Not Quite a Mairie Marathon

 

 

 

The title here is an inside joke for people who read my blog back in its founding days.

“If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.”

Well it’s not as far as the Mairie Marathon and it didn’t take as long, but it wasn’t as well planned either.  It was pretty far nonetheless.  Take a look at the map below if you don’t believe me.  All of the traced route was walked.  I wish it had been as interesting as Paris.  Unfortunately it wasn’t.  Over the course of the whole thing I only took 16 pictures.  If I were particularly keen on taking repetitive pictures of decrepit row houses I could have taken more than my memory card would have held.  However, I did manage to take a few pictures that I don’t think I’m flattering myself by calling atypical for DC.

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Excited children construct ancient snow ruins from bizarre, climate-change-induced snowfall.

 

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I’ve never heard of her, but she has a statue in Lincoln Park opposite the great man himself.

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And here is that benevolent man.  Look at that little pillar; notice the axe bound by sticks?  A fasces…Etruscan symbol of power given heinous connotations by Italians and Germans during WWII.

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Stalactites on Florida Ave.

 

 

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Trinity Washington University (aka Trinity College)

 

 

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Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

And then I didn’t take any pictures for the second half of the walk.  Partially there was nothing striking, but most likely I was already too tired to find anything striking to take a picture of.

Of the Glorification of Work

Montaigne hasn’t actually written an essay on the glorification of work, at least not that I’ve seen.  I just felt compelled to share a couple observations on our perception of work that have been troubling me recently. I realize that I’ve already written about work—in fact, it was an essay about work and “ourselves as a job” that brought about the revitalization of this blog—but plenty of people write about the same topic numerous times, and here this is only my second essay on it.  I won’t claim to have exhausted all of my thoughts on a topic in a single essay!

At the time of that essay I was in favor of this idea of “ourselves as a job” for tricking us into improving ourselves, and I still do like this way of viewing ourselves as improvable. However, the obsession with work is conveyed by some as being what makes us essentially American.  Take this new Cadillac commercial for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGJSI48gkFc

Sgt. Buck here is trying to tell me that I should buy myself a Cadillac because I’m an American—an American because I work hard and I think it’s feeble-minded and overindulgent to take off the entire month of August and to stroll home from work along a wide tree-lined boulevard and stop at a café on my way.  A true American would blaze powerfully along the streets in a sparkling new Cadillac, without a second to spare for genial conversation at a café. Work work work! Buy buy buy!

I realize that it’s not a new idea or a new complaint, but since when is working the be-all end-all? And don’t get me wrong, I see the value of good, hard work, but I’m allergic to being manipulated and taken advantage of.  So when I hear these exhortations to work, what I really hear is, “Sacrifice your happiness, your time, and your life so that you can work harder and make more money and buy more things.  And what if I don’t want things?  What if I want time and life and conversation with friends?  What if after work I’m too tired to do anything that I want to do—too tired to treat myself as a job, to improve myself?  I would be exhausted from perfecting skills that have no basis in humanity, skills like rapid word-processing and excel-sheet manipulation that were once inconceivable because they did not exist, skills that will soon be obsolete because of some new invention that’s on the way.  Is exhausting myself with perfecting these skills really better than exhausting myself in the study and practice of philosophy, happiness, and healthy relationships? Cadillac wants me to believe this, because if I work more I can spend more on their cars.

Perhaps it’s just a television phenomenon, though, since my next example is from a tv show.  I also observed the glorification of work last night in an episode of House of Cards.  One of the congressional aides is having an informal interview with a higher-up in the White House.  This higher-up is speaking in a calculating way.  Knowing that the job is stressful and demanding, she paints a bleak picture of it for this poor congressional aide.  The intention of this bleak picture is two-fold: to scare away the weak, and to entice the ambitious. “The job is so terrible,” I paraphrase it in my memory, “that you will work more than you can handle, you’ll earn less money than you can afford, you’ll sleep less than you should, you’ll be expected to look prettier than everyone, and you’ll lose all your friends.”  But in watching this, what are we meant to feel? We want her to say, “Yes. I know.  I’m accustomed to adversity and I can handle it.  Whatever it takes.” And we don’t only want her to say it, we want to have the opportunity to say it ourselves. But what good would that effort be?  The government in House of Cards isn’t exactly working tirelessly for the public good; all of this effort and adversity will be endured purely for the sake of advancing the power of your party in the capricious political battleground.  Is this good? Healthy?  Is this what we want our lives to be like?

In reading this book, L’Ecume des jours (translated as: Froth on the Daydream), by Boris Vian, published in 1947, there’s a scene that I’ve roughly translated as follows below.  They’re talking about workers at a copper mine that they’ve just passed in their fancy car.

