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Why selfishness is important

4 Feb

What a shame that we have so few selfish artists left.   Anymore, artists of even the most modest repute declare their selfless dedication to some grander public good.  Bono, to think of an obvious example.  All the  indie artists with whiny identical voices who generously contribute to nonprofit albums for the latest natural or human rights disaster to hit the papers — a disaster which, along their music, will  pass within the month from public consciousness.  The trend is positively feeding off our “recent” environmental crisis, along with the wars and global economic panic turned dispair.  A pressure is building in that invisible bubble known as society, mainstream media, or whatever you want to call it:  if an artist continues undisrupted in his or her work, he or she will be dismissed as frivolous at best, reviled as selfish and inhumane at worst.  Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet…but the roots are there, flourishing underneath us.  We are earnestly striving to extricate the age-old tradition of navel-gazing, purportedly for the sake of our wellbeing…no, for our sheer survival.

But that’s just it — art is selfishness.  No artist is truly in element without that delicious torment of an abounding ego that never, thankfully, quite realizes itself.  The fruits of civilization — visual arts, literature, music, dance — are born from a mélange of observation of surroundings and ensuing self-reflection.  If we lose selfishness, we lose what is beautiful.  Love of course is important.  But love isn’t what makes art.  It is selfish people in love, or who at least think or thought they were in love, who finally are the creators.

I just returned from my second viewing of Gainsbourg:  Une Vie Héroïque, the freshly-sorted half-biography, two-halves fairy tale of one of France’s most celebrated progeny of the twentieth century.  To call Serge Gainsbourg’s life “heroic” seems inappropriate at first glance.  But the more I think of it, the more I see that our use of the term “heroic” has been haplessly entangled with implications of morality and literal sainthood.  A hero is not always moral, generous, or concerned for others.  A hero may not even be nice.  A hero is someone admired by others, remembered for their work, even — and especially — if their work embraces and finally transcends their personal imperfections.

The epoch of artist veneration has passed.  Now it seems we esteem artists not by how beautiful or true their words are, but by their degree of involvement and concern with others, as demonstrated by the content of their art.  We still define heros by their contribution, though now the requirement for contribution is much more rigidly defined than it used to be.  Contribution must correspond first to the needs of others and society; then, if there’s room, an artist can talk about him or herself.   For those select few who persist in not giving a damn what others want, it’s a rough, lonely and thankless road — hey, turns out that’s how artists have lived since forever, until recently that is.

Selfish artists are in danger of extinction.  Let us save them.


Body thought

20 Jan

Le français…

Le panais (featured légume oublié a couple posts ago) = parsnip.  Who knew?  Anyone?  I excuse myself, because they’re not exactly standard fare back in the States.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten parsnips before; and turnips I’ve had, but only once, at a pre-Thanksgiving haggis dinner in Cork, Ireland, with a side of Robert Burns read by a Scotswoman with a Midlands lilt.

les combles = the small windows on the top floor of old bourgeois houses.  The femme de menage would live on this top floor in her modest chambre de bonne.  This woman of all domestic trades was also known as a bonne femme, or “good woman.”  So she did basically everything, and was awarded with the privilege of being “good.”

par le bouche à l’oreille = by word of mouth, literally “by the mouth to the ear”…most effective technique for scaring up conversation students in Saint Jean.  I did think like a French person, and plastered my diminutive neon ads at some boulangeries (bakeries)…the only establishments open of a Sunday here in la profonde campagne.

et les Français.

I watched the American cult classic Freaks (1932) for the first time in a stage du film (stage = training session or workshop) with other language teachers at the high school.   Think tensely divided circus community meets love triangle meets sweet gruesome revenge; no wonder we’re studying this film, the students will relate perfectly to the melodrama.  In seriousness, it was good, and though I’d never heard of this film before coming to France, the French are unabashed cinophiles and quite possibly know more about movies than any other culture on the planet (as they well should, it was two French brothers who invented cinéma over 100 years ago).  Cinéma is like the unwritten curriculum that every French child receives, along with opening huîtres (oysters) and bottles of wine.  And thank goodness, because all of these things make for great conservation topics.

Olga Baclanova in Freaks as Cleopatra, the trapeze artist who got what was coming to her.

This film also makes a great thematic hinge for discussing our simultaneous fascination and repulsion when it comes to physical abnormalities.  What about disease, or even just run of the mill colds and flus?  I need to get my hands on Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, though to be honest, I’m looking for a more uplifting author for my bedtime reading.  In France I am more aware of my body than ever before in my life, ten times more aware than I was when living in health-freak Missoula (I like to talk about that town as if I’m never going back there).  So when something is thrown off-balance by diet, sleep patterns, stress, my environment or the people around me, I notice, and usually remedy, the matter much more quickly.

The French are not squeamish when it comes to talking about every body part external and internal, body parts of animals and in turn of their dinner, illnesses and the detailed symptoms they’re suffering, sex, and of course personal definitions of beauty and hideousness concerning people and everything that people create.   On a sabbatical from my own culture, the latter now reveals itself from the outside as only superficially savvy and concerned about moderation, quality indulgment, and overall well-being: physical, spiritual and mental.  Maybe it’s the vacation getting to my head, or maybe the food that is actually food.  But when it comes to my body, I would much prefer to know too much rather than too little; and though it would be a gross generalization to say that all French care about their personal health, the body  seems to carry much more cultural import here.  Maybe it’s because of the health system; it’s fun going to the doctor when it’s free, right? (Note:  I did wait at urgent care over an hour.   “Urgent” is all relative).

