Decomposing Wisdom


A: “Tolstoy? Is our world stochastic in its workings?”

B: “If i knew what that meant i might offer up a reply.”

A: “Well, it’s just that I was reading about this professor in America who made headline news for turning the concept of the humble CV on its head.”

B: “And what does this have to do with the world being stochastic?”

A: “By highlighting his failures over his successes, the prof wanted to show not only that failure is experienced in the average life far more often that success, but also that you might as well pick any old event from your life at random for all the good it does in predicting what kind of person you are and what kind of life you’ve had. That’s what he meant by stochastic.”

B: “Meaning I’m going to be remembered not for Anna Karenina but for the stunted crop of carrots I grew in the the spring of nineteen hundred and four?”

A:”Why not? One’s as valid as the other.”

B: “A man cannot live on a diet of words, and words alone, i suppose.”

A: “So, Tolstoy, does nothing exist beyond probability? Are our lives reducible to happenstance? All we live for is randomly determined from variables we don’t even pick up on? God! How depressing if that’s the case.”

B: “As luck would have it, I discussed this very thing in my recent collection of Meditations from Moscow.”

A: “Recent? With all due respect, you’ve been pushing up the daisies for the past hundred years. You’re only here today because I invoked your spirit. Called you up from the dead.”

B: “Well, I never. Been that long, has it? A man can lose track of time when he’s dead.”

A: “A man can lose a whole lot more than time when he’s dead. His healthy complexion, for one. I have to say, you’ve looked better.”

B: “As I was saying, before I started decomposing, I broached this topic a number of times in my literary canon. See my wisdom as a crutch, if you like, to help you through the worst that unpredictability has to offer.”

(clears throat ready to theatrically quote, even though the throat Tolstoy is clearing is clearly no longer a throat in any substantial sense).

A man on a thousand-mile walk has to forget his goal and say to himself every morning, ‘Today I’m going to cover twenty-five miles and rest up and sleep.’

That was a line from War & Peace, if anyone still reads it these days.”

A: “By that I presume you mean that any great undertaking, like life itself, is overwhelming unless taken in short disciplined bursts. Are you saying that we need to simplify the complex? To break something huge into smaller parts in order to answer it?”

B: “Precisely. I wrote in Bethink Yourselves that the two greatest warriors are patience and time. Time and time only will reveal what the moment won’t. Patience will cure the illness of not knowing.”

A: “But why do I feel only disappointment? All around me others post their success, and then a successful academic comes out and states that taking a random sample of anyone’s life is more likely to fall on failure than success. The difference between this happening and that happening, you could decide by spinning a roulette wheel. All this damned effort for nothing.”

B: “Whether every minute of your life unfolds by accident or design, or a combination of the two, or neither, is hardly the point, young man. Why all this need to know? Nighttime always comes whether or not you believe you control the day.”

A: “But Tolstoy, if predicting the course of our lives is all just one big crapshoot, then what’s the freaking point of natural justice? I’ve had a lifetime hearing ‘you make your own luck’, ‘it’s up to you.’ Obviously, it’s not.”

B: “Suffering from the pangs of anxiety, I see. Your controlling tendencies getting the better of you? Relax, comrade. Rejoice in knowing that we can only know that we know nothing. I wrote that in War & Peace, too. Socrates will back me up on this one: that recognizing this truth is the highest form of human wisdom. Accepting it will liberate the torturing of the soul and deny the dishonesty of the intellect.”

…Now go in peace, and know that none of this matters. I’ve death to get back to before eternity ends.”

A: “If you say so, Tolstoy. Say hi to the ancestors for me.”

B: “Ah! And one more thing before I return to the other side. If it’s the content of a CV that’s bothering you – do I extol my successes? Or do I play them down and instead admit my failures? that kind of jazz – join the other ninety-nine percent in doing what they do.”

A: “What would that be?”

B: “BULLSHIT the bosses. Tell the bourgeoisie what they want to hear. Their empire of lies is bound to crumble, anyway.”

A: “I gather you weren’t around to meet the Bolsheviks, Tolstoy?”

B: “?!!”



A Paean to Nobody



“Privyet, proto-comrade.”

“Got a minute?”

“For you, I’ve got two.”

“Indebted to you. Can you tell me, in that case, how to write a poem around a single, memorable, line from a Smiths song?”

“Come again, comrade?”

I am the sun and air, of nothing in particular.”

“What is that pretentious crap?”

“It’s an allusion to, like, the sun and the air being, like, nothing…in particular.”

“But they are something. In fact, they are everything, for without them you would not be here asking me these pointless questions.”

“It’s just that I’m emotionally repressed. I’ve got unresolved issues stemming from a one-time thing that didn’t quite go my way. I fell hard, right, and I want to say something dark and brooding about the way it left pustules of resentment all over my soul. You know? The anger should be directed at me, but I’m too narcissistic to do that to myself.”

