It’s been said that art is an act of resistance, an act of liberation, or the product of humanity’s God complex, or any number of other things that have been said. For me, art, creation, is a re-run of a feeling, in the same way that palindromes re-run a word, surprising us. Art surprises, it gives us a new perspective, it inverts feeling. (palin (πάλιν) “again”) and dromos (δρóμος); “way, direction, run”).
Surely one of the most difficult challenges we face each day is simply presenting things as they are, without our perception of them getting in the way. It’s pretty much the same with writing style. There was a time when I loved recognizing the penmanship of a text’s author. It’s Proust writing, this is Scott Fitzgerald, no, Hemingway… But these days, I find myself appreciating what is being said much more than enjoying any clues as to who is saying it. My judgment would be that this is a form of transparent justice with respect to the written object.
I say this in light of Ruskinland, recently published by Financial Times journalist Andrew Hill, who expresses to perfection my thoughts above. His goal in the book is to make us see why the thinking of John Ruskin (who I called The Napoleon of Brantwood) is still needed today (page 26), and throughout the book it’s as though Ruskin himself were speaking to us, when evidently this is not the case. Ruskinland is the perfect enticement to read Ruskin. What more could one ask for?
In short, I recommend the book wholeheartedly, and would advise anybody who says they don’t have the time to do so to start with the third chapter, Seeing, which discusses Ruskin’s passion for simply watching: he was capable of looking at an object or landscape for hours on end, trying to make sure he hadn’t overlooked any aspect of it. The opening lines of the chapter quote Ruskin on the importance of taking the time to look:
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands think for one who can see.
To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.
PS: In October 2017, while still ignorant of Ruskin’s work, I published a collection of stories called Dibugrafías with the painter Miguel Panadero. One of them, Escalenes, discusses the virtue of seeing clearly in the dark. I leave it with you in the hope it clears a few things up…!!!
A triangulated head is clearly a mystery, because the number three has always been a mystery.
Let’s take a closer look:
If the three sides of a triangle are equal, we call it an equilateral triangle. The triangle is isosceles if only two of the sides are equal. And it is scalene if all three sides are unequal. Everybody knows, however, that these are just the certainties of geometry, because in the world out there, everything is unequal, scalene, and that’s without bringing heads into it. Now things seem a little clearer.
The virtue of being able to see clearly in the dark seems more like a virtue of geometry; let’s face it, not all heads are of equal capacity, but still none of them see clearly. Or does anybody know of a head that can see beyond the darkness?
If we move on from geometry to arithmetic, we have addition. The addition of a head, plus another head, and another, might this help gain clarity?
Marbella, May 1, 2014
At a time when thought seems to have been reduced to the simplism of a tweet, a slogan or a mantra, which is then repeated ad nauseam throughout the social networks, it’s not easy to find executives with the ability and confidence to think issues through on their own terms and who are then capable of distilling their knowledge and experience, the better to share it. One of those happy few of whom Henry Thoreau spoke is Santiago Iniguez, Executive President of IE University.
Today saw the launch of Business Despite Borders, by Iñiguez and Kazuo Ichijo, Dean of Japan’s Hitotsubashi ICS (Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy). The event took place at the Palace Hotel in Tokyo and was attended by a large group of leading CEO´s and Executives from some of Japan’s biggest companies such as Nissan, Mitsui, and Otsuka pharmaceutical.
Business Despite Borders is a collection of essays by a diverse range of authors on the major issues of the day, among them The Unconventional Internationalization of Huawei, by Yufeng Zhou, Ji-Ye Mao and Ziliang Deng; How Companies and Governments Should Adapt to Technological Disruption by Manuel Muñiz; and The Nightmare of Populism and the Hopes Brought by Technology by Ichijo and Iñiguez, with Peter Lorange.
