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Radical pragmatism

Wherever you look and however far into the past you delve, pragmatism – sometimes similar to humanism – appears. Read your Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Buddha, Taoist philosophy, Kant or Nietzsche and, to a greater or lesser extent, they all end up reducing the universe to one truth … that all things are eventually or theoretically discoverable, rather than divine.

This doesn’t deny a spiritual dimension or the existence of good and evil, but it does tell us that tendencies towards good versus bad have their basis in what’s good for us. It’s altruism that doesn’t really stack up – and as for stoicism, it’s just making the best of things.

The Brazilian philosopher, Roberto Mangabeira Unger [still alive I think] travelled from his home in Rio de Janeiro [latitude 23 degrees south] to Oslo [60 degrees north] to take up a university teaching post.

Roberto was a man who, when in Rio, liked to rise late and stroll down to Copacabana. He would sit with the day’s  O Globo newspaper, a glass of chilled water and a strong hot espresso, shaded by a palm tree, and, from time to time, sip his coffee and glance up at the beautiful young boys and girls strolling by, unashamed but self-conscious in their brief, second skin vivid beachwear, their tanned torsos gleaming in the latin sunshine, their hips swaying to a bossa rhythm in their heads. To the philosopher, this represented the purest form of pleasure.

After a year in Oslo, including experiencing a dark, formidable sub-zero Norwegian winter, Roberto observed: “A Norwegian will wait until the snow is a metre deep outside the house. He or she will put on five layers of thick clothing, gloves, hat, scarf and a backpack with flares, spare gloves, frostbite cream and a packed lunch. They will don cross country skis, grab their poles and set off across the barren white abyss. After three or four hours, they will spot a single rock. They will ski over, remove the backpack, spear the poles into the snow and sit.

They will open the backpack and delve deep. Right at the bottom, they will find a single square of bitter chocolate, wrapped in foil. They will carefully unwrap the foil, put the chocolate in their mouth and savour the moment. This is their copacabana moment”

I’m sitting in the garden in my house in Marrakech writing. Under the trees yonder, the children and grandchildren shriek and tumble in the pool. Even Brits think I’m mad heating a swimming pool in Marrakech – but I’m more Roberto than Thor by several thousand kilometres. Loubna has brought coffee.  She is leaving to prepare the Ramadan sundown feast for the family, then she will return to prepare our supper of tagine and olives. We both feel we are getting a good deal.

As I help a bright four-year-old inflate the floating bar [yep], I point out that, although air seems not to exist around us, invisible and untouchable, when inside the lilo it clearly displaces the plastic. It exists. We can see its size, we can feel its pressure against our squeezing hand.

The four-year-old has not the slightest problem reckoning this as reality, repeating my words verbatim to his dad, whom he presumed did not yet own this useful wisdom.

A friend just sent me a wholly innocent text, describing her own wobbly bottom. I suspect there are a few of these in my garden right now. I haven’t seen a bottom, wobbly or otherwise, for 40 years. So they don’t exist, unless of course I feel them, through silk or denim, like the air inside an inflatable bar. The cloth is displaced, the reality is suddenly evident.

These, of course, are my copacabana moments. This is my radical pragmatism.