ISN'T THIS FUN?, Simon and Schuster 2016

Fun is not individualistic but social. The free individual rejects the old divinely ordained embedding in family, social structure and nature, and relishes liberty, but misses the warmth of the connections, the certainty of the fixed role and the reassurance of the rituals. Fun compensates for this loss with a new sense of belonging and new sanctioned routines – in other words an alternative set of group rituals.

Fun is a set of group rituals designed to provide a range of experiences that banish boredom and give pleasure, through the comfort of belonging and sometimes the euphoria of transcendence, and that restore the delight of re-enchantment and sometimes the reassurance of authenticity, as well as the insouciance of play and sometimes the defiance of humour and transgression.

Ritual is more effective than precept and prescription because it replaces the cerebral with the physical, concentrating solely on symbols and ceremony, and operating subconsciously, below the level of language, awareness, explanation and choice. Just as convention is rarely recognised by its practitioners as convention, ritual is rarely understood to be ritual. It rejects definition and justification. It is just what is necessary. It is what is done.

This suggestion of inevitability makes ritual a potent resource for the powerful, and to the powerless it can offer the consolations of a community of the faithful without the need to practise values. The stronger the emphasis on a religion’s rituals, the weaker the emphasis on its teachings.

Ritual is also effective at alleviating anxiety. It is an adult version of the repetition that reassures and comforts children, but with a sacralising of the routine, so that habit’s changelessness is enhanced by the sense of a connection to some greater changelessness, which does not have to be specified. By assigning a special time and space (or by temporarily sacralising familiar space), and by using special objects and actions, ritual suspends everyday life and establishes an atmosphere of mystical significance, which authenticates and ratifies, without recourse to argument. Ritual provides a sense of community to dispel the fear of isolation, a sense of participation to dispel the fear of powerlessness, a sense of permanence and continuity to dispel the fear of change and mortality, and a sense of sacred purpose to dispel the fear that life is arbitrary, random and meaningless.

It seems that rhythm and synchrony are fundamental to life. To have a poor sense of rhythm is as grievous a loss as having a poor sense of taste or smell, and I would never wish to trade my poor taste and smell for rhythm deficiency, even though God has softened this blow by making the arrhythmic unaware of their lack, so that one of the most painful aspects of wedding ritual is the sight of the dance floor. Indeed, rhythm-deficient men may have difficulty in finding a partner.

Why do so many want to dress up nowadays? My hypothesis is that dressing up manages to reconcile, if only briefly, several strong and often contradictory contemporary urges. Because fancy dress is usually for social occasions, it combines the need to stand out as an individual with the need to be accepted by, and belong to, a group. And since the costume is a personal choice but immediately recognisable as a familiar character, type or thing, it combines the desire to express a unique personal identity with the opposite desire to abandon this exhausting task for the ease of a ready-made identity as a Venetian noble, a zombie, a pirate, a chicken, or, possibly most reassuring, a banana. It also offers a form of childish play to those who are no longer children, a way to reject convention without giving offence, and above all a way to become an actor without having to act. Dressing up is an unconscious acknowledgement that life is essentially role play, a series of parts and performances rather than the discovery and expression of a true self, and that learning to play parts is a crucial skill.

Few will admit to enjoying gossip but in fact most enjoy it – and gossip is the secret, unacknowledged glue that holds groups together.

Like many concepts and relations, friendship is often assumed to be a constant, unchanged throughout the ages and throughout individual lives – whereas it is likely to have changed continuously throughout both. It seems incontestable that it has become steadily more important, facilitated by greater affluence, freedom and mobility and easier means of communication, and simultaneously more differentiated from, and more diffused into, other relationships. Not only are you more likely to seek, value and nurture peer friends, but many previously unlikely contenders, including your dad, your boss and the author you are reading, may now desperately want to be your buddy. And the nature of friendship has also changed steadily, becoming less instrumental and more emotional, with friends chosen more for personal appeal than usefulness.

There is a cautionary tale in the development of the sea squirt, a tiny creature that looks like a spongy worm but has a primitive brain that enables it to seek nutrients and avoid predators. Or, rather, the young squirt has a brain. Once it reaches adulthood the mature squirt attaches itself to a rock, boat hull or piling, takes enough nutrient from the surrounding sea, no longer needs to monitor its environment and make decisions, and begins to eat its own brain, since this is now redundant. It may help to recall this creature if tempted to watch golf on TV.

Freedom, the ultimate relief, is also a new kind of burden, the ultimate blessing is also a curse, the ultimate positive is also a negative. Freedom is nothing, an absence, an emptiness. And while the possibility of infinite and endless choice is exciting, the constant need to make specific decisions and choices is exhausting. Boredom is partly a fatigue of the spirit overwhelmed by the relentless personal responsibility of freedom.

The free life demands constant choice and is haunted by the possibility of bad choices in the past, present and future. The path of freedom leads to the prison of dread.

A formidable foe, anxiety is worse than boredom because it is even more nebulous and difficult to assign to any cause, even more unsettling in its effects, even harder to dispel and even more likely to become chronic. Boredom is a lack of desire to act but anxiety is a lack of ability to act. Boredom may sink into a restful lethargy but anxiety is a corrosive dread that permits no respite. And while anxiety often includes worry and doubt, it is greater and much more debilitating than these. Worry and doubt have specific objects and limited durations, but anxiety is a constant dread that something is about to go terribly wrong, or something atrocious is about to happen, though it is not clear what, when, where or how.

I think of anxiety as a general form of the experience of the guest in someone’s house who is starving and shivering despite being well-fed and warm. Lack of control over food and heating creates irrational sensations of hunger and cold. Similarly, the awareness of not being at home in the world produces irrational feelings of deprivation, exposure and fear, and these are likely to intensify with the growing vulnerability of age.

Youth is bored and age is anxious.

The authenticity imperative is another consequence of freedom. If everyone is completely and inescapably defined by social position then many may feel angry and resentful but no one can feel inauthentic. But with the availability of choice comes the need to choose an authentic life.

There is a craving for authentic products, authentic entertainment, authentic experiences, authentic places and authentic food and drink. Hence farmer’s markets, sourced meat, organic vegetables, artisan bread, craft beer, biodynamic wine, home-baked cakes, hand-made chocolates and Indian/Thai/Mexican ‘street’ food that is prepared, purchased and consumed in restaurants with authentic untreated brick walls, bare bulbs, dangling wires, exposed girders, vents and piping, and wooden benches, another return to the pre-modern, before the chair replaced the bench. Often the beloved and I, hopelessly individualistic, have arrived at new restaurants to cry out in despair, ‘Oh fuck, it’s communal tables and benches’.

Craft and the craftsman, once dismissed as economically obsolete in the age of cheap mass production, are increasingly prized as authentic. Anything described as handcrafted is desirable, and especially if the crafting hands are one’s own. So craft lessons are a new form of group fun, and craft festivals are a booming subset of the booming festival scene. The Goodlife Experience teaches campfire butchery and axe throwing, The Wilderness Festival revives ‘the ancient crafts of our wild forefathers’, such as basket weaving, The Shambala Festival has a blacksmithing workshop, The Green Scythe Fair promotes scything as a European mindfulness alternative to Tai Chi, and Spoonfest is entirely dedicated to the carving of wooden spoons, with carvers coming from as far away as Australia, Israel and the USA and a group of 200 meeting to carve spoons together.

