Life as List

“The Time when Bookstores Went Out of Business” is a label that fits the first few decades of this century. I’ve encountered more closing book shops than I care to count. Yet, as dispiriting as it is to do so, treasures can be found amidst the fallout.

Liberty Books on Clematis in West Palm Beach went out of business this past March, after faithfully serving the haphazard public on that haphazard street for many years.

Days before it closed, I entered its doomed space and purchased a few children’s books and George Perec’s “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.” Perec, an established novelist writing in 1975, sets out to descriptively exhaust a single spot in the French capital without the use of narrative, history, metaphor, as he puts forth in the introduction:

“My intention in the pages that follow was to describe the rest instead: that which is not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”

The short book is structured as a list of random, apparently disconnected events that happen at place Saint Suplice over a period of three days. Coffee, buses, church goings, church comings. Perec tells no story. But, precisely because there is no narrative, no point, the narrator becomes all important. What goes into the book is what he sucks out from the scenes about him. The Place Saint Suplice of three days in 1975 exists today because of Perec, the collector who itemizes its images.

A mere fifty pages in, Perec realizes that no place can become “exhausted,” only the observer. Nothing changes when everything changes. Cake boxes. Strollers. Rain. Without added meaning, life is a list that is ordered according to time, to the weather, to the writer and his way. Once Perec realizes this, the exercise is complete:

It is the mind of the viewer/writer/viewer that summons meaning from the procession of life.

The mind is the oyster is the world. Perec presents this and invites the reader to suck the oyster whole, be present to the taste of the texture that surrounds. In a few, few days, everything contained.

The buses, the Citroens, the Cambembert. The kids, the clouds, the suddenness of crowd. A quote:

“A bus, empty

Some Japanese, in another bus

The 86 goes to Saint-Germain des Pres

Braun art reproductions

Lull (lassitude?)


Japanese on a bus. Lull. Lassitude. Wherever you go, there you are. On Clematis Street, anther bookstore closed. Pause? Lassitude.

O, the list goes on.



Paris’s Best Baguette Was Born in Senegal

A Senegalese-born baker won a city-wide contest to determine the best baguette in Paris. This beautiful true story comes in the wake of a devastating week for immigrants everywhere. 

Let’s hope it one day becomes a movie, with Audrey Tautou somewhere in the mix. 
From today’s Financial Times. 

Book Burning with Madame Bovary

Bovary Lit LIterature Writing Reading BooksI am taking my first Coursera class called The Modern and The Post-Modern, taught by Wesleyan University President Michael Roth. To all those interested in casual or even serious learning, I truly recommend getting started on Coursera.

As part of the course, I had to read Gustave Flaubert’s classic soap opera “Madame Bovary.” Regardless of what one may think of this swollen read, it is considered by Professor Roth, and a legion of intellectuals, as one of the first modern novels. Here, very quickly, is why:

  1. In the early 1800’s a movement called Romanticism emerges in opposition to the rationality of The Enlightenment.
  2. Romanticism celebrated emotions, spirituality and nature.
  3. Romantic literature was subjective in content, favoring feelings over facts.
  4. Flaubert writes “Madame Bovary” as a criticism to Romanticism and its literature. He valued form and objective storytelling and, above anything else, wanted to depict a true reality.
  5. Flaubert’s disillusion with Romantic and bourgeoise ideals leads him to focus on pure aesthetics, or art for art’s sake. This championing of form over content is at the core of Modernism.

Thus, the quote pictured to the right captures the spirit of Flaubert’s “modern” novel in its cynical rejection of the unreachable, and potentially dangerous, ideals expounded by Romantic books and art.

Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.

Even today, the question remains. Should we promote art for art’s sake, or art for fun’s sake?

Read Bogotá 2014

From Kant to Marx: A Brief & Easy History of Philosophy

Kant Philosophy History

If German philosopher Immanuel Kant was anything, it was optimistic. Even though he quickly recognized the potential risks of the 18th century political and intellectual awakening known as the “Enlightenment,” he focused on the positive and worked to steer the movement along a middle philosophical course, away from potentially explosive extremes. Examples of such extremes are easily found among his contemporaries, such as Descartes on one side, and Locke on the other.

Descartes was the author of “I think therefore I am,” one of history’s most famous intellectual headlines. By this Descartes meant that it was possible for him to doubt everything about the physical world, except for the fact that he was doubting. As such, he could be sure that he could think, that he was a rational creature and that all other conceptions of the physical world could henceforth stem from this certainty. In contrast, Locke was convinced that feeling and experiencing the world was the only way in which one could come to know it.