“Your two minutes are up. Do-svidaniya.”

“Be like that. Who needs a dead writer to speak for their feelings, anyhoo?”

20 minutes later……

I am a volcano about to go dormant.

I am the sun and air of nothing in particular. I am prisoner in your niggardly arms, hostage to your nether beating pulse. 

You sap the life from me when it suits you and when it doesn’t you sap the lifeblood from me all the same. 

You are a ghost that doesn’t deserve my afterlife, a memory that bullied your way in. You whine through the ventricles of my heart, groan in the pit of my stomach. 

You are the moon and water, of nothing in particular, dead light and choking waves. 

Take that, Tolstoy, and lodge it where the sun don’t shine. In your cold Tsarist heart, for instance.

A Time to Plant


There’s not much pollen rattling the air out there. Not even heat convection can excite the molecules. The ear strains to hear the drumbeat of hooves clomp in a rising crescendo. While not an avid race goer, I’m sure it’s not like this when geldings go galloping on English turf.

A plume of the finest sand kicked up by the softest, broadest pads of all two-toed animals envelops the herd in a dust bubble. Little else competes with their approach other than the owner relaying orders to the jockey from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle crawling alongside the track on a highway laid specially for the moving spectator.

Tall, lean dromedaries lope along on sand in teams of six. On legs taller than a man, their stride is almost exaggerated. Wearing fawn and cavalry blue Shalwar Kameez, the trainers mounted front and rear look Pakistani. Or possibly Afghani, continuing a proud tradition that began with the Afghani camel drivers who were brought to Australia in the 19th century to penetrate deep into the Outback. Nimble little stalwarts riding bareback, these trainers crouch in the brace position on the hind slope of the animal’s hump. Any more bumping and grinding and they will slip down its steep gradient and onto a painful dumping on the coccyx. Yet, few if any do.

Seeing that today’s camel jockey is a race day robot, these trainers fall short of being silicon enough to see action on the furlongs. He’s on it most of the week, because through his nurturing abilities the trainer avoids obsolescence. There to groom the dashing dromedary in a pampering exercise regime, his loving care shows in the health and well-being of this most venerated of beasts.

Camels are coated in colourful blankets with bundles for humps, great long legs made for striding and necks bowed for pipping other necks to the post. If the age of oil and the fame of the sheikhdom cities that flowed from the wells had not already put the rest of the world conveniently in the iconic frame of the Bedouin in his white robes sailing his ship of the desert, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that what they were witnessing on that track was a George Lucas re-imagining of a horse race. Weird, prehensile lips flapping at the end of impossibly outstretched necks in this all-encompassing sandscape that glares more powerfully than any bank of studio lights ever could, Lucas’ planet Tatooine was obviously a borrowed creation. A crushing reality check for anyone who remembers being a kid in 1977 when Star Wars first hit the screens.

To suck the marrow out of life first you need to splinter a few bones. If that means extending the love and attention that organic compounds have long denied the desert, then so be it. They say nothing good can come from nothing, that no good thing can grow in a desert. But they didn’t reckon for creations that don’t need a steady supply of rainwater: like memories, experience and the trickery of light on red satin snow as the sun makes its descent. There’s shrubbery in planting on these margins of life. While not a religious man, I am a devout worshipper of 60’s psychedelic rock. Here’s the book of Ecclesiastes doing The Byrds, Turn, Turn, Turn:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

The spectre of winter can fall on places never touched by frost. This lull in the long summer gives pause to plant. In the desert of our day-to-day we plant for a tomorrow when we may uproot, the day when finally we emerge from the sea of sand with what gift of experience the Bedouin in their majlis send us away with. From dust we come, into dust we shall return. But not before we glow a little, out there in the dancing dust and singing sands where natives come for the day to relearn the custom of being at ease with their former selves in the company of the animals to whom they owe their everything; where incomers visit just to feel alive.

Sitting in a majli twirling ceremonial sticks, or standing in line in a dance ritual launching antique rifles into the air, then crouching back down on their haunches to rest against cushions and look on motionless and indifferent at the comings and goings of others, not their own, those Bedouin eyes fix watchful over their true love, the only thing capable of upstaging them in their domain: Jamal (camel to you and me).

There has to be a reason for these chance encounters. We’ll glance back over the shoulders of time one day and there he’ll be, resplendent in rags.


we’ll entreat him.

What did it mean to be there all that time ago? Why this boy of all people?

And he’ll answer, dressed head to toe in his scruffy greatcoat, worldly belongings stuffed into a haversack that makes him camel in all but name. He’ll answer:

Where was this? Who was there?’

It was a desert, and it was me. I was there. I was there.

And he’ll say, Then that’s what it meant. There’s your answer.

And we’ll entreat him again.

Why me? Me of all people?

And he’ll consider the question, but this time answer with less patience.

