Few tables were free on the terrasse of Café des Cévennes that hot July Sunday, so naturally we were stuck beside a voice braying in American English about Donald Trump.
Why someone would sit under venerable plane trees in a French mountain village and obsess about the American president was an open question. More pressing was why, in that leisurely spot of summer evening ice cream pleasure, couldn’t I close my ears to the sound of Trump, Trump, Trump and yet another thump of Trump?
It was not as though the grey-haired pontificator had anything interesting or novel to offer. How could he have? Everything said about Donald Trump since American Election Day in 2016 has been at best minor variation on a few thin themes. Trump is a fascist. Trump is monster. Trump will destroy the world. Trump is misunderstood. Trump has his good points. Trump is making America great again.
Any variety comes in the form of the daily what’s-he-done-now debacle that, for reasons utterly mystifying, fuels the incessant chatter, talk, denunciation, and braying that cannot be stopped even by the towering granite slabs of France’s Massif Central. Much of this is fed by an old-stream media obsession with Trump that truly borders on the psychotic; that is on a delusional break from the normal ordering of life. Nor is it just American outlets.
The calibration point for all Canadian politicians is now the American president: their degree of proximity to, and identifiability with, him. Beyond the legislative realm, a recent National Post report said most Canadians cannot name a single justice of our Supreme Court. Simultaneously, the CBC was flooding the airwaves with detailed coverage of Donald Trump’s latest nominee to the U.S. high court.
Given the far greater power of social media, culpability cannot be offloaded entirely on the remnant spawn of professional journalism. North American news programming is insanely overfilled with Trump bumpf. But so are our personal news feeds. They’re a rolling poll of how fixated we are with reading, commenting, sharing, meme-crafting, tweeting, trolling, and braying about Donald Trump. The experience outside Café des Cévennes was compelling evidence that the problem is not in our timelines, but in ourselves.
It was evidence reinforced several days later as we sat in the same spot having early coffee with some people we know who live there. A passerby stopped to chat. He was coming back from the village bakery with his morning’s fresh baguette, and not one but two newspapers under his arm. There was an exchange of local news. There was speculation about how well “les Bleues” would do in the upcoming World Cup final. It was suggested everyone should be at church on Sunday to pray for victory.
The conversation trotted along exactly like the little dog I watched making his rounds on the street across from the terrasse, going from shop to shop for tidbits and ear scratches, his tall tail curved like a smile standing on its head. For a moment, I felt as if I’d been picked up and set down in the immortal passage in Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when Emma plays her piano and “thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff's clerk, passing along the highroad bare-headed and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.”
The feeling was not one of nostalgia for sepia-tinted 19th century France. It was infinite joy at being able to regain reality in the fine-grained details of ordinary life. It was being reminded that those details are, in fact, where we live. We just have to take the time to elevate them to their worthy place, i.e., above the stupefying, addictive abstractions of ignorant ideological armies clashing by night.
To say such is not to argue for a retreat from news about the world. When horrors such as Sunday evening’s shooting rampage in Toronto take place, it would be inhuman not to pay attention if only as means of paying respect to those afflicted. We want to know because we want to understand – because we are people who never truly give up hope for meaning. What we must break free of, though, is the learned and enforced helplessness born of believing the world “out there” – the one where Donald Trump is both Dark Lord and Jedi – is the proper and only source of such meaning.
It is hardly a struggle new to the human condition. Flaubert’s Emma gave birth, after all, to the neologism bovarism as a descriptor for the tragic condition of believing that everything beyond us is glamour; everything in front of us is winter grass. It is a tribulation, of course, that the writers of Scripture noted millennia before Madame Bovary’s publication in 1856.
What has changed for us is the acceleration and the multiplication of the sources and the forces behind the assumption that beyond is best. We talk about, hear about, fill our minds and social media feeds with hourly jot and tittle updates about Donald Trump because… because… well, because he's the most powerful, most important man in the world, which is self-evidently why everyone is talking about him all the time. And, so equally self-evidently, why we must bray along with the rest and the best of them.
This summer’s trip to France, paradoxically, showed me that the way of escape is not to go cold Trump turkey. In fact, such a solution only compounds trouble by continuing to view Donald Trump as the centre of the problem, and also of its solution. He’s not. He’s one man, albeit one very powerful man. Yet sooner than we think, certainly sooner than he thinks, his days, too, will be like the grass that is cut down and tossed into the fire.
The fuller answer, I think, lies in challenging the seemingly anodyne, yet deeply troubling, maxim that life is not about the destination but the journey. Actually, life is every bit as much about staying home, and making where you are both path and arrival. Making it, that is, however transiently, the world.
This came home to me last Sunday as I sat on my front porch watching a dad and young son pass our house, fishing rods in hand, headed toward the bank of the St. Lawrence that is on the other side of Boulevard St. Joseph at the end of our block. The father was pressing forward, striding several steps ahead, as though fearful the fish might think of something better to do and move on short notice before it was possible to throw hook, line and sinker into the water. The son, on his short legs, tried manfully to keep up. The gap between was too much to close.
Then wonder happened. Right there, in the small park beside the river where years ago now my own son and I spent hours tossing a football or kicking a soccer ball back and forth, the dad stopped and waited for the son. The lad caught up, and then, as boys will, passed by his father and led the way, fishing rod and reel held high, toward the bright summer evening shore.
I sipped my coffee and watched them disappear behind some trees. My thoughts were all on the gift I’d been given to be just exactly where I was.
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