Iniguez holds firm to his belief that the best antidote to the nationalism and populism of our times is to do good business. His tireless defense of education as the best weapon against most of the ills afflicting society today has earned him the sobriquet of the Mayor of Education City, a reference to his oft-quoted comment: “It’s very cold out there, outside education city.” His work has been widely acknowledged and he was the first non-American to chair the AACSB, while Poet´s & Quants founder and editor John Byrne called him Europe’s Business School Maverick when Iniguez was named 2016 Dean of the Year, the first European to achieve said award (I recall John Byrne being the first to call Iniguez The Mayor of Education City, but I might be wrong, as is the case many times).
Iñiguez is always on the go, spreading the word about education around the world, which is why, a few years ago, when I made a short video about him, I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good, and in particular, a chapter called Globe-trotting, whose title I borrowed for his video Globe-trotting flying in a balloon. From Spain to Japan, and just about everywhere in between, for Iniguez, education has no borders.
Life is life and not the thing we want it to be. That’s why it so often slips out of our hands and why the story of every life boils down to the story of the tension between the urge to do the thing you want and the combination of circumstances bent on keeping you from it, let’s say, your dream. It seems unnecessary to stress that this tension creates a lot of frustration. Put like this, life tends to look more like a process of breaking down – as Fitzgerald wrote – than anything else, like some kind of title bout, where all that matters is staying on one’s feet as one’s ride the punches. The progress of an education, whether a contender’s, for the Heavyweight Championship of the World or one’s own, has always interested me (that´s why I like the Chinese proverb, 活到老, 学到老 huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo, which means something like: [If one] lives to an old age, [one will continue to] learn until old age.)
Long ago, perhaps aware of the punches coming my way, I came up with a very small stratagem – sometimes, small things are crucial – to help me escape from the frustration, bad moods, or weakness, that life can deliver. The stratagem is simply a list of 10 delicious dishes I could choose from to give me back my lust for life or that energy I lacked after the latest blow. I have yet to complete the list. Moreover, a lady once said to me: “Let me tell you your favourite dish”. She didn’t say much more, because it seems that at some point in her life she had acquired the habit of not doing so, of politeness, and converted said habit into a question of manners, like when one leaves a tiny bit of food on the plate to show one’s host that the meal was abundant. Oh les femmes!
Please find below my list, in no particular order, because each has its moment.
– Dazhaxie (大闸蟹), wonderful Shanghainese river crabs, only available from late September to November (see photo).
– Chayedan (茶葉蛋) or Tea egg: delicious eggs cooked in spices, soy sauce and black tea leaves.
– Toro (とろhiragana or トロ katana), the fatty cut of tuna belly.
– Caviar, which needs no explanation.
– Morcilla, or spicy black pudding, from Leon, in northern Spain.
– Escamoles, a Mexican dish made from ant larvae and pupae.
– Spanish dry cured ham (jamón ibérico).
– A juice of Acaí, made from a Brazilian berry.
As you can see, the list is incomplete and needn’t stop at 10, which when all is said and done, is simply a number we’ve chosen from our habit of rounding up things, a sort of security blanket to ward off our loneliness and frustration. By the way, another femme, French of course , said you do not forget Le Champagne!!!
As you know, the Chinese Zodiac, also known as Sheng Xiao (生肖), is based on a twelve-year cycle. Each year in that cycle is related to an animal sign. These signs are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and finally, the pig. AIl is calculated according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Since this coming year is the year of the pig, we all have to find out what is the relationship of our own animal sign, the snake in my case, with the pig, in order to figure out how our life is gonna be this year. It seems the beneficial pig effect on the serpent will be reflected in my revenues and some good luck in any new ventures I might undertake. Will I strike it lucky? Let’s have a closer look.
I suppose living a life can be compared to writing a novel. In theory, we have a whole life ahead of us: a pile of blank pages we can fill with words. People who write novels or who live supposedly successful lives always say how easy it is: it’s just a question of getting down to it. They give the impression they’re always headed in the right direction and that everything they do has, or had, a goal or a purpose to it. Does the pig, or any of the other Chinese Zodiac animals, give a hand to them?
