Thoughts on Animals

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Immanuel Kant: “He who is cruel in his dealings with animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

Albert Schweitzer. “By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.”

Ghandi: The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

People often confess shamefacedly that they love their pets more than they love their fellow human beings. A good number of French would have to plead guilty to this as well. It is one of the reasons I like them. I remember being  scandalised when I was told as a child that there would be no animals in heaven because animals do not have souls. “Heaven” said I then – as I say now “is no place for me!”

Abraham Lincoln said “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”

Some suggest that a consuming love of animals is a sign of misanthropy. If that is the case then I am misanthropic. I do not understand fully why my emotions are so aroused by the terrible plight of most of the non-human animals on this planet. It may be that I was taught as a child to appreciate them, or it may be a psychological identification with them. Whatever the case, I am a passionate devotee of nonhuman creatures great and small.

When we consider the human discourses and skills, animals do not seem to know much that we know, but what they do know they know perfectly. The (in)famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that his dog was the only being who really knew him and did not confuse him for some mistaken, projected fantasy.

The question often discussed by philosophers and animal-lovers is whether or not their animals are “persons” i.e. do they have souls. Another way of posing the question is to ask does a nonhuman animal have a “personal identity”, a “me” and hence all the longings, desires, and even morals that seem to go with that structure. I cannot imagine why we would want to afflict them with souls what ever we may understand “having a soul” to mean. Having a soul is the source of a great deal of suffering. Nietzsche calls man “the suffering animal”. When someone says of a pet “He is a real character!” I am sure they are not speaking metaphorically. The animal concerned is a “person”.

When animals become involved in our lives (for purposes other than eating and servitude) we invest them with a cultural soul or a “personhood”. They get this in virtue of their association with the creatures who invented the phenomenon: ourselves. The soul is a narrative structure, a man-made explanation for our perplexing intuitions of subjectivity and spirituality. It combines historical circumstances and moral imperatives. If animals have similar souls then they get those souls from us.  You have only to type “guilty dogs” into You-tube and you will see the souls of dogs exhibited. Whether one believes in God or not, all we know about him/her/it, we have devised for ourselves. We have developed the notion of the soul to explain how we are connected to God, or as a philosopher like Plato would put it, to explain how we might participate in the substance of the divine.

In these terms we can ponder the question about animals having souls. We tame them, train them, and in the most arrogant, exploitative and disrespectful way we oppress them with our demands and then, if it suits us, we will eat them. If one of them tries to eat one of us it is executed immediately.

For the last forty years the French Philosopher Derrida has been one of the world’s most famous and controversial philosophers. He caused a scandal in the philosophical world by being the first philosopher to be rich and bold enough to drive a Rolls Royce with personalised number plates. It was a real paradox because philosophers like to think of themselves as being rather austere and not really interested in material things. Derrida died in 2004.  He devoted some thought to this problem of whether or not we can think of animals as “persons”.

He commences from the position that “personhood” is something we get from our society. He wonders if it might be useful to think of the prohibition regarding killing as a place to start delineating personhood. Perhaps “persons” are those we are not permitted to kill. If we will not kill an animal perhaps we consider it a person. When a criminal is executed he must have forfeited his personhood.

Derrida was forced to abandon that position because, of course, humans kill each other all the time regardless of whether or they think their victims might have “souls.”

Next, he draws an analogy between the rules and rituals that surround human eating practices and the notion of “personhood”. In many countries it is the routine for men to eat first and best, then the children, and last of all, if there is anything left, the women may eat. This is indicative of a certain hierarchy of persons. Here, the men might be considered the fully-fledged “persons” while the women are not. In these terms then, the societies that nurture their animals as carefully as they do their children would accord those creatures the status of “person” and it would be morally reprehensible to allow them to go hungry, to kill them or to eat them.

Personhood has several facets: psychological, juridical, political and ethical identity for example. According to Derrida a ready-reckoner as to the status and power of the person would be to regard those who eat “well” as having been granted the status of subject. “Well” is used here in a dual sense; e.g. to follow the society’s rules about eating is to eat well, and to eat good quality food is to eat well.

