Sunday, March 30, 2008

Working Backwards

As a result of my delinquency in updating this blog, I now have a lot of ground to cover. Like Billy Pilgrim, I feel unstuck in time: unglued and unwieldy.


I spent the last week wandering around farms in the Narbonne area with my GIS course, lost amid the sea of grass, closely pruned grape vines (it is only March), and soil. We looked at a lot of soil. I know nothing about soil. No one wanted to tell me anything about soil, but rather they wanted to pretend that I knew something about soil. I spent a lot of time looking at the wind traveling through the tall grass and pretending I was in the opening segments of a Kurosawa film. A week without whiskey and without cigarettes may be enough to drive a man to the brink. Especially when this is taken with perpetual pissing rain, which gave way to extreme heat on the last day, insuring sun burn (I’m not red, I’m rose I’ve been saying ever since.) The French are as a whole obsessed with their own sense of the bucolic (a word that is, unsurprisingly, of French root). Apparently however, to call farmland bucolic is a bit of a clichĂ©, my professor cheerily informed me. Bucolic implies a little hobby farm with a goat and a red barn at this point. And the number of goats in France is large. How much chevre do the French eat every year? A goat load. The things one thinks of to fight off creeping insanity. I should add also that soil comes in many textures, colors etc, however it was all pretty decidedly uniform in the region we looked at, a source of frustration to those organizing the trip. We will be spending the next week representing these findings on a GIS map, much to my immitigable delight. I am glad I was able to exercise my urban planning education so decisively.

I think France is a good country to go out of your mind in. Like in England, you can be stark raving mad and people will just figure you a bit of an eccentric. There is a certain French mentality of obedience to authority stemming from the age and tradition of society, while at the same time, their runs the counter mentality of the Revolution, 1968 and the rest. It is an interesting dichotomy to see as my fellow students became further infuriated with the general lack of organization and more importantly, just bad luck that characterized the trip.

I should add here that I saw the first hems in the seamlessness of modern French integration as conflict arose between the African Muslim students and French students. It came down to a matter of ham. The French, for reasons that I cannot quite comprehend, love ham. They put it in everything – and generally in 3 or four varieties (along with a whole other host of pork items, from tasty blood sausages, to less tasty ham tripe concoctions). As a result, lunches were required to include ham (and wine, which really, you don’t want to drink knowing you have an afternoon of scratching around the bush with a truncheon ahead of you.) The Muslim students of course protested asking that some chicken be brought along as well. This was done, but the result was a source of tension in which the French sneered at the chicken and the Africans sneered at the ham, both making allusions to the superiority of one over the other. So integration yes, but less cultural cross-pollination than one would arouse. I also managed to spark a schism among the African students in asking if there was a sense of sectionalism within African Islam, which parked a debate between two students which saw them arguing about various hadith despite the fact that both were Sunni and from the same general region of Senegal – which I feel says something about religion in general. I would like to qualify myself here by noting that the question was formulated as innocently as possible and that I had no intention of sparking inter-Islamic conflict. African Islam is always characterized as far more homogeneous than its Middle Eastern equivalent, but never doubt the ability of the human mind to find difference and exploit that difference as a mechanism for declaring someone else a heretic or apostate.

There was also a lot of “sleeping rough” which I will come back to shortly.


The Easter (or “Paques” if one is so inclined) holiday was an absolute delight. Religious holidays in a post-Christian country make for slightly confused affairs where everyone just sort of mills about and drinks a lot. Champagne and eggs for breakfast all week gave things a certain air of the surreal, as did being so pilled up that I rattled (a combination of necessity – I have been fighting a sinus infection – and recreation). As for sleeping rough, I somehow managed to sleep underneath a picnic table adjacent to the student cafĂ©/bar at which non-stop Easter festivities raged long into the night. My reasons for this remain mysterious and elusive – but smile and nod when I hint at larger cosmic purposes.

Of Easter, I must provide the following cut and paste job (sorry) from an e-mail I sent out on the Sunday itself:

Easter is to be renamed Zombie Jesus and Chicken Bunny Day: on which a bedraggled and "holey" (zing) Jesus rises from the crypt to team up with the chicken bunny - a genetic abomination in which a mammal has somehow acquired an avian reproductive system that yields a confection of sugar, coco bean (does the chicken bunny photosynthesize too?) and milk. The two then engage in ancient religious rites of hiding the chicken bunny's vile, stillborn, chocolate offspring only for them to be discovered by small children - the horror!

The Easter weekend also saw the prevailing wisdom of a postmodern adage concerning poetry that I here coin: when in doubt - especially when dealing with the fairer gender - stop, grin like a jackal, and hit ‘em with a poem. Reading Chinese dissident poetry to Brazilians in English translation may not have had the desired effect; but it certainly warped expectations.

My latin jazz combo also played a gig the day before the run up to the holidays, and it went well enough that the band is going to continue. I like the band. It keeps me less crazy to have a regular venue through which to play music and as Albert Ayler once noted, “music is the healing force of the universe”. Then again, by the end, Ayler was bat-shit insane and this is madness was only further manifested through his music, so who knows.


I managed to get myself to Barcelona on the cheap – which when traveling in Europe is a bit like finding the arc of the covenant. What is really striking about Barcelona, apart from the overall grandeur of the place is how clean it is. One expects the same sort of seediness that one finds it Marseilles or the other large Mediterranean cities, but Barcelona is immaculate without sacrificing local color. Barcelona is a good city to get lost in. The main metro transfer through which the whole artery of the cities mass transit system runs is called the “passagia de gracia” which seems fitting – as there but for the grace of god go I. Barcelona is too big and too incredible a city to take in. Rather it takes you in and you just have roll with it. It is exactly like a Pedro Almadovar film – only enormous and crazier.

