Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Politics and pathology

On January 17, 1989, a man named Patrick Edward Purdy took an AK 47 into a schoolyard in Stockton, California and opened up on the children, firing 105 rounds. He then killed himself. He was wearing a shirt that was inscribed with the phrase, Death to the Great Satin [sic], and he’d carved the word Hezbollah into the stock of his rife, as well as the words freedom and victory.  Nobody, then or now, has ever claimed that Purdy had the least relation with either Iran or Hezbollah.
I have been thinking of Patrick Edward Purdy as I’ve been reading about the latest slaughterer of children,  Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, in Nice. Although I understand why Bouhlel is being discussed as a terrorist, to my mind he is closer to the Stockton murderer than the team that attacked in Paris last winter.  That is to say: if Hezbollah had not been fighting with the US, and had not gotten its name attached to the blowing up of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, I do not think Purdy would have carved their name into his rifle. Perhaps his desire to die would have taken another form.  I suspect that the same thing holds true for Bouhlel. His rapid “radicalisation”, as the police are putting it, was an act not of politics in the broad sense that would include the terror attacks in Paris (and the terror strafing of Yemen city neighborhoods by Saudi jets), but in the narrow sense of politics as a personal pathology. Madness calls to madness in some damaged neural pathway in the killer’s head.
One of the great changes that I have noticed, in the transition from the Cold War world to the post Cold War world, is the fading away of  peace as a political goal. It used to be a standard piece of political boilerplate: every political  candidate in the West was for peace – even if on terms defined by the overthrow of the other side. And the same was true of Soviet boilerplate.  I never thought I’d miss Cold War hypocrisy, but I do. Nixon’s gravelly unction voice saying peace was better than nobody saying peace, ever. Plans for peace – another boilerplate phrase – have gone the way of central planning.
Peace doesn’t break out spontaneously.  

As I was crossing the street yesterday, holding hands with my boy, a truck stopped for us. And I measured it with my eyes as we passed by it and I shuddered.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