C’est pas normale du tout

10 Dec

“C’est normale.”  It’s normal. “C’est comme ça.”  It’s just like that.  Expressions that fall often on the ears in France, usually at the times when I least want to hear them.  It’s normal, apparently, to wait two months for one’s carte vitale, which gives one the ability to take advantage of France’s renowned dirt-cheap health care — and it’s not cheap by the way, it’s called social security and twenty percent of my paycheck.  No one thought to give warning that without that magic carte vitale and its accompanying social security number, medical care in France is just as expensive, if not more so, than in the United States.

I find no redeeming value in this experience except for the opportunity to return obnoxious, stubborn behavior with the same.  Or, to put a more positive spin on it, the opportunity to practice persistence.  Bureaucracy and paper trails are as natural as breathing for the French; that doesn’t mean they have it any easier, but rather than growing frustrated after only five phone calls and six weeks of waiting,  they have wisdom enough to simply mumble, “C’est normale.  C’est tout.”  And they persist.  At least I am able to provide comic relief for my colleagues with my stories of trying to manage very mundane processes in their country:  finally coaxing the bank to send me my debit card and checkbook; prying my lost cell phone from the grip of a very irate train conductor; getting rightfully reimbursed for any number of bureaucratic expenditures.

You wonder why the French have a reputation for being stubborn, argumentative nit-pickers?  Frankly, they have to be this way, just to survive their own country.  A true accomplishment, I should think, to reach a ripe old age in France with one’s sanity and humanity still intact.

Speaking of sanity, here are the words in French I was wishing I knew today at work:

étincellement — glitter

pot à colle— glue pot

papier de bricolage — construction paper

flocon de neige — snowflake

It was ‘creative Christmas’ day at the high school — making Christmas cards with the assistant’s very limited craft materials (tissue paper, colored pencils, and recycled photocopy paper).  Imagine trying to describe the concept of glitter to a French person without knowing the word…and it’s not as if I’m a particularly crafty person and use glitter on a regular basis.  “You know, the little things that sparkle when you throw them on glue, on a sea of glue” (insert vaguely jabbing hand gesture here). I often feel to have regressed, severely regressed, to the verbal and sometimes emotional level of a five-year-old.  

Maybe I’m feeling younger because I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with a younger crowd than usual.  I teach at a collège in Matha, an even smaller town than Saint Jean, every Thursday morning.  Collège is the equivalent of junior high, while lycée is the rough equivalent of high school). I sang The Twelve Days of Christmas three times today, replete with hand gestures and dancing, much to the delight and embarassment of my usually blasé collègean students. 

Thinking on the subject of sanity and being normal:  the French have a slew of negative and double negative phrases that they wield generously and freely in everyday conversation. Pas forcement — not necessarily; c’est pas faux — it’s not false;  c’est pas grave — it’s not a big deal; c’est pas normale — that’s not normal.  It’s this last one that has me believing, in conjunction with the rampant use of its counterpart “c’est normal,” that there must be some subsurface cultural current, some engrained fear, of appearing to be anything but “normal,” whatever that means.  I don’t know what “normal” means in my own culture, let alone in a foreign one.  But in this small intimate place, where loaves of bread and peacoats and identical little pencil pouches can be dependably found in literally each small town across the country,  it wouldn’t be hard to draw conclusions as to how ‘normal’ is defined, if that is what one wishes to do.

I feel lucky indeed to have crossed paths with many atypical, or atypique, French people, and to have made them a part of my life. 

As I promised some more aesthetically pleasing photos of France, here they are, primarily from an October weekend in Bordeaux.  I haven’t taken too many pictures of Saint Jean yet; I am biding my time, trying to scout out the most representative and / or flattering images.  But autumn is on the wane, along with the foliage, and Christmas decorations have come out in full force — on my evening runs, I regard the sky over petite Saint Jean glowing orange with light pollution, the first time I’ve ever seen it like this.  So, I’d better get on the ball before the opportunity passes me by.


 La Cathédrale Saint-André, seen from the adjacent clock tower, Le Tour Pey-Berland.  The cathedral was constructed between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the tower in the fifteenth.  Being inside these huge European cathedrals makes me feel like I’m inside a human body, looking up at all the bones and crevices and ligaments.  Even from the outside, the cathedral’s tiled roof and flying buttresses look corporal, like limbs and muscle.

Bordeaux is a study in contrasts, and in terms of visual contrast, this one can be found all over the historic city center — a facade blackened by centuries of city grime and smoke, plumb next to its freshly-scoured-white neighbor.  Over the last decade or so, the city government has invested scads of money and time in its effort to revitalize Bordeaux; originally a bustling port town turned down in the mouth backwater, it now seems to be brimming over with rosy-cheeked tourists from all over the world.  My favorite, though, is turning off the main quai, with its grandiose ivory and rose bourgeois mansions, and on a narrow side street, running face-to-face into a defiantly dark facade burrowed into the wall, a grumpy old lunatic that has as of yet escaped the notice of the industrious municipal government.

Tram tracks

Gargoyle, la Cathédrale Saint-André

Petit ou grand café, à la gare de Bordeaux