Monday, December 29, 2008

Learning to See the World Anew

Once again let me begin by saying that of all the positive benefits of meditation, perhaps the primary one is that of learning to become aware of everything that's going on around you at any particular time.  This post is a continuation of my last one and, like it, it is inspired by my reading of Alain de Botton's wonderful wee book on travel, viz., The Art of Travel (Penguin, 2003)

De Botton's book is essentially about awareness, about being awake to all that is going on around you.  He argues that we are, in fact, travelling all the time.  The implications of his thoughts are that we do not have to spend much money on our holidays at all - all we have to do is learn to see the world with new eyes; learn to hear the world with new ears; learn to feel the world with more attentive hands; learn to taste the world with more awakened taste buds and finally learn to smell the world with a new nose finely attuned to the myriads of smells and odours around us.  These last words are mine, of course, not his.  However, I think the reader of these comments will get my point. 

Chapters three and four which constitute section two of this book explore our motives for travel and deal with the exotic and curiosity.  De Botton brings the French novelist  Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) and the German naturalist and explorerAlexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)with him for guides on the way to deal respectively with both topics.

The first of these two authors was quite Rabelaisian in tone.  As a boy of twelve, Flaubert's cherished wish, De Botton tells us, was to become a camel driver in Egypt and lose his virginity in a harem.  Needless to say, we are not surprised when we hear that the young Flaubert was often bored and that he contracted a wide variety of venereal diseases including syphilis during his lifetime.  He also fantasized (when he was only 15) about killing the mayor of Rouen where he was born and where lived most of his life.  Also, while reading Rabelais, he wanted to fart loudly enough so that all Rouen could hear.  The young Flaubert was to visit the following exotic places (1849-1850): he went on a long journey to the Middle East, visiting Greece and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis. He spent five weeks in Constantinople in 1850. After 1850, Flaubert lived in Croisset with occasional visits to Paris and England, where he had a mistress. He visited Carthage in 1858 to conduct research for one of his novels.  So, our man was well accustomed to travelling.  Writing back to his mother from Alexandria, he states with enthusiasm that he "gulped down a whole bellyful of colours, like a donkey filling himself with hay." (De Botton, 75)

Flaubert had been driven to rage in France  by the bourgeoisie which he saw as a repository of extreme prudery, snobbery, smugness, racism and pomposity.  No better man than Flaubert to disabuse these silly people of such vices.  He loved the sheer chaos, visual and auditory, of Alexandria, and De Botton regales us with some wonderful quotations from this author which shows his wonderful style - so practised in "le mot juste,"  a phrase we will always associate with our man. (see ibid., 78-100)  Flaubert despised order which he saw as a sort of Bourgeois imposition on the natural chaos of nature.  Some order, of course, was necessary but the prudish bourgeois went far too far.  Flaubert noted the pissing and shitting donkeys, even a gentleman pissing in the corner of a café in Alexandria.  I quite subscribe to this description of Flaubert's beliefs according to De Botton:

Central to Flaubert's philosophy was the belief that we are not simply spiritual creatures, but also pissing and shitting ones and that we should integrate the ramifications of this blunt idea into our view of the world: "I can't believe that our body, composed as it is of mud and shit and equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig or the crab-louse, contains anything pure and immaterial."... Which wasn't to say that we were without higher dimensions.  It was just that the prudery and self-righteousness of the age aroused in Flaubert a desire to remind others of mankind's impurities.  (Ibid., 87)

Flaubert, according to De Botton, rejoiced in life's duality, something I have been writing about for some time in these pages, though I have called that duality the tension of opposites or the polarity of opposites and how both are always intermixed in reality, that we are never, or even things are never, either totally one or the other.  Examples of duality according to both the author and the one he quotes are: shit-mind, death-life, sexuality-purity and madness-sanity.  I have also calls these polarities continua between two poles and that it's the movement backwards and forwards between the poles that is essentially the nature of reality as we experience it. (see ibid., 87)

I loved this wee insight into Flaubert's motives for writing: "I'm obsessed with inventing stories for people I come across." (Quoted ibid., 90).  Then De Botton gives a beautiful account in Flaubert's words of one of his most human of sexual encounters with an Egyptian woman. (see ibid., 93).  This man spent nine months in Egypt and began to wear local clothing and with his command of the Egyptian language was often mistaken for a native.  Indeed, Flaubert then is an excellent if not the quintessential traveller.  He, we are told never considered himself a Frenchman.  Rather he considered himself a creature of the world.  He even proposed a new way of ascribing nationality: not according to the country one was born in or to which one's family belonged, but according to the places to which one was attracted.  This reminds me of the well-known quip from Socrates, who when asked where he came from did not reply that he was from Athens but rather from the world.


To be continued.

Above I have uploaded a copy of the famous painting of Gustave Flaubert by Eugene Giraud.

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