Review: Being and Nothingness

Review: Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slime is the agony of water.

I first heard of this book from my dad. “I had to read this in college,” he told me. “We looked at every type of being. Being-in-myself, being-for-myself, being-of-myself, being-across-myself, being-by-myself. I went crazy trying to read that thing.” Ever since that memorable description, this book has held a special allure for me. It has everything to attract a self-styled intellectual: a reputation for difficulty, a hefty bulk, a pompous title, and the imprimatur of a famous name. Clearly I had to read it.

Jean-Paul Sartre was the defining intellectual of his time, at least on the European continent. He did everything: writing novels and plays, founding and editing a journal, engaging in political activism, and pioneering a philosophical school: existentialism. This book is the defining monument of that school. An eight-hundred-page treatise on ontology which, somehow, became widely read—or at least widely talked about. Nearly eighty years later, we are still talking about this book. In 2016 Sarah Bakewell released a best-selling book about Sartre’s movement; and a new translation of Being and Nothingness will be released next year. Interest in existentialism has not abated.

Yet what is existentialism? And how has it weathered the passing years? This is what I set out to determine, and this review will show whether my attempt bore fruit.

One should begin by examining the subtitle of this book: “A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.” Already we have a contradiction. Phenomenology is a philosophical school founded by Edmund Husserl, which attempted to direct philosophers’ attention back “to the things themselves”—that is, to their own experience of the world. One of Husserl’s most insistent commandments was that the philosopher should “bracket,” or set aside, the old Cartesian question of the reality of these experiences (is the world truly as I perceive it?); rather, the philosopher should simply examine the qualities of the experience itself. Thus, Sartre’s promise of a phenomenological ontology (ontology being the investigation of the fundamental nature of reality) is a flagrant violation of Husserl’s principles.

Still, it does have a lot to tell us about Sartre’s method. This book is an attempt to deduce the fundamental categories of being from everyday experience. And this attempt leads Sartre to the two most basic categories of all: being and nothingness. Being is all around us; it is manifest in every object we experience. Sartre defines existing objects as those which are self-identical—that is, objects which simply are what they are—and he dubs this type of being the “in-itself.” Humans, by contrast, cannot be so defined; they are constantly shifting, projecting themselves into an uncertain future. Rather than simply existing, they observe their own existence. Sartre calls this type of human existence the “for-itself.”

Already we see the old Cartesian dualism reappearing in these categories. Are we not confronted, once again, with the paradoxes of matter and mind? Not exactly. For Sartre does not consider the in-itself and the for-itself to be two different types of substances. In fact, the for-itself has no existence at all: it is a nothingness. To use Sartre’s expressions, human consciousness can be compared to “little pools of non-being that we encounter in the heart of being,” or elsewhere he says that the for-itself “is like a hole in being at the heart of Being.” The for-itself (a consciousness) is a particular privation of a specific in-itself (a human body), which functions as a nihilation that makes the world appear: for there would not be a “world” as we know it without perception, and perception is, for Sartre, a type of nihilation.

Putting aside all of the difficulties with this view, we can examine the consequences which Sartre draws from these two sorts of being. If the for-itself is a nothingness, then it is forever removed from the world around it. That is, it cannot be determined, either by its past or by its environment. In short, it is free—inescapably free. Human behavior can thus never be adequately explained or even excused, since all explanations or excuses presuppose that humans are not fundamentally self-determining. But of course we explain and excuse all the time. We point to economic class, occupation, culture, gender, race, sexuality, upbringing, genetic background, mood—to a thousand different factors in order to understand why people act the way they do.

This attempt to treat humans as things rather than free beings Sartre calls “bad faith.” This constitutes the fundamental sin of existentialism. He gives the example of a waiter who so embraces his role as a waiter that his motions become calculated and mechanical; the waiter tries to embody himself in his role to the extent that he gives up his individual freedom and becomes a kind of automaton whose every movement is predictable. But of course life is full of examples of bad faith. I excuse my mistake by saying I hadn’t had my coffee yet; my friend cheats on his girlfriend, but it was because his father cheated on his mother; and so on.

This is the basic situation of the for-itself. Yet there is another type of being which Sartre later introduces us to: the for-others. Sartre introduces this category with a characteristically vivid example: Imagine a peeping Tom is looking through a keyhole into a room. His attention is completely fixed on what he sees. Then, suddenly, he hears footsteps coming down the hall; and he immediately becomes aware of himself as a body, as a thing. Sartre considers experiences like this to prove that we cannot doubt the existence of others, since being perceived by others totally changes how we experience ourselves.

This allows Sartre to launch into an analysis of human interaction, and particularly into love and sexuality. This analysis bears the obvious influence of Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic, and it centers on the same sorts of paradoxes: the contradictory urges to subjugate and be subjugated, to be embodied and desired, to be free and to be freely chosen, and so on. However, Sartre’s best writing in this vein is not to be found here, but in his great play No Exit, where each character exhibits a particular type of bad faith. All three of the characters wish to be looked at in a particular way, yet each of them is stuck with others whose own particular sort of bad faith renders them unable to look in the “right” way.

Sartre concludes from all this that our most fervent desire, and the reason we so often slip into bad faith, is that we wish to be an impossible combination of the in-itself and the for-itself. We want to be the foundation of our own being, a perfect self-identical creature, and yet absolutely free. We want to become gods. But, for Sartre, this is self-contradictory: the in-itself and the for-itself can never coexist. Thus, the idea of God arises as a sort of wish-fulfillment; but God is impossible by definition. As a result, human life “is a useless passion”—a relentless striving to be something which cannot exist.

All this may be clearer if we avoid Sartre’s terminology and, instead, compare his philosophy to that of Buddhism (at least, the type of Western Buddhism I’m acquainted with). The mind is constantly searching for a sense of permanent identity. Though the mind is, by nature, groundless, we are uncomfortable with this; we want put ground under our feet. So we seek to identify ourselves with our jobs, our families, our marriages, our hobbies, our success, our money—with any external good that lets us forget that our consciousness is constantly shifting and flowing, and that our identities can never be absolutely determined. So far, Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism have similar diagnoses of our problems. But Buddhism prescribes detachment, while Sartre prescribes the embrace of absolute freedom and the adoption of complete responsibility of our actions.

No summary of the book would be complete without Sartre’s critique of Freud. Sartre was clearly intrigued by Freud’s theories and wanted to use them in some way. However, Freud’s unconscious motivations and superconscious censorship is clearly incompatible with Sartre’s philosophy of freedom. In particular, Sartre found it self-contradictory to say that there could be a part of the mind which “wants” without us knowing it, or a part that is able to hide information from our awareness. For Sartre, all consciousness is self-consciousness, and it therefore does not make sense to “want” or “know” something unconsciously.

In place of Freud’s psychoanalysis, then, Sartre proposes an existential psychoanalysis. For Sartre, every person is defined by a sort of fundamental choice that determines their stance towards the world (though, strangely, it seems that most people are not aware of having made this choice). It is the task of the existential psychoanalyst is to uncover this fundamental choice by a close examination of everyday actions. Indeed, Sartre believes that everything from one’s preference for onions to one’s aversion to cold water is a consequence of this fundamental choice. Sartre even goes so far as to insist that some things, by virtue of being so clearly suggestive of metaphor, have a universal meaning for the for-itself. As an example of this, he gives “slime”—viscous liquid which Sartre thinks inspires a universal horror of the weight of existence.

This fairly well rounds out a summary of the book. So what are we to make of this?

The comparison with Heidegger is unavoidable. Sartre himself seems to have encouraged the comparison by giving his metaphysical tome a title redolent of the German professor’s magnum opus. The influence is clear: Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness after reading Being and Time during his brief imprisonment in a prisoner-of-war camp; and Heidegger is referenced throughout the book. Nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate to describe Sartre as a follower of Heidegger, or his philosophy merely as an interpretation of Heidegger’s. Indeed, I think that the superficial similarities between the two thinkers (stylistic obscurity, disregard of religion and ethics, a focus on human experience, a concern with “being”) mask far more important differences.

Heidegger’s project, insofar as I understand it, is radically anti-Cartesian. He sought to replace the thinking and observing ego with the Dasein, a being thrown into the world, a being fundamentally ensconced in a community and surrounded by tools ready-to-hand. For Heidegger, the Cartesian perspective—of withdrawing from the world and deliberately reflecting and reasoning—is derivative of, and inferior to, this far more fundamental relationship to being. Sartre could not be further from this. Sartre’s perspective, to the contrary, is insistently Cartesian and subjectivist; it is the philosophy of a single mind urgently investigating its experience. Further, the concept of “freedom” plays almost no role in Heidegger’s philosophy; indeed, I believe he would criticize the very idea of free choice as enmeshed in the Cartesian framework he hoped to destroy.

