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“Ten Foot Square Hut” is universally acclaimed to be one of the great masterpieces of Japanese literature. It is also an autobiography of a man who spent fifteen years of his life inhabiting a space that was just 3 metres square. Kamo no Chomei was born in an opulent family and initially led a life of grandeur. Bequeathed a large estate by his grandmother, Chomei lacked for nothing. However indiscriminate friendships and ill advised monetary dealings led him to financial ruin. His fall from grace and means was so steep that he was forced to construct a hut with his own bare hands and forage for food on a daily basis. His ‘abode’ was an isolated land’s end near the hills of Toyama. Rotting leaves nestled on the roof while moss sprouted out the floor. He lay down every night on a pile of bracken and the hut was bereft of even a single piece of furniture. However it was in such abject poverty that Chomei found wealth. It was sitting in such sparse and harsh environs that he composed his mesmerising work. When he says “I love my little hut, my simple dwelling”, the reader can almost visualise a man clad in tattered rags yet wearing a contended disposition; a man living in utter darkness yet exuding a beatific aura.
“A Simpler Life” an upcoming work from the house “The School of Life” is a primer on how to lead an uncomplicated life. The School of Life is a global organisation that has as its objective the furtherance of efforts expended in leading fulfilled lives. Lest the reader be misguided, “A Simpler Life” does not advocate abdication of all material riches and retreating to the confines of a meagre dwelling a la Chomei. It does however encourage its readers to embrace a concept known as “voluntary poverty”. Even though the term reads novel, it’s practice has stood the test of time and temptation. The Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519-430 BC) was disgusted by a devious and materialistic world. Substituting palatial mansions for a plough, Cincinnatus retired to a life of idyllic farming. Even when Rome was threatened by external aggression, Cincinnatus briefly returned to his erstwhile world, staved off the threat before fleeing back to his isolated farm. A more contemporaneous example is that of the late Canadian artist Agnes Martin. In spite of churning out art that commanded millions by way of consideration, she preferred to lead a reclusive life in a tiny self-constructed mud brick-house in New Mexico.
“A Simpler Life” advocates the removal of avoidable complications from life so as to make it eminently livable. For example when two individuals are engaged in courtship, the tendency is to snuffle the real interests at the altar of “accommodation”. Only when they get married do the oblivious couple realise the danger of incompatibility. A degree of simple honesty would go a great deal in arresting an undesirable future situation. Express your aversion to museums when goaded to visit one, but do so in a manner that is frank and respectful. Set your expectations right and correct. Similarly contrasting philosophies representing a generation gap characterise relationship between parents and their children. It pays for both to speak out their minds, agreeing to disagree and reach a middle ground. Non-interference and at times even separate existence might work wonders in furthering good relations and repairing those that are slowly but surely and steadily going downhill.
While these are dollops of wisdom that have been preached and practiced for a long time, the appeal of the book lies in the simplicity (no pun intended) with which they are conveyed and real life examples that serve as eye-openers. The book also appeals to its readers to abhor pretentiousness and to stop leading lives for the singular purpose of obtaining approval and accord of others. Thus there is a stampeded to read the book that is on everyone’s bookshelves after winning a prestigious prize and a mad rush to get immersed in a movie that is the rage of its day. Even if the book does not make a jot of sense and the movie is more powerful than an anesthetic in inducing sleep, there is great hesitancy to admit the fact because doing so would make the person an “Other”, an exception from an “acceptable” norm.
I can personally relate to the example dealing with books. Influenced a great deal by a cryptic podcast, I armed myself with ‘Infinite Jest’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ and ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’. After infinite attempts at giving the quartet a read, I finally realised the futility of my endeavours and gave up the seductive allure of being one of those ‘choice’ people who had chewed, swallowed and digested these supposed masterpieces.
Interestingly the book also warns against traveling just for the sake of it. Just to satiate bucket lists and jump on the tourist bandwagon we seem to have made travel an absolute necessity and a chore. Instead, one would do well to absorb the sage advice imparted by the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room.” However this does not mean locking oneself up in the confines of a room until eternity like the unfortunate character in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. All that the book requires is bouts of contemplation instead of aimless wandering.
Finally the book concludes with a plea to reconsider the phrase “retire early”. One must not aim to confine this term purely in connection with professional responsibilities. There must be a conscious effort to retire from perusing unnecessary wants, accumulating untold material possessions, and attending unwanted parties and congregations.
“A Simple Life” – a primer to selfless living
(A Simpler Life by The School Of Life is published by The School Of Life and will be available for sale from the 31st May, 2022)
Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy