In a joking tone, some of us occasionally describe ourselves as ‘sun worshippers’. That can mean, that we love to tan, visit an island, go to the beach, read a book, sip a drink and perhaps play volleyball. The problem with this approach is not that we are using too grand a term to refer to what is at heart a rather trivial and almost embarrassing enthusiasm; it’s that we’re arguably making far too little of, and neglecting properly to ritualise or deepen, an orientation that should lie close to the meaning of our lives.
However crowded our beaches may be, in modernity, our love of the sun is for the most part a psychologically shallow and unexplored commitment. Most ancient cultures didn’t merely favour a tan, they worshipped the sun in and of itself, regularly bowing before it as the most potent force in the universe, to which they owed gratitude, obedience and adoration. From their sumptuous sun temples spread out along the length of the Nile, the Egyptians paid homage to the deity Ra (‘sun’), depicted in their sculpture as a falcon headed god with a solar disk over his head. The Aztecs incanted sacred poetry to Tonatiuh, the sun god and leader of heaven – while the ancient Celts, under less auspicious skies, expressed piety to Grannus, god both of the sun and, appropriately enough, of wisdom.
Science has taught us enough about the constituents of our distant hydrogen and helium explosion for us not to be able to deify the sun in literal terms. But the star can still occupy a place in our symbolic pantheon, where it may hold pride of place as the supreme emblem of something that no life can subsist for long without: hope. Most of us have only a tenuous hold on our sources of hope. Despair stalks us relentlessly, especially in the darkness of the early hours. We are only ever a few bits of bad news away from collapse. There seem, on many days, so many reasons to give up and surrender to self-loathing and despondency. This is why the sun is not merely nice, it is an ally in our mind’s constant attempts to structure arguments why it might, after all, be worth keeping going. Maybe there can be an end to the anxiety. Perhaps the project will work out eventually. The arguments might stop. Our enemies could get bored and turn elsewhere. Our reputation might recover. A lot of things could, in the end, be more or less OK; even bearable. Such mental explorations the sun seems to reward and generously bolster. It cannot be a coincidence that when they first draw the sky, children all over the world instinctively and rather accurately add in one detail that has still not been spotted by the most sophisticated of our mighty scientific instruments.
The universal symbol of hope.
Nevertheless, we suffer in modernity from a reluctance to put our faith in something that we can’t command and that we must – sometimes with great pain – wait long periods for. Gratitude for the sun belongs to a category of satisfaction that can feel humiliatingly simple. It’s tempting to deny this star’s significance altogether and to focus instead on more substantial political or economic issues, by which the course of our lives is apparently more obviously determined. Nothing surely much hangs on how often we get to close our eyes and feel the sun’s rays on our faces.
Implicitly, many powerful forces in modern society seem to agree with this view; architects are particularly keen to design buildings whose windows are tinted and will never open. There are few places in a city one might go to have a small sunbath – and little encouragement from employers or authority figures for us to do so.
An adoration of the sun has suffered from a shortfall in prestige. The most popular painting in all of Paris’s museums is a portrayal of a sunny day in a northwestern suburb of the capital. And yet Monet’s work has also long been held in low esteem, even derision, by serious art critics who view it as overly ‘easy’ and close to sentimental.
Claude Monet, Wild Poppies, Near Argenteuil, 1873
A love of pretty skies seems, to such critics, to mean overlooking the actual conditions of life: war, disease, poverty and political evil. But for most of us, the greatest risk we face is not in fact complacency; few of us are likely to be able to forget the human chaos for any length of time. The real risk is not sentimental naivety; it is that we are going to fall into fury, despair and unshakeable depression. It is this eventuality that a sunny day, and the sun as a whole, is well suited to correct. Given the facts of life, hope is a phenomenal achievement – and the sunny days that occasionally lie behind it are bearers of their own particular and highly significant wisdom.
We can ourselves begin to rehabilitate the positive appreciation of the sun by seeing how seriously the star has been taken by some of the grandest figures from our collective cultural history. The Renaissance Pope Julius II was one of the most enlightened and significant patrons of the arts of all time, commissioning the greatests works by Raphael and Michelangelo. He was also obsessed by the sun. In 1505, he asked Donatllo Bramante to design him a new palace, whose central feature was an enormous curved sun trap.
To stress his intent, Julius had a huge, ancient Roman bronze pine cone placed in the centre of the building, pine cones being highly sun-sensitive and unable to ripen to full maturity without many hours of direct exposure to rays each day.
Nearly five hundred years later, when the Swiss architect Le Corbusier was creating the prototypical, rigorous, logical modernist house, the Villa Savoye, he devoted huge care and intelligence to designing what he christened a ‘solarium’ – an elegant, futuristically shaped roof garden where one could give ample expression to a devotion to the sun.
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Solarium, 1930
Thanks to our mastery of science, we have been able to spread warmth without needing to beg or honour the sun. Our nuclear reactors and gas powered stations have brought furnace-like heat to Tromsø and Murmansk, Yellowknife and Anchorage. But we may sometimes wonder whether our souls can truly be nourished at the high latitudes we have managed to make a life in.
To compensate for our many days of gloom, we should – without any overtly spiritual intent but with a good atheist’s appropriate sense of wonder – practice an exercise of bowing down to the sun, as others might pray to more familiar gods and there recite all the reasons we might still hold on to hope, despite every argument (too often well-rehearsed at night) why we might give up. As we close our lids against the sun’s reviving rays, we might even imagine the faintest trace of a smile, stretching for a few hundred thousand miles across the star’s 15 million degree surface – a detail chiefly otherwise observable only to people under six.