Another interesting remark Derrida makes is that once we have imposed personhood upon these creatures, i.e. given them a human-made soul, it is almost impossible to strip them of it without gross cruelty. We cannot simply turn tame tigers out into the jungle. If we abandon tame dolphins to the wild they will still beg for food from the fishing boats. It is the same with tamed wolves. Even though they are perfectly capable of fishing and hunting for themselves, breaking bread with humans has become more important to them than simple survival.

We humans can learn a great deal from animals both tame and in their natural state. For example: we would do well to emulate their stoicism, pragmatism, simplicity and their purity. If I see an animal living without interference, or even one well cared for and contented, I am imbued with some of their contentment. In the United States the prison authorities permitted a study in which homeless dogs were allocated one each to long term and recalcitrant prisoners. Men and women who were not motivated to try to improve their own situation by obeying the prison rules were happy to negotiate good behaviour for privileges for their animals. When a cat, normally wild and frightened, sits on my lap and trusts that I will not harm it I can catch a glimpse of good in our species.

If the English have a reputation for devotion to animals then the French cannot be far behind.  Yet, there is still the paradox of hunting. Many people in both countries continue to hunt. If I could believe that the hunting was only in order to provide food then perhaps it would not seem so repulsive. But the pleasure the hunters seem to derive from what they call a sport does little to ease my misgivings. It is hard to think of a creature that takes more pleasure in killing than humans do. Other creatures will kill but it is mainly for food or out of fear. The fox in the hen house springs to mind but the fox does not know any better. The fox cannot sit down with his peers and talk the matter over. The fox is still driven by instinct whereas we humans have the rare distinction of being able to rise above instinct.

Healthy and beautiful, nonhuman animals abound at every turn in La France Profond.  It is possible to draw all sorts of conclusions about a society from the way they treat animals and, hunting aside, the French must be among the most enlightened people on earth. They are a people who will not smile at one another with out a very good reason, but they will beam and melt at the sight of a dog.

10962174115_0145f83731_z(1)Meeting for a chat on Saturday morning.

 

In our area of France they have a multitude of horse and donkey shows.  In beautiful, spacious stable yards the animals are assembled for exhibition and judging. Their human admirers scatter about the periphery seated in the shade. The donkeys look exactly as if they have dressed themselves up in donkey costumes that are way too big for them. They are as friendly as can be and walk up to you (even the babies) and butt you gently with their heads to get a scratch. The various categories are judged at a wonderfully leisurely pace. Measured carefully, examined meticulously, observed in their walking and trotting gaits, their forelocks curled and whiskers trimmed they are perfectly aware that they are the essence of equine beauty.

Princess

On one occasion we were given a showing of “Princess“, a blue/black draught horse of huge, huge  proportions. Since that time we have gotten to know her very well and often stop to give her a piece of bread.  She has a fine head and long curly mane, tail and feathered feet. She is a really pretty giant and her handlers treated her so gently and respectfully – as if she really were a Princess.

As we drove past in the morning the stables were in the full swing of preparation for the afternoon show and we saw “Princess”  being groomed. One fellow brushing her feet and another dealing with her mane and tail – all of which had been crimped. No wonder she has a good opinion of herself and of her handlers. She is beautiful. We saw several other handsome and expectant faces peeping out over their stable doors.

I saw a YouTube  video of those lovely horses in El Caballo Blanco. They are mostly draught horses and stallions. The history of the thing goes that they used stallions because the Spanish army would not come in and confiscate them for war purposes. The stallions were too naughty and willful. (Isn’t that the way of the world). So they trained up the stallions to dance – confident that they would not be dragooned into the army. They showed footage of them doing “Piaf” which is prancing on the spot. It was a technique used to warm up the horses before battle. These great big dills looked so wonderfully silly. I marveled at their luxurious forelocks and manes that were all curled and fluffed up into ringlets.