Why not you? Did you think you were the only one not meant to be in places you never thought you’d be? Does a tree have a choice in where it puts down roots? No! Only if and when.

So Tolstoy, did it mean something in the long run? To have been there?

If it didn’t you wouldn’t be asking me this question years later. Now leave me be. It’s a long way back on foot to the village from here and I have beet seeds to plant before it’s too late.





Three Guesses As To What Really Matters


Suffering from another paroxysm of doubt – a bobbing on the big sea moment – Tolstoy seemed the natural choice of port for the Gen X refugee to find anchorage in. Let it be known not only common folk or mendicant monks seek to know what really matters. Kings, too, have tipped their crown in neediness of an answer to the big three – 1) When is the right time to do the right thing? 2) Whom is considered most worthy of being the beneficiary of that right thing? And, 3), what is that right thing to do in life above all other right things? If Christ could do it on a bike, and Hindus on their hands and knees around the Holy Mountain, then Arthurian types can go in search of answers, too, finding them planted in unlikely soil.

What is the right thing to do, when is the right moment to do it, and with whom should it be done? Are such questions that go to the heart of the matter to be considered existential conundrums unlike any other? Who can tell. At least, with Tolstoy we have an agony uncle worthy of trust. Let’s face it, rules are rules. Fables, myths and necromancy when they come, come packaged not into ones, not twos but threes.

Three the magic number: three wishes; three wise men; three wise monkeys; three fates, furies and graces; three the number of intelligence in the Kabbalah; the father, son and the holy ghost; Great Pyramids; the belt of Orion; three of a kind; three chances to put things right.

And so it came down to three questions that Tolstoy’s Certain King went to slay with allegorical brevity short as a cocktail stick. When he took his ruler of a faraway realm on his kingly quest, still he did so with a point, but not the kind that spears pitted olives. His was in mind. As De Troyes’ Fisher King was crippled with injury, Tolstoy’s Certain King (one presumes) of Slavic peasantry is crippled with that most chronic of conditions: indecision.

The analogies are rich as they are universal. Indecision is as injurious to the mind as a hurtling javelin is to the thigh. This moral maze, full of ankle-twisting turns, knows no bounds of credo or class. The ruler is expected to be judicious to the extent of having answers to the trickiest questions tucked into his hem. Nonetheless, it is to the furthest reaches of the forest, to the old and frail hermit living in a dacha-cum-shed, that he experiences a comedown of humbling proportions. As wisdom is the burden of the elite, so it is the gift of the obscure.

To the question of ‘what the right thing is to do’ (presumably this question extends beyond simple quandaries like Sainsbury’s car park is chock-a. Will anyone really notice if I park in the disabled space?), apparently hermetic sagacity comes down on the side of digging seed beds in pity of the old hermit shirker who claimed he was too buggered to do it for himself.

As to the question of when is the right time to do the right thing, like the old adage goes, there’s no time like the present. The when ends only when the present ends, which is never until it is stepped out from. Our king, now engaged in menial labours considered essential by Shaolin monks for attaining mindfulness, is now inadvertently digging his way to the answers he seeks by virtue of having rolled up his sleeves and working that hoe like such a demon that he stops noticing time and forgets what it is he wanted to know. Only when he stops to reflect does he realise that the right time to do the important things in life is lost when the mind is either running ahead or falling behind.

The when embedded within the what comes twice to the fable. The other most important time existing for the king in the quantum mechanics of the present moment (where either something’s nature is known but not its location or else its location but not its nature) is when he turns from market gardener to red cross medic and saves a man with a blinding bit of field dressing. Little does the king know that the man, consumed by vengeance, was out for his blood. But instead of regicide the stranger in the forest finds the king is stemming his own gushing blood in an act of compassion, for why the king does not know.

As to the question of who benefited from that right thing and that right moment, the knackered old hermit and the wounded wannabe assassin became the king’s most important task, the only thing that mattered. Just as your average Uncle Joe does not take up arms for a cause but for himself and those either side of him, so Tolstoy, through the hermit, avers that the most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows (in that very moment) whether he will ever again have dealings with anyone else.

The king has, quite unintentionally, received his true coronation. Mindfulness is the crown he wears. Presence is now in his heart, leading the hermit on to distill the essence of the good thing, which is to perform man’s sole purpose of being: doing good. Kant wrote the only unqualified, unconditional good was the good that arose from good will; goodness not to conform to norms of goodness, rather goodness for its own sake.

Our king left the protection of his realm asking three questions he thought should govern and guide a life in which he had grown dissatisfied, and for which he was deservedly awarded his Duke of Edinburgh. He left a substandard realm of irrelevance only to discover a sublime state of benevolence. He threw off his chain mail to don the saffron robe. And all because he was not afraid to invent himself in the mind of the writer whose own life needed questions answering, metaphysically-speaking. Ask Tolstoy and ye shall receive.