One of the strangest but also most intriguing and redemptive things that humans get up to, in almost any culture one cares to study, is occasionally to gather in large groups, bathe in the rhythmic sounds of drums and flutes, organs and guitars, chants and cries, and move their arms and legs about in complicated and frenzied ways, losing themselves in the bewilderment of a dance. Dancing has a claim to be considered among the most essential and salutary activities we ever partake in. Not for nothing did Nietzsche, a painfully inhibited figure in day to day life, declare ‘I would believe only in a God who could dance’ (a comment that stands beside his equally apodictic pronouncement: ‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’)
But dancing is at the same time an activity that many of us, arguably those of us who might most need to do it, are powerfully inclined to resist and deep down to fear. We stand on the side of the dance floor appalled at the possibility of being called to join in, we attempt to make our excuses the moment the music begins, we take pains that no one will ever, ever see our hips unite with a beat.
The point here is definitely not to learn to dance like an expert, it is to remember that dancing badly is something we might actually want to do and, equally importantly, something that we already well know how to do to – at least to the level of appalling proficiency we need to possess in order to derive key benefits.
In almost all cultures and at all points of history (except oddly enough perhaps our own), dancing has been widely and publically understood as a form of bodily exercise with something very important to contribute to our mental state. Dancing has had nothing to do with dancing well, being young or revealing one’s stylishness. Summed up sharply we might put it like this: dancing has been valued for allowing us to transcend our individuality and for inducing us to merge into a larger, more welcoming and more redemptive whole.
The Ancient Greeks were for the most part committed worshippers of the rational mind. Their foremost God, Apollo, was the embodiment of cool reason and disciplined wisdom. However, the Greeks understood – with prescience – that a life devoted only to the serenity of the mind could be at grave risk of desiccation and loneliness. And so they balanced their concern with Apollo with regular festivals in honour of a quite different God, Dionysus, a god that drank wine, stayed up late, loved music – and danced.
A break from individualism and reason: Dionysius (also known as Bacchus to the Greeks and Romans) leading a dance. Bouguereau, The Youth of Bacchus, 1884
The Greeks knew that the more rational we usually are, the more important it is – at points – to fling ourselves around to the wild rhythms of pipes and drums. At the festivals of Dionysius, held in Athens in March every year, even the most venerable and dignified members of the community would join into unrestrained dancing that, irrigated by generous amounts of red wine, lasted until dawn.
A word often used to describe such dancing is ‘ecstatic’. It’s a telling term. Ecstatic comes from two Latin words: ex (meaning apart) and stasis (meaning standing) – indicating a state in which we are symbolically ‘standing apart’ from ourselves – separated from the dense, detailed and self-centered layers of our identities which we normally focus on and obsess over and reconnected with something more primal and more necessary: our common human nature. We remember, through a period of ecstatic dancing, what it is like to belong, to be part of something larger than ourselves, to be indifferent to our own egos – to be reunited with humanity.
This aspiration hasn’t entirely disappeared in modernity – but it’s been assigned to very particular and woefully selective ambassadors: the disco and the rave. These associations point us in unhelpful directions: towards being cool, a certain age, wearing particular clothes, liking a certain kind of often rather arduous music. Such markers of an elite, knowing crowd reinforce, rather than dismantle, our tendencies towards isolation and loneliness.
We need, urgently, to recover a sense of the universal benefit and impact of dancing. But the greatest enemy of this is fear, and in particular, the fear – as we may put it – that we will look ‘like an idiot’ in front of people whose opinion might matter. The way through this is not to be told that we will in fact appear really rather fine and, with a bit of effort, very far from idiotic. Quite the opposite; we should accept with good grace that the whole point of redemptive, consoling, cathartic communal dancing is a chance to look like total, thoroughgoing idiots, the bigger the better, in the company of hundreds of other equally and generously publically idiotic fellow humans.
We spend a good deal of our time fearing – as if it were a momentous calamity that we did not even dare contemplate in daylight – that we might be idiots and holding back from a host of important aspirations and ambitions as a result. We should shake ourselves from such inhibitions by loosening our hold on any remaining sense of dignity and by accepting frankly that we are – by nature – of course completely idiotic, great sacks of foolishness that cry in the night, bump into doors, fart in the bath and kiss people’s noses by mistake – but that far form being shameful and isolating, this idiocy is in fact a basic feature of our nature that unites us immediately with everyone else on the planet. We are idiots now, we were idiots then, and we will be idiots again in the future. There is no other option for a human to be.
Dancing provides us with a primordial occasion on which this basic idiocy can be publicly displayed and communally celebrated. On a dance floor filled with comparable idiots, we can at last delight in our joint foolishness; we can throw off our customary shyness and reserve and fully embrace our dazzling strangeness and derangement. An hour of frantic jigging should decisively shake us from any enduring belief in our normalcy or seriousness. We will no longer be able to bully others, persuade them of our superiority, humiliate them for their mistakes or pontificate at length on weighty matters. We will no longer worry how others see us or regret a few things we said to intimidating strangers. The gentle aches in our limbs and our memories of our moves will remind us of anchoring facts that will guarantee our ongoing sanity and kindness.
