< Read >


Unsavory Thoughts

Thomas Walton

The Flower Seller Again; or, Why Are Mediums Always So Happy?


was thinking about The Flower Seller again, a painting by Jules Bastian-Lepage in our local museum. Well, it used to be in our local museum, for years in fact, but now it’s disappeared. I’m not sure if they loaned it to another museum or just put it in storage. I miss it. I used to visit it like you’d visit an occasional friend, or a dog that maybe lives down the street.

The painting is sentimental and didactic. We see a pathetic street urchin, a beautiful young girl, who is selling flowers. In the background, pompous socialites lurk ominously in the shadows. One of the socialites seems to see the girl and looks annoyed, if not disgusted. The painting tells us what we’re supposed to feel and think. We sympathize with the girl, with her poverty. We despise the socialites, and their wealth.

The painting is bad. But for some inexplicable reason, I like it.

Marguerite Duras has two essays about flower sellers in her collection Outside. They’re not really essays. “Studies” is perhaps a better word. The one entitled “Paris Rabble” is a kind of character sketch about an old woman, aged 71, who sells flowers illegally in the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, when there are no flowers to sell, she makes her living as a thief. She is on public assistance, but it’s not enough. She spends her winters in jail. It’s warm in jail. She doesn’t mind. She’s a poor thief but a good mother. Eleven children, seven of them living. She’s raised her children so well that they don’t want anything to do her, with their vagrant mother.

The other sketch—“The Algerian’s Flowers”—is a kind of anti-colonialist fantasy. It concerns a young Algerian immigrant in Paris, who also sells flowers illegally. He works just down the street from the Buci market. He has a small cart. The police see him and ask for his papers. He has none. The cops flip his cart over and laugh. The flowers fly everywhere. The intersection “fills with the flowers of early spring, Algerian spring.”

What’s interesting to me is how flat the Duras sketches are in comparison to the Lepage painting. The painting is full of sentiment and pity. So much sentiment, in fact, that it is a bad painting. While the Duras sketches are so lacking in sentiment that they come across as bad writing. Are we to pity these characters that the author treats so weirdly, as if she doesn’t know what to do with them herself? They are like objects she’s found in the street. She picks them up and looks at them. “Hm. Look at that,” she seems to say. This is reportage. Not editorializing. This is the bowl of fruit. Not the still life.

The writing is bad, and yet she would be wrong to linger. In the foreword to Outside, Duras blames the bad writing throughout the book on the fact that she’s writing for newspapers: “the writing is inevitably affected by the impatience of the medium [journalism], by the obligation to write quickly, and is somewhat neglected.” She doesn’t care: “the idea of neglecting the writing does not displease me.”

In fact, neglecting the writing seems to save her from sentimentality. To neglect the writing is insurance against overwriting, something Lepage has had too much time to do.

Ha! Bumhug

“You should write something about Christmas,” she said. She loves Christmas.

Me? I don’t really understand it, I guess. I’d rather not write about it, or any other holiday for that matter. But Christmas especially. I suppose that’s the special thing about Christmas. It’s the least interesting of the holidays.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with Christ. He seems wise enough. Benevolent, righteous, eternal, etc. all the things you would want in a boy-god. It’s the Christmas-goers who are the problem for me. No offense to my friend.

By Christmas-goers I guess I mean all the people who go about celebrating Christmas. The insincerity is too much for me. All that maudlin tripe, and tacky well-wishing (to say nothing of the insatiable consumption, poor color scheme, and inflatable elves).

“Merry Christmas,” they say. What does that mean? “Happy New Year” makes sense: a wish for happiness throughout the new year. But Merry Christmas? What is that? It’s a bit trivial, isn’t it? A wish for merriment on Christmas day? One day. Have a great day. That’s it? Okay, wow, thanks. You have a great day, too.

“Great” isn’t even accurate. The Christmas-goers insist on “merry.” Have a merry day. I admit I had to look “merry” up in the dictionary, as I never hear anyone using “merry” (except, of course, Christmas-goers). Of all the definitions of “merry” that I could find—full of high-spirited gaiety, jolly, festive, brisk—I’ve decided that I prefer brisk, as in “have a day that goes by fast, one that is over with quickly,” that soon delivers us from the tastelessness that is Christmas.

Brief Interview with a Philosopher; or, What Is Your Husband?

I met the philosopher, L. Kellyn Marz, in her home on the 19th of April, to interview her about her new book, To Know a Thing is Nothing, a book that has been, since its release, causing no small amount of controversy. The following conversation took place on a slightly blustery afternoon in the philosopher’s library, which overlooked a small uncared-for garden, and a hedge of parked cars beyond.

