parable of a broken toe

Though I like to insist on the bravery of cycling in car-infested cities, falling off one’s bike has little heroic appeal. Not really knowing how it happened even adds an element of silliness to it. Well, I suppose that indirectly an insistent big bad car was to blame, since it made me swerve to the right, into the gutter and WHAM, onto the ground.

But, mainly I felt stupid, shamefacedly collecting my keys and loose change strewn over the ground. And eager to restore my dignity & urban anonymity, I swiftly got back on my bike and merged again into the rush-hour traffic. The vague pain in a toe seemed a small price to pay for that daft fall.

Never ever dismiss pain in a toe! So I learned that evening and night.

Those silly inconsequential toes are pivotal, in human mobility and immobility alike. Whether I limped or walked or shuffled, whether I lay on the sofa or in bed: that toe insisted on sending out lacerating pain signals. It didn’t want me to put the right foot (to which it is alas firmly attached) on the ground, but it didn’t want that foot to be held in mid-air either. Even lying quietly still could not appease the Offended Toe, which apparently actively partakes in the most diverse states of human equilibrium.

After having thus suffered throughout a dark long night, I welcomed morning so I could call a cab and get myself to the nearest hospital. 7 AM is a funny hour at a hospital, an hour of stillness in between night shift and day-time activity. Through long empty corridors I limped to the emergency ward (which is also the ward for diverse & various casualties including toes). While I sat there waiting, the hospital slowly came to life and at the intake desk other patients arrived – equally grey with misery after a painful night. And all with their particular, anguished tale to tell to the nurse-receptionist.

Blessed be that hospital staff!!! Their competence and friendliness so soothing for sleep-deprived minds and sore toes alike. I still marvel at how they managed to combine efficiency with friendly attentiveness – both crucial for the hapless patient.

Most impressive perhaps was the medical doctor who first examined me and who dispensed the concluding treatment. She had the sort of calm authority that inspires instant respect and confidence. She clearly was at home there in her emergency ward, ready to take on whatever casualties the city would throw up at her doorstep. Ready also to deal with aggressive patients (as I briefly witnessed later). And then, amongst all the stress, still capable not only to give appropriate attention to a mere broken toe but also some much appreciated human sympathy to the silly owner of aforesaid toe. Yes, impressive she was.

Readers of this blog know I’m a bit of a pessimist regarding the human race, whose specimens have perfected their selfish and greedy urges during eons of Darwinian struggle for life. True altruism does not exist for the selfish gene. And proof abounds for this pessimist view: at its most degrading in any war-torn zone, at its most socially acceptable in economic competition.

But then there are these awe-inspiring instances of humans defying the selfish odds: like all those medics and paramedics trying to pick up the human pieces of wars and conflicts. Or just doing their thing in an urban emergency ward. Largely unnoticed, but indispensable.

S. Swann, Private Investigator (1)

It was one of those days …. I had sat idling at my desk for hours, smoking and watching the shadows of the venetian blinds advancing ever so slowly on the opposite wall. But nobody had called. Nobody needed the services of S. Swann, Private Investigator. Well, I would wait for those creeping shadows to reach the right hand corner of the wall, and then I’ d just call it a day. Cheered by this virile resolve, I started tapping an expense note for the last client I ‘d had - last month or so. Tap. Tap. Tap. This typewriter sure made a lot of noise. Tap. Tap. Tap . Then I looked up and saw a shadow behind the smoked glass door, a shadow knocking like hell on the glass….

At this point a stunning lady, clad in black, wearing a veiled hat, should enter. Upon which our cynical private eye falls in love precipitously and embarks on a tumultuous investigation fraught with danger, deceptions & double-binds. After having disentangled all kinds of plots and subplots, our private eye then finds himself again alone in his office , bruised but unbroken, smoking.

I absolutely adore these classical noir detective stories , with their wise-cracking, melancholy private eyes and their scheming, stunning ladies in black. In younger days I have devoured all the books by Chandler, Hammett, … . And nothing like those 40s and 50s black &white film versions ( ah, the iconic Humphrey Bogart with hat, trench coat , and cigarette dangling from his lips …). From the classics I then soon branched out to even tougher stuff: the mono-syllabic Mickey Spillane, the Goodis-tales from the gutter, JH Chase’s and William Irish’s dark spells and, later on, James Ellroy’s almost baroque, violent LA stories.