I saw a little girl at the coffee shop and she too had her hair in curls and ringlets in just the same way. I puzzled about how we have decided that curls are the height of beauty in little girls and in those huge animals. What can we be thinking of? How do curls improve the look of a horse? They do though in a rather strange way. It shows how treasured and petted they are. Perhaps that is what links the two: little girls and gorgeous horses: they are treasured. When we cherish creatures we curl their hair.

It is a very serious business and the horses, donkeys and mules are all meticulously and painstakingly judged and certified so that they can continue breeding. The place was full of babies. All very naughty, trying to escape, propping and refusing to walk on halters. The mothers are serene and lovely.8983528411_d48381713d_z
A  12 month old draft-horse colt was being judged. He was a giant: as tall as I am at his shoulder and much taller than Davis at his head.  He kept whinnying and glaring urgently out through the gate. I asked what was stirring him up out there and one of the judges turned to me and said “Il appel sa Mere!” (He is calling his mother.) It was moving to see this enormous creature calling for Mother.  Mothers are so important. I had looked at him before and told Davis that I thought he was young because his gaze was so soft and silly, but he was just so big it seemed impossible.
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After the judging of each horse and donkey the judges read out over the microphone what was good and bad about the animal. They thought this young colt was “big for his age. Perhaps too big!” There was also a massive donkey stallion leaning out to observe proceedings. He was very annoyed about the whole business because he found himself severely neglected. He had his curly face out over a stable door. He called repeatedly and raucously till his minders went over to tickle him to assuage his sense of injustice.  Ignored for a while – he decided to kick the stable door down (as you would) and we could see it shaking and bending with each thump. Soon as someone was there talking to him he’d shut up.
They had a mother and child category and about a dozen mothers and their babes came out. It was a sight for sore eyes with the mothers all standing quietly as long as they could see their babes and the babies playing up. The long coats are to keep them from the weather: warm in winter and cool in summer. These coats are considered things of great beauty and are much admired in aesthetics of the world of donkeys.  When one Mother with an especially long coat of dreadlocks was lead out there was a collective gasp from the audience as if a super-model had walked on stage.
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It makes me happy to see that all these people are dedicating so much of their lives to preserving these animals that would otherwise be extinct. They used to be working animals in the fields and of course they fought in 2 world wars. They are incredibly strong. Now that we humans have no further use for them they would become extinct like all the other species we are robbing of habitat. But these people just adore them.  They are as proud of them as if they were children.
We met Princess again the next day in the fields and it was drizzling with rain. She had her nose pressed firmly against the gate about half way up the field to let her handlers know that she wanted to come into the stable out of the rain. Her companion in the field, a rather fine donkey, came up to us immediately when we called. Just for a chat, she declined the piece of bread we offered her, but let us stroke her nose. However, we called and called to Princess and other than turning her mild gaze upon us for a moment, she was letting nothing distract her from getting her way about the stable. When we drove by later, Princess was gone and the Donkey – all alone and palely loitering.

Monsieur Albert takes over the Saw Mill

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We went out one day to tidy up the wood pile. There was a heap of logs as tall as me: old shutters and all sorts. We worked for 3 hours flat out and finished with it all chopped up and piled neatly with plenty of room for the delivery of  fire-wood  which was to arrive the next day.

Ever the meticulous medico, Davis put on his overalls, his helmet, goggles and gloves. He knows how dangerous chain-saws can be.  He positioned the saw horse and set to. I carted loads of wood down to the house and chopped up all the kindling. After a very short while the small French Gnome appeared and walked around us rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he assessed what we were up to. He muttered  ” Oui. You have all that is needed to do a good job!” He was a bit impressed with the helmet and goggles. Then he spied a few huge long logs of really very hard wood that Davis had put aside as too much for his blunt chain saw. Nothing would do but Davis had to saw these logs of hard wood now because it is such good wood for burning. Monsieur thumped them and sized them up as if they were a couple of bullies. He said “Oh la la!” But Davis was not going to be interfered with and, calmly, he continued sawing up the soft wood – much to Monsieurs chagrin.

