تسلط - بخش اولکتاب: تسلط - رابرت گرین / فصل 17
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Chapter 06: FUSE THE INTUITIVE WITH THE RATIONAL: MASTERY
All of us have access to a higher form of intelligence, one that can allow us to see more of the world, to anticipate trends, to respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance. This intelligence is cultivated by deeply immersing ourselves in a field of study and staying true to our inclinations, no matter how unconventional our approach might seem to others. Through such intense immersion over many years we come to internalize and gain an intuitive feel for the complicated components of our field. When we fuse this intuitive feel with rational processes, we expand our minds to the outer limits of our potential and are able to see into the secret core of life itself. We then come to have powers that approximate the instinctive force and speed of animals, but with the added reach that our human consciousness brings us. This power is what our brains were designed to attain, and we will be naturally led to this type of intelligence if we follow our inclinations to their ultimate ends.
THE THIRD TRANSFORMATION
For the writer Marcel Proust (1871–1922), his fate seemed set at birth. He was born incredibly small and frail; for two weeks he hovered near death, but finally pulled through. As a child, he had frequent bouts of illness that kept him at home for months at a time. When he was nine years old, he suffered his first asthma attack and nearly died. His mother, Jeanne, continuously worried about his health, doted on Marcel and accompanied him on his regular trips to the countryside to convalesce.
And it was on such trips that the pattern of his life became set. Often alone, he developed a passion for reading books. He loved to read about history, and he devoured all forms of literature. His main physical outlet was taking long walks in the country, and here certain sights seemed to captivate him. He would stop and stare for hours at apple blossoms or hawthorn flowers, or at any kind of slightly exotic plant; he found the spectacle of marching ants or spiders working on their webs particularly compelling. He would soon add books on botany and entomology to his reading list. His closest companion in these early years was his mother, and his attachment to her soon went beyond all bounds. They looked alike and shared similar interests in the arts. He could not stand to be away from her for more than a day, and in the few hours in which they were separated he would write her endless letters.
In 1886 he read a book that would forever change the course of his life. It was an historical account of the Norman conquest of England written by Augustin Thierry. The narration of events was so vivid that Marcel felt himself transported back in time. The writer alluded to certain timeless laws of human nature that were revealed in this story, and the possibility of uncovering such laws made Marcel’s head spin with excitement. Entomologists could discover the hidden principles that governed the behavior of insects. Could a writer do the same with humans and their complicated nature? Captivated by Thierry’s ability to make history come to life, it came to Marcel in a flash that this would be his Life’s Task—to become a writer and illuminate the laws of human nature. Haunted by the sense that he would not live long, he would have to hurry this process and do all that he could to develop his writing powers.
At school in Paris, where he lived, Marcel impressed his classmates with his strangeness. He had read so much that his head was teeming with ideas; he would talk about history, ancient Roman literature, and the social life of bees all in the same conversation. He would mix the past and the present, talking about a Roman writer as if he were alive, or describing a friend of theirs as if he were a character from history. His large eyes, which a friend later compared to that of a fly, would seem to bore right into the person he was talking to. In his letters to friends, he could dissect their emotions and problems with such exactitude that it was unnerving, but then he would direct his attention to himself as well, mercilessly exposing his own weaknesses. Despite his propensity for being alone, he was incredibly sociable and a real charmer. He knew how to flatter and ingratiate himself. No one could quite figure him out or gain any sense of what the future might hold for such an oddball.
In 1888 Marcel met a thirty-seven-year-old courtesan named Laure Hayman, who was the mistress of his uncle, among many others, and for him it was instant infatuation. She was like a character out of a novel. Her clothes, her coquettish manner, her power over men fascinated him. Charming her with his witty conversation and polite manners, they quickly became close friends. In France there had long been the tradition of salons—gatherings where people of like mind discussed literary and philosophical ideas. In most cases women ran these various salons, and depending on the social status of the hostess, they could attract important artists, thinkers, and political figures. Laure had her own infamous salon, frequented by artists, bohemians, actors, and actresses. Soon Marcel became a regular.
He found the social life in these upper echelons of French society endlessly fascinating. It was a world full of subtle signs—an invitation to a ball, or the particular seating position at a dinner table would indicate the status of an individual, whether they were on the rise or the decline. Clothes and gestures and certain phrases of conversation would lead to endless critiques and judgments about people. He wanted to explore this realm and learn all of its intricacies. The attention he used to direct toward history and literature he now directed toward the world of high society. He inveigled his way into other salons, and was soon mingling with upper aristocracy.
