Archive for the ‘writing’ 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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I used to support this idea that you ‘write what you know.’ You hear that advice given to young writers all the time and even to kids in school. It’s one of the greatest disservices – even in elementary school, teachers ask students just back from holidays to write about what you did, what happened to you, what you know. What about what you imagine? The imagination is the richest tool you will ever have as a novelist and, really, as a person. Anybody can do research. To use your imagination is to use a gift of the gods. The imagination is really disrespected when you’re telling people over and over to write what you know. This idea that what you experienced in your backyard when you were 15 is more significant or more real is just not true. Lawrence Hill

I’m increasingly convinced that imagination is indeed a “gift of the gods” and that it is the “richest tool” any creative person can use, not just writers. 

In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that more imagination is needed to solve the problems and crises we face, to feel genuine empathy with others, to develop tolerance, and to re-enchant our dis-enchanted lives.

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heart in the keystone

I read an interview with the author, Alexandre Jardin, in the new edition of Cles magazine . He was asked why he is optimistic about the future and the first reason he gave hinged around a word which was new to me –  bienveillance – so I looked it up.

It means benevolence, or kindliness.

In his interview he said he thought there was a reaction to the negativity and extremism of fundamentalism and far right politics, and that reaction had the quality of “bienveillance” – benevolence or kindliness.

He has initiated a movement/website called “bleublanczèbres” – I know, sounds strange, huh? Blue and white zebras? Even if you don’t speak French take a look and get a feel for it. The focus is on acting. On doing. Which is totally consistent with my focus this year on the verbs of becoming (search on my site here for “a to z of becoming”). If you scroll down on the bleublanczèbres.fr site you’ll see a whole host of projects. Every project offers you opportunities to get involved and the things you can do are divided into three categories – things you can do if you have a minute, things you can do if you have an hour, and things you can do if you have a day. I love it. He describes the over all project as not a “think tank” but a “do tank”.

Whether you go and look at that idea or not, I think a good takeaway for today would be to ask yourself how you can ACT with benevolence or kindliness to the others you meet or share some time with (at home, in your neighbourhood, or at work or school) today. How about we put benevolence and kindliness at the heart of whatever we are building – make it the keystone.

Try it, and see what it feels like.

Alexandre Jardin seems to believe we can grow the amount of “bienveillance” in the world by our actions. I think he’s right.

As Gandhi said

We must become the change we wish to see in the world

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where I write

Here’s where I write.

The reflection of the sky in the window of my study really caught my eye. In fact, I’d say it caught my imagination.


Too often these days imagination is harnessed to fear. Our daily newsfeed from the media provokes us to think about and worry about the most awful horrors. During the Referendum campaign in Scotland this year the No camp bombarded people day in, day out, with scare story after scare story. How else can a minority continue to hold power over the majority? How else can a fraction of the 1% who grow richer by the day, no, by the minute, continue to exert power over the 99%? Is it any wonder that in democratic societies so many are disenchanted with politics? Where are the politicians and parties with vision….with spectacular, engaging ideas and passionately held values which motivate us to create the solutions to the problems which face us?

It seems to me that we need to fire up peoples’ imaginations.

Where else are we to get our new ideas from? Where else are we to get our hope from?

Ursula Le Guin, the author, received a medal at the National Book Awards recently, and she said this

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

I so agree.

Hard times seem to be coming. For many, they are here already. We DO need the writers who can see a way ahead and inspire us to create a better future. We do need to writers who “remember freedom” and count it as “our beautiful reward”. And we certainly need writers who can “imagine some real grounds for hope”.

I hope that, daily, little by little, I am becoming one of those writers……

After all, if we can’t imagine real grounds for hope, how do we carry on?

Imagination is such a precious and amazing facility. We can use it to solve problems. We can use it to create – art, music, literature, new thoughts and new acts…..not just, as Ursula Le Guin says “other ways of being”, but other ways of becoming!

If we are to realise our potential to become heroes not zombies, we’re going to need those writers who can fire up our imaginations…….. to think creatively, and, importantly, to DO things differently.

If we believe freedom is possible, aren’t we going to have to use our imaginations to create it?

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Over the first half of this year, I’ve written a post every Sunday under a series title of “The A to Z of Becoming”. I’ve picked 26 verbs and shared some thoughts about focusing on one verb a week as a way to consciously engage with the process of change in our lives.

We change all the time – as Henri Bergson says, in “Creative Evolution”

for a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly

This process of “creating oneself endlessly” is largely an unconscious one, but we can engage with it consciously by making choices about what we DO. It’s our actions which create our selves and our world.

As Game of Thrones fans will know

Words are wind

Or to consider Bergson again….

we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves continually

Our lives are creative processes of unceasing change, and consciousness gives us, uniquely in this universe (as far as we know!) the opportunity to escape from passivity and automaticity. We are not objects. We are not things. We are not zombies. Unless we choose to be……

Heroes, are the protagonists of the stories. Each of us is the hero, or protagonist of a unique story, a story untold by any other being in the history of the universe and a story which will never be told again by anyone else.

Heroes are “action heroes” – WE are these “action heroes” if we choose to become aware of the actions we take every day.

You can find a post on each of the verbs in that word cloud above by searching for the it using the search box on this page, or find the whole series by searching for “a to z” (use the quotation marks as well as the phrase)

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Maya Angelou was wonderful with words. You’re probably coming across some of them just now as the internet spills over with memories and thoughts about her provoked by the news of her death.

Here is one of my favourites

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I especially like this one because I just don’t accept the sole point of living is to make it to the end. Is a Life survived for a number of years something you’d aspire to? Isn’t the sole goal of survival ultimately 100% doomed? (Nobody makes it out of here alive!). You can spend a life like a robot, or, in terms of this blog, like a zombie, on some kind of autopilot, surviving, but there’s something else you can do. You can thrive. You can flourish. You can express the uniqueness you are in this universe, and become what only you could become. You can live with passion, fully engaged with the wonder of the everyday (l’émerveillement du quotidien), you can connect, feel, respond, use your imagination to put yourself in the shoes of others, you can laugh, live with a twinkle in your eye, and you can do it with beauty, grace and, yes, style.


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I read a fabulous book whilst on holiday in France recently – “Ni hasard, ni nécessité” by Marc Halévy. I’ll probably write a few posts inspired by it. Here’s the first –

Marc Halévy refers to the three meanings of the word “sens” in the French language.

The first is sensation, or senses – what we experience subjectively. This is such a great way to be present – to pay attention to, to become aware of, or mindful of, the sensations you are experiencing in the here and now. What colours, what light and patterns can you see? What sounds do you hear? What scents can you smell? What tastes linger on your tongue? What does your body sense?

The second is meaning – “what sense do you make of……..?” We are meaning seeking creatures. We are always wondering why, and what does this mean? Why me? Why this happening now in my life?

The third is direction – “where am I going?” “where will this lead?” “what’s the point, or purpose or direction of my life?” We like to be able to see an overarching narrative in our lives. We like to see how we’ve got to where we’ve got to and where that might lead if we carry on down this road.

I love this unpacking of that one word “sens” – the sensations, the meaning and the direction of my life.

In fact, sticking with French for a moment, it’s not far from “le sens” to “l’essentiel” – as Saint Exupéry said “l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux”

What is most important to us, what is essential in fact, is what is invisible – and the sensations, the meaning and the direction in our lives are all invisible. They aren’t material. They can’t be measured. But they create “le sens de la vie”.

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