In contrast, I have to confess that I have a terrible sense of direction, and whenever I go somewhere, be it on foot, by motorbike, or by plane, I always think I am headed north, i.e. in the right direction, even though I might be going south. I really have tried to get my head round this, but with little success. I was born in Brussels to a mother from the Canary Islands and an Ecuadorian father, so I did wonder if my family’s ‘Southern Roots’ had disorientated me to the extent that I didn’t even know where the centre was any more. That’s the way things are; I’m not going to go into why I prefer the north because of my complex about the south, or because it’s more developed, or whatever… I doubt the pig can give me any directions!
If each place is its own centre, the same goes for each life, and the same goes for maps; their centre is relative: it depends on the country where you buy them. If you are in China, the centre of the map branches out from there, and if you are in Mali, the same principle more or less applies. In point of fact, when we examine our lives and place in the great scheme of things ours is the perspective of a mosquito. When we talk about life, and not some auto-life, what do we really mean?
Let’s dig a little deeper. I picture a huge GoogleBio focusing on different lives. Like the countries listed on Google Earth, when our lives are seen from the perspective of a roll call, they all look the same; any differences are simply details. These details may be important for those concerned, but they are so trivial, so tiny; barely changing our mosquito’s perspective, that without wanting to, we come up against the limits of existence; with that unbearable lightness of being.
I’m saying this because there is something unreal about this vivre à l’essai, this putting our lives to the test all the time: we can do something, or do the complete opposite without it affecting our existence one iota. ‘Can’t we do anything right (1)?’ , Goethe once asked. Well, I’m afraid we can’t. We don’t do anything right, and worse still, we have very little room for manoeuvre. What ill luck we have, my dear pig!!!
It might seem trivial, but the day I was given my Chinese name was a momentous occasion. Not so much for the event itself, when I didn’t really take it in, but for the significance it took on later. Things still existed, even before they had a name, but they were somehow different; I would say their existence was diminished. So, when they called me Táng Mènglóng (唐梦龙), I somehow felt that I had acquired a complete existence again, perhaps because this baptism created another way of existing in the world, and possibly reflected how I had changed over the years. Maybe it wasn’t even that: perhaps it merely confirmed what I had always been. It’s at this point where I begin to have doubts, and, going back to the subject in question, I’m never sure about the extent to which our decisions make any differences to our lives. Probably none.
Due to the peculiarity of Chinese writing, and also the fact that the language is replete with homophonic words, the characters chosen for names are vitally important. A good example is the word 梦 (meng: to dream) which can be spelt (meng): meaning ‘the first month in a season’. It also means ‘older brother’, but more importantly, it is also the first character of the name of the 4th-3rd century BCE Confusian philosopher Mencius (孟子 Mengzi) . The fact my teacher chose a character which refers to a dream world imbues my name with an oneiric, idealistic nuance, which it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Moreover, this character 唐 (Táng), which would be my new surname, also connotes the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), considered the most glorious period of Chinese rule. The third carácter 龙 (Lóng) means ‘dragon’, which is one of the symbols of China. This, coupled with the fact that these three characters in Chinese phonetics sound good together, means that when I say my name I am often complimented, given that I am the dragon which dreams of the Tang dynasty. At the same time, the name also conjures up the Ming dynasty writer Feng Menglong (冯梦龙), who lived between 1574 and 1645.
That said, an ice cream called Menglong (梦龙) has become popular in China, as a result of which people are increasingly likely to say “Ah, like the ice cream!” when I tell them my name. I can’t do anything about it. If you look at the photo, you can see the problem.
Spanish friends say my Chinese name Menglong sounds like the word “melón“, and I suppose at the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to. “A bit like a melon” means a “bit nutty” in Spanish, and that’s not far from the truth. Needless to say, that wasn’t how I imagined things would turn out. C’est la vie. Dear pig, can you still give me a hand?
(1) “Sage, tun wir nicht recht?” is Goethe’s original quote.