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After a while Monsieur Albert realized that Davis was taking no notice of him so off he toddled and moments later I heard his chain-saw fire up. Back he comes with no helmet, no gloves, no goggles – only a cigarette between his lips to protect him. He tackled the hard wood logs and soon Davis stopped what he was doing and watched admiringly. Monsieur handled that chain-saw as if it were an extension of his arm. Just effortless grace. It was very sharp where as Davis’ was quite blunt. After a very short time Monsieur was gesturing authoritatively at this and that while Davis and I scurried about as his willing assistants. A more senior surgeon had arrived and after a bit of a tussle the junior surgeon had to give way. I took several photos of the whole coup. I really wished I had managed to get one of him standing there sizing up the situation before concluding that he had to take charge.

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We then sat in the sun and had a glass of champagne. I went up stairs to the bathroom before champagne and was amazed to see my face completely covered in red saw-dust and dirt. It was lovely having done a good morning’s work. Davis then retired to his Harmonica practice while I pottered around doing odd chores until I felt I had done enough to earn a nice hot shower.

When the wood was delivered the next day there were 5 men and Hannah (our agent’s daughter). They only charged E57 for a steyr of wood and they had 5 men to stack it. They piled it rather nicely, but I would have done it more fetchingly if I had my way. I remember our first winter in France when we had 3 steyr delivered we had to stack them ourselves. I was very keen on stacking it artistically and with various patterns and Davis wanted that wood stacked his way – which was quickly. We had a bit of a falling out over it and he won of course. To my eye it was all piled in an uninterestingly uniform sort of way. I caused tremendous hilarity which is remarked upon to this day by going out with my paints and painting the ends of the wood so that they looked as if they had been carefully arranged in diamond patterns.

Now that I reflect back upon it I can’t imagine what on earth I could have been thinking of. What a dill. An aesthetics of existence perhaps. That is Michel Foucault’s (the French philosopher who was also a hospital ward’s man for several years) phrase for what is a bit like our attempts at mindful enjoyment I suppose. He said we should try to live our lives as if they were a work of art and make them as perfect and beautiful as we can. Plato said that the “unexamined life” is not worth living. All variations on the same theme which boils down to: it pays to have a good think about yourself. (As my niece CC recommended to her small son Tom when he was a youngster).

Philosophy of the “Self”

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Philosophy

The study of Philosophy is a magnet for puzzled people. It sometimes seems that philosophers remain puzzled against all good common sense; indeed since the birth of the philosophical discourse itself some have made it their business to promote mystification. Others are simply and endlessly curious. I must admit that until I stumbled into Philosophy I was not particularly aware of just how puzzling the life of the human animal really is. Existence, I thought, was probably quite easy to understand and if I did not understand everything it was simply because I didn’t yet know enough. Au contraire

Nevertheless in the confidence of youth I hoped that I knew about as much as the next person. At that time people were expected to grow in wisdom in a natural way and to find life mysterious was almost a shameful thing. Most of our life skills were inherited, received from our parents and their religions.

When I talk about finding one’s “self” or “persona” in part through finding  one’s home in the world – I mean the part of ourselves that, through out the history of philosophy, has been called the “soul”. It has been discussed using other terms as well: e.g. “psyche”, “spirit”, “mind”, “identity”, “subjectivity”, “self”, “personality” and “personhood”. If you are a materialist scientist you might call the spiritual identity or essence that we all feel we have – a feature of the brain.

These terms: self, identity, mind, soul and so on, are not strictly interchangeable since they all carry with them a different understanding of what that “soul” or that “inner self” is; each considering the enigma from a different frame of reference; where it has come from and how it is created. Often the “soul” has been used to describe a supernatural or God-given feature: it refers to that intangible essence that transcends one’s mortal body and acts as our spiritual link to a putative creator.

