I think


Returning to Descartes after my own (continuing) decade of communing with the ‘great book of the world’ brings some refreshing sentiments (2006 [1637]: 10). Descartes, described as vaguely averse to social interaction, and whose own words betray an intellectual confidence that would commonly be described as arrogance, shines nonetheless as a glowing example in my current scholarly position. For while I am ironically obliged to memorise his key precepts, he, with a weary sigh, sets aside his books, and even abandons the whirlwind of travel, feeling compelled above all else to set to work—to order his own thoughts (Descartes, 2006 [1637]: 11).

Faced with the thought of a few extra bachelor-level exams, I come upon an unexpected internal resistance. This method of learning—which once consumed my time and absorbed my hungry mind—seems dull and soulless; it does not stir the movements of my mind as it used to. I note with some surprise that all those years of rote learning and trustingly following teachers have worked their effects: new and complex ideas are not threatening; entire books are not half so laborious as the scattered chapters I used to wrestle with. The hunger for interesting ideas is coupled with an aptitude for working related ideas into one another, for noticing points of contact and of difference, and for seeing the broader themes and sensing the overall direction of a work in its entirety.

But it remains a formidable step from gathering and organising the ideas of others to casting them aside and asserting one’s own position. Such articulation depends on the kinds of skills accumulated by following in the mental steps of others, probably even on being fluent in the language of their concepts, and certainly familiar with their debates; but it ultimately requires a blank page. A blank page and a few other indulgences: time, space, and courage, often cloaked as misanthropic arrogance.

Inwardly, my convictions begin to bite. I do not read with the same wonderment and open curiosity, trying on the outlooks of others, judiciously weighing the matter from all sides. I clash with these books: I tear at their holes and prod their weak spots, wanting them to help me but finding them inadequate. I am reaching the point where I will have to abandon my books and establish my own framework, my own method. These snarling convictions, peering here and there through the cracks left by others, need a clear ordering, explanation and defense. I must take a good look at them. I must decide—even plan—how to go about this.

Kant cuts a fine example. Forced to support himself, he turned to teaching immediately, privately at first, only managing to secure a teaching position at university after several years. But his pay depended upon the attendance of students, and so he had to take on a huge workload and court a dedicated following of students. This occupied him for decades—decades!—before he secured tenure, at which time he promptly sat down and (I believe the technical term is) busted out the Critique of Pure Reason. What captures my imagination is the thought that Kant did not waste a moment, though his route was a slow one. Teaching is a battlefield; it offers ample opportunity to test one’s ideas. My own experience of teaching drawing makes plain to me that ordering the content is the easy part; the greater burden of teaching falls on defending one’s ideas. Students concoct all manner of contradiction; they embody resistance. The cunning teacher needs a sack of reasons to stay ahead. But if she can stand by what she presents, she can sharpen it from every conceivable angle with the rigorous discourse that the classroom offers. When a quiet desk presents itself, the work is almost done.

Rousseau (1953 [1781] : 328; 374) sought not the solitude of the desk, but the open air and physical movement. The rolling fields of France, kissed by the sun, were his blank page, and as he wandered them without company he turned his thoughts over in his mind, working and reworking them, embellishing them, tasting them aloud and testing them against the breeze—and forgetting them, and whipping them up again, until they finally found their way onto paper in a gush of impassioned certitude. ‘For never having been able to write or think at my ease except in the open air, I was not tempted to alter my methods … The forest of Montmorency, which was almost at my door, would be my study’ (Rousseau, 1953 [1781]: 376). Such leisure yields no precise and referenced scholarly articles—and that is the point. We can all sit down with our notes and produce something technical. But can we commune with our own thoughts until we know them inside out? Until their structure becomes self-evident, emerging organically, as if from nature itself, and not in the forced and reference-laden form that the shackles of the desk impose?

