Sep 3, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 25, 2019
When I was a kid, maybe in second grade, I was given a homework assignment. I was told to make a diorama of the water cycle. How many of you have had a similar assignment at some point in your schooling? It is a pretty familiar one.
I proceeded with it as instructed. I got some blue paint. I got some green paint. I got some brown paint and white paint. I got some glue and some little cotton balls. I got some construction paper. And I got a shoebox and set to work.
Well, actually, my mother and I got to work. Remember, I was seven or eight years old. I do not know about you but when I was that age homework really meant work, I did with my parents, at home.
Like most seven-year-olds, I was probably cranky towards and a bit unkind to my mother as she helped me assemble my diorama. I may have even resented her for making me do my homework assignment. Whatever the case, over the course of a week or so we transformed a plain shoebox into a model of the water cycle.
There was a large blue body of water--probably Lake Michigan since we lived near the Great Lakes. Water evaporated from it and then condensed into clouds--little fluffy cotton balls. After the clouds came precipitation. I almost certainly had fun portraying a grand thunderstorm with lighting and torrents of rain striking the Earth. From there, I showed how water flowed over the green and brown ground--painted in solid unmixed colors straight from the tube--into the rivers and then back into the lake.
There were a lot of things that my diorama did not show. It did not show the sublimation process. That is the process whereby ice converts directly into water vapor without converting into liquid water first. This mostly happens over the polar ice sheets.
My diorama also did not show transpiration. That is the process where plants absorb water from the soil and then push it out through their leaves as water vapor. Nor did it show infiltration. That is when water neither evaporates from the source, nor flows into a river, nor is absorbed by a plant, but moves deep into the soil. It seeps down and increases the ground water table.
Remember, this was second grade. Such concepts are a bit complicated for most seven-year-olds. I may not even be doing a good job of describing them now. Whatever the case, my diorama did not show other things. One of its most glaring omissions was its attribution. I claimed sole credit for its construction. Painted on the back of the shoebox were the words “by Colin Bossen.” A more honest attribution would have been, “by Colin Bossen and his mother Kathy Bossen, who by turns, assisted, cajoled, and threatened him until he completed it to her satisfaction.”
It also completely omitted the processes by which most humans get water. The majority of us do not get it directly from the lake, from the clouds, or from the ground water table. We have a complicated infrastructure of water treatment plants and sewer systems that transport clean water to our homes. And we have drains, toilets, and pipes that remove dirty water from them.
This summer, I found myself thinking about my second-grade water diorama, and all the things it omitted, when I was in Arles. Arles is a small city in the South of France. It is might be most famous for being the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year painting. His canvases of his time there include his famous bedroom with its blue walls, blue clothes, blue pitchers, blue doors, yellow bed, yellow chairs, and rich, textured, wooden floor. They include glowing night scenes, a cafe along cobblestones, with wooden chairs and crowds sipping cognac, coffee, absinthe, wine, or, well who knows, as adults and children stroll into the darkness. And they include well known images of Arles fading Roman ruins.
The heart of Arles remains the old Roman city. The Colosseum and the Amphitheater are still in regular use. They are surrounded by mazing Medieval streets, dense clusters of stone buildings bursting out into plazas and squares and interrupted by flowers hanging from balconies or in plentiful pots right outside two-hundred-year-old doors.
Arles also remains a city of the arts. It is the site of one of the world’s largest photography festivals. You might know that my father is a historian of photography and museum curator. My parents travel to Arles every couple of years to take part in the festival. This year, my son and I joined them.
It is an amazing festival. The exhibitions are generally located in medieval buildings that have been temporarily converted into art galleries. And it was in one of these--a fifteenth century Gothic church--that I found myself thinking about my water diorama. More accurately, I found myself thinking about the things that my diorama omitted.
The church has massive vaulted ceilings. It is made of stone. It has elegant arches. It is spacious and seems to go on and on. Inside of it was a huge exhibition of the work of the French photographer Philippe Chancel called Datazone. It was a terrifying collection of photographs. Chancel has spent the last several years traveling the world photographing sites of catastrophe. He describes his subjects as “traumatized ecology, chaotic deindustrialization, and the toxicity of modernization.”
He takes photographs of collapsed houses and abandoned factories. He takes photographs of piles of rubbish--mountains of plastic bottles and rusting iron. He takes photographs of tankers that have been run to ground. Their steel and valuable components are being stripped and recycled by workers who labor without any safety equipment.
