Sunday, 17 May 2015

On retreating into galleries, museums and the beauty of art (with help from Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch)

Museums and galleries remain among the few oases that can deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyperconnected lives and experience the feeling of wonder. Museums are where we go to commune with the permanent, the ineffable, and the unquantifiable. And it’s an especially rare, and thus precious, experience in our technology-besieged lives. Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes a museum’s mission as providing visitors with “resonance and wonder … an intangible sense of elation—a feeling that a weight was lifted.”

- Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner (1839), displayed in the National Gallery.

Look for a museum when life isn't making much sense

"I mean seeing the Elgin marbles this morning gave me the same feeling and I didn’t know, don’t know whether I’m in Rome or Paris. I mean the Louvre and the British Museum hold one together, keep one from going to bits". - Asphodel, H.D.
Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains, and the maker of canyons and pine mountains! All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars. –Kabir 

Spend time looking at a painting (really looking)

View on Delft by Vermeer (c.1660-61).
She’d never seen a great painting in person until she was eighteen and moved to New York, and she was eager to make up for lost time – “pure bliss, perfect heaven,” she’d said, up to the neck in art books and poring over the same old slides (Manet, Vuillard) until her vision started to blur. (“It’s crazy,” she’d said, “but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way to go insane.”) - The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Care for, or admire, a few beautiful things

Croatian Apoxyomenos, a bronze statue from 4th century BC currently on display in the British Museum's "Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art" exhibition. Photo attribution: Marie-Lan Nguyen.
“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” - The Goldfinch

Keep looking until you find art that resonates with you

Two Women in a Garden by Eric Ravilious (1933)
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Hobie said: about those images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find. - The Goldfinch
if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” - The Goldfinch
“Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering - because you can't take it in all at once.” ― Audrey Hepburn

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Saturday, 9 May 2015

Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov on why being knocked off course is "only the start of something new and good"

My favourite translation by Anthony Briggs and
published by Penguin.
A fortnight ago I submitted my undergraduate dissertation, which consisted of eight thousand words on Pierre Bezukhov's transformation from "absolute scoundrel" to "a man of such value to society" in Tolstoy's War and Peace. My argument: Pierre does not reach perfection, but rather a state of increased self-knowledge that comes from failures, false starts and poor decisions.

It was a lot of fun to research and put the essay together, and I've gathered several quotes and snippets of interestingness that I look forward to sharing here.

One particular point of the novel that we can mull over is Pierre's captivity after he is falsely accused of arson. Pierre's old life is quickly stripped away, and he realises that his family name and status now mean nothing. He undergoes weeks of hardship and witnesses a series of executions, only realising at the final moment that he has been taken there as a spectator.

However, as George R. Clay recognises in Tolstoy's Phoenix, it is during this challenging time that Pierre “exchanges his former absent-mindedness and chronic despair for ‘a feeling of alertness and readiness for anything’”, calling Pierre’s experience a great “realignment of aspirations” (60).

As Pierre contemplates after he returns home,
‘Everybody says that adversity means suffering’, said Pierre. ‘But if you asked me now, at this moment, whether I wanted to stay as I was before I was taken prisoner, or go through it all again, my God, I’d sooner be a prisoner and eat horse-meat again. We all think we only have to be knocked a little bit off course and we’ve lost everything, but it’s only the start of something new and good. Where there is life, there is happiness. There is a huge amount yet to come.’ (1247)
Adversity challenges Pierre's mental strength, but he perceives it as leading to opportunity rather than suffering: the opportunity of time to think, reassess his own values, and start afresh. As the novel closes, Pierre is an entirely different man from the “gross object, oversized and out of place” at Anna Pavlovna's soirée at the start of the novel, and his road to transformation is one of the most memorable journeys in Tolstoy's writing.

When we can, I think it's worth pondering "where there is life, there is happiness". Because happiness is always there somewhere, even if it means making a conscious effort to find it and build on it.

