La Fatigue del Philo
There were days it seemed like nobody wanted to do anything. The Village had a hard time with allowing us to lounge in a hammock during work hours. But on occasion, there simply was, as Cody would say it, “fook-all to do.” It was obvious that we did not need a Roman-style-garden-walkway-made-of-large-stones-from-the-river-carried-from-half-a-kilometer-away, but we built one. One look around and you can see the thousands of hours of labour over the years on various projects. You can see the squiggly paint lines where someone learned to use painter's tape after the fact, or ragged cut corners on frames of compost boxes, murals of carelessly splashed colours and childlike imaginative figures, overly filled cement in certain walls that seeped down, unsanded benches with missing bars, and so on... The mise-en-scène of the Village is dreamlike.
I spent weeks with Sarah building a mini greenhouse out of wood that would allow plants to be transported outside months sooner than normal. A year later, it was abandoned and filled with weeds. Two years later, it was completely demolished and overrun. But when I came back the third time and saw that there was a new garden patch in its place, Sarah reassured me that was how life works sometimes. She told me about la fatigue del philo, an idea that a Franco-Spanish philosopher who lived in Basque country during the Spanish Civil War wrote about. She recited from memory:
This house was built in Roman times.
The pain in those little hands
to do with my life
and yet I feel
on verge of ruin.
On a warm April morning, Sarah, Selim, and I helped Nicolas lay down the foundation stones of a massive greenhouse—a bigger version of what we had built, a true dwelling for plants. The plan had mixed reactions. One asked, why do plants need a dwelling? They live and die in nature, right? But we lacked vegetables was the argument.
For such an ambitious project in the Village you needed to have something almost eternal, that would endure the same amount of time that has passed between us and the monks of the fourteenth century who built the place. Nicolas ingeniously found support from an ancient stone wall corner that hadn’t been used for anything (since those monks) that would save on the need for lumber. Despite the criticism, the greenhouse was a success with the help of hundreds of people from all over the world throughout six years. Vegetables for days. One day while watering the little green tomatoes I saw Toad.
Living and breathing Art in a collective demands respect and collaboration. And this is why since the 1960s—every Tuesday afternoon the Village held what was called a Café Maison, a volunteer’s meeting. It is a moment where we discuss house rules, upcoming events, work roles, and especially to flesh out any lingering arguments. I usually stayed quiet and sketched people's feet, and perhaps added a poorly timed joke. But I am thinking of one time I got chewed out for being a difficult judge at the annual talent show and while I can't remember the conversation (which was just as strange and metaphysical as the events that passed) I sure remember the spectacle.
My memory of the talent show starts with me walking up the stone steps of the Hôtellerie. A voice inside asked me to ring the brass bell to alert the Village the meeting was about to begin. The voice warbled and fell off by the lounging dogs under the picnic tables. I pulled the thin rope that dangled off the wall. A crow who was busy picking food left out by the auto-wash flew away after the bell clanged twice. Doors in the distance opened, but the people producing the footsteps took a few minutes to arrive. I listened to the bell slowing down its repetition and I went inside and mingled. Sarah and a few others were already talking on a long bench in the dining hall. There was a piece of cut-up-lime-green construction paper and I drew a spiral heading towards infinity with a bright pink Crayola marker running out of ink. The conversations dwindled as Anais said silence please, for there was much to discuss.
One look out the window though and I was distracted. While living in the Alps the land personifies before you. Flowers are little song singers, bees are wizards. If you’ve lived here long enough two things can happen in the same week: 1. days can pass without noticing the mountains much at all—and then 2. all of a sudden you see a broken branch after a night storm and you miss that branch as if it were a family member—that branch changes the entire feel of the scene. I notice the rocks chip off of the cliff which adds to the behemoth heap that collects at the base of what looks like the edge of the world. Mother nature's shedding as Sarah would say. And that crumbling—year by year, encroaches towards the Village and it seems to be getting heavier.
“As you all know,” Anais said raising her voice, “Tonight is the big night. I expect all of you to do your part and make this the best Wundervoll Talent Bonanza yet.” But all we could think about was the goat’s constant raids in the volunteer house and the dirty pile of dishes left by the teenagers, although everybody left dishes, it was the Choco powder crusted cereal bowls that picked a nerve.