woolf and free indirect discourse

Everybody remembers Virginia Woolf’s takedown of Arnold Bennett in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. Few remember Bennett’s own takedown of Woolf, which occurred in his review of Jacob’s Room. In that review, Bennett wrote, “I have seldom read a cleverer book than Virginia Woolf, a novel which has made a great stir in a small world. It is packed and bursting with originality, and it is  exquisitely written. But the characters do not vially survive in the mind, because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness. I regard this book as characteristic of the new novelists who have recently gained the attention of the alert and the curious; and I admit that for myself I cannot yet descry any coming big novelists.”
In this rather short passage, the emphasis is on cleverness and originality, while, on a lower note, is the idea that this is a novel from and for a small world. The British have a peculiar aversion to the clever – it is a sort of disease, the kind of overthinking that can be overcome with mugs of ale and a lot of greasy food. Underneath the patronizing tone, though, is a serious point. Novels are about – centrally about – creating characters that leave a vital trace in the mind. They “survive” in the mind, having lived on the dead page. This was the principle upon which Bennett rested his confidence that all the cleverness in the world would not make a great, or a “big”, novel; it never occurs to him that something clever and original and that stirred a small world might be a counter-example. It might be that the possibilities of the novel were not exhausted or defined by making characters that survive in the mind. In which case, to go further, perhaps novels are not centrally defined by characters at all, but by a set of relations – for instance, of observations, of style, of the essay and the sketch – that make them, vaguely but definitely, novels.  
That would be one line of defense for Jacob’s Room; but Woolf chose another line, by challenging Bennett’s sense of character and how it is manifested – how, that is, from the dead paper it becomes a live ghost in the mind.
Woolf’s case is built on the division between the external and the internal. For Woolf, Bennett’s mistake is to make the former supreme, and to make the latter a metonym of it. First the house, then the furnishing, then the homeowner. Woolf’s objection is that the homeowner gets lost in the lavish description of the home and the furnishing. Instead of becoming vital, the homeowner becomes a mere token of a type – instead of a character, you have a chess piece. Woolf’s idea is that the motion from the external to the internal is ultimately subordinate to the opposite and primal movement – from the interior, from consciousness, to the exterior, the vast material dross of action and accumulation.
Woolf’s method has been taken to be a defense of subjectivism and of blurred description. These are in turn taken to be morally inferior to objectivity and clarity. However, the most cursory reading of Jacob’s room shows that the exquisite writing takes its sharpness from the external world. In fact, the writing is much less the kind of inward mullling of motive that takes up so much of James.  Woolf’s novel goes out into the streets of London, and into cafes, and into bedrooms, and is far from psychological in the traditional sense.  One has a clear scenic vision of things being experienced.
So what is the dispute about?To my mind, the internal/external division, which was at hand for Woolf, doesn’t quite get to the argument that she is making (which is a bold thing for me to say – and a sort of shitty thing as well, as though Woolf could not think through her own defense. I don’t think that – which would be as patronizing, on my part, as Bennett was on his - but I do think that the categories she was necessarily dealing with had to bend under her treatment in ways that resisted her message  – and that they could not bend enough because the vocabulary she needed wasn’t at hand).  I think what she is ultimately shooting at is what  linguists in the 1960s called free indirect discourse. Pasolini wrote about free indirect discourse in an essay collected in Heretical Empiricism, where he connnects it – that is, the appropriation and collaging of language (in accent, grammar, word choice, etc) – to the epic and the choral.  And to history – to what a Marxist would call dialectical materialism: “It is  certain that every time one has free indirect discourse this implies a sociological consciousness, clear or otherwise, in the author…”
Woolf was long ago stereotyped as impressionistic and lyrical – with the implication that it is other realistic novelists who have the  sociological consciousness. She wrote, so goes the rap, within her “small world”. But I think this is the difference in character building that her essay/reply to Bennett is talking about and taking apart. And I think what she is doing in practice is just this kind of epic scrounging in the fragments and accents of group consciousness.  Groupings – of the people in the Park in Mrs. Dalloway, or around a dinner table in To the Lighthouse, or in the London street in Jacob’s Room – are the central tableau against which consciousness happens in Woolf. One can speak of a collective consciousness, or at least a networked one, that gives us a much different notion of character than that bourgeois heroic one of Bennett’s.  This is where the lateral, seemingly random connections of free indirect discourse take on the task of character building – because what makes character is just this possibility of linguistic appropriation and use, this epic stealing of the words of another. It is not that this level of speech gives us a communism of understanding; instead, it is the ground of the possility of misunderstanding that makes individuality a fleeting thing, a task forever to be reenacted. Individuality is caught in the moment of misunderstanding others. That’s the paradox.  That we have moments of sympathy, of love, or of understanding, is not excluded by this, but the misunderstanding comes first, inherent to the particularity of the subject.  This is why Bennett’s method is so heavy and ultimately, for Woolf, counterproductive. Bennett’s materialism pretends that language is secondary, when the process of leaving a vital character in the mind is a linguistic one. What changed, Woolf implies, is that one has to be clever -- or one is forced to be vacant.  It is the great claustrophobic vacancy of description so dear to the hearts of the inheritors of the 19th century novelistic tradition - that she wants to get rid of. It is not character they create, but dust collecting bric a brac.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

against the imagination

Vico, in the early 18th century, warned against the too extensive use of the “geometric” method in philosophy and the expulsion of rhetoric from the corpus. Twentieth century analytic philosophy is a viconian nightmare, but Vico’s worry that rhetoric would be expelled from the corpus was overblown. Instead, poetry returned under the aegis of a curious argument from imagination. Philosophical subcultures have formed around the consequences of imagining such things as zombies, or arguing about personal identity based on the tale of transposed selves going back to Locke (or, in reality, to Apuleius). The argument goes that the self is separable from the body of the self because we can imagine a dairymaid, say, transposed into the body of a king. Many subtle arguments have been  woven around such imaginary instances.
Myself, I like to imagine fantastic scenarios too. But the thing about most of them is that they never happen. In other words, the imaginative method is best for touching on what we don’t imagine. The fact or facts in natural history that have not been absorbed in our sense of the world, and, for that reason, that the imagination has yet to encounter. The personal identity argument is, to my mind, a case in point. We can well imagine a person’s mind being transposed into another person’s body. But what we see, overwhelmingly, is that this has never happened; nor have we any inkling that it will ever happen. This being the case, it seems that imagination, here, should lead us not to argue about what is proven by our imaginary case, but rather, what is proven by the insufficiency of our imagination to grasp one of the total facts of natural history. We should, I think, rethink what separability even means – and whether transposing an idea that originated in alchemy is valid in trying to understand other entities. The separability of the self and the body might well be imaginable only because the imagination is a crude concept mistaker, taking its mistaken presuppositions and projecting them on the world.

