Another Triumph for Philip Morris

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

2011Jun22 Aups Marlboro L1010094
An outdoor table at a café somewhere deep in the heart of Provence. Morning of market day.


Perhaps it's that I haven't been here with my full consciousness intact during the warmer seasons in some time. Six months ago, it was winter, and hardly anyone sat out of doors, even in full sun, with the thermometer hovering in the 50s in daylight. A year ago I was preoccupied with the health and well-being of a loved one, also here, on a valedictory trip, for whom I ended up still grieving six months ago. I was not disposed to take note, as is my usual wont, of the behavior of my fellow humans here in La France Profonde—winter or summer.

This summer, thank goodness for lack of a better to thank, such preoccupations have waned, if not been eclipsed. I am free once again to take note both of the good or bad going on around me.

One thing is certain, and it has more to do with mores and the prevailing statutory winds 3500 miles away in Cambridge, MA, the place I still tenuously call home. It is certain that, if for no other reason than that it is forbidden by law to smoke tobacco products virtually anywhere, I am breathing more freely when back home. The difference between breathing freely in an urban environment, including the out of doors, and otherwise is subtle, that is, until you are otherwise.

I had forgotten somehow that France, both in the urban milieu and in any communal aggregation, such as a town square in even the smallest hamlet, is otherwise for an American. You do not breathe freely. Or let me put it this way, the air is perpetually fragrant with the smell of cigarette tobacco smoldering. Usually it's no further away than your nearest neighbor.

Europeans cling to their habits, and no wonder. Taxed to the hilt—bitch all you want about the United States and the Tea Party nuts notwithstanding, it remains a fact that the marginal tax rate in the U.S. is a mere 27% on average, and topping out at 35% for high income individuals—the French worker pays a marginal tax of 40% of income, as much as 50% if you fall (or have been born or stumbled) into a "high income" category. On top of that they pay a 19.6% sales tax (they call it "value added tax;" which requires a sufficiently whimsical disposition of mind to accept having virtually every consumer article sold made more valuable by the privilege of having its price increased by nearly a fifth). The price of cigarettes and gas may be appalling to us Yanks, but in France, a liter of diesel fuel (the cheapest you can use; which explains the repugnant savor of diesel fumes pervading the air not polluted already by cigarette smoke) now costs about one euro, thirty cents (this computes to $7.14 a gallon. The other day, while waiting to purchase my copy of the local daily paper, I watched a woman write a check for 14 packs of Gauloises Filtre (that would be cigarettes made of two of the most aromatic yet paradoxically milder tobaccos in the world… Turkish and Syrian; it's still tobacco, however, and Gauloises produce the smell and smoke that constitute the ur-experience of sucking in second-hand byproducts): total cost 64 euros. That's a cost per pack of $6.63… not bad you might say, given that the cost of a pack in Massachusetts was recently pegged at $7.04 (by contrast it's $5.46 in "tax-free" New Hampshire; and it's $5.51 on average across the U.S.). However, remember the nominal marginal income tax rate in France, and the significantly lower average individual income per year. Tobacco is, in a more pronounced way, a legal drug here in La Belle France, with that many more financial reasons to need one for relief of one's troubles.

Hence in a small farming community, of the sort which any one of the villages surrounding mine constitutes, where there is a larger aggregate number of retirees, and the rest of the people are tradespeople, blue collar workers, farmers or farm workers, there is a much greater number of smokers. And they are still free from the encumbrance of no-smoking laws as long as they are sitting (standing, kneeling, squatting, hunched over or lying) outside. Go to any café and the air is redolent (if that's the word) with cigarette scent, but worse, with the smoke itself. If there is air, it is the unconscious air of a race that is used to, long since, living in close quarters to their fellow creatures, with the accompanying blatant disregard of that which many an American is so zealous to protect: personal space. So cigarettes dangle from fingers and lips in any number of angles and precarious states of balance kept unconsciously and insouciant by the smoker. I've watched smokers, at home and abroad, and what dwindling number of smokers I see in the U.S., who suck down their poison in public view, are far more avid and frequent puffers. The French, equally indolent by contrast in this habit as in so many other behaviors, puff far less often, and allow the smoke to circulate far more generously—I've always seconded the view that, despite the apprehensions of American tourists, the French are a warm and generous people at heart. At bottom, they clearly pay little heed to where the smoke they've paid dearly for drifts and swirls, eventually finding its way into the lungs of every nearby individual, citizen and visitor alike.

But the purpose of this late assortment of peevish observances on the specific, if not hoary, subject of smokers' abuse of others' rights, however slender is the sanction by law, is to observe one more thing.