This talent show happened every summer, and it seemed to get more and more violent as the years went on. As I was whispering to the Sage that I wanted to go for a hike in the Alps, maybe Pic du Midi on Sunday, Anais said my name. “Henry, listen, we have all decided you should be one of the judges this year.”
“Me? I’d be a terrible judge,” I said.
“You’ll be fantastique. You're an artist, right?” Sarah said.
“I mean yeah—but, judge? I haven’t made anything in a while.”
“It’s mostly your accent that we want,” Anais said and Sarah gave her a nudge like hey we are trying to convince him.
I knew it was for fun and games, but they were asking me to do something I didn't even understand. A talent show judge? What counts as having talent? Or ‘judging’ an artist? I could point out each place my back muscles pulled for this place, is that talent? I spent far more time with the cement mixer and the garden hose than with a paintbrush or a guitar.
Artist or judge what does it matter? None of the work would endure the ages, not even perhaps the decade. It’d all most likely be grown over with weeds or forgotten on some computer’s hard drive.
I know there’s a USB stick with pictures of my paintings on it in the Fresh Kills landfill. So, what difference did it make if these people won a talent show, if it’d be forgotten? Why am I being so negative right now?
I’d be too biased and bitter as a judge.
Selfishly, we all want fame—so that a remediated version of us never dies out, even if it is just an illusion, it sure feels good doesn't it? Thoughts like, what if, maybe, I win the talent show and my paintings get sold at a garage sale to a famous collector? They’d (bare minimum) give me credit in some intergalactic interview, wouldn’t they? The Big Collector Find of the late twenty-first century. And the interviewer would say, ‘It’s thee quintessential neo-avant-guard-anti-impression-post-sur-reel-outsider-pop-modernist body of work ever found at a garage sale, but who knows what to call it?’ And my great great grandkids will take the camera crew to their house and the interviewer would awe, ‘It was at this very driveway the garage sale was held where Collector So-and-So struck gold. But you heard it here first folks, he was really discovered at the Wundervoll Talent Bonanza at the Village. What a shame the works were bought for only one dollar each, the family would be multi-millionaires today had they known it would pivot a new direction of art.’ I have too much power. These artists' lives are in my hands!
I was invited to a ‘judges only pre-game’ in the early evening. I never thought I’d be established enough with the leadership of the Village to be chosen for something so prestigious.
I knocked on Anais’ door. She opened.
“Hey Henry! Glad you could make it. We were just talking about you.” They were already smoking rollies and drinking Heineken’s.
“Yes, we need a proper approach if we are to be judges of talent. It is quite the position of power,” Anais said with an accent she doesn’t have and laughed.
And then Sarah cut in, “Yeah, we were thinking you could be a legendary cowboy country singer from Texas, and you could, you know, give the singers tips on how to make it in showbiz, something like that,” I looked at her blonde dreads dangling in the sunray that peaked through the window of the second-story room. I was standing at the corner of the kitchen and the table with my arm against a beam.
“I need a few more drinks before I can even think of talking like a cowboy,” I said.
“Wine or beer?” Sarah said.
“I’ll have some red wine.”
She grabbed a cup from the stack and there it was, “Soirée Plouf?” My favourite of all cups. I hadn’t seen it in two years.
“Where did you find this cup, Anais?” I said holding it high.
“I don’t know, just around, there are hundreds of random cups in this place.”
“That’s a strange name. Soirée Plouf, what is that even?” Sarah said.
“Didn’t you play a concert in the pool?” Anais said.
I may have. But of course, once you talk about something you reduce it to the limits of your words.
I like it better as a silent memory: the night with vaguely remembered cello and operatic applause, the only remnants that it ever happened is that glorious hard plastic chalice of a cup.
“Ok, so we need to go over our parts. I am going to be a cruel Berlin music producer with absolutely no remorse for bad performances and even the good ones, make some kind of negative remark?”
“Yes. Ooh yeah. And I’ll be the overly nice one who has only positive things to say,” Anais said.
“But everyone is going to love you and hate me,” Sarah said.
“Are you kidding? The nice one is so boring,” Anais said.
By the time everyone finished setting their roles in stone I was a Texan.
It was now dark, and the Village was humming with anticipation. We, the incomparable judges, walked into the Salle des Fêtes or “Party Room” dressed in déguisement that we found in the Freeshop. I was wearing a dusty suit, adventurer hat, and sunglasses. Anais had on a fur coat with a polka dot dress and some kind of fluffy scarf. Sarah wore a pinstripe businesswoman suit and dark orange sunglasses.
