I spend about half my time within a two-hours’ drive from central Paris, which makes the odd visit hard to avoid.
The other day was one such occasion, when my wife had a medical appointment in Avenue Hoche, and I acted in my usual capacity of chauffeur. That gave me a couple of hours to kill, which is never easy in Haussmann’s Paris.
Unlike the Left Bank, it strikes me as too deliberate in its planning, too uniform in its architecture and too lifeless in its spirit. Normally, it’s also too touristy, but at least Covid has taken care of that.
Avenue Hoche runs into Parc Monceau, for me the best part of the 8th arrondissement, a pearl in a sea of empty shells. That’s where I headed, looking forward to having a pleasant stroll and then reading the book weighing down my jacket.
Few things in life are as enjoyable and civilised as doing that… sorry, wrong tense. Few things were as enjoyable and civilised until this pre-Haussmann park was taken over by a new cult.
When I got there, every square inch of its 20 acres was overrun with compulsive exercisers, pounding, sweating, groaning herds of them. Even that objectionable activity was as carefully pre-planned as Haussmann’s urban totalitarianism.
For I didn’t spot any joggers or other exercisers who had come out on the spur of the moment. They were all, ones, twos or large groups, supervised by trainers, barking instructions in the tones of a drill sergeant at a boot camp.
That charming 18th century park had been turned into a giant gym, featuring smelly people of all ages and both (all?) sexes running, pushing up, stretching, sparring, sitting up – with most faces contorted by expressions of excruciating pain.
Not being the type to admit defeat easily, I stubbornly stuck to my original plan. To begin with I walked a couple of miles back and forth on different pathways, dodging, with variable success, the stampeding herds threatening to trample me underfoot.
I tried to concentrate on the lovely ponds and grottoes, pushing impending dangers out of my mind, but they wouldn’t go without trouble. Every minute or so I’d be jostled by some old boy veering off his jogging course and muttering “pardon” as he brushed against, or bumped into, me.
Finally, I plonked myself on a bench and opened my book, only to find that reading was even more difficult. The thump of running shoes hitting the ground, the trainers’ loud attempts to teach their charges to speak body French grammatically and without an accent, the slapping leathery sounds of boxing gloves hitting one another – they all competed with TS Eliot’s essays, and the book came off a poor second.
The park always featured the odd jogger or two, all parks do. But I’d never seen anything quite so perversely pervasive before – it looked as if an otherwise depopulated 8th arrondissement had emptied all its denizens into this 18th century gym.
What was unfolding before me, I realised, wasn’t a normal, pleasant athletic activity, like a tennis knock on a Saturday morning. It was a ritual of a new pagan cult involving the sacrifice of dignity and perhaps also sanity.
Chaps, I felt like saying, you’re all going to die anyway. Why, even I shall probably die someday.
And I can unequivocally guarantee that making a spectacle of yourselves won’t delay that event one bit. Moreover, as someone who experienced a sense of shameful schadenfreude when Jim Fixx, the patron saint of jogging, had a fatal coronary on a run, I suspect this self-torture may actually hasten your demise.
People used to seek real immortality through worshipping God. Now they seek fake immortality through worshipping their own bodies – to the distinct detriment of their souls.
This is just one aspect of the anthropocentricity that defines modernity. Having taken God off his pedestal, man tried to take the place thus vacated, but the climb has turned out to be way too steep. Seeking the ultimate truth within himself, man found only himself there – a transient, mortal, fallible creature.
And a desperate one – desperate to prolong his physical existence because, according to him, there’s nothing but dark nothingness afterwards. Life has lost all purpose; or rather life itself has illogically become its own purpose.
This reminds me of a friend assigned to interview a woman who spent four hours every day working out in a gym. “Why do you do this?” asked my friend. “To build up my stamina,” replied the sweaty one. “Stamina to do what?” “To go to the gym.”
That has become the paradigm of the circuitous route taken by Modern Man, who has lost his theology and, with it, his teleology. Those joggers doing laps around Parc Monceau symbolise their lives that move around in circles without going anywhere.
P.S. If you’re still unsure who’s winning the cultural war, this should put paid to all doubts. The English Spelling Society is petrified to see that traditional spelling condemns millions of people to feeling illiterate and therefore inferior.
Rather than suggesting that teachers take their fingers out and actually teach English, as opposed to advanced condom studies, the Society insists that spelling be made more accessible.
As an example, they propose this version of the Hamlet soliloquy: “To be or not to be, that is th qeschun, whether tis noebler in the miend to sufer th slings and arroes of outraejus forchun . . .”. That way madness lies – or modernity, to use a full synonym.
P.P.S. If doubts still persist, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts should put them to bed. It has introduced new requirements for the best picture Oscar, “to encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience”. No diversity, no Oscar, in other words. And there I was, thinking such matters were decided on artistic merits.