Arendt says, with no fuss, that the writing is easy. ‘Schreiben Sie leicht, formulieren Sie leicht?’ her interviewer inquires (‘Do you write easily, do you draft easily?’). Through plumes of self-assured cigarette smoke she assures him that writing happens with little effort. Because she only starts writing once she knows what she wants to say—a simple but easily overlooked method of working, one that reveals the same attitude as Rousseau and Kant before her.

Deleuze, as we have remarked, uncovers concepts in unlikely places, such as in the observations of the painter Francis Bacon, demonstrating a remarkable fidelity to Bacon’s statements and at the same time an impressive inventiveness in kneading them into Concepts. For the philosopher, as he and Guattari (1996: 2) emphasise, creates concepts—actively creates from the fodder of the world, unlike science, which tries to categorise and explain it. He seeks connections across the vast and fluctuating plane of philosophical thought, and finds delightfully original ones (Deleuze and Guattari, 1996: 90). But that, of course, is the philosopher’s job (1996: 51):

‘In the end, does not every great philosopher lay out a new plane of immanence, introduce a new substance of being and draw up a new image of thought, so that there could not be two great philosophers on the same plane? It is true that we cannot imagine a great philosopher of whom it could not be said that he has changed what it means to think. …

Those who do not renew the image of thought are not philosophers but functionaries who, enjoying a ready-made thought, are not even conscious of the problem and are unaware even of the efforts of those they claim as their models.’

To return to our original model, Descartes, who captivated us from day one of our bachelor’s degree with ‘I think,’ those fateful words that knocked us spiralling into years of doubting, probing and stipulating, we must likewise, upon casting aside our books, establish for ourselves a method. It might look look like limited but exacting principles derived from logic, geometry and algebra, it might look like rural France (since people ‘are all they can be only in temperate climates’—(Rousseau, 1991 [1762]: 52)). Descartes (2006 [1637]: 15) would never thrust his own principles on anyone else, but we might regard his example and set about deciding upon how we are going to reach this intellectual clarity, and let our own ideas flourish. For ‘it is not enough to possess a good mind; the most important thing is to apply it correctly’ (Descartes, 2006 [1637]: 5).

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1996. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University.

Descartes, René. 2006 [1637]. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Translated by Ian Maclean. Oxford: Oxford University.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1953 [1781]. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by J.M. Cohen. Melbourne: Penguin.

———. 1991 [1762]. Emile, or, On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. London: Penguin Books.


Painter virtues

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Painter virtues stray a little from those of ordinary people. I have been devotedly following in the footsteps of a very dear painter who perhaps doesn’t realise how firmly astute he is, how perfectly disciplined he is, how resolutely he holds onto the very virtues that divorce him somewhat from the rest of the world, but that render him as sharp and penetrating as a painter may be. He leads by example, by folding me into his tranquil space, and I lose the impulse to write, and succumb to the all-consuming desire to paint.

And I paint slowly, as I always have. When I retreat into the realm of vision, I permit myself to tread carefully, sagaciously, deliberately. There are many pauses, there is much stepping back, sitting down, daydreaming. As an unobtrusive presence in Ryan’s studio, since the early days, I observed that there is at least as much idleness as activity involved in painting. One must devote a lot of time to looking and evaluating. There is a moment when you realise you are able to paint much faster than you normally do. And then you realise that the slowness is an integral part of your work, making room for ordered thoughts. Rilke observed the same unhurried attention in Rodin, in his beautiful little book on the sculptor. ‘‘Man muß sich nicht eilen’, sagte Rodin den wenigen Freunden, die um ihn waren, wenn sie ihn drängten. (Rilke 1942: 14). ‘‘One mustn’t hurry,’ said Rodin to the few friends who were around him, if they pressed him.’