  This isn't what Vico meant at all, at all...

Friday, June 17, 2016

Neglected books Injury time

“I was reminded of the time a close friend visited my house ten minutes before the arrival of a gentleman caller.  I hinted it would be better if she left, but she said he wouldn’t notice she was there. To prove her point she plonked lumps of the children’s Plasticine in the middle of her forehead and chest, stuck darts in them, poured liberal quantities of tomato sauce down her person and lay flat on the sofa, groaning.
He won’t take it in, she said. Just wait and see.
Sure enough – he came in, glanced at her, sat down and complained that he’d had a devil of a day.” – Beryl Bainbridge, Diary

There’s a rather strange, hard to interpret story told in the Homeric hymn to Demeter. When Hades kidnapped the daughter of Demeter, Persephone, the goddess of harvests, wandered about the earth looking for her and refusing to do her job re the harvests. She came, starving and thirsty, to a hut in which an old woman named Baubo sat. Baubo tried to cheer the goddess up, but she remained wrapped in gloom, refusing to eat, until the old woman thought of a prank: she lifted up her skirts and flashed her private parts at the godddess, who then burst out laughing and accepted refreshment.
This story was preserved by the Christian apologists, notably Arnubius and Clement, who found the whole setup appalling. It is the type of humor that has long been considered appalling in the West, down to the present day, which is why it is generally an underground kind of humor.  The Christians certainly didn’t see anything funny about Baubo’s strip act; and indeed, the poet spends no time explaining what was so funny about the crone flashing her moneymaker. The joke is a sort of secret between Demeter and Baubo.
 I would put Beryl Bainbridge down as one of the holders of that secret. For Bainbridge, in some of her novels, particularly Injury Timen(1977), masters the difficult art of combining disasterous circumstances and sexual absurdity even unto rape and murder with the kind of laughter that wells up, in some, at funerals or solemn events – the laughter of embarrassed alienation I suppose you could call it. Or of an even more embarrassing recognition that the solemnity eerily recapitulates the serious play of children.  
Bainbridge is in rare company in this regard. In America, there are traits of the Baubo style in some of Dorothy Parker’s short stories; in the seventies, Iris Owens, after writing pornography under various pseudonyms, gave it a shot with After Claude, introducing, in Harriet, her narrator, one of the most unlikeable protagonists to ever rampage drunkly through a novel and refuse to leave the apartment of an ex boyfriend . The British sit com Absolutely Fabulous and the comedian Sarah Silverman have a bit of Baubo in them. Perhaps the writer who most explicitly explores the secret is Christina Stead, whose character Henny, in The Man who loved Children, coalesces her whole life around it, pitting this mystery against her hated husband Sam’s totalitarian optimism.
  … what a moral, highminded world their father saw! But for Henny there was a wonderful particular  world, and when they went with her they saw it: they saw the fish eyes, the crocodile grins, the hair like a birch broom, the mean men crawling with maggots, and the chilfren restless as an ell, that she saw. She did not often take them with her. She preferred to go out by herself and mooch to the bargain basements and ask the young man in the library what was good to read, and take tea in some obscure restaurant, and wander desolately about criticizing shopwindows and wondering if, in this street or that, she would yet, ‘old as I am looking like a black hag’,  meet her fate. Then she would come home, next to some girl “from a factory who looked like a lily and smelled like a skunk cabbage”, flirting with all the men and the men grinning back…”
Bainbridge died a revered novelist in England, but most of the reverence was for the historical novels she wrote after Young Adolf in 1978.
Historical fiction is an uncertain category which, on an expansive interpretation, encompasses everything from War and Peace to Gravity’s Rainbow; but on a narrower interpretation, concerns those fictions in which some past incident is re-enacted with an abundance of detailing, in response to a miniaturist’s compulsion to get the décor right. It reminds me of the compulsive pleasure some people find in building model boats in bottles. Toby Litt has suggested that historical novels are written and read in bad faith, vacillating between the transcendence of imaginative freedom and the facticity of information – those details! This doesn’t bother me so much. What does bother me is the sense of thwarted play, the sense that the writer is operating within some manufactured enclosure that limits her reach for reasons extrinsic to the aesthetic act – those details again.
Bainbridge’s career as a novelist neatly splits, then, between those first novels, with their Baubodian humor, and the novels of her last period, in which the world given was not so much Bainbridge’s as the period in which she placed her characters. The first novels troubled even those reviewers that conceded the brilliance of the style. The rapes, murders, psychotic children that formed the background against which totally self-involved characters worried about other things produced a laughter that the reader felt, vaguely, should be suppressed. In America, Injury Time was reviewed by Katha Pollitt with such incomprehension – Pollitt thought the novel was trying to make some op ed point about the awfulness of modern times – that I can only feel that some vast cultural gap lay between the writer and the reader.
In fact, the urban locale of Injury Time  with its obscene drunks sitting in rubbish by the side of the street, it casually criminal transvestites, its fat upper class men so confused by the ceaseless moral double accounting they keep in their head as to be totally vulnerable to the least glitch in practical life are things that I can look up and see, here,now, in Santa Monica, 2016. It is the world in which beggary has returned, symptomatic of a much deeper illness in capitalism. In that sense, far from writing in the style of the op ed, Bainbridge was seeing how the op ed mindset in the governing class was more and more detached from the reality of the street.
The odd couple at the center of the novel, Edward, an upper class accountant, and Binny, his “mistress” (as Edward tells others, since Binny hit him when he once called her that), a woman of no visible means of support living in a house in some outer fringe of London. In brief, the plot revolves around a dinner party that Binny holds for Edward, one of his clients, Simpson, and his client’s wife, Muriel. The dinner party is interrupted, and the house taken over, by a criminal gang that is being chased by the police. They remain in the house for perhaps a day, smashing it up, humiliating Edward and Simpson, and trying to find a way out of the police siege. In the course of the hostage taking, the leader of the gang, Ginger, rapes Binny.
This of course doesn’t’ sound like a laff riot. That it is funny owes everything to Bainbridge’s style. There are hints of the camp genius of Joe Orton in her dialogue (the characters throughout fail to communicate with each other on the simplest level, due to misunderstanding, drunkeness, panic, exhaustion, and their false assumptions one about the other), and partly her way of using the dramatist’s trick of shifting the spotlight from one character to the other as  they mull thoughts that are at utter variance with what the other characters are either thinking or trying to convey.  
Comedy is a soap bubble, and you can’t simply take out a slice of it and show it around, because it won’t be funny anymore.  Its all too pop-able. Everything in the novel is brilliantly timed – from the way we receive “information” (all recited facts suffer from terminal deformation as they are passed from Edward to Binny to Simpson to Muriel) to the way the confusion of the hostage taking is allowed to remain confusing, for different reasons, for each of the characters. That is a very difficult thing to do, since the authorial impulse is to clear up confusion, rather than let it play itself out. The latter seems, to the cautious author, to come  dangerously near to confusing the audience, and in the realistic paradigm of fiction, confusing the audiencce is a grave fault. But confusion is as much a part of the world as clouds. And all Bainbridge’s characters are as seriously confused as, well, I am, and you are, reader. Clarity is a rare thing.
Enough – I would like to quote at length, but I’ll forebear.   


