Spring greens in forefront. Eiffel tower in background.
Burning cars somewhere in the middle. Guess where
I am ? Photo © Val Druguet
Chapter 3: Burn out.
April1, 2006. A short note from another global metropolis
and capital of the world, Paris. The one in France,
the one with topless simians on billboards, multiple
protests, strikes and riots, excellent food, art,
wine, burning cars and whose government, Iraq or not,
is equally committed to the neoliberal agenda. Hence
the ongoing deregulations, environmental and human.
Hence the massive protests, the 3 million students
in the streets last week.
Val and I arrived last Sunday. Business or pleasure
? Both. It's spring here too so yesterday, we decided
to take a walk in Belleville Park, in the north east
corner of Paris, heart of blue collar and immigrant
Paris, to do some research (photo above). First we
walked up the hill, the hill of Belleville, in and
out of our favorite bookstores (we used to live here),
dodging cafés and tea rooms scented with orange-flavored
bong smoke, ambling up cobblestone streets that tinkle
with Arabian or African music.
We reach the Park, it is full of daffodils, crocuses,
violets, imported rhododendrons, bamboo, apple and
cherry trees in blossom. We're lucky, we see one very
busy, very early bumblebee. He/she reminds us of an
insider joke from the world of nature nerds: bees
pollinate by taking plant sperm from male stamen to
female pistil, so we nickname all bees 'flying penises'.
Urban ecology, version 2.0 - the French edition.
Belleville Park, like any New York Park, is a Park
full of people. Like any good public space, it is
a place for ordinary people. Some appear to be here
with a purpose, others seem to wander aimlessly -
itself a noble pursuit, I guess, the one our nomadic
ancestors had, freedom of movement.
Closet anthropologists, Val and I look, we gaze, we
stare: some Halflings hugging, smooching and slurping
- in love; there are also mothers with kids, kids
with skateboards, two boozers strumming a guitar,
a group of young men on a mission to sell dope, others
to buy some, or pinch a tourist's camera (maybe ours
!). Or burn a car, even.
We weave our way through the Park's gardens, and the
sun is shining (sort of), and birdsong is everywhere:
Blackbirds and Dunnocks (European passerines) are
busy burping up their traditional spring serenades
- did you know that birds sing because they are unhappy,
at least from an evolutionary standpoint? Constantly
arguing with each other over territorial issues, mates,
cuckoldry. Another secret: urban birds sing differently
from their cousins in the country. They tweak their
frequencies and their modulation, adapting it to the
ambient white noise of the metropolitan soundscape
- something like trying to establish your own frequency
on hyper-saturated airwaves. Or shouting in heavy
traffic. Or lighting a fire.
Making oneself heard, making oneself seen, making
oneself known. Life's tedious agenda. Incidentally,
most of these city birds (including great tits, blue
tits and other tits), live fast and die young. They
have no other option. They sing and reproduce and
make babies as much as they can, not only in spring
but some do all year round. Idem the rats and the
crickets in the subway, and the red foxes and the
weasels of suburbs and railway tracks. And the sparrows
and pigeons and starlings, too. Understand, amigos,
that the urban reality of the wild animal is an immediate
mirror for ours - it's fast and its furious, with
lots of hanky panky. All studies converge (some of
the first research was conducted here, in Paris, then
Bristol, then Tokyo, now New York): metropolitan beasts
tend not only to stress out big time but to vent accordingly,
like all good libertines do. "Cities, the place where
sin sets in…"
Btw, the city lights make it easier to reproduce (you
can do it at night, under a streetlight). And so does
the heat island effect (you can do it in winter).
Cities are very hot, indeed.
Biologically speaking, urban behavior is of course
a treat to explain. Confer the following chain reaction:
first, all animals get pumped on adrenaline in a busy,
noisy, brash environment (irregular Police or Fire
engine sirens, honking horns, unpredictable proximity
of the 'other', of the crowd, etc, etc…you know the
routine). Second, they're drowning in stress hormones,
non stop. Third, as a consequence, their immune systems
wane. Fourth, they fade, they wilt and finally, well,
they croak. How to survive? Turns out those birds,
crickets and individuals born with a lusty edge and
a will to reproduce like mad rabbits can survive.
Call it urban natural selection; the metropolitan
ethos is to be wired, physically depressed and hyper-libidinous.
In scientific circles, we call that 'r-selection'
- the fact that critter x 'chooses' to have lots of
kids because chances are, few of them will survive
anyway, so you invest your 'portfolio' accordingly,
as quickly as possible, because you too might soon
snuff it…etc. Something us New Yorkers can understand.
You live fast, you die young. You burn out.
