The Wonders of Liberty

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Les prodiges de la liberté (par Jacques Prévert)

Entre les dents d’un piège
La patte d’un renard blanc
Et du sang sur la neige
Le sang du renard blanc
Et des traces sur la neige
Les traces du renard blanc
Qui s’enfuit sur trois pattes
Dans le soleil couchant
Avec entre les dents
Un lièvre encore vivant.

The wonders of liberty (by Jacques Prévert)

In the teeth of a trap
The paw of a white fox
And on the snow, blood
The blood of the white fox
And in the snow, tracks
The tracks of the white fox
Who escaped on three legs
As the sun was setting
A rabbit between his teeth
Still alive

I recently found myself in a small bookstore. Its been a while since I’ve taken a stroll between bookshelves. The smell of  books and the whispering of pages brought me back to my adolescence, when I’d spend hours in used bookstores hiding out in dust filled nooks and corners, searching for something, anything in various forgotten, withered books.

Unfortunately this bookstore wasn’t used (do those even exist anymore?), but I did find a little compilation of poetry by Jacques Prévert marketed as a children’s book. So I got it, without noticing the last poem in the booklet, entitled “The Wonders of Liberty”. As you might have noticed, dear reader, its kind of a gruesome poem, with blood, death and all.  I doubt that something like this would ever be marketed to children in US, but here in France apparently it doesn’t pose a problem. And being a well-adapted immigrant that I am (ironic cough) I still gave the book to my son, who, being a good French child that he is, did not even flinch after reading this poem (or may be he flinched internally, but it didn’t show).

The poem might not have left a (visible) impression on my child, but it did leave an impression on me. It has put into words a recent, may be slightly morbid, fascination I have been experiencing with the concept of mortality. This poem made me think of sand paintings: those paintings made with colored sand by different cultures across the world, that last only a day before being destroyed by the wind or by the artist him/her self. I first heard of these paintings in my adolescence, and I remember thinking to myself “why would someone spend so much time working on art only to see it destroyed?”. My mind couldn’t fathom it, but now, many years later, not only do I understand the why, but I’m fascinated with it. This concept of the end, of death, like for Jacques Prévert, now seems to me to go hand in hand with liberty. But not because liberty demands sacrifice (and that might be what Mr Prévert wanted to convey with his poem), but rather because liberty isn’t stagnant, liberty is about free choice and free choice is all about endings and beginnings.  And what beginning without an end? What birth without death? Like sand paintings we exist, we are beautiful, we have meaning and then wooosh, a gust of wind, and we disperse into the universe, but the grains of sand that made us haven’t disappeared, they are free, they have always been free and they are part of something else now, some other meaning, some other life.

So what I’m saying with this post and what I would like to transmit to my children, is that we shouldn’t be afraid of endings, we shouldn’t be afraid of death. Death cannot be separated from freedom, it cannot be separated from life. In our culture we treat it like disease, we avoid talking about it, looking at it, we “cure” white hair, wrinkles, tooth-less smiles and sagging breasts. And by making death taboo, it violently breaks through video games, horror and action films. We haven’t normalized death with our popular culture, but on the contrary, we have created a monster out of something that is as natural as breath. Jacques Prévert’s poem shocks us, when in fact it only talks about the natural order of things. And that is why, despite being slightly shocked myself that such poetry is marketed to children here in France, I got the book for my kids. And they might be shocked too, but unless they accept endings as part of the natural order of things, they will never be truly free.

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