~je pense donc je suis~

February 4th, 2008

The soothing German voice of the navigation system of Christian’s Porsche layered over the angst-ridden oh-so-American yowling of The White Stripes as we roared through our personal mountain range, the Jura. The morning’s snow looked lovely balancing on the pine branches as we whizzed past.
We were heading to Lausanne, but the truth is we would have gone anywhere—even as three people six feet tall or well over tucked in the tiny talking sports car. Our first adventure beyond Neuchâtel!

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Herr White was emoting about acorns, squirrels, the hounds of hell; Ali was bravely curled up in the “back seat”; his old friend from law school was breaking the sound barrier; and I was thinking about the tradition of the wandering minstrel, feeling envious of the direct, gut-wrenching quality music can have.

Earlier we had been wandering the square in the midst of the usual frantic Saturday shopping and bought a plum tart, so good! But the baker called it Prunelle—hmm. Swiss French ain’t French French, this I know. For example, logical Swiss folks thought, Hey! instead of saying “sixty plus ten” (soixante-dix) when we mean seventy, why not have a word that means seventy (septante)?
However, Neuchâtelois are known for speaking the closest to French French. But I digress…

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On the square a rather punk-looking accordion player was squeezing and sighing out a worthy rendition of Bach’s Toccata and it started a thread of thought about language–verbal and non–and of speaking ones heart from the hear and now, or the beyond.

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Later in the Neuchâtel History Museum we saw an elaborate inlaid art nouveau atrium with gorgeous angel faces, and the automata built by watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son Henri-Louis. There are three figures—the Artist, the Musician, and the Writer—all built around 1775 and demonstrated once a month by their keeper (also filmed below.) We were on the scene.

Each is programmed to create one of a handful of results: the Artist draws a dog, a butterfly drawn cart, and the severed head of Marie Antoinette; the Musician plays one of five original songs on harmonium; and the Writer composes a variety of messages, no more than forty letters long, my favorite being Je Pense Donc Je Suis.

It’s a funny dig at Descartes, but also gets to the heart of what is so unnerving about these creatures. During the introductory film I was doing what I do often in the land of je ne comprends pas—just letting the words float over me, catching what I can, checking out the figures on the stage in front.

The Musician’s eyes glittered and flashed in the dark right at me, like she had been reading my musician-envious mind. Then I saw her breathe. I was seriously questioning whether I could trust my own senses when the lights came up and I saw she was in fact subtly moving her head up and down, and her chest did expand and contract.

The Writer though most complicated mechanically, animates in a less subtle (and therefore less eerie) way. He beautifully dips his goose feather quill into a pot of real ink, taps it, and writes in a swirling cursive. It’s like a Ouija board, if Ouija boards had puffy baby faces (reminiscent of Candy Clark in “old make-up” in Man Who Fell to Earth), with moving eyes and bad wigs.

Even with layers of ooginess threatening to break the spell or cast one of its own, it’s still like being spoken to from the beyond. These creatures programmed by Jaquet-Droz (his words, his drawings, his songs) have outlived him, not like children, but for as long as there is someone to tinker with them. Like the Tin Man and his ticking heart, Automata have the magic of keeping time built into their very workings.

I also loved the watch Mystereiuse, which with a clear glass face appears to have no works at all.

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Time (and the Candy Clark image of fleeting beauty) followed us to Lausanne, presenting in the form of a mother-daughter duo who sat next to us at the infinitely posh café in the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel. She was once a real looker, still dressed to the nines and in powder and coal eyes; her sixty-year old daughter wore the same eyes and leopard skin pants. I couldn’t take my eyes from them.

Here is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a fireplace detail.

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Lausanne is filled with all manner of interesting characters–exiles, expats, lovers of Rousseau and Voltaire (who once lived there). Its counter-culture and gorgeous landscape has created a reputation as “The San Francisco of Switzerland.” Hmmm. I’m not going that far, but at nearly 130,000 in size it is a real city, which after a mere three weeks of lakeside living, I realized I have been jonesing for. Can’t imagine why…

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We reached the plateau of the Cathedral Notre-Dame just as the bells began to ring, the ones saying saturday night has begun, close shop, go home, go out, and bringing the week to a close over Lake Geneva. Victor Hugo describes this same view:

From the terrace of the cathedral, I saw the lake above the roofs, the mountains above the lake, the clouds above the mountains, and the stars above the clouds. It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed up step-by-step and broadened at each new height.

It occurred to me that maybe I just need to find a spot on the town square and follow the Jack White method and “get on a soapbox so I can shout it.” My nod to the bards of yore would be the accompaniment of flageolets, citterns, and kettledrums; the nod to the bards of New York City Transit would be that my back-up band is merely a boombox and warbling cassette recording.

As we stood there listening to the bells, Time expanded to fill the sound, like a mechanical lung, a thought without language, a breath held in amber.

3 Responses to “~je pense donc je suis~”

  1. Habib says:

    OMG, “a breath held in amber”…I swoon.

    XO D

  2. Terry says:

    Hey Kim,

    Your blog is wonderful and addictive. I love that ceiling. I saw your little map. You’re very close to Besancon in France. I was there 20 years ago. It has Roman ruins. See it if you can.

    much love
    -t

  3. kim says:

    Habib~ thank you kindly, I thought perhaps it was a bit much actually, but thats what blogs are all about, no? or I should say I am trying to write here with less self-consciousness and less editing, leave that scrut-eye for the book…

    Terry~ yay! I’m so glad you dig it. warms the heart also to see some more loved peeps here. i couldn’t get over that atrium, probably could have written a blog just about it. your place is featured 07.29.07 in an entry called “every place is under the stars”…

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