In method, then, Sartre is far closer to Husserl—another professed Cartesian—than to Heidegger. However, as we observed above, Sartre breaks Husserl’s most fundamental tenet by using subjective experiences to investigate being; and this was done clearly under the influence of Heidegger. These two, along with Freud, and Hegel, constitute the major intellectual influences on Sartre.

It should be no surprise, then, that Sartre’s style often verges on the obscure. Many passages in this book are comparable in ugliness and density to those German masters of opacity (Freud excluded). Heidegger is the most obvious influence here: for Sartre, like Heidegger, enjoys using clunky hyphenated terms and repurposing quotidian words in order to give them a special meaning. There is an important difference, however. When I did decipher Sartre’s more difficult passages, I usually found that the inky murkiness was rather unnecessary.

Believe me when I say that I am no lover of Heidegger’s writing. Nevertheless, I think Heidegger’s tortured locutions are more justifiable than Sartre’s, for Heidegger was attempting to express something that is truly counter-intuitive, at least in the Western philosophical tradition; whereas Sartre’s philosophy, whatever novelties it possesses, is far more clearly in the mainline of Cartesian thinking. As a result, Sartre’s adventures in jargon come across as mere displays of pomp—a bejewelled robe he dons in order to appear more weighty—and, occasionally, as mere abuses of language, concealing simple points in false paradoxes.

This is a shame, for when Sartre wished he could be quite a powerful writer. And, indeed, the best sections of this book are when Sartre switches from his psuedo-Heideggerian tone to that of the French novelist. The most memorable passages in this book are Sartre’s illustrations of his theories: the aforementioned waiter, or the Peeping Tom, or the passage on skiing. Whatever merit Sartre had as a philosopher, he was undoubtedly a genius in capturing the intricacies of subjective experience—the turns of thought and twinges of emotion that rush through the mind in everyday situations.

But what are we to make of his system? To my mind, the most immediately objectionable aspect is his idea of nothingness. Nothing is just that—nothing: a complete lack of qualities, attributes, or activity of any kind. Indeed, if a nothingness can be defined at all, it must be via elimination: by excluding every existing thing. It seems incoherent, then, to say that the human mind is a nothingness, and is therefore condemned to be free. Consciousness has many definite qualities and, besides that, is constantly active and (in Sartre’s opinion at least) able to choose itself and change the world. How can a nothingness do that? And this is putting to the side the striking question of how the human brain can produce a complete absence of being. Maybe I am taking Sartre’s point too literally; but it is fair to say that he provides no account of how this nothingness came into being.

Once this idea of nothingness is called into question, the rest of Sartre’s conclusions are on extremely shaky ground. Sartre’s idea of freedom is especially suspect. If human consciousness is not separated from the world and from its past by a nothingness, then Sartre’s grand pronouncements of total freedom and total responsibility become dubious. To me it seems unlikely to the highest degree that, of all the known objects in the universe, including all of the animals (some of which are closely related to us), humans are the only things that are exempt from the chain of causality that binds everything together.

Besides finding it implausible, I also cannot help finding Sartre’s idea of total freedom and responsibility to be morally dubious. He himself, so far as I know, never managed to make his system compatible with a system of ethics. In any case, an emphasis on total responsibility can easily lead to a punitive mentality. According to Sartre, everyone deserves their fate.

Admittedly I do think his conception of “bad faith” is useful. Whether or not we are metaphysically “free,” we often have more power over a situation than we admit. Denying our responsibility can lead to inauthenticity and immorality. And Sartre’s embrace of freedom can be a healthy antidote to an apathetic despair. Still, I do not think an elaborate ontological system is necessary in order to make this point.

Reading Sartre nowadays, I admit that it is difficult to take his conclusions seriously. For one, the next generation of French intellectuals set to work demonstrating that our freedom is constrained by society (Bourdeiu), psychology (Lacan), language (Derrida), and history (Foucault), among other factors. (Of course, these intellectual projects were not necessarily any more solid than Sartre’s.) More importantly, Sartre’s system seems to be so completely bound up in both his times and his own psychology—two things which he denied could determine human behavior—that it ironically belies his conclusions. (As an example of the latter influence, Sartre’s revulsion and even horror of sex is apparent throughout the book, especially in the strange section on “slime.”)

In the end I was somewhat disappointed by this work. And I think my disappointment is ultimately a consequence of Sartre’s method: phenomenological ontology. It is simply incorrect to believe that we can closely interrogate our own experiences to determine the fundamental categories of being. Admittedly, Sartre is not entirely averse to making logical argument; but too many of his conclusions rest on the shaky ground of these narrations of subjective experience. Sartre is, indeed, a brilliant observer of this experience, and his descriptions are worth reading for their psychological insight alone. Nevertheless, as a system of ontology, I do not think it can stand on its own two feet.



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Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Like so many people, I went through a dinosaur phase as a child. It was almost inevitable. Growing up on the Upper West Side, I could visit the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. Natural selection has overcome many engineering problems—flight, sight, growth, digestion—and it has certainly not failed in its ability to awe little boys. I picked up this book to finally learn something about these ancient beasts.

Any fair evaluation of this book must conclude that it does its job: it summarizes new discoveries about dinosaurs in accessible prose. Brusatte goes through the entire chronology of the group, from their beginnings as unremarkable reptiles which emerged after the great Permian-Triassic Extinction, to their gradual rise, growth, spread, and diversification, and finally to their eventual end—wiped out by an asteroid.

There are many interesting tidbits along the way. Dinosaurs had the efficient lungs we find in modern birds, which are able to extract oxygen during the inhale and exhale. They also had primitive feathers, which looked more like hairs. Indeed, modern birds are dinosaurs in the strict sense of the word. I was particularly surprised to learn that Tyrannosaurus Rex lived and hunted in groups; and that they achieved their massive size extremely quickly—growing several pounds a day for years on end.

I also appreciated Brusatte’s descriptions of the methods that paleontologists use—new statistical techniques for analyzing fossils, or piecing together ancient ecosystems, or determining rates of evolutionary change. Nowadays paleontologists to not merely look for old bones, but they study living animals to make hypotheses about the speed, strength, and size of these extinct creatures. One researcher even studied fossils under a microscope to deduce the color of the feathers from the indentations. Brusatte also covers some of the history of dinosaur research, which is surprisingly colorful—especially the tragic life of the Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás.

So the book undoubtedly accomplishes its goal. My only complaint is the style. When Brusatte sticks to the science, he is clear and engaging. But whenever he chooses to embellish the story—which is rather too often—the prose becomes strained and grating. Here is a description of a seagull that opens his chapter on birds:

When the sun breaks through for a moment, I catch a glint reflected in its beady eyes, which start to dance back and forth. No doubt this is a creature of keen senses and high intelligence, and it’s onto something. Maybe it can tell that I’m watching. Then, without warning, it yawns open its mouth and emits a high-pitched screech—an alarm to its compatriots, perhaps, or a mating call. Or maybe it’s a threat directed my way.

In fairness, I did enjoy his description of what the dinosaurs would have experienced in the first few minutes after the asteroid impact.

More irksome, however, were the thumbnail sketches of his colleagues, which are interspersed throughout the book. I would have understood the necessity of these passages if Brusatte were introducing a researcher who would play an important role in the book. Yet inevitably these researchers were introduced with fanfare only to be immediately dropped. What is more, Brusatte always focuses on the quirkiest aspects of these researchers, in a superficial attempt at coolness; and he also makes sure to tell us that he is one of their best friends.

In one particularly aggravating example, Brusatte describes one researcher’s fashion (“leopard-print Lycra, piercings, and tattoos”), ethnicity (“half-Irish, half-Chinese”), hobbies (“raving and even occasionally DJ-ing in the trendy clubs of China’s suddenly hip capital”), and conversation style (“delivering caustic one-liners one moment, speaking in eloquent paragraphs about politics the next”). Does this add anything of value to the book?

These stylistic irritations mar what is otherwise an excellent popular book about dinosaurs. And since these offending passages do not add anything to the substance of the book, my advice is just to skip on until he gets back on the subject of dinosaurs—a topic which brings out the best in Brusatte.

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Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Keats: Poems by John Keats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever

As a dedicated book reviewer, it is my job to say why I like certain books and dislike others. When it comes to nonfiction, this is reasonably straightforward: if the exposition is clear, if the arguments are logical, if the ideas are reasonable—then it is a worthy book. Nonfiction aims for truth, and truth can at least be tested. With literature, however, the task is somewhat more fraught. Beauty is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. We can break down a novel’s strengths and weaknesses by category—good prose, bad pacing, fine dialogue, shallow characterization—but ultimately these evaluations, however much we justify them, rest upon gut reactions.

