This page will contain regular updates about A Mundane Comedy, Halcyon founder Dominic Kelleher's new book, which will be published in 2023. Please see below an introductory extract.
To be a catalyst is the ambition most appropriate for those who see the world as being in constant change, and who, without thinking that they control it, wish to influence its direction - Theodore Zeldin, Intimate History of Humanity
This book is about what goes wrong in our lives, and about how we can try to make things better. This already daunting challenge is made more daunting still by the fact that, while we have an illusion of constancy, our lives are in fact characterised by continuous change, both out in the physical world and inside our heads.
Every moment of our lives, we’re changing: from our cells ageing, to the air we’re breathing, the food and water we’re consuming, the feelings we’re feeling and the thoughts we’re thinking. We’re buffeted continuously by both outer forces – the climate, the environment in which we live, how physically secure we are at a given moment - and also by our inner emotions, whether we’re feeling happy, or depressed, or at peace. And all of this change occurs at three levels – the personal (us as individuals), the organisational (our families, schools, businesses and myriad other groups) and the societal (our towns and cities, regions, countries and beyond).
Keep in view all the different dimensions of reality and focus simultaneously on the personal, the local and the universal - Theodore Zeldin, Intimate History of Humanity
I have chosen to observe these three levels of change across more than 100 different elements of our lives. Like a walker wandering through the natural world, keeping a close eye on evolving landscapes and seasons, I spent years observing these elements and how they change and interact. Growing up, I was fascinated by the Observer's Books, a series of small, pocket-sized guides that covered a variety of topics, such as art, history and wildlife. A Mundane Comedy is in a sense an Observer’s Book for our time, as it captures my most significant observations in more than 100 short chapters, each dedicated to an individual element. The nod to chemistry is deliberate, as all these elements can either be studied in isolation from one another, or in relation to one another and they can be mixed and compounded to create new reactions, just like their Periodic Table counterparts.
I have, in essence, created a commonplace book, built from fragmentary observations and then carefully layered and structured.
This is what rengas attempted: to devise a process that takes written snippets from many sources and turn them into a story. This is also what the scientific process does: to take many experiments and hypotheses from diverse groups and turn them, through institutions like peer-review, reputation and appointment, into an accumulating view of the nature of things. And it is what the market does: to take individual motivations, desires and life-plans and turn them into products. And it is even what Klee was famous for doing, taking a diversity of techniques, themes and association and assembling these into single coherent paintings - Tony Curzon Price
We are a blend of nature, the product of our genes, and nurture, the product of our environment, and we can look for solutions to our problems in both the outer realm of the physical and also in the inner realm of the metaphysical, via our emotions, ideas and values. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that people’s experience of the world is influenced more by their feelings than by objective reality.
Many meanwhile believe that there is little new under the sun, and that every problem humans face has been faced before. The more humane and imaginative of such thinkers - the likes of historian Theodore Zeldin - believe that we should help others through a combination of microscope, examining in detail individual problems and lives, and telescope, then scanning for possible solutions across all times, cultures and experiences. While drawing inspiration from Zeldin’s seminal Intimate History of Humanity, I go in a slightly different direction here, effectively operating as a “historian of the present”.
Indeed, I believe that there may be an extra dimension - akin in some respects to what the late author and mystic Terence McKenna termed novelty - which drives the creative impulse and which suggests that there is in fact plenty new under the sun, with new problems and new solutions emerging and then vanishing again in a constant dynamic. This process may even be evolutionary, as Matt Ridley, for example, suggests in The Evolution of Everything.
My approach must by definition be partial…and modest. I’m prepared for accusations of shallowness, of dilettantism, and of imbalance, given that I cover certain elements in much more depth than others. For many of the elements, this is less a fully-fledged portrait than a sketch book, but like all honest attempts at creation, it at least tries to weave the fragments into new and interesting patterns. Modesty is necessary for another reason: I am not formally “qualified” to opine on all these elements. I am not an expert on disability, nor on science, nor least of all on love, to name but three, and I’m well aware that people devote their whole lives to these single subjects, from undergraduate studies through to doctorates, professorships and beyond, or simply through years spent working in such domains. However, my life – like yours – is impacted to a greater or lesser extent by each of these elements, so I am emboldened to share my observations.
As I say, I have collected these observations along my way, as a naturalist would collect specimens, and I have then applied – again like a naturalist – a taxonomical structure to my findings. In essence, each of my chapters could have up to six sections, covering two qualitative levels – Inferno and Evolutio (see below) – and three quantitative levels, the personal, organisational and societal. I make no judgement as to which level might be better or worse, as they are all appropriate in their own context. For example, while some may be tempted to favour societal solutions over personal ones, we need to remember stories like those of Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou, whose individual achievement was only recognised after decades of obscurity, taking her finally beyond the anonymity of the collective.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves - Víctor Frankl
The fact that some of the longer chapters (climate, food, migration etc.) cover all six sections, and some of the shorter ones fewer is of little concern to me: I have collected what I have collected. Doubtless, had I walked other paths of intellect or curiosity, my collection may have looked very different. Almost certainly your own collection of observations, should you choose to collect and curate it, may look radically different from mine, as it will stem organically from your own wanderings, musings and habits.
