku you think it is. It’s a pun. Kyo meaning today, yo meaning plans, and iku meaning to go. She was explaining that these things are important to have, because they help build your sense of purpose, even when you’re not sure what that is.’

Kyoyo = 今日の予定 (Today’s plans)

Kyoiku = 今日の行く場所 (Today’s destination)

While a lot of us may believe that we are to first discover our passion, and then to develop plans to go achieve them, finding purpose can also work in the opposite manner: making arbitrary plans and giving yourself a place to go, and then assigning meaning behind it.”

Bob Dylan, who has had control over nearly all of his songwriting copyrights throughout his career, recently sold his entire catalogue to Universal Music in “what may be the biggest acquisition ever of a single act’s publishing rights,” according to The New York Times. But Ian Leslie wonders why Bob Dylan’s art is worth less than Damien Hirst’s?

“I’m not talking about Dylan’s paintings but his primary art form — his songs. On hearing that he has sold the rights to his catalogue for $300 million, my question was, why so little? Given that Dylan is one of the most important American artists of the last 100 years, if not numero uno, it feels like his collected works ought to be valued more highly, no? I mean if you set out of acquire the entire Damian Hirst catalogue you’d have to spend a lot more than $300m. Christ, I wouldn’t be surprised if Banksy’s oeuvre set you back more.

This raises the question of which art-forms are more financially valuable and why. I suppose the reason a Damian Hirst shark is worth so much is that it retains what Walter Benjamin called the aura of a work of art — ‘its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ In the age of reproduction we’ll pay even more for that aura — that’s why the art world is so obsessed with authenticity. The equivalent for a musician is his or her physical presence. In an age of infinitely available reproductions of songs, via streaming, musical artists now make more of their money from performing — from being at a time and place where audiences can partake of their aura. But while Hirst can produce lots of sharks and other works, Dylan only has one Dylan to show people at his shows (aura is why people still go to see him — I don’t think it’s for the music at this stage).”

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“Dylan himself has not always approached his catalogue with the same seething reverence as his fans do, nor has he been especially reluctant to monetize his image,” Amanda Petrusich writes in Can You Really Buy Bob Dylan’s Songs? — Photograph by Jerry Schatzberg, who captured hundreds of images of Bob Dylan, beginning in the mid-1960s, including the cover image for Dylan’s iconic Blonde on Blonde album (1966).

Earlier this week, Ian Leslie’s essay 64 Reasons To Celebrate Paul McCartney was one of the nominees for The 2020 Russell Prize for best writing (won by Decca Aitkenhead for her essay How a Jamaican Psychedelic Mushroom Retreat Helped Me Process My Grief). Leslie’s “extraordinary love letter to Paul McCartney is the sort of gift we all secretly — and sometimes not so secretly — hope for before we die. It’s a chronicle of legacy. Leslie captures the sheer, astonishing, largely unrecognised range of McCartney’s genius, detailing a lifetime’s achievement with the affection of a fan and the eye of a crime reporter.”

All five essays, as well as Suzanne Moore’s essay on why she left the Guardian — “laziness of thought is my big fear, this unthinking adherence to some simplistic orthodoxy” — are well worth your time and thinking.

They are a Christmas card staple — the three kings who followed a star to the baby Jesus. But one of them caused a revolution in art. In Myrrh mystery: how did Balthasar, one of the three kings, become black?, Jonathan Jones unravels the mystery of the Magi.

“Although the Gospel of Matthew does not give individual names to this regal trio, we know them as Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior, thanks to a Greek manuscript from AD500. It was in the middle ages, too, that they were promoted from astronomers to kings. And a text attributed to the Venerable Bede, the historian monk from Northumbria, makes Balthasar black. Despite Bede’s assertion, there are very few images of a black Balthasar before 1400, possibly because medieval Europeans had so little concept of Africans. It was only with the dawning of the Renaissance that Balthasar’s colour began to be emphatically depicted,” Jones writes.

“In Hieronymus Bosch’s delirious, hypnotic Adoration of the Magi, painted for an Antwerp couple in the 1490s, Joseph washes Jesus’s nappy as mysterious crowds swarm towards the stable, where the Antichrist looks on malevolently. There’s no denying the splendour of Bosch’s Balthasar. Contrasting vividly with his complexion, the fantastical white robe the magus wears is a surreal delight, spilling on to the ground with a creamy yet solid appearance, full of ornate leafy details that look more carved than sewn. It could be one of the ivory artworks Portuguese ships brought from west Africa. Bosch’s Balthasar, you could almost say, is wearing African art.

If that seems a stretch, it’s no one-off. There’s an adoration by Bosch’s disciple Pieter Bruegel the Elder that also gives Balthasar an ivory-coloured gown. And his gift is a gold vessel in the shape of a sailing ship, an explicit image of the Atlantic trade in gold and human beings. Bosch painted his adoration in the decade Columbus made landfall in the New World. Its intimations of a strange new earth, with the star shining over an astonishingly futuristic city, mirror his masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s adoration is a hallucinatory intimation of a world reborn, where the slaves he may have seen in Antwerp have transformed into a magnificent king and his page.”

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Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1494, by Hieronymus Bosch; triptych, oil on oak panel, 138 x 138 cm. Collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
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The Adoration of the Kings, 1564, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder; oil on oak panel, 112.1 x 83.9 cm. Collection of The National Gallery, London.

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“Amid the lowing of oxen and the ringing of bells, Balthasar speaks: a poem by the British-Nigerian writer Theresa Lola gives a voice to this black king, a stranger in a strange land. Lola imagines him dwelling on how different, how self-conscious he feels. ‘The ground seems to be opening its teeth, either to bite or to kiss me — my eyes feel foreign. I guess to know deeply, one must look deeply.’” — The Adoration of the Kings, 1510–1515, by Jan Gossaert; oil on oak, 177.2 x 161.8 cm. Collection of The National Gallery, London.

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“In Albrecht Dürer’s Adoration of the Magi, painted in the artist’s home city of Nuremberg in 1504, a young black man with short hair and red leggings stands elegantly, holding a spherical gold goblet full of myrrh, a natural aromatic. The next king along is turning to look at his gift — or perhaps his legs. This causes an intriguing frisson as the long-haired magus caught in mid-turn is a self-portrait of the bisexual Dürer himself.” — Adoration of the Magi, 1504, by Albrecht Dürer; oil on panel, 100 x 114 cm. Collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florrence.

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“What’s especially intriguing is that these depictions of a black Balthasar were a choice: they were neither obligatory nor universal in Renaissance art. In Florence, for example, the black magus was whitewashed. All the kings in Botticelli’s famous 1475 adoration are white (as they are in Benozzo Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi). That’s because they are actually portraits of the Medici family, who liked to identify with these wise and magnificent monarchs.” — Adoration of the Magi, 1475, by Sandro Botticelli, who painted himself on the far right, looking away from the scene; tempera on wood, 111 x cm 134 cm. Collection of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
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“I have been told that some of my photographs maybe indicate that I am a painter.“ — Saul Leiter (Photograph: Waiter, Paris, 1959, by Saul Leiter)

“In a technologically advanced, consumer society, we can all too easily slide into a way of viewing the world in which other people become just executors of functions and the things of the world mere resources. The problem is not that the system demands this but that it encourages it, and we are too easily led. It is not the world that needs to change but how we see it. It is up to us to dehumanise our daily interactions, to see others as selves, not functionaries.” — Julian Baggini in Sartre’s waiter revisited

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