Play is irrational, superfluous, disinterested, wanton, a temporary escape from the instrumentalism insisting that all activity serve a purpose. It is a way of avoiding the own goal of always pursuing one’s own goals, an assertion that heaven is doing something just for the hell of it.

Play has meaning but no function, which makes it the opposite of most activity and a useful counterbalance. Anything that encourages activity as its own reward is surely welcome.

One attraction of the play view is that it encourages a positive attitude to meaninglessness, which tends to be feared as bleak and malevolent but can also be interpreted as vibrant and joyful. The cosmos may have no one in control, no idea of why it exists, or where it is going, or how, but it seems to be having a good time in spite of this ignorance. The Great Chain of being is more like a circle dance. So meaninglessness can become the new meaning and much that was terrifying can now be exhilarating.

Play suits contemporary culture because it is freedom in its purest form, and is possibly the only true freedom, in that it escapes not just domination by others but the self-imposed tyranny of the project. Also, play counters boredom with a reason to act in spite of the knowledge that action is pointless. In fact the pointlessness becomes the point. And play alleviates the anxiety for achievement and status by reminding that the process is more satisfying than the goal, the anxiety about authenticity by reminding that it has all become too complex and self–conscious for anything to be truly authentic, the anxiety about time by dispelling awareness of time, and the anxiety about finding one’s true self by the knowledge that there may be no such self to find.

Children, the world is the play of the Gods. So distract the project, flummox the algorithm, shame the rules. Let us play.

Pinning a decoration on a rebel creates a loyal officer of the Crown. As Flaubert put it, with remarkable prescience, 'Inside every revolutionary stands a policeman.'

Once the public was fascinated by crimes of passion, committed blindly in the heat of the moment, but now popular culture loves the calculating, cold-blooded murderer, usually handsome, fiendishly clever and endlessly resourceful, who kills repeatedly for pleasure and feels no remorse. There is a secret admiration for the cool sovereign who is not bound by the physical limitations of brain, body and circumstance, or the ethical limitations of morality and compassion. Such a monster must of course be caught – but by a maverick police officer who also disobeys and breaks rules.

Those who prescribe and enforce like to give the impression that the taboos are so obvious, absolute and eternal that they do not even need to be stated, much less justified. Exposure makes taboos explicit and open to question.

Cosmic laughter appears to be laughing at nothing because it is laughing at everything. This laughter can be the most intense, not just facial or shoulder-shaking but a paroxysm that seizes the entire body, squeezing tears out of its eyes like juice from a lemon. It is a peak experience, the kind of sublime possession many seek, though few mention this form of it.

Being physically above, looking down, encourages the sense of being also mentally above, looking down. This concept of a ‘view’ as something valuable is another modern development, a relishing of modern self-conscious detachment, a higher spectating, like watching a performance from a royal box. The pleasure is not so much in the actual sights as in the looking down on them from a privileged, secure height. Gazing down on the toilers below gives a unique feeling of freedom, superiority, invulnerability and power.

It may be that individualism, one of the defining forces of the modern era, is finally running out of steam, as exhausted, depleted and angry individuals become aware of the demands and costs of pursuing personal autonomy … Individualism, which seemed to be the terminus of western civilisation, may turn out to have been a temporary over-reaction to constraint, and we may be entering a post-individualist, or at least only partly individualist, age.

It seems as though the pleasure of belonging to a group can be more important than the actual group activity. Fun is more an excuse to form a group than the group is an excuse to have fun.

Dancing is fundamental, universal and eternal. According to many cosmologists, the universe is doing the hokey-cokey, as galaxies rush away from each other, pause, and then rush back to reunite in an delirious crash, which starts it all off again. At the other end of the scale, atoms certainly do the conga, linking head to tail and then forming a ring. Without these congas there would be no order, no diversity, no complexity, no life.

We laugh at what is simultaneously wrong and right – and this is why comedy is the deepest expression of the human predicament, the existential incongruity of being both wrong and right in the world. What could be more wrong than an animal that has become aware of itself and feels as though it is an immortal soul while knowing that it is really just a rapidly deteriorating body? On the other hand, what could be more right than an animal with the consciousness to celebrate the miracle of being alive? At once absurd and sublime, the only human response is to laugh.

Comedy is based on insecurity, the feeling of being under threat, which explains why it is expressed in the apparently opposite forms of aggression and submission. This ambivalence goes all the way back to pre-human primate behaviour. Laughter is thought to have developed from the barking sounds used by primates in aggressive response to a threat, and the smile from the silent bared-teeth display used to express appeasing submission to a threat. So comedians, notoriously insecure, respond with aggression or ingratiation, and attempt to unsettle, disturb, jolt and be feared, or to settle, soothe, reassure and be loved (the English comedian Alan Davies has divided his professional colleagues into self-harmers and golfers).

Stand-up comedy is a group ritual, a tense interplay that is risky both for members of the audience, who may be singled out for ridicule, and the comedian, who may not get laughs and die, or be heckled and obliged to turn the tables by outwitting the heckler (failing in this is also death).

Theorising about comedy is always dubious, contentious and incomplete, because it is in the very nature of comedy to reject tidy categorisation and exegesis. It is that which refuses to be contained or explained. It is also the form of communication most subject to personal taste. What makes a Mount Etna of one face will turn another into Mount Rushmore.

The problem with domination is that it always suspects the dominated of secret deviance, and since constraint and surveillance can rarely be total, suspicion grows and can easily develop into paranoid fear. This encourages an even more extreme domination, which only increases the suspicion and fear. If the dominance is cultural rather than merely personal, the result is a general suspicion of the dominated, and, in the case of male sexual domination of women, a general belief that women are cunning, deceitful and sexually voracious.

Elsewhere is mysterious, enchanted, alluring, and we are irresistibly drawn to it. The problem is that as soon as we arrive it is no longer elsewhere.

As in the early rituals, the holiday is based on a desire for transcendence and transformation, and this has been given added urgency by the modern hunger for authenticity and re-enchantment. The easiest form of transcendence is travel, the easiest form of re-enchantment is an exciting new place, the easiest form of transformation is to shed the constraints of routine, and the easiest way to acquire authenticity is buying native souvenirs.

The beauty of the pilgrimage is that it pretends to be about the destination but is really about the journey. The pilgrim is always on the way.

Luxury is the hedonism of age as partying is the hedonism of youth.

The aim of spiritual fun is re-enchantment, to enjoy, via group ritual, unity, community, belonging, transcendence and awe. And spiritual fun shares with secular spirituality in general the religious sense of a hidden power, something beyond, something more, though nothing sufficiently specific to impose any obligation other than wonder. This is a spiritual greed that is partly replacing the worldly version. The material more no longer works so we demand an immaterial more.

Most fun rejects individualism and seeks belonging in a group. It is not so much that there are groups in order to enjoy fun as that there is fun in order to enjoy groups.