I tip my hat to the philosophy of total perspective or of seeing things sub specie totius - a phrase supposedly inspired by Spinoza's sub specie aeternitatis – which honours those who seek to unify and humanise the great body of historical knowledge, which has grown voluminous and fragmented into esoteric specialties, and, in a phrase I like of Will Durant’s, to “vitalise it for contemporary application”.
It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You, too, are your past; often your face is your autobiography; you are what you are because of what you have been; because of your heredity stretching back into forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you, every man or woman that has met you, every book that you have read, every experience that you have had; all these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul. So with a city, a country, and a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it - Will Durant
In the spirit of Descartes, what I can at least be clear about is the evolution in my own thinking. Following years of corporate work in the relatively new organisational discipline of “Knowledge Management”, I felt a growing frustration at the limitations of trying to rely on knowledge alone to solve problems. By the turn of the new millennium, academics were already pointing to a “knowing-doing gap”, which anyone who has ever tried unsuccessfully to, say, stick to a diet, or give up smoking, will recognise – cognition cannot easily trump habit. Soon, my malaise deepened, not least because there are often huge barriers to successfully sharing knowledge, many of which I documented as lead author of the British Standard Institution’s Guide to Good Practice in Knowledge Management.
Gradually, there emerged in my mind a growing role for values in supporting knowledge’s attempt to address issues. I wanted to understand how people try to translate their values into consistent behaviours, and I began to sketch out a portfolio of services and products, including offering guidance in values good practices to organisations and individuals, and publishing research around values-driven business and personal conduct. In time, the triumvirate was completed by ideas - which in this context I take to be both (a) an openness to new and/or emerging thinking and (b) a domain of organised thought, such as education, religion or science. This led me to a simple working acronym, VIKI, to denote “values-ideas-knowledge>issues”, in which the first three are effectively tools or sets of responses that can be combined in an infinite variety of ways to address issues in, again, an infinite variety of contextually relevant ways.
The most merciful thing in the world... is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents - HP Lovecraft
A quick tangent: one value which I hold very dear in my daily life, but which I have expressly not tried to address here is humour. A day without laughing is for me a sad day, but the concept of humour has so far proved elusive to analysis by people far cleverer – and more importantly – far funnier, than I. On this point at least I defer to Wittgenstein’s adage that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent.
I take as my governing metaphor Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. However, rather than follow the pilgrim’s journey upwards from Inferno, via Purgatorio and finally into Paradiso, I bow to Stephen Jay Gould’s principle of non-overlapping magisteria and leave the paradises, the heavens, the utopias, whatever one chooses to call them. to the world’s religions. Pace Dante, I also replace Purgatorio, which may carry for many negative overtones of ongoing suffering in a cosmic waiting room, with Evolutio, which has no Darwinian connotation here, but which represents the spirit of ongoing experimentation - sometimes succeeding, often failing, but always being resilient enough to try something new - that characterises the best of human endeavour. As Bryan Appleyard said of Marilynne Robinson, “This is her faith - the world, not as a factual cul-de-sac, but as an unfolding revelation”.
So why Dante? At university I specialised in the study of Medieval Provençal and in particular, in the works of the wandering troubadours and their concept of unrequited love, amour de loinh, traces of which are present in Dante’s love for Beatrice, both a real Florentine woman and the beatific guide who takes over from the Latin poet Virgil who, as a pagan, cannot enter Paradise. However, unlike Dante, who ended up in paradise, we have no reason yet to believe that future generations will ever transcend earthly pains - not even if some eventually merge into unfeeling, transhuman automata beyond some future point of “singularity”. I contend rather that, while one can try and understand and even, on occasions, respect utopian worldviews (“heavens") or their dystopian opposites (“hells”), we are more likely to find our journey’s end where we all spend our days, in the messy, frustrating, but often beautiful evolutio of life on earth.
In his 1967 work, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, Frank Kermode argued that we live in the middle of things, or, as he puts it, “in the middest”. We stumble into life well after the party started, and are forced to leave long before it ends. Our view of time - history, the cosmos, existence as such - is necessarily limited and contingent on circumstance, and to some degree arbitrary. Still, that may not discharge us from what Roman Krznaric calls granting a rightful place to the ‘futureholders’ - the unborn, unknown citizens of the future - by becoming “good ancestors”.
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time - from Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot
I do not argue for, nor necessarily discount, a circular view of history, individual or collective, recognising that this is a central tenet of many - mainly Eastern - belief systems, but I do believe that for as long as humans are born, laugh, suffer and die, our real, at least earthbound, destination is neither Inferno nor Paradiso, but a perpetual present, the only place we can ever surely know we are, and that as Albert Camus teaches us, "the realisation that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning". Camus goes on to argue that we must face the world as the meaningless void that in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, having offered us suicide, religion or acceptance as possible responses to the absurd, Camus chose acceptance, as do I.