Whenever we have the chance to invite others around, especially very serious people by whom we’re intimidated or whom we might be seeking to impress, we should remember the divine Dionysus and dare, with his wisdom in mind, to put on Dancing Queen, I’m so excited or We are Family. Knowing that we have Nietzsche on side, we should let rip with a playlist that includes What a Feeling, Dance with Somebody and Hey Jude. We should lose command of our normal rational pilot selves, abandon our arms to the harmonies, throw away our belief in a ‘right’ way to dance or indeed to live, build the intensity of our movements to a frenzy, gyrate our heads to empty them of their absurd worries, forget our jobs, qualifications, status, achievements, plans, hopes and fears – and merge with the universe or at least its more immediate representatives, our fellow new mad friends, before whom the disclosure of idiocy will be total.
Looking like an idiot shouldn’t be a risk: it’s the point.
Around us might be a formally shy accountant, an efficient dental nurse or a white haired school principal bending and flinging their arms in the air, throwing their heads back, contorting their bodies. After a few songs, something astonishing will begin to happen: it won’t matter any more that we said a slightly out of place thing in a meeting two weeks ago, that we haven’t yet met the love of our lives or that we still don’t understand very much at all. We will feel a part of something far more important than ourselves, a supportive community in which our individual errors and doubts will cease to weigh so heavily and punishingly upon us.
Through a dance, we glimpse a huge project: how we might more regularly experience ourselves as vulnerable in front of other people in order to become better friends to ourselves and more generous and compassionate companions to others. The true potential of dancing has for too long been abandoned by thoughtful people to stylish ambassadors who have forgotten the elemental seriousness of allowing themselves to be and look idiotic. We should reclaim the ecstatic dance and uninhibited boogie woogie for their deepest universal purposes: to reconnect, reassure and reunite us.
We’ve got a steady, unfortunate tendency to focus exclusively on what’s bothering us. We brood; we circle endlessly round our worries. We get drawn deeper into the gloomy recesses of our own minds. We lose touch with the brighter, more cheerful parts of who we are.
As we wander through the trees we’re struck by how lovely the light is; it’s broken and softened by the branches and leaves. We start to take in details: a squirrel is running up the trunk of a tree, birds are flitting between the branches. We start to see how different the various kinds of leaves are, pointed or rounded, broad, narrow, darker or lighter. We pause for a moment to root around in the undergrowth – pushing aside fallen twigs, acorns, pine cones and last year’s leaves to discover a beetle, a worm, some whitish maggots and a snail.
Once we start to pay attention, the natural world opens before us: an ant is starting a huge adventure along a twig; a bud on a tree is going through the momentous process of unfolding into a flower; a butterfly is opening its wings for the first time; with infinitesimal slowness the lichen is extending itself across the surface of a rock; a caterpillar is on it’s way to lunch on the far side of a leaf; a spider is engaged in perfecting the delicate architecture of its web. We are taken out of ourselves: we become absorbed in contemplating the separate, independent order of nature.
There’s a little windy path, threading its way through the trees. We can never see more than a few steps ahead, then there’s an intriguing turn. We don’t quite know what we’ll see: maybe we’ll come to a clearing or we’ll glimpse a rabbit hopping to safety in the undergrowth – but we’re sure it will be something interesting. It’s a tiny prompt that gently reactivates our dormant curiosity. How did a friend’s job interview go? What’s been happening in our sister’s (always elaborate) social life? What was the name of that novel a nice literary minded acquaintance was talking so enthusiastically about? Maybe we could try out that recipe for spaghetti carbonara? It didn’t sound so tricky.
It’s not that our problems don’t matter. It’s rather that they dominate our minds in an unhelpful way. Our sense of life, and who we are, shrinks to their dimensions. By getting interested in something else – in the life in the woods – we are freeing ourselves from our preoccupations, even if it is only for a little while.
Here we’re struck by the plenitude of existence and it’s poignant because its what we’ve momentarily stopped noticing elsewhere. Our instincts of observation are renewed. We’ll be heading back to the urban world with an awakened sensitivity to the vitality of a corner shop; to the varied personalities at the tables outside a cafe; to the odd architectural details of the high street; to all the richness and complexity that, recently, we’ve forgotten how to appreciate.
When it comes to work, we tend to be – almost universally – highly strategic and thorough in our approach. We think extensively about where our talents and opportunities may lie, we spend years (and a fortune) on training, we devote extraordinary energy (and our most vigorous decades) to progressing up the ladder and keep a vigilant and jealous eye on the progress of our rivals.
Our leisure hours promise to be, by contrast, the easy bit. We don’t expect there to be particular complexity in this section of existence. We want to relax and have fun and tend to envisage that the only obstacles to such goals might be time and money. We adopt a welcoming, unsuspicious manner and readily take up the suggestion of others without gimlet eyed scrutiny. Sometimes, without thinking about things too much, we end up in a water park or hosting a barbecue.
What we may miss for many years is the real price of our negligence. We forget that our lives are so much less than they might be because we insist on being haphazard where we might be devotedly analytical. We stick to being guided by hearsay and muddled instinct when we should harness reason and independent reflection; we are a lot more miserable than we might be because we cannot take our own fun more seriously. And we don’t because we are touchingly but ruinously lacking in vigilance about our individuality: we assume that what will work for others will work for us too. It doesn’t readily occur to us to take our uniqueness into account.
