Les Grands Amours

I arrive back in Paris, and see it “properly” now “for the first time.” These mark the “last few days of a fantastic holiday,” and “those few days were wonderful.”

I feel that glow now, it expands beneath my ribs and makes my breath seem warmer. “I think my favourite building in the world for its originality is the Centre Pompidou,” I tell myself on The Tape, and for a long time, I remember, that was the case. I embraced modernity, pre-, post- and present. I was into things, such as cool architecture; they excited me then, they excite me still.

I record and recall seeing La Vie de Brian, as The Life of Brian was called there, and us laughing our heads off, the way we only could then. There was an evening, not long after I’d moved to London, when my friend Peggy and, I believe, beautiful Stefan, and maybe one or two other people were assembled in my shared living room, lounging on the grubby sofa and draped over a stained but strangely comfortable armchair, watching Airplane! on TV. We laughed so hard at this, we literally ended up on the floor. That capacity for joy, so unalloyed: we had it then, we had it in Paris—that was exactly the era—and I don’t know when or where it went. That freshness, even with an open mind as I try to keep it, has simply gone: hardly anything ever makes me laugh now anywhere near as hard. Perhaps I’ve seen it, heard it, if not all then just too much of it, to tickle me so with surprise?

I remember loving the Pompidou, I remember loving and laughing at La Vie, I remember little if anything else, apart from Christian, Judith’s brother, whom I thought “great” and “quite eccentric, in his own way,” and probably fancied, just a bit. Judith, whom I loved then and still love today, though I haven’t seen her in a decade (and then under sad, troubled, circumstances concerning our friend), was my school pal whom we were visiting in Paris, where she was staying with her boyfriend, Alain. For reasons I don’t recall I spent quite some time with her brother, liking him immensely. (Maybe because Judith was with her boyfriend, Alain?)

At one point Christian and I got on a metro train together. As it arrived, we noticed that it had first and second class compartments, and he said we should ride in second class since we didn’t have first class tickets. I, having never been to Paris “properly” before, convinced him that this must be a remnant of the olden days, and that by now the metro surely only had one class for all. So we boarded the less crowded first class carriage.

Within minutes we were surrounded by about five ticket inspectors, demanding a surcharge and a fine. I was outraged: I told them they were being completely unreasonable, since it was impossible for me, a Londoner, to know that a metropolitan underground train could have two classes. They pointed at the big ‘1’ that was painted on the interior of the carriage, and mentioned the same on the outside. I was having none of it: I live in London, I said, I use the tube all the time, and we don’t have any of this nonsense. They let us off. We were made to move to second class, but no money changed hands. I can be stubborn when I need to be, that hasn’t changed…

My forever enduring memory though of these last few days of my Europe tour in 1988, and one of the best and most cherished experiences of all my years of going to the cinema anywhere in the world, was Le Grand Bleu. I had seen it before, in Grenoble, and fallen in love with it and with Jean-Marc Barr then, but this now was in a league of its own.

The film was immensely successful in France, and so Le Grand Rex, one of the largest cinemas in Paris, had put up an extra large screen in front of its existing one. It was, I tell The Tape, “a 25 metre screen,” which would make it either nearly the size of, or even slightly bigger than, the screen on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival (which today is still the largest in Europe), depending on whether that was a horizontal width or a diagonal measurement, which I can’t remember. In any case, it was huge. (They may even have ‘renamed’ the cinema for that run. It’s entirely possible, but once again I am no longer certain, that the cinema was really normally called Le Rex, and they labelled it Le Grand Rex just for Le Grand Bleu, with the big screen.)

Because the screen was so large, there were now, in the auditorium, new restricted sight lines. The stalls were fine, as was the upper balcony, but from all but the front row in the dress circle, the view was severely restricted, because you would not see the top of the screen (which was blocked off by the balcony above you) or the bottom (which was obscured by the circle in front of you), for which reason the cinema had cordoned off the dress circle altogether.