In contrast, “self” or “personality” is used to describe a similar sort of essence – only this one is natural and culturally derived and not God-given. However, this “self” too is insubstantial and not easily locatable anywhere within the body. It is the culmination of historical circumstances that result in a particular individual.

When I say that I am trying to create my “soul” I mean that while I have been dealt a particular “self” by my social circumstances I am still trying to tinker with it and adapt it. I try to recreate it in the Godlike way of an artist.

In book 2 of his Republic Plato discusses a hierarchy of needs. “The first and greatest of these is food, which is the condition of life and existence…. The second is a dwelling, and the third clothing.” When we have satisfied all these basic needs we can turn our thoughts to play and the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake.

Hence it seems that before anything like this project of conscious self-creation can occur we need to feel safely home. Finding and maintaining a secure territory in the world is a first priority. Only then can we devote the time to understanding ourselves and take up the task of helping create, as much as find, an identity.

Twenty years ago women were expected to know how to run a home and raise children with little tuition. Nowadays there is more advice available (some would say too much) to help us to live our lives in the best possible way. How is one to be happy? How is one to be good? These were questions that, outside the context of religious instruction and obeying the rules of family and society, were never asked when I was growing up. Somehow, we were expected to be “naturally” good; to know these things intuitively and to wonder about them was to be downright seditious.

Like most people, I had no very clear idea what philosophical thought involved and I became caught up in its study by accident. If I had to name the best thing I have taken from the study of philosophy I would say it is the freedom to be bewildered. It is not freedom to indulge in woolly thought; indeed the rules of thinking are quite strict; rather, it is the liberty to marvel at just how complex and difficult just about everything is. Philosophy trains you to analyze the beliefs you hold and to be able to defend them. Inflexible people and those who “know too much” get into all sorts of trouble in Philosophy. They start to want to replace philosophy with theology or science and in so doing lose sight of the different roles of the three discourses.

When Socrates set out to discover the wisest person in Athens he questioned all the likely candidates. Reluctantly he concluded that he himself was the wisest person in Athens since he alone was aware that he knew very little.
“I went about searching after a man who was wiser than myself; at first among the politicians; then among the philosophers; and found that I had an advantage over them, because I had no conceit of knowledge.”

In the eight years I devoted to formal training in Philosophy I was taught how to be extremely, as opposed to just mildly, puzzled. Philosophers never tire of sitting around trying to decide just what it is they are doing. This, I imagine, is what it means to say philosophy is “navel-gazing”. And who ever would have thought that navel-gazing could be so salutary?

This self-absorption and self-consciousness is one of the most important philosophical techniques because Philosophy is a meta-discourse. That means it is a discipline that analyses all the discourses. Where Science, Arts, Theology etc are all first order discourses in that they purport to describe the things in the world (and those outside of it) directly, Philosophy sets out to consider the discourses themselves. It asks what we are doing when we do science? How do we do it? What do we mean when we say there is a God? What do we mean by “truth?” How do we judge something beautiful? What is happiness? And so on.

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The first formal philosophy I heard were the lectures that preceded those I attended in English Literature. I sat on the stairs into the lecture hall waiting for my lecture and listened to the philosophy class talking things over.  The philosophy discussion involved a lecturer and about 250 students; a student would raise a hand and put a short case for what it would mean, for example, if we were to accept Sartre’s concept of Anguish. It would mean perhaps that “all wisdom comes through suffering?”. An attentive hush  in response to the suggested reading of Sartre.

The entire body of students and the lecturer thought these assertions through in a silence lasting much longer than would ever be tolerated in a discussion of English literature. In English classes a silence is taken to mean that no one knows the answer. Not to know is deemed a shameful thing  and it prompts much time-wasting bluffing. Having overheard the calm stillness of a philosophy class where thinking for oneself is encouraged, I found myself arriving for my English lecture earlier and earlier, until it was the philosophy class I was at pains not to miss. I loved their thoughtful silences, their knitted brows. I admired their caution, never leaping to conclusions they circled a suggestion and viewed it from all sides in order not to miss any potential significance.