A corrective to this highly costly absence of mind comes from an unexpected quarter: the history of art. What we call a great artist is someone who, first and foremost, has learnt to take their pleasure seriously. Most young artists don’t. They like art of course, but they don’t drill too deeply into what they in particular, they as unique beings with a highly individual history, sensory system and temperament, are inclined to like. That is why the chief characteristic of inexperienced artists is derivativeness: their art reflects what everyone else around them tends to like and make in their particular era and circle. It’s the art of people without a capacity to take their own fun seriously.
Consider, for example, the career of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. Born in 1901 in the canton of Graubunden, he attended the Geneva School of Fine Arts and his early minor work reflects the dominant influences of the times: in particular the work of the Italian artist Segantini and of the Impressionist school, especially Manet and Fantin-Latour. One thinks of his portrait of his sister Ottilia and his views of the lake of Sils and surrounding mountains. There is pleasure here for sure, but not a pleasure with any deep roots in the personality of the creator.
Alberto Giacometti, Ottilia, 1920
Alberto Giacometti, View on the Sils Lake Towards Piz Lizun, 1920
Then Giacometti left Switzerland for Paris, he broke with his family, thought very hard about who he really was; and eventually re-emerged as the great artist we know today, the maker of unique haunting elongated figures that speak to us of a longing and a loneliness we may never before have been able so clearly to sense in ourselves.
Alberto Giacometti, Man Pointing, 1947
To become an artist in this sense isn’t first and foremost about technical discovery, it’s about the strength to stay faithful to one’s self.
We are not, most of us, making art. But we are involved in the business of getting to know and please ourselves – as any artist must. For too much of life, we assume we may be like everyone else. Only gradually, if we are lucky, do we come to see that our characteristic way of drawing pleasure – from nature, books, films, dinner parties, clothes, travels, gardening etc. – bears the imprint and distinctive timbre of our particular individuality. To lean on an associated example, we learn how to be proper fetishists. The sexual fetishist is to the ordinary lover like the established artist to the novice: they too are someone who has worked out what they in particular really like, and held on to it with rare fidelity and tenacity. While most of us go along with general suggestions of what good sex might consist of, the fetishist discerns their own proclivities. They realise that they might like a particular kind of floral material or a leather watch strap, the sound of water or the feel of a gold chain, a pair of socks or a black monogrammed briefcase. The fetishist is akin to the artist in having the stubborn presence of mind to defend their own tastes, even – and especially – when these depart from the mainstreams. One thinks, in this regard of the mature Le Corbusier’s attachment to including ramps in his buildings, whatever the design challenges or client objections, or of a lover who dares to ask their partner to put on a pair of ankle length white athletic socks before entering the bedroom. Great fetishists, like great artists, know the power of details to generate happiness.
The power of details to make us happy
Most of us are, by contrast, fatefully modest about what we enjoy. We don’t dare to foreground our own discoveries. What we do with our leisure hours is therefore marked by a dispiriting uniformity. We go skiing because we hear that’s meant to be fun. We invite guests around for dinner and talk about what everyone else talks about and have melon for a starter. Our weekends unfold a bit like those of all our colleagues. We die with our particular appetites and intense sensations tragically unexplored.
To save ourselves, we need the equivalent of an artistic breakthrough. We should – across the board in our leisure pursuits – be prepared to be redemptively weird. If we were to use only ourselves as our lodestar and point of reference, what would a dinner party look like? What would we eat? What would we talk about? Where would we sit? What have we – the we that’s going to be dead in a few decades and will be as though it never existed – enjoyed in the past and might we recreate going forward? What might a holiday specifically geared to our tastes and proclivities be like? What bit of the standard tourist itinerary might we ditch? Which of our hitherto stray or guilty pleasures might we dare to bring into focus and anchor our days around? What might we learn to say no to and contrastingly, to emphasise going forward?
It’s so often drummed into us that we may be selfish and should learn to relinquish our interests for the sake of the community that we fail to notice an even more horrific possibility: that in many areas, we’re not selfish enough. We fail to pay any appropriate attention to our fragile, extraordinary and scarce nature. We don’t give outward expression to our true sensations. We don’t give our weekends and our spare time the imprint of our own characters. We don’t ask our lovers to turn us on as we should. We kill our uniqueness out of politeness and a fear of being odd. We spend far too much of our brief lives defending an impossible idea: that we are pretty much like anyone else.
Questions to develop an independent pleasurable self
What do you like to eat? In what order and how and at what time?
What do you like to talk about? And what bores you deeply?
Where do you like to travel to? And what do you keep doing only out of guilt?
What do you like to read?
What do you, who will be dead soon, enjoy in bed?
Who would you like never to see again?
What would you do if you only five weekends left?
People look at one strangely if one makes a trip to the zoo without a child. Ideally one should have a gang of children, evidence of dribbled ice-cream and some balloons as well. Contemplating enclosures with oriental small-clawed otters or leopard geckos hardly seems an adult way to pass the afternoon. The elegant question in London at the moment is whether one has caught the German Renaissance show at the National Gallery, not the impressive new pygmy hippo at Regent’s Park Zoo.