Although he was determined to become a writer, Marcel had never been able to figure out what he wanted to write about, and this had troubled him to no end. Now, however, he had his answer: this social world would be the ant colony that he would analyze as ruthlessly as an entomologist. For this purpose he began to collect characters for novels. One such character was the Count Robert de Montesquiou, a poet, aesthete, and notorious decadent who had a pronounced weakness for handsome young men. Another was Charles Haas, the epitome of high-society chicness and an expert art collector who couldn’t help falling in love with lower-class women. He studied these characters, listened intently to their way of talking, followed their mannerisms, and in his notebooks he would try to bring them to life in small literary sketches. In his writing, Marcel was a master mimic.
Everything he wrote about had to be something real, something he had witnessed or experienced firsthand; otherwise, his writing came out lifeless. His own fear of intimate personal relationships, however, presented him with a problem. Attracted to both men and women, he tended to keep his distance when it came to any type of close physical and emotional relationship. This made it hard for him to write about romance and love from the inside. So he initiated a practice that served him well. If he were attracted to a particular woman, he would befriend her fiancé or boyfriend and, gaining his trust, would probe him for the most intimate details about their relationship. Since he was such an acute psychologist he could give excellent advice. Later, in his own mind, he would completely reconstruct the affair, feeling as deeply as possible the ups and downs, the bouts of jealousy, as if it were all happening to him. He would do this with either gender.
Marcel’s father, a prominent doctor, began to despair for his son. Marcel would attend parties all night, return late in the morning, and sleep through the day. To fit in with high society, he was spending vast amounts of money. He seemed to have no discipline and no real career aspirations. With his health problems and his mother always spoiling him, his father feared Marcel would be a failure and a continuous burden. He tried to push him into a career. Marcel placated him as best he could—one day he told his father he would study law; the next day he talked of getting a job as a librarian. But in truth, he was banking everything on the publication of his first book, Pleasures and Days. It would be a collection of stories and sketches of the society he had infiltrated. Like Thierry with the Norman Conquest, he would make this world come to life. With the success of this book, he would win over his father and all the other doubters. To ensure its success and make it into more than a book, Pleasures and Days would feature the beautiful drawings of a high-society lady he had befriended, and it would be printed on the finest paper.
After numerous delays, the book was finally published in 1896. Although many of the reviews were positive, they kept referring to the writing as exquisite and delicate, implying a sort of superficiality to the work. More disturbing, the book hardly sold. Considering the printing costs it was an enormous financial fiasco, and the public image of Marcel Proust became permanently cemented—he was an elegant dandy, a snob who wrote of the only world he knew, a young man who had no practical sense, a social butterfly who dabbled in literature. It was an embarrassment and it demoralized him.
The family pressures to finally choose a career now grew intense. Still confident in his skills, he decided the only answer was to write another novel, but one that would be the opposite of Pleasures and Days. It would be much longer and weightier than the first book. In it he would mix childhood memories and recent social experiences. It would depict the lives of all classes of people and an entire period in French history. It could not be seen as superficial. But as the novel became longer and longer, he could not figure out how to make it cohere into something logical, or even into something resembling a story. He found himself getting lost in the immensity of his ambition, and despite having written hundreds of pages, by the end of 1899 he gave up the project.
He began to grow increasingly depressed and despondent. He was tired of the salons and mingling with the rich. He had no career, no position to rely upon; nearing thirty years of age, he was still living at home, dependent on his parents for money. He felt constantly anxious about his health, certain he was doomed to die within a few years. He heard endless stories of his friends from school becoming prominent members of society, with growing families of their own. In comparison he felt like a total failure. All that he had accomplished was a few articles in newspapers about high society and a book that had made him the laughingstock of Paris. The only thing he could rely on was the continued devotion of his mother.
In the midst of his despair he had an idea. For several years he had been devouring the works of the English art critic and thinker John Ruskin. He would teach himself English and translate Ruskin’s work into French. This would require years of scholarly research into the various topics Ruskin specialized in, such as gothic architecture. It would consume much of his time, and he would have to put off any ideas of writing a novel. But it would show his parents that he was serious about making a living and that he had chosen a career. Clinging to this as his last hope, he poured himself into the task with all of his energy.
