Archive for the ‘from the viewing room’ Category

The movie version of “Le Petit Prince” has just been released in France and, perhaps because of that, I stumbled on what turned out to be a French translation of an English language article in “The American Interest” last year – in it the author compares the two princes – Machiavelli’s and Saint-Exupéry’s.

The key difference lies in how the two books present the social urge that drives human political interactions. Machiavelli penned the incipient modern view that puts fear at the center of political order, turning politics into the craft of fear management. And it is a craft, properly speaking, not a science; yet the flavor of early modern times helped give rise to what we optimistically call today political science. The French aviator’s short book, on the other hand, describes the deep human desire to be social out of love toward others, not from fear of them. For the former, fear of others is the source of social cohesion; for the latter, the source is the need for others. The former would repel others, the latter attract them.

What the author is highlighting is the acute difference between these two authors in their view of their fellow human beings.

The modern approach to politics—one given to us in distilled form in The Prince and more elaborately in the Discourses, and is then expanded by later authors such as Thomas Hobbes—starts from the assumption that we humans do not enjoy each other’s company. Rather, we relentlessly compete with each other for things and for thoughts, for safety, and for status. It is a dim view of men, “ungrateful, fickle, pretenders, evaders of danger, greedy for gain” (The Prince, XVII). The outcome is a constant clash that often degenerates into the war of all against all. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Huis Clos (“No Exit”) in the same year that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry plunged into the sea: “L’enfer, c’est les Autres.”

Well, this certainly rings a bell. We are force fed a daily diet of fear – fear of terrorism, crime, disease, immigrants…..you name it!

Le Petit Prince presents a very different picture. The Little Prince from a distant asteroid is also a keen observer of human affairs, but less jaded than the retired Florentine diplomat and his modern followers. He is a gentle soul in search of others whom he can befriend and love. In one of the many moving moments in this quirky little book, the lonely and somewhat sad Little Prince who had just landed on earth screams from a mountaintop: “Soyez mes amis, je suis seul.” Deriving apparently little pleasure from his loneliness, the Little Prince seeks others, not to dominate them but simply to be with them and engage them in conversations. As he says to a fox, “Come and play with me. . . . I am so sad.” (Ch. XXI).No Principe, no man in Machiavelli’s world, can fathom the idea of seeking others simply to enjoy their company. La tristezza of the Prince leads him to fear others; la tristesse of the Little Prince leads him to seek others.

If one of the key differences is the creation of a society based on fear vs one based on friendship, then the other key difference this author notes is between the quantitative and the qualitative.

Another crucial and related difference between the two Princes revolves around a question that is apparently limited to epistemology, but that has significant political consequences. The Little Prince observes that human interactions are not, and cannot be, based exclusively on visible, calculable features. As Saint-Exupéry famously puts it, “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” For Machiavelli instead, “Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are” (The Prince, XXVIII). Measurable appearances are more important in the life of the Prince than what is invisible to the eyes, but they are useless for the Little Prince. In anthropologist James Scott’s words, in order to function the modern state requires its citizens to be “legible”: to have a clutch of numbers citing address, age, and income, coded and used to place individuals in various categories. The Little Prince would find the very idea of legibility puzzling and inhuman, and Saint-Exupéry himself would not have been the least surprised to learn, had he lived long enough, that the Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of their victims. The Little Prince’s criticism of the grown-ups, or us moderns, is that we approach others by focusing on calculable appearances. To know something or somebody, we measure it. When we introduce a friend to an adult, he asks: “How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Similarly, when we try to describe a house, its price is one of the first features that we use to convey its beauty. “You have to tell them [grown-ups], ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs’. Then they exclaim: ‘What a pretty house!’” This is our scientific approach, another essence of our modernity: By counting and measuring, we think we assess the other side as rival or friend, we think we grasp his potential behavior, and, above all, we think we can manufacture benign social arrangements on this basis.This is not real knowledge, and consequently it cannot generate real order. The questions one ought to ask are different. Knowing the price of a house pales before a description of it as a “beautiful red brick house with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof.” Similarly, if you want to get to know somebody, ask: “What does his voice sound like? What games does he like best? Does he collect butterflies?” Only by asking such questions can one start the long process of “taming.” The development of true social bonds is possible only when based on this deeper, yet far more elusive kind of knowledge. Knowing how much money one makes may be helpful to manage the Prince’s mechanism of fear, but it does little to develop true friendship and lasting order.

I’ve quoted pretty extensively from Jakub Grygiel’s article but I do think it really merits a full read – you can find it here.

Maybe this will whet your appetite to either go out and buy a copy of “The Little Prince” by Saint-Exupéry, or to go see the movie. Delight, pleasure and food for thought if you do!

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We have a huge vine which covers the wall of a building at the edge of our garden.

The other day I was sitting under the mulberry tree and I heard a strange noise – like water droplets falling on the vine (but it wasn’t raining, and the vine wasn’t being watered!)

I took this little video – turn up the volume and listen very carefully

The noise is the vine, popping those little shells off it’s flowers – see –


Have you ever heard anything like that?

It’s been happening every day since – just after the sun moves west over the wall so that after being in warm sunlight all day, the vine is now in the shade.

Oh, and at the same time, dozens of bees make their way to vine to find the nectar which has just been made available.

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If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that the “émerveillment du quotidien” is a key life principle for me.