Many of his photographs of water. They do not depict the clean water of the water cycle--the clouds and lakes that my diorama inelegantly displayed. Instead, they portray all of the omissions from the diorama. Water in Africa that has been rendered toxic after being used in oil extraction. Water filled with chemicals, glistening, thick, and black rather than transparent. Water in Flint that is filled with lead and rendered undrinkable. Water that has been packaged and sold in plastic bottles. These plastic bottles return to the waterways and pollute them--creating masses of floating plastic islands and then slowly dissolve. As they do, they place tiny pieces of plastic particulate in the world’s water supply. Water in Antarctica. Beautiful, luminous, floating clumps of ice. Massive, white fading into blue, crystal layer upon layer. Objects almost too gorgeous to imagine. Icebergs created by our warming planet as glaciers calve into the ocean. Not a sign of a healthy planet but a sign of a planet in distress.
In that building, created so that a congregation might gather and worship the most high, might connect with something or someone greater than itself, Philippe Chancel portrayed how humans have become disconnected. He showed how we have become disconnected from water and disconnected from each other. He showed the danger of forgetting, of omitting, the fullness of the water cycle. Clouds form over the polar ice caps. We need them to survive. Water travels through the Earth. Chemicals placed in the Earth will mix with water. We need clean, unpolluted, water to survive. He showed the danger of forgetting that we are dependent upon a human built infrastructure to have safe water in our homes. Flint does not have safe water. Newark does not have safe water. We have forgotten that we are dependent upon our collective infrastructure and we are destroying our cities. We need infrastructure to survive.
When I envision my second-grade diorama now I think about all of things it omitted. Each thing absent could have taught me a lesson. If my mother’s signature had been on the work it would have reminded me that I am always part of, connected to, the larger human family. My work, my accomplishments, are dependent on the work of others. None of us are in this world alone. If human infrastructure had been present, I would have been reminded that we are connected to, dependent upon, things like sewers and water treatment plants for our survival. We need them to live. And if the water table had been present, I might have been reminded that our collective human actions impact water, that our actions, for good or for ill, connect us to the whole of the planet.
And, this Sunday, this water communion, as we gather as religious community for the start of our liturgical year, as we mingle our waters, let us remember that we connected and dependent. We are connected to and dependent upon the larger human community. We are connected to and dependent upon the infrastructure we have built to bring us safe water. And we are connected to and dependent upon the planet, with its mass of water that gives us life.
There is always a larger truth. We are not alone. We are part of something greater, more beautiful, more complicated, and, yes, more fragile, than we can imagine.
Let us remember this truth, now, and always.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 20, 2019
This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.
Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.
If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.
Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.
Jul 24, 2019
Last December Mark Lilla published an article in the New York Review of Books titled “Two Roads for the New French Right.” It discusses intellectual currents in French amongst the Right, specifically amongst people about my age or younger. According to Lilla, they represent something new. They are more concerned with climate change and more critical of capitalism than their elders. Some of them are genuinely anti-capitalist.
Lilla drew extensively from Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs” for the article. Pascale is a French journalist who writes for La Vie, a left-leaning humanist oriented Roman Catholic magazine. The title of her book roughly translates to “The Old World is Returning, A Study of the New Conservatives.” Since I study conservative thought and right-wing movements in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to get a sense of what’s going on with the French Right. I sent Tournier an email and she graciously agreed to meet with me.
Most of our conversation covered the ground she touched upon in her book. I read French quite slowly and since buying it in Arles last week have managed to make my way through the first couple of chapters. What she, and Lilla, argue is that conservatism is a new idea in France. Historically, the main currents amongst the French Right have been divided into the Orléanists, Bonapartists, and Legitimists. Each current aligned itself with a different royal house that claimed the French throne. The Orléanists supported the Orleans cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, the Bonapartists supported the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Legitimists supported the elder branch of the House of Bourbon. Without getting into the details, each current holds distinctive political positions about the role of the state in French politics as well as democracy. In the 1970s right-wing populism started to emerge as another current in the form of the National Front led by the Le Pen family. And within the last few years conservatism has begun to emerge as a fifth current.