Traveling to Barcelona with a group of French students can be aneurysm inducing experience. While having ditched the group and tour of the city within the first 15 minutes of the first day (I actually want to see the city, not the tourist sites) I found myself forced to communicate in Spanish, French and English all at the same time. I ended up speaking the long language, to the wrong person more often than not. The Catalan Spanish that pervades Barcelona also represents a point of departure. It is as though French grammatical rules were applied to Spanish.

The city, despite its geographical enormity is densely populated. While the downtown area is touristy, and one can get by in English, the older parts of the city are very different. Bars with tapas and old Catalan men playing dominoes and arguing about everything from politics to football, to the weather jut up against the trendy areas. And of course there is the flood of Latin Americans – a shockingly large percentage of them Chileans who fled during the Pinochet regime and who have never returned. Much like a Roberto Bolano novel, they all seem to wear beards and long hair, work odd-jobs and lead double lives as poets, or more commonly, failed poets. They run stands that sell Che and Communist kitsch by day to unthinking American tourists and by night comport in bars and coffee shops.

One can stumble around the city and see high modernism and tradition at once. There are whole streets dedicated to preserving Gaudi architecture that embodies this. While there is progress there remains the sense that things can be left until manana. Still, this is the part of the Spain that never broke under Franco, that always resisted and one gets a real sense of that from the city as a whole. Self-determination is crucial to the mentality of the city. It is so made so as to be able to accommodate everyone. In the sort of place where people can live their lives without expectation and without upsetting a set social order. People are exposed to everyone and everything and so they practice live and let live. To me this is a certain high water mark of Western civilization – that interaction with the other and the willingness to accept it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Stray Points

Point 1:

Absinthe should be made illegal. There is no telling what can happen under the influence of that unquestionably evil substance. Its effervescent green tinge should be the first warning sign, as should be the diabolic implications of the name of the oil: ‘wormwood’, from which it is fabricated. It holds an anise flavor that effectively renders it pastis’ evil twin. After a night of heavy consumption of the stuff, I found myself experiencing a day of reckoning for my worldly sin. It may have permanently broken my liver, and I still don’t think my head is quite right 3 days on. It should also be noted that the often hinted at psychoactive properties of absinthe are little more than myth; propaganda to sell a drink and to imbue it with an air of mystique, when really, you are just drinking very strong Ouzo. It is said that Ernest Hemingway invented a drink called, quite bookishly, “The Death in the Afternoon” involving absinthe and champagne. Like that parable on bull fighting, it is the sort of thing that you need to kill before it kills you. All the same, the small village that I had the misfortune to pass through, that distills the stuff needs to be razed. With a proof rating that scratching at 120, absinthe is far too strong for the consumption of animal, plant or mineral.

Point 2:

The French higher education system leaves much to be desired. While it is more rigorous to get into the better French schools there still seems to be something missing. Classes take the form of grueling six hour days in which the same tired talking points are recycled again and again because after two hours of the same material, brains and throats begin to wither and die, leaving a 4 hour marathon to finish. I will give to the French that French students are somewhat better informed on the issues of the day than their American counterparts, but this seems to be a function of their being better served by the local news outlets. There also remains some scorn for intellectualism among many, and the same dislike for anything of genuine artistic merit. Schoolwork is a facsimile of the real thing as after the aforementioned marathon school days, it is hard to get students to do much of anything. In the classroom though, the worry again is that the Socratic impulse has been rendered but a shadow of itself. While Americans as a whole, as a matter of cultural conditioning seem to be incapable of such an impulse, the French are simply unwilling of exercising it. European groupthink?

Point 3:

This is not to say that European society as a whole is missing something – Europeans tend to be far better informed and far more capable of dialogue than most Americans. My above critique is limited to the youth, and it stretches across youth internationally. Perhaps it is an ease of responsibility or an accessibility of cheap entertainment that has rendered abstract thinking a thing of a bygone era, but it is a slender margin that will genuinely talk to you about anything beyond the purely humdrum. A colleague has recently told me that my tendency to pepper my speech with quotation is revolting and that a sense of humor that does not dwell in the excremental or the mundane is necessary of explanation as it is “not funny”. I am or still not sure what exactly to make of this, but I can only conclude that I am savagely out of touch with the Zeitgeist.

Point 4:

The Zeitgeist isn’t all that great anyways; in fact, the Zeitgeist can go and fuck itself.

Point 5:

“Fuck” is a word that still has velocity, at least on the printed page. While linguistically, its use as cheap filler when one is at a loss for something more clever has robbed it of its expletive power; something about in on the page makes what take notice. It is vulgar, it is direct and it is monosyllabic, which makes it especially primal. It’s addition in any exchange forces one to stand up and take notice. It punches, kicks and bites. It is then to be used sparingly. This is the sort of thing that can get one in trouble.

Point 6:

After careful consideration love in which response is expected seems to be in many ways dishonest. It is contractual, superficial and a form of emotional blackmail. The only honest love is that which is either universalistic or that which is unrequited. While the former is an unattainable ideal, the latter is a poisoned chalice. Love is a broken emotion that does few of us any good in the long run. It is fickle, it is agonizing and it is, outside of the universalistic, hopeless.

Point 7:

Hopeless isn’t always as hopeless as it seems, but then sometimes it is even more so.