Fushan kids back in bus

PuigcerdaJune, July 2011:
Swan Lake, Puigcerda



I had come to Puigcerda to house-sit my daughter's and son-in-law's apartment while they were traveling in California. My daughter was already there along with granddaughter Bella. Mi yerno, my son-in-law, was joining them shortly. My chief responsibility as a house sitter was to feed Hilde, their cat, and to water their yet-unnamed plants. Neither of these tasks took a lot of time. Hilde was a young cat, just out of kitten-hood, and required some attention at times, as all young cats do. And you paid a price if you didn't give it to her. The plants were no problem, other than an African violet in the bathroom that acted like it was dying of drought if you didn't water it but acted the same way if you did. I can do without moody, mysterious plants hanging out in the bathroom watching you do personal business.

Other than the cat and the plants, I was free to do my other business, which is writing. For about the first week and a half after Luciano left I did nothing but editing work on the previous edition of limpair.net. That wrapped up, I was then free to get out and explore Puigcerda. Puigcerda was not new to me. But it was amazing to be living in an apartment and having it all to myself. I had spent most of the last four years living in hostels in various cities and was sick of hostels and most of the international pub-crawling youth that frequents them. I was tired of hearing "Hey, dude," "what the fuck," ohmygod" ad infinitum.

Puigcerda is an old town in the Cerdanya Valley in Spain near the French border. It is build on a hill overlooking the valley. On the main plaza, Plaza Santa Maria, the tower of its 11th-century church is all that remains of the church. It was bombed during the civil war. Puigcerda, solidly on the Republic side, was targeted for punishment.

The town is build on what seems like a rock. And rock is used as a major construction material everywhere. The Pyrenees Mountains contain granite, limestone, and gneissose, with an abundance of granite. Rock is also used for fencing farms. Thus the town has a solid look to it but not, I think, a harsh or unfriendly look.

At the northern end of town is a park with a lake. The lake is a beautiful one with three swans—two white ones and one black—and many ducks. The swans glide through the water with grace; the ducks paddle clumsily as though they have just learned how. The lake is full of fish—trout, hake, pike and other species—and both young and old enjoy fishing there. While youth needs no excuse for idleness, older people often feel the need; clutching a fishing pole at the edge of the lake provides it. The Sant Marti River flows on the west side of the town down from the mountains to the north, and the town is surrounded on all side in the distance by farm lands, fields, and distant mountains. In the Winter, many people come to the mountains to go skiing. It is hard to imagine a more lovely place. When there are not clouds the sun shines—I am almost tempted to say smiles—brighter than anyplace I have ever been. When it rain the clouds pours down pure, fresh water on the town like cleansing tears that makes it sparkle when the rains stops and the clouds clear. It is as if it has been bathed in Champagne. The center of the town is old, very old, and the streets are narrow there. As the town spreads out, it is newer but not cheap or gaudy looking as so many town are as they expand outward. The hillsides surrounding the town are grassy, with flowers and trees growing on them. It is one of the pretties places I have ever seen. At the south-west side of town there is a steep drop into the valley and there is an elevator there to lift people up the side of the hill. It is a touch of modernity in the old town that is actually a welcome one. In short, Puigcerda is a storybook kind of place.

With no editing to do now, I began to get up late, my usual habit, buy a newspaper, and go downtown to read and have a glass of wine on the plaza. Then I would buy groceries, drop them off at the apartment, and take a walk up to the lake. Once at the lake, I would circle it several time, enjoying the magnificent park with its many varieties of trees, and often stop at the little "tea house" on the north side for an espresso or a glass of wine.

I did all that one day when the weather was particularly wonderful. I just sat as though in a trance staring over the lake. There was a little breeze coming through the trees in back of me. My daughter has a large collection of classical CDs and I had been listening to compositions by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Liszt, Satie, and others at night after working. Now sitting at the lake, and watching the swans, the boats, the ripples in the water and the different shades of green, then looking up at blue sky and white clouds drifting across overhead, it was as if this scene, with me in it, had become part of those compositions or those compositions had become part of this scene. Fragments of music and fragments of lake, sky, and clouds blended together forming something new and wonderful. I began to think differently, then to quit thinking altogether while other senses opened up. How had I come here? What did "here" even mean? I knew physically how I had arrived in Puigcerda—by first taking a train, by then taking three airplanes, by then taking a bus and a taxi ... But what was it all about? What did it mean? I didn't really know. It was as if it were part of some mystery that was unfolding, unraveling. Every time I took time off from my usual tasks, I had this feeling. New senses opened up leaving me feeling baffled. I wanted to know things that I had never known before. I wanted to get beyond just an accurate description of this world. Anybody could describe the world and their experiences accurately if they worked hard enough.

But perhaps I am jumping ahead too much, or making too much of my "lake feelings." It was, however, a wonderful experience going to the lake and just sitting there "with my feet up" doing nothing. I was Loa Zi in Puigcerda in a New Orleans state of mind.