Taken as a whole the conservatism of the French Right is quite distinct from the conservatism of the Right in the United States. Conservatism in the English-speaking world dates to Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. Conservatism in France is primarily rooted in French and Catholic sources. In some ways, Tournier’s description of it made it appear as having little in common with conservatism in the United States. American conservatism is organized around the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy. It promulgates climate change denial and is closely tied to white evangelical Christianity. It celebrates capitalism and business and is anti-intellectual enough in its orientation that intellectual historians, climate scientists, and mainstream economists often state, in some form or another, that it has no genuine intellectual tradition.
The French conservatives that Tournier describes are deeply concerned with climate change. The flagship publication is called Limite and bills itself as a “revue d'écologie intégrale,” a magazine of integrated ecology. They are Catholic and have been deeply influenced by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, which argues that climate change is real, and that Catholics must take it seriously. They link their ecological concerns with an analysis that says humanity has overstepped the limits of the natural order, which is how they end up as recognizably conservative. They are for heteronormative nuclear families and opposed to gay marriage. They reject the animating slogan of the May 1968 movement, “It is forbidden to forbid” and instead claim that limits must be sought in all aspects of human life if climate change is to be confronted. Interestingly, this leads them to be critical of capitalism as they fear it is both damaging to the planet and undermines what they imagine to be traditional social arrangements.
According to Tournier, they have turned away from the antisemitism of older generations of the French Right. Instead, they are anti-Islamic. When I asked Tournier if this meant that there were either Jews or Protestants among their members, she told me that Jews and Protestants largely supported Macron. She didn’t know of any of them who were either Jewish or Protestant.
Overall, Catholicism seems to be the conservatives central animating concern. Unlike the older French Right, for whom Catholicism is largely a cultural and political orientation, Tournier thinks that the New French Right was deeply influenced by their faith. It is their faith, she thinks, that has led them to take climate change so seriously. It is their faith, also, which seems have to pushed them outside many of the old Right-Left dichotomies.
Tournier and I ended our conservation not with a discussion of the Right in the United States but with a discussion of the reemergence of the Religious Left. I described for her the work of William Barber II, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the work of my own Unitarian Universalist Association under the leadership of Susan Frederick-Gray. My own takeaway from our time together was that there is energy for new ideas on the Right in France in a similar way that there is energy for new ideas on the Left in the United States. I have no idea the significance of this confluence other than it suggests that political ideologies, like the rest of human culture, are fluid, ever changing, and, at the same time, built upon what has come before.
However appealing I might find some aspects of New French Right’s religious based approach to climate change, it makes more than a little nervous to take a friendly interest in political currents that, whatever their other appeals, routinely inhabit the same space as reactionary, historically anti-semitic, movements like the National Front (now the National Rally). My own nervousness was heightened when I discussed Limite with a friend who is not a scholar or a journalist but a climate change activist. She told me, “they dress up their right-wing politics in an ecological package. They are not serious about ecology but they are serious about opposing gay rights, feminism, and other cultural issues dear to the Left.” Not being immersed in French politics, I am in no position to judge her assessment. But it does make me cautious.
Jul 17, 2019
We left Arles the same way we came: by train. The train back to Paris was uneventful. About the only thing of note that happened during the entirety of our time in transit was that at Gare de Lyon a taxi driver tried to scam me by telling me that there were only fixed fares from the train station. He wanted sixty euros. I told him no thank you and then went off to find a taxi starter who put us in a metered taxi.
Here’s a list of my blog posts in Arles:
Jul 16, 2019
On Bastille Day I took my son and Judith Walgren’s son on a day trip to Marseille. We didn’t see much of the city. We really only had two destinations in mind: the Chateau d’If and Ratonneau, a small island off the coast. Both are part of an archipelago a short ferry ride from Marseille’s Old Port. The boys wanted to go swimming—it was pretty hot—and a trip to the chateau and then Ratonneau afforded us the opportunity to see one of Europe’s most famous sites and take a dip in the Mediterranean.
First, we had to get there. We took a commuter train from Arles to Marseille. The trip was a little less than an hour. Afterwards we took a taxi to the Old Port to catch the ferry. As we walked along the wharf to buy tickets, we saw numerous fishermen selling their catches. I saw mackerel, octopus, sea bass, lobsters, and a good half-dozen other things I didn’t recognize. There was also a metallic painted man who moved when paid a euro and puppeteer with a skeleton marionette.
