Saturday, 10 January 2015

Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Movement

Place de la Republique, Paris


There was a strong wind last night. That's not unusual here, but this wind felt different. Instead of the usual intermittent gusts, it seemed to do a dance in the different levels of air, swooping down and changing course, so that it felt like a very swift direct approach, an intimate wildness. I wondered if it could somehow, really could, open a door or window and come in. It felt as though it could have, had it wanted to – as if it was playing with the air tunnels, with the trees, the houses, scattering garden objects (as I discover later) – flowerpots, a bench, a bird-table – showing its power the way a gymnast delights in flexing its muscles, stretching its body, revelling in its own ability.

The wind continues, but it has moved away from the house and garden, it is playing with the forest now, mainly planted spruce with occasional birch, pine and larch scattered through it. The spruce trees are cramped together, long and spindly, the strings of the wind's personal orchestra. After every high wind, some of these trees fall down, often catching on others, so that trees are tangled together, a leaning cross-stitch, a clumsy trelliswork angled against the upright trunks. If you look up, in a high wind, the spruce trees wave and bend like a field of grain.

Yesterday, to get away from the news which I'd been obsessively listening to on the radio and reading on various news sites, I went for a walk along the River Tweed. My mind full of the events, the killings at Charlie Hebdo offices, the reactions, my thoughts about it, about freedom of expression, about what could be done. My mind struggled to find some 'position' to take, some action to take. But I was confronted with this path, in bright sunshine and I remembered other times I'd walked this path. 

(You can see how it looked in summer from this photo journal post)

This was the first time that I had never seen another soul, either out walking their dog, or on the nearby golf course. The path was muddy in places, after recent rain. The river was full, wide and enormous, with that sense of power, of effortless flow, that one sees in swollen rivers. There's a new intent in such rivers, as if they bask in their own power, not menacing, simply engorged with their own being, murky with mud and debris, exulting in their new power and depth and speed, the agility of concentrated, brackish bulk.


I skirted the most muddy areas, walked across the deserted golf course, to look at this river, thought of the Danube, how it leans against horizons, how it moves leisurely as if carrying something regal on its surface, its long train of ripples flowing behind.


The golf course ends, and now the river comes within a few inches of the path and a pool on the other side shows that it had completely submerged it, very recently. Maybe that's why there's no one else walking this way, on this sunny morning. At each bend I expect to see river in front of me rather than path, but it does not happen and the path veers away again.


Just before I reach the red-stone road bridge, an ambulance, lights flashing, siren sounding, is visible above the parapet. The only sign of human life and it too, is an emergency. I cross the bridge and head up into the woods on the other side of the river.


The woods are hung with silence, as if something threatening or dangerous has just passed and yet – there is also this feeling of waiting too, an impending feeling, not judgement, but the weighing up of wet wood, future delicately treading on the present. A tree balanced on an outcrop of crumbling land, worn away by the river. 


The path descends out of the wood, runs alongside the river bank, where there are no trees at all, and it begins to rain. I pull my hood up round my head. Looking back, the flash of a rainbow against the trees. I've been asked by a journal to think about my hopes for this coming year and I struggle even with the concept of 'hope'.
There is freedom, and all we might mean by that. Suicide bombers are willing to die for their beliefs and journalists in Paris have also died for their beliefs in freedom of expression. In response to previous death threats, in a recent interview Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb) of Charlie Hebdo said he had no intention of giving up his work, which would mean 'living like a rat'.  And I wonder if I have any values that I would die for, die defending, and the driving rain has soaked my jacket already and the fastening of my hood has been pushed against my mouth by the wind and I bite it, my teeth against the wind's teeth. 

But by the time I reach the bushes and small trees clustering around the river bank, the cloud and the shower have passed, the sun is out again and it and the wind will soon dry my jacket.

No, I think, I don't have that kind of courage, I avoid skirmishes if I can, hide behind parapets, try to merge into background, throw camouflage colours round my shoulders, enjoy following paths rather than striking out across untrodden wilderness. I am no trail blazer, I feel fulfilment in placing my footsteps on earth paths, weed-bordered, where many have walked before.