But if one’s five year old nephew pulls out at the last minute (he’d remembered it was his best friend’s birthday), then one might stubbornly decide to go through with an afternoon at the zoo any way. The first simple thought is how strange animals look. Apart from the odd cat, dog or horse, it may be years since one has seen a real animal, an extraordinary, jungle-bookish sort of creature. Take the camel: a u-shaped neck, two furry pyramids, eyelashes that seem coated in mascara, and a set of yellow buck teeth. There is a guide on hand with some facts: camels can go ten days in the desert without drinking, their humps aren’t filled with water, it’s fat, the eyelashes are designed to keep out sandstorms, and their liver and kidneys extract all moisture from food, leaving their dung dry and compact.
If creatures end up looking so strange, it’s all because of their adaptations to the peculiarities of the natural environment, Darwin taught us, and no one would doubt it in Regent’s Park. The Sri Lankan Sloth bear has long, mobile lips and two missing upper incisors so that it can suck ants and termites out of their nests, a distinctive facial feature which no one who relied on a more conventional diet would have bothered with.
Every creature seems wonderfully adapted for some things, hopelessly suited for others. The horseshoe crab looks monstrous, like a miniature military helmet with bow legs, but it’s a pro at surviving in deep water and avoiding the appetites of sharks. It lives quietly, without incident, sliding only occasionally across the ocean floor to grab the odd mollusc.
It’s hard not to land on particular creatures in which one sees aspects of one’s own character. In his letters, Gustave Flaubert compared himself variously to a boa constrictor (1841), an oyster in its shell (1845), and a hedgehog rolling up to protect itself (1853, 1857). One might come away identifying with the Malayan tapir, the baby okapi, the llama and the turtle (especially on sombre Sunday evenings).
A zoo unsettles in simultaneously making animals seem more human and humans more animal. “Apes are man’s closest relative,” reads a characteristically chirpy caption by the orang-outang enclosure, “how many similarities can you see?” Far too many for comfort, of course. Shave him, dress him in a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, and the one scratching his nose in the corner of the cage might be a cousin. In May 1842, Queen Victoria visited Regent’s Park Zoo, and in her diary, noted of a new Orang Outang from Calcutta: “He is wonderful, preparing and drinking his tea, but he is painfully and disagreeably human.” How easily one can imagine being captured and placed in a cage-like room in a Holiday Inn, with three meals a day passed through a hatch, and with nothing to do other than watch TV – while a crowd of giraffes look on at one, giggling and videoing, licking confectionery, while saying what a short neck one has.
Outside the zoo, so much of what one does starts to assume animal-like tendencies. Calling up that friend for a drink; just part of the mating ritual of the species, not fundamentally different from what llamas are up to when they start to whistle strangely at each other on long autumn nights on the Peruvian plains.
Then again, there is relief to be found in the ability to view one’s antics as manifestations of basic animal drives; for food, shelter and survival of one’s genetic offspring.
One should never wait for the excuse of a child to go to the zoo.
The fishmonger’s window display is alluring, yet one doesn’t normally go in. But when one does, one wonders why one doesn’t visit more often.
Waiting to be served one is struck by the beauty and strangeness of the fish and sea creatures on offer on the beds of ice: the oyster that somehow generates its own home, rocky on the outside, suggestively smooth and polished within. For a moment one contemplates the destiny of the sole, one of whose eyes has to migrate round its head on the path to maturity and the monkfish whose huge, toothy mouth and puny body are repellent to look at but whose flesh is delicious when roasted and drizzled with olive oil.
They seem so alien. But – in a universe composed almost entirely of gas and rock circulating in the endless nothingness of space – we are their cousins, with whom we briefly cohabit the surface zones of Earth. In the recent history of the cosmos we shared common ancestors, whose progeny became diversely the octopus, the sea bream or evolved gradually into solicitors, psychotherapists and graphic designers.
Imagine spending this thing called life embodied in a lobster, encountering the world through its tiny peppercorn eyes, which offer a field of vision much wider but less focused than ours. There would have been the momentous day one dug a burrow beneath a basalt rock in the soft mud of the sea floor in Fidden bay, off the Isle of Mull. Then there would have been the drama of shedding our exoskeleton. We would have had to master the laborious process of reproduction, when the male has to pierce the female’s stomach to deposit his spermatophores. Finally there was the catastrophic curiosity that two days ago tempted us into a lobster pot.
The fish shop isn’t simply a place to pick up calamari rings or some cod steaks, it is also a place of re-enchantment. We suffer a fatally easy tendency to become jaded. Things that are familiar lose their power to entice the imagination. Then, looking into the eye of a mullet, or contemplating the internal architecture of a skate fin, one is reconnected with the elegant and bizarre inventiveness of nature. We’ve been too hasty, we’ve overlooked almost everything. The world is full of fascination, there is so much to be explored. And we have been led to this renewed appetite by the head of a fish.
Each item has been gathered from the chambers of the sea, distant rivers, or prised from submerged rocks. The speckled trout were reared in a former gravel pit in Lincolnshire. The mackerel was caught by a trawler on the Dogger Bank and landed at Peterhead. The sea bass was hauled onto the cobbled pier at Crail and speeded in a refrigerated van down the M90 and the A1(M) with a brief halt in the HGV parking lot at Wetherby Service Station.
And here they all are cleansed, gutted, chilled, artfully arranged. Nature has been civilised and made attractive by ice, metal, glass, tiles, slabs of marble and by constant cold water and the sharpest knives. The fish shop hints at an ideal that we would like perhaps to pursue more broadly: the sense that trouble has been rinsed away, and the desirable good bit will be delivered into your life neatly wrapped in delicately glazed white paper.
