30. THE RUDIMENTS OF BEING CIVILIZED
Though I had a university education, even a graduate degree; though I had some skills in art and music; and though I could write and articulate my ideas, none of that was enough. There was an emptiness I felt...something was missing...I wanted my life to blossom and flower.
I was determined to lead a quality life...a life of goodness rather than selfishness, to pursue excellence rather than material pleasure, and to create and surround myself with beauty...however humble.
But where to begin...?
THE RUDIMENTS OF BEING CIVILIZED
I told Alain of my dilemma. This percolated between us for some time...days, weeks...I don't remember. He said he would think about it. Then one morning after we finished breakfast, I reminded him once again; Alain had me bring my typewriter to the table and said we would start...
One idea came after another...I just typed. Alain would hesitate, ponder, seemingly pull an idea from thin air, and then continue...and I continued typing. I had no idea where this might be going, but it was interesting. It was a three-page+, single-spaced crash course in culture and civilization---two words that raise suspicion, if not scorn, since the 1970s.
Though yellowed and worn, these pages reveal the intensity and thoroughness with which we embarked on this project. And I've kept them all these fifty years.
It was all extemporaneously reeled off...I just kept typing. The ink additions were done after it was typed but at the same session, as Alain thought of subjects and works that might be added.
This adventure was subtitled: 'An informal outline and not to be taken in any specific order.' Alain then quickly dictated a list of books, authors, subjects, works of art and pieces of music, museums, and so on, that I should be familiar with.
And I continued typing...
Not only was all this a part of Alain's humor...more importantly it was a nudge to show me how I should go about educating myself and becoming 'civilized'---taking nothing for granted---no matter how much I think or assume I know. Humility is at the core.
And I just kept typing...
Alain ended with a series of questions for me to ponder. For example:
- What is goodness and friendship?
- What is the importance of money?
- What is maturity?
- Which are the elements in my life---physical and psychological---that are not cleared up or are not satisfactory? What are you going to do about it...and how? (This question includes everything from such trivial matters as the buttons missing from my shirt to the relationship between me and my parents.)
- What does it mean to waste time?
- What is the essence of elegance, style, grace, and nobility, and are these qualities separable from each other?
- What has all this got to do with religion?
He then listed a series of things for me to do and actions for me to take:
- Write an essay explaining how one would go about:
- Discovering what needs to be learned,
- Learning it.
(Renoir's teacher is reputed to have said to him, 'You're painting as if it were a game,' and Renoir is said to have replied, 'That's right, and when it ceases to be a game I shall cease to paint.')
All this started the ball rolling. Some of it I continued to pursue, some of it I let drop.
For example, Debrett's Peerage had absolutely no relevance to my life, or to my values. I wasn't in the least interested in the lineage or pedigree of aristocratic families, or to whom one should bow or curtsy.
What mattered to me were those remarkable individuals who actually produced something of value...Socrates, Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Cezanne, Bach, Beethoven, Newton, Einstein, Casals, Horowitz, Frank Lloyd Wright, and on and on...who created and revealed things of beauty, insight, for us all. I could care less about titles. Class, wealth, and pedigree meant nothing to me.
I took what I needed...and ignored what I didn't.
There is much on this list that I've never read, probably never will. It hasn't seemed necessary. And there are a number of things I've added...or would add. But the spirit of the endeavor remains with me, and the poignant questions it asks are still on my mind.
And that magic morning together, laughing...yet serious and pondering...I've never forgotten.
I feel fortunate to have had such remarkable and generous mentors. They, in a 'practical' sense, had nothing personal to gain; they simply had a passion for 'lighting fires' and for sharing their insight.
And I was a grateful recipient.