After several years of intense labor, a few of his translations of Ruskin were published to great acclaim. His introductions and the essays that accompanied the translations finally erased the reputation of the idle dilettante that had haunted him since Pleasures and Days. He was seen as a serious scholar. Through his work, he had managed to hone his own style of writing; internalizing the work of Ruskin, he could now write essays that were thoughtful and precise. He had finally gained some discipline, something to build on. But in the midst of this modest success, his network of emotional support suddenly teetered and then vanished. In 1903 his father died. Two years later his mother, unable to get over the loss, passed away as well. They had hardly ever been apart from each other, and he had dreaded the moment of her death since childhood. He felt completely alone, and he feared that he had nothing left to live for.
In the months to come he slowly withdrew from society, and as he took stock of his life up to that point he discerned a pattern that actually gave him the faintest amount of hope. To compensate for his physical weakness he had taken to reading, and in the process had discovered his Life’s Task. Over the course of the last twenty years he had accumulated a vast amount of knowledge about French society—an incredibly wide variety of real-life characters of all types and classes lived inside of his head. He had written thousands of pages—including the failed novel, short sketches for newspapers, and various essays. Using Ruskin as a mentor, in translating his works he had developed discipline and some organizing skills. He had long thought of life as an apprenticeship in which we are all slowly instructed in the ways of the world. Some people learn to read the signs and heed the lessons from this apprenticeship, developing themselves in the process; others do not. He had served an elaborate twenty-year apprenticeship in writing and in human nature, and it had altered him deeply. Despite his ill health and his failures, he had never given up. This must mean something—perhaps a destiny of sorts. All of his failures had a purpose, he decided, if he knew how to exploit them. His time had not been wasted.
What he needed to do was to put all of this knowledge to work. This meant returning to the novel that had continually eluded him. What it would be about—the plot, the narrator’s voice—he still had no idea. The material was all there in his head. If in his loneliness he could not bring back his mother or his childhood or his youth, he would somehow re-create these things in their entirety, here in the study of his apartment where he now holed himself up. What mattered was to get to work. Something would come of it.
In the fall of 1908 he purchased dozens of notebooks, the kind he used to use in school, and began to fill them with notes. He wrote essays on aesthetics, sketches of characters, childhood memories that he strained to recall. And as he went deep into this process, he felt a change within himself. Something clicked. He did not know where it came from, but a voice emerged, his own voice, which would be that of the narrator himself. The story would revolve around a young man who becomes too neurotically attached to his mother and cannot forge his own identity. He discovers that he wants to be a writer, but he cannot figure out what he should write about. As he grows up, he starts to explore the two social realms of bohemia and landed aristocracy. He dissects the various people he meets, uncovering the essence of their characters that lies underneath their superficial social personalities. He has several failed love affairs in which he suffers the extremes of jealousy. After numerous adventures and a creeping sense of failure as he advances in life, at the very end of the novel he discovers what he wants to write—it will be the book that we have just been reading.
The novel would be called In Search of Lost Time, and in the end it would recount much of Proust’s own life, all of the various characters he knew disguised under different names. In the course of the narration he would cover the entire history of France from the moment he was born to the present, whatever the present was. It would be a portrait of society as a whole; he would be the entomologist uncovering the laws that governed the behavior of all the inhabitants of the anthill. His only concern now was his health. The task ahead of him was immense. Would he live long enough to complete it?
Over the course of several years, he finished the first part of the book, known as Swann’s Way. It was published in 1913, and the reviews were extremely positive. No one had ever read a novel quite like it. It seemed that Proust had created his own genre—part novel, part essay. But as he was making plans for the final half of the book, war broke out across Europe and the publishing business essentially ground to a halt. Proust continued working on the novel unremittingly, but as he did so, something strange happened—the book kept expanding in size and scope, one volume after the next. His method of working was partially responsible for this increase. He had collected over the years thousands of bits of stories, characters, lessons on life, laws of psychology that he slowly pieced together in the novel, like tiles of a mosaic. He could not foresee the end.
And as the book grew in size, it suddenly assumed a different form—real life and the novel became inextricably interwoven. When he needed a new character, a wealthy debutante for instance, he would hunt down her equivalent in society and get himself invited to balls and soirées where he could study her. Phrases she used would find their way into the book. One evening, he reserved several boxes at the theater for his friends. In these boxes he gathered the real-life people upon whom he had based his characters. Later they attended a dinner, and around the table he could observe, like a chemist, the various elements of his book, there before his eyes. None of them of course knew what was going on. Everything became material for him—not only the past, but present events and encounters would suddenly suggest a new idea or direction.