Back in October 2018 I met FT´s management editor Andrew Hill at Financial Times premises. He then talked enthusiastically about the release of his new book in 2019. Well, the time has come and his book Ruskinland: How John Ruskin shapes our world is now available for pre-order. I have to say that his enthusiasm about the book sparked my interest on John Ruskin. Needless to say, the following day I bought a copy of Ruskin´s Unto this Last. Here some thoughts, while I wait to receive my copy of Ruskinland…
When the idea of writing a post on Unto This Last occurred to me, I instantly thought of G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and in particular his humorous chapter, Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy. Whatever else he might have been Ruskin was a species of prophet, as Andrew Hill says in his enlightening introduction:
“Given the failure of almost everyone to foresee the financial disaster of the late 2000s, Unto This Last now merits re-examination. The latest crisis shattered the confidence of market economists –the same smugness Ruskin was attacking in 1860–and fueled many specific concerns that he would have recognized and shared: worries about excessive pay and bonuses, about the use and abuse of wealth, and about the purpose of work.”
I must admit that if only by force of circumstances Unto This Last has now earned the status of a historical essay dealing with the past. But the book is not so much an attempt to render an image of the economic state of Britain in the 1860s, as a study of the foundations of political economy itself: as a result, I would venture to say that the book is highly relevant to the situation we face today, particularly the five things a Ruskin CEO should do, among them, robust leadership, rather than those heart-warming statements issued by contemporary business leaders, such as: “every person has leadership responsibilities and potential.”
As Andrew Hill comments, Ruskin would probably have found this cheesy motivational approach feeble. This kind of language is what Chinese netizens mockingly call “chicken soup” (鸡汤jītāng ), a catch-all term for gooey, feel-good essays that might belong in a Chicken Soup for the Soul type book, along the lines of “Ten things Jack Ma taught me.”
Returning to Chesterton: “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, “Keep tomorrow dark”, and which is also named “Cheat the prophet”. The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely.”
It would seem Ruskin is refusing to lie still in his grave: he admitted that the essays of his book “were reprobated in a violent manner… by most of the readers they met with” when they were first published in Cornhill Magazine, but then noted sarcastically, à la Chesterton, when they were published in book form: “So I republish the essays as they appeared. One word only is changed, correcting the estimate of a weight; and no word is added” !!! (The bold letters & the exclamation marks are mine!!).
In conclusion, all I can add is that Unto This Last is a very good read and is overdue for rehabilitation, as Andrew Hill argues.
P.S.: Unto this Last had such an impact on Ghandhi´s philosophy that he decided not only to change his life according to Ruskin´s teaching, but also to publish his own newspaper, from a farm where everybody would get the same salary, without distinction of function, race, or nationality.
Unto This Last was translated into Chinese in 2011 as 给这最后来的 (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press).
New York, Brooklyn, 29 October, 2015.
Once again, Bruno and Arun meet in New York. As usual, there are conversations pending, and interminable disagreements. On Metropolitan Street, almost at the corner of Kent, in the Williamsburg district, they pause.
“This is a piece of shit,” says Bruno pointing at the graffito. “Noise, images. Just about any top model has more impact on the world than anything else.”
“I’m telling you, a guy like Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is like one of those flies that want to get out of the room and bang again and again against the window. It’s clear to them, they want to get to the other side, and bump, once again, they’re up against it. That’s the way it is. It’s a desire to play a role in the world. But there’s no way on earth anybody’s changing China.”
“Stop trying to change things,” replies Arun. “Art is art and the world is the world. I’m glad they’re separated by the glass. There’s no reason why the one should play a role in the other.”
“Oh, come off it! What do you want, do you think art is just about making the world a prettier place? Shouldn’t it be able to transcend things?
“Bruno, it’s not because anybody wants it to, it’s that art will always transcend things.”
