As I was walking along a narrow street in Paris I hadn’t expected to be reminded of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. But then I saw a poster upon which was written: ‘Big Brother vous regarde’.
It’s Paris and it’s the winter of 2012. I’m looking at the Christmas display in the window of a famous department store. And as I looked I heard, from the abyss of memory, some words of a song. It was a song that’s on Willie Nelson’s album ‘Red headed stranger’. And it has the line: ‘They died with a smile on their faces.’
One hundred years ago Bertrand Russell published his short book entitled ‘The problems of philosophy’. It’s a book that gives a good but partial introduction to the subject of philosophy – and it culminates in an excellent final chapter that tells us about the value of studying the subject.
Russell provides two related answers to the question ‘What is the value?’ of philosophy. The first concerns its essential uncertainty: philosophy dos not provide definite or resolved answers to the questions it examines. The second is the ‘enlargement of the Self’ that occurs as a result of genuine philosophic contemplation.
In the course of his answer(s) Russell explores the consequences of having no disposition towards philosophic contemplation. It’s difficult to get any idea of the sheer numbers involved or the actual proportion of such people. However, they do exist and they can cause the most awful havoc in the world. This is how Russell introduces his readers to the nature of those people who have ‘no tincture’ of philosophy:
“The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty [that is, in the fact that it does not provide definite and resolved answers to the questions it examines]. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to be definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophise, on the contrary, we find … that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing unfamiliar things in an unfamiliar aspect.” (Russell 1912: 91)
This is one of the most important statements that I have read. It would be fascinating to try and identify ‘the habitual beliefs’ of our age and, more specifically, of the nation in which we live’. To do this we would have to uncover the prevailing ideologies and all that is commonly sensed to be ‘true’. However, I have a more personal response to his words. It is this: they reflect a regular feature of my professional life: some of the best and most carefully constructed educational and development programmes upon which I worked were wrecked by people who were trapped in the habitual beliefs of the age – and those of the nation.
Footnote: The photograph is taken from Daniel Glaser and Magdelena Kunz’s terrific installation ‘Speechless‘ exhibited in the winter of 2012 at Centquatre, Paris 19eme.
Whilst I was at art college we were given an unexpected assignment: the brief required us to design a museum. There was only one stipulation: it had to be a museum of something; we couldn’t have a museum without a theme, even if the theme was something like absence or non-existence. We also had to choose at least a dozen artefacts for inclusion in our museum and we had to write a short essay explaining the choices that we had made.
After a while I decided to have a museum of ideas. I chose twenty ideas for display – ideas such as ‘democracy’, ‘surveillance’, ‘desire’ and ‘paradise’. I spent ages trying to design two-dimensional ways of representing the ideas – but in the end I was quite pleased with the results.
Just before I handed in my completed assignment I discovered a book that was devoted to the most recent contemporary works of art that are now displayed in museums around the world. Amongst its inclusions was a pictorial reference to the ‘Museum of Despair’ that had been created by a radical artist who had rented a shop in Edinburgh in order to show his exhibits. I was very struck by the idea of a Museum of Despair. I could easily imagine how an artist might feel despair – either with the world as it is or with the lack of appreciation that they might experience. I wished that I had thought of such a museum.
Still, it was too late for me to re-think my project so I handed it in. Oddly enough, when my tutorial group met Mrs A. (the tutor who set the assignment), we were told that whilst she had read our submissions she would neither mark nor comment upon them because she wasn’t being paid properly. So I never did find out what she thought of my museum of ideas.
Since those art-college days I have sometimes recalled the Museum project and once or twice I have glanced again at my sketchbooks and the designs that I originally produced. And then, on a cold December day in Paris I discovered what seemed like a close relative of the Museum of Despair. It was the forthcoming ‘Museum of Broken Hearts’. The advance publicity told us that ‘for the first time in France’, the Museum of Broken Hearts (a museum that originated in Zagreb) was about to exhibit all those things that permanently reminded people of the time when their heart had been broken. It might, I imagine, have been sub-titled the Museum of Grief.
I noticed that the museum had invited people to send in the objects or actual things (perhaps they might even be words spoken – or melodies – or the sight of the sun setting) that were forever and unalterably associated with the time that their heart had been broken. These objects would be included in the exhibition.
But then, as I walked away from the building in which the Museum of Broken Hearts would be installed I noticed something that would have warranted inclusion amongst the objects on display: it was a brass plaque fixed to a wall, adjacent to which someone had placed a bouquet of flowers. There was an inscription on the plaque: it commemorated a young French resistance fighter who, in 1943, had died for his country and for freedom.
The streets of Paris are full of these quiet reminders of lives lost and hearts broken.
Footnote: The above photograph ‘Paris – Ophelia and the broken hearts‘ shows the Pont des Arts in Paris. Thousands of little metal padlocks have been fixed to the wire meshing along the sides of the bridge. Upon the padlocks are the names of couples. But among all the hopeful Romeo and Juliets are some Ophelias.
Sometimes when the winter wind streams in from the North East I can imagine that I’m in Russia’s Stalingrad and not the one in Paris. Paris’s Stalingrad lies on the boundary that marks the divide between the 10th and 19th arrondissements. It’s near the place where the Canal St. Martin changes its name and becomes the Canal de L’Ourq. There’s a huge roundabout at Stalingrad that confuses everyone – and above it grey steel girders support the over-ground section of the metro line that arcs and curves away like a plume of metal smoke towards Republique and Bastille.
It’s December and terribly cold. I turn my coat to the wind and walk up the Avenue de Flandre towards the Rue Riquet. It’s Saturday morning. By the time I get to the Rue Riquet my nose is stinging as are my ears; it’s really cold. I think of the frost-bitten soldiers who, years ago, were trapped in Stalingrad. Trapped without hope.
In the Rue Riquet I reach my destination. It’s something called the Emmaus Defi and it was set up by a strange French figure – a semi-icon – called the Abbe Pierre. He was a worker-priest and apart from being esteemed in France for his good deeds he also acquired fame for his hair-cut. There’s a learned essay about the hair-cut of Abbe Pierre. The essay explores his resistance to style – so it’s about his choice of a non-haircut. Or rather, it’s about the impossibility of not having some sort of hairstyle. The Abbe Pierrre had the style of a non-style.
Every Saturday, starting at 10 in the morning, the charity that the Abbe Pierre founded opens its doors in a large open-plan space in the Rue Riquet and sells a great variety of things – such as furniture, bric-a-brac, old stereo systems, books, kitchen utensils and so on. I’d gone to try and find a chair to replace one that had been broken – and to look for Christmas Presents.
I was too late to find the chair that I wanted.
But I did find an old thermos flask. It was made in the 1960s. It still had its original label. The label was rather worn but its gold edging made the whole thing look optimistic and honest – in a strangely naïve kind of way. The thermos flask was in the colours we used to have back in the old psychedelic days. It was flame orange – exactly the same colour that I’d once painted two walls of my living room. It brought back a host of happy memories. The rest of the flask was edged in burnt umber and there was a fawn coloured cup from which to drink. I bought the retro thermos flask for 3 euros.
Out on the street I was hit once again by the bitter wind. And as I walked back down the Avenue de Flandre towards Stalingrad I couldn’t help thinking once again of the poor stranded soldiers, thinking of their icy hopelessness, and wondering if any of them might have had a thermos flask to help ease the pain of dying.