Which reminds me: France's combusting automobiles,
flaming Ferrari's, sizzling SUV's… We have all read
or heard the various explanations that have to do
with lousy integration in France, the sociologists
ranting about burning cars as symbols of mobility…all
that media jazz. Most of it has validity. But do any
of us know one of these 'villains' ? A friend of mine,
a Frenchman, a psychiatrist no less, has given me
the best explanation I've heard so far. He deals with
human suffering on a regular basis. His name is Hervé.
He speaks in parables: "these kids burn more than
cars, they burn fire engines, sports' facilities,
police infrastructure and right-hand government agencies.
Anything they can put their hands on." "
Even hospitals"? I queried
"NO, not hospitals."
"How come ?"
"Mostly because there are no hospitals where these
people live, which is one of the reasons they're so
angry in the first place. These cars on fire have
everything to do with basic human dignity."
May I venture an additional explanation, more to do
with the evolutionary and symbolic significance of
the flame. Bear with me. Remember how cities are such
easy places to light a fire in the first place ? Look
closely, you and me we are surrounded by fire. Technically
speaking, that's because cities are already on fire.
Due to their industrial metabolism (read 'energy requirements'),
cities are giant aggregates of controlled fire, controlled
combustion. Electricity ! Our metropolises run on
huge wads of energy that's been concentrated, channeled,
regimented. Turn on a switch, a light bulb, all of
Time Square; all these lights started somewhere with
some giant fire, a coal plant, an oil rig. Fuel !
The life blood of civilization. To burn it, to usurp
its energy is the building block of modern life and
cities are the nodes, switchboards (or central furnaces
if you will) of our industrial economy.
Lets dig deeper: 'City' is to 'Country' what 'cooked'
is to 'raw' what 'culture' is to 'nature'. Controlled
combustion is our oldest technology, it is what separates
us from the 'other', the 'non-human'. Making fire
makes us who we are. 'Humanity' vs. 'wilderness'.
We burn fuel on an hourly, coordinated basis; the
latter burns itself once in a wild…fire. Us, we can
torch coal, put a match to gas, set fire to oil and
even emulate the fire of the sun - by splitting atoms.
Of course, massive pollution, environmental destruction
and global warming ensue. Blame it on who ? The caveman.
The flame business is rooted in the ambers of our
incandescent past. Fire, we figured, was the best
way to avoid chewing raw meat - a lousy deal if you
want to maximize your caloric intake and you don't
want to waste it all on…chewing. We're not natural-born
carnivores so we can't swallow large steaks whole,
in one gulp, like dogs and lions do. We are constrained
by mastication. So for us, its far better to masticate
less, after a little bit of the old French cuisine
and a gas stove. Fire, we discover, is energy saved,
thus energy gained. Power, plain and simple. 'Fire-power'..
Wait a minute. That means all our gizmos, lights,
toys, iron lungs, coffee grinders, our whole entire
shtick is one, hyper-organized, hyper-channeled, permanent
power trip… over fire. Wow. In case you're interested,
all the burden and/or progress brought on by the marked
passage from the raw-eating primordial humans that
we once were to the pig-roasting 'civilized' creatures
that we are now has been largely and quite cogently
elaborated on by French anthropologist Levi
Strauss. I won't bore you further with the concept,
but to let you know that Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle
Stengers, in 'the
new alliance' have also written brilliantly about
fire, the science of which, in the middle ages (and
its practice my chemists) led rather quickly to the
Industrial Revolution. To the City. To the Automobile.
To the strip and the Mall. To who we are today: Masters
of fire. Homo sapiens ? How about Homo ignis. The
Thus, to light a fire is to be utterly and profoundly
human. Like I've said before, it is what differentiates
us from the 'other'. It is our ultimate symbol. To
light one in protest is even more powerful; for it
is to uphold, to reaffirm, to reclaim our humanity.
It is to scream out 'we are human !', when that humanity
has been taken away. When life itself has been dehumanized.
Fire is to signify - when all other meaning has been
lost. The first and last voice - when all others have
So when in desperation, start a blaze. Light up. Remind
those around you exactly who you are - a human being,
the maker of fire. When there's nothing left to lose
because there's never been anything to have. When
you're on the edge, stretched to the breaking point.
Have a nice day !
Ps: The problem with global warming is all the carbon
atoms. Too many in the atmosphere, when they should
be quietly sequestered in the woods, ocean or earth.
Too many free floaters. Too many cars, too, releasing
free-floaters. So logically, the immediate solution
becomes: get rid of cars. Logical joke: Burning cars
helps global cooling. Subtitle: Unemployed French
take care of climate change. Destroy the automobile.