Years later I heard the renowned American philosopher Stanely Cavell deplore an “unseemly haste” to begin talking and writing before really having anything to say.  By that time however I had begun to understand that the down side of this careful thoughtfulness is that the discussion can become overly mannered and controlled. At one summer school I attended in America I went to a philosophy seminar in the mornings and a literature seminar in the afternoon. The difference between the two was astonishing. The philosophy discussion was tightly controlled with the discursive “ball” passed carefully and politely from one person to another: no interruptions and hardly any heat (unless a female happened to contradict a male. Even in Philosophy that is asking for trouble.) In contrast the literature sessions in the afternoon were passionate affairs. Often, someone would be moved to storm out when his/her politics were slighted, and so on. Thinking back on it now I feel that a little more passion would have been welcome in philosophical discussions and better manners would be welcome in literary sessions.

Not all philosophers are so repressed, I have heard another ask “how do I know what I think until I hear myself speak?” but this stance is a rarity and often is frowned upon. Philosophy uses the same words as those in ordinary use but it tries to use them carefully, economically and precisely. Another down side of this self-consciousness is that often philosophy gets into a terrible imbroglio over “meaning”  and how words manage to convey meaning.

Coming from English studies I had to learn to take “meaning” much more seriously. “Meaning” is contextual and not just what some bright spark deems it to be – or was it? Literary writers and English scholars are like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty whose announced to Alice that if you pay a word more, you can make it mean anything you want it to mean. To prove his point Humpty made the word  “glory” mean a “good knock down argument”. In literature, creative dominion over words is admired but no such thing is desirable in philosophical discourse. In Philosophy, the denotation of words is fore-grounded while their sound, beauty and connotation are not of primary importance.

I have always loved to watch someone totally absorbed doing something that seems completely pointless, frivolous and harmless: like juggling. I especially like it if the proponent is highly skilled at his or her particular absurd activity. Such a degree of expertise indicates a baffling level of sincerity and dedication. It takes commitment to be able to do something very silly very, very well. Those whom I perceived in the grip of grand enthusiasms were the objects of my mystified envy. Nowadays I no longer have to envy these people. Philosophers are just such people. For the most part they are harmless and in the best of circumstances they can be very interesting. They need to be completely dedicated because there are few material advantages to be gained from their chosen field. Aristotle claimed that philosophy was the king of the discourses because it alone is  “disinterested”. He explains that all the other discourses aim to “do” something. Philosophy, he says, is singular in that it really “does nothing.” It is knowledge pursued for its own sake and for no other reason.

I continued bemoaning the lack of a spellbinding passion long after I had actually found philosophy. Habit dies hard. One day I was recounting how much I longed for the madness of a total obsession to befall me when I heard myself I follow up that statement with a short philosophical analysis of what that would mean. I began to realize that my own form of juggling,  a pointless passion or skill, had arrived. I had found philosophy.

Most Philosophers begin at least as very puzzled people. A philosopher who is not puzzled is not a very good one. They are filled with longing for something that they call “understanding” or “reason”. But I think it is just “longing” full stop. Rather constructively they direct, or project that longing onto reason and understanding. I was happy to discover that I was comfortable within their ranks and it was wonderful to have something at which to direct my longing.  Philosophy was another coming “home”.

I am not alone in thinking that just enough philosophical thought is a good thing, but too much can muddle one’s thinking almost beyond repair. Even ordinary words and activities become fraught with confusing nuances and scruples. The philosopher Wittgenstein, a man who devoted most of his life to the pursuit of philosophy, would take his best and brightest students aside and urge them to abandon the discipline and study something useful, like engineering.