Monday, June 13, 2016

neglected books: skepticism and animal faith

George Santayana has always been the odd man out among the great American philosophers. The native genius of American philosophy sprang from a pragmatism shot through with Emerson’s transcendental occasions;  and Santayana, if we scan the  CV only, seems to have duly drank at this spring. He was the student of William James, after all, and during his heyday in the twenties and thirties, he played Atreus to Dewey’s Thyestes, or, more exactly, Dupin to Dewey’s Minister D… Dewey, in Santayana’s opinion, was too heady, too fumbling, and above all too liberal. Santayana, in Dewey’s opinion,  was too clever by half and too inclined to worship an order that gave him every privilege – a rentier philosopher.

The too clever reputation has stuck. Open Santayana and it is easy to see why. When we read Skepticism and Animal Faith, the first thing we are struck by is that, if he absorbed James’s pragmatism, he imbibed it with a writing style much more like James’s brother’s, Henry. And this stylistic choice was not an accident, but a methodological choice. Santayana thought that philosophy was not really best advanced, or, as he might put it,best  performed by  debate; the impress of this conviction lies behind a style unlike almost any other in American philosophy, presenting philosophical views that are less arguments than a sort of uncovering of ideational motives corresponding to the characteristics of philosophical figures (the skeptic, the Platonist, the naturalist, etc.)  in much the way James’s characters, in the latter novels, approach by indirection the betrayals that they are, to their retrospective horror, all too capable of.

