Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cultural Education on the Cheap

Let me try to explain the magazine give-aways. This is probably the wrong thing to call them: they're not really free, just cheap. Okay, so Le Monde is the most popular newspaper here. Now the weekend edition, which comes with an additional magazine, costs 2.50 euros. But this week, if you want the additional CD, it's 5.50 for the whole package. The CD this week is Handel, I think, beginning a series of great composers. Last week, it was a DVD for 4 euros and a book on Bresson, which ended the series on great directors. There is also a series of books by the great philosophers, also available from Le Monde.

And most of the magazines do this. Le Nouvel Observateur just finished a series of Truffaut DVDs. La Province is also doing classical CDs. Mad Movies offers recent horror films on DVD. Note to Claire: So far, I have obstained. And it tends to be a bit Francophilic, but only a bit. Currently, Patti Smith is the toast of Paris, so she's in every journal. And the end result of all these offers and the programming on tv channels like the excellent Arte or even Canal+ is that it is just very easy to get a cultural education here.

And the fact is that it is seen as very important to get a cultural education here. In my job, I encounter many North Americans, including many professors, who see cultivation as a waste of time or as somehow frivolous. Yet for my grandparents' generation, and even my parents', it was a key component of a good life. The other day, I was watching a French television program interviewing a New York woman who founded a business school for elementary-age students. "You have to understand," she patiently explained to the interviewer, "in America, life is a business." Of course, they chose this clip because it played to the French belief that Americans are Philistines. But, I was reminded of everyone I met in university who patiently explained to me, "No, you don't understand. Don't study Proust- study computer science. That's where the money is."

Of course, the French aren't perfect. They're snobbish, often close-minded, and can be infuriatingly petty. Like most Anglos who have lived here, there are times when I want to strangle them. There's something ridiculous about getting scoffed at on Parisian streets for wearing the wrong clothes, of course, but having countless clerks behave as if it's some vague wound to their pride to have to serve someone with an accent tends to enervate one.

But, alas, even when I hate France, I love France. And most Anglos who have lived here will also say this. Because, after all, I take the same things too seriously that they take too seriously. They're passionate about art, and food, and fashion, and all of the other things that, when added to a life, subtly enrich one's experiences in that life. I mean, it's hard for me to explain why these things are so important to me, but they are. Maybe it's nonsense, but I feel that, having spent a summer looking at the world through Proust's eyes, and countless days looking through Dostoyevsky's eyes, or Melville's eyes, or even Patti Smith's eyes, that my experience of the world has been altered, just slightly, but in ways that have rewarded me.

So, I don't know. Maybe life is a business; but it's definitely a series of moments, and if I can find ways to take pleasure in those moments than it will be worth having them, even though they all end eventually. To me, this is the good life, and to the French, this is the good life. So, it's hard to hate them. Even though they take things like scarves entirely too seriously.


Holly said...

People here sure know a lot more about art and culture in general than Americans do. I'm always startled to make an offhand reference to something of that kind and have people understand what I'm talking about. The *art students* at the school I went to usually didn't....

Also, in the German speaking world, it's generally considered important to learn French, to have access to Culture. That probably tells you a lot about where you are. :)

Rufus said...

I'm totally amazed by the Germans I meet here. I have yet to meet one whose knowledge base didn't consist of German, French, English, and at least a rough understanding of another language. And they're all disarmingly modest about it. "Oh, well, yes I know these languges. But I am terrible at Arabic!"