A won­der­ful cel­e­bra­tion of free spir­its

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Paul Monk

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

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