In terms of how to read A Mundane Comedy, there can be no prescription suitable for all. In many cases, I have structured the chapters to flow naturally from one to the next: sleep gives way to consciousness, optimism to wellbeing, identity to gender and so on, but there is no need to try and follow a single narrative thread through the book, and some readers may prefer to dip in and out of individual chapters. This book is not primarily a work of synthesis, in the style of, say, Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, although I’d be happy if readers found their own links and patterns between the elements.
The Universe has as many different centres as there are living beings in it - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Dante’s Divine Comedy is unique and belongs to the ages. My book, while inspired by this singular masterpiece, could exist in more than 7.8 billion versions, as it is simply one mundane comedy, created at just one axis mundi, one set of lenses trained upon the world. All other humans alive today each have their own set of lenses, as did the 110 billion or so who came before us, and is will the (one assumes) multitudes still to come. We each possess an infinite number of lenses - changing by the year, by the month, the day, even by the minute – which, if we were able to combine and aggregate them, would create an almost infinite kaleidoscope of our time.
I argue therefore that the most productive way to view our world is not from points of rigidity - be they of the tribal, political, religious or any other ideological kind - but through embracing fluidity and openness, and through realising that combining our individual kaleidoscopes can create an ever-evolving firework display of perspectives and experiences. We might imagine libraries – real or virtual – that not only contained all the biographies of everyone alive, or, in as far as we have records, of everyone who ever lived, but which also shed light on how they interpreted their world, their feelings, fears, loves and values. As Susan Sontag put it, intelligence is really just a kind of taste - a taste in ideas – and yours, by definition, cannot exactly match mine, although the shared nature of most of the challenges we face should ensure that the Venn diagrams of our experiences will overlap to a very large degree.
Yet this is not a relativistic, anything goes take on the world, because an author’s agency in choosing what to include and what to exclude must favour some views over others. We now know too that many of our choices – indeed our prejudices – are subconscious. Perhaps this book is therefore more an exercise in informal mindfulness, in the sense that the 100+ chapters that follow cover the elements that I have chosen to pay attention to.
For all that, my authorial approach is largely backseat, almost ghost-in-the machine, as I aim to let the observations speak for themselves, without judgement.
As the world remembered recently the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, one of the more noteworthy documentaries was entitled The Day We Walked on the Moon. The most intriguing word in this title was “we”, as it reflects the collective optimism and shared purpose visible in the faces of transfixed viewers across the world during those lunar missions, and famously reinforced by Neil Armstrong’s reference to “mankind”. Half a century on, we live in more atomised times, with seemingly fewer shared goals, yet this book argues strongly that the issues that we face, have faced and always will face are essentially the same; each of us has our own unique blend, but we are much more alike than those with vested interests in dividing us would have us believe. Indeed, if any lasting good is to come out of the pain and hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is surely this, the – for many – belated realisation of our shared humanity.
While taking its prime structural inspiration from Dante, this book also tries to follow modestly in the footsteps of Theodore Zeldin, who along with other influential recent philosophers such as Michel Foucault, has looked to the ideas and events of the past to see how they might help us live better today, and to Jacques Derrida, who believed that we live our lives without clear answers and that we should keep life’s messiness constantly in mind, and whose notion of aporia - or puzzlement - is a state that we should embrace and accept. Such thinkers exemplified the Confucian maxim that the person who reviews the old so as to find out the new is qualified to teach others. Yet, unlike Zeldin, who wrote compellingly about the “past which is alive in people’s minds today”, this is a book grounded chiefly in the present.
We might not be able to come to an agreement about who we are and what we want to be, but we can agree on what we don’t know and how we’d like to act toward this nonknowledge - Carmen Lea Dege, describing the philosophy of Karl Jaspers
So to the book’s central purpose. This mundane comedy aims to examine whether the world is really making progress and whether we can look forward to a utopian or a dystopian future, or perhaps something richer and messier between the two. Rather than strive for an aggregated, holistic view of the whole world, however, I break life down into 104 elements. The choice of 104 is deliberate: it combines 52 issues exemplifying inner change and 52 more redolent of outer change. As there are 52 weeks in a year and 52 cards in a standard deck, readers can, should they so choose, explore one element at a time, in depth, or choose a few “elemental cards” at random to compare and contrast different issues and responses.
The key questions this book addresses, often implicitly, through these 104 chapters, are:
- How can we, as individuals – even as entropy daily drives our imperfect bodies towards death and disorder – survive and thrive?
- Are organisations, as currently structured, beneficial, and if not, how can we improve them?
- Does society improve over time?
To try and answer these questions, I am in a sense attempting an exercise in deconstruction - a method for breaking life down into its simpler, component elements. We can then try to put these elements back together again, but it’s highly unlikely that we’ll reconstruct life exactly as it was before – in short, we’ll change, which can be a highly a positive experience, as deconstruction can give us new perspectives on our lives, enabling us to think more clearly about what’s really necessary.
So make of this mundane comedy what you will, and feel free to either read it from cover to cover or to dip in and out and mix and match as you see fit. Choose your metaphor: if you’re a painter, you can mix the colours; if you’re a poet, you can re-arrange the words; if you’re a chef, you can blend the ingredients; and if you’re a chemist, you can compound the elements.
Not deep the poet sees, but wide – Matthew Arnold