Visiting the fishmonger leads one to sketch little plans of moral reform: in another, slightly better, life, one would go there all the time. We’d become adept at preparing certain dishes. Being here, one makes fleeting, initial contact with a latent self who poaches salmon, tosses a lobster salad, drizzles olive oil and whose friends come round for Bouillabaisse. There is a potential future version of oneself – who starts to come to life in the fishmonger – who lives on light, nutritious fishy meals and whose brain is bathed in their sympathetic briney fluids. Life as a whole will remain radically imperfect, one knows, but if one took slightly more care around eating, even if lots of bits of one’s life were bad, if one could come in here and get some sole wrapped up by the man in the blue apron and go home, and take the art of living more seriously, then one would be closer to being the person one should always have been. The fish-shop pleasure originates in very small points of departure – the smell of the salt and water, the frigid air wafting from the beds of ice, the silvery skin of an Atlantic Salmon – and grows into a large idea: respect for civilisations that have more time for things that are simultaneously delightful and wholesome.
As the plane makes its gradual descent you see much of the island from your window: the cliffs at one end, the long golden curve of a remote beach, olive groves, an isolated village, a patch of woodland, the ferry wharf constructed in the 1970s, the whitewashed air traffic control tower. There’s just one carousel at the terminal. People seem to know each other. It’s only a short ride in the hired car into the small main town. You drive past the shopping centre, the villa with the old tree in front, the primary school, the restaurant that specialises in seafood, the town hall… And there’s a strange, instinctive feeling of wanting to live here. You won’t really, in all probability, for a lot of reasons big and small. But the thought of being happy here is saying something important – which deserves to be decoded and and which might not ultimately involve plans for relocation.
Small islands tap in into the pleasing sense of control that comes with a reduced, more manageable scale. It’s why Legoland is a great tourist attraction and why the Poppenhuis – a doll’s house – is the most popular exhibit in Amsterdam’s majestic Rijksmuseum. When the world gets smaller, we get larger – and feel less vulnerable, more competent. A small island offers to fulfil the childhood dream of adult existence. At last we will be big people; like the adults we then admired and felt so reassured by.
You can easily drive out to the highest point of the island – a modest climb from the half-deserted car park. From there you can see pretty much the whole place: the bay where it’s great to swim, then a bit further round the coast, the harbour with the town clustering round it; in the distance there’s the spire of the monastery. The small island has obvious boundaries you can see. You can walk right round the coast road in a few hours. Even when you are in the middle of the town you can catch sight of the surrounding hills, or glimpse the bay, at the end of various streets.
It’s an attractive contrast to the mostly unbounded issues we have to deal with in the rest of existence: one of the big causes of stress is that we often face problems that can’t be solved in any reasonable period of time or indeed solved at all. It’s going to take five more years until we’re ready to start the job we really want. That big project at work will taken another 24 months before it shows any signs of real progress. The annoying colleague is a daily challenge, with no end in sight. Even now, deep in adulthood, your sibling or parent remains an ongoing source of frustration. You’ve just had the same argument for the twentieth time with your partner; it always ends in apologies, but a real advance is elusive. Your child has again damaged the sofa. In other words, our longing for control and completion is constantly being frustrated.
It’s to this corrosive tendency that the island seems to offer a contrastive antidote: limited, defined, contained – and you can get anywhere a shortish drive.
We easily forget how much love is connected to being able to look after something. We turn inwards and become what is called selfish when the social problems feel too vast and intractable and our own efforts start to look puny and pointless. The great metropolitan centres are too big to love. They constantly force us to admit that we are nothing. The small island is so pleasing because it raises the vision of another kind of world, in which public effort and generosity feel logical and productive. The gap between tidying one’s bedroom and tidying the little world of the island is not so daunting.
An island foregrounds the particular rather than the general (to put it in a rather abstract way, initially). It turns out there’s pretty much only one of everything. There’s one high school, one fancy restaurant, one cinema, one good place to buy shellfish, one airport, one bookshop, one museum, one nightclub, the beach where you swim on hot days, the mountain where it’s always cool. You go back to the same place again and again – because there isn’t always another competing for your attention. Things become familiar, relationships become intimate.
Of course, the reality of any particular small island won’t be exactly like this, flaws will always arise. But the feeling of pleasure we experience on arrival is partly the work of the imagination. In fact, the pleasure of the small island rests on qualities that (once we have learned to recognise them) can be found closer to home. A small island is not just a place on the map; it’s a psychological destination; a model of simplifying your life and making do with what is immediately to hand. You may not even have to take a plane or a boat to get there.
It’s strange to see there are so many of them; though in some detached part of our brains we know there are trillions of trillions of them. But we forget to look. We keep meaning to, but it might only be once or twice a year we find ourselves looking up on a dark night at our own sliver of the universe.
When we do, we feel ourselves pleasantly diminished by the majesty of what we contemplate. As we renew our connection with immensity we’re humbled without being humiliated. It’s not just us, personally and individually who are diminished in comparison. The things that trouble and bother us seem smaller as well.