Once we had our tickets, we discovered we had to walk all the way across the wharf to find the dock for our ferry. It took about twenty minutes. Midway through we stopped at one of the many little bistros that line the street. I had a whole sea bass cooked in parchment and served with rice and a salad. The boys had cheeseburgers. The meal was a bit less than fifty euros.
After lunch we got on the ferry and rode it out to Chateau d’If. The chateau is probably most famous as a setting for Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. I have always loved Dumas—I have read the entirety of the Three Musketeers saga, Queen Margot, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a fun imaginative exercise to go on a literary pilgrimage. The chateau wasn’t exactly like I had imagined it. I’d always thought that Dumas’s hero Edmond Dantes was locked in an underground dungeon. In fact, the chateau had no underground level and many of the prisoners were kept in cells on the second and third floors.
Dumas is an interesting literary figure for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he is revealing of the way in which the Western canon—whatever it is and whatever it actually consists of—hides a certain amount of racial diversity within it. White supremacists and some misguided liberals often assume that the cannon is entirely white. This is not true. A great number of the foundational Christian theologians were actually North African—Augustine and Origen to name two—and some of the authors that people sometimes assume to be white were in fact people of color. Dumas, for instance, was black. His father Alexander-Thomas Dumas was the first person of color to serve as the general-in-chief of a French army. He was probably of sub-Saharan African descent.
How much does this matter? It depends. How much do the stories we tell about ourselves matter? I happen to think a lot. Actually, I think that one of the key distinguishing human features is our ability to create narratives about ourselves and our communities. Understanding that European art, literature, and philosophy have always been in some sense multiracial or multicultural lays lie to the notion that there is some kind of racially pure European society that innately superior.
After tromping around the old castle for an hour so—its interesting features include stone graffiti carved by both political prisoners from the 1848 uprising and the 1871 Marseille Commune—we caught the ferry to Ratonneau. It is a beautiful Mediterranean mixture of chalky cliffs, stony hills, and jagged fjords surrounded by clear cool water. After a fifteen-minute walk we found a stony beach. The boys practically leapt into the water. It was a joy to watch them. There is something about the unbridled joy of children that is contagious.
We swam for about two hours—I read a bit of James Baldwin in between dips in the ocean—and then made our way to the ferry. We caught a taxi to the train station and would have been at our hotel by eight o’clock if our train hadn’t ended up being delayed by an hour. It was an imperfect end to an almost perfect day. However, there’s something to be said for European candy. A small dose of it kept the boys happy while we waited an interminable time for the train to start.
Jul 14, 2019
One of the joys of travel has always been the moments of pure connection that arise, seemingly out of nowhere, along the way. Tonight I had one of those experiences walking behind the city hall in Arles. I was headed to get an evening drink--my parents were watching my son--when there they were: a half dozen and three singing, dancing, and strumming a guitar. Two young women pulled me in, walked up and asked me where I was from, and invited me to join the impromptu party of strangers: a old French woman missing teeth, three young Arab immigrants, an Irish republican (who later explained, “Bastille Day is when they gave the king and queen the chop, like we ought to do with Queen Elizabeth. No more nobles!”), the two art school students from the Alps who beckoned me to stand with them, a retired drunken Canadian woman, and a slightly bearded young guitarist. The Irishman was singing “Dirty Old Town” by the Pogues. When he finished the guitarist began to strum a rhythmic tune. One of the young Arab women--she couldn’t have been more than seventeen--took off her shoes and began to dance--an energetic, imperfect, ballet, a poem in motion, dark blur of bending, twisting feet, leaping against the cobbles of the street before coming to rest bent upon the ground. Soon it was the art school students turn. One of them, a blonde with a floral tattoo on each arm, took the guitar and in a thin voice that grew bolder, thicker, with every passing syllable began to sing American pop songs, Nirvana, Sting, and then French ballads. There was love and a bit of comedy--a cowboy song from the Alps with the lyric “Yippee ki yay.” I even shyly shared a couple of folk hymns, “Simple Gifts” and “Down to the River to Pray.” Everyone was dancing.
Eventually it ended. This person had to go to bed. That person had to meet their friends. But while it lasted it was a moment of pure connection: beyond the horrors of the hour, beyond the difficulties of language, beyond... just beyond the ordinary.
If there is hope for humanity I am pretty sure it lies in such moments. Instances where the boundaries that separate people disappear in the experience of common connection: shared music, dance, and unexpected joy.
