A few years ago I enjoyed very much Jostein Gaarder‘s philosophical bestseller Sophie’s World, so I turned to his novel Maya recently with a feeling of great expectation. In the end I was disappointed. Although Gaarder‘s ideas about time, evolution and the meaning of the universe are always fascinating, the plot was so fantastically convoluted and self-referential that the ending was bound to be a letdown. Also many of the characters were little more than mouthpieces for the author’s own philosophising. However, there were many striking passages in the book, and here is one. The English novelist, John Spooke, is talking to some assembled hotel guests at dinner about how we often introduce ourselves to others — that is with vanity, boastfulness and defensiveness:

“‘Good!’ the Englishman repeated. ‘A virtual requisite for such introductions is the desire to show oneself off to the best possible advantage, whether in matters of sex, status, financial affairs, social connections or special achievements and skills. The art is not merely to reveal one’s most advantageous facets, but to do it in the most casual, disguised or unintentional way possible. For man is not merely a social animal. He is above all a vain creature, vainer, I assume, than any other vertebrate. Look how wonderful and clever I am, we say. I hope you realise I’m not just one of the crowd. I’ve got two grown-up sons, you know, both at college, and a teenage daughter who wants to be an actress or an artist. Oh, really, well our daughter recently married the mayor of Liverpool’s son, he was absolutely crazy about her. You can also see that I’m pretty well off. Oh, yes, our name’s the same as the steel company, that was my great-grandfather, you know. Well, I’ve dipped into Derrida, naturally, and for the past few days I’ve had a book by Baudrillard on my bedside table. And then there’s art; actually, we have a small Monet in the bedroom, and a Miró in the sitting room, and, as a a matter of fact, we’ve just hung a baroque mirror over the fireplace…'”

I wonder if some of us felt a slight, uncomfortable feeling of recognition on reading this?

On the Camino, thank God,  one’s social standing and material possessions are of little interest to one’s fellow walkers and pilgrims. Everyone has better and more interesting things to talk about.