Swan Lake, Puigcerda
BEING IDIOSYNCRATIC IN 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"
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
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
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
I downloaded a couple of books:
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
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
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
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
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
comme si dans l'onde j'innovais
Mille sepulcres pour y vierge
Apparently few translators can.
Ditto L'Apres-Midi D'Un Faune.
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.
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
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.
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
Lightening My Load in Paris