A wonderful celebration of free spirits
ROMAN Krznaric’s grandmother Naomi, he tells us, was born the daughter of a Moldovan rabbi, fled across Eurasia to Manchuria, begged her way to Shanghai, took ship to Australia and lived out her life in Sydney a fervent communist, a nudist and a vegetarian. Heterodoxy, you might say, was his inheritance.
In The Wonder Box, he has distilled this inheritance in a beautiful and generous way. It is a beautifully lucid book of provocations to freedom of mind and spirit.
Unlike the mass of self-help, psychology or spirituality books, The Wonder Box is based on history, rather than abstract or newfangled ideas. It offers practical examples of what has been done before and is being done now to make life more hands-on, creative and adventurous. Moreover, the author has lived his wisdom. He has learned handicrafts, worked and researched among the poor and downtrodden, lived in different countries and helped found the School of Life in London. And he writes in a most engaging, down-toearth manner, without fear or favour; but also without humbug or pretension.
His keynote is a call to be bold. One could be reading Kant (‘‘To be wise, be bold’’), Emerson (‘‘Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment’’) or Nietzsche (‘‘Live dangerously!’’), but Krznaric is more accessible and more practical than those writers. His is a handbook for the common citizen, more than a clarion call for heroes.
Indeed, quite often he argues that the cults of genius and celebrity are destructive of our common humanity and that we would be well advised to lay them aside and cultivate our skills and aspirations without much regard to them. The idea is not to be overawed and thus, perhaps, paralysed by a sense of inadequacy or fate; but to be active and engaged and freespirited.
The book is neatly structured and covers so much everyday ground so thoughtfully one could almost urge: ‘‘ Read this book a chapter at a time, a week at a time, and let its reflective observations slowly fertilise the way you see your life. Above all, don’t rush through it.’’ The preface and epilogue are transparent and concise. In between, the book has four parts, each with three chapters: Nurturing Relationships (Love, Family, Empathy), Making a Living (Work, Time, Money), Discovering the World (Senses, Travel, Nature), Breaking Conventions (Belief, Creativity, Deathstyle).
Almost like an opera, it begins with love and ends with death. But it isn’t operatic in style. It is earthy and literate in an old-fashioned style, iconoclastic and realistic. It throws light into the world of personal fulfilment and issues a call to ethical action on a global context.
Above all, Krznaric counsels, free yourself of idols, dogmas, unexamined prejudices and timid conformity. He holds up a refreshing diversity of human beings as examples, rather than pushing an ideological line that many of us would have found hectoring and tiresome. He certainly holds up Galileo as a champion of liberating iconoclasm, but his use of Galileo’s exploration of the starry sky as a metaphor is the key to his appreciation of the matter: What does Galileo’s story mean for the art of living today? Unlike Galileo, most of us never even raise the telescope. We do not turn our gaze towards that which might challenge our long held beliefs or lifestyle choices . . . But if we want to have a Galilean revolution in our own lives, we need to decide where to point the telescope.
I love his reflections on Jiddu Krishnamurti, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Schweitzer and so many others, but no example of imagination and daring in the book made a deeper impression on me than that of Philippe Petit, the juggler and high-wire artist who walked, ran and even danced on a high wire between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, on August 7, 1974.
Asked why he had done it, Petit told police, ‘‘ When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.’’ What an extraordinary and side-splitting bon mot — and how intimidating to those of us who lack the skill
Frenchman Philippe Petit astounded the world by walking a tightrope between the twin tower