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Sunday, 3 May 2015

9 lessons on slowing down and reassessing our values from Arianna Huffington's Thrive

I wasn't expecting huge things from Arianna Huffington's Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. For one, there's the title. Reviews haven't necessarily been glowing either. However, Thrive comes with a few life lessons that really are worth mulling over, and it's a book I'll return to. After all, if a book gets you thinking about how you're living your life, do reviews really matter at all?

On a day when the wind is perfect, the sail just needs to open and the world is full of beauty. Today is such a day. –RUMI

Arianna Huffington's "12 Steps to Thrive". Infographic source:

1. Think about the end and work backwards

[It] is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies. We almost never hear things like: “The crowning achievement of his life was when he made senior vice president.” Or: “He increased market share for his company multiple times during his tenure.” Or: “She never stopped working. She ate lunch at her desk. Every day.” Or: “He never made it to his kid’s Little League games because he always had to go over those figures one more time.” Or: “While she didn’t have any real friends, she had six hundred Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her in-box every night.” Or: “His PowerPoint slides were always meticulously prepared.” Our eulogies are always about the other stuff: what we gave, how we connected, how much we meant to our family and friends, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, and the things that made us laugh.

2. Talk about death with your loved ones

“The best part of The Conversation Project,” she told me, “is that we are asking people to talk about their end of life wishes at the kitchen table and not in the ICU. We are asking them to talk about what matters to them, not what’s the matter with them. The conversations turn out to be some of the most intimate and caring ones that families have ever had.”

3. "Turn off all notifications; you should control when you want information"

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life. –Wu Men

4. Sit idly in the garden

“there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden”

- In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

5. Dedicate a little time to philosophy and thinking about the world

“Stoicism took off because it offered security and peace in a time of warfare and crisis,” write Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, authors of a biography of the Stoic Cato the Younger. “The Stoic creed didn’t promise material security or a peace in the afterlife; but it did promise an unshakable happiness in this life.”

6. What matters is what we give our attention to

I did a major “life audit” when I turned forty, and I realized how many projects I had committed to in my head—such as learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook. Most remained unfinished, and many were not even started. Yet these countless incomplete projects drained my energy and diffused my attention. As soon as the file was opened, each one took a little bit of me away. It was very liberating to realize that I could “complete” a project by simply dropping it—by eliminating it from my to-do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage? That’s how I completed learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook and a host of other projects that now no longer have a claim on my attention.

7. Treat bedtime like an appointment you can't miss

Too many of us think of our sleep as the flexible item in our schedule that can be endlessly moved around to accommodate our fixed and top priority of work. But like a flight or train, our sleep should be thought of as the fixed point in our day, and everything else should be adjusted as needed so we don’t miss it.

8. Find time to appreciate art and beauty

Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes a museum’s mission as providing visitors with “resonance and wonder … an intangible sense of elation—a feeling that a weight was lifted.” Or as my fellow countryman Aristotle put it: “catharsis.”

 9. Retain a sense of wonder

For me, whether I’m on a visit to a monastery in Greece or an elaborately planned staycation (that involves disengaging from all my devices, going on long hikes or walks, yoga classes and unhurried meditations, sleeping in with no alarms, and reading actual books you can underline that have nothing to do with work), the essential element is to regain that sense of wonder. It means disconnecting from the outside world and setting out—for however short a time—on an inner journey.

You can find the book on Amazon, or read more about stoicism and mindfulness here on the blog.

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Sunday, 19 April 2015

'Feast on your life': Tom Hiddleston on Derek Walcott's "Love After Love" for accepting ourselves

I read it to my dearest friends after dinner once, and to my family at Christmas, and they started crying. Which always, unfailingly, makes me cry.

- Tom Hiddleston on "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott, a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. VIII Festival Internacional de Poesía en Granada, 2012. Source.

In Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden, actor Tom Hiddleston (known for roles in The Avengers and War Horse) selects "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott as his choice for the anthology.

He describes how he reads the poem often, at least once a month, as an antidote to "the madness and mayhem of modern life, where every man seems committed to an endless search for the approval and esteem of his fellows and peers, no matter what the cost". After all, as the actor explains,

Most of us are motivated deep down by a sense of insufficiency, a need to be better, stronger, faster; to work harder; to be more committed, more kind, more self-sufficient, more successful. We are driven by a sense that we are not, as we are, 'enough'.