In this vein, Santayana’s Skepticism and Animal Faith is one of the great frustrating books, advancing its themes less as deductions than as a sort of striptease in which the philosophical figures cavort on a stage to an audience of bloodless angels. Santayana, too, has that American philosophical allergy to the “myth of the given” , but his way of doing philosophy, after fully accounting for the insufficiency of the given to really account for any of the ‘facts’ of the world, is to take a tremendous detour back to a curious defense of essences. Santayana’s sense of essence has been radically converted by the skeptic’s questioning to one that has only a distant kinship with  essence as it appears in traditional theology, morality and cosmology. Plato, in one of his dialogues, asks whether it could be possible for such things as dirt and hair to have a correspondence in the ideas, and decides that they couldn’t – they are all too existentially connected to becoming. Santayana ignores this famous Platonic division and cheerfully welcomes dirt and hair and all other things into the realm of essence. For Santayana, essences are to the world what a book catalogue would be to Borges’s Library of Babel – “It [the realm of essence] is simply the unwritten catalgue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed.”

Santayana argues this position at more length than I am prepared to go in his three volume opus on the Realms of Being. One can allow the practicing philosopher to take up those tomes; Scepticism and Animal Faith, on the contrary, can be picked up by the merely curious reader, because, while it does not stint on technicalities, it is not enchained by them. It contains marvelous extended scenarios, some of the best in the philosophical literature. For instance, here is Santayana, doing justice to the solipsist’s position and putting it back into what he feels to be its natural position:

So far is solipsism of the present moment from being self-contradictory that it might, under other circumstances, be the normal and invincible attitude of the spirit; and I suspect it may be that of many animals. The difficulties I find in maintaining it consistently come from the social and laborious character of human life. A creature whose whole existence was passed under a hard shell, or was spent in a free flight, might find nothing paradoxical or acrobatic in solipsism; nor whouold he feel the anguish which men feel in doubt, because doubt leaves them defenceless and undecided in the presence of on-coming events. A creature whose actions were predetermined might have a clearer mind. He might keenly enjoy the momentary scene, never conceiving of himself as a separate body or as anything but the unity of that scene, nor his enjoyment as anything but its beauty: nor would he harbour the least suspicion that it would change or perish, nor any objection to its doing so if it chose. Solipsism wouod then be selflessness and scepticism simplicity. They would not be open to disruption from within. The ephemeral insect would accept the evidence of his ephemeral object, whatevver quality this might chance to have; he would not suppose, as Descartes did, that in thinking anything his own existence was involved. Being new-born himself, with only this one innate (and also experimental) idea, he would brign to his single experience no extraneous habits of interpretation or inference; and he would not be troubled by doubts, because he would believe nothing.”

This is magnificent, and even, given the ethology of the time, plausible. The standard of intelligence by which philosophers and their henchmen, the journalists or popular science writers, still judge animals is, comparatively, retarded. Intelligence is never judged for the animal – there is no novelistic transposition into what it is “like” to be such and such a beast. Of course, that novelistic leap is all too human, and the solipsism of the fly, such as it is described by Santayana, strikes me as strangely akin to that of the Wall Street stockbroker, of whose kind Santayana knew a few.

The price to be paid for Santayana’s kind of philosophy (a kind in which style is as intrinsic as the carapace is to a beetle) is not entrapment in an infinitity of technical questions of diminishing resonance (the fate of analytic philosophy), but a cold bloodedness that is all too freezing for my taste. Santayana was a very closeted gay man, who ended his life living as a tenant in a nunnery in Rome. His affections were always, so far as I can gather from the letters, frost-bitten. In SAF, this disposition is always just beneath the surface:

 “I myself have no passionate attachment to existence, and value this world for the intuitions it can suggest, rather than for the wilderness of facts that compose it. To turn away from it may be the deepest wisdom in the end. What better than to blow out the candle, and to bed! But at noon this pleasure is premature. I can always hold it in reserve, and perhaps nihilism is a system – the simplest of all – on which we shall all agree in the end.”