“But don’t you think they would prefer to stay home and kiss their wives and go to the pool and to other diversions?”

“No,” said Colin, “because they don’t think of it.”

“But is it their fault that they believe it’s good to work?” 

“No,” said Colin, “It’s not their fault. It’s because we told them : ‘Work, it’s sacred, it’s good, it’s beautiful, it’s what counts above everything, and only workers are entitled to everything.’ Only, we arrange things so that they work all the time and can’t profit from it.”

“But so they’re foolish,” said Chloé.

“Yes, they’re foolish,” said Colin. “It’s because of this that they agree with those who make them believe that work—work—is what’s best.  It’s what helps them avoid thinking and searching for ways to progress and to make them no longer have to work.”  **

 

It seems to me that the people who have it truly figured out are the ones who don’t have to work.  That’s not to say that they don’t do anything worthwhile, but they don’t have to slave away in a system that’s only interested in its own preservation—not in the happiness of the people who constitute it.

 

** And for those of you who are interested, here’s the original French:

– Mais tu crois qu’ils n’aimeraient pas mieux rester chez eux et embrasser leur femme et aller à la piscine et aux divertissements?

– Non, dit Colin, parce qu’ils n’y pensent pas.

– Mais est-ce que c’est leur faute si ils croient que c’est bien de travailler?

– Non, dit Colin, ce n’est pas leur faute. C’est parce qu’on leur a dit : le travail, c’est sacré, c’est bien, c’est beau, c’est ce qui compte avant tout, et seuls les travailleurs ont droit à tout. Seulement, on s’arrange pour les faire travailler tout le temps et alors ils ne peuvent pas en profiter.

– Mais alors ils sont bêtes, dit Chloé.

– Oui, ils sont bêtes, dit Colin. C’est pour ça qu’ils sont d’accord avec ceux qui leur font croire que le travail, c’est ce qu’il y a de mieux. Ça leur évite de réfléchir et de chercher à progresser et à ne plus travailler.

 

Something Doesn’t Smell Fishy

One thing that you have to love about Montaigne is how easily and unselfconsciously he jumps from an abstruse essay on subtlety and two types of ignorance that really might just be the same kind of ignorance (he didn’t convince me, but I did like his display of (false?) modesty) to a simple essay, filled with almost child-like glee, on the subject of smells!

“And such as make use of fine exotic perfumes are with good reason to be suspected of some natural imperfection which they endeavor by these odors too conceal.  To smell, though well, is to stink.”

“I am nevertheless a great love of good smells, and as much abominate the ill ones which also I scent a greater distance, I think, than other men.”

And the best part of this short essay is his description of how scents “cleave” to him:

“’Tis not to be believed how strangely all sorts of odours cleave to me, and how apt my skin is to imbibe them. He that complains of nature that she has not furnished mankind with a vehicle to convey smells to the nose had no reason; for they will do it themselves, especially to me; my very mustachios, which are full, perform that office; for if I stroke them but with my gloves or handkerchief, the smell will not out a whole day; they manifest where I have been, and the close, luscious, devouring, viscid melting kisses of youthful ardour in my wanton age left a sweetness upon my lips for several hours after.”

Which makes me think of my own recent olfactory observations.  You know that good freshly brewed coffee smell?  I love it; not much is better.  But coffee’s spirit has a dark side–that staleness that clings to you if you’re in a café too long.  If you’re not in a café drinking your coffee, it’s fine, only your breath gets stale, and you can easily remedy that with water, mints, or food.  But if you spend more than thirty minutes in there it clings and cleaves to you.  It invades your every pore and every weave of cloth on your body.  You’ll carry it around for another ten hours if you don’t do something about it.  And it’s not that beautiful freshly brewed smell; it’s that rotten stink of beans slaughtered and gorged upon for you to attain your caffeinated buzz.

I’ll be the last one to say that it isn’t worth it though.  And you know what?  The stale smell of coffee beans sacrificed purely to satisfy our pleasure and whim, it may not be innately satisfying as the freshly brewed coffee-scent is, but it is redolent and reminiscent of coffee enjoyed, good conversations had, fine and interesting words read, and (in some cases) slightly-less-fine-and-interesting words shared.

