‘overall impression is Brilliant!’; ‘many a gem’; ‘words that weigh you down with the truth in them’; ‘I can confidently say that it has the navarasas (the nine emotions in Indian aesthetics)’.
I’ve been reading Daniel Klein’s ‘Travels with Epicurus‘, and reflecting on the concept of play in relation to the life stages we all go through.
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. Born on Samos, he lived in Athens and Asia-Minor. Epicurus is known for teaching that the purpose of philosophy is to attain a happy, tranquil life.
Answering the question “How does one make the most of one’s life?” Epicurus’s answer, according to Klein, was that
the best possible life one could live is a happy one, a life filled with pleasure. At first look, this conclusion seems like a no-brainer, the sort of wisdom found in a horoscope. But Epicurus knew this was only a starting point because it raised the more troublesome and perplexing questions of what constitutes a happy life, which pleasures are truly gratifying and enduring, and which are fleeting and lead to pain, plus the monumental questions of why and how we often thwart ourselves from attaining happiness.
I have to admit that I experienced a pang of disillusionment when I first realized that Epicurus was not an epicurean… i.e. a sensualist with gourmet appetites. Let me put it this way: Epicurus preferred a bowl of plain boiled lentils to a plate of roasted pheasant infused with mastiha (a reduction painstakingly made from the sap of a nut tree), a delicacy slaves prepared for noblemen in ancient Greece. This was … Epicurus’s hankering for personal comfort, which clearly included comfort foods. The pheasant dish titillated the taste buds, but Epicurus was not a sensualist in that sense: he was not looking for dazzling sensory excitement. No, bring on those boiled lentils! For one thing, he took great pleasure in food he had grown himself—that was part of the gratification of eating the lentils. For another, he had a Zen-like attitude about his senses: if he fully engaged in tasting the lentils, he would experience all the subtle delights of their flavor, delights that rival those of more extravagantly spiced fare. And another of this dish’s virtues was that it was a snap to prepare.
(From Waterstones, Non-Fiction Book of the Month)
The defining concepts of such a happy life, according to Epicurus, are ataraxia — i.e. peace and freedom from the disturbances of anxiety and greed — and aponia — the absence of pain — achieved through living a non-demanding, humble life surrounded by friends.
Klein’s book, taking its cue from this philosophy, is asking how best to think about growing into old age, and how best to live through this stage of life. The tendency nowadays, Klein points out, is to escape ageing, by spending our lives trying to remain forever young: sport, transplants and implants, botox, diets, all means to prolong and promote youthful looks. But are we missing out on an important stage of our lives, Klein asks.
To look into this question, the author packed a number of books, and staying on Hydra, Greece — where travel is restricted to going on foot, cycling, or riding a donkey — meditated on the issue. The answer he came up with in this book is playful, but I have no intention of reproducing it here. Suffice to say that with all the turmoil of this week’s Greek elections and heated debates, a calm book on growing older, set on a Greek island, juxtaposing the old with the new, matching island life with world-renowned philosophers, provides a much needed good, as well as romantic, counter-balance.
In his unhurried pace, watching a group of friends playing a game of cards, walking the hilly paths of the island, discussing beauty and youth, Klein takes us on his Epicurean journey, savouring the moments of insight, the juxtapositions of beautiful descriptions of nature and human nature with philosophical descriptions of ‘lived time’.
I enjoyed this quirky book, slowed down, looked up references to this and that… thought of acquaintances in Greece who, troubled by their country’s misfortunes, contrary to the Hydriotes observed by Klein, have all but forgotten their ‘ataraxia’; have meditated on the notions of austerity vs growth, and their effects on the mind, long enough.
A timely reminder of Epicurean notions then, a needed breath of fresh air? A New Year’s resolution? Even for those who may not be lacking in material resources, but may be short of (perceived) time?
The language in the book is simple, the images memorable, the light clear… So, keep calm, keep thinking, experiencing… it’s not that difficult to be authentically old… one day… eventually! Alternatively, one can always become a Stoic!
full snow moon
the tightrope bathed
You can read the first chapter of this book here
Impossible not to be surprised by this monumental presence at the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain! Phyllida Barlow’s installation, ‘dock’, makes quite an impression on the unsuspecting visitor walking into the Tate.
Yet taking a few steps through the artwork, and a deep breath, the mind starts working. Isn’t this… err, fragile… recycling materials… momentous… look, plastic bags, cartons… How interesting, that the Tate too (see Kader Attia, Whitechapel), in commissioning Phyllida Barlow’s work in 2014, ends up with a piece that reflects on fragility, transformation, repair, re-appropriation… Though these are not words or concepts I saw used in the descriptions of this work.
Adrian Searle, in The Guardian review, sees,
“All kinds of things happen over our heads. Here’s something like a fungus or a virus hanging in space, and nearby, there’s some sort of blanket-swathed chrysalis or grub. One sees echoes, here and there, of the many artists Barlow has taught in her distinguished career as an educator.”
A different kind of inequality is being noticed here: disparate, different objects and materials, producing a different kind of vision: a different ‘eye’. Yet this difference might also be seen as one of materials ‘unequal’ to those usually seen at the Tate. In fact, marble and gilded frames, the austere, classical beauty of the Galleries contrast with the used cartons and plastic that hold this work — seven pieces in total — together.
Are the latter unequal to the task? My answer would be: no, they fit Barlow’s work perfectly, by way of bringing out the juxtaposition of the two extremes. Her fascination with the grand Tate Britain sitting majestically next to the Thames, and its docks, has produced a fitting installation. Loading and unloading goods that came and went irrespective of their worth associate with this mass, and mess of materials, producing a work seemingly in the process of collapsing.