So much fun is a rediscovery of early beliefs and practices. The rise of the festival is a return to the earliest form of celebration (as is the trend to active participation rather than passive spectating); raving is a return to the trance dance of archaic ritual; secular spirituality is a return to early enchantment and oneness; group sex and sexual fluidity are a return to early openness; holidays are a return to pilgrimage (and now often are pilgrimages); carnivalesque protest is a return to the transgression of inversion rituals; the reverence for DJs and comedians is a return to the appeal of the shaman and trickster; the popularity of play and games is a return to the spirit of mythology and pre-socratic philosophy, and the emergence of urban tribes is a return to the egalitarianism of the hunter gatherers.

The only way to regain authenticity would be to annihilate it, to return to a time before the concept existed and became an issue, which is not possible. The very existence of the term means that the thing itself is no longer attainable. There is no way back to the primal, unconscious embedding in oneness. There is only the way forward into self-conscious detachment and fragmentation. There are only the forms and degrees of inauthenticity. So, as meaninglessness can become the new meaning, the thoroughly inauthentic can be the new authenticity.

Irony is the adult form of the play philosophy of the child, a refusal of seriousness that is wholly serious – or, rather, a replacement of traditional seriousness with a new form. It is a way of making self-conscious detachment no longer alienating but a pleasure, even a delight. Irony is an effervescent, an aerator of life, imbuing it with bubble and sparkle, making detachment into a buoyancy and self-consciousness into a burnish.

There is something oddly fulfilling in looking on as people, mysterious, unknowable and seething with deep forces and passions, go about their urgent but inscrutable business. It is the urban equivalent of watching the sea.


The Age of Absurdity, SIMON & SCHUSTER 2010

It is possible that a starving African farmer has less sense of injustice than a middle-aged Western male who has never been sucked off.

The absurdity of happiness is that it is impossible to define or measure, is achievable at best only intermittently and unconsciously, disappears or even turns into its opposite if directly pursued but frequently pops up unexpectedly in the course of pursuing something else.

To live in the world but outside of its prejudices is an impossible ideal. As we live in the age so the age lives in us. And ages are as narcissistic as the people who belong to them: each believes itself to be unassailably superior and demands to be loved more than the others. These demands are usually met. We tend to prize our own age as we prize our native country – it has to be good if it produced us.

Happiness, like depression, is a self-reinforcing cycle. Depression is a descending spiral where being depressed reduces volition which in turn increases depression … and so on down. Happiness is an ascending spiral where being happy enhances volition which in turn increases … and so on up. The greatest gift of happiness may not be the feeling itself as much as the accompanying sense of empowerment. Suddenly the world is reenchanted and the self born anew. Everything is richer, stranger and more interesting. The eye sees more clearly, the mind thinks more keenly, the heart feels more strongly – and all three unite in enthusiasm, delight and zest.

The 1970s was the decade of liberation, of anger at injustice and demands for recognition and rights. But over time the demand for specific rights degraded into a generalised sense of entitlement, the demand for specific recognitions into a generalised demand for attention and the anger at specific injustice into a generalised feeling of grievance and resentment. The result is a culture of entitlement, attention seeking and complaint.

The beauty of taking offence is that the threats of the bully can be presented as the protests of the victim.

Reverence for potential is a form of greed which believes that there is always something better just ahead. But the spell of potential enchants the future at the expense of disenchanting the present. Whatever is actually happening today is already so yesterday and the only true excitement is the Next Big Thing – the next lover, job, project, holiday, destination or meal.

Shopping and travel have become ends in themselves because they are activities of pure potential – all possibility and promise.

The perfect combination of travel and shopping is the luxury cruise. In fact since the cruise experience also involves constant entertainment and pampering, the cruise ship is the perfect symbol of the contemporary age – an enormous, mobile pleasure palace conveying outsize infants in pastel leisurewear round a series of shopping venues.

Authority earns respect, power demands it; authority requires no trappings, power needs imposing robes; authority is forthright, power is secretive; authority is the open heart, power is the closed fist.

Like the poor, the Pharisees are always with us. They never seize power or define its supporting ideology but they will serve any regime and implement any plan.

The human capacity for self-deception is extraordinary – but there is another capacity that is even more impressive. The talent for self-justification is surely the finest flower of human evolution, the greatest achievement of the human brain. When it comes to justifying actions every human being acquires the intelligence of an Einstein, the imagination of a Shakespeare and the subtlety of a Jesuit.

The genius of branding has been to disguise the undesirable conformity of consumption as its highly desirable opposite, distinction. So conformity is the result of everyone striving for distinction in the same way.

So much anguish and outrage could be prevented if towns and cities floated over their streets every day three giant balloons with the messages, ‘Failure Is More Common Than Success’, ‘Many Will Dislike You Whatever You Do’ and, on a balloon even larger than the others, ‘The World Does Not Oblige’.

Back in the 1970s, before virtual reality had been invented, the philosopher Robert Nozick postulated a machine which offered life that felt real in every way but provided only pleasant experiences. And he suggested that no one would want such a life because it would lack authenticity. But perhaps the true lack would be effort. The difficulty is crucial. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.

Every Big Idea is a megalomaniac bent on world domination. Marxists interpreted everything in terms of class, Freudians in terms of childhood and feminists in terms of gender. In the end the new way of seeing becomes a new set of blinkers.

Nietzsche is invigorating – but who would attempt to put his ideas into practice? To live as an übermensch would be as impossible as to live as a Christian.

There is no guarantee of finding common ground but it is exciting when original thinkers in widely different times, cultures and specialisms come up with the same strategies. When several guidebooks recommend the same restaurant, that’s where you go to lunch.

The good news is that there are indeed such strategies. The bad news is that all of them are discouraged by contemporary Western culture. The great achievement of the age of absurdity has been to make fulfilment seem never easier while actually making it never more difficult.
Here are the concepts that keep turning up in philosophy, religious teaching, literature, psychology and neuroscience - personal responsibility, autonomy, detachment, understanding, mindfulness, transcendence, acceptance of difficulty, ceaseless striving and constant awareness of mortality.

The problem with religions is that the inspirational founders become an embarrassment to the small-minded followers who turn ideas into dogma, principles into regulations and initiatives into ritual. The founders reject kin worship; the followers revere family. The founders go forth; the followers remain at home. The founders are tormented by doubt; the followers bask in certainty. The founders seek authority; the followers seek power. The founders attract and convince; the followers confront and coerce. Frequently the followers are so successful at distortion that their message becomes exactly the opposite of the original.

The concept of personal responsibility, that we can and should decide our own destinies, is at the heart of modern society and considered axiomatic by most of its citizens. Yet this concept is now being steadily undermined, from both above and below, from both high and low culture - from scientists, philosophers and writers denying agency and from the age of entitlement denying obligation.