Why does one sequence of musical notes create a pleasing melody, another a forgettable ditty, and a third a nonsensical jangle? Why do certain combinations of words strike the ear as just right, and others as discordant? Formal analysis can clarify and categorize the sorts of sounds and structures that people tend to enjoy. But it can never explain why we enjoy them in the first place, nor why different people enjoy them to different extents. If literary criticism is to be a worthwhile exercise it requires, then, that the gut reactions of the audience members are at least roughly alike—that we are similarly constituted as regards to beauty.

Shared education contributes towards this similarity; as does, presumably, the basic resemblance of our natures. But does this bedrock of shared taste constitute something durable and permanent enough so that we may say a great artist hits upon the “truth” of art—appealed to something permanent in ourselves—in the same way that a scientist may hit upon a “truth” of nature? Many have thought so. And it strikes me that something like this must be the case if we wish to call any form of art “universal”—namely, that it is a true expression of what we share.

I mention this because the relationship of beauty to truth is one of the great themes of Keats’ poetry. At the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he tells us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—a line that has been endlessly analyzed. Certainly the widespread and steady popularity of his poems may argue that, indeed, Keats hit upon some basic truth of art. But what could that mean?

The issue of translation may bear on the question. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable; and the bilingual edition I read ironically proved the point. The Spanish consistently failed to evoke the sublimity of the original. Here, for example, are two famous lines from Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken

And here is the Spanish translation:

Entonces me sentí como un astrónomo
cuando ve frente a sí un Nuevo planeta

Translated back into English this reads something like: “Then I felt like an astronomer when he sees a new planet in front of him.” Despite preserving the literal meaning, this obviously loses all of the magic of the line. “Watcher of the skies” is infinitely more romantic than “astronomer,” and “sees in front of him” has none of the mystery of “swims into his ken.” In short, the rich beauty of the language does not survive; and the poem becomes a rather bland statement about enjoying a new edition of Homer, rather than an evocation of the grandeur of nature and art.

(I do not think it was the translator’s fault. Spanish is very different to versify than English; and the literal Spanish translation would preserve meaning at the expense of rhythm.)

Yet if Keats’ poetry is truly untranslatable, then how could it contain truth? After all, one could translate Newton’s work into Spanish, French, German, or Japanese, and it would contain just as much truth (or untruth) as in the original. Science is not linguistically bound. Admittedly, the boundary of translation is not equivalent for all forms of poetry. Homer’s works are still riveting in English; and Dante’s vision survives (at least partially) its journey from Medieval Florentine. Lyrical poetry seems to fare the most poorly.

The obvious difference between Homer and Keats is that Homer’s appeal lies in the story, while Keats’ relies on his linguistic brilliance. And, for my part, it is easier to see how a story can contain a semblance of “truth,” rather than a beautiful string of words. Assuming that some experiences in life are universal, that some emotional crises are recurring, that some existential state is inescapable, then a great story may be able to capture something common and durable about the human condition. A beautiful poetic line, on the other hand, has a purely formal appeal—charming not in what it says, but in how it says it—and this perfection of expression, being untranslatable, must fall short of universal art.

Nevertheless, to describe Keats as merely a brilliant wordsmith would be an absurd underestimation. As his letters prove, he was thoroughly educated and keenly intelligent. His poems abound with perplexing classical references. And, in any case, words are never mere sounds; they are laden with meaning; and even the briefest of lyrical poems are pregnant with thought. Contemplation permeates Keats’ work. In his poems we find the focused musings of a highly original man as he meditates on entirely common occurrences: Autumn, Melancholy, Nature, Art—the list goes on.

Here is where Keats’ art may be said to be “universal”—and, in some sense, “true” to the human condition. For many of us have stood, amazed, before a work of art, or felt thrilled upon opening a book, or listened yearningly to a bird singing outside a window—or any number of comparable experiences. Yet only Keats and his ken have taken these fleeting twinges of emotion, reflected deeply upon them, and captured them in words so felicitous that they are impossible to forget once heard. Like the revelers on the Grecian Urn, Keats has frozen time.

It may be that this lyrical form of art, being so bound up in brilliance of expression, is less universal and less durable than works of narrative. But for those who are, by chance, linguistically equipped to enter Keats’ world, then his poems contain just as much artistic “truth” as the oldest tales and the finest melodies.

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Madrid: Trains & Planes

Madrid: Trains & Planes

I went out of my way last week to praise Madrid’s excellent metro system. Yet this is only a part of the city’s generally superb transport network. Aside from municipal and intercity buses—of which there are many, even at night—the city has an excellent train network.

Madrid, the political, economic, and geographic center of the country, is naturally the country’s train hub. Many of the long-distance trains run at nearly 200 mph (over 300 km/h). These high-speed trains run north, south, east, and west, to nearly every corner of the country. Indeed, Spain has the most miles of high-speed rail in Europe, and the second in the world after China. They are affectionately referred to as AVE (literally “bird,” but short for Alta Velocidad Española), and they leave from Madrid’s two biggest train stations: Atocha and Chamartín. The trains are extremely convenient and are certainly more comfortable than flying; however, they are often more expensive than a flight.

Atocha Cercanías on a typical day

But no resident of Madrid could long survive without the city’s Cercanías, or short-distance trains. These service the city and the surrounding community, covering 370 km and stopping at 89 stations. There are 10 lines, and each of them stops in Atocha before separating off into a different direction. This is the best way to visit Aranjuez, Alcalá de Henares, and El Escorial—three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the outskirts of Madrid. It is also this network which takes you up into the mountains, to the Guadarrama National Park. For those without a car, it is a lifesaver.

The Cercanías map

The trains are not only useful for tourism, however; they are an essential part of basic city transport. The trains are oftentimes quicker than the metro for certain inter-city trips, such as from Atocha to Chamartín, or Nuevos Ministerios to Príncipe Pío. I rely on the Cercanías every time I need to re-enter bureaucratic hell for my visa, since the office is located down south; and I take the trains whenever I have a flight from the Airport’s Terminal 4. They are, in short, extremely useful—especially because the same transport card works for the trains, the metro, and the bus. For a New Yorker used to paying separately for a monthly rail pass and a monthly subway card, it is extraordinary.

An abandoned station building, near the Méndez Álvaro station

For those who wish to learn more about the country’s railroad history, there is the Museo del Ferrocarril. This is a very reasonably priced museum located near the Delicias Cercanías station. Indeed, the museum is located in the old Delicias station building, which was opened in 1880 to serve as the Madrid hub for the trains to Ciudad Real. It is a typical station building—a huge, cavernous space filled with platforms and tracks. And it is still filled with trains, though all of these are antiques nowadays.

What first caught my attention was a massive steam locomotive. Half of the engine car has been cut away, to reveal the curious arrangement of valves, tubes, and chambers inside. I have been cursed with a rather unmechanical mind, so the enormous intricacy of machinery tends to leave me respectfully silent. However, the basic principle behind steam power is easy to grasp: A fire in one chamber heats the water in an adjacent chamber, which evaporates into steam, which is then channeled down to a piston near the wheels, where a valve lets in the steam at intervals, pushing the wheels forwards. Yet for such a relatively simple process, the mechanical design of the cutaway train seemed extremely complex. The sign revealed that this was one of the latest models of steam-power locomotives, constructed in 1960.

Most of the other steam locomotives on display are much older, and considerably smaller—some dating from the 19th century. To a modern eye, many of these ancient, chimneyed contraptions can seem exceedingly quaint and romantic; they are filled with gritty personality, and remind me of movies of the Wild West and of Old Europe. Still, I am glad we have evolved past these clunking, crawling machines, which had a bad habit of exploding (before the invention of reliable pressure valves). Even so, one must admire such an innovative and durable design. The steam locomotive is a landmark in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

The rest of the trains on display (and there are several dozen) are diesel or electric, and more or less approach the sleek, rocket-like aspect that we associate with trains today. The visitor can enter a few of these to experience an echo of train travel from the past. One of these is an old dining car, apparently made of wood. The tables are set with elegantly folded napkins and fancy silverware. Yet unless the train was going quite slowly on a straight path, it is difficult for me to imagine the dining experience was free of sliding silverware, clanging dishes, and sloshing drinks. Still, it must have felt civilized to glide through the countryside while enjoying an expensive meal.

Though the wide variety of trains are undoubtedly the main attraction—the hulking, slumbering beasts that fill up the space—the museum has much else on display. There is a great deal of railroad infrastructure, such as switchboards (mechanical, hydraulic, and electronic), a central control panel, and a little pushcart which was used for repairs. There is also a room dedicated to train models, hundreds of them, as well as models of certain trajectories. I was particularly gratified to find a model of the route that runs from León to Gijón, through the mountains of Asturias—a beautiful line that I had seen in person.

