Most philosophy concerns
words and meanings, arguments and debates. But wisdom is also a matter
of perception and intuition. Images can convey what words cannot.
Here are my reflections on a particular image. Please feel free to
e-mail me your own, and I will include them (provided they are
New images are added each
month. Scroll down for this year's images, or for earlier ones, just
click the links on the left.
Clearly, this car has seen better days! Near where I live there is an area of wasteland where former automotive dreams go to die. Contemplating this (Buddhist style) prevents me (or, to be honest, 'restrains me just a little') from idolising the latest offerings from Mercedes or other manufacturers. They may advertise their cars as though they bring with them permanent happiness and satisfaction (not to mention a healthy contribution to lowering carbon emissions by they clever use of hbrid power, lean-burn engines or whatnot), but they too will one day be a home for weeds. A kind of auto momento mor; a healthy antidote for the retail responsibilities which - during this blessed month more than any other - tend to dominate our thoughts. Every gift will one day be junked - just hope that yours get's beyond the first week in January! Negative thinking? No; utterly positive, once you see that weeds have a charm of their own - on the other hand, this car is being engulfed by brambles, which are quite another matter!
Is there any place for patriotism, or even national identity, in modern, cosmopolitan life? Are national celebrations inevitably tinged with nostalgia and royal events with a gloss of Disney? Or is acknowledging a homeland a necessary part of being human? We seem to be caught with a human need to belong and a rational need to let go of such infantile dependency. How do we resolve this? I have explored some of these ideas in a recent blog entry. To go to it just click on the image above.
It's been a wonderful autumn for fruit, here in the UK, and my wife and I have just returned from our third session of blackberry picking. They're getting past their best now; some are starting to shrivel up and those that have not ripened during the last couple of weeks will not get much of a chance to do so before the weather deteriorates. Few people seem to bother to collect free fruit these days - after all, why bother to go plodding down lanes and rick getting scratched when you can buy blackberries in Sainsbury's for a pound or so for a small plastic container? But I love doing it. Four reasons: 1) it's a gentle, quiet activity, good in itself and good in its results (especially combined with stewed apples with a dollop of ice cream on the side!). 2) It's great to be out there in nature, accepting that some things come for free. 3) There's an interesting discipline about picking blackberries - don't try to hog them all, leave some to ripen further, others to drop, others for other people who may come picking. Picking requires restrained hedonism. 4) It marks the change in the seasons. I'm reminded of picking blackberries on Sunday afternoons with my parents and grandparents, the turning of the year, not yet harvest festival, time to gather conkers beneath the Horse-Chestnut. I don't care that some supermarkets are already starting to clear space for their Christmas offerings; I want to enjoy autumn first!
Walking in Docklands the other day, in the shadow of Canary Wharf, I spotted this beautfully restored barge, now equipped as a floating restaurant for private functions and corporate hospitality. At first there seemed to be a curious irony in its name, for the Dutch translates as 'Life is Struggle'. No doubt those who first worked the boat would indeed have found life a struggle, but 'struggle' is not word that I normally associate with upmarket dining and corporate hospitality. Unless, of course, you take it in quite anothe sense, for the essence of much of the banking world that toils away in this comfortable corner of London is indeed struggle - survival, competition, the struggle to succeed; this is deeply etched on corporate mentality. So perhaps this boat is really for those who struggle in order to come out on top of the economic heap. Some struggle at the top to maintain their bonus level; others struggle at the bottom just to make ends meet. In an unfair world, Leven is Strijd.
Looking out from the deck of a ship, surveying the horizon; the holiday maker does it for relaxation but, in days before radar and accurate charts, it must have been a much more serious affair on which the safety of all depended. So much of our life is concerned with looking out for what’s coming our way, or seeing where we’re going – whether it’s in the commodities market, simply planning out a career or wondering if a relationship is going to work out. Peering forward and navigating life is, most would argue, a uniquely human activity; most animals simply live in the present moment. That gives us a great advantage over other species, but it also leads to existential anxiety. We need to plan if we are to achieve anything; but we also know that plans can be spoiled by those things that lie outside our control. Welcome to the human world.
Of course, the more cynical could also argue that staring out to see from a cruise ship is likely to bore you rigid, which could well be why the person depicted in this sculpture is utterly devoid of individuality!
And the Buddhist could argue that living in the present moment, rather than planning for the future or regretting the past, is the secret of happiness. But, if this staring out to see was indeed for navigation, then one could argue that it is just as well to be vigilant and aware of those things appearing in the present (icebergs?) that might well influence the future - not dreaming of the future, but influencing the way it unfolds.