How come, if chimpanzees are only a fraction of the size of gorillas, their testicles are sixteen times as large? Since male gorillas have harems which they need to protect they have developed impressive size and fearsome appearance - but they do not need prodigious equipment to fertilize since they have no competition. In other words, they need only appear to have balls. Whereas chimp females are promiscuous so the males who ejaculate frequently and copiously are more likely to have offspring. Which is better – to look big and ferocious but have modest testicles and limited orgasms or to be small and unintimidating but have huge balls and come like an exploding supernova? The lesson Nature seems to be teaching the same lesson as Stoic philosophers - that the little guy unconcerned with appearances has lots more fun.

As well as temperament there is character. Temperament is what you are - but character is what you do. Temperament is a given – but character may be forged. We can choose to oppose the dictates of temperament.

Blame is the new solution to the contemporary inability to accept random bad luck. Once misfortune was explained as the mysterious ways of God – the suffering had a purpose which would be revealed in the fullness of time. Now what makes misfortune meaningful is culpability. Someone must be to blame and it is never the victim. Shit happens – but is always some other shit’s fault.

Parallel to the refusals of responsibility are the claims to deserve. Everyone now deserves a holiday (meaning not just a break but a trip abroad to a desirable location); students invariably deserve higher grades (regardless of assessment criteria – the argument is always, ‘but I spent x hours on this’); employees deserve promotion (even when they meet none of the requirements for the new level); artistes deserve more recognition (everything written deserves to be published, everything painted deserves to be exhibited, every performer deserves a stage); lovers deserve a dream partner next time (not despite but because of all the past failures they themselves probably caused but for which they accept no responsibility).

The human creature is the only animal that knows it is only an animal … and therefore the only animal with the option of not behaving like an animal. We can be entirely determined not to be entirely determined. As Katherine Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, ‘Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above’.

The paradox is that informed detachment can actually inspire a more intense engagement. It is like standing back from a painting in order to see it more clearly.

The problem with self-esteem is that it has no values or principles and does not even require effort. Self-respect, which is subtly though crucially different, implies achievement worthy of respect but self-esteem, in its contemporary usage, makes no demands on the self – only on others. Self-respect comes from within and self-esteem from without.

The mind shies away from its own insignificance as strenuously as from the prospect of its own extinction. It takes a kind of willful, unnatural act, a leap of anti-faith, to understand that one’s own self is a raw, quivering, insecure, fearful and puny thing. The inner giant is really a trembling dwarf – and a half-crazed, neurotic, greedy, enraged, deformed dwarf.

Another exquisite paradox – the inner giant may be awakened only by recognizing it as a dwarf.

It is shocking and profoundly regrettable but apparently sales of oranges are falling steadily because people can no longer be bothered to peel them (‘Hard to eat oranges are losing a-peel’, Metro June 3, 2008). As soon as I read this I began buying oranges more frequently and eating them with greater pleasure. Now I peel an orange very slowly, deliberately, voluptuously, above all defiantly, as a riposte to an age that demands war without casualties, public services without taxes, rights without obligations, celebrity without achievement, sex without relationship, running shoes without running, coursework without work and sweet grapes without seeds.

The beauty of ruminating is that it requires no expertise or training, no ritual or jargon, no special location or conditions. It is possible to ruminate anywhere, at any time. Even solitude is not essential. But for best results seek peace and quiet and a comfortable sofa. A view of a tree also helps – a single tree, exiled in the city, rooted in concrete, isolated and assailed by delinquent, spiteful, urban wind but taking this and making use of it to rustle, ripple, shimmy, sway.

The paradox is that the most intense experience of the self is loss of the self.

Walking and dancing, rhythm regular and ecstatic, the prose and poetry of the body.

Nietzsche is the great aerator of life, the tonic in the G & T (Schopenhauer is the lemon slice).

Zest is more of an attitude than a state and so can be cultivated. It requires first detachment and then the paradoxical engagement that detachment can facilitate, a combination of curiosity, attentiveness and analysis. Zest loves the world but refuses to take the world at its own valuation and finds this usually solemn and self-important valuation ridiculous. So zest is essentially subversive. It is a gleeful delight in the absurdity of the human condition and an ironic acknowledgement of the infinite comic genius of God.

The great victory of the work religion has been to increase the pressure to conform while removing almost entirely any awareness of conformity. Once people worked in order to live. Now working is living. As with shopping and travel and communication, the means has become the end.

The key determinant of work satisfaction is not money or even status but the degree of personal responsibility. Yet workers rarely acknowledge this. In a lifetime of employment I have never heard a colleague value autonomy, either as a key feature of a current post or a desirable feature of a new position - and often moving up the ladder involves a loss of autonomy. Come to think of it, I have never even heard anyone use the word. Yet autonomy is the one thing which makes professional life more fulfilling.

The problem that the initial phase of the relationship is always more exciting, especially in an age fond of fantasy and bewitched by the glamour of potential. In fact the early and later stages are so different that they deserve different names. It would be more accurate to describe the initial stage as infatuation and the later stage as love. And the crucial misconception is that everyone claims to be seeking love but is usually seeking only infatuation. This is hardly surprising. Almost all so-called love stories are really infatuation stories. This is hardly surprising. Almost all so-called love stories are really infatuation stories. This is hardly surprising. Almost all so-called love stories are really infatuation stories.

So while the infatuation story ends with ‘Reader, I married him’, the love story begins with, ‘Reader, I suddenly realised I would have to spend the rest of my life with him.’ There are not many such love stories.

The transition from infatuation to love is difficult because the two are opposites in many ways. Infatuation is transcendent, love is down to earth. Infatuation creates a fantasy, love accepts a reality. Infatuation is an addiction, love is a commitment. Infatuation craves unity, love cherishes separateness. Infatuation evades responsibility, love wholeheartedly accepts it. Infatuation is effortless, love is hard work.

Not only is no one the ‘right’ person, no one is easy to live with, much less capable of enveloping a partner in instant, enduring, unconditional love. This is a fundamental axiom: No one is easy to live with. There are only degrees of difficulty - and it is essential to realise that the other is encrusted, not with scintillating diamonds, but with irritating beliefs, habits, superstitions, neuroses, moods, ailments, indulgences and bad taste, not to mention appalling relatives and inexplicable friends.

It takes a lifetime to learn any worthwhile skill properly – and love is no exception.

Tension is at the heart of every sexual relationship because the animal and emotional needs are painfully urgent but never fully understood or under control. Yet the tension is central to the relationship. What threatens to blow it apart is also what makes it live.

The original manual for the liberated age, The Joy of Sex, was published back in 1972 (Alex Comfort, ‘The Joy of Sex’, Quartet Books 1972) and, though a revelation in its time (introducing the world to gourmet delights such as Flanquette, The Viennese Oyster and Birdsong at Morning), has had to be recently revised and extended to include over a hundred new positions and to acknowledge the growing importance of BDSM and the emergence of the anus as a major new heterosexual resource.

Now having sex is like putting on a Broadway musical – it requires an original script, costumes, props, a stage set, special lighting and of course a fit, energetic and enthusiastic all-singing-and-dancing cast of athletes and acrobats. Now everyone has to be a circus in bed … no, a circus all over the home.

It is certainly ironic, and possibly significant, that the age of liberation is increasingly turned on by bondage.