As we took our places the entire room stared at us.
“Howdy,” I said and tipped my cheap fisherman adventure hat, probably from the grocery store.
“Oh mon dieu, regardez!” a boy said and pointed at us making our way to our chairs.
The lights got dimmer and then flashed to signal the start of the show. Everyone quieted and whispered in hushes. The announcer came up to the microphone and said, “Madames et monsieurs, welcome to the twentieth annual Village Wundervoll Talent Bonanza! I present to you your judges.”
We stood up and waved to the crowd.
“First up we have a Wundervoll performer from Belgium, who has been a Talent Bonanza champion in previous years, this year he is going to do something completely off the charts. Please give it up for the Sage!” the announcer said and waved his arm in presenter fashion.
The Sage came out from behind the poorly painted alpine cardboard backdrop. He was wearing white overalls and a bright orange shirt underneath. He stood in the spotlight confused and hesitating. The whole room of two hundred was silent. He looked out into the crowd squinting his eyes and scanning faces as if he was looking for someone he knew. He paused for what seemed like the duration of Hamlet and walked down the aisle with his arm leading him. The spotlight followed, a little delayed, dust swirling in the light. Someone in the crowd sneezed as he pulled a leek from their armpit. The crowd looked confused. He held up the leek in the light and looked at it with bewildered eyes.
“A leek!” he said, and ran back onto the little stage, “A beautiful leek! Flourishing between an arm and a pit. Against the will of the sun, no tender light doth feed, thy dark green leaves, white stalk, so fine, so. . . voluptuous.” He put his ear up to the leek. “Yes?” he said, nodding as if he were on the phone, “Yes? Mmhmm. Yes? Oh no! Where has it all gone? The passion. I have loved you since that day I saw you sprout out of the soil, do you remember? That first time you poked out of the earth and the sun hit you and my eyes were right there watching and waiting. I knew we were meant for each other. I watched your stalk grow and grow. I sang to you while I watched the sprinkler water the garden, and as the droplets hit you, I too, felt their warm, life-giving atoms percolate and fizzle, into your porous surface wiggling out of and in time. Then that day came, yesterday, you outgrew your row. I had to pick you out of the ground and now, I must eat you. We shall part ways here. But we will meet again. Adieu. Adieu! Mon Cheri,” he said, and ripped the leek in half. He proceeded to take large bites from the stalk and the layers spurted juice like an apple onion. Gasps in the audience. He continued to eat the leek in micromovements. The lights went black, and a few beats passed.
Roaring applause ensued. As the cheering went on the announcer came back out and spoke into the microphone, “Well now, dames et monsieurs.” He then looked towards the backdrop. “I know how you all feel, but let’s see the judge’s reactions, Sarah, let’s start with you.”
“I thought it was ghastly unpleasant. Downright amateur showmanship, lack of narrative, incomprehensible phrasing, I’m honestly appalled that the bar has sunk so low. The Sage should know better, weird for weird sake? Don’t look at me like that. I give Sage a two out of ten,” Sarah said and held her sign drawn like a child.
The crowd booed and the announcer held his microphone back up to his mouth and said,
“Anais, what about you?”
“Well, first of all, Sage, I just want to say I am a huge fan. Your presence up there was stunning. I think that your relationship with the leek was real. The passion as you ate it just made me want to cry. Oh so good. Can I have the leaves? Ten!” she said. The Sage blushed.
“Ok, ok. Enough ogling. Make soup later. And how about you Henry?”
“Howdy,” I said in my best Texan accent, tipping my hat again (the one cowboy move I know). “Well now, I highly admire a man who isn’t afraid to show his passion for legumes. How you started about like a deer in the headlights, found beauty in an armpit, appreciated it for what it was. Come to Texas man, I am sure we could get you a record deal. Come on. What do y’all think?”
“Ten!” the crowd cried.
“A Ten! Wow, he could be in the running here. If only Sarah gave a stronger score.”
Sarah looked around as if to say no no it was justified. I was starting to feel the wine and the heat of my suit.
“Who do we have next?” the announcer said looking at his card, “Oh yes. Please give a round of applause for Sophie!”
