It’s an odd sensation, on land at least, to be cut off from mobile phone reception and wifi in rural France. In the air or out at sea, it feels less alien and anxiety provoking — for now, at least. In time, perhaps not. A small window of time (in the quiet of the night) and space (in the living room by the rustic kitchen) for connectivity is both welcome (for family news) and unsettling (for the intrusion of the unrelenting bus(i/y)ness of the world.
Day 1 began with Ahmad providing a background to the genesis of Culturistan. Inspired by his fellowship at the Aspen Institute, Culturistan differs in a few key ways — it is considerably shorter, more age-inclusive, and driven by process rather than results. Whereas the Aspen fellowship culminates in a project that improves life for a specific group of people, Culturistan is designed for the longer, and more intangible, term. Hence the blogging requirement, which aims to document the day-to-day process of discovery and reflection.
A series of ice-breakers came next, the first of which involved teams of two, with one person leading his/her blindfolded partner through a Post-It minefield. Of course, Ahmad made every effort to thwart our progress, particularly singling out Greg and myself by strewing ever more fuschia Post-Its in our path. Next came an exercise in active listening to new partners introduce themselves, and then recounting, on their behalf, those introductions to the rest of the group.
The discussions on the readings were somber, reflective affairs. Mario de Andrade’s ‘My Soul has a Hat’ challenged our ideas of wanting to be the fisherman from the Check-In readings. Suddenly, we were in a hurry. A ‘hurry to live with the intensity that only maturity can give’ and a jolting revelation: ‘We have two lives and the second begins when you realize you have only one.’
The second reading comprised Letters I, VII, and IX from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. Mixed feelings from the gang on these, from the sincerity and value of Rilke’s advice to the development of a more honest, mutually revealing conversation between Rilke and the young poet over the course of the letters. Here, we saw Rilke shift from being a benevolent expert and authority figure keeping a studied distance, to be more introspective, if not reflexive pen pal. In the VIIth letter before taking a turn, arguably, in the IXth to a kind of mild exasperation with his ‘dear Mr. Kappus’, Rilke writes, ‘If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches…perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys.’ More fundamentally, we might choose to live our lives according to the principle ‘that we must always trust in the difficult’ such that ‘what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.’ Indeed, ‘Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.’
Our discussion ended with the third reading, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, by George Orwell, powerful for its unvarnished depiction of how the circumstances of empire and mutual expectations about order and spectacle drives a perverse logic with inevitable consequences, all for Orwell, a sub-divisional police officer in Moulmein, lower Burma, to ‘avoid looking like a fool.’