Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)

3.

Imagination

We are all born originals – 
why is it so many of us die copies?

Edward Young, Night Thoughts

One of very many Internet sites devoted to The Little Prince opens with a drawing of a hat, after which we’re asked whether the drawing frightens us. If we answer ‘no’, we are denied access to the site. Stating we are not afraid of that drawing indicates that we are members of the unimaginative adult tribe, to whom everything must be explained.

Children and imaginative grownups (or people who read and understood The Little Prince and took it into their hearts) know that, of course, this is not a hat, but a snake, a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, and should be feared.

How could we have missed that before?

One of the world’s greatest minds said it very simply:

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein

‘See Me and Lewis Down by the Schoolyard’

As you may recall, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, knew that children are much wiser than adults, and that the root of the problem is school. It was no accident that he viewed the word ‘lesson’ as originating from ‘less’, meaning: the more facts we learn at school, the less we are able to marvel at the world and be amazed by things.

Lessons lessen our ability to be who we really are, to understand things, and to have dreams. They almost totally eliminate the number of interesting questions we can ask.

R D Laing sarcastically remarked: ‘Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that.’

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry thought that the powers of imagination weaken with age, as does the distinction between things that matter and all other things. One of the reasons I became a mathematician in my 20s and engaged in mathematics for many years was the fact that I seldom attended ordinary school classes. Since I was a member of the Pythagoras Circle – a special class for curious children – I was relieved of the duty to attend normal classes, and I discovered the beauty and charm of mathematics without being bored to death by studying the usual lessons.

You really have to have a particular kind of brain to be fascinated by questions that involve three taps that (for some obscure reason) try to fill a pool while two other taps are trying to empty it. Can anyone be truly interested in figuring out how long it will take for this totally senseless procedure to end? Exposure to such questions for years (not to mention months of working on quadratic equations) is absolutely destructive. Not many know this, but true maths has nothing to do with calculating. True maths deals with beauty and thinking.

Mathematics is the music of reason.

James Joseph Sylvester (British mathematician)

The great French writer Marcel Proust believed that artists and children look at the world the right way. He did not mean to say that we should all be painters, poets, or childish, but that we should notice and pay attention to clouds and flowers, the wind on our faces, the taste of a petite madeleine, the smell of fresh bread, the sound of raindrops. Children can do that enviably. They can spend minutes just jumping and splashing around in street puddles, or admire the sound of clinking pot covers.

Furthermore, I honestly believe (OK, I know) that certain childlike qualities – such as wonderment and unbounded imagination – can not only be preserved in conscious adulthood, but they can even be developed further and taken to much higher levels.

A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.

Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

William Blake, ‘Proverbs of Hell’

There’s a lovely scene in American Beauty, a film by Sam Mendes, where the protagonist finds incredible beauty in everything, including an empty plastic bag twirling in the breeze. It reminds me of William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’

Fly Me to the Moon

What happens to us adults? Have we completely lost the ability to marvel, admire and find beauty in everything?

It seems to me that many members of the adult clan have indeed lost these abilities.

Once I watched a candid camera show on a European TV channel. It showed people in an airport, as the PA system announced: ‘Flights to the moon are leaving at gate nine. All passengers, please report to the gate.’ Did anyone in the terminal faint with amazement? Not one. A woman they interviewed there said it was the first time she’d heard about flights to the moon, but she always knew it would happen one day.

Speaking of flights to the moon, let us not forget the planets and stars. Isn’t a starry night an amazing sight? I guess the only reason people aren’t amazed by it is the fact that this miracle happens much too often – every night, in fact, in some regions.

R W Emerson’s words, ‘If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of God which had been shown!’, inspired the great sci-fi author Isaac Asimov to write his famous 1941 novel Nightfall. Now, try to imagine that sight of the starry heavens appearing before our eyes once in a decade. How eagerly we would await it! We would all stand there, looking upward in admiration and awe.

Freud Attempts to Cross the Ocean

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Sigmund Freud related that a friend of his experienced what he called an ‘oceanic feeling’. Freud was speaking about Romain Rolland, who in 1927 wrote to him and described that feeling after reading Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, which had been published in the same year and discusses the origins of religion, which Freud views as merely an illusion.

‘Oceanic feeling’ was the term Rolland used to describe that sense of awe at everything that fills our hearts and minds when we realize that there exists something eternal, or at least boundless like the ocean. A moment of grace when everything is as it should be. An oceanic feeling is a combination of wonderment and endless gratitude. Freud admitted he never felt that.

