How many rainy days have I lived through in my life? I’d guesstimate more than 2 thousand. Not days of perpetual cloudburst, which are rare, but days of off and on drippiness, of drizzle and low clouds, of looking out the window and saying, “It’s raining again?”
All those days. Yet what do I know about rain?
Know, here, is an ambiguous word, reflecting both acquaintance, a poetics of familiarity, and logic, or the science of geography. From the point of view of the latter, rain is an effect of the complex atmospheric system, composed of one form of matter, and in no way organized by its own intelligence or life. The smallest microbe has the advantage of self-organization and reproductive capacity over the largest cyclone. But from the point of view of familiarity, this doesn’t seem right. From my acquaintance with rain, it seems, if not wilful, at least on the order of other non-domestic beasts and plants. It is above all the negative of shelter.
Bachelard, in the Poetics of Space, makes the good point that “every truly inhabited space comports the essence of the notion of the house (maison).” It is the old janus-faced house/home card. Rain seems to be, to a city dweller such as myself, something to get out of. And those who cannot get out of the rain – the homeless – are not just soaked – they are rain-cursed. The heat of summer is, perhaps, more fatal to the homeless, especially now, as summers grow exponentially more threatening. But in older people – such as myself – who adapted to a weather system that we have drunkenly tossed in the garbage can, the rain, soaking you, is a truer measure of misery.
This is rain as a dark art. But within the house, with the rain coming down outside the window, the rain is also a blessing. It has often been noticed that the God of the Pentateuch is not only the God who spoke from the fire to Moses, but the God whose power to bring rain is of the essence to the community. In Deuteronomy, the contrast is made between the fertile Nile, where the water is, as it were, from the very landscape, and the promised land, where the water is a matter of precipitation. We think of the ancient civilizations as riverine, oriented to rivers, taking their water from rivers, but there are other communities where the rain takes the place of the river.
In Paris, of course, the river has long become more décor than godhead – although the occasional floods disabuse us of the notion that the river is “tamed”. But it is the rain that makes us think of water as something wild. Wild in the city sense, like pigeons, not wild like predators in the jungle. I watch the rain and smile: the city needs refreshing. Or I watch the rains in November, which in conjunction with the time change makes everything dark early, and I have a seasonal down.
Still, I rarely feel the rain. My most dramatic rain experience was in Austin, Texas. It was the year I dropped out of grad school and everything seemed to go wrong – one of those years. They come to even the most bourgeois among us. Anyway, for reasons I don’t remember, I had to go to Northern Austin, which back then was where the city petered out into wastelands and car parks. The clouds burst as I was walking along – I think I was lost, at least that is how it is in my memory – and I got utterly drenched. All the petty miseries of my life were in that drenching. I was a mini-Ahab walking along a highway over which cars were speeding and splashing. I received my fair share of splashing as well.
Here, rain was not a blessing but an injustice. The unfairness of life – which is basically being without a home/house – was a palpable, wet thing.
That memory has dimmed, but not vanished – and I think of it this November, as tents go up on the banks of the Seine, where the homeless are encamped, or on the square of the Hotel de Ville, or in the alleys near the Republique. The homeless seem much more present now – and from what I read, this is especially true of the States – than they were five years ago, in the pre-Covid days.
Rain should be a blessing. That’s my politics.