A little girl with auburn hair and a yellow dress walked on stage. She began timidly singing in French. The song was a variation of a poem by Mallarmé. It set me in a trance. My eyes bugged out, and lights fuzzed by the tiki bar.
The hazy crowd turned purple and red and yellow and then I saw a girl stare at me with cute eyes. She motioned towards the exit door, and I looked behind me to make sure it wasn’t for someone else. I got up slowly and squinched my way behind the judge’s chairs and passed the bar to go outside. The judges glared at me and whispered a question. It’s Misty. She’s back early. I never intended on being a good judge. No one would care if I stepped out for a song or two. Does that make me a bad judge? I met her outside by the fountain. The fountain was the symbolic center of the Village. It was always trickling. And if it wasn’t, there was a problem. The water splashed a little on the twirling array of pallet wood that spun twelve feet into the air. This decorative construction was for thee Bellowing Bee festival happening in a few weeks. The Alpine air was fresh at night, even in the summer. With all the people in the Party Room, it felt like I was suffocating in my jacket. In the distance a kid was playing with a diabolo. I asked Misty for a rollie.
“I don’t have the tobacco. I thought you had it,” Misty said.
“No I don’t have it. I thought we left it in the cabin.”
“I just checked everywhere. I checked the drawers, yes. Under the piles of dirty clothes, yes. The desk, the mattress pad. Where do you think it went?”
“You don’t think someone stole it do you?” I said in a whisper.
“It was probably Marcus, I saw him kind of hanging around our cabin the other day.”
“Yeah, I bet it was him. Man, I thought he liked us.”
Marcus walked by and I just frankly asked him.
“Hey Marcus, have you seen a freshly opened packet of Fleur du Pays? With the organic filters and papers?” I said, he stopped walking towards the Party Room and looked at me concerned.
“No, I haven’t. Really? You lost it? I was just going to tax you one,” he said and paused with his hand under his chin as if he was scratching his brain to think of a suspect from the underground network of teenagers, “Well, bon chance!” and he opened the door to the Party Room and disappeared in the haze of chairs and faces.
“What do you think?”
“He’s totally lying, did you see him squirm?”
Just then, I see the face of the kid who was playing the diabolo. It was Guy Tebault, a teenager that the Village was hosting for a few weeks. He was launching up the plastic hourglass shaped yo-yo with two sticks connected by a bobbin string. The green hourglass flew high above the trees in the air, and he stared up as it floated. He aligned his bobbin to catch it as it frantically fell down. Guy had a chaperone. The French called him an Educator. The social center for the disadvantaged youth of Marseille sent the teenagers to the Village to quit stealing and smoking pot. Guy stopped yo-yoing and pulled out two pre-rolled cigarettes out of a tobacco packet and gave one to Melvin I think his name was.
“You don’t think, do you?”
“Let’s go find out,” Misty said, and we walked up to them, with their cigarettes in beak.
“Hey, can I bum one?” I said to Guy.
“Oh sorry, these are my last ones,” he said, and looked at Melvin as he nodded.
“Well, that’s weird, the packet looks pretty full—from where I’m standing. Please man, I really need one,” I said. Melvin nodded a no, no, no to him. “Look, I get it, it’s expensive, you don’t want to share all your tobacco with everyone. I mean, I kind of hesitated even when you asked me, like ten times a day. Can I just smell it?”
“Just one smell?”
Guy was sweating and looked at Melvin who finally gave in and did the approving arm gesture as if to say you have to let him smell it kid.
“Of course, here take a whiff, sorry, it’s just a money thing you know,” he finally said.
I looked up and then down into the tobacco packet, Fleur du Pays, full and fresh with a handful of organic filters inside the pouch. I put my nose inside.
“Mmmmm, I love that smell. Thank you,” I said, staring at his shrunk pupils.
“Hey, it’s almost show time, you better run inside,” Melvin said to Guy. He grabbed his diabolo and walked into the Party Room.
“Aren’t you a judge? I hear applause,” Melvin said and went in.
A man dressed half toga and half gym goer then came up wearing boxing gloves and started bouncing around like a kangaroo lightly punching everyone on the shoulder. Then a man claiming to be Voltaire came up and started quoting Candide, “Must—cultivate—garden!” He kept repeating, as the kangaroo punched him harder and harder on the shoulder. “God, I love pistachios,” he said.