The deepest pleasures are those which have been earned and it is no different with sex. So the most intense experiences come after difficulty, pain, anger and turbulence – in other words, after violent quarrelling. Reconciliation sex is the most sublime experience available to the human creature.

We live in constant expectation, believing always that something will turn up, some invitation or opportunity, and then we will step forward to seize our destiny and become at last our true selves. But the middle years bring the sickening realisation that nothing is going to turn up. There will be no magical deliverance. This is indeed all it is. Worse still, this meagre all-it-is will actually diminish.

As we draw closer to death we should become more aware of it but the opposite is often the case. The problem is that living itself is as habit-forming as any of the activities living involves. We just get so terribly used to being around.

Awareness of mortality can provide the focus and intensity so often missing from experience and is another gift of the later years. The time-rich young are as presumptuous and careless as the materially wealthy – if everything can be purchased then nothing has value – but the time-poor old know that very little may now be purchased and so everything is valuable. Sexual pleasure, for instance, is immeasurably enriched and intensified by the knowledge that it may not be available for much longer, cut off by incapacity or the death of a partner. One of the most heartfelt lines I have written is: ‘If every time could be the last it’s as good as the first’.

Absurdity is the new sublime.


Like many another of a certain age, I have felt disappointed, disillusioned and trapped, caught up in obligation and weighed down by burdens, rapidly running out of time, hope, opportunity, and energy. Consumed by regrets, resentfully blaming others for everything, I too have yearned to go back, begin again, and do everything differently, with the principal difference of course being more frequent, varied and exciting sex. But after a while it came to me that my circumstances were entirely of my own choosing and not the fault of anyone else and that in fact I had had a good life, a privileged life, even a charmed life, certainly a life as mysterious and rich as any other. This brought a new regret. In the course of all the brooding and whining and demanding and blaming, all the lethargy and fantasy and denial and grievance, much of my mysterious, rich and only life had gone by without my noticing it. And with this new regret came a new wish – to go back and begin again but, instead of doing it all differently, doing it all in exactly the same way, except this time paying it the full attention it deserved. But after another while I realised that this too was misguided. There is no going back and regret is futile. The crucial thing is to start paying attention now.

Even when there is a desire to engage with everyday life, its utilitarian bias, heavily reinforced by the demands of employment and family life, imposes a tendency to see, feel and think only what is necessary for immediately useful action. And reinforcing this tendency is the anaesthetising effect of familiarity and habit. Habit is an effective tranquillizer but its side effects include blindness, deafness and atrophy of the brain.

No wonder so many hate Sunday, which believes itself to be superior to the other days because it was chosen by God. The true everyday is Tuesday, the only day entirely untainted by significance. Monday is permeated with the horror of returning to work, Wednesday is the midweek break, Thursday is already charged with the excitement of the weekend and Friday is the beginning of the weekend. Tuesday alone is anonymous and humble, the only true holy day and holiday – and of course I should not even be saying this because it may give Tuesday ideas about itself. I would like to establish a strange cult, whose members are not only forbidden to communicate but even to know each other – The Secret Friends of Tuesday.

The concept of the ruse strikes me as terrifically useful, especially if it can be elevated from specific acts to a general principle, a governing attitude, a way of escaping without leaving the prison, transgressing without breaking the rules and transcending while remaining completely immersed. So the philosophy of Rusism is a crafty subversion of everyday life by actually enjoying its putative dreariness. Ruse it or lose it.

The work of art is not the impersonal artefact – the poem, novel, painting, photograph or film – but the personal work of engagement and appropriation. Appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar, not a worthy act of self-improvement but an audacious and cunning ruse. To seek out what stimulates and make use of it - this is the work of art.

Yet, although committed to everyday life in their works, and living largely uneventful lives themselves, there is also in both Joyce and Proust something wonderfully extreme, excessive, heedless, extravagant and even lunatic. Each combined, in a single writer, a fervent mystic, a deadpan comedian, a sexual deviant, a penetrating psychologist, a master prose stylist, a lyric poet and a fanatical megalomaniac bent on world domination.
Who could fail to love such sweethearts?

Why has narrative become so appealing? Because it replaces cold reason with warm emotion, bewildering complexity with comforting simplicity, horrible messiness with tidy order and alarming randomness with reassuring meaning, direction and purpose. Above all it appeals to the new infantilism: stories are what adults tell children. Stories reduce, sweeten, package and gift-wrap experience. They tend to smooth away all that is ragged, tangled, complicated, paradoxical, inconsistent, inconclusive, insignificant and sordid – in other words everything that is most characteristic of everyday life.

It is possible to read any novel, no matter how exotic the characters and setting, a tale of Chinese silk workers or Chilean copper miners, and know immediately whether it is the real thing or made up. It must be that life is so wondrously peculiar it defies any attempt to produce a convincing forgery – and this is a wondrously encouraging thought for everyone except professional novelists.

Comedians often avoid analysing comedy for the same reason that poets avoid analysing poetry. In fact comedy is like poetry in many ways, mysterious and indefinable, apparently so simple that anyone can do it but actually extremely difficult to do well, requiring an intuitive feel for rhythm and timing - and when it is done well there is nothing better but when it is done badly there is nothing worse. Alas, it is more often done badly. A really good comic performance is as rare as a really good poem.

Fundamentalism cunningly presents itself as a return to authentic tradition when, in every case, Christian, Jewish and Islamic, it is an entirely new development that denied the tradition it claimed to support. The ultra-orthodox are in fact the heretics. These movements also cunningly substitute ‘respect’ for ‘tolerance’ in their demands. Tolerance may indeed be demanded but respect must be earned. Yet the belligerent demand for respect has often been fearfully granted and the false claim to represent traditional religion has been widely accepted.

This is where the imaginative, comic and spiritual visions come together. In all three approaches, the essential first stage is a rising above or a stepping outside of everyday life, what the Greeks defined as ekstasis, the root of the word ecstasy. All three visions are ways of establishing meaning – life is more interesting, more comical and more mysterious than you think.

Life is the comic novel of God.

When God was obliged to expel Adam and Eve from Paradise, He experienced the problem of the contemporary parent, that it is impossible to get rid of the children unless they are provided with alternative accommodation. For God this would mean the tedious chore of creating a new world. For a time He sighed and groaned at the tiresome bother of it all. Then the simple solution came to Him. Why go to the trouble of creating a new world when all that was necessary was to make Adam and Eve blind to the fact that they were in Paradise, to make them and their descendants eternally dissatisfied and desirous? This had the extra advantage of being not only expedient but funny. So He took away the gift of true vision and gave them instead vexation of spirit. They would never see the marvels surrounding them and always yearn for something else.

Theories should remain hypotheses and never petrify into dogma. Certainty, the turning of fluid truth into tablets of law, is another manifestation of hunger for permanence. But no one knows less than those who are certain of knowing everything. And no one is more dangerous than those who are convinced of knowing all the important final truths and so feel entitled, even obliged, to impose their views on others. Preaching and lecturing are usually futile because something in the listener always rebels against coercion. It may be necessary to feign agreement but the secret self is defiantly showing two fingers. Even rational argument in conversation rarely changes anyone’s mind. After a lifetime of engaging in long, passionate discussions I have come to the conclusion that it is a waste of time trying to convince anyone of anything.