The Art of Wonderment (on lesser and greater miracles)

When the circus show started, no one could have expected how it would end. The juggler took five balls out of his bag and then threw them up in the air, making them chase each other in perfect order and return to his skilled hands. He then tossed them up again, and then added another and another. More and more balls joined the show, but the crowd did not seem very impressed. Then, after a few minutes of tedious juggling with ten balls, something happened that no one had ever seen before.

The onlookers watched in amazement as balls flew up and just hung in the air, refusing to fall. Ten balls reached the top of the circus tent and floated there, motionless. The crowd gasped. Then the juggler removed ten more balls from his bag, threw them up in the air and made them spin around the first ten stationary balls. Then he threw up ten more, and then another ten. The crowd watched in amazement as dozens of balls performed an unbelievable stunt: some of them were just hanging there, while others circled around them, and still others just moved around chaotically.

Then the crowd noticed, not knowing how it had happened, that the juggler had vanished, leaving behind an amazing spectacle.

‘This is amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a real miracle,’ members of the crowd yelled.

If you think this is a miracle, what do you think about the amazing spectacle of celestial bodies out in space?

I have an oceanic feeling when I make love to the lady I love; when I listen to the Adagio from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G minor performed by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, or to Allegri’s Miserere; when I walk along the beach in the winter and then have a cup of coffee in a beachfront café; when I read Chekhov’s story ‘The Lady with the Dog’ for the umpteenth time; when I look at Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or at Titian’s Venus of Urbino, or watch Isabelle Adjani bathing in a tub in the movie One Deadly Summer; when I read S Y Agnon’s Simple Story, or Psychological Topology of the Way by Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili; when I listen to Astor Piazzolla playing the tango Oblivion; when I visit the Italian Dolomites or picturesque Urbino, or when I tour Jerusalem, which traditionally took nine of the world’s ten measures of beauty; and every time I hug my daughters.

A Prayer

Teach me, my Lord, to count my blessings and pray

For the secret in a withering leaf, for glowing ripeness in a pear,

The freedom to see, to feel and breathe more,

To know, to aspire and to stray.

Teach my lips blessings and songs of praise

As your time renews morning and night, always

So that my day today is not as it was before,

So that my days are never habitual.

Lea Goldberg

Romain Rolland (who, I am certain, would have loved that Goldberg poem if he had known it) remarked that an ‘oceanic feeling’ is a type of religious sensation that’s far removed from any customary religious dogma, ceremony or afterlife concerns. I honestly believe that our ability to experience oceanic feelings is a prerequisite of our ability to experience true moments of joy.

Freud noted that Rolland’s letter astonished and disturbed him for quite some time. In fact, he answered it only two years later. Freud was amazed that an educated person such as Rolland was capable of even experiencing such primitive feelings (as Freud characterized them).

It can’t be helped. Even great minds such as Freud’s have a hard time releasing the ‘false consensus effect’ and ceasing to think that everybody thinks the way they themselves do. And he wasn’t alone. Our beloved Pooh too believed that if he loved honey, then heffalumps must love it too.

We are all very different from one another, and each individual has a world of his own. I know people who don’t like Mozart’s music, people who couldn’t care less about money, people who never eat strawberries, people who donate a kidney to total strangers, people who are afraid of chickens. I even know a few people who are not a bit interested in Goldbach’s Conjecture or in Fermat’s Last Theorem, though I, being a mathematician, find this odd.

The fact is, the Little Prince erred, believing that the boundaries of his imagination reflected the absolute truth. He was very quick to judge others and believed that the echo he heard was the sound of people repeating his words.

The people have no imagination. They repeat whatever one says to them … On my planet I had a flower; she always was the first to speak …

In another example, the view expressed by the flower he found in the desert is very far from the truth. The flower can only think about things she can see from her angle, which is a very wilderness-minded point of view. Speaking of people, she says:

‘I think there are six or seven of them in existence. I saw them, several years ago. But one never knows where to find them. The wind blows them away. They have no roots, and that makes their life very difficult.’

Are we not all a little like that flower that lives in the desert?

The world is indeed stranger than anything our rational mind can grasp.

Albert Einstein

The African Who Dreamed up Snow

One of the criteria for identifying genius should perhaps be the ability to accept that the boundaries of our imagination are not the boundaries of the world. That ability is what motivates people to push known boundaries and expand their minds.

