Skip to content

Archive for

Quiberon – a place by the sea

DSCN5800 2

He was asked, ‘Which do you prefer, the Ile de Re or Quiberon?‘ Unhesitatingly he replied: ‘Quiberon.’ In many ways I was not surprised. Whilst the Ile de Re has become one of France’s tourist-laden ‘hot spots’, Quiberon is less trendy, more reserved – and has successfully preserved a kind of environmental integrity.

Quiberon is a slightly unusual place because of its geography. It lies on a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic ocean, that part of the ocean which runs up against the southern coasts of Brittany in France. It has an interesting history (it even once played host to a battle between the English and the French) but now finds itself a place designed primarily for tourism. A majority of those tourists are french.

In certain respects Quiberon, in late spring and summer is idyllic. Unusually, nowadays, a majority of the houses that stretch out from the main town itself are charming, individual and really attractive. The commune has resisted the dreadful ordinariness of the modern ‘lotissement’ (the housing estate) that confers such a deadening banality on so many developments in France (and England). The houses in Quiberon have dark blue shutters and lots of exposed granite walls – along with roof tiles that are solid and reassuringly natural. The gardens enjoy roses and hollyhocks, the impressive agapanthus, hydrangeas and all sorts of kitchen-bound aromatic herbs.

The peninsula of Quiberon has two sides: a protected eastern side where all manner of water sports and marine activities are practised and a ‘cote sauvage’ – a wilder rocky coastline – where the Atlantic rollers break, people (understandably) are advised not to swim – some do – some, sadly, drown – and surfers perfect their elegant skills. Painters of seascapes find all they will ever need to portray as they look out from the shores or cliffs of Quiberon. It’s a healthy part of the world: You walk, you swim, you sail or canoe, you ride bicycles – and you get a sense of perspective…

It’s the kind of place where, on a moonlit night under the bright stars or through the coming to an awareness of the lovely stones bathed in a crystal-clear water, you think that Kant was right to claim that the beauty of nature is unsurpassed.

But one thing struck me about Quiberon that raises worrying questions about the presenting nature of French (and English) society. It is this: In the months of June and July – a time of year when Quiberon is singularly beautiful (the flowers are blooming, the days are long, the skies are gorgeous) – a huge majority of the visitors are retired people. They amble around and sometimes it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that they really do not have enough to do. It’s as if they are treading water – waiting for something to happen, looking – and vaguely hoping – but hoping for what?

I think it strange that, in our forms of society, we’ve succeeded, in producing a kind of economically inactive wodge of so many retired people – whom social theorists like Slavoj Zizek might even deem ‘useless’. They are not necessarily useless; they may, back home, help with charity work or with looking after their grandchildren or supporting the arts – and they may help our societies by communicating worthwhile norms of conduct. But for me, there seems an enduring unfairness to the whole thing. I can’t help feeling that there is a sort of exploitation going on – that the retired ‘haves’ are living off the backs of countless ‘have-nots’. And I imagine that lots of these older retired people would have the skills and experience that could be put to far better effect than merely strolling around, distracting themselves, waiting for the next meal or next weather forecast.


A short note on our shared humanity


One of the most interesting features of certain writings in philosophy is the inclusion, by their authors, of specific characterisations of humanity. Although this is not their main goal philosophers (perhaps with the help of the research findings from psychology) advance propositions that tell us what people – what we humans – are really like. Geoffrey Warnock, for example, asserts that humans are subject to various limitations – such as limited rationality, limited co-operation and limited sympathy and that the function of ethics is to combat these limitations.

A more general characterisation of humanity is found in Richard Taylor’s wonderful text on ‘Metaphysics.’ I have spent many hours thinking about some of Taylor’s observations and, after referencing some of them, I shall draw a conclusion about something that worries me.

First, Taylor introduces his readers to the branch of philosophy called ‘metaphysics’ by rejecting, point blank, the idea that people in general have any genuine grasp of philosophy or philosophical thinking. He thinks that whilst ‘it is true that all people have opinions, and that some of these – such as views on religion, morals, and the meaning of life – border on philosophy and metaphysics few people have any conception of philosophy, and fewer still have any notion of metaphysics.