Though I was unable to stick to my resolve not to read any more philosophy, at the stage of finishing writing a thesis I felt that I had escaped academia with my thinking apparatus still almost in reasonable operating order. The philosophical malaise manifests itself in a peculiar sense of uncertainty – concerning just about everything. A philosopher they say of themselves admiringly, could never write a letter to the paper. I have the malaise to the extent that sometimes a simple thought will trip me up and oblige me to sit down and mull it over in a fit of confusion- one might say I suddenly stop and do a bit of juggling.

Like all philosophers I can become completely bemused over a simple issue that a non-philosopher would consider just part of everyday life. There is a lovely story about Socrates who, on coming across a roadside stall selling all sorts of wares, fell into a lengthy reverie and stood stock still until he had considered all the items for sale. When he had finished he remarked with great wonder and relief: “What a lot of things I do not need!”

Similarly, the mocking question “How many angels will fit on a pinhead” is one a philosopher will explain is wrong-headed because it involves a confusion of discourses. The angel belongs to the discourse that suspends disbelief and talks about the supernatural; angels are immaterial. The pinhead and the act of counting things comes from the material world of things that have substance and size and can be counted. Most people just know that it is an absurd question but a philosopher will sit down and work out why it is absurd. Aren’t we funny?

Poetics of Space

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The Poetics of Space : Gaston Bachelard
“There is ground for taking the house as a tool for analysis of the human soul. With the help of this tool, can we not find within ourselves while dreaming in our own modest homes, the consolations of the cave? … Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms”, we learn to abide within ourselves.”

The indigenous people of Australia hold that it is inappropriate to think of ourselves as “owning” our surroundings. We do not own the land except in a very temporary sense; rather, the land owns us. This is certainly the case with this maison vraiment Charantaise.

The house in its large garden owns us and we try to lavish upon it all the care and attention it seems to deserve. It repays us with rising damp, burst plumbing in winter and leaking roof tiles. Davis and I have been part of its life for almost twenty years now and we count ourselves lucky.

Many years ago, probably when I was puzzling over the problem with reference to my own life, I became curious about personal identity. How do we get to be the persons we are and how many people understand this as an interesting issue. I asked people to list in order of importance the characteristics that best defined who they were. It will come as no surprise that nearly all the women I quizzed saw themselves first as mothers, second as wives and only after that as involved in the world of work. In contrast, men listed their work as their most important defining characteristic. No one that I can recall referred to their homes as evidence of who they were.

Yet it makes good sense to say that “who you are” or your “identity” is very much tied up with where you are and how you make your home. Nowadays life seems is so multifaceted and complex that we need to make different homes to suit its various phases. The days when successive generations of a family were content to discover their own life stories in the one house are gone. In Western culture at least, one is not really born into a life story any more – or very few of us are. Rarely, sons follow their fathers into an occupation as they used to do when the blacksmith’s son joined his father at the forge and the farmer’s children inherited their father’s occupation along with the family farm. We may come back to the family home in later life, but before we reconcile ourselves with our past we usually want to enjoy the creative process of selecting and making a new story and scene of our own.

We Find a House in France

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Tournersol

“But I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.” Bob Dylan

If I could talk with the young person I was at twenty, that young woman would find me a bit bewildering. Of course she may not even see me. I can’t remember noticing many middle-aged women when I was that age. I certainly did not find them interesting. The twenty year old could never have imagined that one day it would be her delight to share the custody of several cats with an archetypical French gnome: expert in gardening, animal husbandry and just about everything else.

The twenty-year old me did not even like cats especially, yet now, to win the trust of scruffy, feral cats seems like a great achievement. But more than that, I have co-befriended several of these cats with the singular Monsieur Albert. Monsieur Albert is the French gnome who has appointed himself chef of our coin du village. He lives across the street from us deep in the heart of la France profond.

All these accounts of living in Europe and of France in particular seem to involve living beside a wonderfully bossy, inquisitive, and good-hearted neighbour. Ours is, I am happy to say, no exception. Our second stroke of luck in our French life was that we chose a house opposite Monsieur Albert.

4537502109_efb960f477_z Monsieur Albert and MiMi