Jim Holt

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 8 1999 9:30 PM

Jim Holt

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Recently I read that an average of one Frenchman a day has to be hospitalized after slipping in a pile of dog merde. France, clearly, is a nation that has its problems. Still, an American visitor here has to marvel at its good points. Like parking. You can't beat parking in Paris.

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I have been driving around quite a lot in Paris, which is something I would never dream of doing in New York. You can always find a space on the street to poke your little car into. If not, you can simply ram it up onto the sidewalk--no one seems to mind. Most cars live underground. Paris had the sense to dig vast subterranean garages years ago. They look like something out of a Jacques Tati movie--lots of levels descending toward the earth's core, all gleaming white, with piped-in Schubert string quartets echoing softly throughout. You ascend from these garages by spiraling up a ramp with the accelerator floored, taking advantage of the constant radius of curvature to avoid scraping the walls--emerging, quite literally, like a bat out of hell.

In the United States I am rather diffident on the road. I have an old Toyota Camry with an automatic transmission, and I drive it like a little old lady, nice and slow and smooth. My entire personality changed when I got behind the wheel in Paris. The car I am driving is a Peugeot 205. Its standard transmission is engineered to turn you into a highly aggressive motorist. If you're not accelerating madly into the next gear, you're jamming on the brakes. The speed is shown in kilometers, so you can imagine you're driving 100 miles an hour through the tunnels along the Seine and around the Place de la Concorde, just like Dodi's chauffeur. I'm not driving like a Frenchman these days--I'm driving like a Portuguese or Turk. Now, this has had a very interesting effect on me, physiologically. It has caused my testosterone level to go up. I have not had it measured, but I can feel it. (All the recent research shows that behavior affects hormone levels just as hormone levels affect behavior; fans of the winning team in a soccer match come out of the stadium with twice the testosterone of the fans on the losing side, one study reported.) When this happens, you get lusty. You look at the Eiffel Tower and you see a big "A," for amour. (You try to avoid looking at the huge digital readout just above the tower's base, which blazons forth the number of days remaining until the turn of the millennium--an uncharacteristically tacky touch for this city.)

Despite a certain shabbiness to its intellectual and literary life at the moment, Paris continues to have an absurdly large number of bookstores, both large and small. Tables groan with the latest essays by "public philosophers" like Alain Finkielkraut, who is a constant presence on French television, like leggy, blond right-wingers in America. Being a certified public philosopher in France entitles you to disembosom yourself of whatever opinions you happen to have on any issue at all, provided they are couched in sufficiently abstract language, and be sure of having the public ear at your disposal. But you will succeed at this only if you are médiatique--that is, you look impressive on TV. It used to be thought that being médiatique was a matter of having Fabio-like good looks, like the aging "new philosopher" Bernard Henri-Levy (now such a tiresome fixture that he is commonly referred to by his initials, "BAY-OSH-ELL"). But Finkielkraut, Andre Glucksmann, and others have proved that good looks are not really a prerequisite for being médiatique. What you really need is impressive hair, hair with an architectonic look (Finkielkraut's is a topologically complex helmet; Glucksmann's wants to look like Ringo Starr's moptop circa 1962). A couple of months ago a book appeared here that blasted the médiatique philosophers for being superficial poseurs. The author, predictably, was himself immediately elevated to the tube. Did he--irony of ironies--end up becoming médiatique? Nope. He didn't have the right hair.

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