Henry David Thoreau, the great luddite, famously said: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” What he meant is that the technology we construct to make our lives more convenient ends up dominating us. He was prescient. Nowadays, how many modern luddites speak of our phones the same way that Thoreau spoke of the railroad that ran behind Walden Pond?

Nobody can deny that this occurs. Nevertheless, who would argue nowadays that our lives are dominated by trains? To my eye, they are marvelous inventions: both beautifully designed and eminently functional. They use space and resources efficiently; and the tracks and bridges they ride upon blend in far more harmoniously with the landscape than our cars, asphalt roads, and parking lots. Who knows but that, in one hundred years, visitors with cerebral implants might be visiting a Museum of Smartphones, waxing nostalgic about a simpler time.


Air travel in Europe can be startlingly cheap. And since my job blesses me with ample vacation days (thanks to the Spanish school schedule) I find myself waiting in the airport more than is probably healthy.

Airports are not famous for being comfortable places. The lines are long, the food is overpriced, the atmosphere is completely anonymous. At times airports can be sad places, totally empty of intimacy or human warmth; at other times they can be exciting, the portal to exotic domains; but most often they are simply dreary—filled with tacky commercial trash, listless and sleep-deprived passengers waiting on rows of seats, or nerve-wracking encounters with security personnel or border-control officers.

All of this being said, I think that Madrid’s airport is one that the city can be proud of. Confusingly, its full name is the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport. Adolfo Suárez was Spain’s first post-Franco president; and it is called Madrid-Barajas because the airport is actually outside the city of Madrid, in the suburbs called Barajas.

In any case, the airport is easily accessible from the city center. A ride in a taxi takes only about fifteen minutes, depending on traffic and your exact destination. I typically avoid this option, however, since the taxis charge a flat rate of €30. Instead, I either rely on the metro or the Cercacías. Metro Line 8 leaves from Nuevos Ministerios and arrives at Terminals 1-2-3 in about 25 minutes. Meanwhile, the Cercanías Line 1 or 10 leaves from Atocha Station and reaches Terminal 4 in about 45 minutes. Both options are covered with my transport card, though people without a transport card will need to buy a special supplement.

Apart from these options, there are also buses. One municipal bus leaves from Avenida de América and requires no additional cost. And a special Airport Bus leaves from either Atocha Station or the Plaza de Cibeles (depending on the time of day), and costs €5 to ride—a good option if you’re going to the airport very early, before the metro or the trains start working. In short, Madrid’s airport is extremely well-connected.

Once you arrive, you have four terminals to choose from. Terminals 1, 2, and 3 were built at around the same time, and are all next to one another. As buildings they are nondescript: functional, clean, and efficient. Terminal 4 was built considerably later, in the early 2000s, and for that reason it is somewhat isolated from the other terminals—2 kilometers distant. It also looks entirely different: support beams jut out at angles and spread leaves the branches of trees, holding up the undulating roof that hangs over the open space. It’s not exactly worthy of Gaudí, but it is an attractive airport.

Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

I have had nothing but good experiences at the Madrid Airport. Even so, every time I am there I find myself edge. Despite having flown almost monthly since my arrival in Spain, I still find the process unsettling. I worry about checking in, getting through security, weighing my bags—even though none of this has ever been a problem. Yet more frightening is the simple prospect of flying. Planes may be quite safe, statistically speaking; but I still feel that I am risking my life every time I take a flight. I look out the glass windows at the aerodynamic machines waiting on the runway, and I think of all the things that could go wrong. It just goes my intuition to think that I should get on a box of metal that uses explosions to accelerate into the air.

To combat this persistent fear of flying, I set out to learn more about the history of aviation. Luckily, Madrid has an excellent—and free—aeronautics museum: the Museo del Aire. It is located in the south of Madrid, near the Cercanías stop Cuatro Vientos. To get there you must walk about twenty minutes along the highway from the train station, and then cross a bridge over the tracks. On your left you will see another of Madrid’s airports, the Aeropuerto de Madrid-Cuatro Vientos. Opened in 1911, this is the oldest airport in the country. Originally it was used as a military air base, though nowadays it is mainly used for light civil aircraft and flight classes. As a result, the air surrounding the museum is full of small propeller planes circling around. It is a wholly appropriate setting for an aviation museum.

(This is not the only other airport in Madrid, by the way. There are military air bases in Getafe and in Torrejón de Ardoz, to name just two. I have been told that when foreign leaders come to Spain on state visits they land in these bases, not in Madrid-Barajas.)

The Museo del Aire used to be a part of the old airport. The original brick buildings of the air force base still sit next to rows of hangers. And military aircraft are still present in abundance, though nowadays it is all obsolete and, presumably, out of commission. Still it is an impressive sight. Dozens and dozens of aircraft are on display in the museum—helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, water planes—from every era, stretching back to the beginning of Spanish aviation. I admit that I arrived with low expectations, if only because the museum is free and seldom talked about. But it ended up becoming one of my favorite museum experiences in the city.

No short description could give an adequate summary of the museum’s contents. But here are some highlights. The biggest plane on display—a massive defiance of the law of gravity—was for mid-air refueling. In one corner were about ten helicopters, ranging from bare skeletons of metal encasing a clear plastic bulb to intimidating hunks of metal used for transport and evacuation. Planes specialized for water landings had bodies shaped like boats, with the wings elevated on a little platform. On the far end the fighter jets were on display. Of these the most noteworthy was the F-4 Phantom II, an American fighter that was extensively used during the Vietnam War. I simply cannot imagine what it is like to fly one of those things: it is little more than a pair of wings, a jet engine, and several tons of explosives.

The hangers also had much of interest. The first one contained an extensive and expertly made exhibition on the history of aviation. There are replicas of early flying devices, including the Wright brothers’ Flyer. The museum also has a copy of one of the lesser-known paintings of the Prado. It is a depicting of the ascent of the Montgolfier hot air balloon in Aranjuez, in 1784. This was a major event. The Montgolfier brothers were the Wright brothers of lighter-than-air travel, and pioneered the first piloted hot air balloons.

The museum also has informative panels on the earliest forerunners of air travel. Leonardo da Vinci is mentioned, of course, with his imaginative sketches in his notebooks. But I had not previously heard of Abbas ibn Firnas, a polymath from Moorish Spain who, in the 9th century, attempted flight by covering himself in feathers, holding onto wings, and jumping off a high building—and he lived, at least according to the story.

The rest of the hangers were no less interesting, containing all sorts of flying paraphernalia, from radios to helmets. I was particularly captivated by the many jet engines on display. As I said above, I have a rather unmechanical mind; so I tend to stare in uncomprehending awe at these intricate machines. But more than anything I wanted to see the museum’s many examples of Autogyros.

The autogyro is a rather strange combination of a plane and a helicopter, designed by the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva. Like a helicopter, it has a rotating blade on top; but the air moves up through the blade as the vehicle goes forward, causing the blade to generate lift on its own (without power). This seems quite impossible to my untrained physical intuition; but it worked. And Juan de la Cierva (of whom my coworker wrote a biography) is undoubtedly one of Spain’s great engineers.

An autogyro

This concluded my visit to the Museo del Aire. And, surprisingly, I did feel somewhat better about the prospect of air travel. Our species has been trying to invade the air for about 1,000 years. For most of that time we have, admittedly, been highly unsuccessful. But in the last 100 years we have made such great strides that, nowadays, a man can board a plane, fall asleep watching a movie, and then get off on the other side, excited to see some old buildings—the entire engineering miracle of flight hardly registering.

It is curious that in both the Museo del Ferrocarril and the Museo del Aire most of the visitors are young children. They play excitedly among the antique machines, dragging their parents this way and that, pointing and asking questions. Most adults, on the other hand, are bored even by the mention of a museum dedicated to the history of transport. We are so used to efficient transportation that it is invisible and uninteresting to us. And yet if we were to bring Plato or Aristotle back to life, I suspect they would be more amazed at our metros, trains, and planes, than at any of the things they connect us to.

Review: Henry V

Review: Henry V
Henry V

Henry V by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Men of few words are the best men.

This is a masterful play, likely one of Shakespeare’s most effortlessly enjoyable. Aided by the chorus, the story moves quickly; and there is none of the artificial machinery of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies—mistaken identities, secret plots, and the like—but, instead, a story focused on one man’s glorious ascent. This is Henry; and his character is undoubtedly one of the greatest portrayals of a charismatic leader we have. He is the play. Just as he dominates everyone on the stage, so he dominates us, the audience.