When he wished to write about the particular plants and flowers that had obsessed him as a boy, he would drive to the country and spend hours lost in observation, trying to get at the essence of their uniqueness and at what had fascinated him, so he could recreate the original sensation for the reader. Fictionalizing the Count de Montesquiou as a character named Charlus, a notorious homosexual, he visited the most secretive male brothels in Paris that the count was known to frequent. His book had to be as real as possible, including graphic sex scenes. For things he could not personally witness, he would pay others to supply him gossip, information, even do some spying. As the book grew in length and intensity, he had the sensation that this social realm he was depicting had come alive within him, and feeling it from the inside, it would flow out of him with increasing ease. He had a metaphor to explain this sensation, which he included in the novel—he was like a spider sitting on its web, feeling the slightest vibration, knowing it so deeply as the world he had created and mastered.
After the war Proust’s book continued to be published, one volume after another. Critics were completely astounded at the depth and breadth of his work. He had created, or rather recreated, an entire world. But this was not simply a realistic novel, for much of the work included discourses on art, psychology, the secrets of memory, and the workings of the brain itself. Proust had delved so deeply into his own psychology that he had made discoveries about memory and the unconscious that seemed uncannily accurate. Going through volume after volume, readers would have the sensation that they were actually living and experiencing this world from within, the narrator’s thoughts becoming one’s own thoughts—the boundaries between narrator and reader disappearing. It was a magical effect; it felt like life itself.
Straining to finish the final volume, the point at which the narrator would be finally able to write the novel we have been reading, Proust was in a hurry. He could feel his energy waning and death approaching. All through the publishing process, he would make the publishers stop the printing, as some new incident he had personally witnessed had to be included in the book. Now, sensing himself near death, he made his female attendant take some final notes. He finally understood how it felt to be dying, and he had to rewrite a previous deathbed scene—it was not psychologically real enough. He died two days later, never to see the full seven volumes in print.
KEYS TO MASTERY
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui…. “Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!” Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.”
—CHUANG TZU, ANCIENT CHINESE WRITER, FOURTH CENTURY B.C.
Throughout history we read of Masters in every conceivable form of human endeavor describing a sensation of suddenly possessing heightened intellectual powers after years of immersion in their field. The great chess Master Bobby Fischer spoke of being able to think beyond the various moves of his pieces on the chessboard; after a while he could see “fields of forces” that allowed him to anticipate the entire direction of the match. For the pianist Glenn Gould, he no longer had to focus on notes or parts of the music he was playing, but instead saw the entire architecture of the piece and could express it. Albert Einstein suddenly was able to realize not just the answer to a problem, but a whole new way of looking at the universe, contained in a visual image he intuited. The inventor Thomas Edison spoke of a vision he had for illuminating an entire city with electric light, this complex system communicated to him through a single image.
In all of these instances, these practitioners of various skills described a sensation of seeing more. They were suddenly able to grasp an entire situation through an image or an idea, or a combination of images and ideas. They experienced this power as intuition, or a fingertip feel.
Considering the power such intelligence can bring us, and the tremendous contributions to culture made by Masters who possess it, it would seem logical that such high-level intuition would be the subject of countless books and discussions, and that the form of thinking that goes with it would be elevated into an ideal for all of us to aim at. But oddly enough, this is not at all the case. This form of intelligence is either ignored, relegated to the inexplicable realms of the mystical and occult, or ascribed to genius and genetics. Some even try to debunk this type of power in general, claiming that these Masters are exaggerating their experiences, and that their so-called intuitive powers are nothing more than extended forms of normal thinking, based on superior knowledge.
The reason for this overall disregard is simple: we humans have come to recognize only one form of thinking and intelligence—rationality. Rational thinking is sequential by nature. We see a phenomenon A, and we deduce a cause B, and maybe anticipate a reaction C. In all cases of rational thinking, we can reconstruct the various steps that were taken to arrive at some kind of conclusion or answer. This form of thinking is extremely effective and has brought us great powers. We developed it to help make sense of our world and to gain some control over it. The process that people go through when they arrive at an answer through rational analysis can generally be examined and verified, which is why we esteem it so highly. We prefer things that can be reduced to a formula and described in precise words. But the types of intuitions discussed by various Masters cannot be reduced to a formula, and the steps they took to arrive at them cannot be reconstructed. We cannot go inside the mind of Albert Einstein and experience his sudden grasp of the nature of the relativity of time. And because we recognize rationality as the only legitimate form of intelligence, these experiences of “seeing more” must either be forms of rational thinking that just happen faster, or are simply miraculous by nature.
