Best of Brainiac (3)
February 7, 2010
Before Slow Food, French thinkers and writers championed Slow Walking. One strolls — ambulates, that is to say, in a manner that is purposeful but not rushed, neither speeded up nor slowed down — therefore, one is.
[A slightly different version of this item originally appeared at the Boston Globe Ideas section’s blog, Brainiac, in July 2008.]
One unfortunate side effect of the liberalization of the economic sphere in the early 19th century was the spirit-of-capitalism-powered acceleration of foot traffic in Paris. The hurried pace of modern city life so disgusted self-invented aristocrats like Nerval and the teenage Baudelaire that they practiced flânerie — i.e., conspicuous dawdling, ostentatious loitering. When Nerval led a lobster on a pale blue leash through the gardens of the Palais-Royal, it wasn’t because he was on the brink of madness, as legend has it; in fact, this was a form of anticapitalist (though not necessarily left-wing) street theater, an insult to Paris’s bourgeois hustlers and bustlers. When Baudelaire fled to Belgium, in order to escape his creditors, he complained bitterly that “strolling, so cherished by peoples endowed with imagination, is impossible in Brussels.”
So you can imagine how French thinkers and writers feel about le jogging. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it: in his philosophical travelogue, America, published in English translation in 1988, Baudrillard was caustic:
You stop a horse that is bolting. You do not stop a jogger who is jogging. Foaming at the mouth, his mind riveted on the inner countdown to the moment when he will achieve a higher plane of consciousness, he is not to be stopped. If you stopped him to ask the time, he would bite your head off…. Decidedly, joggers are the true Latter Day Saints and the protagonists of an easy-does-it Apocalypse. Nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his Walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy…. Do not stop him. He will either hit you or simply carry on dancing around in front of you like a man possessed.
The latest victim of French stroll-mindedness is that country’s recently elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy, an economic liberalizer who not only bashes the welfare state like a good American go-getter but ambulates like one, too. That is to say: he jogs.
An hour after he took office in May, “Speedy Sarko” and his prime minister were driven off for a jog in the Bois de Boulogne. Sarko returned to work an hour later, running up the steps of the Elysee presidential palace. In shorts. Soon after that, Sarkozy went on holiday, where his first order of business was jogging on a small island off the Malta coast.
Naturally, this sort of thing has caused paroxysms among France’s intellectuals, according to a Times of London story published yesterday:
“Is jogging right wing?” wondered Liberation, the left-wing newspaper. Alain Finkelkraut, a celebrated philosopher, begged Mr Sarkozy on France 2, the main state television channel, to abandon his “undignified” pursuit…. “Western civilization, in its best sense, was born with the promenade,” [claimed Finkelkraut]. “Walking is a sensitive, spiritual act. Jogging is management of the body. The jogger says, ‘I am in control.’ It has nothing to do with meditation.”
Perhaps Sarko’s Socialist opponents should look into lobster-walking.
Luc Sante offers the following analysis.
The French care obsessively about semiotics. The actions undertaken by public figures are immediately subject to parsing by observers of every station, so nothing is innocent about a politician’s gestures. And Sarkozy has been going out of his way to goad the electorate by proclaiming “I am an American president” at every turn. I wish I’d saved the link I got a few months back to somebody’s analysis of his official portrait. They showed his predecessors: De Gaulle and Pompidou posed in the library of the Elysee Palace, Mitterand and Giscard posed before the tricolor. Alone, Sarkozy posed with a flag in the Elysee library. Then they showed you the official portraits of the last five or six American presidents, every one of them posed with a flag in front of bookshelves. Sarkozy also had his hair spotlit so that he looked bizarrely blond, and you could swear he was wearing some kind of padded butt extension. The effect was bananas, and not French. The jogging thing is similar: he’s not getting healthful exercise — he’s saying “I am Bill Clinton.”
As for the question posed by the left-wing newspaper Liberation, “Is jogging right-wing,” I tried to steer clear of that too-easy binary formulation. As I pointed out parenthetically, just because Nerval and Baudelaire were horrified by the effect of economic liberalization on foot traffic doesn’t mean they were leftists. Sante had a few enlightening things to say on this topic, as well:
Consider also that “jogging” is one of those words that is en anglais dans le texte, and I’m not sure the Academie has even bothered to formulate an alternative. You go to provincial towns and see banners proclaiming “Le grand jogging” and know the event was designed by and for people who spend their time watching American TV shows. It’s neither a leftist thing nor (in French terms) a rightist thing, but “liberal” — which there refers to someone for whom amassing personal wealth takes precedence over any ideal. Even the right wing — still preoccupied with blood and soil — spits on that.
In September 2006, Joshua Glenn launched Brainiac, a blog published by the Boston Globe’s Ideas section. He retired from Brainiac in June ’08, to pursue new projects; in February ’09, he cofounded HiLobrow.com. This post is the third in a series of ten commemorating Glenn’s brief tenure as a professional blogger.