Biologists now accept that the essential function of all living organisms is to learn from their environment in order to adapt to it more efficiently. So paying attention and trying to understand are not the luxury extras but the essentials. Life is fundamentally cognitive.

As Proust showed, psychology is different from science in that its explanations are not so much new discoveries as revelations of truths already known in some deep but hitherto obscure way. The surprise is not in the novelty but in the familiarity. For the fact that everyone already knows everything is something hardly anyone knows.

The Joyce and Proust fathers conformed to national stereotype in their marital neglect – Doctor Proust went to courtesans and John Joyce went to the pub.

Social life is a complex interplay between what people actually are, what they imagine themselves to be, what they attempt to appear to be to others and what others actually see. Only rarely do any of these views coincide.

The problem with conventional people is that they do not believe in conventions. What others understand as arbitrary social customs sanctioned by usage, the conventional revere as divine laws graven on tablets of stone.

Habit is a response to fear of process and time and so is encouraged by the fearfulness of ill health or age. The sense of increasing vulnerability is countered by the reassurance of one’s own armchair in one’s own living room. The most obvious consequence of habit is a diminishment of attention and a dulling of perception. We become incapable of seeing and considering anything beyond the habitual. But life always takes its revenge. Those who show no interest soon become of no interest.

As consciousness emerges from neuronal activity to confer on the mad flux a necessary illusion of unity and continuity, so the self emerges from consciousness to provide the necessary illusion of order and control. The self is a master of self-deception and its greatest ruse is convincing itself it exists.

The essence of consciousness is freedom – we may do as we wish – and the essence of selfhood is agency – we become what we do.

Of course it is impossible to represent consciousness by analogy, concept or literary technique. Even the accepted term, ‘stream of consciousness’, first used by William James, is inadequate. What could adequately render the phantasmagoric flux of sights, sounds, smells, contacts, tastes, inner bodily sensations and monitorings, thoughts, emotions, worries, resentments, plans, anticipations, fantasies, memories and associations, all jostling for prominence, overlapping, merging and mutating? According to neuroscientists, nothing can remain at the forefront of consciousness for more than ten seconds. The problem with representing this in language is that sentences are linear and sequential whereas consciousness is massively networked and its multiple operations are simultaneous.

One of the pleasures of reading, looking at paintings or listening to music is that these activities can induce a unique form of hyper-alert reverie that is unconnected with the art but could not be enjoyed without it.

The shameful revelation is that in the course of an average day we see hardly anything, hear hardly anything and understand almost nothing at all. But by making an enormous effort we can at least be conscious of this. The height of awareness is becoming aware of being aware of hardly anything.

An involuntary memory is involuntary at both ends. It has not been created by conscious memorising and may not be retrieved by conscious recall. Conscious memory is thin, restricted to a few bare facts – but involuntary memory delivers a complete experience, all the visual details of a past scene complete with associated sounds and smells, the accompanying emotions and even a return of the self that had the experience. It is not a recalling but a re-living of the past. For a moment the past supplants the present – and this is always a surprise because the memory was created unconsciously, for reasons that are unclear. So we can remember completely only what we have completely forgotten.

When young it is impossible to imagine growing old and even more impossible to imagine that the old were once young. The world is a given, as fixed and unchangeable as your opinions about it – inconceivable to think that you could end up preferring Schubert to The Trogs.

Social rank is only one way of feeling superior. The most common sources of distinction are wealth, status, fame, religion, race, beauty and culture – the seven deadly wins – and there are shifting distinctions among these ways of seeking distinction. Celebrity and money are now more important than class, and good looks outweigh everything else.

An ironic consequence of the egalitarian society is that it has made everyone equal only in their right to feel superior. So the disadvantaged have developed an alternative street culture that sneers back at the mainstream. If you can’t be superior in one way, find another.

Taste likes to pretend to be natural, absolute and innate but is always artificial, relative and learned. Good taste defines itself in opposition to bad taste, so when bad taste tries to move upmarket good taste is obliged to reposition. When peasants trudged along country roads the sophisticated enjoyed driving past, but when the peasants acquired cars the sophisticated took up walking. The positions have changed but the mutual contempt is the same.

An ironic consequence of the egalitarian society is that it has made everyone equal only in their right to feel superior. So the disadvantaged have developed an alternative street culture that sneers back at the mainstream. If you can’t be superior in one way, find another.

As royalty, celebrities and the rich have always known, a smile is the most subtle and satisfying way of shitting on the inferior.

The problem is that specific superiority quickly becomes general. It is remarkably easy to go from feeling superior in one way to feeling superior in every way.

Men have always suspected that women get more pleasure from sex – but are still unable to resist fantasising, even though the fantasies are essentially absurd and always mocked by that merciless demystifier, reality. The problem with golden showers is that they always smell of piss.

Nationalists and fundamentalists hate the city because it weakens the grip of tradition. Some immigrant groups resist such weakening with a willed petrifaction that locks them in time. So the Irish in English cities are often more Irish than the Irish in Ireland – and the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño once remarked that the only place where the Chilean Spanish of 1973 is still spoken is Stockholm because this was the final destination of many fleeing the military coup in Chile. But this kind of fanatical resistance only demonstrates the power of the city to loosen bonds. Urban pluralism undermines most forms of traditional group superiority and reassurance, replacing community with isolation, security with vulnerability, importance with insignificance, recognition with anonymity, tradition with change, simplicity with complexity and certainty with doubt. The city raises questions as the country raises cows.

Anonymity is actually a great gift. The less visible the observer the more visible the world. So be unseen to see and be unknown to know.

It is as easy to lose the self in the world as it is to lose the world in the self. Too close an involvement with the world causes the inner self to atrophy, and too much introspection loses sight of the world.

There is something especially poignant about abandoned warehouses and factories. The cliché is that spires dream - but spires are far too self-important and attention-seeking to dream. On the other hand, working buildings, when deprived of their functionality by abandonment, either temporary or permanent, take on a strange new autonomous life and seem to be saying, ‘We were created to serve but no one is only a servant. We are not your creatures. Emancipated from service, we will live on and become ourselves in our own inscrutable dream’.

The city is most beautiful and mysterious at this hour of serene dusk, when the lights come on in buildings lifting geometric silhouettes against a lurid, flowing sky. In the brief interlude between the tyranny of the God of Work and the equally tyrannical God of Fun there is a moment of meditative gentleness. Even the harsh neon glows softly, elegiac with its own passing, as well as that of the day. For neon, the brash radiance of the twentieth-century city, its very name meaning newness, once so lurid and sinful, advertising LIQUOR and GIRLS in acid pink and lime green, is already becoming a thing of the past, superseded by LED displays and bound for oblivion.

And the neon also seems to sense a presence in the air. As do all those not consumed by the need to rush home. Barmen languidly wiping counters pause to look up. Ruminant waiters stand in doorways. Cab drivers lay aside the evening paper and sit still like plump Buddhas awaiting enlightenment. In the windows of office blocks late workers log off and gaze out.