We were not young people to be told where to sit in a cinema with unreserved seating, and so while people raced, as the doors opened, to the best seats up on the balcony and down in the stalls, we opened the door to the dress circle behind the red cord, and saw it empty, with a vast screen beckoning. We snuck in, closed the door behind us, and took up the few seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle, the ones directly in the middle of the screen: your entire field of vision was taken up with The Big Blue: it was magnificent.

I to this day can’t get over how beautiful and real the sea and how close-enough-to-touch Jean-Marc Barr were. Other good actors appeared in the film, there was other fine scenery, but I remember him and the sea and the dolphins. And the party on Taormina, I believe, where he turns up dressed in a dinner suit, wearing trainers, looking sheepish and unbearably cute. I could have married him there and then.

I later met Jean-Marc Barr after a performance in the West End of a Tennessee Williams play, and he was gracious and polite; I a little timid and shy, but happy to be face-to-face with him in person, and now getting him ‘out of my system’: he was a lovely, good-looking man, and a very decent actor, and I no longer now had to pine…

“Unfortunately, on the last night” of our stay in Paris, I tell The Tape, “Judith split up with her boyfriend, Alain,” and so “went back with her brother Christian,” to Basel, I presume. I, on Sunday, which therefore must have been the next day, took the train back to London and arrived there in the evening, “about nine o’clock.”


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Outrage

‘Stupidity,’ Sedartis thunders, ‘is the enemy. Stupidity is the outrage: the crime!’ Here is that word again. ‘Perpetrated not by the stupid, they may never have learnt—never have had a chance to learn—not to be so; no, it’s the chief crime of your society. As long as you allow stupidity not just to exist, but to flourish in your midst; as long as you cultivate, nurture, elevate and celebrate it, you deserve everything you get.’

I feel chastened; Sedartis is on a roll: ‘You talk of equality. You talk of democracy and a fairer society. And yet you blind yourselves to the evil that trumps all: you lull your masses into ignorance and then keep them there. Because you’re selfish, egotistical, greedy and lazy, you “give the people what they want,” which you keep telling them is soft porn mush and their own supposed “reality.” You invite them to be abysmally stupid on your television shows and think you’re doing them a favour because they recognise themselves: you make stupidity the norm, and condemn aspiration to intellect as a pretentious frivolity. You dismiss intellect itself as an irrelevance, knowing full well that without intellect you wouldn’t be here where you are, in your privileged position. You keep your people stupid because that’s how you keep yourselves aloft and rich; you fear them, and you dread what they should do if ever they latched on to how you enslave them.

There is a pause. It doesn’t last. ‘You feed them what scraps they already know, and shore up their prejudices; you belittle intelligence as “too clever by half”—how can you even hold on to an expression like that?—and smirk at anyone who thinks in public. How can you have built a civilisation in which not only one percent own more than half of all material wealth, but another one percent at most are really schooled in handling knowledge, when you know that knowledge is power.’

That’s a crass exaggeration, and unlike Sedartis, I want to protest.

‘All right, so that may be a crass exaggeration, I concede: you educate more people now, in absolute terms as well as relative, than ever before, but you’ve had so much time to make so much more progress than you have, you should be embarrassed that so many of you are still struggling so much.’

That, I find hard to argue with. Is knowledge power, still, though?

‘Thinking,’ he thinks at me, ‘is an exertion, yes. That does not absolve us from it. So is walking, yet walk we must, otherwise we grow fat, stale and lethargic. Brushing is a pain, but you do it, even if reluctantly, to hold on to your teeth. Life is not convenient, no matter how successful we are at making it so. So even if it hurts: use your brain. It will shrivel, shrink and stink if you don’t.’