After all it is the Thames that connected Imperial Britain to its colonies and the world… a ‘stage’ for playing out inequalities, so perceptively linked by Joseph Conrad to the Empire’s Heart of Darkness.
Barlow, in a Guardian interview, reminds us of how our age has been marked by the iconic fall of many things: the twin towers and all they represented for the whole world, for instance; the markets; the fall of dictatorships and idols too. So the pull of gravity and precariousness, ever present in our age, and in Barlow’s work, are vital to this specific project. Interestingly, she says that, until recently, she used to dismantle and then recycle her previous exhibits at the end of her shows.
wide flowing river
the tall orders we left
This post is part of a series of articles written for Blog Action Day 2014, held on the 16th of October 2014, on the theme of Inequality.
Two more reviews of my book “Feeding the Doves“: one on Amazon.com, the other on Amazon.co.uk.
“Lyrical and Concise”: “…well written and full of beautiful, touching, and sometimes haunting, melodic stories.”
“Feedings the Doves = feeding the soul”: “This is a wonderful, evocative book, rich in imagery…”
The review by author and psychotherapist Dr. Joseph Berke can be read on Amazon.co.uk
I am putting together quotes from all reviews with links here. Have you read them all?
I am very pleased to share the news that a positive review of my poetry book “In the Garden of Absence” appeared recently in the print edition of Modern Haiku:
“This is an engaging collection…,” Modern Haiku 44.2, 2013 (in the “Briefly Noted” section).
Delighted to see the new issue of Frogpond, the Journal of the Haiku Society of America, 36-1, Spring 2013, in my letterbox. Among great haiku, senryu, haibun, essays and reviews a nice surprise: in the section “Briefly Reviewed” a positive note on my own book “In the Garden of Absence”!
The review can be read by clicking here (please scroll down)
The Wise Silence before and alongside Words: The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
In The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh explores the different and overlapping worlds of (scientific, written-down) language, and intuitive, oral folk tradition, and silence. This exploration takes the reader through an experiential process in which the customary way of reading a novel is challenged.
The novel begins at an unspecified time in the near future, when Antar, an employee of LifeWatch, a public health consultancy, is asked to find out what happened to another employee, L. Murugan, who disappeared in Calcutta in 1995. The plot is complicated (reviewers described it as “mind boggling” and “Rubik’s Cube of a novel”), and demands a special sort of concentration, as it shifts between different time periods and perspectives. The major plotline being that Murugan had asked to be transferred to Calcutta to investigate the life of Sir Ronald Ross – Nobel Prize winner for his work on how malaria enters the organism – but had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I shall not attempt to summarize the novel here, as this has been done already quite competently.
Ghosh explores a complex web of themes: science, myth, language, silence, society and the individual. It is a web skilfully span, as he pairs the most unexpected themes, only suddenly to juxtapose them in the most astonishing patterns. For instance, silence is presented in various relationships to language, including scientific language. A character says about silence: “I see signs of her presence everywhere I go, in images, words, glances, but only signs, nothing more…”
Perhaps wisely, Ghosh does not attempt to describe in words this kind of silence. The implication being that by using language, we enter into a relationship with the background of silence similar to that we have as train travellers through a landscape, though infinitely more complex. For to say something is to change it. In a manner reminding me of the observer effect (in Quantum Mechanics) – the observer and the act of observation affecting the system being observed, regardless of the specific method used – the novel presents scientific knowledge as altering the landscape of the silence it tries to describe. Ghosh rather provides allusions, hints, pointers to it.
Language introduces other drawbacks. A scientist investigating a topic is burdened by scientific language, with particular ways of seeing and describing the world in the scientific community. A lay person, on the other hand, free from the restraints that scientific community and its language impose on him/her is well placed to make new discoveries, Ghosh is saying. It is as if, if you don’t know where to look, you may be in a better position to find what you don’t know you are looking for. Except in the novel, the natives know what they are looking for, and they are using the scientists’ results, and the results’ by-products, to gather the information they are seeking.
Taking the two major ways of knowing, scientific effort and language on the one hand and intuition, wisdom and silence on the other, Ghosh skilfully explores the opposition and mistrust that exist between the followers of the two. The setting being India, he also takes the reader on a reflective journey between the British colonial attitude of knowing best scientifically, and the native Indian one, of also knowing best, intuitively! There is more opposition and antagonism between the two ways of knowing in this book than there is in The Hungry Tide.
It may well be the case, as John Thieme wrote in The Literary Encyclopaedia, that in The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh explores “the possibility of an alternative subaltern history, which exists in parallel with colonial history as an equally – or possibly more – potent epistemological system, albeit one which has traditionally operated through silence.”
One of my own associations is to W. R. Bion, the British psychoanalyst born in India, who also wrote about knowledge and the processes of transformation that it has to go through in the mind before it reaches the potential of being knowable. Describing this process, Bion wrote about the shared human preconceptions and their journey to become concepts in the mind of the individual.
Bion valued the state of reverie, in which the mind sits quietly and allows things to unfold “without memory or desire,” or without expectation and aim-directed behavior. In this state, he believed, what had been obscured by the glare of expectation, wishful thinking, knowledge and assumptions would be allowed to show its true color, to shine through its own presence. In such a state of mind, one does not identify with, but rather becomes the thing thought about.
Bion wrote in a style which – although described as “not reader-friendly” – invites the reader to work with the text, to associate, feel and think for herself, i.e., to make or become its meaning. It seems to me that Ghosh too, in this novel, through his weaving of text and plot, knowledge, not-knowing, and guessing, attempts such a feat – risking, however, leaving the reader in a state of bafflement rather than becoming. Ultimately, the reader of the novel has to go through the process of experiencing it and form her/his own idea about it.