Kant wanted to leave a place for both experience and reason on the philosophical table. For Kant, the world of reason and of science gained the name of the “phenomenal world” and the world of faith and spirituality became known as the “noumenal world”. According to the German thinker, these two worlds could and should coexist, thereby creating a middle, order-respecting path between the opposing extremes described by Descartes and Locke.

By accommodating both ends of the then-current philosophical specter, Kant was no doubt attempting to preclude the aggression that generally erupts from clashing viewpoints. It is important to remember that in 1784, when Kant wrote “What is Enlightenment,” the clergy, denizens of the “noumenal world,” made up one third of all-mighty France’s “Three Estates.”  Any philosophy giving intellectual dominance to absolute reason was a de facto banishment of the world of experience or empiricism, which put the Church’s control over the realm of the spirit in very controversial limbo.

The problem with Kant’s strategy was that he could only steer a gradual, middle course for the Enlightenment on paper. On the streets, events took place far from Kant’s calm center. In 1789, five years after “What is Enlightenment” was written, the French Revolution erupted. Then, the Reign of Terror burned Paris and the conquests of Napoleon scorched Europe. In 1815, Emperor Napoleon was replaced with monarchs invented by the counter-conservative, scrambling Congress of Vienna.  Not surprisingly, these new monarchs failed. And, all the while, the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum, and unhappy workers.

French Revolution History

Other thinkers within earshot of the rousing 1789 battle cry of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” formed different interpretations as to the direction the Enlightenment should take. One such thinker was Karl Marx, who tread a path very much removed from Kant’s middle course. To begin with, Kant shared the view of his teacher, Gerog Hegel, who held that history was based exclusively on reason. For Hegel, history could be summarized as a series of contradicting, opposing forces interacting and then generating a new reality. In order to understand the evolution of history, Hegel created the “dialectical process,” composed of a thesis (an original historical condition), an antithesis (the force generated in opposition to the thesis) and the synthesis (the new order formed from the resolution of thesis and antithesis).  Thus, according to Hegel, the past is always present in the future it forms via the current synthesis.

Marx agreed with Hegel, but thought that the resolution, the synthesis, of a conflict could and should be sped up by action, or by revolution. He immediately recognized the contradictions present in post-1789 France: equality was championed, but barely visible; the economy was growing, but general wealth was not.  Far from Kant’s gradual Enlightenment, Marx favored a lightning change to the social order in order to eradicate rampant inequality.

Karl Marx History

In Marx’s reading of history, it was, surprisingly, the bourgeoisie who activated the working class. An example of this can be found in what Marx called the “beautiful” revolution of 1789. But, alas, beauty here served to hide truth: in 1789 the bourgeoisie only wanted to rouse the workers against the taxing monarchy but had no intentions of granting them true access to wealth and power. In contrast, the July Revolution of 1848, taking place the year of the publication of Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” was the “Ugly Revolution” because it showed the truth. Here, the guns that the bourgeoisie had gained power over were fired against the workers that had been used to gain those very guns. As Marx described, the idealistic notions of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” were replaced with the infantry, the cavalry and the artillery, now quite nearly in the hands of the increasingly wealthy middle class.

At this point in history, a new synthesis emerges: it is the age of the bourgeoisie. But, of course, a new antithesis also emerges, that of the still unhappy worker and the equally troubling philosophical prospect of middle class ennui.

The pictures above are all old German stamps, available on Wiki Commons. 

If France Ruled America

I am not much of a magazine reader, but The Economist is The Exception. To almost everything.

I don’t read it as often as I’d like, so I was fortunate to pick up the latest issue, which has some interesting reads on technology and jobs. Pretty much, we’d all better start doing what we love in an exceptional way or risk omission via the mighty computer.

In the mean time, though, we can lighten up thanks to the French and their scandalous scandals. The Economist certainly does in a surprisingly (even for them) tongue-in-cheek article on (the lack of) sex in American politics.

Above is an excerpt I considered delightful.

Read Bogota 2014

Frencher than the Tour de France

Charles Baudelaire Le Fleurs du Mal Le Cygne Poetry Literature

Here in Colombia, we have Tour de France fever. 23-year old Nairo Quintana won second place. The best showing by a Colombian ever.

The sight of over a hundred, neon-wearing cyclists circling historic Paris during the Tour’s final stage was exciting but also uncanny. It reminded me of poet Charles Baudelaire running into a swan while walking by the Louvre back in 1857.

He wrote about it in his poem ‘The Swan’, dedicated to Victor Hugo (so French!). Above is one my favorite passages from the poem. Below is a translation by William Aggeler.

charles baudelaire le cygne the swan translation french poetry literature