da vinci

The breaks stretch out languidly as the afternoon sun yawns and stretches deep into my studio, and sometimes books steal my attention. And not even in a scholarly way, but in a guilty, indulgent way. This is the best kind of reading, and probably the deepest well of ideas. I think of Käthe Kollwitz with her Goethe, of both Delacroix and Rodin with their Dante. These writers who lodged deep inside the hearts of those painters and ever held the power to renew their weary minds and reinvigorate their work. It can hardly be surprising that Rilke, a poet, would apprentice himself to a sculptor, when that sculptor maintained a lifelong apprenticeship to a poet. Rilke (1942: 18-19) recounts of Rodin that ‘Er las viel. Man war gewohnt, ihn in Brüssels Straßen immer mit einem Buch in der Hand zu sehen, aber vielleicht war dieses Buch oft nur ein Vorwand für das Vertieftsein in sich selbst, in die ungeheuere Aufgabe, die ihm bevorstand.’ ‘He read a great deal. One was accustomed to seeing him in the streets of Brussels ever with a book in his hand, but perhaps this book was often only a front for being absorbed in himself, in the immense task hanging over him.’


Rilke suggests that all this reading enables the reader to inhabit the ideas well before one turns to clay or paint or copper plate. Books that really awaken the mind and animate personalities, archetypes, heroes and monsters, do much of the work in our idle, daydreamy hours before we begin to work. Rodin’s mind was fertilised by Dante and Baudelaire: ‘Seit jenen Tagen blieben diese beiden Dichter ihm immer nah, er dachte über sie hinaus und kehrte zu ihnen zurück. … Später, als er als Schaffender diese Stoffkreise wieder berührte, da stiegen ihre Gestalten wie Erinnerungen aus seinem eigenen Leben, weh und wirklich, in ihm auf und gingen in sein Werk wie in eine Heimat ein’ (Rilke 1942: 20) ‘Since those days, both these poets remained ever near him, he also thought about them and returned to them. … Later, when he touched on this subject matter again as creator, their forms rose like memories out of his own life, painfully and truly, out from inside him and entering into his work as if into a home.’


In my mind I see Ryan as a figure deeply absorbed in his sketchbook. I never knew another person to love drawing as deeply as he does; I’ve never witnessed such simple and honest devotion to drawing. One can talk about drawing forever; Ryan disappears wordlessly into his sketchbook and enters another universe. Should the sea turn to paper, I fear it wouldn’t satiate his urge to draw. I’ve come to learn that only the act of drawing proves my love of it. And I’ve come to realise what an indispensible support this act is. How steadying it is, how each hatched line helps sift a thought until my head grows clear again. Drawing is an act that restores balance; to think of it merely as a preparatory work is to undermine the pivotal position it plays in our lives. Everything turns on it. It loosens the mind and weaves it back together in an orderly way. A visible amble across the page; a scribed daydream.


Again and again I defend the use of my time: time spent reading, drawing, looking is never wasted. The painter can never apologise for her idleness. She needs, above all, a clear head, and that clarity is only reachable with ample time and space to follow every thought without the pressure to produce. Our practices are often compared to—or sometimes explicitly linked with—meditation, but I think this is a false connection. The painter’s focused and penetrating dissection of the world, grounded in observation, carried by a heightened alertness, inescapably chases after meaning and order, not the sort of egoless abandonment of thought prized by meditation. The painter rather invites a thousand times the stimuli of an ordinary person, and takes the time to sift them for gold, reviewing them one by one, delighting in them, arranging them in meaningful ways.


This delight cannot be overestimated. As I travel on long, winding roads through the Czech Republic, I indulge in the visual feast that unfolds—unfurling hills and forests and rivers melting in and out of each other, and the light that shifts in hue and angle as hours pile upon hours. I feel like I could explode when I see the blue-grey clouds against the golden sky in the mist of a light rain. I see that Ryan is equally absorbed in the neutral blue of the shadowy trees that back on to grass bathed in an unearthly yellow by the oblique evening sun. It’s then I realise what motivates us: we seek not to reproduce pleasant scenes, but to reproduce the staggering wonder at the visual relationships we stumble upon in the real world. Sometimes something as simple as the shocking harmony between two colours captivates us, and it is this delight that we are driven to transmit, more than anything else. ‘Look!’ we cry, stabbing our canvas with the brush, ‘Look how excellent the world is!’