The Tale of the Man and the Newspaper (inspired by John Allen Paulos and Ludwig Wittgenstein)

On a particularly hot summer day, a man who was walking down the street stopped at a kiosk to buy a cold drink. As he drank, his gaze fell upon a newspaper headline that he found most amazing. The man could not believe his eyes. Realizing that this was merely a newspaper headline, he decided to investigate the issue further. He asked for another copy of the newspaper, and there it was – the unbelievable headline again, right on the front page. Amazed at the words he read, the man decided to buy all 36 copies of the newspaper that were on sale at that particular kiosk. The man took the newspapers home, where he sat down and checked each and every copy. When he realized that the same story appeared in every one of them, he became convinced it was the truth.

Most of us, hearing this Wittgensteinesque story for the first time, would immediately think: ‘How silly can you be?! No one in their sound mind would read 36 copies of the same newspaper to be convinced that a story is true.’ Wittgenstein believed that, in truth, almost all humans live exactly like that. We keep reading, hearing and watching the same things, over and over again. We may think they are different, but they aren’t.

Geniuses such as Einstein, Darwin or Freud wrote their own ‘newspapers’, and though some of their insights may have been wrong, they were more interesting and influential than correct remarks made by mediocre people. Furthermore, they even invented their own languages for those papers. These geniuses spoke in original languages because they were expressing things that had occurred to no one before them.

Genius is an African who dreams up snow.

Vladimir Nabokov

I find Nabokov’s definition of genius both appealing and precise. To some extent, it echoes Nietzsche, who said that a genius is a person who can think of (as of yet) unnamed things. The fact is, terms we all freely use today didn’t exist before they were invented by geniuses: Freud coined ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’, ‘ego’ and ‘id’; and Darwin came up with ‘natural selection’ and ‘origin of species’.

They wrote their ‘newspapers’ in the languages they created, but once those ‘newspapers’ became institutionalized, everyone wrote and read more or less the same newspapers. It takes people of stature to write different and new ‘newspapers’ and, more often than not, these new ‘newspapers’ are not welcome. People with original ideas have often had to pay dearly for them.

One of the best-known cases of a person who paid for his original ideas with his life is Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome because he dared to go public with a series of ideas that were unheard of in his day. Among other things, he claimed there was a mistake in Aristotle’s ‘newspaper,’ and argued that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. Actually, Bruno believed, the universe has no centre at all, which is very close to modern thinking. Let us not forget that Bruno lived in the second half of the 16th century! It takes a lot of wisdom and courage to establish a new newspaper (or even to publish a slightly different passage in an existing one).

Is It a Bird? Is It a Pipe?

Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte painted a pipe and wrote right underneath it: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (French for: ‘This is not a pipe’).

What could he possibly mean? We can all see it’s a pipe, so why did Magritte write that it isn’t?

If we consider this for a while, we’ll soon realize that Magritte was absolutely right. What we have before us is not a pipe, of course. It is a painting of a pipe, and a pipe and a painting of a pipe are two totally different things.

In the same way, the world we see is not the ‘real’ world. What we ‘see’ is just an impression of the world, which our senses constantly paint and repaint for us.

If I had microscopic vision, for example, I could see molecules whirling in the air in my room and admire their neat arrangement.

A spoon in a glass of water does not really break, and though we feel the Earth as solid and stable, it’s actually spinning at great speed. Similarly, the land and the sky do not meet, though that’s what we see on the horizon. Our senses just keep misleading us.

This world is but a canvas to our imaginations.

Henry David Thoreau

The Buddha knew that we have such little knowledge of the truth because our minds are chained by our senses. He believed our view of the world resembles that of an unhatched chick.

Similarly, Socrates believed that the truth will be revealed to us after we die, when we’re finally released from the tyranny of our senses.

The Turkish Astronomer and the Armani Suit

Chapter 4 of The Little Prince is one of my favourites. In the beginning of the chapter, we become acquainted with a Turkish astronomer who appears before the International Astronomer’s Congress in 1909, and presents a wonderful lecture about the tiny star from which the Prince has arrived. He named it Asteroid B–612. The problem is that when that Turkish astronomer gives his lecture, no one listens to him. The other astronomers see a man in ridiculous clothes – shoes with points that curl backward, a shirt that connects with strange trousers to form a sort of overall, and a very funny hat on top. ‘It is impossible for a man dressed like that to know anything about anything at all,’ the astronomers tell each other, and they go to the cafeteria while he is still on the podium.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was not pleased with this kind of behaviour. He wrote:

In the course of this life, I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.

