“It’s so pretty here…I guess that’s why people come…”
Elizabeth was looking out the car window as we drove through rural Poitou, a region Southwest of Paris on the road, more or less, to Bordeaux.
“You know, people talk about something being ‘only a matter of aesthetics,’ as if it really doesn’t matter what things look like. But it matters a lot, because it is part of our culture…of what we want…and what we care about. ”
We had just reported on our visit to Chinatown in Paris. The gaudy Chinese New Year’s parade, with its dragons and fireworks, must have delighted the Chinese. To us, it was a mystery…a blank…a curiosity. We lacked a point of reference; it was simply strange and exotic. We didn’t know what to make of it at all.
Chinese music, too, means nothing to us. But this was different.
Driving along in rural France things look like they ‘ought’ to look. There are neat houses of stone, with shutters and woodpiles. There are open fields and hedgerows. You see stately oaks…fat cows…and well-tended gardens. There are no strip malls, almost no shopping plazas, few stop lights, and little traffic. It looks the way we think it should look, in other words…the way we want it to look.
“Remember our friend Isabelle, in Paris,” Elizabeth went on. “She took a trip across the U.S. She said she was shocked to see such poor people – you know, she drove through some bad sections of town…and down through rural Mississippi. I explained to her that America is extremely varied. And that a lot of people who look very, very poor in America nevertheless will have a car, a TV and even air-conditioning.
“But she was appalled, and I can see why. In France, even poor people live in a way that seems…as the French say, “correct.” Their houses are well maintained. They sit down for real meals. Out here in the country, they stack their wood up nicely and have these impeccably well kept vegetable gardens. They may not have any money at all, but they still live in a way that seems okay to us…we can imagine ourselves living that way. There’s nothing shocking about it.
“But America is so big…and so many people in America have such different ideas about how you should live. Their aesthetic vision is so completely different…say from a prim New England town to a New Orleans slum…that there is no one ‘correct’ way to live. I can perfectly well imagine living in the New England town…it’s part of my culture…it’s part of my family history…and it’s part of the way I think things ought to be. But I couldn’t live happily in a New Orleans slum…or in West Virginia with junk cars in the yard and broken out windowpanes. And when you see people living like that…if you’re not used to it, I guess it is a shock. But it’s not a matter of money…or certainly not just a matter of money. It’s more a matter of aesthetics…which is why they really are important.”
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