“Come on Arun, you’re so infuriating. What I’m saying is that top models, footballers, or whoever, are continually sending messages, images, noise… These wretched people have stolen artists’ thunder. Ai Weiwei (艾未未) has no choice but to create a fuss, elevating himself to art, to be a work of art himself, a brand that produces more images, more news, than that top model…”
And Arun interrupts Bruno, because he knows this is a conversation with no end and because whatever Bruno says, for Arun art isn’t supposed to change anything necessarily, it’s just a way to pass the time on the other side of the window. Bruno puts his hands to his head and simply says that Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is also known as Ai Shen (艾神), which is to say the Divine Ai, or the God Ai, whichever you prefer.
The artist who painted the graffito has gone to the trouble of depicting Ai Weiwei (艾未未) as the Monkey King in Journey to the West. That’s why he has those features and facial hair and is wearing the magic head band the monk Xuanzang tricked him into putting on his head so that when the monkey misbehaved he would get terrible headaches. The red line could be from the tight headband, or could be the line that Ai Weiwei mustn’t cross in criticizing the Chinese authorities. The graffito is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn near to where Ai Weiwei (艾未未) lived while studying at the Parsons School of Design during the 1980s. More from Arun and Bruno in Watch it! , Operation Fun, Sex is Fun, and We Laugh Less.
A well-known Chinese tale tells the story of a group of blind men who were arguing about what an elephant looked like. As nobody could convince the others, they asked that an elephant be brought before them. The first blind man, who touched the animal’s leg, said:
“An elephant is like a column.”
The next placed his hands on the trunk.
“An elephant is like a wall,” he pronounced.
The third, who happened upon the tail, said the animal was like a serpent.
The argument continued. Finally, the man who had brought the elephant described it fully, ending all discussion.
Much of what we think, and share with the world, is determined by our own shortfalls, prejudices, and limited vision. Raymond Dawson, the British academic who dedicated his life to studying and writing about China, observes in his book The Dragon is a Chameleon that, “Our response to China is conditioned in part by the objective situation that already exists there, and in part by the conscious and unconscious interests of our own education.”
Time ago in a radio interview, Spanish science commentator Eduardo Punset summed up the function of the brain as being little more than helping us to avoid bumping into things. His view questions our conceited overestimation of the products of our intellect, what we call ideas and opinions. Punset argues that the source of the avalanche of stimuli that constantly bombards our brain is simply our ever-diminishing senses: we see little, hear less, and our sense of smell isn’t much use unless applied to odors that emanate from the immediate space around us. As for touch and taste, it is probably wiser to avoid comment. The key question we have to address is how does the brain order that avalanche of stimuli into something we can more or less make sense of, and that we can then label “rational”—arguably the most pompous of terms. It would seem wiser therefore to avoid pretentiousness and accept that our head has fulfilled its purpose by allowing us to avoid knocking into the side table in the hall, which is no small matter.
News about China, whether in the Spanish or international media, is always framed in terms of the great yellow power, the birth of a global giant, the return of the empire, etc. And while it is true that a lot of China reporting addresses the huge political and economic challenges the country will face in the coming decades, in general, the message is one of an new world power; the birth of a dragon that will burn anything that tries to stop it to a crisp.
But a glance through the pages of history shows that the West’s perceptions of this dragon have changed according to the needs and views of each age. In 1245, fear of the Mongol Hordes prompted Pope Innocent IV to task Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini to spy on the court of the Great Khan under the pretext of exploring the possibilities of Christianizing the Mongols. The most famous explorer of that age was of course Marco Polo, sometimes dubbed Il Milione for his tendency to stick several zeros on any figure he cited. Polo and Plano Carpini, as did the explorers who followed in their steps in the following two centuries, made constant reference in their writings of the immense wealth of the East, a veritable horn of plenty. They were doubtless influenced by Genesis 2.8: “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden”. The Orient has always exercised a fascination over the West’s collective imagination.
By the sixteenth century, when the opening of sea routes meant it was no longer necessary to trek overland, carting bags of precious stones to pay for the journey, our view of China changed: we were no longer dazzled by its treasures; and we began to form a different image of China.