My living quarters of the time reflected this infatuation: they of course had blinds instead of curtains and I even had a Fedora-hat lying about on a cupboard (though I did not go as far as wearing it in public). Not to mention my youthful smoking mannerisms which sure drew upon PI theatrics. And then there were my lonely city rambles walking hours and hours on end, seeking out seedy districts, shady station neighborhoods, river quays, decaying industrial towns ), as well as my then predilection for disreputable “gin-joints” …

Well, I have curtains instead of blinds now, I quit smoking, I do not walk into gin-joints anymore and art and philosophy books have almost crowded out crime on my book-shelves. But mind you, I did pick my philosophical allegiances carefully! And my reverence for Walter Benjamin, the most poetic and urban of all philosophers, has everything to do with the redemptive narrative he offered for those days of yore, those many days spent in aimless reading and wandering.

Here was a philosopher who linked the modern city’s avalanche of sensations, its crowds of anonymous persons to the birth of the detective story. « Man is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experience », he is bombarded by sensations and bits of information without any connection. When walking the streets we encounter numerous anonymous people, all wrapped up in their private stories and interests. People can disappear into the crowd, so many things could happen at any turn of the street. But though we all share the same cramped sidewalks and undergrounds, we do not share a common experience or story, we do not know each others’ tales or secrets.

So enter the detective story, with the urban detective … who “walks these mean streets” (2) , who follows the traces, disentangles the secrets… Or enter the flâneur, the observing flâneur, who can legitimize his idle loitering & strolling by becoming a detective. “No matter what trail the flâneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime”. (3)

Now I don’t know whether Benjamin has ever read any Chandler or Hammett. In any case, his discourse about detectives and flâneurs goes back to the 19th century, to Edgar Allan Poe and to Baudelaire.

Yes, to Baudelaire…. the 19th century urban poet by excellence, and whose poem “à une passante” , “to a passer by” (4) evokes the hustle and bustle of a street scene , and how, suddenly, amidst the crowd one can come under the spell of a passer by , a radiating presence , a fleeting & fatal beauty that strikes and then, is gone forever …… "For I know not where you flee, you know not where I go"

Benjamin comments: “this is the look of the object of a love which only a city-dweller experiences, which Baudelaire captured for poetry, and of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfillment.” (5)

This, of course, is also the kind of fatal collisions with femme fatales which Chandler & co captured for the gritty detective novel.

And the kind of collision amidst a whirling urban crowd which Edith Piaf sang about in her captivating, roiling song
“La Foule” / “The Crowd”

Read on for accompanying lyrics in the notes
(1) The kind of blog-post you get when people start talking about Chandler and philosophy (blame Phoenix!)
(2) Chandler - The Simple Art of Murder: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man … He is a relatively poor man or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.”
(3) Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”
(4) Baudelaire - Les fleurs du mal « à une passante »
La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa […]
Un éclair … puis la nuit! Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité ?
Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici ! Trop tard ! Jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
O toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais !
(English Translation from Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”
The deafening street was screaming all around me.
Tall, slender, in deep mourning – majestic grief –
a woman made her way […]
A lightning-flash … then night! – O fleeting beauty
Whose glance all of a sudden gave me new birth,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?
Far, far from here! Too late! Or maybe, never?
For I know not where you flee, you know not where I go,
O you I would have loved (o you who knew it too)
(5) Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”
(6) les paroles de La Foule

A Tale of Two Brain Halves (1), or: Proust and the Hypothalamus

It was definitely an exciting week for Proust-lovers with a thing for popular science (2).

The press reported upon a neurological experiment (meant to relieve a patient from his eating disorder) whereby Deep Brain Stimulation of the Hypothalamus had unwittingly engendered a vivid memory recollection in the recipient of the stimulation. The patient gushed about how he remembered a long forgotten scene in a park with friends, how he recognized his then girlfriend, how he could even distinguish details of the clothes, and how everything was in full color. And when the stimulation was intensified, the remembered details became all the more vivid.

What was so particular about this déjà vu experience was that it was brought on by stimulation of a part of the brain not at all associated with conscious memory formation! The Hypothalamus is part of the limbic system and has to do with lowly hormones, with the control of primary body functions such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue …. and it is responsive to light and to olifactory stimuli.

Hmmm … primary body-functions … smell …. and involuntary memories …. Yes, this rather smells like Proust! Proust, who with obsessive attention recorded his sensations and moods and whose most moving pages describe sudden, involuntary déjà vu’s – forgotten moments resurrected by the taste of a cake dipped in tea, or by the stumbling on two uneven tiles, or by the sleepy movement of an arm reaching for the light switch. Moments of the past that had never been consciously stored up because the intellect had found them not important enough to mull over, truly forgotten moments brought back to life in full vivid reality by a simple bodily analogy. (3)

But so Proust might , in those thousands of pages with their many tantalizing intuitions about memory and the human mind, Proust might poetically have anticipated what neuro-science can now painstakingly disentangle? So the shoddy, imprecise right brain half is not only about frivolously fragmented make-believe and fantasy? Its intuitions can reach for the truth?

