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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

In the beginning...

The universe begins, in the Genesis myth, with division. The first thing we read is that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The cosmic architect begins by creating here and there. Out of divine unity, from the wholeness of transcendence, comes the world; division is woven into its fabric, duality a feature of its construction. God’s work is divided over six days, and it constitutes the separating out of the world’s elements – light from dark, water from land, cr...

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Many people who pay attention to narrative, from amateur cinephiles to cultural critics, have become disillusioned or even bored with the concept of the Hero’s Journey. Much of the blame for this mus...

There is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures that, while not believable as an account of real events (it turns out there are a few such stories in there), holds archetypal truths about the nature of control. The story goes like this:

In the time of King Solomon, two prostitutes came before the king, prostrating themselves and yet, despite their propriety, both visibly distraught. Through tears, the first woman begged the lord’s pardon and explained their dispute. “She,” the woman said with a terse gesture a...

You enter the bookshop, and you feel you have accomplished something of value simply by turning up, regardless of what happens next. It feels like putting on forgotten running gear, prepared at last to have the jog you've been putting off for months. Merely getting here is an achievement. It has required an act of will, to consciously put aside the call from more familiar, more worn into habit by repetition, more attractive places to pass time: the cinema, the pub, the comfort of your own front room wit...

In August of 1944, governance of occupied Paris was handed to a Nazi general, Dietrich von Choltitz, with one particular and direct order from Hitler: Paris “must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete rubble”. Choltitz was ordered, in the case of Allied forces regaining the city, to utterly destroy all of its religious and historic monuments, from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame.

Hitler had faith that Paris would immolate if he lost it for himself. He had placed a man in charge who had u...

Years ago, I read Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, in which he wrote of a friend whose “manners were a history of civilisation”. I knew – or rather, I felt – immediately what he meant by this and decided that, should I have any say in what goes on my gravestone, and putting aside more humorous lines like Spike Milligan’s “I told you I was ill”, I wanted Broyard’s sentence as my epitaph. Years later, I would have a similar frisson of familiarity at Lawrence Durrell’s description of Austen Ha...

In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells us the story of humanity, according to which humans originally came as pairs made one: Each had four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. Like the humans in the story of the Tower of Babel, they “dared to scale heaven” and posed a challenge to the authority of the gods; like Yahweh in the Biblical myth, the gods painted humanity’s desire for autonomy as hubris and tore them apart. Humans now contain a fundamental rift in their being. Plato has it that love...

When it comes to quoting Oscar Wilde, there might only be one way now to compensate for our collective overdoing it and to reinvigorate the practice with the “shock of the new” – to quote him only when ironically making a comment on quoting him. This was my justification as I thought about this essay and the subject of fluid identities and decided to open with this Wildean quote:

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

...

I often have discussions with people who ask, “What if I just want escapism? What if I don’t want to think, I only want to be entertained?” They are comfortable with art emptied of the artistic to make room for the merely diverting.

While we were living in Mexico, my partner attended a language school so that one of us could connect with the locals beyond the smallest of phrasebook small-talk. She began to notice the defiant and sometimes irritated way that the Mexican teachers, hearing US students self-identify as American, would insist that they too were American. We wondered about this, because only a few months earlier, a man had won the US presidency in spite of (or because of) anti-Mexican rhetoric. The last thing we’d expect...

A book is a labyrinth that guides you through itself. Actually, that’s not quite right – a labyrinth is a single route laid out in a complex way, whereas a maze is a complex route with many detours, divagations, and digressions to dead ends. A book, in that case, is a maze: its language both builds the puzzle to be solved and reveals the solution, along with other deceptive paths that lead you in the wrong direction. Its text creates the puzzle, a story to be discovered and journeyed through, while also...

Every cave worth exploring has a dragon inside. Perhaps not one with claws and wings, and maybe this dragon does not breathe fire, but whatever its size or temperament, it menaces us from inside the cave. Meanwhile, we the adventurers stand at the entrance to that lair, the presence of the dragon cautioning us against crossing the threshold even as that same danger tempts us to explore. We need the dragon, the risk, the unknown waiting to be discovered to make the journey worthwhile.

When I was a child v...

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