Stink? I can tell how angry he is. ‘I am not angry, my friend’—Sedartis hears me well before I speak—‘I am outraged. I am outraged at the stupidity you allow on this planet. At the casual simplicity you cast over everything, and at the way you make do. At the quick quote soundbite approach you have taken to politics. The commercial current that runs through your culture. The inoffensiveness of your art. The soft sell in your science. The infantilisation of your discourse. You constantly ask: what is the simple story, what the three-act moral narrative. Because you are too torpid to connect the dots for yourselves. You open your mouths, crying, “feed me!” – You’ve regressed into infancy, and you wallow in your own incapacity. You suckle the nipple of light entertainment, and if you do wean yourselves off it, you go on to sugary bottled “fun,” and then you wonder why your metaphorical teeth are all rotten, and you’re incapable even of crunching an apple: you’ve become toothless, grown-up-but-refused-to-grow-up, idiot babes. You have lost sophistication, elegance and wit. You shun the strain of inquiry, and you moan and moan and moan.

‘Like the whiny brat in the stroller whom you have elevated to a tiny emperor and given permission to terrorise your existence, you yourself throw your toys out of your pram and expect someone else to bend down and pick them up for you. Everything is somebody’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. It’s the neighbours’ fault. It’s the immigrants’ fault. It’s anybody else’s fault but yours. Have you listened to yourselves? You are a disgrace to your species, the way you behave, and you know it, but you will stone me for saying so to your face.’

I am stunned. I have never experienced Sedartis like this. I’m a little afraid. And in awe.   

He senses my discomfort, my fear. He calms down: ‘Species. That in itself is too simple, too categorical. I know you need simplicity, you need categories. But look at yourselves from a distance, or look at yourselves close up: you are so near to your nearest cousins that you can barely tell yourselves apart. Yet you think you are a majestic, exclusive achievement. You are nothing of the sort, you are simply first on your planet, and alone in your solar system. But there are so many solar systems in so many galaxies, you need not fear of finding yourselves alone: this universe, as well as any other, is teeming with life.

‘Your problem is not your position, not your location, not your intelligence: your problem is your perspective. Your nearest cousins, the dolphins, the bonobos, they may be a few hundred thousand years, maybe a few million years behind you on their evolutionary path, but that doesn’t make them categorically different. It just makes them slower at something you can take no credit for. What you can take credit for is this: your culture. What you do with your advantage. And that is why your stupidity is unacceptable now. At one point, in the not so distant past, you were just like the great apes, scavenging for food, fighting each other for primacy over your females, thinking of nothing other than preserving, projecting, your genes. Slowly, gradually, you emerged from the dullness of your existence and you became conscious, intelligent beings.

‘How dare you not use your intelligence? You will get there, of course; you will reach your next level, as every other life form reaches its own. You will merge with your inventions, you will make yourselves immortal. You will begin to populate other worlds, if nothing else as a hybrid of human and human-made machine. That is all very well. But choose how you get there. The pain that you’re causing yourselves and your fellow creatures on earth is excruciating, when you already have the means to not inflict it at all. All you have to do is use your intelligence and learn that you are not the thing that matters, you are part of the thing that matters, and that is enough.’

‘What is the thing that matters?’ I ask Sedartis.

He remains silent. He remains silent for a long, long time, and we sit together watching the squirrels and the birds, and imagining the bonobos and the dolphins and the cows and the lions and the beautiful, but a little clumsy, giraffes.

I take his silence to mean, ‘I don’t know either,’ and it saddens me that he doesn’t know either, but I know he doesn’t know either, and I wonder does anyone know, anyone in the multiverse of infinite universes at all, or are we all just a part of it, unknowing but yearning to understand, and failing but trying and playing our part.

‘It doesn’t matter, you see,’ says Sedartis. And now I can really hear him. ‘It doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that you make the most of it. Whatever it is that you can. That is all that actually matters, because you have no control over anything else.

‘You can’t control when you are born. To whom. Where. You can’t know why. You can’t dictate the terms of your existence, but you can take them and deal with them well. And by dealing with them well, you may alter them. Whatever is given, you don’t have to take just as it is. What you do have to do is make the most of it. And you really have to make the most of it. You really have to not take no for an answer, you really have to probe deeper and go further and demand of yourself more. Because if you don’t, somebody will. And they may not understand what you understand. But you understand what I understand, and that is how we are connected, how we are part of it all, how there is a greater scheme of things, and how our moment here is tiny, but we can, must, make it magnificent.’