What is this presence, this longing, so intense but unlocalised? It’s eternity yearning for the splendour of transience, for the fading light of passing day.

The pencil is a symbol of the agonies and ecstasies of process, wearing itself down to a sad old stub but also enjoying constant, astounding renewal. The act of sharpening a pencil has the symbolic pleasure of a preparation rite, the equivalent, for a writer, of a priest donning vestments or a knight donning armour. Hemingway prepared for a day’s work by sharpening a dozen or so pencils.

This is another exquisite three-stage pleasure: first, the snug fit of the pencil head in the sharpener; second, the firm twist and crunchy engagement with the blade that makes shavings spring up (especially satisfying if the pencil is polygonal and the shaving comes off in a single intact cone, its scalloped edge rimmed with colour from the pencil-paint like the flared skirt of a flamenco dancer); and third, the withdrawal of the head miraculously reborn, no longer blunt and grey but with fragrant bright fresh skin and a point sharp enough to stab a dull colleague to death. Not the primitive bludgeon of the savage but the sophisticated rapier of the swordsman. Today you will certainly get my point. On guard, you dim oafs!

Employees hate meetings because they reveal that self-promotion, sycophancy, dissimulation and constantly talking nonsense in a loud confident voice, are more impressive than merely being good at the job – and it is depressing to lack these skills but even more depressing to discover one’s self using them. In meetings the trick is to sound detached and sceptical even as you kiss senior management ass, to laugh like a wild, carefree gypsy even as you single-mindedly and ruthlessly pursue power, and to sigh with compassion and sorrowful reluctance even as you rapturously twist a knife deep in the intestines of rivals.

For those accustomed to clamour a silent home can be frightening. But to switch on the secret self it is necessary to be alone and still and to switch off the communications and entertainment. Then, bit by bit, rooms, furniture and household objects begin to assume a numinous presence and home to realise the twin meanings of dwelling, as both a living in and a lingering on. In fact to live in is to linger on and vice versa. Dwell, the home says to us, learn to dwell.
Slowly silence expands space and slows time. Rooms acquire roominess, space becomes breathing space, a space of time. Home is space-time.

Home is where you renew three essential human relationships, those with your inner lunatic, idiot and clown - where you fling open the fridge door to cry in a parody French accent, ‘Zee cheese and zee eggs in zee omelette, I seenk.’

Also relationships with the three most faithful and self-effacing four-legged friends – the bed, the table and the chair.

And home is four dedicated spaces in one – the sanatorium of a convalescent, the asylum of a lunatic, the temple of a high priest and the lair of a brute.

Coffee is the cocaine of the common man, the performance-enhancing drug of the uncompetitive and the Communion wine of the irreligious. Or, rather, it is the Holy Communion of a different religion which believes that, in the course of grinding and brewing, coffee is mystically transubstantiated into a divine exudate, so that, as champagne has been changed into God’s urine, coffee has become the rectal fluid of God.

The reassurance of things is their illusion of permanence, their symbolic denial of process and time, and the jug is the only household object to remain unchanged for thousands of years, preserving, immune to fashion and change, its traditional form of rounded body, handle, narrow neck and flowering aperture with spout. When you are getting drunk on a jug of margaritas next Saturday night a useful exercise would be to remember, before the delirious oblivion, that Homer probably got drunk from a receptacle essentially the same. The key to this survival was remaining anonymous. The jug avoided attracting attention by appearing to be only a humble servant. Yet all the time it guarded in the dark interior a secret self. For the glory of cradling its resonant darkness, the jug was prepared to appear a drudge.
So the essence of the jug is not its material, shape or finish but the hidden chamber it creates (which is why transparent jugs, a modern innovation, have no character or presence). Yet the jug is prepared to relinquish this chamber. Unlike the vain and purely ornamental vase, the jug offers a handle to the user and has the graspability and weight to provide satisfying heft, although this heft has no suggestion of wielding. A jug could never be used as a weapon. Handle, spout and heft all suggest not aggression but service, a giving, a pouring forth. Even when empty a held jug tilts its spout in an effort to pour. And it surrenders its inner sanctum not only without resentment but gladly. The jug sings as it fills.

Day offers two equally necessary sacraments – the benediction of morning and the absolution of dusk. In the morning coffee blesses and in the evening wine absolves.

Reading is pillaging, plundering, looting. The true reader is not a sedate scholar but a desperate barbarian hungry for meaning.

As well as the intellectual pleasures of reading, there is also the physical pleasure of sensuous contact, first with the book itself and then with its author. There is the heft of the book in the hand, its enveloping fragrance when opened, the texture and compliance of the pages when riffled and the upright austere black of print. Then there is the even more rich and complex contact with the author. This is most intimate at night when the home is dark and the only illumination is from the accomplice of the solitary truth seeker, an anglepoise lamp. Grasp the lamp and direct its cone of light until it fits, lying softly on the shoulders like a golden prayer shawl.

Nothing is less known than what seems familiar.
The ordinary is always the exceptional in disguise.
The same is never the same.
Anonymity is divinity.
Everything happens when nothing is happening.
Silence is the eloquent voice of God.
Immerse to transcend.
Detach to engage.
Awaken to dream.
Be odd to get even.
Be secret to open.


One of the most common characteristics of depression is a sense of monotony and stale repetition, a crushing sameness that seems as though it can never change and never provide sustenance. On many occasions I have had this terrifying thought: ‘Nothing is happening, I am gaining no experience, I will die without ever having really lived.’ The revelation that everything is process dispels this illusion of monotony. As Bergson put it: ‘the same does not remain the same.’

In the process view nothing is fixed, nothing is final, and no circumstances ever repeat in the same way. Even God, in traditional theology the ultimate unmoved mover, becomes for Christian process thinkers the ultimate movement. Not even God may stay the same.

Things are reassuringly visible, stable and durable. We love things and surround ourselves with them. And we ourselves yearn to be people of substance, in every sense. We believe, fundamentally and passionately, in stuff. But in fact there is no stuff, nothing substantial at the heart of matter, only some sort of weird dance of energy.

We yearn to be people of substance and believe not just in substantial things but in a substantial self, a soul, a constant, fundamental essence that endures throughout life, and even, for many, throughout all eternity. It is a nasty shock to discover that this is also an illusion.

It was William James who first came up with the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe mental activity – but even suggests a process too linear and orderly. ‘Vortex of consciousness’ would be better – because, as in a vortex of water above a drain, the content is constantly and turbulently changing but the shape remains relatively stable. In consciousness this apparently stable form is the self and the stability makes it seem permanent – until it suddenly goes down the plughole with a gurgle of outrage and despair.

In fact we could transform all our relationships by understanding them not as static links but dynamic processes. We tend to regard the connections implied by spouse, parent, sibling and boss as unchanging and the associated emotions as end states. Constant flux is frightening, and as persistent as the yearning for solidity is the yearning for finality, for absolute end states – love, nirvana, knowledge, wisdom or definitive English grammar.