The problem we are facing here is that high-level intuition, the ultimate sign of mastery, involves a process that is qualitatively different from rationality, but is even more accurate and perceptive. It accesses deeper parts of reality. It is a highly legitimate type of intelligence, but one that has to be understood in its own right. And in understanding it, we can begin to see that such power is not miraculous, but intrinsically human and accessible to us all.
Let us try to make sense of this form of thinking by examining how it might operate in two very different forms of knowledge—the life sciences and warfare.
If we were to study a particular animal in order to understand it, we would break up our analysis into several parts. We would study its various organs, brain, and anatomical structure in order to see how it has adapted differently from other animals to its environment. We would study its behavior patterns, how it gathers food, and its mating rituals. We would look at how it functions within an ecosystem. In this way, we would be able to piece together an accurate picture of this animal, covering it from all angles. With warfare, we would go through a similar process, breaking it up into parts—field maneuvers, weaponry, logistics, strategy. Having deep knowledge of these subjects, we could analyze the results of a battle and come to some interesting conclusions; or, with some field experience, we could lead an army into battle and do an effective job.
In taking these analyses as far as possible, however, something is inevitably missing. An animal is not merely the sum of its parts that we can understand by adding them up. It has its own experience and emotions, which play an enormous role in its behavior, but which are elements we cannot see or measure. It has its own highly complex interactions with the environment that become distorted when we break them up into parts. The animal’s continuously fluid, dimensional interaction with its environment is also something that is not visible to our eyes. With warfare, once battle is engaged, we become susceptible to what is known as the fog of war—the highly unpredictable element that comes into play when two opposing forces square up and nothing can be precisely anticipated. The situation is continuously fluid, as one side reacts to the other and the unexpected intervenes. This battle in real time has an interactive, changing element that cannot be reduced to its parts or to simple analysis, and is not something we can see and measure.
This unseen element that constitutes the animal’s entire experience, and that makes battle a fluid, organic entity, can be called various things. To the ancient Chinese, who understood this very well, it was known as the Tao or Way, and this Way inhabits everything in the world and is embedded in the relationships between things. The Way is visible to the expert—in cooking, carpentry, warfare, or philosophy. We shall call it the dynamic, the living force that inevitably operates in anything we study or do. It is how the whole thing functions, and how the relationships evolve from within. It is not the moves of the pieces on the chessboard but the entire game, involving the psychologies of the players, their strategies in real time, their past experiences influencing the present, the comfort of the chairs they are sitting in, how their energies affect each other—in a word, everything that comes into play, all at once.
Through intense absorption in a particular field over a long period of time, Masters come to understand all of the parts involved in what they are studying. They reach a point where all of this has become internalized and they are no longer seeing the parts, but gain an intuitive feel for the whole. They literally see or sense the dynamic. In the living sciences, we have the example of Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees in the wilds of East Africa for years as she lived among them. Interacting with them constantly, she reached a point where she began to think like a chimpanzee, and could see elements of their social life that no other scientist had come close to fathoming. She gained an intuitive feel for not only how they functioned as individuals but as a group, which is an inseparable part of their lives. She made discoveries about the social life of chimpanzees that forever altered our conception of the animal, and that are no less scientific for depending on this deep level of intuition.
In warfare, we can point to the great German general Erwin Rommel, who was said to possess the highest form of the fingertip feel ever chronicled in the history of battle. He could sense exactly where the enemy was thinking of striking and foil their plans; he could launch an offensive at precisely the weak point in their lines of defense. He seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, and oracular powers for reading the future. He did all of this in the deserts of North Africa where it was nearly impossible to get any clear sense of the terrain. Rommel’s power, however, was not occult in nature. He simply had a much deeper knowledge than other generals of all of the aspects of battle. He constantly flew over the desert in his own plane, gaining a bird’s-eye feel for the terrain. He was a trained mechanic, and so had a complete knowledge of his tanks and what he could expect of them. He studied in depth the psychology of the opposing army and its generals. He interacted with almost all of his soldiers, and had a clear sense of how far he could push them. Whatever he studied, he did so with incredible intensity and depth. A point was reached where all of these details became internalized. They fused together in his brain, giving him a feel for the whole picture and a sense of this interactive dynamic.