Jul 13, 2019
The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.
Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.
When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.
I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.
In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to step away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.
Jul 12, 2019
The entire reason why we’re in Arles is to attend Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is a three month long international photography festival, now celebrating its fiftieth year. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in photography. There are photographic images, photographers, and photography students. Street art of a very special kind springs up on almost every wall of the ancient city--digital prints of photographs wheat-pasted to the stucco, plaster, wood, and brick. Every little cafe or shop seems to have its own show. And throughout Arles there are major exhibits featuring some of the most important figures in the history of photography.
So far, we have been almost half a dozen shows. Yesterday I went to Germaine Krull & Jacques Remy, Un Voyage Marseille-Rio 1941 and La Movida, Chronique d’une Agitation, 1978 — 1988. Both were in or adjacent to the Cloître Saint-Trophime, a magnificent 12th century cloister featuring exquisite stone carvings surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
The Germaine Krull exhibition chronicled the voyage and exile of a group of French political dissidents and European refugees. They fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. They boarded a freighter run by Vichy partisans and eventually ended up in a penal colony in the North of Africa. The photographs themselves were not particularly interesting. They more-or-less looked like snapshots that someone took of their friends. But as historical documents they are incredible. They show the conditions under which important dissidents like Victor and Vlady Serge lived during the opening years of World War II. And they emphasized that the existence of stateless or semi-stateless refugees is not a recent problem. It dates from the instant that states acquired the necessary technology to demarcate people along the lines of citizenship.
As La Movida exhibition paired beautifully with Libuse’s exhibition. The bodies of work were roughly contemporaneous. And so was the subject matter. While there were many aesthetic differences, the primary difference was the political environment under which the photograph’s were taken. Most of Libuse’s photographs are intimate personal documents chronicling people on the margin’s of society efforts to privately find freedom under a totalitarian regime. In contrast, the four photographers whose work is featured in La Movida lived in a society where people were beginning to publicly pursue freedom after the collapse of a fascist state. Their work generally lacked the intimacy of Libuse’s. It captured the hunger for freedom that people have after freedom becomes possible—as opposed to the way people create free spaces, autonomous zones, in their efforts to privately resist.
The other thing I was reminded of in La Movida exhibition is that I am now old enough to have lived through periods that are now historical. I was an early teen—almost precisely the age my son is now—when the late photographs in both Libuse’s exhibition and the La Movida exhibition were taken. Looking at them I was also reminded of my friend Todd Sines’s photographs of the 1990s techno scene in Detroit--another moment that is both increasingly historically distant and important.
Jul 11, 2019
We spent the majority of our first day in Arles with Libuse Jarcovjakova. She’s an old friend of my parents and for years she’s met with my father’s students in Prague to show them her work and give them a lecture or two on photography. Today was not much different, except that we were in Arles rather than in Prague.
After breakfast we all gathered in the hotel’s conference room and Libuse gave her talk. It was more of a dialogue between her, my father, and Judy Walgren than a formal lecture. I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about the difference between social documentary and personal documentary photography. She said, “When I am doing some social documentary photography, I have done some research... Personal documentary, I use it like self-help. Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.
Another short note, it is mostly about very ordinary life. It is mostly about something that is very close to you, which is very obvious. Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
One of my father and Judy’s students asked Libuse a question about selfies. This was her response: “I spent five years in West Berlin from 1985 to 1989. There was an exhibit there last year of my work. In the exhibit there were over forty selfies. Living in West Berlin in the 80s I felt very lonely. The selfies were something that helped me to find myself. I was never thinking about my looks. I just wanted to document. I hate myself in many of them. I am just ugly there. I felt horrible. I had no money, no friends, no language. It was a historical moment. But perhaps a good example of what the selfie can do.”
Immediately following her lecture we walked down to the church in the center of town where her exhibition is. It is one of the best exhibition spots in Arles and they had something like two hundred of her images--stretching from the mid-seventies to the late eighties--on display. I bought the exhibition catalog. The images form a remarkable archive of people on society’s margins in Communist Czechoslovakia.
While we were there Libuse gave a second talk. Again, I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about taking photographs in the factory where she worked as a teenager. She said: “At the factory they didn’t care that I was taking pictures until they realized that I wasn’t taking photos of the heroic worker. That was what the Communists wanted. I was taking pictures of people goofing off, sleeping on the job, not working.”