But that is not quite accurate. For better or worse, I wasn't doing absolutely nothing. I will leave that for certain characters in New Orleans who have perfected idleness. For some time I had been working on translations of Paul Verlaine's poem, Art Poetique—first into English, then into Chinese. Now I began working on the Spanish translation, and a friend of Luciano's, Roberto from Argentina, dropped by a couple of times and worked on it with me. Roberto lived across the border in France and was conversant both in Spanish and French. Translation presented an interesting challenge. It was like dragging the content of a poem created in one world into another while retaining its essence.

At the same time I was continuing an interest in philosophy that had begun with reading Will Durant's book, The History of Philosophy; been frustrated by Philosophers like Spinoza, who seemed to invent their own language; then had rekindled when I read a book by Stephen Hawking called The Grand Design. I simply wanted to know more, but especially about "modern philosophy," as I thought it might answer some of my fundamental questions. As naive as this sounds, I thought it might get me beyond the accurate description of the obvious world, or the world as it is observed by most people.

I downloaded a couple of books: A Short History of Modern Philosophy by Roger Scruton and Philosophy in the Modern World by Anthony Kenny and began reading. I still prefer paper copies of books that I plan to read seriously—I pursue new knowledge in an old-fashioned way—but had little choice, as I was on the road. I read a little bit on Descartes, I read a little on Frege and Sartre, but I did not get especially interested in anything other than Wittgenstein and Russell on language. My reading also lead me to review logic: analytic versus synthetic propositions and a priori versus a posteriori knowledge.

I noticed, however, that neither of these books really discussed recent developments in philosophy and wondered why. Going to Wikipedia, I read a curious definition of "Contemporary Philosophy". It talked about the "professionalism" of philosophy. What it seemed to mean by this is "academic" philosophy, implying that anyone who is not part of an "accredited" institution is not to be taken seriously. It states "...the day of the philosopher as isolated thinker—the talented amateur with an idiosyncratic message—is effectively gone." I had considerable misgiving when I read this. Essentially it was saying that the independent thinker was not to be taken seriously. What, I wondered, if you applied the same standard to poets or novelists? Should we shun reading War and Peace because Tolstoy did not finish college? Would we pass on Poe for the same reason? And what about that bum of all Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac? A drop-out too. Many of the great writers never finished school and have been shunned by the honored academies; some have even done time in jail. Too much creativity or independence is considered dangerous.

I began to feel that much of what I was reading had little relevance to key questions about existence. It didn't really matter to a "seeker" or person who desperately wanted to know. It was good for creating classroom test materials and writing essays. It was relevant for someone seeking to become "part of the system" or to rise up in it. But it did little for a person with a burning desire to know. And was that person no longer relevant? The monitors of the academy seemed to be saying he or she wasn't.

All this lead me to a consideration of poetry. It was the freest of all forms of expression, so it seemed to me. It could express anything philosophy could express if it wanted to, but usually it chose not to, leaving that to the philosophers. But not having the restrictions of logic, it could express more. It could contain a novel. Why not? No rule of poetry said it couldn't, god damn it! And it could turn into song and sing its heart out. It was free to do whatever it wanted.

Group A includes Group B, which includes bullshit ...
The tall, thin man on the hill ...
And her eyes were flowers, the petals lashes ...

While philosophers live in a kind of self-imposed mental jail, poets run free in the fields or in mad houses or wherever they want.

Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, the toad,
the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in ...

Some poets are more dreamy, others more logical. Consider Paul Verlaine. You can almost always figure out what he is trying to say if you spend enough time with the poem. Yet he is tres artistique. Then consider Stephane Mallarme. He is sometimes clear but often deliberately creates "fog" in his poems. Consider Le Pitre Chatie. Can you say for sure what he means by such lines as

Hamlet! c'est comme si dans l'onde j'innovais
Mille sepulcres pour y vierge disparaitre.

Apparently few translators can.

Ditto L'Apres-Midi D'Un Faune.

Roberto, though he spoke French, refused to get involved with Mallarme. Perhaps that is wise, perhaps not. Roberto is not into sitting and staring at the changing colors of lakes made by the shadow of clouds. He'd rather go to the pub and watch football.

It was nice to have time to lose myself in the deeper topics of life, or at least to move closer to the flame for awhile. A paycheck may be nice but it is the other stuff that ignites the flame and fills the universe with bright stars.

I do find amusement and pleasure in philosophy when it hones in on  such seemingly narrow questions as the meaning of the word "the." It took a mind like that of Bertrand Russell's to discern that there was even a question there.

The example given in Scruton's book is "The king of France is bald." I won't go into it—it's not so simple a sentence as it would appear to be—but how much more relevant it might have been to give an example like "The way is uncertain." Clarifying a sentence like that could almost bring enlightenment.


Lightening My Load in Paris