Yours aromatically,

Mongrel J

A Departure

You know that feeling?  That feeling where you lost something that you just had in your hands.  And you’re wandering all over the place wondering where in the WORLD you put it?  You just had it!  All you can think about is: I just had it!  It was here.  Where is it now?  It can’t have gone anywhere! I haven’t gone anywhere. You’re wandering around, pacing from one idea to the next, one hiding spot to the next, turning over cushions you’ve already turned over three times, with no method other than your madness–your all-consuming madness.  You exhaust yourself in the search. Your obsessed mind, confused by this lapse finds no rest until it shuts down from exhaustion.  You’ve looked literally everywhere you can think of, but because of your confusion you can’t think of everywhere.  You think you have, but you haven’t.  You finally throw yourself onto the couch in despair.  You turn on the TV, but you’re not thinking about the Olympics.  You don’t care about Olympic figure-skating, you only care about that DAMN THING that you misplaced. But where is it where is it WHERE IS IT?

What can I do?! I want it back! How could I have lost it! I just had it!

(The cycle continues.  A similar frenzied search proceeds.)

But now you’re actually worn out from fruitless search.  You collapse on the couch again, this time resigned to your fate of NEVER finding it EVER again.  You would shed a tear, but that would mean giving up hope.  You finally decide to put on some beautiful music, the beauty of which is so universally acclaimed that you will naturally be immersed by it wholly and utterly—how could you be otherwise when confronted with such a masterpiece that encapsulates so much of humanity in the sometimes cunning, sometimes subtle, sometimes heart-felt-and-heart-rending array of musical notes and poetry.  This is it, you tell yourself, the cure to my having lost that thing.  I will listen to this music—the best music there is, the most beautiful—and I will realize that the whatever it is doesn’t matter.  Only the music.  Only beauty and life.

The music starts.  The volume is turned up loud, but the song starts quiet.  Yep, this is just the thing.  Listen to how beautiful it is; it is the best.  It’s not for nothing they call it the best. I truly believe it.  How could you not?  I wonder where that damn thing—no wait, stop.  Listen to the music.  Wow. So good.

You lean back, recline, close your eyes, the better to appreciate the song’s beauty…and sweetly, imperceptibly drift off to sleep.

You don’t awake with a start.  In fact, the reverse.  You wake up slowly.  It’s light outside. You feel fully rested and newly confident.  Your back doesn’t even ache from having slept so long on the couch. The music is long over by now, and you think to yourself, somewhat wryly, “Yeah. The most beautiful.”  You place your hands on either side of your body to push yourself up off the couch, when you feel by the tip of your little finger the shape of something that doesn’t belong on the couch wrapped up in one blanket under another blanket: the familiar shape of whatever it is. 

You smile to yourself.  Of course that’s where it was.

Of Vain Subtleties

I just scratched an entire rambling first paragraph; not something I normally do.  I try to be Mozart and have all the notes pour onto the page fully mature and organized.  I figured it was better for all of us (you and me included) not to be forced to witness my inner turmoil over whether I consider myself to be subtle or not.  First I was convinced that I was and that I was proud of it, and then I was convinced the other way, and then….well you get the point. 

What is shocking about the whole thing is that I was actually contemplating subtlety and where I fall on the spectrum early this morning, before I even had an inkling of a suspicion that the next of Montaigne’s Essays was “Of Vain Subtleties.”  In typical fashion, though, subtlety has little to do with his essay on subtlety.  Subtlety, the starting block, leads him to this rather interesting and utilitarian idea: “’Tis a strong evidence of a weak judgement when men approve of things for their being rare and new, or for their difficulty, where worth and usefulness are not conjoined to recommend them.”

Which, naturally, leads him to outline his theory of ignorance and understanding…

On one end of the spectrum of understanding…you have ignorance.  On the other end of the spectrum…you also have ignorance.  The way he describes it makes me think of Buddhist thought, or at least some sort of Eastern aesthetic: my understanding of Nirvana being a return to nothingness, and my understanding of Eastern art being a return to simplicity.  [Wow, nothing subtle about my facile reductionism there!]

Betwixt the two extremes of ignorance are the people who leave the first in pursuit of the second, and who believe inaccurately that they have attained the second.  “The simple peasants are good people,” he says, “and so are the philosophers, or whatever the present age calls them, men of strong and clear reason, and whose souls are enriched with an ample instruction of profitable sciences.  The mongrels who have disdained the first form of the ignorance of letters, and have not been able to attain to the other (sitting betwixt two stools, as I and a great many more of us do), are dangerous, foolish, and importunate; these are they that trouble the world.”  His next sentence is a humble and admirably self-deprecating one.  “And therefore it is that I, for my own part, retreat as much as I can towards the first and natural station, whence I so vainly attempted to advance.”

Is there a paradox here? Is it his very self-deprecation that elevates him to that second stool? 

And now, having identified the paradox (assuming you agree with me), are we ever able to parrot his words and believe them hard enough to elevate ourselves to the second stool? 

Yours importunately,

Mongrel J

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