She continued: “In those days, I was very adventurous. I was regularly moving into groups of people that were totally different from me and trying to be accepted. Step-by-step I worked with them and that opened doors. With Vietnamese and the Cubans I taught them the Czech language and I was living with them. They suffered from racism. We teachers were the only Czechs who would spend time with them. And so they wanted me to photograph them. And I took the photographs. I was inside their community. It is necessary to have empathy to join a group like this.”
Reflecting on her body of work she observed: “I had the good luck that I didn’t work on assignment. I had a free hand.”
In response to the question: “What made you ready to show the work?” Libuse said: “Ten or eleven years ago I was unknown. I was always unknown. When I went to my studio I felt a sadness. I had all this work that I hadn’t shared. And so, little-by-little, I began to share my work with some professionals. Then a professional wanted to see both my journals and my images. I felt like it was too personal. I felt like it was gossip. But then I read somewhere that the most personal is the most universal. And I shared more of my work. And I got feedback, especially from young people. They felt like they were reading their own stories.”
In response to the question: “How do you feel now?” Libuse said: “Every morning when I wake up I’m totally empty. I’m very happy. I know it is amazing. People are approaching me and I am know that I have touched their hearts. It is very important for me now not to be in the archives but to be making new work.”
When one of the students asked her how she got her start, Libuse replied: “I am from an artistic family. I got visual art as a heritage. Being in touch with visual culture was very important. My father was a painter and so was my mother. My father had a big personality. I decided I couldn’t be a painter because of him. So, at the age of 13 I got my first camera. At the age of 15 I started to study. Everyone hated my work. And I was very shy about showing it to people. That changed when I started working at the factory at the age of 19.”
When asked, “Were you influenced by punk at all?” Libuse said: “I had almost no influence of contemporary photographers. I knew Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. I had never heard of Nan Goldin.”
That was the last question that she answered during her talk with my father and Judy’s class. After that my family, Judy, her son, Libuse, and Libuse’s niece and grand nephew all went to lunch. We had dinner together as well and then went our separate ways for the evening.
Jul 10, 2019
We met my parents, Judy Walgren, and their students at Charles de Gaulle to catch the train to Arles in the afternoon. The morning was uneventful, we both slept in, and we arrived in time to get a bite to eat before we all got on the train—McDonald’s again for my son and the French pastry chain Paul’s for me.
It turns out that I speak the best French of the group—a rather pathetic statement given that I can only muster enough French to ask for directions, order food, and buy something. Nonetheless, it came in helpful as we traveled. The train ride to Arles consisted of two trains. The first a high-speed train from Paris to Lyon; the second a local train that went from Lyon to Arles. There was a lot of difference between the two trains. The first was modern. It had assigned seats and air conditioning. The second was an artifact from perhaps the 1960s. There were no assigned seats and the car was broken up into a series of cabins of eight.
The most challenging part of the trip was the transfer between the trains. We had exactly 13 minutes to do it. Thirteen minutes to get the luggage of sixteen people—and Americans generally don’t travel light—from one train to another. My French came in handy. I got off and asked directions from a train agent. He answered in English—a fairly common phenomena since many people speak much better English than I speak French—and I was able to steer the group in the right direction.
We barely made the train, but we did, only to discover that without assigned seats many of us had to stand. My son went off with his grandfather and I made my way into a cabin with a handful of extra seats. It was partially occupied by the largest Frenchman I’ve ever seen. He was probably seven feet tall and occupied two seats. The cabin was quite small which gave the whole experience a somewhat surreal feel, especially once people had crammed into all of the seats around him.
The rest of the trip to Arles was uneventful. We saw some beautiful countryside—lavender fields and vineyards—and some delightful towns filled with buildings with stone walls and clay roofs. We arrived exactly on time—8:00 p.m.—and made our way through the streets of the city to the place where we are staying. It is directly across from the Roman coliseum and smack in the center of town.
After checking-in and depositing our bags we went to a pizza place, that also serves Provençal food, for dinner. The service was slow—they managed to forget my son’s order and he ended up eating some of my Dad’s pizza. The waiter was impatient with our lack of French. But overall, the food was quite good. Most people had pizza. I had Provençal style tuna, which was served with a baked eggplant covered in a cheese sauce, some kind of vegetable terrine, a baked tomato, and rice. Towards the end of the meal Libuse Jarcovjakova and her niece and grand-nephew joined us. She and my parents had a long conversation about her sudden success. In addition to pieces in the New York Times and the Guardian, she’s been covered in Le Monde and several other French and Italian publications.