The fact that a poetical intuition seems thus vindicated by ascertainable, scientific fact is strangely moving – as moving as is the knowledge that all those forgotten moments of our lives are floating somewhere in our brain, just waiting for the right stimulus to spring back to life.

Yes, a knowledge almost as consoling as those Proust-passages themselves. Passages that wistfully meditate on the true happiness produced by involuntary recollections, a happiness which no methodical remembering, no looking at photos from our past could bring.
And these involuntary recollections make us happy in such a fresh, confident way, precisely because they bring back utterly forgotten, futile moments which are no part of our laboriously chewed over life-chain.

They make us happy, because the real paradises are the paradises we have lost …. (4)

Relegated to the notes: Proust-quotes and some internal warfare between the two brain-halves

(1) First of all, says the meticulous left brain-half, let’s get rid of the myth of the two brain-halves with their neat split up of mental faculties: logic, words, mathematics on the left and imagination, visual representation, creativity on the right. The two hemispheres share these faculties, it’s only a matter of different processing style: the left concentrates on details and step-by-step reasoning whereas the right goes for general connections and the broad picture. Well yes, smiles the right brain-half: so the notion of “two brain halves” is an excellent metaphor to compare and contrast different mental takes on things: the firm ground of an analytical fact based approach versus the tantalizing leaps of synthetical intuition.

(2) “ Proust-lovers-with-a-thing-for-popular-science”: typically specimens that are neither fish nor fowl – neither able to lose themselves in poetic or mystical raptures nor prone to conducting scientific experiments in their garage. Or perhaps rather: eternally ambivalent specimens – while reading Proust they reflect on the futility of literature – while making themselves useful at work by (eg) logically adding up figures, they lament the job’s lack of meaning and beauty. Also, these creatures are prone to fits of self-education resulting in a collection of popular science books, which they do always diligently start to read and from which they then at best retain some metaphors for understanding Life , but certainly never any useful facts for the practical business of living.

(3) Proust - Le Temps Retrouvé ( Time Lost Recovered? Lost time found again? I’m a lousy Proust translator ….)
Mais au moment où, […], je posai mon pied sur un pavé qui était un peu moins élevé que le précédent, tout mon découragement s’évanouit devant la même félicité qu’à diverses époques de ma vie m’avaient donnée […] , la vue des clochers de Martinville, la saveur d’une madeleine trempée dans une infusion, […]

But at the very moment that I put my foot on a tile that lay a bit higher than the previous one, my despondency vanished in front of the same kind of happiness brought, at different moments of my life, by the sight of the spires of Martinville, the taste of a Madeleine-cake soaked in tea. […]

(4) « Oui, si le souvenir, grâce à l’oubli, n’a pu contracter aucun lien, jeter aucun chaînon entre lui et la minute présente, s’il est resté à sa place, à sa date, s’il a gardé ses distances, son isolement […] , […] il nous fait tout à coup respirer un air nouveau, précisément parce que c’est un air qu’on a respiré autrefois, […] car les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus. »

Yes, if the memory, thanks to the forgetting, has forged no link whatsoever between it and the present minute, if it has stayed at its place, at its date in time, if it has kept its distance, its isolation [..] then it makes us suddenly breathe a new fresh air, precisely because it is an air we have breathed in former days, [..] because the true paradises are the paradises we have lost.

drifting moments

There’s this huge advantage of train-travelling which is often overlooked, though it’s a rare enough gift these days : the gift of distracted, drifting moments.

You couldn’t possibly afford them when you’re driving a car, or even just riding a bicycle - reactive concentration rules then.

But when you stand there waiting on a platform …… idle…… looking vaguely around … can find these lost moments - ”the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight” (*)

These drifting moments are there to dazzle you, even when you’re on a no-nonsense early morning train, diligently going through work-documents, worrying about an upcoming meeting.

Yes, even to purposeful business travelers, a train offers the saving grace of looking out of the window. And of being enchanted by a wintry landscape whitened by rime, where a battle of lights is going on: limpid morning sunlight blending with the hovering haloes of car-lights and street-lamps.

(*) TS Eliot – The Dry Salvages