Nicolas Poussin. Et in Arcadia ego, 1638.
Et in Arcadia ego
I prefer the interpretation of Poussin’s title to mean, “I also lived in Arcadia.”
That is, one now dead in the grave speaks to the living through his epitaph, saying, I also lived in Arcadia as you do, but now am ashes and dust.
Others more popular these days think instead that it’s Death himself speaking to us directly through Poussin’s inscription, on what is then more a monument than a grave, reminding us that amid our daily idyll, Death lurks likewise among us, taking as he will, unbounded: I, Death, am also right here in Arcadia with you.
But I like the earlier fashion better, and believe that it makes more sense and a stronger statement without any supernaturality whatsoever. The stated fact is spooky and sobering enough: While you walk above ground in Paradise, remember that I who lie here was there as you are now, and that soon you will be here as I am now.
Memento mori, but what matters is ordinary everyday life. On the ruin is written an admonishment to better live while you can, not as a law from an angel or threat by a ghost or god, but as a simple reminder from a peer, from one just like you who has passed before you on the very same road.
There is no supernatural mystery hanging over CREN 82 in Montauban, where I was invited to present this last week to a group of vivacious seniors learning English. It is not a church nor a mission. It is not even a school with mandatory attendance. It is not that kind of ruin. There is no angel. There is no personified Death speaking to us from the beyond. It is a purely civic and secular monument to living well, designed for us by those still living who know how to live best from long experience.
The valley of dry bones
How bleak was the CREN clubhouse building when we arrived? It was like an abandoned Stasi outpost, in that dilapidated Eastern-Bloc utopian style of architecture which was built on a public budget “for the people” but never comfortable nor durable.
It seemed more of a ruin than many buildings around here which are centuries older. Shutters were broken. The roof leaked. There were weeds protruding through the sidewalk on all sides. Vines tugged down the gutters. Invasive privet in the courtyard reached over the roofline.
It was the kind of building that in the private sector would have been bulldozed already for other development.
As an American, used to the very goal of government being to defund itself and shut down, I was not surprised to find a public structure in disrepair. But in France – in proud, populist France – we can do better, I thought, for the elderly, for those who made this country great.
Only inside did I understand that the state of the edifice, while regrettable, was not a sign of its value. Inside were the people who built les Trentes Glorieuses, the thirty years of robust growth and prosperity here following WW2, living out their retirements with the same force and gusto with which they built Modern France.
The word retire means literally to re-pull. To re-draw. It is usually interpreted as with-draw or pull-back, but it need not be. It could mean to reset or draw again. Retirement is a reordering and reassessment of the inventory of a life long lived, and a figuring of how best to shepherd home happily that life on the last leg of the journey.
In retirement, the French of this generation have it pretty swell, in terms of pensions and medical care and social support, and for the larger maintenance of health in a holistic sense, they have CREN: Le Club des Retraités de l’Éducation Nationale. Continuing education for seniors.
The breadth of offerings at our local chapter of CREN is astounding, from bridge to ballet, from foreign languages to hiking, international travel, philosophical debate, computer science, weekly bike tours and organ concerts.
There were boxes packed full of multi-media CDs chronicling hundreds of group voyages over the years to every part of the globe.
Only religion and partisan politics are prohibited. The rest is intended to promote better living, personal growth and social connections.
I was honored to be able to speak with a language class at one of these clubs last week, but more importantly I was moved by the quality and depth of what these supposed “re-drawers” get up to.
Shall These Bones Live?
In the Biblical valley of the dead, dry bones, was it not their assemblage that was ordered by the Prophet in order that they might live and even sing? And here at CREN the would-be isolated and forgotten are assembled, in a clattering of dancing and singing, not a remnant but the very embodiment of life at its fullest and best.
I figured out very quickly that if they wanted better lodgings for their clubs, despite the tightening national budget, I daresay these seniors would have it. They are not the least bit timid nor “retiring.” They are real powerhouses, and this is a clubhouse formed by themselves, as citizens, for themselves, as retirees, and meanwhile for them this building for now is enough, in the modest parsimony typical of the best sort of French. It’s the substance that counts, not the dressing.
As with the finest cuisine of this region, which is largely dull brown on the plate, it’s what happens inside that defines value, not the presentation. No one is fooled into loving inferior supplies by frilly plating! One got the impression that the seniors here would rather be taking another trip or singing another rousing chorus while toasting their cups than painting the walls or raking the leaves at the clubhouse.
I hope that I live long enough, and that this system persists intact long enough, to appreciate such facilities in my own dotage.
I am pleased for now that I live in a society which takes care of all its citizens from cradle to grave: For the people, by the people. We go to school all our lives long (the local CREN building is notably adjacent to an elementary school with a fanciful playground within view of the front door), we socialize with each other as equals in the public forum, we care for each other as we can, both personally but also as a collective in community, and we share our cookies at snack time.
La Tarte au Roquefort
Like all good French, the English class to whom I presented shared a little something tasty together at the coffee break.
This is provided unbidden and unplanned, on a volunteer basis, and served without plates on plastic spoons. This is what can be accomplished from know-how and good national priorities. On this day one Madame M rose to the occasion!
I was furnished the recipe, because I showed such… enthusiasm, you might say, for the tart. I might have eaten more than a few pieces, and with a wild and ravenous gleam in my eye.
Like the building we met in, this tart was simple and somewhat dour to look at: Plain, brown, flat, cut willynilly. But also like the building, oh how delicious inside. I leave you with a taste of this region:
Madame M’s Tarte au Roquefort
150g good Roquefort cheese
20cl crème fraiche (sour cream and cream mixed is a similar substitute)
1 feuilletée pastry crust (flakey or puff-pastry, like you might use for spanikopita) in a pie pan
Beat the eggs lightly with the cream. Crumble the Roquefort into the pie crust and pour the egg mixture over it. Bake at 210c for 20-25 minutes or until light brown on top. Serve warm or cold, and don’t worry much about how it looks. Looks can be deceiving.