Tomorrow we’re supposed to spend most of the day with Libuse. She’s giving a gallery talk to the students and we’re all having lunch and dinner together. I suspect we’ll spend most of the time in between settling into our apartment.
Jul 9, 2019
We arrived in Paris mid-afternoon. Our flight was delayed by more than two hours. I am not certain why—no consistent explanation was given—but our plane sat on the tarmac at JFK for quite some time. During that time, before I fell asleep on the flight over, I watched a couple of movies: Captain Marvel and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. My son watched a bunch of movies too. He was having such a good time with the inflight entertainment system that I basically had to threaten him to get him to rest for a bit prior to landing.
Our friends Gilles and Nicole have a place across from the Cite de la Science on the edge of Parc de la Villette. Nicole let us in, and my son crashed. Nicole fixed a salad and offered me some baguette for lunch. The salad was simple and delicious—lettuce, a bit of tuna, some egg, and smidge of carrot tossed in olive oil and lemon. Whole books have been written about baguette. Anything I have to say on the subject would be trivial. So, I will pass over the baguette to just note that it was the perfect post-flight meal. Shortly afterwards, I fell asleep.
Someplace the writer Tom Wolfe has a comment about radical chic. It is a phrase he used to describe the New York Review of Books and the left-wing, well-educated, well-off, group of writers who surround it and use it to promote radical politics. Staying with Gilles and Nicole made me realize that the phrase is probably apt for my parents and their friends as well. Many of them share a similar distinctive aesthetic and left-leaning politics. Gilles and Nicole’s apartment has much in common with my parents’ place in Michigan and Marketa Luskacova’s and Libuse Jarcovjakova’s apartments in Prague. In each place there’s the same art filled walls; postcards from friends; copious books; and mass of well use kitchen implements. Some of the art is political. Some of it is satirical. Some reflects a particular affinity with a national culture—the Czechs or the French—but overall the feeling is overwhelmingly international, with a heavy, but not exclusive tilt towards Europe. At my parents’ place there is a bit of Asian art from my Mom’s time with the Peace Corps and some stuff from Mexico—an accumulation from my stints in Chiapas and Oaxaca and my family’s stay in Mexico City when my father was on a Fulbright. At Gilles and Nicole’s there’s a fair amount of African art, particularly masks, acquired, I imagine, from their travels to Africa to photograph people at work.
Visiting with Gilles and Nicole made me aware of my own culture. A number of the women I have dated have said something like, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.” As I have gotten older, I’ve realized that being raised in this milieu of radical chic is not at all a common experience. And so many of the things that I take for granted, including how I think about much of the world, come from this sensibility that is, well, far from the usual American experience.
I anticipate more reflections on culture and radical chic throughout the course of the trip. But for, now, I’ll turn to describing Parc de la Villette. I dragged my son there after we woke up from too long post-airplane naps. It is in my estimation one of the great urban parks of the world: a masterpiece in urban landscaping. The park is a magical mixture of large public spaces and tiny half-hidden gardens. We stumbled into a set of hanging gardens, inspired by the hanging gardens of Babylon; a multiple layered bamboo garden that created a private, quite, meditative, almost other worldly, space in the midst of Paris; and a selection of upright mirrored stones that felt like a modern rendition of menhirs.
I am sure there are other gardens tucked into the Parc waiting to be found but after exploring for about two hours we went back to Gilles and Nicole’s. My son went to bed after a dinner of French McDonald’s. I had another salad with Gilles and Nicole. The aperitif was a delicious mixture of cognac and wine. We spoke a mixture of English and Spanish and they tried to help me with my rather pathetic French. A good portion of the conversation was about light. I have noticed over the years that when I am with photographers they tend to talk about light. They are in the midst of a commercial shoot for Christmas. Apparently, lit candles are very difficult to photograph—they are both a source of light and generally need a source of light to illuminate, a difficult problem.
Tomorrow we meet my parents and my father’s class at Charles de Gaulle airport to catch the train to Arles. This year my father is co-teaching the course with the photographer Judy Walgren. She is a new colleague of his at Michigan State and her son, whose is about the same age as my son, will be accompanying her.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.