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Art Of Conversation

"The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries."

~ René Descartes

The first time Christopher Hitchens heard the slogan “The Personal Is Political” he knew – as he tells us in his Letters to a Young Contrarian – that a “truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse”. It was this very notion that seemed to embolden otherwise “dense and boring and selfish” people to insist on being heard not on the basis of anything they had worked towards or achieved, but on the basis of who they claimed to be. This narcissism led to increasingly facile efforts to appear revolutionary while...

“First world problems”: I hate that phrase, if only for its cringe-inducing note of virtue signalling – as if we should constantly apologise for not suffering more because of where we live. Still, there are problems and then there are problems. As I fretted over a particular quandary a couple of weeks ago, even I was moved to think, This might justify the “first world problem” phrase. I couldn’t decide what to read.

I went through my library – a patchwork collection of shelves and bookcases, some store-b...

I was nine years old when my life was folded up into a few suitcases and bags, and my family and I flew across the Atlantic, away from friends I had known for as long as I’d had memories, from a land of trees and mountains, to a country called England and a grey town of strangers. Over the next few years, with the crises of puberty setting a score, my mum left my dad, we fought to fit in, xenophobic bullies told me to “go back to Canadia”, stepdads came and went like hurricanes, we went without and did...

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

~ R S Thomas, "The Absence"

In response to an essay here on Art Of Conversation, a perceptive reader suggested that for a person to call herself a Christian, she must take certain axioms of the faith to be literally true (the resurrection of Christ, for example). I disagreed, and then I changed my mind and was led to wonder what else, besides the label, might be lost with this loss of literalist faith....

Readers very often find themselves haunted by endings, moved to sadness because the story is over, and saturated with the heaviness of loss that accompanies even the happiest of endings. I also suffer this with beginnings. Before the first word is finally chosen and the first sentence given the weighty conclusion of its full stop, the story is infinite; any tale not yet begun can still go wherever it likes. Once it has started, that multiplicity is extinguished and, like the death of cells that result i...

This morning, I go to my studio with someone else’s voice in my head. This other person’s vocabulary, cadences, and literary proclivities – as imagined from the pages of his books – voice my internal monologue. It feels like wearing a new pair of shoes in the store and performing that self-conscious walk up and down the short aisle between rows of brogues and slip-ons, to see how they feel in motion. It’s always not-quite-right because you are paying close attention to enacting something that is natural...

Marmite’s marketing patter is not an ideal principle to live one’s life by. Doing so has let us down twice. In 1996, Marmite began its “Love it or Hate it” campaign: It informed us that we postmodern and hip consumers either LOVE or HATE the congealing-blood consistency and effluvium of its product. (You may be able to guess at my feelings about the goop.) I recently explained this history to an American friend before her first taste of the stuff, after which she shrugged and reported, “It’s fine.”

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There is a statue that I admire of Shiva, an image depicting the four-armed god in the middle of his cosmic dance. He holds in his right hand the drum with which he strikes the beat of time. This represents the creation of the cosmos, which began with time, and the journey of all existence through time. In his left hand, he cups the flame of destruction, symbolising the end of all created things. Of course, endings can only occur after beginnings, and both (as well as the concept of “after”) require tim...

“In a dark time,” the poet tells us, “the eye begins to see ...” The poet in this instance is Theodore Roethke, but what is this dark time, and what do we see in it? These are questions at the heart of the apex-nadir (paradox intended) of the Hero’s Journey: the Temple.

The Temple takes many forms – for Roethke, as we will see, it exists within the self, in each person. For others, it is a cave, or a church, or a metaphysical space. For many, it is literally a temple, like that of the oracle Pythia, cons...

According to one version of a Chinese folktale, when princess Miaoshan’s father ordered her to marry a wealthy but selfish man, her response took to the form of a question: What good will it do? She could only agree to marriage on the condition that their union would ease the suffering of people as they aged, when they fell ill, and when they or their loved ones died.

Her father pointed out that no marriage could address such problems; she pointed out that a life spent in religious servitude directed tow...

Heracles was an overachiever. Not content with rising to the challenge of his twelve labours, which included chasing a magical deer and scrumping from an orchard guarded by a many-headed dragon, he took up heroic deeds between tasks. On his way back to Tiryns after slaughtering the hydra, he took a coastal route that led him to a young woman, chained naked to a rock by the sea. No doubt keeping his eyes disinterestedly on the sky or at his feet, he asked the beautiful prisoner what she was up to.

“I am H...

It is said that when Siddartha Guatama was born, a wise hermit travelled to meet the infant, where he pronounced that the child would one day be either a great king (a prospect that appealed to Siddartha’s dynastically-inclined father) or a great sage. Distraught at the prospect of his golden boy letting down the family and pursuing bearded, sandalled, penniless enlightenment – he would have hated the sixties – the father did all he could to keep his son from encountering the real world. Any aspect of i...

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