There are times when I find myself longing to live in the later nineteenth century—in France. It’s the paintings I think. No refrigerators, no antibiotics, no cars, no out of season fruits flown in from another hemisphere—things I’ve grown accustomed to, take for granted. But I look at a photograph of Renoir’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette or Manet’s The Balcony or Morisot’s Summer’s Day and I am pulled into wanting to be there. Not so much because it was a simpler time, but because I find myself thinking it was a time when the spirit broke loose in places from the traditional constraints, at least for free thinkers. I tell myself this—from looking at a few impressionism paintings.
It’s easy to assume too much from a painting. Poets, artists, free thinking philosophers, naturalists, etc. have never been at home in any era, nor really free from the constraints of their culture. Step outside the line too far, and the flesh eaters will pound on your door in the middle of the night. Still, I spend some time this morning going through my museum guide, Musée d’Orsay, looking at photographs of paintings, and yearning if just a little.
I miss the late 1960s in much the same way. The collective reaction to the war, to racism, to the false piety of the church, to the emptiness of life defined by television commercials—or what seemed to be the collective reaction by the song writers and artists and the post war baby boomers—held out a certain promise that things would be better, free from bullshit. But it proved itself to be just bullshit. The guard wheels and fires on college students, the draft is abandoned, Fred Hampton is assassinated by the Chicago police with the backing of the FBI, and the free spirited, free thinking, free living boomers sink back into the cracks of history, take jobs as bankers and advertisers—recanting it all as youthful exuberance. They are replaced in the history of current events by team Jesus and the prosperity disciples. They offer as their political legacy Bill Clinton, George Bush, and the Donald. I wonder sometimes about the collective sin.
Joni Mitchell has grown old and seems a little bitter from a later interview I watched on YouTube. Mark worries that she may be dying, laments that she never found the one love we all seem to yearn for. I listen to “Big Yellow Taxi.” They paved paradise. And put up a parking lot. I have grown old too, my body losing ground to the inevitable. I don’t feel bitter though. Maybe a little disappointed, but I fight that too. I am still here, I still think, yearn for something more, something possible even if it means wrestling with angels or God. I look at a painting in a museum guide and accept my part in the rebellion, a connection between like minded souls.
An old classmate tells me that we must learn to surrender to a high power, that we will be judged by our faithfulness to that higher power. It’s not about being good, he said as we ate eggs and bacon one morning. It’s about being faithful. Bullshit, I told him. It’s about choosing—between good and evil if you wish, but choosing. For all we know, we only have this one chance to claim ourselves, this one chance to get good at something, one chance to breath free.
So I may not be able to live in Paris in 1875—or 1924—or even Paris today. I live in Belton, Texas—hardly an oasis of free thought. But I am here. I hike a path next to the river and piss on the ground in the bushes.