The applause was still going as the little girl held the microphone sideways. The announcer began again, “Wow, wow, wow! What talent at such a young age. Give it up for Sophie! We will skip the judges on that one because I think it’s unanimously ten out of ten.”
Sarah shook her head no it wasn’t, but then realized that she was about to deconstruct a little girl’s hopes and dreams in academic showbiz jargon. The crowd continued to yell. Voltaire and the kangaroo entered the Party Room and came up to the stage. The announcer looked at his sheet in confusion.
“I don’t have you on the signup sheet.”
Kangaroo man jumped around tapping people on the arm begging for a fight as Voltaire closely followed saying that Erasmus was his inspiration, “Go travel while you’re young!” he yelled in a loud exaggerated voice with a bygone tonality. Just as the crowd feared that they were merely uninvited drunkards, they took to the stage and grabbed the signup sheet from the announcer.
They said in an odd harmony of thirds,
“Next up, we have Alexandria Miller and Guy Tebault! Please welcome them to the stage!”
Voltaire added to that in a quiet voice, “But to respect Alexandria’s hypersensitive ears we ask that you give a poet’s applause by simply raising your hands and shaking them, like this.”
The announcer looked relieved as Kangaroo man dropped the signup sheet and locked arms with Voltaire, then skipped out the door.
The lights dimmed and a serene mouth appeared in a tiny spotlight, and an angelic voice began an ancient Basque melody. There were trills. Vocal inflections spun with the soft touch of a virtuoso. As the lights grew brighter, Guy started to wind his diabolo and the plastic hourglass spun faster and faster. Gaining momentum, he flung it high into the air. Alexandria’s vocals met it up in a suspended moment. The thing soared higher almost touching the rafters. Then dropped. He didn’t catch it. He scuttled and bent under a fold-out chair. He found it and spun again, this time much more quickly. It clumsily flailed off behind the Alpine backdrop making an awkward clunk. He followed the sound to retrieve it and came back out, face grown red. Again and again, he flung it up and he could not catch it. The tosses became so awful they started to hit people in the audience. Each hit was followed by mocking chatter. People started laughing and the angelic voice started producing flat notes as her eyes wandered from the heavens. The laughter got so loud that Alexandria had to cover her ears. She stopped singing and stormed out of the Party Room. Guy stood alone on the stage red as a cherry.
The announcer stood with his mouth open, and finally realized it was up to him to say something. “Madames et monsieurs, please, quiet down, quiet down. Let’s see what the judges have to say about this one.” He looked over at Sarah to signal her to talk.
“I think I am going to need a translator to describe how bad this ‘performance’ truly was,” she said, putting an emphasis on the word performance by bending two fingers up in the air like quotation marks. “To quote Nietzsche,” she said, licking her fingertip as she flipped to a page she had marked, “I’d suggest another career,” she said, holding up her book, Twilight of Tragedy. “Nilch.”
Guy stood on stage silent as the crowd booed Sarah’s harsh critique. Then the announcer said, “Ouch! Next up is Anais, comments?”
“I’m sorry, I am going to have to agree with Sarah. You know, I am so sick of being the positive one all the time. I just can’t do it. That was awful.” she said, taking a sip out of a black plastic cup concealing the wine and then she held up a card that read Two.
The crowd booed again. Anais left it up to me. She was supposed to be the relentless pure good voice of optimism. Now I have to say something nice? What am I supposed to do here? The crowd stamped their feet and cheered.
“I—um, I—I, don’t—"
“Thoughts on the performance Henry?”
“Guy stole my—” I began to say, and then I saw Misty in the crowd. “Heart.”
The announcer adjusted his bowtie and said, “Phew, that’s all the time we have for tonight. Thanks for coming!” He walked over to the judge’s table and said “Putain Anais! You made Guy cry. The nice one isn’t supposed to be mean.”
We were all drunk by that point and laughing.
Outside people talked around the fountain as Kangaroo man and Voltaire were still going at it. The Village had opened up the newly installed bar for the festival and was serving their famous homebrew beer. Me, Sarah, and Anais stayed in character all evening and continued to critique the event as we drank Dirty Floyd. The kangaroo blurred with the fire thrower and Voltaire was tossing pistachios. I saw Guy still flinging up his diabolo hourglass into the night smoking.