Paris is the World: Insane and How Not to Be

August 9, 2013

I started the day thinking about what it means to be insane and ended up going the park.

The question about insanity came up because the defense attorney for the Norwegian mass murderer called his client “insane,” as if that would not only explain his action but would also minimize its significance. I think that is a mistake. The killer wasn’t hearing voices. He had a belief, an ideology, a political agenda. And to put his ideas into effect, he wanted to shock his countrymen into action and the Norwegian government to abdicate. Unrealistic, certainly; but insane?

I saw a similarity, one many will say is unjust, with America’s “shock and awe” blitz on Baghdad in March 2003. America too had a long-term agenda, also political and no doubt having to do with petroleum. In the short term, they wanted to shock the people of Iraq into action (and Iraq’s military into inaction) and cause Saddam’s government to collapse. These two “shock and awe” events were similar in another way as well: there were a lot of dead people. No one, however, would say that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the authors of “shock and awe,” were insane, or that the American state was insane. They might say something else, but not insane.

But I restrained the impulse to write a great long tract about this thorny issue, one which would have revealed me to have some unpleasant thoughts and to have engaged in a good deal of fuzzy thinking, and, instead, I went to the park. The Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, specifically. If one ever wants to settle the mind and find sanity, there is nothing like a visit to one of this city’s great public gardens.

At the Luxembourg there is a lovely 19th century apiary in which the bees still swarm and thrive, and so one would expect, for there are flowers every where, dense banks of zinnias, poppies, others whose name I don’t know.

Beneath an extravagant statue of Dionysius’ old father, fat and drunk, there is a stand of red-stemmed chard, a gorgeous vegetable with fronds the size of a baby elephant’s ears.

At the Luxembourg there is an enormous playground with slides, swings, structures that one can climb on, under, and across, and disks that spin its young riders round and round so that they dismount disorientated, and stagger and fall. But the ground is covered with a cushioning of rubber so no bare knees are skinned. The playground was populated this Saturday by hundreds of children of all the available colors on the planet.

There is the racetrack where I watched two Muslim families prepare their 7 year olds for the mini grand prix. The women wore headscarves that were color coordinated with their outfits and covered with sequins. The operator of the racecar concession was blousy middle-aged blond with enormous breasts barely concealed in a white shirt. Her breasts were accessible to the caresses of breeze and sun, both of which, breeze and sun, were perfectly modulated and adjusted on this July afternoon, neither shy nor indecent. She sat on her metal chair, legs parted to expose ample thighs. I thought of my mother who said that a lady always crossed her legs. The racecars were all in a row, a classic starting grid, each a different bright plastic, blue, yellow, red, and black with flames on the hood, each waiting to be pedaled by little legs toward an imaginary checkered flag.

None of what that I found at the Luxembourg meant anything. And it didn’t help me with the conundrum of the insane, which, because I’d enjoyed the afternoon, I abandoned as unsolvable. A cheerful, helium-filled balloon of Sponge Bob Square Pants smiled on my non-effort and I left for home, at peace with my ignorance.

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