These small visual treats furnish us with small tasks, and that is also enough. Rilke (1942: 17) writes of Rodin that ‘Seine Kunst baute sich nicht auf eine große Idee auf, sondern auf eine kleine gewissenhafte Verwirklichung, auf das Erreichbare, auf ein Können.’ ‘His art did not build itself on a grand idea, but rather on a small, diligent attainment, on the achievable, on a ‘can.’’ The grandeur grows out of the mastery of the small things; the big ideas emerge from the tumble of small delights rolling together and gathering momentum. Ryan’s comments, as he devours every mark of my painting, always lean towards the subtle treatments that most people overlook. ‘This is so subtle’ has come to resound as the highest praise as he deftly picks out the intricate decisions that most captivated me as I worked.


Our preoccupation with such small observations might make us feel we are getting left behind, that we are perpetual beginners, but this humility is the door to learning. Our inexpert trials and ill-conceived experiments, our genuine curiosity means many abortive paintings, some even dead-ends, as we try to instate order in our work. It can be lonely, and when people do speak with us, they miss the point of our efforts, they fail to see the driving impulse and the exploratory thread that weaves through our work. Rodin was rejected by the public for a long time, and when he emerged from his solitude, fully formed, he had already put himself through every test: ‘Jahre und Jahre ging Rodin auf den Wegen dieses Lebens als ein Lernender und Demütiger, der sich als Anfänger fühlte. Niemand wußte von seinen Versuchen, er hatte keinen Vertrauten und wenig Freunde’ (Rilke 1942: 18). ‘For years and years Rodin went along the roads of this life as a humble learner, as one who felt himself a beginner. No one knew of his attempts, he had no confidants and few friends.’ This is a double virtue: we can take our apprentice status and couple it with the sobering solitude that buys us more time to become. And the fruit of this lonely, self-testing time is an unshakeable confidence in ourselves, in our work, in every tiny detail of our approach. ‘Da, als man anfing, an ihm zu zweifeln, hatte er keinen Zweifel mehr an sich selbst. … In der Zeit, als er wurde, klang keine fremde Stimme zu ihm, kein Lob, das ihn hätte irre machen, kein Tadel, der ihn hätte verwirren können’ (Rilke 1942: 21). ‘Because, as one began to doubt him, he had no more doubt in himself. … In the time when he was becoming, no foreign voice sounded about him, no praise that would have led him into error, no reproach that could have confused him.’

We cannot forget the point of our painterly values, so at odds with the world of outcomes and products and services and profits and efficiency. As with any virtue ethics, we chase after excellence. Excellence as humans and excellence in our work. However we exist in the world and whatever we leave behind in it, let’s hope that everything glows with that unmistakeable sheen. I smile with satisfaction when I hear Ryan say again and again, ‘I’m sorry it’s not perfect.’ We will slow down and look and consider and try again until it is.



Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1942. Auguste Rodin. Leipzig: Insel.


Reckless solitude


The world we live in is constructed to support the social creature. Above all others it celebrates the confident, outspoken, public person. It trains us all from our youth to operate in this way, forcing us to be ‘socialised’ in the school, teaching us to perform in front of an audience, preparing us to interact confidently with strangers for the daily transactions our work will demand when we are of age. The reserved, meditative soul is shaken out of its reverie and compelled also to work in this way, despite convincing evidence that such a being might produce more work, and qualitatively better work, in secret, in the privacy of their own room.

The wish for an unthinking, reckless solitude. To be face to face only with myself. Perhaps I shall have it in Riva.

(Kafka, p. 222).

I have been thinking about the solitary life of the painter, and how that faceless entity of ‘society’ warns us against the gruelling hours spent alone in a studio, cut off from human contact. The more time I spend drawing and painting, the more I relish this solitude and the more I crave it. To have autonomy in one’s work is not the only appealing thing. To be so completely immersed in one’s work and undistracted by others is a real gift to the quiet creature, who finds the time alone more attuned to her natural state. Having learned to shed her shyness, she finds it infinitely more conducive to her most fulfilling work to shrink back into it. The painter-animal in the painter-cave, not forcibly shut off from society, but willingly retreating from the inanity of it:

I will write again, but how many doubts have I meanwhile had about my writing? At bottom I am an incapable, ignorant person who, if he had not been compelled—without any effort on his own part and scarcely aware of the compulsion—to go to school, would be fit only to crouch in a kennel, to leap out when food is offered him, and to leap back when he has swallowed it.