The sight of the stars – perhaps glimpsed above a suburban railway station coming home late after an extended crisis in the office, or from a bedroom window on a sleepless night – presents us with a direct, sensory impression of the magnitude of the cosmos. Without knowing the exact details we’re powerfully aware that their light has been beaming down changelessly through recorded history, that our great grandparents must have from time to time looked on just the same pattern of tiny lights. They look so densely packed and yet we grasp that they are in fact separated by astonishing gulfs of empty nothingness; that around them circle unknown worlds – lifeless maybe or perhaps teeming with alien vitality and harbouring dramas of incomprehensible splendour and tragedy about which we will never know anything. Though perhaps in a hundred or a thousand generations our descendants will be at home even there. It is sublime because we are drawn entirely out of the normal course of our daily concerns and our thoughts are directed to matters in which we have no personal stake whatever. Our private lives fall into the background, which is a contrastive relief to the normal state of anxious preoccupation with the local and the immediate.
We’re taught that interest in the stars is scientific, but it should be humanistic. If a child gets excited by the stars, parents feel that they should undertake a visit to a planetarium and make a stab at explaining thermonuclear fusion, gravity, the speed of light, red giants, white dwarfs and black holes. The presiding assumption is that an interest in the stars must be directed towards knowledge of astrophysics.
But very few of us will become science professionals. We can afford to be impressionistic because it never will really matter whether we can remember much of the detail. We’re amateurs and we need something else. The stars matter in our lives because they offer a consoling encounter with grandeur, because they invite a helpful perspective on the brevity and littleness of human existence.
Why don’t we make more of this natural resource and plug ourselves more frequently into the milky way and renew this helpful pleasure?
It’s an issue that crops up so often around small pleasures. There’s an accidental randomness to our encounters with them. We leave it to chance. Ideally we’d schedule more appointments. We’d put it in the diary: meeting with the stars, Tuesday (a moonless night, cloud cover predicted to be 20%) 9:15pm – a walk after dinner.
Our collective model of a good life tends to focus on career progress and financial management. We don’t typically weigh up whether a person went to the fish shop a lot, paid a lot of attention to islands or looked very much at the stars. Yet, in fact, the regular appreciation of these and related small pleasures makes a major contribution to the elusive but crucially important notion of the quality of existence. Such pleasures can be termed small because they don’t usually have big, immediate dramatic consequences. We don’t crave them; they come to us fairly quietly and are easily missed against a background of distractions and preoccupations. We don’t have to do anything about them. And so, lovely though they are, they easily slip out of view.
One of the big tasks of civilisation is to teach us how to better enjoy life. The Romantic assumption is that we know intuitively and all we need is greater freedom to follow our instincts. The Classical picture is that a pleasant life is, in fact, a deliberate accomplishment. It’s a rational achievement that builds on careful examination of experience and involves deliberate strategies to guide us more reliably to the things that truly please us.
Naturally, the details of personal experience vary enormously, but there’s a charming ideal of what a grandmother is that we can imagine or piece together from fragments of benign memories.
Perhaps when you were a child, when your parents and siblings were away for some reason, you spent a couple of days on your own just with her at her house. You were six, you helped in the kitchen, there was a special smell in the cupboard where she kept the plates and a strange set of dark green glasses; she had a funny toaster with a large red lever; and a special little fat knife only for butter. She took you to a farm in her little car and you fed a carrot to a goat and she told you about a pet pig she had when she lived in the country as a child. She cut up an apple in a special way, removing the whole peel in one wonderful long spiral. And she gave you a thin mint chocolate and she laughed when you didn’t really like it. But she didn’t mind. She gave you supper on a tray and let you watch television, sitting on her big sofa.
There was a wooden chest with her special things: some old coins, a fan made of ivory, a tiny pencil made of gold, a photo of her at a beach and a slightly sinister one in which she’s standing next to a man in soldier’s uniform which she says was taken ‘during the war’. You were being introduced to an outside world bigger than your parents. It was alien but because of her involvement, it is still one you are connected to.
A grandmother can function as what the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called a transitional object. A transitional object (like a favourite blanket or an increasingly grubby knitted rabbit) stands for home, but it can also accompany the child in its early forays into the wider world. It provides an extended psychological life-line back to maternal love and security. In its presence the child feels emotionally safe and can therefore risk experimenting with things that are at first a little frightening or alien. The grandmother is kind and gentle and in her reassuring presence the child can start to encounter ideas that are potentially distressing: the fact that the world is very big, with a huge, complex past and filled with strangers.
There is a sweet alliance of the elderly grandmother (who is gradually becoming weaker) and the young grandchild (who is slowly becoming stronger). But at the moment, from opposite ends of the spectrum, they both understand frailty quite well. There’s an open-ended tenderness in the Grandmother’s attitude. Her awareness of her own short tenure on life makes her feel the preciousness of mere existence. She’ll probably die before the course of your adult life is established. She might not be able to talk about Minecraft or know how to make a spaceship out of Lego, she can’t make an obstacle course round the sitting room out of cushions and upturned chairs. But she’s very interested in whether you still like Toblerone and if you might be feeling a little bit cold. She may be the only person who simply wants you to happy. She’s good at being cosy. It’s nice to snuggle up to her while she reads to you. She embodies a species of wisdom: the knowledge that achievement is in the long-run over-rated, that simply being comfortable sitting next to another person watching a gardening program on television, or carefully watering a potted geranium in the company of a small person can be deeply important.
Ironically, it is this pure kindness which is so irritating when you become a teenager. She’s delighted – of course – if you win the long-jump and will obligingly coo over your maths exam results. But you sense that she would be just as warm if you had two left feet and couldn’t make any sense of algebra. Because her love is unconditional, it has the potentially maddening tendency to look right past some of your actual merits, which are the present focus of your own sense of who you are. She wants to hug you and tuck you in and do a jigsaw together.