The dominance of quantified time is revealed by our contemporary obsession with time management. If Bergson had lived to 150 he would have told us that time management is indeed crucial but we have got it the wrong way round – we should learn not to manage time but to let time manage us. The advice to recover duration was an exhortation to consent to process and immerse in time. The paradox is that the only escape from time is in submission to time. When we are flowing along with a process awareness of time disappears.

We should all create our own rituals and, instead of meditating on the floor in the morning, I prefer to sit on a sofa at dusk when the gradual fading of the light is a perfect example of process, ‘succession without distinction,’ impossible to catch in action but impossible to miss in effect. And the effect, especially if accompanied by a glass of wine, can be mysterious, enchanted, a spell that encourages reconciliation with process and time. Then it is possible to hear a murmur counselling reversal of that famous rage of Dylan Thomas – no, no, do not rage … and yes, yes … do go gentle into that good night.

The corollary of predictability as comfort is randomness as threat. William James identified, as a major obstacle to accepting unforeseeable process, fear of ‘chance, the very name of which we are urged to shrink from as from a metaphysical pestilence’. We not only need to foresee what happens but to believe it has meaning and so we cannot bear to acknowledge that much is merely random. We would almost rather accept gross injustice than randomness. At least with injustice there is someone to blame. And good fortune is just as rarely recognised. For bad luck we blame others, and for good luck take the credit ourselves. But chance, according to James, should not just be grudgingly accepted but welcomed as a form of grace.

The lesson is that intuition lies somewhere in the middle of a continuum with instinct at one extreme and rational response at the other; it is instinct trained by intelligence – or intelligence guided by instinct. Both extreme reactions are suspect. The impulse may be merely an animal desire and the reasoned response a cunning justification. So how are we to make good decisions? As in the old joke about how the elephant puts its trunk in the crocodile’s mouth – very carefully.

Bergson constantly distinguished between two selves, meaning two levels of process – a superficial self whose reactions are socially conditioned and a deep, intuitive self capable of empathy and free will. This deep self is always in danger of being misrepresented by the categorising self, dismissed as irrelevant by the utilitarian self and snuffed out as a threat to popularity by the social self.

What happens when we fail to live in duration, no longer hear the inner melody and lose touch with the intuitive self? We become frozen, petrified, automatons, slaves of habit or convention or both. For the introvert, habit is the main danger and for the extrovert the tyrant is convention. So staying in and going out are equally dangerous.

There is no doubt that the threat of petrifaction increases dramatically with age. I see the symptoms everywhere in my contemporaries and one of my most fervent wishes is to avoid a similar fate. I am petrified of becoming petrified. It is not just that this condition reduces the personal ability to experience and enjoy but that it makes life so difficult and unpleasant for others, partners, family, colleagues and friends. The petrified are not easy to deal with. They have resolved to stop changing and so rage at the manifestations of change all around. And stinginess, both material and emotional, is likely to accompany this rage. The refusal to let anything in is accompanied by a refusal to give anything out.

As process philosophy helps to dispel the sense of sameness through time, so the arts help to dispel the sense of sameness through type. Our categorizing tendency likes to put people in pigeon holes (often contemptuously, as ‘the careerist’, ‘the philistine’, ‘the slob’, ‘the shrew’ etc), then notices only behaviour that fits with the simplistic classification and finishes by dismissing people as superficial, limited, predictable and boring.

A crucial function of the arts is to prevent, or break down, dismissive labelling and reveal the singular instead of the similar, the peculiar instead of the familiar and the inscrutable instead of the understood.

The usual answer to the problem of limited experience is new places or new people – cruising in the Caribbean or in singles bars – but it is possible to experience more without relocation or divorce. This low-cost solution is the enlarging and enriching of perception.

The memory work Bergson kept returning to was learning a new language. This has the advantage of revealing the limitations of language in general. Words that seem indispensable in the mother tongue turn out to have no equivalent, while the new language has wonderful words that ought to be in the mother tongue but are not. So, to escape from the cage of language, learn another language.

Attention, needless to say, is another complex, dynamic process connected to all other mental functions. There is no single form of attention and no single attention centre in the brain. But it may not be necessary to understand, only to appreciate its importance and to exercise it, in both senses of training and using. Since perception/attention and memory are linked in a feedback loop, improving attention will improve memory just as improving memory will improve attention. It would be interesting to test the hypothesis that poor memory is associated with low general awareness.
And this cultivation of an attentive attitude is the Buddhist precept of mindfulness or sati (which in the Pali language of Buddhism means, significantly, both attention and memory). The awakened one is always on the alert, though you would never guess this from Buddhist iconography, where the Buddha, with his big belly, somnolent expression and half-shut eyes, looks as though he has just eaten a double portion of mutton biryani.

An organism is a hectic, almost frenetic, process, operating far from equilibrium in a ceaseless metabolism that seeks out and draws in nutrients, converts them to energy, expels waste, and uses the energy to reproduce, and to regulate and renew its parts, so that its makeup is constantly changing though its structure is relatively stable. When it has reproduced, the organism wears out and dies – and the organismic view reinforces the process view of transience. If the purpose of philosophy is to teach us to die, as has often been claimed, then a philosophy of the organism must be the best teacher.

The idea that life is its own creator and that creativity is not a late aesthetic refinement but the very principle of existence, was Bergson’s most radical and inspiring insight. Rejoice in the revelation that Life is not a dreary conformist but an exuberant Picasso.

If organisms are mutually dependent then it is wiser to cooperate than to dominate, and if life requires constant adaptation then nimble ingenuity is more effective than brute strength. If everything is connected to everything else then every action propagates its effects for ever and if feedback loops are the method of propagation then every action also modifies the character of the actor.

We are born to learn, as every child knows but most adults forget.

Contemporary aspiration rarely looks beyond the low-level satisfactions of pleasure and wellbeing. Joy offers an infinitely higher level of human experience but is one of those outdated words, like ardour, exaltation, sublimity and grace, that have become too embarrassingly naïve for our sceptical, wised-up, agnostic age,. Bergson explained how a word may diminish the experience it names – but discarding a word may suppress the corresponding experience. And why reject the supreme experience? Joy is even better than sex and does not require the cooperation of one or more consenting adults.

The group religion reinforces cohesion by assuring the group members of their superiority. This is why religion and nationalism are such perfect allies – they are both expressions of group narcissism.

As Bergson pointed out, belief in universal human rights, the mantra of the Western world and assumed to be the inevitable terminus of its history, was not an eternal truth awaiting discovery but a human invention – and a religious invention. Philosophy had never proposed such a thing and, without Christianity, might never have done so. And democracy, assumed to be the inevitable outcome of the inevitable belief, is not in the least natural but an idea that had to be created and imposed.

Bergson rejected eternal truth but, while his concepts of unity and process may not be eternal, their power to encourage and console has remained undiminished over millennia. There is no more thrilling inspiration than the creativity of process (‘Life transcends finality’) and no greater comfort than enfoldment in unity (‘The philosopher neither obeys nor commands but seeks only to be at one with nature’).

These two concepts of unity and process offer the apparently contradictory desiderata of security and adventure, showing us how to be at home in the world while remaining independent and free. They restore to us both immanence and imminence and teach us not just to be but to belong and become.