The result is a mesmerizing patriotic spectacle. Even if you have grave reservations about the justice of invading France, and even if you can see through Henry’s rhetoric, it is impossible to resist his call to follow him. But how did Shakespeare himself feel about the hero king? One cannot be sure. Nevertheless, there is enough irony in the play to suggest that the playwright entertained his own doubts. Most telling, for me, was the conversation between the disguised Harry and the soldier Williams. After the soldier expands upon the horrors of war—limbs chopped off, men crying for a surgeon, wives and children left alone—he concludes that the king will be responsible for a great evil if the cause be not just. Harry then responds with a fine bit of extremely specious reasoning:

So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon the father that sent him. Or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, by assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation.

Anyone, I suspect, can see the clear difference between a misfortune befalling a servant and a wound suffered by a soldier sent into battle. And this is just one example of Henry’s refusal to consider the ethical ramifications of his decisions. Later on, when Henry discovers that the baggage train has been attacked, the noble king orders his soldiers to cut the throats of every prisoner. He is, in short, remorseless in the pursuit of what he considers his birthright.

The central question that the play asks, then, is whether Henry’s brilliant, charismatic leadership in some measure excuses all of the bloodshed that results from his choices. Now that the idea of monarchy has lost its hold on our imaginations, the argument that any land belongs to a king “by right” sounds barbaric. It thus seems difficult to justify the invasion of France on any reasonable ethical grounds. After all, France is not ruled by a cruel tyrant; and the people of France will likely be no happier under Henry than under Charles VI.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to root for the young king. And this is true of many historic conquerors, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. They cloak themselves in glory and promise to inaugurate a new world, if only you follow them through the breach. Indeed, Fluellen explicitly compares Henry to Alexander, noting how the latter killed one of his best friends while drunk, just as Henry rejected his friend and mentor Falstaff. (And Mistress Quickly’s narration of Falstaff’s lonely death is one of the more affecting moments of this play.) It seems strange that these military conquerers have commanded so much praise throughout the ages. Plutarch’s Lives is little more than a compendium of so many Henrys. Yet as Voltaire said:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

All this being said, it must be noted in favor of these conquerors that their less charismatic counterparts are not necessarily better in terms of the common good. In Richard II, the beginning of this tetralogy, Shakespeare gives us a portrait of just such an ineffectual king, a man who has the sensibility of a poet but not the strong will of a commander, and whose poor decisions result in a civil war. Historically, peace at home has often been kept at the cost of war abroad, and vice versa. Conquered land is seldom kept, but the state is strengthened in the meantime; and a country united against an enemy may be preferable to one divided by faction.

Clearly, a country at peace at home and abroad is preferable to either alternative. But historically speaking, this option has not often existed. I do not think this excuses the bloodshed of conquests, but perhaps it goes some way in explaining why these warlike men have so often been treated as heroes, when nowadays we are apt to see them as villains. That, and a play about Isaac Newton would likely not be as entertaining.

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Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

This year marks the 100th birthday of Madrid’s metro system, and the city is celebrating the occasion. Stations are being decorated, special exhibitions mounted, and festive trains displayed. And I think that we all should celebrate the metro—not just in Madrid, but everywhere—for it is one of those rare human inventions which has worked so well that has become invisible. Though so often overlooked, the metro system of any city serves as both spine and arteries to the urban body: supporting and guiding development while moving the stuff of life from place to place.  Chances are that, if you live in a city, you depend on the metro many times a week: to commute, to see friends, to run errands. Yet we only stop to notice this subterranean network when, for whatever reason, it stops working.

Like so many inventions in our modern world, the metro has been integrated so seamlessly into our lives that it can be difficult to realize what an enormous engineering triumph it represents. Thousands of workers had to tunnel through hundreds of miles of solid earth in order to lay down tracks and build stations; and the resulting network of subterranean passages has to be used every day, all year, without any cave-ins, collapses, explosions, asphyxiations—in short, while being absolutely safe and reliable. As a result of this collaboration of politicians, architects, engineers, designers, construction workers, and too many others to name, I can walk out of my apartment, down a flight of stairs, and then ascend on the other side of a city. For a very reasonable price.

Madrid’s metro is, in my opinion, especially impressive. Opened 56 years after London’s underground, 19 years after Paris’s métro, and 10 years after New York’s subway, Madrid’s metro has grown to become the ninth largest network in the world (and it is the network with the second-most escalators and elevators, only surpassed by Shanghai). The first line stretched a mere three and a half kilometers, traveling at 15 mph between eight stations. Nowadays, the network has 12 lines, 302 stations, and covers almost 300 kilometers. Very few places in the central zone of the city are more than a fifteen minute walk to the nearest metro. I am lucky to live near two of the most useful lines: the original Line 1, which goes through the heart of the city, and the circular Line 6, which makes a giant loop around the outside.

The entire sprawling network

Counting repeat rides, over two million people take the metro every day—well over half the city’s population. Notwithstanding all this, the metro remains clean, timely, and dependable. After four years of living in this city, I can recall very few times when I have been frustrated at the metro service (a constant occurrence in NYC). True, Madrid’s metro does not have a strong personality. It has none of the gritty charm of the New York subway or the endearing retro-ness of London’s tube. The metro is not especially futuristic, quaint, or beautiful. But it works—without screeching and howling, without unpleasant smells, without delays or derailments.

True to form, the metro’s celebrations have also been quiet, efficient, and unobstructive. They have largely consisted of decorating Metro Line 1, the so-called Centennial Line, with antique photos of the metro’s early days—riders in top-hats and trench coats, besmattered workmen excavating the tunnels, old-fashioned entryways amid a cityscape filled with vintage automobiles. One of the more amusing of these is of the King Alfonso XIII inaugurating the metro: the king stands in a pinstripe suit with his hands folded on a cane, a top hat hanging from its end, wearing a bipartite mustache; and surrounding him are dozens of men dressed and groomed identically. Fashion was very strict in those days. Apparently the current King Felipe VI has been so good as to repeat the voyage taken by his great grandfather.

For those who wish to get a deeper sense of the metro’s history provided by the photographs, there are two free museum spaces run by the metro: the Estación de Chamberí and the Nave de Motores.

Chamberí was one of the first stations opened on Line 1. But like the City Hall station on New York’s Line 6, it was eventually closed down because the station’s curve was too sharp to be used with the newer, longer trains. As such, it became something of a time capsule, preserving the appearance of the first generation of train stations. Unlike the City Hall station, Chamberí was never designed to be an architectural showcase; it is simple and functional. Upon entering one passes the antique ticket-collecting booths, and descends to the old platform. Trains on Line 1 still scream past every five minutes or so.

When I arrived a guide was giving a free tour. Apparently, the station has a reputation for being haunted. You see, like many metro stations it was used as a bomb shelter during the Spanish Civil War, and the souls of victims are said to manifest occasionally to frighten visitors. Well, I did not see anything supernatural, but I did see many charming old advertisements—for cafés, hair gels, jewelry shops, and purgative mineral water. Few things are so evocative of the past as an ad for a product that no longer exists. These are the real ghosts.

The other museum is, by chance, right in my neighborhood: the Nave de Motores. This is a cavernous building made to house three giant diesel engines, which used to provide power to the metro system. Just as the contemporary power grid was too feeble for the first generation of trains along the Hudson line, so Madrid’s electricity infrastructure did not support the power necessary to propel the metro. Thus, these engines had to be built especially for the purpose.

The Nave de Motores, in Pacífico

They are gargantuan contraptions, about half the size of a house. For a time this was the most powerful power plant in Spain. I cannot even fathom the noise they would create, much less the amount of fuel they burned. The current produced by these mammoth machines had to be converted by another array of motors before being wired down to the tracks below the station for use by the metro. On a balcony overlooking the engine space there is a control panel, where dozens of little gauges and meters informed the engineers of the state of affairs. (Apparently it is possible to sign up for a hard-hat tour of the tunnels below, but I cannot find the link on the metro’s website.)

This month (May 17 to June 15) there is a special exhibition in the Nave de Motores, and the opening hours have been extended. The massive wheels have been decorated with lights, and informative panels have been put up all around the space. There are antique ticket machines on display, as well as different generations of metro tickets. One can even put on virtual reality goggles and look around a metro stop of the future. Videos of scenes from metro life are projected from the ceiling onto a table, while television monitors play informative mini-documentaries about the network. I was particularly impressed to see the testing and repair center, a huge warehouse where all the equipment is checked and fixed by a team of engineers and mechanics.

There were even a couple models on display, one of the tunnel-boring machine used to chew out the subterranean passages, and one of Sol’s metro station (one of the largest in the network). These miniatures help to give a taste of just how vast is the scale on which the network is built. Whole mountains of material had to be moved to dig out what is, in effect, another city underneath the city above.

The city beneath the city.