I was feeling rather guilty as I took this photograph, some weeks ago. Guilty because the grave in the foreground is that of my great grandparents, and it had been a long time since I had bothered to turn up and cut the grass. Beyond it, my grandparents great aunt and uncle looked a bit more respectable but needed a trim. There was a time in my family when going to the graveyard and paying respects to ancestors was a weekly routine - taking some flowers and a pair of sheers, my grandmother regularly came to trim the grave. Now, as a wander the graveyard and remember so many people from my youth, I reflect on what has been lost by our mobility and by the cosmopolitan life. A sense of rootedness is a great asset. I've trimmed the graves now, and that of my parents further down in the graveyard, and sometimes I think I would like to be buried here. But who, in this modern world, would want to trim my grave?
I can't resist posting an image of the blossom in Little Baddow, my home village. Although Spring has come late this year, it is a constant source of wonder to me the way in which nature grabs the opportunity of returned warmth to burst into life. This is one of the walks I take when I want to get away from books and simply think. I know there are people who can think while running, but I find that, as speed increases, so my ability to concentrate diminishes. Hence, I slow to a walking pace, look about me and gradually try to sort out life. These days, this is my meditation. I know it's a corny thing to say, but - each to his or her own - I find that walking familiar tracks gives me the same benefit I used to experience from religious rituals; a rediscovery of rootedness and a recognition of the turning of the seasons and of oneself immersed in something greater than one's routine preoccupations.
Nothing is perfect; all life involves a measure of unsatisfactoriness. In other words ‘Shit happens.’ The problem is not why it happens – given human limitations, inherent frailty and not infrequent bloody-mindedness, that’s all too obvious – but how to live with it and overcome our negative or destructive responses to it. Sometimes it helps simply to vocalize the problem or express it is some other way, as all who have been through therapy will know. I’m not sure of the state of mind of the person who stenciled this onto a wall in Stavanger, Norway, but I hope he or she found the doing of it cathartic.
What on earth lies hidden beneath these covers? And what does this image say about anything? We see the surface covering but not the reality beneath? Shades of Kant, perhaps, with an unknowable noumenal reality lying beneath the phenomena of our experience? For an existentialist on a bad day this could perhaps be an image of human beings in their essential isolation from one another! Things that are now redundant but being stored, just in case? An image therefore of over-production? Or perhaps of the inevitability of waste when technology becomes outdated? Any idea of what's under there? Your suggestions would be most welcome, or your comments on what this image says to you... The daftest of ideas could be posted here in honour of the feast of all fools, after all, it is April!
One suggestion: 'It looks like a homeless piano camp.' (from Nicholas Edwards.)
Or 'We think they're WMD left over from Iraq' (from David and Celia Forbes)
My own hunch - 'What happened to all the unsold Sinclair C5s?'
Flying back from Hong Kong to London, you pass over the mountains of northern China, then on through Kazakstan and further westwards into Russia. What struck me, looking down from the plane, was how beautiful but utterly inhospitable so much of the surface of the land is. Hour after hour and for thousands of miles, you pass over wild mountains with very few signs of human habitation. Then you see the occasional pipeline, then a solitary road, until heading back through Western Europe you look down over a landscape dominated by humankind. For me, that surrounding wildness puts all that into perspective.
Walking though the little streets of old Stavanger last summer, I came across this simple 'Wecome' notice, hung on a door. Perhaps just as corny as having it on your doormat, it nevertheless struck me - being so far from home - that, if taken seriously, that message is about the most important we can post anywhere near our home. It stands in stark contrast to the gated communities, cctv systems, security fencing, double-locked spyhole-equipped doors, and all the rest of the more normal protective layers we throw around our private domain, insisting that entry is by invitation only.
Another year; another set of resolutions waiting to be broken; another set of decisions, hopes and regrets. In many ways, I find each new year the source of both hope and confusion - hope, because what is new overflows with possibilities, and the opportunity to grow, share and improve; confusion because there are just so many things one might decide to do, each of which can shape the future for good and ill. It would be so easy if some choices were obviously wrong, others right; but it's seldom like that. There are many paths to follow, each looking in prospect just as good as the others, and they will simply become what we make of them, shaped by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. January comes loaded with a sense of responsibility, angst and perhaps a touch of Nietzschian playfulness!
All images on this
site © Mel Thompson