You must change your life


I went to Kenya when I was younger and we’d go on these night-time game drives, chasing after animals in the dark. In the headlights of the truck we could see the hind legs of creatures jumping out of the way of tyres, and the dry plants of the bush moving like a flick-book in the light.

If you stopped the engine and turned off the lights you had to confront all that space, land that just did its thing in the darkness and silence, regardless of you. Such experiences are disconcerting because humans always think they’re so instrumental to existence, to anything’s existence. But the dark makes you realise that small worlds are revolving without you, and animal dramas are playing out, and earth is shifting.


It was strange to hear that utter silence, to understand you were tiny, you were tiny enough to be nothing. But still, we confront ourselves as well as the world around us, we confront our lives. Is it panning out the way you thought it would? Are you happy? Do you have everything you want? We have to absorb ourselves in ourselves, even though vast plains and large galaxies exist out there. A conflict: we’re tiny and we’re all we have.

Certain landscapes give you quiet, a space to contemplate. If you try and sit quietly in the city you know that there is always noise, that you cannot rely on silence to give you peace. What I have been thinking about recently is that under noise there must be silence, in a similar way how life continues in the darkness – we just can’t see it. It’s comforting: it makes quiet accessible inside yourself. I once read a very strange book by a writer called Sara Maitland called A Book of Silence, which is a memoir about a slow, quiet (personal) revolution. As a long-time student of silence she says that it has a sound, it’s kind of like a sssssssshhhhhhh (try and get your head around that.) If silence makes a sound then if you listen hard enough, sometimes you can hear it.


I came across the poem below, Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke, in Ali Smith’s brilliant Artful. She says:

“the ‘you’ of the poem becomes not just the seen thing instead of the art, but something seen so utterly, so wholly, that ‘there is no place that does not see you’. It’s this being seen (met in the act of looking) – the exchange that happens when art and human meet – that results in the pure urgency for transformation.”

The pure urgency for transformation. I think about this poem in art galleries when I stand and look at something and minutes go by. I think about the last line whenever I feel “clarity” about a desired change. In Hollywood films and lazy literature, transformations are whole and permanent and pre-cursored by a montage and a lightbulb moment, where everything falls into place. Real life is more piecemeal and change is long: you realise things and then they don’t seem true anymore, or you change your mind, or you keep forgetting, or you don’t listen deeply to what’s under the noise, or you do but you cannot hear it. Most people rarely make big leaps; it’s often only when you look back at longer passages of time that you see the big themes emerging. Sometimes you wonder: are wheels turning, in places you can’t see them?

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke


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