That, however, was not the end of that affair:

Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B–612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume [preferably by Italian designers]. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance [wearing a fancy suit by Armani Sr]. And this time everybody accepted his report.

Even though he delivered the exact same lecture as he did in 1909, this time he was applauded and cheered.

Go figure the grown-ups. Only the devil knows what strange things have an impact on their power of judgement.

Drowning by Numbers (Better Homes and Gardens)

Grown-ups develop an unbridled fondness for numbers and quantifiers, and are particularly keen on asking questions that start with ‘how much …?’ and ‘how many …?’

Several years ago, when I bought a house, I experienced exactly what Chapter 4 of The Little Prince describes.

The grown-ups who wanted to know things about the house posed all the wrong questions. They didn’t want to know: Is it near the ocean? Does it feel like home? Do you have a terrace from which you can watch the stars? Does it have a nice garden? Is there enough room for all of your books in the basement?

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Instead of asking the right questions, they bugged me with queries about numbers (most of which I couldn’t answer). How much did it cost? How many rooms does it have? How big was the mortgage you took for it? How many square metres of space does it contain? How much did you pay for remodelling it? How many owners did it have before you? How many stairs lead to the roof? How much this and how many that.

These days, almost everything is quantified numerically. How much do you make a month/a year? How many years did you study? What did you get in your SATs? How many times did you travel abroad last year? How much did you pay for this wine?

Grown-ups are very strange indeed.

How Wealthy Are His Parents?

Yes, grown-ups are very fond of numbers. Saint-Exupéry writes:

When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money do his parents make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Certain adults, however, are smarter than that. Upon hearing that Jane’s daughter was seeing a young man socially, Mary wanted to know the occupation of his parents. Well, don’t be misled by that. Mary may not have posed a ‘how much?’ question, but she was still interested in numbers. After all, we all know there is a strong and direct correlation between what people do for a living and how much they earn from it. What Mary really wanted to know was: ‘How much do his parents make a year?’

Society tells us the only thing that matters is matter – the only things that count are the things that can be counted.

Laurence G Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living

But certainly, for us who understand life, figures are a matter of indifference!

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Rich Wines = Rich Owners

Once, when we were young, we could drink a glass of wine and opine: ‘I like it,’ or ‘I don’t like it.’ Things are not that simple anymore. Today, before you even taste the wine, its owners let you know that it’s a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 1997, and that they paid $85 a bottle. What do I do now? Will I dare say it isn’t to my taste after hearing these figures? (This was just a small example. Dear residents of Montepulciano, that enchanted Italian town, please don’t be offended. It is my favourite wine.)

Would we really relish Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea so much if it didn’t cost an arm and a leg? And if the price of water started soaring, would we not immensely enjoy a glass of pure water?

I once asked a leading chef to name his favourite dish. I asked him to be honest with me and not name fancy-shmancy dishes such as ‘bird’snest on frog-legs served in truffle sauce and saffron with a touch of sugar-candy’. He thought for a moment and said: ‘My number one dish is a really well-made thin and crisp Italian pizza. My number two, I hate to admit, is a fine dish of nicely seasoned and fresh French fries.’

Did you hear that? Pizza and chips! I mean, children love such foods. I always knew children had a more accurate idea of what’s right.

Many adults don’t have their own opinions. They believe in things because many others believe in them, want things because many others covet them, and praise a work of art because … well, because everybody does. Other grown-ups have opinions but are wary about expressing them because they want to stick with the consensus. Don’t forget that amidst a cheering crowd, only a child dared to yell: ‘The king is naked!’

Einstein remarked that most views that adults hold are nothing more than a rearrangement of their parents’ and teachers’ views. The fact that the majority hold a certain opinion does not make it the truth, and one just person is a moral majority. (Our tendency to so easily believe in views generally held by our society is known as the Bandwagon Effect.)

OK. Time to grow up, I guess.

Saint-Exupéry believed that a worthy adult is one who knows everything the other grown-ups know and yet can still look at the world with a child’s eyes and candidly and courageously state his opinion. The worthy adult is the one who admires the fact that a heavy machine such as an aircraft can fly, who can see shapes in clouds, who asks why we don’t feel that the Earth is turning (and why, by the way, does it spin?), who laughs at nonsense, and builds castles on a sandy beach. Only an adult who still has a child in his eyes can truly wonder at this amazing thing called Life.