Work continues on the metro. Many of the lines have been adapted to allow for cell-phone service, which is much appreciated. Two years ago, Line 1 was closed for a few months for repairs; and Line 2 was recently closed for the same reason. (It has just reopened.) Every night, from 2:00 to 5:30 in the morning, the metro is closed down for repairs. It strikes me as strange that in Madrid, where people go out all night, the metro stops working, while in New York, where most people are home by 2:00, the subway runs all night. Maybe this is why Madrid’s metro runs so much more smoothly; but it is rather irritating on a Friday night.

The network has, for the most part, been entirely updated and transformed from its early years. However, one strange holdover remains. When the system was constructed, Madrid’s roads were like England’s: people drove on the left. Though the road orientation was switched in 1924, the metro kept is left-ward orientation, and so the trains always approach the station from the right as you are facing the train.

Madrid’s metro, like that of any city, serves a vital economic function: many people would not be able to get to their jobs without it. Aside from its economic function, however, the metro also serves as a center for social life. One becomes a native madrileño while riding on the metro: smushed up against bodies, eyeing strangers with anxiety or curiosity, respecting other people’s personal space with navigating the public space of underground transport. It is a place owned by everyone and no one, and so requires special rules to use. Don’t take up more than one seat. Take off your backpack. Give up your seat to the pregnant, the elderly, or the disabled. And don’t be a creep.

One also becomes socialized in more elusive ways. For example, the level of eye-contact considered acceptable on the Madrid metro can be unnerving for an American. Many newcomers to the city report feeling stared at. More than likely, they are just not used to the constant surveillance of Spanish city life—from shop windows, park benches, and balconies—and so misinterpret disinterested glances as either aggressive or suggestive, or both. Adapting to Spanish life means adapting to different standards of proximity and scrutiny. And much of this adaptation happens on the metro.

The metro can be a place of danger. Pickpockets are common, and their roaming hands are apt to relieve the unwary traveler of his wallet. It can also be an aggressive place. The only fight that I ever witnessed in Madrid was on the metro, between a young hothead and a homeless man. But the community quickly intervened, tearing the two kicking combatants apart. And this is the secret to the metro: that the citizens take an active role, however subtle or even invisible, in keeping it a safe place for everyone.

We can also ride the metro to get a taste of culture. In several stations there are miniature libraries, bibliometros (though I’ve never seen anyone actually use them). And apart from the decorations in some of the stations—such as in the stations of Paco de Lucía, Goya, and the Estación del Arte—there is the music. Hardly a station in the entire network is without its performer, singing and dancing in a busy corner, their hat covered in coins. Other musicians ride the metro, going from car to car, playing the pan-flute, singing duets, or rapping over a recorded beat. Admittedly this is not always welcome. Most of the time when I am on the metro I am trying to read. But city life is intrusive, in good ways and bad, and it isn’t for the rider to choose when and which.

Indeed, you might say that the metro represents Madrid in microcosm—both the frustration and the joy. There is the uncomfortable crowding, the long and wearisome commute, and the occasional bad apple. But just as often there is the snippet of overheard conversation, the random acts of kindness, and most of all the quiet assurance that you can get where you need to go.

So I say we should don our caps to the Madrid metro. We are lucky to have a system that is extensive, clean, cheap, and reliable. Take a ride on Line One. Visit the two free metro museums. And, most importantly, don’t be a creep.

Review: Three Philosophical Tales (Voltaire)

Review: Three Philosophical Tales (Voltaire)
Micromegas

Micromegas by Voltaire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This, for me, is a perfect little book—part science-fiction, part philosophy, and all wit.

I confess that I have always been somewhat lukewarm towards the more famous Candide, perhaps because that book pokes fun at an idea that I have never believed nor even taken seriously—namely, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But this book explores an idea which I have often contemplated: the smallness of our species in the universe.

In a way, the idea is not very sensible, since size is a relative term, and in any case physical size has nothing to do with importance. Nevertheless, when you look out of a plane window or down a skyscraper, and marvel at the almost comical smallness of buildings, cars, and people, it is an irresistible thought—that all of the things we concern ourselves with are ultimately without consequence.

One can perhaps see this book as a farcical precursor to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, which uses science rather than wit to emphasis our littleness. Both books come to the same point: we do not know far more than we know, we cover our ignorance with myths and theories, and we fight and kill one another for absolute trivialities. As one of the book’s philosopher says, “Did you know, for example, that as I am speaking with you, there are 100,000 madmen of our species wearing hats, killing 100,00 other animals wearing turbans, or being massacred by them, and that we have used almost the whole surface of the Earth for this purpose since time immemorial?”

The final message of the book is rather bleak and even nihilistic, if lightened by Voltaire’s humor: that humanity is vanishingly unimportant. This is not exactly good philosophy, nor is it even necessarily good moralizing, since if nothing means anything we might as well do what we want. However, this “cosmic” perspective can, I think, be used to moderate ourselves: as a timely reminder of our ultimate ignorance and of our ultimate insignificance. It can at least help us to take ourselves a little less seriously. And, as Betrand Russell observed of Spinoza’s cosmic philosophy:

There are even times when it is comforting to reflect that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.


Zadig/L'Ingénu

Zadig/L’Ingénu by Voltaire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If we must have fables, for heaven’s sake let them at least be emblems of truth.

Here are two more tales of Voltaire, one written before and one after the famous Candide. All three center on a young man in love with a beautiful girl, whose love is thwarted as he is tossed about by fortune. Yet in content and tone the three are fairly divergent.

Zadig, the earliest of the tales, is set in the orient of the Arabian Nights. The titular hero is excellent in every way; he is wise, he is dexterous, he is honorable, and he even practices the art of deduction as well as Sherlock Holmes. Yet no matter what he does, misfortune follows close at his heals.

So far the tale more or less resembles Candide. However, Voltaire ends the story on an unexpected note. Zadig’s misfortunes eventually lead him to marry the woman he loves and become king; and the moral is that, as Pope said, all partial evil leads to universal good. In other words, one must trust fate and not presume to denounce bad luck. This is striking because it is the exact moral that Voltaire so mercilessly parodies in Candide. It appears the younger Voltaire was more optimistic.

The last tale, L’Ingénu (or “The Child of Nature” as the translator renders it) is about an American native who ends up in Breton and tries to integrate. This tale is more pointedly satirical than Zadig, as Voltaire goes out of his way to mock the hypocrisy of French catholics. In tone this tale is not nearly so lighthearted; indeed, in style it is more novelistic than joyfully silly. The final message is that French society is deeply corrupt and that many misfortunes are simply the result of human wickedness. And as the last sentence of the book tells us: “Misfortune is no use at all!”

Optimistic or pessimistic, these two tales are gems of wit from a humane thinker and a sharp writer. Everything I read of the French imp increases my admiration for him.



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The Madrid Marathon

The Madrid Marathon

I have been a bad athlete for as long as I can remember. Apart from a brief and embarrassing stint on a soccer team in elementary school (all I can recall is spending an entire game crying my eyes out), I have avoided team sports all my life. And they have avoided me. In gym class I was always one of the last to be picked for a team. For all of middle school and high school I was tall, overweight, and consequently I had all the gawkiness and sluggishness of both conditions. True, I did spend a few years taking taekwondo classes in high school, and I was not so bad at it. But my unpromising career as a martial artist came to an abrupt end when all the stretching and kicking made it necessary to go to physical therapy for my aching, cracking knees.

Of all of the sports that I have failed at, the most conspicuous is running. Every year I dreaded the day in gym class when we would be made to run a mile. I always began with the hope that, this time, I would be able to run the whole thing without stopping. After all, nearly everyone else could. But inevitably, less than halfway through, I would run out of breath and have to walk; and I spent the rest of the time alternating between a wheezing run and a panting walk. Not once did I manage to run a mile in less than ten minutes. Just as bad was the PACER test, when we had to run from one end of the gym to the other within progressively shorter intervals, signalled by an ominous beep. The real studs were able to get to level nine, while I gave up far before that—defeated by the high-pitched tone.

This long and undistinguished experience taught me that I would never be a runner. My knee problems only added to this belief. So, after high school, I never tried. I was pragmatically and philosophically committed to a life of inactivity, with the sole exception of walking (a true intellectual’s sport). But then something happened to break my conviction that I could not run.

Last year, I got into the habit of leaving my apartment at the exact minute needed to catch the bus. Sometimes I left a little late, however, and this put me in a dilemma: walk and miss the bus (and this would mean arriving late to work), or run and catch it. My fear of being fired overcame my combined fears of looking foolish, getting my clothes sweaty, and dying of suffocation. So I ran. It started with only a half of a block, just a short sprint to catch the light. Then it became the whole block, and eventually two blocks—sprinting for the light, stopping, sprinting for the next light, stopping again—until I would run almost the whole way to the bus. And the strangest part is that I did not hate it.

