Monday, August 10, 2015

About Paris, Culture and Speaking English

As the Eurostar emerged from Channel Tunnel and the train announcements switched to first English and then French from the other way around, I had that feeling of being back at home, which is paradoxical. I have lived in England for 11 years now and familiarity is a factor, particularly after being reprimanded at the Left Luggage facility at Gare Du Nord for not speaking French. But then, English is still not my first language, and my schooling was not in English - it is a language I have learnt much later in life. But, as it seems, my worth today is defined by English I speak and write - as I make my living as a rainmaker and enjoy my occasional Warholian 15-minutes on this blog.

But, before I get to the point about an English-speaking Indian, let me say a few things how it felt in Paris, where I spent a week (which should explain my silence on this blog). I took off to Paris for many reasons, one of them being able to reset the clock back in my own mind - I once spent a particularly lovely few days in Paris which changed my life in many ways - and to start again. Having seen the sights as all tourists must do, I had no particular imperative to climb up the Eiffel Tower, or to jostle with humourless tourist groups for a selfie in front of Monalisa. However, Paris still meant walking endlessly on beautifully laid out roads, and watch the couples lost in their reverie in beautiful gardens and riverbank, and to turn my own creative self on, something that I needed desperately at a time when, not for the first time in my life, I feel like drifting.

But, then, I am older and I saw something new in Paris. All those beautiful sights had a message which I missed earlier - that at their core, there is oppression. Sacré-Cœur standing on the very grounds of the initial revolts leading to Paris Commune, the beautiful Winged Bull of Louvre or the Egyptian treasure being a legacy of the Napoleonic or later imperial campaigns, the destitute beggars on Champs-Élysées waiting for the guilt of the Touristy heart, all the grandeur of Paris, and its beauty, appeared to me, this time around, with its oppressive abandon. Indeed, this is about me losing my innocence, though I shall claim to retain my sense of wonder, and may even be the proof of pessimism that I was looking for in the first place. But, the point that I was not bitter or resentful about the oppression, but was rather thinking that all beauty and grandeur pre-require oppression - not morally justifying it, but seeing this as inevitable - might have been the key point for me to take-away. In that sense, my particular calming moment was inside Pantheon, somewhat more peaceful without the tourist groups, to stand in front of the grave of Rousseau, whose words - that all civilisation is barbarity - I am perhaps repeating. However, I did not come away with any righteous rage, but rather a frame of thinking about culture, including that of my own English language.

The point of Paris, for me the older man, is not another outrage about imperial looting and reparation, but the truth of all cultures - that it is dead creativity! We are supposed to marvel at the museums on the assumption that the artifacts are the ones which made humanity great, but the institution of the museum, and the act of collecting and curating, is an action supported by power and wealth, not creativity. And, this is not just about affording the artifact - the procurement and preservation needs money - but also selecting the artifact is guided by the same assumptions of power, which makes the institutional form of museum some sort of a modern Pyramid, a palace of dead culture, ritualistic and ready for consumption. This is great for commerce, all those miniature Monets and Van Goghs on handbags, but the creativity remains outside, on the fringe. The stunning display of Impressionists at Musée d'Orsay or Musée de l’Orangerie may be doing great work in making those great painters available to posterity, but the act of curation is very different - one of power, privilege and approval - than the real act of creation, which many of those destitute painters indulged in, with little outside acclaim or support. That latter act, of creation, of drawing inspiration from inside oneself, doing what one wants rather than looking for social (or commercial) approval, that makes humanity great. And, in that sense, the museum is the wrong message - the hallway of Orsay was abuzz with how much the Monets would be worth - and in many a sense, the regression of human culture.

It is a conflicting thought. Louvre was made to set art free, from private collections to the world at large, a function it, and the other museums, serve. This conflict, however, does not nullify my other thought about all culture as repression, but exist side-by-side. The Parisian dream, that of an attic and tuberculosis (as a Woody Allen character succinctly mentions), is less about the culturally sanctioned grandeur and more in the realm of those destitute migrants locked up in Calais, and that is what makes humanity great. Every cultural flowering is preceded by a revolution, where street creativity overwhelms mummified culture of the museums, be in the 1870s France followed by belle-epoch, or the Counter-culture that preceded the Silicon Valley (which Fred Turner writes about). A cultural epoch, in my mind, starts with people changing the conversation (an expression Theodore Zeldin uses) beating the powerful in their own game of Culture with a big C. And, then, history proceeds - of enveloping the creativity and transforming it into the culture of the next generation - all those evaluating Monets in financial terms are live examples! But that is the point of death of creativity, death by culture is such a great expression, a middle class disease and symptom of decay that we are currently afflicted with.

Which brings me to own conflicts with English language. At one level, I have learned the language and live daily with it, so much so that it feels like home. On the other, I know that this comes loaded with those assumptions of power, that selects a few and divides all, and I see this in my day-job, where, concerning mainly with developing countries and India, articulation trumps accomplishment. English language, in context of India and Indianness, is like the Museums of Paris, full of grandeur and beauty, a place of culture - but selective, a code between the powerful, with its own code of hierarchy and access. It may be a tool to access the outside and bring the world knowledge into our doorstep, the precise dream that set me into the journey of learning the language and living in England, but a more common use of it as a sieve, of keeping many out. And, yet, the creative energy outside is what defines humanity, and it eventually overwhelms the sanitised world of culture and official language, just as it did many times in history. In many a sense, Paris sets me free again - this time around, it was from my own assumptions.



 




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