Again, this is purely by observation and anecdotal personal data collection, but it seems in the 23 years I have been visiting and part-time inhabiting these climes, I have seen what I would call a wanton increase in a brand's market share among these people who are otherwise among the most chauvinistic I have ever viewed. It's not Gauloise, a brand the smoking of which was well-nigh patriotic and a duty during World War II (still the Big One for the French, despite their own misadventures in what they call Indo-China, and despite the misfortunes of an embarrassing set of protracted repressive exertions—of which the present ugliness in Libya, for all its ghastly excesses, is only a mere reminiscence—in France's last colonial hurrah: Algeria).

It's Marlboro, still flagship and pride of the fleet formerly known as Philip Morris, and now designated by the innocuous, meaningless, and virtually pseudonymous Altria Group. It means not very much, if anything at all, to the French who suck down the smoke of that cancer-plagued throwback, the Marlboro Man, and irrespective of gender or age (virtually; it's still difficult to purchase tobacco products in France if you look anywhere close to 16 years of age… though I've seen butts alight in the hands of children), who tap tap tap the filtered end to tamp down the tobacco, in a gesture that is only one of so many symphonic gestures that somehow romanticize an act that amounts, after all, to an act of excruciatingly slow self-immolation.

Full Disclosure: I used to smoke cigarettes, including Gauloises and even Marlboros, which were the brand I favored if only to assist in my last gasps, as I forcibly quit cold turkey at the age of 24. I will never, I am sure, forgive myself.

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Notes on the zeitgeist: More gibberish from Björk

Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes

In an article that appeared in the NYTimes today, 2011 June 26, Jon Pareles, the chief popular music critic of the paper (according to Wikipedia), speaks of the transition of recorded music collections to the so-called “cloud,” that is, the creation of virtual storage of our personal recordings on Internet servers elsewhere than our physical whereabouts and accessible using computers for playback at will, and all perfectly legally. In the process, the writer reports on a forthcoming project of the Icelandic musician/celebrity, the mononymous Björk. The patronymic, for those of you who care, among the dozen or so people who have never heard of this eccentric individual, is Guðmundsdóttir. She seems to me to attract more attention than her musical exertions warrant (with bizarre makeup worn in public, the wearing of masks, and offbeat clothing, albeit a voice with a range of three octaves and the accolades of various award-granting bodies and a very much smaller number of professional musicians; I do note that she has covered far more songs of others than she, apparently, has been covered… decidedly a unique, if not an acquired, taste). Her followers tend to be fanatical, devoted, inarticulate, but passionate in their advocacy of the “genius” of her compositions and performances, and yet they are well-distributed globally, if not legion. It’s safe to grant her, if nothing else, the legitimacy of being designated avant garde (Charles Baudelaire, André Breton and, well, take your pick, dance a slow gavotte to this one wherever they find themselves at this time).

I’m not one, despite my reputation and my occasional tone, to disparage anyone and anything out of hand. I prefer to take it as it comes. Some things come, frankly, and I’d just as soon they keep on going until they’re out of sight on a far horizon. Fortunately entertainment figures, even those of undeniable cultural impact, have a manageable presence in my life, especially insofar as I take certain fundamental precautions. As much as possible my Facebook pages and profile are under lockdown, an enclave in cyberspace reserved as much as I can control it that is reserved for friends (by my definition); and as for friends who allow their enthusiasm in public to exceed their prudence, I can always exclude this or that pronouncement. I don’t watch television, and, indeed, given my cable subscription would only see about 22 stations (apparently; I haven’t checked) for the paltry sum I pay each month for the privilege. I listen to NPR, or I don’t listen to the radio, and I turn it off if what I’m hearing doesn’t interest me. Don’t get me started on local on-air presences in Boston the likes of Emily Rooney who manages to surpass her father in being irritating sometimes to a loathsome overload of that quality.

I avoid crowds, and have cut way back on phone conversations. In short I pick my friends, and control the time I spend with other people. My life is my business, and I like it that way. I’ve had some major distractions in my life of the kind that, had I the choice, I would have avoided altogether, but I didn’t have the choice… and, let’s just say I’m still recovering, and have chosen my own means and methods.

One result is I have a great deal more time to indulge in activity that has apparently become a luxury for the preponderance of the rest of the world, especially that preponderance within the locus of my ken. One activity is actually to take note of what is going on around me, to think about it, to examine its details, not only to smell the roses, but to see the bugs on the petals, and the variations in color, to perceive the inalterable cycle of their lives, and the lives of so many other living things, flora and fauna alike. I have time to ponder the excrescences of other creatures, including my fellow creatures (not just male, but female: men and women, boys and girls alike).