There are so many places of agreement, so many circles marked with blackened stones around camp fires, where people have come together. We cannot excise a different viewpoint or belief. Inclusion, understanding.  We have immense freedoms, I would hope we could value what we have, know that everything is transitory, value what we are blessed to live alongside – freedoms of speech and movement – and respect that they are greater than us, that the earth and sun, without which we could not live, are greater than us. We live on and off the earth, and would be nothing at all, without the sun. To talk about freedoms as if we own them, is not to see our real place in the large scheme of things, and the real energies to which we owe our being.

The path turns away from the river, runs alongside a walled garden, then beside a few houses. It's only then that I see other human beings, two of them, gardeners, one on a quad bike with one of those branch-trimming machines. I greet them enthusiastically. On the same spot in autumn, I met a gardener who was using a leaf-blower to tidy the fallen leaves and he switched his machine off, to speak to me.

After that, I cross the pedestrian swing bridge and follow the path with its view over the river to the Eildon hills. 

Still, I don't meet anyone else, until the path goes past the long sloping gardens of houses in the back streets of a small town, and someone emerges from her garden, closing the gate behind her. Not a good day for walking she says to me. But I cannot agree, the sun is shining, it has been for me, a perfect day for walking. But it's a cold wind, she counters. Walking keeps you warm I say. She smiles.

Michel Houellebecq is being criticized for making a political statement with his latest novel, Soumission (where he imagines a future France ruled by an Islamic President). It's been described as 'a gift to the Front Nationale'. So should novelists stay away from possibly inflammatory topics? That's one thing I would hope for this year – that they won't. 
(This is a link to an interview with him, in Paris Review, translated into English)


dritanje said...

I've just come across another review of Soumission,
"en hommage à son travail(Philippe Lancon) je donne ci dessous son article récent à propos du roman "soumission" de Michel Houellebecq."

The Solitary Walker said...

Just beautiful, and subtle, and connecting (and hard-hitting too, among the rest) ... Well, you know how much I like your writing (and literal/metaphorical descriptions of walks!).

We are Charlie, we are every person and religion and non-religion, we are the world.

These last few days have affected me deeply, and it's inspiring how so many people today have demanded with idealistic passion to be heard.

dritanje said...

Thanks so much solitary walker, glad you enjoyed it - particularly that you found it hard-hitting! The past few days have indeed been deeply affecting, raising so many questions and feelings, touching a deep nerve in all of us. Nous sommes vraiment tous Charlie.

George said...

This is a beautifully written piece, Dritanje, one that I relate to on many levels. Like you and The Solitary Walker, I have found myself on a roller-coaster of emotions in the past week, first sinking into deep despair over violence that grows out of ignorance and intolerance, and then being lifted from the despair by the millions who have come together in the name of peace and freedom of expression. As always, however, mindful walking provides welcome relief from the noise of world. To be in the world, yet not consumed by it — that, I suppose, is the challenge that many of us face.

dritanje said...

I think you have it there George, to be in the world but not overwhelmed by it. And walking helps us appreciate the perennial beauty of the world, away from the drama and upheavals of human life. And thank you so much for your comments.

Forest Dream Weaver said...

Love the photos and writing......wonderfully atmospheric,I can really feel the weather. The rest is complicated,I'd like to discuss it sometime.
I'm having a blogging break at present but hope to speak with you soon.

Wishing you a happy and creative year
Much love,

three sea horses said...

Lovely walk, happy memories of another time. How you weave together your thoughts and questionings of such moment with the walk, the elements of life.
I have also had much self questioning, reading. My conclusion is one (so far) of 'unknowing', so very much unknown, and on facebook so much judgement, although some wise observations too. X


Texte très intéressant. On y apprend beaucoup et les photos sont très belles aussi.
Merci .


dritanje said...

thank you Ruby and Three Sea Horses. I would totally recommend this post, which gives a clear history of France's tradition of laicite or separation of church and state & the vital importance of satire

Et merci Roger pour la commentaire, j'ai tant de plaisir voir tes belles images et lire les textes toujours tres profonde et emouvants