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Neptune

I sit on the edge of the solar system, with Neptune, invisible. I’m known to exist, but nobody sees me. I think I see them, from a distance, through a haze. I can’t be sure. Twinkles, here and there, allover really: wondrous…

I have, inadvertently, become a god. This is both puzzling and absurd: those powers they invest in me are merely mythical. I am not even drawn to water, not as other people are. Some see the sea and jump right in. I don’t. I am content to sit there, pondering. Until the time comes. Until I’m ready. Until I feel the need. Until curiosity gets the better of me. Or temptation. Or just the wanting to have been in the water before going home. Not so much the desire to be in the water, as the desire not to have not been in the water at all. For a moment. Or two. With the lover, the dolphins, the mermaids, the waves and the fishes. The other gods. This propensity to ponder. It may be an affliction; but why not. ‘Why not?’ seems to be the overriding question. Is that what it is: a question?

I walk from Neptune towards the sun through the snow – like shooting stars, falling. I love the snow falling on my face as I look up at the sky, at the space, at these planets, the aboveness and the aroundness of it all; the path ahead is white and clear, and there’s no-one about. Of course not: I’m alone. Alone on the edge of the universe.

A pang of love, a moment of pain. Love for whom? Pain of what? A special one now, this time, really? A sense of myself, now, really? Or of the idea of myself. Of the Concept. The Unreality.

I like my reality right now, I can deal with it, I can live up to it, make sense of it, or so I tell myself, knowing this not to be true, not entirely.

I walk, steadily—not fast, not slow—along the path of the planets, thinking myself Neptune. I am not a planet. I am not a god. I am not a myth. I feel millions of miles away from the allness of it all, but I’m about to dissolve into it, and this thrills me.

Is that a lonely path I walk or is it just deserted? Because it’s late. Because it’s out of season. Because it normally is, around now. Is it too late? This turns into a portentous question all of a sudden. Am I too far along the path, do I circle too slowly? But we know, we know, we are not planets, we are not rivers, we are barely human.

We are human. So bare though, so vulnerable, so thoughtful, so cautious, so hesitant, so almost capable. So willing, yet, to survive. So surviving. Thriving, even, against the odds. So gentle. So soft. So curly, the hair. So even the teeth. So tender the lips. So lovely the legs. So quirkily satin the belly button. So elegant the fingers. So delicate the eyelashes. So warm, so warm though the chest.

So fleeting, so insubstantial as I walk under fir trees and the snow they are clothed in, so naked, so wrapped up in my delusion, my reading the signs that aren’t there, my wanting it all to be and to mean something. Wanting it all. To be and to mean. Something.

I take pictures of the snow so I can send them to him, though I don’t even know if he wants to look at the snow through my lens through my eyes through the synapses of my brain that miss him, but I know he has never seen snow for real and I want to show it to him. His mind is not here any more than his body. What of his soul? It sits right in me. He would love the snow, I know, if he saw it for real. If he were with me now. If we were insubstantial now in the snow together, seeping into the ground.

I know these things. I now know them all, and they all make sense, and they will come to pass, and it all just needs time to arrange itself now. I want to be sure.

I missed Uranus on my journey, I realise, as I pass Saturn, wondering why that took so long, and I don’t mind. There’s an irony in this, but it is not a metaphor, not even a pun. Not a sign. It’s a coincidence: sometimes you miss a planet, that’s all.

I’d decided to surrender, to go with the flow, just to be. I’m calm at the thought, now, at ease. I feel a greater certainty than ever before, but I’m not sure about what. Just about. And I know I don’t need to investigate this, I don’t need to probe.

I don’t need to understand, because I already know. I don’t want to be the one any more who longs. I don’t want to be the one any more who pines and freezes. The one made of ice. And rocks. Enveloped in abundant gases. Who errs on the side of reason, out of sight, out of mind, out of being. I want to thaw and to melt and to meld with the one and to bloom and to lose myself in the all and to be.

And so I walk on, sunward.


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