(Kafka, p. 237).

Where Kafka considers himself some kind of brute for recognising this trait in himself, I am beginning to believe that this reserve is something to be respected and valued. As one pursues a solitary career and finds oneself submerged in this kennel for days at a time, one achieves a remarkable clarity, a peaceful mental state and a depth of thought not to be found in short snatches of time salvaged here and there around a busy schedule. Creatures like us need time to mull, to ponder, to gestate. Where others intrude, they become a distraction and an imposition:

Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me, if only because I think it does. I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer. I have no family feeling and visitors make me almost feel as though I were maliciously being attacked.

(Kafka, p. 231).

Let me elaborate: I have been out landscape painting. I am currently without the ‘room of one’s own’ of Virginia Woolf’s persuasion, though my suitcase contains a few clothes, many books, and my easel and paints, so I am spending my painterly time out in the world. This has the unexpected consequence of transforming me from the humble painter-animal, a shy and single-minded creature by nature, to the performance artist. It is a harrowing demand on someone living so much in her own head. I am grappling with the selection of convincing tones, attempting to create a harmony in the colours I lay down, searching for the contrasts that work towards the hazy vision in my head. I am battling the wind that rattles my canvas about, intermittent rain, and not a little fatigued by the early afternoon sun. I feel an immense uncertainty in my progress: I am not rehearsing a little routine that I perform swiftly and with ease. I am engaged in a mental struggle, trying to enact that mysterious alchemy of transforming my deep and changing three-dimensional surroundings into a small, flat illusion.

And, worse than bugs, prickly grass and sunburn—I am swarmed by spectators, who, unlike bugs, prickly grass and sunburn, are full of questions, observations and opinions. And carrying cameras.

Here are some suggestions, should you ever encounter a painter at her easel in the wild, open world: Don’t ask her how long the thing will take. Time passes her without fanfare: she doesn’t measure her success by such quantitative units. Time ceases to be calculated in minutes and hours and becomes recorded in brushstrokes and layers of paint. It took me pink and green long to make this. I don’t know what you are talking about. Don’t tell her about your painting relatives. Blood-relations don’t afford you any special painting knowledge. And she is trying to work.

On the whole, spectators are a well-meaning bunch; I truly think this. Only I am so involved in the task to hand, that I am extremely irritated to be taken away from it, and extremely stressed to be aware that I am on a stage, under a spotlight. Because my medium is visual, I am somehow obliged to share it. I envy the writer who can hide behind his laptop, or shrink quietly into his notebook.

Surfacing from our private thoughts and rising to these social demands is perhaps a necessary task, but by no means an easy one, once one has rediscovered the comfort of the painter-cave one has been banished from since childhood. Perhaps we do well to avoid them, recognising the destructive power of these demands. Kafka sounds, to ordinary ears, like he is being melodramatic, but something resonates fiercely with me in his uncompromising words:

My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility.

(Kafka, p. 230).

And his feelings are more poetically, though no less forcefully, expressed by Virginia Woolf:

But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either [the hardness of the work or the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned] was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide—a small one but dear to the possessor—perishing and with it my self, my soul—all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.

(Woolf, p. 39).

All this ‘flattering and fawning,’ this performing for an audience, stands between us and serious work. We painters and writers are not nasty creatures, or unable to empathise, or careless of others. Our shyness might rather belie a more sympathetic and sensitive nature. We are simply concentrated on the task to hand, and only ask for the time and space to attend to it.

The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.

(Kafka, p. 222).

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.
Woolf, Virginia. [1928] 1963. A room of one’s own. Penguin: Mitcham, Victoria.