This accomodates our final end a bit too richly. It reminds us of the fascist slogan: viva la muerte!

This is perhaps no accident. Santayana’s politics was always inclined to fascism. In 1931, surveying the problematic modern scene (which he took in a wholly sub species aeternitas fashion – the Great Depression was a matter for intermittent notice in the letters, where he made the usual rentier complaints against FDR), he wrote that one of the great problems among the “Western” countries was:

… an inherited form of government, by organized parties
and elections, which was based on revolutionary
maxims, and has become irrelevant to the true work
of the modern world if not disastrous for it.

In 1951, a year before his death, he corresponded with Corliss Lamont, who wanted to enlist him as a “humanist”. In the course of so doing, Lamont defended Santayana from the charge of fascism. Santayana gently disabused him, writing that,, on the contrary,  he welcomed Mussolini (Santayana had been living in Italy by this time for around thirty years) and Franco, even if he agreed that Mussolini, at least, was a bad man. He at least, to paraphrase Santayana’s defense, made the trains run on time.   

Like other of the great modernists, Santayana’s authoritarian streak arose from a cancerous nostalgia for something other than modernity. Unlike Pound or Lewis or Eliot, though, Santayana fully accepted the nihilism that gnawed at the very core of the existentialist project. He’s perpetually the philosophical loner, which I accept as a genuine posture of thought. In that spirit, Skepticism and Animal Faith is a loner’s masterpiece.  

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

the lost classics

There is a subculture of neglected or lost books, of which I am a member. I am a frequent visitor at the neglected books blog, which keeps lists put out at various times by journals like Anteaus and American Scholar. Typically, these lists are compiled from the responses of authors who are asked to name a book that deserves more recognition.
While I was travelling back from Paris a couple of days ago, I read a book, Lost Classics, which consisted of little essays extolling neglected books, lost books, childhood favorites, and the like. The essays were built on the format of the personal essay, the dominant form in our time. I’m not against personal essays, but I do find that context sorta gets whacked in favor of a rather uncritical self report.
I thought, naturally, about what I’d include in a list. And then I thought I’d write my own little essays about writers who have not gotten a fair shake in the American culture I know.
But before I do that: what does it mean, in a book’s career, to be lost? Or, more broadly, to be rediscovered?
The rediscovery of, for instance, the Bible during the 16th and 17th century was not an event of merely antiquarian interest, but was of vast importance to the  formation of a literate public, and to the formation of pre-modern culture. It was not the only cause of the religious wars, but it played a very important role in them. The New Model Army of Cromwell may have been the first to supply its soldiers with books – specifically, the Soldier’s Pocket Bible.
The Renaissance is also inextricably tied to the “new learning”. Although historians now tend to dissolve the Renaissance into an epiphenomenon or a retrospective illusion about the 14th and 15th century, I am true to my education and like to think of Gemistos Plethon sailing from Byzantium to Italy with a boatload of manuscripts in 1438. This is the Gemistos celebrated in Pound’s Cantos. Whoever the agent,it seems that there was a rage for manuscripts in Florence in the early fifteenth century, and that Plato was finally released into the European mainstream by translators and commentors like Ficino. Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato is a bit too magisterial – Plato was teleported into Europe in various stages. Still, Whitehead’s remark is a good measure for scaling the importance, in the posthumous life of an author, of rediscovery.
That said, I’m going to list a few of my discoveries.