That French phrase captures the sense of continuous open-ness to wonder. (It means the amazing everyday – more or less!)

But look what I managed to film today!

I’ve seen and heard this little creature buzzing around my garden recently and he never, ever stays still. Not for a second! I think it’s called a “hummingbird moth”.

His wings make a deep buzzing sound so its always obvious when he is around.

Look at the speed of his wings! Look at that long proboscis and how it can curl right up into a spiral! It’s astonishing!

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I bet there’s a good chance you will look at this photo and it will touch your heart.

Looking after wee ones is SO important.

I wonder if we really honour and respect that enough?

Are our societies structured in the way which allows the wee ones to grow and thrive, to reach their full potential?

I think the solutions will lie in developing our heart intelligence, but we need our brain intelligence too.

For a data-driven, brain-focused approach, here’s a video of a presentation by Sir Harry Burns who was Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer until last year. It’s almost half an hour long, and some of it is pretty technical, but Harry Burns is expert at delivering the messages in clear, simple ways. I think the first twenty minutes or so of this presentation will startle you if you haven’t seen this kind of analysis before. The takeaway message is that the way we structure our society, in particular in the physical, emotional and social environments we create, powerfully influences the health and illness paths of individuals right from conception (or earlier?) and the first few months of life. (The last ten minutes or so of this particular presentation goes off into the “patient safety programme” – which is a different issue – in my opinion)

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cauldron flowers

When you look at this photo you’ll see something living, the plants, and something “inanimate”, the cauldron. Some of you will also say you notice the sunlight and the shadows.

Every day these plants look different as they grow, flower, and, ultimately wither.

Every day the cauldron doesn’t look that different, but if we could see what it looked like on that first day when it was carried from the foundry to the shop, we’d see that it has changed a lot.

Everything changes. Just at different rates. Living organisms change rapidly, whilst inanimate objects change much more slowly, except for moments of catastrophic change where, for example, an object is broken.

We forget that, don’t we? That change isn’t optional, but the speed of change can be.

We are creators, we humans, and when we create we embrace change, we engage with it, we bring our imaginations to bear upon it, and so we make the world we live in.

“All power to the imagination”

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redstart on the antenna
I haven’t posted any music here for a while, but this photo I took the other day instantly reminded me of one of my favourite songs…..

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I was watching an episode of Vikings the other day, and was startled when one of the character, King Ecbert recited a few lines of poetry which were completely familiar.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened

T S Eliot! From the Four Quartets! Dramatically it worked, even if you couldn’t help thinking, whoa there, T S Eliot in the Vikings??!

I studied Eliot at school and he is still one of my most favourite poets. I remember reading this passage and feeling enthralled by it, but I had no idea what he was talking about. Now, as I encounter it again, I’m surprised how well it fits with what I have since discovered about time and memory.

In fact, by one of those strange quirks of synchronicity, this month’s “Philosophie” magazine has a central section on Bergson’s concept of memory. Bergson was way ahead of his time and many of his philosophical ideas about the mind have since been backed up by research findings in the field of neuroscience.

Much as I can be thrilled by reading the work of a philosopher, or research work in neuroscience, neither of these comes close to the power and beauty of Eliot’s poetry.

Draw all three of these strands together, and we have a vision of experience which is not of the past filed away in some cabinet or pigeon hole in the brain, nor of the future lying like the landscape just over the next hill, waiting for us to discover it. No, instead we have a vision of the present which contains the past and the future. This is where we encounter time and reality, in a never ceasing interplay of the ripples of the past, the imagined possibilities of what might be, and the phenomena of the present moment.

So it isn’t just what happened which influences us now, but those passageways we didn’t take, and doors we didn’t open, are also still influencing what we see, hear, feel and think about today.

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Around one and a half million people took to the streets of Paris yesterday. Throughout France in towns and even villages the people came out with their “Je suis Charlie” signs (about 4 million people all across France), their pens and pencils held aloft, as they demonstrated their commitment to the principles of the French Republic.

Amongst the many creative signs and symbols in the crowds, one of my favourites was, 

Osons vivre ensemble

which translated into English is something like

Let’s dare to live together

It takes courage and determination to accept difference, to respect the choices and beliefs of others, and to manage to do that while living together. 

Another banner which struck me was this one –

Love is stronger than hate

Sign me up. I believe that and I choose to live according to that belief.

(by the way, these photos are not mine. I found them on web)

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Look at this!

I saw it on a French Nature programme, but it’s originally from the BBC.

If you look carefully you’ll see the little puffer fish at the centre of his creation. Isn’t it totally amazing?

How can such a wee fish make such a perfectly accurate circular pattern like this? And isn’t it just beautiful?

Apparently this is what the male puffer fish creates to attract a female. If the female fish is satisfied with the creation she lays her eggs right in the middle of it, he fertilises them, then she lays more, which he fertilises. Then she swims off.

The way he makes the pattern, it creates a perfect consistency of sand in the middle for the protection of the eggs. In other words, from an engineering perspective, it’s brilliant. 

But what amazed me most was how he makes it so beautiful, and how the beauty of the pattern attracts the female.

Are you aware of any other creatures, apart from human beings, which produce creative works of beauty? I know certain birds, and some other creatures, can create incredible nests, but ones which seem to be created to be beautiful? I didn’t know other creatures did that.

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How lucky am I? To live amongst the fields of gold?
fields of gold

(not barley, but vines, in my case!)


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