"Love After Love" alternatively, is "like a declaration of unconditional love" that asserts "we are each of us whole, perfectly imperfect, enough." We can read it to become more aware of the present moment, gain a sense of calm, and feel grateful for what we do have, rather than what we do not. It's a powerful piece of writing that achieves this.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self [...]

Read the full poem here, in Walcott's Sea Grapes anthology, or his Selected Poems

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Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lessons on how to survive from Laurence Gonzales's Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales and stoicismI'm fascinated by Stoic philosophy and "survival mindsets". I read a lot about how we can tailor our thinking to help us get through both everyday challenges and the most difficult of circumstances, and recently came across Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales.

I enjoyed the author's application of Stoic philosophy to modern life, alongside the anecdotes he chose (including that of the wonderful Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who spent 4 days stranded in the Sahara desert).

Here are a few lessons from the book to get us started on our survival education.

1. See the beauty

Steven Callahan (born 1952) is an American sailor, author and inventor who is known (amongst other things) for having survived 76 days adrift on the Atlantic Ocean in a liferaft.

As we can see in his autobiographical Adrift: 76 Days Lost At Sea, he was clearly attuned to the wonder of the world. Upon seeing a rainbow, Callahan wrote that, "I feel as if I am passing down the corridor of a heavenly vault of irreproducible grandeur and color." And after 53 days at sea, he described how:
I am constantly surrounded by a display of natural wonders... It is beauty surrounded by ugly fear. I write in my log that it is a view of heaven from a seat in hell. 
We can also link this to Viktor Frankl's survival of life in concentration camps, which he describes with so much reference to nature's beauty in Man's Search for Meaning. Tolstoy's Pierre also undergoes a similar experience during his captivity in War and Peace.

2. Be there for others

As I wrote about both the Boyhood movie and Walt Whitman, a life is made up of connections to others and we thrive on human contact. Think about how you can help others.

Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. - Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival

3. Develop a stoic mindset

Read the philosophers, strengthen your mind, be grateful, and understand what's important to focus your attention on. Change the things you can, accept the things you can't. It comes in useful.

In summarising Marcus Aurelius's teachings, Irwin Edman wrote during World War II, in his introduction to the Meditations, that: "Fortitude is necessary, and patience and courtesy and modesty and decorum, and a will, in what may for the moment seem to be the worst of worlds, to do one's best".

On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use

- Epictetus

4. Know your stuff

If you're embarking on an adventure into nature, have a deep knowledge of the world you're entering. As Marcus Aurelius encouraged, "Of each particular thing, ask: 'What is it in itself, in its own construction?'"

The story of Christopher McCandless, narrated by John Krakauer in Into the Wild, is inspiring in his decision to leave the chaos of modern life for simplicity in nature (having been inspired by Tolstoy). However, I also think it provides a lot of lessons on what not to do.

5. Learn to face reality

The first rule is: Face reality. Good survivors aren’t immune to fear. They know what’s happening, and it does “scare the living shit out of” them. It’s all a question of what you do next.

Whether we are in the wilderness or experiencing the challenges that life throws at us all, I think that Laurence Gonzales has created a good toolkit to get us started. 

P.S. To follow-up from something I wrote in my ebook a few years back, I still think we should all carry a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius around.

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Saturday, 4 April 2015

Lessons on failure from Pierre in Tolstoy's War and Peace

I've posted before about Tolstoy's "Rules of Life" and desire for self-improvement, both of which generally led to failure rather than any real progression. War and Peace tells a similar story, as my university dissertation research into Pierre Bezukhov's path from "absolute scoundrel" to splendid husband and father suggests.

Sketch of Pierre by M.S. Bashilov, to which Tolstoy responded: 
"His face is good (if only there could be more of a tendency
to philosophizing in his forehead – little wrinkles or bumps
over his eyebrows), but his body is small  – it should be wider
and stouter and more massive."
Pierre is one of my favourite characters in literature. He's goodhearted and a character I aspire to be like in many ways, but he's definitely not without his flaws. His literary life is littered with false-starts, misjudgements and failures, but this is all so... authentic.

