If Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, France is a nation of philosophers.
While the average life in Britain could conceivably be marked out as a series of purchases, the average life in France could be marked out as a series of philosophical ruminations, as admirably illustrated by the attitude exhibited by my mum's former doctor.
Mind you it's not surprising that the French are so fond of philosophising when even the most mundane activities are fraught with uncertainties and ambiguities of the most complex and fundamental sort. Just this week, for example, I was walking in the woods in the Languedoc with my dad, when we happened upon this notice:
Roughly translated, this means:
Community of the Communes of the [River] Orb and the [River] Jaur
Commune of Olargues
The Lisson rubbish dump is
Anyone who violates this decision will be prosecuted.
Municipal by-law of the 4th March 2004
Now, Occasional Poster of Comments has a philosophy degree and therefore is far better placed than I to comment on the ontological difficulties presented by this notice.
But the fact is that the Lisson rubbish dump to all intents and purposes does *not* exist. It used to be there, in fact I was one of its last patrons, having dumped an orange IKEA futon mattress into it in 2003. But it's been filled in now and replaced with a fancy modern déchetterie down on the main road, where you are invited to sort your rubbish neatly into differently themed skips: one for metal waste, one for garden waste, one for dud batteries, one for old pots of paint, etc.
And yet, according to this notice, denying the existence of the Lisson rubbish dump is a flagrant contravention of local municipal by-laws punishable by prosecution through the courts.
Which brings one to wondering: how explicit would the denial have to be in order for it to become a crime? If one was at a dinner party, for example, and happened to reminisce to one's fellow diners about the 'old' rubbish dump, would that be a punishable offence? What if one simply thought to oneself, in the course of one's daily meanderings, about how the rubbish dump isn't there any more? Is the local village council capable of detecting and prosecuting thought crimes?
And if so, what could one offer in one's defence? Any defence of a thought crime like this would have to hinge on philosophy, but it's no use looking to the French Existentialists for help; their definition of existence was limited to things that exist on the physical plane: from what I remember of Sartre, mainly tree roots, and door knobs, and scrunched up bits of paper. Sartre found these things frightening*, and would probably be deeply comforted by the thought of a rubbish dump that didn't exist, which wouldn't help your case any.
No, the philosopher you'd want as your expert witness would be our good friend Baudrillard, champion of all that is not real. You could rely on Baudrillard to explain that a notional rubbish dump - an idea of a rubbish dump - is just as real as a physically extant rubbish dump, possibly even more so. The rubbish dump itself may no longer exist, but the simulacrum of the rubbish dump that exists in one's memory or imagination is - to our mass-media-enfeebled minds - just as real as the original was.
Which I think is exactly what I'll say when the combined law enforcement agencies of the Valleys of the River Orb and River Jaur come knocking at my door at dead of night.
* That's hallucinogens for you. Don't do it, kids.