She seems – in a way that will become awkward – to represent the opposite of sex. When she was twenty-two she was very different. She’s actually been through every permutation of experience. But it doesn’t seem that way when you are thirteen. Excitement doesn’t touch her now. Inevitably – but quite wrongly – you feel she’d be shocked and upset to know of the inner complications of your growing imagination. You were still too young to realise that even though she likes patterned jumpers and takes care going down stairs she’s the same person who once spent a riotous summer shacked up with a drunken conceptual artist in West Berlin.
The parent is desperate that the child will grow up well; the lover wants to be understood; the friend wants a companion in adventure. The grandmother doesn’t want anything from you, except your presence. It’s a disconcerting innocence: the lack of calculation and an absence of desire. She doesn’t appear to acknowledge any of the driving forces in your life. It’s not actually because she never knew them but because they no longer particularly impress her terribly much. She’s seen boys grow into lawyers and then judges; or A grade students, doctors and then surgeons – and it doesn’t amaze her because she’s also seen these people have messy personal lives, decline physically, develop prostate issues and die suddenly. It means she focuses on now and can therefore seem boring: for example, her interest in mentioning that there used to be a dry-cleaners where there’s now a health food shop; her habit of saying ‘the’ Facebook, her confusion at how her phone works.
The pleasure we take in the idea of the grandmother is a way of acknowledging how much we actually like tenderness. Ordinarily relationships should learn a lesson in love from this slightly funny situation – the encounter between an elderly lady and a child. it doesn’t look like a likely classroom where we can gain much of an education. But this is the true crucible of love – a topic which we are so invested in but around which we have so many failures. What we learn is how important modesty of ambition is. It’s where we see how love can be so beneficially detached from expectation and from reciprocation. The grandmother never hopes to be understood by the child. It is enough to spend a nice day, without doing much: we saw a pony, had some milk, played a game of cards, tried doing a painting of a flower. Quite soon the six year old will start to think this is a ridiculous day. And it may take six decades before they relearn that it is the purpose and meaning of life.
The longing, embodied in the happy idea of the grandmother, is that we can learn this lesson a little better and a little sooner: that we will be able to decant a portion of this love-wisdom before too much of life is past.
5:45 am on a summer’s morning. You’ve woken early. It’s still outside. The sun hasn’t quite risen yet. Normally, you’d be sleeping right through this. You’re reconnecting with your life. Somewhere a solitary lorry rumbles away.
The forecast says it’s going to be hot later. All the real brightness and warmth is still beyond the horizon. But it’s on its way. It’s started to turn the lower clouds orange and make the sky, in that direction, pink and pale purple. The bottom clouds look like they are floating in a golden sea. If you haven’t seen it for a while, you forget how impressive it looks. Every single morning some version of this happens, though you are almost always asleep when it does.
In the kitchen, a few last remains of yesterday. The argument you had last night feels far away. Why did it matter? Dawn is the world’s reminder to let yesterday go. When everyone else is asleep the house feels like it is just yours. You can remember why you like it.
Last night in here it was quite tense while you were cooking dinner. Your partner was giving you a hard time, at least you thought they were. No one else is going to be up for ages. You’ve got the place to yourself. It looks different at this hour. The magical square of early sunlight on the wall makes you think of childhood. You on Sunday mornings, when your parents had a lie in, you’d sneak down and steal biscuits. It felt like going for an adventure – in your own home.
You can hear the birds, now. Later the human world will drown them out. Overnight a snail has been made a momentous journey from the window-sill to a potted geranium. At dawn you notice things that are get missed in the rush of the day. There are parts of yourself that get missed too. More delicate, more wondering. You’ve been missing the version of yourself that you only meet at this time.
You head out to pick up a few things from a local shop. The air feels blissfully fresh. And it’s quiet. The usual roar of traffic from the main road hasn’t started. There’s a brief flap of wings as a bird rises from a nearby tree. You can hear a clear, high pitched bird call and another very different one, more hollow and warm. The details of the natural world so easily escape our notice.
You see a tranquil beauty in the tower block you’ve always rather disliked up to now. You feel friendly towards a man with cropped grey hair who is noisily stacking shopping baskets and boxes of bananas outside the supermarket. There’s someone walking their dog. Like you – at least today – a voluntary early riser; they’ve chosen to be here. You don’t know anything else about them, except this one thing which, at the moment, seems important. You almost say hello. Maybe another time, you will. You stroll across the road – usually you have to wait for the lights and scurry over. You’ve got time to watch the clouds shed their pink tones and take on their normal smudged appearance. At this hour, it’s a little easier to think well of the world. The city looks serene and elegant. You feel calm and a little proud of yourself for being here now.
You have a burst of energy for things you often don’t want to face. You map out the pros and cons of a career move on a big sheet of paper; you look through some old family photographs and send a long email to your mother; you pay a couple of annoying bills online and get them out of the way; you cook yourself a good breakfast of scrambled eggs.
It’s strange: all available time is in truth limited. You can’t make there be twenty five hours in the day. Yet now it does feel like you are in possession of an extra slice of existence; it’s always been there, but you’ve only just found it. Time could be re-arranged: there are plenty of things that can contribute to leading a life more like the one we want. We could get new chances. Every day, it happens. And every day you have the chance to be again the person you are just now in the very early morning.