This interesting gap in our fundamental condition came to mind the other day as I was riding the 11 line up from République, after an evening of beery political speculation with Dominique, Karine’s brother-in-law, Fifi’s husband.
Reasonably honest and quite generous himself, Dominique is always shocked but never surprised by the dishonesty and selfishness of others. This is why, at an early age, his nervously petit bourgeois family, not unnaturally, pushed him to take a tenured job in the national police. They had hopes that economic security and a relentlessly hostile environment would demonstrate beyond rational doubt that humans are une pourriture (trash), thus curbing his tendency to soft-headedness.
However, even after nearly 40 years of daily ducking in the sewer of human vice and folly, Candide’s flame burns on brightly in Dominique. For him, every brazen lie, each cruel betrayal, every mealy-mouthed excuse, each petty meanness, is just a slip up due to treatable imperfection in human genetics and/or social organization.
Dominique is good company – especially when somebody has just taken into his head to crush as many people as possible with a 12-wheeler, cut the throat of an elderly priest, or, on some sort of principle or another, shoot down the entire congregation in a black church.
Rattling along the tunnel, I was thinking about the is and ought trope, gazing around the carriage, unfocused and slightly drunk. I saw this poem by one Marie Volta 49 ans, Paris:
Elle dit, apportant du mimosa: /(She says, bringing him some mimosa,
"Voici un bouquet de soleil." /(“Here’s a bouquet of sun.”
Il dit, respirant le mimosa : /(He says, breathing the mimosa in,
"Même le soleil n'a pas ce parfum-là." : /(“Even the sun does not have such perfume.”
I was naturally struck by the gap between my experience of the poem and my inability to express it in my mother tongue. It’s a crappy translation.
Maybe highlighting the is-ought gap is what the client relations department of the RATP – the Paris public transport service provider – has been seeking. Marie Volta is one of 10 runners-up in the organization’s annual poetry contest.
Whatever may be the RATP motive, it is true that, more than 15 years ago, poems started popping up in the cheaper advertising spaces in the trains.
In the beginning, it is also true that I was bowled over by it. The poems were of such good taste – covering a such broad range of styles, periods, sensibilities, cultures and languages and appearing in the métros with what seemed to me to be a preternatural appropriateness – that I became anxious to see what would happen next, as if all these clever words were a sort of adventure story.
I am not ashamed to say that I discovered the world-renowned Saint Jean Perse in the métro as well as reminded to think again of the nature of Emily Dickinson’s genius, among other things.
La Vie est bien foutue – Life has its own coherence – as only humans can say.
One day, my best American pal, Bill, and I were scratching our balls and grunting together, whiling away yet another afternoon.
Our scratching and grunting having been until that same day not unsatisfactory, I took it into my head to ask Bill to dinner chez moi.
He grunted, can he bring his chérie, I counter-grunted, man, ‘course.
So it was that I met Audrey, an entirely entire person, and one visibly attached to Bill, a fellow male I pretty much weekly scratched and grunted with.
As we drank the aperitif, Karine and I kept looking back and forth between Bill & Audrey. Since she and I are better described by the Eagles’ tune “Fast Lane” than even the tepidest dithyramb, we were struck dumb, thus forced to watch and listen as this love paraded.
O! did Bill love Audrey. O! did Audrey love Bill.
This love was as a great universal gravity, perfectly settling, perfectly balancing, being as it must be forever and ever, amen.
As dinner progressed, it began to dawn on me that the RATP poetry picker might very well be Audrey.
But I could not for the life of me utter a word, bring the supposition to a question. On the contrary, in the measure of the possible, I pushed it away and avoided it.
All was in those moments perfect and I feared breaking it.
Meaning well, or at least meaning to keep the table talk going, Karine discretely mouthed and winked,
- Are you a Man?
-- Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that/Which might appall the devil
- What, quite unmanned in folly?
Thus, I did not tell Audrey that every day her choices showed me how it could ought to be, how be was the apostle of seem.
Or that I thought that this epistemologically false metaphysical truth made me more human at moments when I felt my humanity was roughly handled by crowds, dirt, discourtesy and routinized boredom.
I said none of it. Not even that she had empowered me to discover St Jean Perse and rediscover Emily Dickinson.
Later that same year, Audrey left Bill.
Likeliest of all, I now think, seem is the slave of be and has always been, always will be; not even Dominique’s good humor or Audrey’s perfection change that.
It’s the gap between them I well-advised to mind.
Bill told me he had no argument to stop her going out the door. Not even the energy to feel misunderstood or hard done by. So he just threw down his hands, limply said goodbye. He didn’t even cry, even when he told me all the whys and wherefores.
Bill is now dead. Long before he went, he told me further that he would never love anyone else. As far as I know, he never did.
I met Audrey quite by accident. At the coffee shop where we went to chat, she told me the same in respect to Bill. As far as I know, she never did.