While I'll be writing more about Pierre's transformation (I've written before about how War and Peace can help us to find direction in life), for now I'd like to embrace his failures.

Here are just a few of them.

He volunteers for foolish drinking games

Dolokhov, one of the many negative influences in Pierre's life as a twentysomething, drinks a bottle of rum while sitting on a window ledge. Immediately afterwards, Pierre also jumps on to the window-sill, shouting, “I don’t even need a bet. No, I don’t. Tell them to get me a bottle. I’ll do it … Just get me a bottle”.

Fortunately for us and for Pierre, the bet is postponed and never happens. Lessons to be learned: heavy drinking doesn't end well, nor does copying stupid friends.

He ties a policeman to a bear and throws them both in the Moyka

While Pierre doesn't drink rum on a window ledge that night, he does tie a policeman to a bear, drop the bear in the Moyka river, and is banished from the city with the rest of the "absolute scoundrels". Needless to say, this fuels society gossip for some time, although one or two remain convinced of Pierre's good nature behind the peer pressure.

He always seemed to me to have an excellent heart, and this is the quality I value most in people. [...] So young and burdened with this wealth, what temptations will he have to resist!

- Princess Marya, who sees Pierre's mishaps for what they are

He admires the wrong people and is seduced by appearance

In Pierre's early twenties, when life is at its most chaotic, he not only misjudges situations and choices, but also people. Lacking a positive role model, he is envious of the malicious, empty and pretentious Anatole Kuragin. Perhaps, we think, this is a mistake he has to make in order to move forwards:

His face was fresh and flowing, his hat sported white feathers and sat at a jaunty angle, showing off pomaded curls with a sprinkling of fine snow. ‘Now that’s what I call worldly wisdom!’ thought Pierre. ‘He can’t see beyond the pleasure of the moment, nothing worries him, so he’s always happy and contented. What wouldn’t I give to be like him?’ he mused, full of envy. (651)

He marries for looks and is promptly cheated on

Pierre's marriage to Hélène is a big mistake, no doubt about it. His second marriage seems a lot more positive, however, and by the end of War and Peace we feel he's learned his lesson. On his marriage to the beautiful Hélène, he ponders:

"Oh, why did I say ‘I love you’?” he asked himself over and over again. At the tenth time of asking a quotation from Molière occurred to him: "How the devil was he going to get himself out of a mess like that?" and he laughed at himself.

He believes he is destined to kill Napoleon according to numerology

This is probably the most ridiculous of Pierre's errors, and hopefully not one we can align too easily with our own experience. By lining up the French alphabet alongside a list of numbers, Pierre thinks it is his duty to "put an end to the power of the beast that was Napoleon”. Pierre clearly isn't thinking very logically, especially considering the manipulation of word order and spelling required to get to this point. The fact that he also ends up saving three people instead of killing Napoleon also says a lot.

l’russe Besuhof - exactly 666! This discovery shook him. How, and by what means, he was connected with the great event predicted in the Apocalypse, he couldn’t tell, but the connection was there beyond doubt.

When you're faced with failure or mistakes, think about Pierre

We all fail often, and we all have a lot of mistakes left to make.

While Pierre does learn from his mistakes and rarely commits a similar one twice, he doesn't stop failing. His intentions, values, intuition and social circles do change, however, and this marks his true transformation.

Maybe you need to avoid some negative influences, or spend more time thinking through a decision. Perhaps, however, the failure was simply unavoidable, or at least all part of a our constant learning experience.

Without the failures and mistakes of its characters, I don't think War and Peace could be anywhere near as authentic. I'd like to think the same about our own lives too.

“Pierre looked into the sky, into the depths of the retreating, twinkling stars. "And all this is mine, and all this is in me, and all this is me!" thought Pierre. "And all this they've caught and put in a shed and boarded it up!”

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