Still, nothing changed. I did not participate in my school’s “Race Against Hunger,” a charity race that we do every year. Instead, I sat by the sidelines feeling bored and useless. I did not even own a pair of sneakers. Nevertheless, circumstances were quietly conspiring to make running a reality. Aside from my bus sprints, living in Europe had left a mark. On all my travels I had tried to walk as much as possible, mostly to avoid paying for taxis and buses and trains; and this had made me a resolute trekker, capable of walking miles under the hottest suns.

All of this unintended athletic experience culminated in a growing curiosity: Could I, finally, after a decade of not running, run a mile without stopping? Sure, I was no athlete; but I was skinnier and in better shape than I was in high school. That adolescent experience had left within me the iron conviction that a mile was an impossibly long distance for me, and that my body was simply unable to do it. Yet in the spirit of science I wanted to test this conviction.

So, one cold February day, I went to a sportswear store with my brother. I could not have felt any more out of place as I looked at sweatpants, recovery gels, and headbands than if I had wandered into an Aztec ritual sacrifice. This was not my world. But I managed to buy myself tights, sneakers, and an armband for my phone, feeling absolutely ridiculous all the while.

That same day I carried my purchases home and prepared for my trial. The tights were, well, tight; the armband was awkward to use. When I walked out into the street, I felt acutely embarrassed, as if everyone was staring at me. I had not worn athletic wear since… actually, I don’t know. What was I doing? Long before I began to run, my body became flushed with adrenaline. I was certain that I was about to make a fool of myself.

The walk to the park, where I would begin my run, seemed endless. But finally I arrived. This was the fateful moment. I opened the app, Runkeeper, and started the tracking function. Then, I fumbled in getting it into the armband holder, and then fumbled again in putting it on my arm. Now the run began—slowly. The first steps felt strange. Retiro Park seemed to bounce up and down. I remember finding it odd that I could enjoy the beauty of the trees while running; I had assumed that I would not be able to think about or appreciate anything.

Sure enough, the tightness in my lungs soon came, that horrible feeling of suffocating. But it was never powerful enough to make me want to stop. I kept going until I got to the artificial lake, and then I turned left and then left again, to complete the circuit. The ground was mostly flat but there was a slight hill near the end, and I thought my chest would explode as I crawled to the top of it. Finally, and unbelievably, I made it back to where I had started. And I had run the entire time. I checked the app—1.12 miles, at a pace of 9:39 per mile. For the first time in my life, at the age of 27, I ran a whole mile.


The months that followed were full of constant surprise. The biggest was that I actually enjoyed running. I did not necessarily enjoy the physical sensation of running; the mythical runner’s high eluded me, and I felt mostly pain and exhaustion. But I did enjoy improving; and I improved with every run—running longer distances at faster paces. Unlike writing or playing music, running can be measured objectively, in simple, cold figures. There can be no dispute over which runner is better or worse. This makes progress very easy to see and, consequently, very satisfying.

I chatted about it incessantly, even getting mildly obsessed with the subject. It felt genuinely surreal to be spending so much time thinking about an athletic activity: this was not me. More important, it felt liberating to see myself as someone who could actually do something physical. My carefully constructed self-image as a delicate intellectual had cracked and crumbled. I felt as if a new continent of experience was now available for exploration.

Eventually, my coworker, Holden, suggested that I do the half-marathon. He had signed up for the marathon and had been preparing for months. At first I dismissed the idea as absurd. The longest I had run at that point was six miles, at a very sluggish pace, and it nearly killed me. Yet, the idea was implanted in my head. I thought of the feeling of triumph, of surpassing even my most ambitious running goals. And, of course, I imagined how much weight I would lose in the process of training (it wasn’t much). So, I paid my 40€ (somewhat indignantly) and signed myself up. Now the serious training would begin.

This consisted of one long run a week, in which I tried to increase my maximum distance by one mile, and several shorter runs wherein I worked on my speed. This regime got me to 13 miles two weeks before the day of the half-marathon, April 27 (it had been moved up a day because of the elections on April 28). On my long runs, I would end up going so slowly that I struggled to pass old ladies with canes. But at least I knew that I could go the distance.

Finally there was only one week until race day. I was nervous. Somehow, I was certain that I was going to do badly and disappoint myself. It did not matter what time I got, of course, but I had decided that I was to run the race in less than two hours—not an easy thing for a beginning runner. I followed all the typical advice, taking a break in the days before the race and stuffing myself with platefuls of pasta. By the time Saturday came around I was well-rested, well-fed, and as prepared as I could have been. Would it be enough?

Two day before the race I picked up my bib (the little paper with your number on it, and a chip so they can track your movement). Annoyingly, they put the pick-up location all the way out in Feria de Madrid, a large complex of expo centers on the outskirts of the city. It took some time just to get there; and then it took some time just to walk through the mammoth buildings to the proper hall. There, a series of volunteers in booths gave me a bib, a t-shirt, and a drawstring bag. The rest of the space was full of other booths offering running-related products and services—energy gels, massages, protein powders. Probably many had free samples; but it was late and I wanted to go home.

The next night, I attached the bib to my sleeveless running shirt with safety pins. I was officially ready.


Race day.

I woke up, ate toast and peanuts, drank water and coffee, and headed out the door. I had been told that it’s best to warm-up a bit before the race, so I jogged about ten minutes to the train station. When I walked out of the train, I was surrounded by thousands of men and women in colorful sports clothes. I did not realize it was such a massive undertaking. Stalls were set up for clothing drop off; hundreds of port-a-potties lined the streets (all without toilet paper); rock music blared from enormous speakers. The closer I got to the running corrals, the more I was awed at the sheer size of the event. 35,000 people were running that day—the 10k, the half-marathon, and the full marathon. William the Conqueror had conquered England with fewer.

I waited, warmed up again, and waited some more. Finally it was time to get into my corral. It was like being in a nightclub—a packed mass of bodies. How could I run through this? Rock music blared. The announcer counted down. Athletic-looking people were dancing (motivationally?) on elevated platforms in the middle of the track. They had spent a lot of money on this thing.

Finally the signal was given. I tensed for the exertion; but it was a bit anticlimactic, since the whole mass of people had to walk to the starting line before they actually began running. There were people holding big blue balloons with times on them; they were professional pacers, and would run the race at exactly the time indicated on their balloon. I struggled to find the 2 hour balloon: it was several hundred meters ahead, and had started before me. Finally I crossed the starting line and found myself jogging in a loose formation.

“Hey man,” I heard a voice say. I turned to see David, a friend I had made in my masters program. He had helped me work on my speed in preparation for the marathon, as I struggled to keep up with him on our weekly runs around Retiro Park. (This is something I discovered during training: running with better runners makes it easier to push your limits.) Soon it was apparent that he was still faster than me, as he pulled away through the crowd of runners. Besides David, I knew four other people running that day, but did not see a single familiar face during the whole race, even though our finishing times were mere minutes apart.

Peter Sagal said that anyone could run the first mile of a marathon, since it gives you the sensation of running with a mob. Unfortunately I did not feel the same way. Most people were fairly quiet, just focused on the long trail ahead; nobody burst forward in a mad dash. Our route took us straight north from the starting line, up towards the four skyscrapers near Chamartín station. The organizers had planned the route well, since these first 5 kilometers was the only stretch that was consistently uphill. After we turned the corner to go back south, it was smooth sailing.

The route

Without the reference of the balloon, I did not know if I was going fast enough. I tried to keep a constant pace, not pushing too hard but not going easy. The presence of so many other people was surprisingly motivating. I felt as if I were being urged ahead by a social force, and all I had to do was to follow the wave. For the most part there were not many onlookers—just a few scattered people cheering us on. I appreciated it. There are few sports more boring to watch than long-distance running.

The pacers in action. Photo by Rebeca López.

Fifty minutes in we passed our first water station, and I felt like a real professional as I drank my bottle on the move. I also took this opportunity to have some of the energy gel that Holden had given me. This is a cocktail of vitamins, sugar, and caffeine that tastes horrible but it has a satisfying effect. Suddenly I felt optimistic—even chipper. The exhaustion lifted and I felt my stride grow longer. Was this the elusive runner’s high? Probably it was just a caffeine rush, but it felt great nonetheless. As I reached a downhill area in the neighborhood of Salamanca, I began passing some runners ahead of me—which is strange for me. Also strange, I began to talk to myself in almost ecstatically encouraging tones: praising myself and egging myself on. Caffeine is an amazing drug.

As is often the case in Madrid, it was a perfect day to run: a clear blue sky, no wind, no humidity, and not too hot. I am not sure that I ever saw so much of Madrid in a single day, and the city looked beautiful in the sunlight. This is one of the great benefits of running: it makes you feel a part of the community. I had already experienced this during my practice runs in Retiro Park and Madrid Río. Because you are outside, covering plenty of ground, surrounded by others, you feel that you are really getting to know a place and to belong in it. That day, I felt like I belonged in Madrid.