Second, through his way of clarifying the nature of metaphysics Taylor leads us to an observation about humanity: he turns to William James who defined metaphysics as ‘nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly’ and he asserts that not many people think like this, and do so only where ‘their practical interests are involved’; he then moves on to propose a general characterisation of ‘humanity’ by recognising that ‘what first claims the attention of all creatures is the need to survive and, this being reasonably assured, the need to exist as securely as possible. All thought begins there and most of it ends there.

If there is such a thing as a pure ‘anthropology of the psyche’ I imagine that this would be one of its central findings: we worry about a) survival and b) security; and if the idea of security is expanded to include securing our wealth, status, position and power – then it seems plain that these concerns occupy much of our thinking. Taylor goes on to say that ‘we are most at home when thinking of HOW to do this or that.’ I think he is correct. My sense is that, in general, people are most concerned with the practical problems of living – and continually ask questions about how to solve their problems of living. This includes dealing with all the people that they encounter. (And this may be very troublesome!)

In contrast to this most general and characteristic way of thinking, metaphysical thinking is reserved for those relatively ‘rare’ reflective creatures who concern themselves with the ‘whys’ – ‘with questions that it is perfectly easy never to ask in ones whole lifetime.’ These questions consider the most basic problems of existence – such as ‘identity’, the apparent distinction between body and mind, – and  death, with language and thinking, with the possibility of God, with fatalism, with freedom and determinism, time, causality and so on. But by implication, and following William James, Taylor is really saying that metaphysical thinking is not whimsical; like good art, it is sustained hard work.

Third, Taylor asserts that although we are potentially creatures of reason – and that we are distinguished from most other animals through our rational powers we, in the main, do not deploy these powers to anything like their full extent. After noting that metaphysical thinking begins not with things that are proved but with things that are believed he provides a paragraph containing a rather devastating remark in which he reveals a particular and enduring feature of humanity:

He writes;

Now the intellects of people are not as strong a their wills (their wants), and they generally believe whatever they want to believe, particularly when those beliefs reflect upon their own worth among others and the value of their endeavours. Wisdom is thus not what they first seek. they seek instead, justification for what they happen to cherish…

Sadly, I think Taylor is correct. People, as he asserts, ‘generally believe what they want to believe’ – even in the face of facts that might, in principle, contradict or negate their beliefs. And if those beliefs are particularly cherished then the resistance to alternative points of view or to contradictions is even stronger.

This makes for a sobering reflection: as the students of human behaviour, such as Leon Festinger and Gerard Egan, have pointed out, humanity is proportionately more arational than rational.

In the end what worries me is not only my own inclination to ‘hold on’ to certain beliefs that remain un-inspected (or are based on a very inadequate mix of fact and information) but also that most of our information sources are partial and much of what we absorb is biased. Our psychology does not, in the main, equip us for understanding. It helps us solve the practical problems of living but what we believe is not necessarily founded on fact or arrived at through reason.

And if, super-added to this, is the tendency of people in general ‘to believe what they wish to believe’ then it may be very unwise to ask a nation’s citizens to make hugely important decisions – especially decisions involving the future of that nation. After reading about the reasons people gave for voting in the 2016 referendum held in the UK (about whether or not to remain in the European Community) it is plain that what counted were their pre-existing beliefs. Yet it is clear that many of these beliefs, many of which were ‘cherished’, reflected limited knowledge of the ‘facts’ as well as the international arrangements constituting the European Community. Worse, most had no idea about the conditions which gave birth to the very idea of a united Europe …

If people are inclined to believe what they want to believe – and if those beliefs incline them to remain blind to the facts – then it is impossible for me to conclude other than that it was a very bad idea to hold such a referendum.



England – A metaphor


The English artist had painted a picture: a haunting powerful image – brilliant, disturbing and charged with emotion.  It was hanging in Bologna’s ‘The Artist’s Space.’ It struck me as a telling metaphor for England; that is, England now: an England pushed to the margins; under pressure; suffering … almost as if subject to abuse.

Divided and adrift. And it’s the deep divisions that continue to matter. Resentment, fractured … something is lost …

Pushing itself to the margins …

And the painting seems to ask: Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we?

[The artist who painted this untitled work is the sometimes enigmatic and always supremely gifted Ian Woodard. At least for the moment, he has abandoned England – for the delights of the Italian city and more, including Sicily. Perhaps Tuscany, too … ]


The photograph above shows a beautiful space in the Municipal Art Collection, located in the Palazzo Comunale, Bologna, Italy – along with two paintings ‘in the English style.’