I should warn the reader that Ms. Marz, like many philosophers, is notoriously difficult to pin down on the one hand, and on the other (or perhaps the same) has a tendency to “go on.” I’ve tried to transcribe the interview as best I could. Please forgive me if some of my parenthetical punctuation leans toward the labyrinthine. It’s not easy, I assure you, to scan a hall of mirrors. I’ve done my best:

Me: Good afternoon, Ms. Marz, how are you doing?

LKM: How? Yes, how am I doing indeed? Well other than the general decomposition of my living body, I’m doing fine I suppose, though I guess you’d have to include the brain as part of that body (being as it is an organ of the body), and if you include the brain then you must also include, by extension, the mind (consciousness). . . and if you include the mind in the general decomposition of the body (which you must), then I suppose, well, I suppose that would mean my entire life, for after all what else is there without one’s body and mind? (Now don’t go blathering on about the soul! I think we know enough now to know that the soul is just an accumulation of lived life events, reactions to those events, memories, reactions to those memories, etc. even if you include [I do not, for the record] the events lived by our ancestors and somehow entangled in our DNA . . . either way the soul doesn’t exist without the body, and certainly ceases to exist once the body does . . . any other proposition would be absurd superstition at best, and pure idiocy [or willful manipulation] at worst) . . . I suppose you could argue (as I might) that there is something outside one’s body, and that we might call “other bodies” . . . but even so, those other bodies cease to exist once my body does the same . . . at least for me . . . as it is the same for you: once your body ceases to exist so too do all other bodies . . . at least for you . . . let’s call this “the life outside ourselves” . . . as to how the life outside myself is doing? well I suppose you would know just as well as I would, if not better, as you yourself are outside of myself and I am not . . . that said, this world outside of ourselves should not be considered an objective world, or an objective reality (I love that phrase! It’s so hopeful! You can hear the desire for Truth and Justice in its every syllable), no no, for it too, this “objective reality,” can only be filtered through my senses (for me anyway) and will also cease to exist once my senses (my body) do (does) the same . . . as it will also for you . . . of course, none of this is new, none of this is anything else but egocentrism—I the center of my universe, and you the center of yours—a condition we all share, we all share and are essentially helpless to escape, a fact I think we’d all do well to acknowledge . . .

But you asked me how I was, didn’t you? and not how the life outside myself was . . . which was very astute of you to do, despite the fact that it is obviously a convention of the form, that is, “polite conversation” . . . it was astute of you if only for the fact that all I can possibly know is how I am, and nothing else, how could I? let’s say, for instance, you asked “how is your husband?” or, “how is your car?” how would I know? I could only guess, you’d have to ask them . . . now, you could ask me what is my husband? or what is my car? and I could give you a certain answer, even a certain answer with certainty (say, “my husband is a Presbyterian,” or, “my car is a hatchback”) . . . but you cannot ask how, how would I know? how could I possibly know? I couldn’t, you see, I am only capable of knowing my own experience, as you are only capable of knowing yours . . . that is, again, egocentrism.

Now, “that’s obvious,” you might say, and you are right to think it should be, but it’s not so . . . we for reasons unknown, forget . . . for instance, there’s been a lot of talk recently about empathy, and this is a very noble sentiment, and I admire the attempt to be empathetic (at least in the sense that the word is being used, even though the word, you could argue [and I would] is being used incorrectly), why wouldn’t you admire any and all attempts to be empathetic? We’re not monsters! but of course, empathy has its limits . . . and, I would argue, its neuroses as well as its abuses . . . first, I think, a bit of etymology is in order: empathy < en, “within,” plus -pathy, “feeling,” which I take to mean something like “feeling as if you are within another’s body.” Now, that is all fine and good, but it is also impossible, how can you “practice feeling as if you are in another’s body?” There’s something very arrogant about this, and unfortunately most of the situations where people are “practicing empathy” amount to “projecting one’s own feelings” onto someone else . . . I think we have already established: I can only know how I am, and cannot and never know how you are, or anyone or anything else for that matter . . . which again is why your question, “how are you?”, was such a wonderfully answerable one, and one that more interviewers should add to their cache of (oft) disingenuous inquisitions . . .

Me: Thank you . . . I think . . . I take it then you’re doing fine.

LKM: Fine, sure, if you think all that I’ve just said amounts to “doing fine” . . . that’s a bit reductive, I would say, but perhaps, in the interest of moving on, we should simply agree to disagree . . . moving on, yes, I’ve just remembered, oh damn! I’m afraid, my friend, that I’m out of time. My hatchback is unfortunately not doing fine, and the mechanic who is overcharging me for its repair demanded that I retrieve it by three this afternoon.

Me: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that . . . perhaps then we can resume some other time?

LKM: I’d like to say that I think not.


Thomas Walton