It would be the Jesuits, at least until the order was abolished in 1773, who would be the world’s opinion makers regarding China. The Jesuits only contact would be through the emperor and his cadre of elite civil servants the mandarins: after all, their goal was to evangelize the country downwards. The Jesuits, inspired by Plato’s Republic, portrayed China in utopian terms. The intellectual elite of Europe, they dreamed of a government composed of philosophers, and saw China as the model to follow. But were they right to depict the China of the mandarins as a utopia?
When Dawson describes China as a chameleon he is referring directly to the China that changes depending on the magnifying glass through which it is observed. Aren’t the astonishing growth statistics, the incredible rags to riches tales, and the awe China inspires simply the other side of the coin in terms of the West’s development, a West as much in need of cheap labor as a new spiritual reserve?
The cost of creating the West’s so-called welfare state has been high; what will be the cost of China’s wellbeing? One thing we can rely on is that nobody will come along to explain to us what an elephant looks like.
I’ve been invited to take part in Versos al paso, set up by Madrid City Hall and urban artists Boa mistura. This literary initiative presents pedestrians with fragments of poetry at some 1,100 zebra crossings throughout the Spanish capital’s 21 districts. Below, photos of the two verses I contributed.
¡No hay quien dé con su destino!!! (not a literal translation, but something like: There’s no chance of meeting our destiny!!!),
(at the crossing by 85 Bravo Murillo Street, not far from IE Business School, where I work.)
“Hasta la nada tiene algo” (Even nothingness has something),
(where the Paseo de los Ferroviarios meets Nuno Gómez street, in the Villaverde district.)
And here’s a photo of the lines written by Loreto Sesma, a young writer I discovered, so to speak, on 13 Mateo Inurria street. I would recommend her book, Amor revolver, which she describes as a “collection of poems with six bullets. Like Russian roulette, the reader plays with the six bullets until, inevitably, one enters him or her.” The bullets, needless to say, are Loreto’s words:
“Keep the Kiss, burn the verse, shrug off the burden and fly.”
Two of my proposals for Versos al Paso were chosen: He’s the third:
Dónde estás, Amor? (Where are you, Love?)
For me, love is either a revolver, which kills you, like Loreto Sesma says, or there’s no chance of ever finding it, like our destiny!
I’ve just seen Bradley Cooper’s take on A Star is Born. I loved it. Poor old Cooper: not only is he improbably handsome, he’s got a great voice, and of course he’s a silver screen natural. Somebody ought to put him out of his misery… And what can I say about Lady Gaga? Well, obviously she’s got a great voice, and while no conventional beauty, her role makes her irresistible. One could think of worse things than hanging out with her for a while.
Here’s an unlikely connection: Lady Gaga (雷迪嘎嘎Léi dí gā gā in Chinese) and John Locke. The 17th century English philosopher famously argued that we come into the world a blank slate. I’d say we start out as donkeys, and that over time, education hopefully weans out our more ass-like qualities, exercising a civilizing influence on us. In other words, we know so little for so long that it’s a wonder so many of us have the arrogance to venture an opinion.
Anyway, back to Lady Gaga, who I first came across in China. At the height of her fame, back in 2010, I’d never heard of her, until one day, in some God-forsaken town in Ningxia province, where I was spending yet another summer trying to learn Chinese, I bought a few Chinese-language movies and noticed an attractive looking CD, shown above. I asked to listen to it and immediately liked it. On my return to Madrid, I told my former wife that I had discovered a great singer by the name of Lady Gaga. You can imagine her response!!!
There’s a Chinese proverb, 活到老, 学到老 huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo, which means something like: [If one] lives to an old age, [one will continue to] learn until old age. In the meantime, let’s welcome President 习近平 Xí Jìnpíng to Spain this week and listen to A Star is Born’s hit song Shallow, which pretty much sums up the depth of our understanding!