Sunday, June 05, 2016

curiosity cabinets

A detached page…

Visit to the Muséum d’histoire naturelle yesterday on Rue Buffon. I am fond or, to be Frenchy, J’adore this little piece of Paris, between the Austerlitz station and that Hammam-mosque on St. Hilaire that boasts a little salon de the. First, I, with Adam in tow (or, more precisely, en avant, since I was pushing Adam in  his stroller) met Francois at the Luxembourg Park, where we strolled about under a grey sky that was determined to make the Park look ordinary or even dreary. And succeeded: the Park did look dreary, as we walked down dreary paths among dreary, locked up amusement areas for the kids, past the dreary tennis courts where two ardent but very wet players were batting around an increasingly soppy ball, and past the rain bedraggled flowering bushes, and past the dreary orangery into the coven of streets near Saint Sulpice, wet and grey, and into an American style lunch place. It was American style down to the menu, which advertised bagels and lox and various super burgers. Francois and I discussed the dreary state of American and especially French politics (I said that if it was between Juppé and Hollande, I’d be for Juppé, and Francois said Juppe was making an effort to get the bobo vote, like mine). Adam, after eating his bagel with cream cheese, quietly imagined that a red plastic lego piece he was carrying was Spiderman and had it fight with various other objects, all of which were, for the moment, supervillains and superheros. Finally it was time for coffee and I noticed how patient Adam had been and proposed going to the Muséum, where I thought we would find dinosaur skeletons.
In fact, I had never visited the Muséum’s exhibition space. In 2010, I have a very sweet memory of strolling the flourishing garden on an Autumn day with A. I was new in Paris then. I also remember, in 2012, visiting a seminar room in the complex of buildings with M., where we listened to lectures on the history of taxidermy,  M. being a great fan of taxidermy.
In any case (a trick of language, this “in any case”, like a dreary usher inviting the guests in to see the cosmetized corpse of a transition), there we were, entering the vast first floor hall, gazing at the cadenced, suspended skeletons of whales under what dim artificial light there was, with the outside light barely filtering through the colored windows far above us: this gave the whole the aspect of being a vast, antiquated acquarium. Adam was hesitant and frankly afraid of some of the stuffed animals. This was not just due to the Muséum’s intention, but an echo of yesterday’s disastrous decision to visit the Musée Grevin: a wax museum on Boulevard Montmartre. It was raining yesterday – rain was always strumming its fingers on the roof when we were in Paris  – and so I had looked up things to do for kids in Paris when it rains. A. was off to a business meeting. After navigating the Metro with the stroller and  Adam, we plunked down our Euros and plunged into an atmosphere of grotesque entertainment. Adam was not amused. In fact, he immediately felt something was not right at the Grevin when we went into the hoaky antechamber, a mirrored room, and were entertained by various cheap light and sound tricks. This, he decided, was definitely a monster haunted place, which who in their right mind would want to visit? The wax figures were even worse: they were too lifelike and at the same time unlifelike – had that zombie-ish glitter of in-between. Soon he was crying, and soon I was rushing through the many many chambers of that combination of chamber of horrors and celebration of celebrity with a sobbing little boy in my arms. However, the Muséum d’histoire naturelle was not out to frighten, but to edify, and Adam realized this. The rather kitsch tableaux at the Grevin charm me (I like these lefthand descendents of curiosity cabinets). The taxidermist’s dream of herds of Sub-Saharan beasts in the Muséum are charming in a different way (these are the true, lineal descendents of the curiosity cabinet – I could draw up a family tree, and show you the affects of unnatural selection). All the skins are genuine – they belong to beasts that died long ago – and the point is to learn about them close up. Or the ostensive point. The closest we came to the Grevin was the Salle des disparues et presque-disparues. It was a long, shadowy gallery, practically unlit, on the top floor. A glass case with a giant stuffed dodo is the first thing to greet the visitor, providing the motif for the effigies within. Dodoes are, legitimately, the monarchs of the kingdom of the extinct – or extinguished, as the French say. It is a tour, in brief, of man’s inhumanity, or perhaps better, surplus humanity, to beasts, braining them, plucking them, eating them or wasting them, and leaving mounds of bones upon the shore. It was so dark in there that I couldn’t read the notices on all of the glass cages, and am not sure if the snowy egret is extinct or nearly extinct – or was that the whooping crane?
Emerging from the end of the world, we descended to the ground floor again and went out to look at the Garden. The Garden was wet. Still, I like the tall plane trees that line the big peripheral paths, which led us to the gates at the bottom. In the area near the gate, there’s a large statue of the “discoverer” of evolution (a little French bragging here – the statue is of Lamarck). Tucked in a corner towards the left was a lonely ice cream stand, which we headed to. Adam ate  a double chocolate ice cream at a table from which we’d wiped away the puddles of water; after this,  Francois headed out to photograph the Seine cresting under the Pont d’Austerlitz while Adam went back to the statue and climbed onto the plinth. Then he started skipping around the statue singing London Bridge is falling down. I watched him, and allowed the spirit of some old poet to wander around inside me, looking for the symbol here. Surely I was being given a Baudelarian correspondance, and what was I going to do with it?
The day grew drearier.

Later, in the news, there were reports of flooding in Northern France.