The ability to have this intuitive grasp of the whole and feel this dynamic is simply a function of time. Since it has been shown that the brain is literally altered after approximately 10,000 hours of practice, these powers would be the result of a transformation that happens in the brain after some 20,000 hours and beyond. With this much practice and experience, all kinds of connections have been formed in the brain between different forms of knowledge. Masters thus have a sense of how everything interacts organically, and they can intuit patterns or solutions in an instant. This fluid form of thinking does not occur through a step-by-step process, but rather comes in flashes and insights as the brain makes sudden connections between disparate forms of knowledge, causing us to sense the dynamic in real time.
Some people like to imagine that such intuitions do operate sequentially, but simply happen too fast for the thinker to see the steps. This reasoning comes from the desire to reduce every form of intelligence to the same rational level. But with a discovery like the theory of simple relativity, if Albert Einstein himself could not begin to reconstruct the steps in retrospect that led to his insight on the relativity of time, then why should it be imagined that such steps exist? We must trust the experience and descriptions of these Masters, all people with high levels of self-awareness and analytical skills.
It would be a misconception, however, to imagine that Masters are simply following their intuitions and moving beyond rational thinking. First, it is through all of their hard work, the depth of their knowledge, and the development of their analytical skills that they reach this higher form of intelligence. Second, when they experience this intuition or insight, they invariably subject it to a high degree of reflection and reasoning. In science, they must spend months or years verifying their intuitions. In the arts, they must work out the ideas that come to them intuitively and rationally shape them into a form. This is hard for us to imagine, because we find intuition and rationality mutually exclusive, but in fact at this high level they operate together in a seamless fashion. The reasoning of Masters is guided by intuition; their intuition springs from intense rational focus. The two are fused.
Although time is the critical factor in attaining Mastery and this intuitive feel, the time we are talking about is not neutral or simply quantitative. An hour of Einstein’s thinking at the age of sixteen does not equal an hour spent by an average high school student working on a problem in physics. It is not a matter of studying a subject for twenty years, and then emerging as a Master. The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.
The key, then, to attaining this higher level of intelligence is to make our years of study qualitatively rich. We don’t simply absorb information—we internalize it and make it our own by finding some way to put this knowledge to practical use. We look for connections between the various elements we are learning, hidden laws that we can perceive in the apprenticeship phase. If we experience any failures or setbacks, we do not quickly forget them because they offend our self-esteem. Instead we reflect on them deeply, trying to figure out what went wrong and discern whether there are any patterns to our mistakes. As we progress, we start to question some of the assumptions and conventions we have learned along the way. Soon, we begin to experiment and become increasingly active. At all points in the various moments leading to mastery, we attack with intensity. Every moment, every experience contains deep lessons for us. We are continuously awake, never merely going through the motions.
The person who best exemplifies this usage of time for mastery is Marcel Proust, whose great novel, In Search of Lost Time, concerns this very subject. In French the word for “lost” is perdu, which equally means “wasted.” And to Proust, and to many of those who knew him as a young man, he seemed the least likely person ever to attain mastery, because on the surface he appeared to waste so much valuable time. All he ever seemed to do was read books, take walks, write interminable letters, attend parties, sleep during the day, and publish frothy society articles. When he finally applied himself to translating Ruskin, he took an incredibly long time and involved himself in seemingly irrelevant tasks, like traveling to locations Ruskin described, something no other translator would think of doing.
Proust himself complained endlessly about the time that he had wasted as a young man and how little he had accomplished, but these complaints cannot be taken at face value, because he never gave up. Despite his physical weakness and bouts of depression, he continued to try new endeavors and kept widening the scope of his knowledge. He was tireless and tenacious. These moments of self-doubt were his way of propelling himself forward and reminding himself of the short amount of time remaining to him. He had a deep awareness of a sense of destiny, of an overall purpose for his strangeness, that he was called to fulfill through his writing.
What made those twenty years qualitatively different from those of an ordinary person was the intensity of his attention. He did not simply read books—he took them apart, rigorously analyzed them, and learned valuable lessons to apply to his own life. All of this reading implanted in his brain various styles that would enrich his own writing style. He did not merely socialize—he strained to understand people at their core and to uncover their secret motivations. He did not just analyze his own psychology, but went so deeply into the various levels of consciousness he found within himself that he developed insights about the functioning of memory that foreshadowed many discoveries in neuroscience. He did not merely translate, but strove to inhabit the mind of Ruskin himself. In the end, he even used the death of his mother to intensify his development. With her gone, he would have to write himself out of his depression, and find a way to re-create the feelings between them in the book he was to write. As he later described it, all of these experiences were like seeds, and once he had started his novel he was like a gardener tending and cultivating the plants that had taken root so many years before.
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