BLAISE PASCAL, the 17th-century mathematician and theologian, began a letter with this line: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Any fool can be complicated; but being simple takes time and genius.
There is hysteria about at the turn of each year. The media replay endless clips of “events that changed the world in 2011”, and soon after we are plunging into New Year resolutions of heady ambition. Like all illusion and hysteria, it is very convincing and exciting, until it ceases to be, after which it appears just silly. “Did we really believe/imagine that?”
Particularly poignant last year were the live reports of the Arab Spring. Hard-bitten journalists, caught up in the moment, echoed the line in the “Cowboy Carol”: “There’ll be a new world beginning from tonight.”
It sounded good back then, but referring to current events in the Middle East as the “Arab Spring” must surely soon be in contravention of the Trade Descriptions Act. Spring brings beautiful flowers, and they are conspicuous for their absence in the politics of the region at present.
The old maxim “Slavery does not prepare you for freedom” remains true of revolutions down the centuries, which more often than not simply repackage oppression. Supermarkets repackage products: they do not change the product itself, just the packaging, and they call it change. But they do not make moral claims for themselves in the way that revolutions do. Changing governments is easy; changing patterns of behaviour is less so.
This also explains the short and unhappy life of that other annual revolution: the New Year resolution. Like political revolutions, it is born out of frustration, which conceives with great energy but cannot then nurture beauty it has never experienced. We are asking damaged-body memories to sort out damaged-body memories. Don’t hold your breath; we struggle for good reason.
In the mid-1950s, a Swedish man, Gillis Lundgren, was trying to put a new table into the back of his car. It was proving impossible when he suddenly had an idea. He took the legs off the table with the plan of reassembling it later. It worked, and Gillis then wondered if it might work for others as well. He took the idea to his employers, IKEA. As Maurice Saatchi says in his book Brutal Simplicity of Thought: “It was 1956 — and the dawn of the flat-pack.”
It is not a story of an exotic visionary, but of a man who had a simple idea. And enlightenment dawned not in an ideas meeting, but in a car park.
A shift occurs when, at the end of our tether, we choose the simple, the possible, and the truthful. That is genius. Impossible things may happen as a consequence; but it is not where we start.