How easy everything is in theory, and how difficult in practice!

This thought, by no means original, occurred to me recently on the Paris Metro (in the Réaumur-Sébastopol station, to be exact). I had to change lines there for several days in succession, and on each a terrible smell hung in the air for a couple of hundred yards along the passageway connecting Lines Three and Four—a mixture of urine and the body odor of a human being unwashed for months, if not longer.

The source of the smell, which made thousands of people walk a little faster, hoping to reach a place where it was no longer detectable, was not difficult to find: a man, almost certainly a schizophrenic, had taken up residence in the passageway, lying in indescribable filth on a bed of tattered cardboard. I will not describe him further, in case it is nearly mealtime for some readers.

Unfortunately, an unpleasant surprise awaited those taking the train in the direction of Gallieni on Line Three: another schizophrenic had taken up residence on the platform, not as dirty but much noisier than the one in the passageway. He screamed unending abuse at the hallucinatory voices he must have been hearing, so ear-splittingly that one could not think. The passengers gave him a wide berth: so much so that his end of the platform was deserted, while the other was crowded. No doubt this was stigmatizing, but there have been cases of schizophrenics pushing passengers off platforms into oncoming trains.

I also noticed that several of the advertising posters in the Réaumur-Sébastopol station had been defaced by—or, some might say, replied to—by passengers of ideological bent. For example, across the ads for some kind of cabaret show, depicting a young woman with a large bosom wearing only a revealing leotard and extravagant feathers, someone had scrawled FEMME—OBJET. It wasn’t difficult to guess the feminist sentiment behind these words: patriarchal society ritually humiliated women and kept them subordinate by turning them into mere sex objects. As for the woman in the picture, she was the female equivalent of an Uncle Tom.

A second advertisement was for a fast-food chain that sold chickens ready-roasted. Not surprisingly, it had a picture of a beautifully golden roast chicken, across which someone had scrawled NOURRI OGM—fed with genetically modified organisms. Again, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the environmentalist thought behind the scrawl: genetic modification, carried out by or at the behest of agribusiness, would eventually lead to disaster, either through famine or epidemic cancer. Therefore, we must live a simpler, healthier life, etc.

Finally, a department-store ad invited customers by asking passersby whether they had run out of ideas for Christmas presents. Across this, someone had written TANT MIEUX—so much the better. This, of course, was a succinct critique of the consumer society, in which people buy more and more of what they need less and less: does happiness consist of possession of what you did not know you wanted until you saw it, and possession of which will only momentarily please you? Of course not; abandon, then, your useless consumption.

I do not mean to say that I was completely unsympathetic with any of the scrawlers’ points of view. I could see how someone might find the cabaret ad vulgar and demeaning. I could see that a reduction in biodiversity brought about by the monoculture of genetically modified crops might prove a bad thing in the long term. And when I see crowds shopping for what they do not need and often cannot afford, I think of rats on a treadmill in search of they know not what (it is only when you think of the alternative to the consumer society in the modern world that I am slightly less critical of it).

No; what really struck me about the scrawlers of the Réaumur-Sébastopol station was their passionate certainty about large and distant abstractions; while at the same time, no one among many thousands knew, apparently, what to do in practice about the two individuals who were causing some inconvenience, displeasure, and even fear to those same thousands.


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