Paris in the spring

No news is not good news. As if only bad news was worth the three-cent stamp it cost to mail a letter when I was young.  Good news ought to be worth a lot more than three cents. And if you merely want to have a say you can for two cents. Whatever it’s worth. No, no news is no news.

All of which is a way of saying I have been absent from this site for too long (for me, if not for a reader). Toward the end of May I broke a few bones in my left foot. The foot guy was in Scotland, so I had to wait a week until he returned, looked at the x-rays, and then operated to put the ice cream back on the cone as he quaintly put it. Ten days after the surgery an assistant took out the stitches, and two days after that Rosamond and I flew to Paris. Two days later I found that the incision had opened up. It looked rather ugly, a gaping maw surrounded by dark and swollen tissue, but doctors (who were also friends) were attending the conference that was our reason for being in Paris, and one of them determined that there was no infection. “It’ll fill up,” he said (and it has, mostly). Granulation, they call it.

We had rented a funky garret kind of apartment on the Ile Saint Louis. Across the street was a church whose bells tolled from time to time (but not for me). A bakery with excellent croissants was just a few doors down. I would make coffee, and Rosamond would fetch the croissants, and our day would begin. As it happened, we had many old friends and some relatives to have intimate dinners with in small restaurants. I wasn’t able to walk for long distances, as I found out on an early excursion to the botanical garden, but I could make it to the nearest Metro station. One afternoon in a Metro station we chanced upon a fourteen piece string ensemble playing wonderful music. The acoustics made them sound like an orchestral string section. Mostly we just moseyed around our neighborhood when Rosamond wasn’t attending the conference. They say location is everything, but in Paris it’s the ambiance.

On one stroll we popped into Shakespeare and Co., the English language bookstore on the Left Bank. Oddly, I had never been there before, but now I especially needed something to read since I was spending a lot of time in the apartment with my foot up to reduce the swelling. For four euros, I walked out with Skios, a new novel by Michael Frayn, a favorite writer of mine since the middle sixties (the book was on a used book shelf, hence the price, although it seemed new). The book was wonderfully funny, as is much of Frayne’s work, although he does serious stuff, too, as in his play Copenhagen. Two of the funniest plays I have ever seen are Frayn’s Noises Off and Donkey’s Years.

When I was in college (the second time) I was mostly reading English literature, but I also took philosophy courses, and fortuitously was introduced to Ludwig Wittgenstein. At the time I thought of myself, if not as a serious thinker, at least as one who was interested in serious thoughts, big philosophical questions and the like. I had read numerous novels by serious writers, had explored existentialism and Zen Buddhism, and had the notion that philosophy was deep, profound, something to be plumbed or mined as an analyst might dig deep down into one’s psyche. Of course I knew next to nothing about Plato and Socrates and Aristotle or the sixteenth and seventeenth philosophers. Given an option, I opted for a course in Modern Philosophy, assuming that the good stuff would be the best that was currently thought as it is in the sciences. It turned out that Modern Philosophy begins with Kant, and I didn’t have a clue. At the same time, it was clear that Kant was deep. I muddled through and also took courses in Ethics and the Philosophy of Science, not doing very well but picking up some interesting ideas along the way.

After I got my degree, my then wife, Linnea, needed a few more courses to graduate, so I audited a course in Wittgenstein taught by one of the best teachers I ever had, Donald Loftsgordon. Wittgenstein was relatively new stuff at the time and not usually taught to undergraduates. Fortunately, by then I had read Gilbert Ryle who introduced me to the notion of category mistakes and Stephen Toulmin, who knew Wittgenstein at Cambridge. These guys weren’t as interested in depth as in clarity. As far as they were concerned a lot of philosophy was a mire of confused thinking. Using careful analysis of key concepts, they believed they could show that many seemingly profound statements were in fact meaningless. And they did.

We read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and then the Philosophical Investigations. Carefully. Especially in the Investigations Wittgenstein’s sentences are easy enough to understand (e.g., “If a lion could speak we could not understand him.”). But why was he making this claim, and why could we not understand the lion? This was a very different style of philosophy than I was used to, no big concepts marked by capitalization (the Good, Reality, the Self). Wittgenstein himself said that the purpose of philosophy was to get the fly out of the fly bottle, and in time I came to feel that indeed I had myself escaped the bottle of deep but fuzzy and misleading concepts (although it is always tempting to jump back in).

No need here to make the case, but the goad for this excursion was a small essay written by Michael Frayn (and distributed to us by Loftsgordon in mimeographed form) titled, “Fog-like Sensations,” a gentle but very witty parody of the style of the Investigations. Unfortunately, it would probably only be funny to those familiar with Wittgenstein’s work.

But Frayn’s name stuck with me although it was many years later that I became familiar with his novels and plays. His stock in trade is tracing how a reasonably well-meaning sort of person manages to misread a key situation. Disaster follows. If the work is a comedy the disaster only enhances the humor. Sophisticated (or not so sophisticated) pratfalls. If not, it isn’t a pretty sight but all too human, all too understandable (Spies). While I was reading Skios I would laugh out loud from time to time, and then Rosamond would wonder what I was laughing at, and I would read her the passage, and we would both laugh. Frayn takes especial delight in how a reasonable interest can become an obsession and how the obsession sweeps away all pretense of rational action, replacing it with compulsion. Read Headlong.

Excursion over. One of our last outings was to the Musée Carnavalet in the Marais district that is dedicated to the history of Paris. In the 16th century it was a hotel, and now has a lovely formal garden. The highlight of the museum as far as I was concerned was the Fouquet jewelry shop, a small gem of Art Nouveau architecture and furnishings.

We were in Paris for nine days. Then we flew to Belgrade which ought to be worth a post of its own.

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