Another result is the ratification of some truths I had long since felt I had detected, and assured myself were worth the effort of testing their verity. In short, I actually pay attention to what people say, or write (though there is so much less and less of what is written at length that warrants the time it takes to see if it’s worth taking the time—a new corollary to Catch-22), or tweet, or text, or chirp, or grunt (listen… you’d be surprised, so much of human utterances fall into these two categories).

As for Björk, who from the distance at which I prefer to observe her, when she floats into my consciousness like the evanescent being she seems to want to project that she is (though she occupies no more and no less space, as far as I can tell, that a human of her size should; though she apparently lives and breathes and procreates—I note that she is now a mother with her partner, another professional eccentric and recognized, in some circles, as yet another avant-garde “genius,” Matt Barney), I will acknowledge her fame. I’d call it notoriety, if not infamy (not to put too fine an edge on it—but that’s only because she has elected somewhere along the line to communicate in English, as opposed to, say, exclusively in Icelandic), but then there are those who still seem to think I’m a curmudgeon, and I’d rather not encourage them.

Here is what Pareles elected to quote of what I can only infer was an exchange he elicited on the subject of her latest project, if not specifically on the subject at hand… his assignment for this Sunday’s Times:

“I’m excited to embrace a different handshake between the object and sound,” Bjork said in an e-mail. “It seems like every couple of decades this takes a somersault, and I enjoy the fresh point of view, like the honeymoon of the new format where you can really have an effect on the overall direction, and things like enjoyment, love and freedom matter again.”

She added, “I definitely wanted the songs to be a spatial experience, where you can play with lightning or a crystal or the full moon and the song changes. I would like to feel the apps are equal to the song in the same way I have always aimed for the music video to be equal to the song: the 1+1 is 3 thing. Not that it works every time, but you have to aim for it.”

Of course, I am capable of perfectly well understanding what she’s saying here. Even her sentences parse, though not as well as her more direct opining on the subject of sexual gender preference, as she is quoted, somewhat in the way of non sequitur, if not altogether incongruously, not to mention utterly gratuitously, in her entry on Wikipedia, which struggles and mainly succeeds in not being sycophantic and breathless.

However I am hard put to understand what the hell she is talking about, especially as it regards her nominal expertise… matters of music, if not more specifically song composition.

The question I am left with for her, if not more pertinently for Mr. Pareles, is whatever happened to listening to music for the ineffable pleasures it affords as a sensory and emotional experience as restricted necessarily to the sense organs with which we have been endowed? That is, our ears and the rest of the apparatus in our heads that connect these organs with the hearing centers of the brain. As long as most of us, as far as I understand it, are not endowed with the capability of synesthesia, as it’s called, and though I would never testify to an understanding of what Ms. Björk is saying here I am pretty certain she is not talking about synesthesia, either for herself or for the masses.

We’ve long since left the dock and the shore is no longer in sight of that great ship that is taking us to some foreign land where we will, I gather, hear with our finger tips rhapsodically or whimsically stroking the touch sensitive screens of personal sensory devices. No one has as yet persuaded me that a small slab composed of mainly synthetic, mostly toxic materials, comprising highly advanced technological devices which compromise, all at once and every time we use them, the higher order, if fundamental, senses of hearing and sight.

Rather than walk at a respectable and health-enhancing, if still unhurried, pace, down a country road and take in the sights nature still provides once we’ve abandoned our vehicles, and take in the sounds of our fellow creatures, never mind the wind, say, ruffling through several acres of mature grains of wheat as they rustle on their stalks in the meadow, here’s what we do. We press painful stubs of listening devices into our ears, if we are not actually trying to isolate from the booming chaos about us the sounds being reproduced, distortion-laden and truncated as to the range of tones to which the ears are susceptible with great subtlety. Simultaneously, we squint at screens that show us comical simulacra of humans cavorting or emoting in close-up—images otherwise meant to be viewed at life-size or nearly so in some projection that naturally allows us to view them selectively and without distraction.

If I understand Ms. Bjork correctly, she is thrilled to imagine that somehow the experiences we have enjoyed for several thousand years (and cultural anthropologists may somehow date our first efforts at making music even further back) no longer suffice, but require the manipulation that I am only guessing she means to imply by the use of imbecilic tropes: lightning, full moons, and crystals… the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales and wondrous, as any child will tell you, in and of themselves. And the “1+1 is 3 thing”? That only reminds me of a joke I recall from junior high school wherein simple definitions of serious disorders could be expressed arithmetically. I seem to recall that believing 1 + 1 = 3 defined psychotic.

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