Commentary, December 1990
The segue between endings and beginnings always provokes some sort of cosmic re-evaluation of positions. In a world of intense specificity and specialization, we have to invent occasions to be philosophic. Semesters, projects, jobs, issues, budgets, relationships, governments, years…
And as we slide into a new cycle of months, one calendar thinning down to its last page and the next initiating its fresh bulk, we are obligingly invited to take stock, tally up the wins and losses, average the good with the bad, assign grades, and plan for the next inning. It’s easy to let the little parameters of our own lives blind the big, bad and abundant peripheries, but at some point, somewhere, we need to try to see “the big picture,” ask the 64,000F question, as the Romantic poet Shelley put it: “What is all this sweet work worth?” Woody Allen answered at the end of “Annie Hall”: “We do it for the eggs.”
In Paris, as Anglo-Americans, we, just perhaps, have the slight psychic advantage of seeing major structural shifts in the larger order of things – social, political, economic, aesthetic – in that we already live at least a tad out-of-sync with the mundane conditions of ordinary daily-ness. Ours is a hybrid micro-culture. Our degree of blindedness to the environment that engulfs us is limited by the undeniable fact that the environment only belongs to us in part. With both advantages and drawbacks, we are thus destined to a distanced perspective. Poets and artists also tend to share this, in that the boundaries of art form, in a sense, their own carte-de-séjour¬less continent. Here is the trough from which artists and expatriates both drink.
Unknowingly, I have been collecting bits of information, both obvious and subtle, and depositing them on some interior, unmarked shelf, resisting or frightened by the ultimate need to collate their individual banalities and formulate conclusions. This is clearly the age of fragmentation, sound bites, marketing ideas that pre-empt what they’re marketing. Like what a good personal computer can do today, reality is what we care to cut and paste, save, manipulate, store, insert, import, and delete – words, pictures, memory. What is happening to the world? How do we understand what we are part of?
Standing in front of a group of nineteen and twenty-year old students every morning for three hours in my writing class has afforded a telegraphic view on the future. At best, there is a blind appetite for raw information, for data that’ll translate into qualifications, that’ll help assure some position somewhere. The apparatus for reflection, thought, for developing wisdom and judgement, for seeing the big picture and being able to question it, lest reject it, seems oddly unplugged! The use of metaphor is being erased from the diskette of human consciousness. And, among young people, perhaps the most telling and atrocious malaise that I’ve noticed as a teacher is the absence of belief in dreams and the distrust of hope. It’s like human responses have been so over-zapped by stimuli in the present that the future is a concept of blasé proportion.
What are the consequences of living at a moment when hope is out of date? The degree of security needed to secure the security of the recent Paris conference on European security should leave us feeling mighty insecure! Structurally, the organization of contemporary life on our planet is taking on obvious if not alarming changes. Not surface changes, but disruptions in the underlying assumptions that drive us through our activities, choices, and decisions. We know about the state of the French lycée, the reunification of Germany, the demise of Communism, the post-rectifiable state of the environment, the imminence of war in the Gulf, the disintegration of Soviet society, the end of the Cold War, and the carcinogenic economy of the United States. But we know these things as world events, as facts, as statistics, as information, as commodities in themselves. Dan Rather recently broadcast the Nightly News direct from a war ship in the Gulf. The avenue for bringing us the news becomes the news and we, the consumer of information, innocently ingest the confusion of form and content passively and defenselessly as we pull on our socks in the morning, sauté vegetables for dinner, hurry for the Metro…
Last Wednesday, screeching down the Blvd. St. Germain in my brakeless old Peugeot, my four-year old gave me a clue on how to live. “Papa, tu sais, un peu est mieux que rien de tout.” A little is better than none at all. Messages come from Heaven in different voices. We stopped in at our local marchand de volailles and picked up a holiday turkey. The 348F price still has me reeling, but as we watched the artisan-butcher slice open the healthy gizzard and show us the gras and grain from Bresse I knew both what my son was saying and why we lived in Paris.