Just as we reached the end of the hill, we passed through a small tunnel. There were people cheering on the road above. But the real noise came from the runners, who shouted and whooped as soon as they passed underground, making the space reverberate with a kind of barbaric din—a war cry for amateur athletes. I added my own feeble contribution to the chorus of adrenaline, and felt for a moment as part of something bigger than myself, as just one pulsating cell of an enormous beast. This feeling, I thought, is why people run these ridiculous races.

This sensation soon passed, as did the euphoric effect of the caffeine, and the usual pain and strain came back. Luckily, I soon reached another water station, and then swallowed the rest of my energy gel, which gave me another boost. But I could tell that my reserves were running low.

This particular marathon was a “rock ‘n’ roll” race, which meant that there were stages set up periodically along the course where local rock bands were playing. I must admit that I did not find the music particularly animating, partially because I was able to hear so little of it as I ran by. The cheering of the crowd was somewhat more uplifting, especially when I noticed my friend Monica calling my name. But by far the most motivating factor were the other runners, sweeping me up into a constant forward motion.

Partially because the race was a “rock ‘n’ roll” marathon, I decided to run it without headphones. This was the first time I had ever done a long run without my trusty audiobooks keeping me company, and I was afraid that I would get bored. But it turned out to be a good choice. Free from the distraction, I was able to focus my energy on keeping myself going at a steady pace. Indeed, the extended focus on my breath and my moving limbs made the experience at times rather meditative; I was completely absorbed in the experience of the race. Another advantage to not using headphones is that I did not have my running app telling me how much distance I had covered. This was a very strategic sort of ignorance, since it allowed me to keep pushing without fear of burning out too early.

Photo by Rebeca López

I started to enter more familiar neighborhoods, and I knew that I was in the final stretch. The more I ran, the more impressed I became at the scale of the marathon: they had to shut down half the city for us. Now I knew why I had paid 40€ to run. Still, city life tried to go on—in particular the life of the elderly, who refused to stop for any sweaty army. More times than could possibly be a coincidence I had to stop or swerve to avoid an octogenarian slowly crossing the race course, cane or walker in hand. They were either very brave or quite blind.

Soon I passed several men and women shouting directions at us: those running the full marathon had to turn left, while us half-marathoners continued straight. I knew from the map that this meant that we were in the final stretch. I did my best to push myself to go faster, but my whole body was achy and unresponsive. So I compromised by trying not to slow down. A small woman with a very loud voice started yelling what she meant to be encouraging slogans to us, most of which were about the beer waiting for us at the end. This failed to motivate me, I am afraid, since the thought of drinking beer after getting so dehydrated filled me with disgust.

It was around this time that the thought finally crossed my mind that I would very much like to stop. I had been running for almost two hours by then, and I was tired and even bored, and the finish line was failing to materialize. Luckily the course started taking us downhill, past Retiro Park on the way towards Atocha. At this point I spotted Rebe, to whom I had delegated the task of taking photos of the race for this blog. She was busy at work—so busy, in fact, that she did not notice me until I was right about to kiss her.

Photo by Rebeca López. I am on the far left.

Now it was truly the final stretch. We got to the bottom of the hill, into the Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, and then began up the Paseo del Prado. The finish line finally came into view. I was afraid to look at it, since I thought it would be too discouraging to see how slowly it came nearer; so I looked at the ground. The loud-voiced woman started shouting even more loudly and insistently. The crowd around us started to roar. I could hear music.

Before the race, I had imagined that the sight of the finish line would fill me with a final burst of energy, and I would be able to spring the last few hundred meters. But when I tried to speed up my body rebelled; it hurt too much; so I contented myself with, once again, keeping an even pace.

When I was within 100 meters I looked up and beheld the goal. Again, I tried sprinting, but it was impossible. So I jogged under the gateway and across the finish line, weakly raising my arms in tired triumph. I was done. Again, I had assumed that I would immediately feel transports of joy and accomplishment, but I was too exhausted to feel or to think anything—except, of course, at how exhausted I felt.

After the finish line volunteers were distributing medals, water bottles, and little bags full of food: a banana, an apple, a chocolate croissant, and a bottle of Powerade—for which I was extremely grateful. I started gulping down the water as I limped out of the race area and into the Plaza de Cibeles. Somehow, Rebe immediately found me, and we sat down nearby while I slowly recovered the ability to speak. My face was marked with salty-white streaks of dried sweat, my clothes were completely soaked, and I walked with an awkward limp. But I felt fantastic, and only felt better as the day progressed. Indeed, the sense of accomplishment, blended with complete bodily relaxation, creating one of the most pleasant days I can remember.

My final time was 2:05, which is five minutes above my goal time, but still easily the best I had ever run. I felt completely at peace—with myself and with the world. And I finally discovered the most valuable benefit of running: not losing weight, nor being healthy, nor even the sense of accomplishment, but just feeling good. And I felt good.

Review: The Prussian Officer

Review: The Prussian Officer
The Prussian Officer

The Prussian Officer by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first book by Lawrence, and I am greatly impressed. These short stories were published near the beginning of his writing career; yet they show a mature writer with a fully developed voice. Several qualities are immediately apparent. The first is Lawrence’s exquisite sensitivity to nature. The best prose in this volume is to be found in the many passages of natural description:

The air was too scented, it gave no breath. All the lush green-stuff seemed to be issuing its sap, till the air was deathly, sickly with the smell of greenness. There was the perfume of clover, like pure honey and bees. Then there grew a faint acrid tang—they were near the beeches; and then a queer clattering noise, and a suffocating, hideous smell: they were passing a flock of sheep, a shepherd in a black smock, holding his hook.

Lawrence’s primary subject is the rural poor. He is totally convincing in his depiction of the harried mother waiting for her drunkard husband to stumble home, or the sick widow trying to take care of her adult son. Unlike Hemingway, Lawrence has the rare talent of being able to write about people entirely unlike himself. His most memorable characters are consistently women, who normally show themselves to be superior in personality and intelligence to their male counterparts.

Insofar as these stories contain the germ of a philosophy, it is that passionate, sexual relationships allow people to be truly themselves. Thus, in “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the consummation of a relationship gives the couple a strange superiority over their circumstances; and in “Daughters of the Vicar,” the unhappy daughter who settled for a loveless marriage is contrasted with the self-assured daughter who marries for love.

But it would be wrong to call Lawrence a didactic writer, at least in this volume. The stories, for the most part, have no moral. They are concerned with the basic stuff of all prose literature: relationships—with oneself, with others, or with the rest of society. And as Melvyn Bragg says in the introduction, the stories are free of the traditional plot mechanics that are used to propel stories to pre-determined ends; instead Lawrence’s stories develop seamlessly, organically, without any noticeable push from the writer. I am looking forward to reading Lawrence’s novels.

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Soaking in Ourense

Soaking in Ourense

Once again, the December puente was coming around: a long weekend, the first one of the school year. I was exhausted from the last few months of Global Classrooms. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and cheap—somewhere that was not much of a tourist destination and did not have much to see. Thus, after some false starts, I settled on Ourense, one of the most overlooked cities in Galicia.

Galicia has become my favorite corner of Spain. The people are friendly, the landscape is beautiful, the tourists are scanty, the food is delicious, and the cost is low. My plan was, in essence, to go to Ourense with my girlfriend and—apart from stuffing my face with the harty local cuisine—to do as little as possible. In one major respect my plan failed. After eating dozens of unwashed grapes (long story), I got food poisoning during our excursion to Santiago de Compostela, which made eating difficult.

I also failed in my attempt to pick a city without anything to see. Spain is so dense with history that it pervades even its remotest corners. You can’t walk a mile without tripping over a ruin. And, of course, Ourense is not remote; it is the third-largest city in the region, larger than Santiago de Compostela; and its history stretches back to Roman times. This was a fortunate mistake for someone with a travel blog.


As I soon discovered upon leaving our Airbnb, Ourense has maintained an impressive medieval center. The streets are narrow and meandering; and the buildings are appropriately grey and granite, with arcades running underneath. We soon passed by the Igrexa de la Santísima Trindade, or the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is an impressive, almost castle-like gothic church with an enclosed courtyard. In minutes we were in the Plaza Mayor, which had been decorated for Christmas with a giant tree-shaped light.

The Lantern

Right next to the plaza is the city’s cathedral, its most important historic site. From the outside it has none of the towering grandeur of the cathedral in Santiago. Indeed, the cathedral presents a heavy, fortified look, like the above-mentioned church. The inside is far more attractive. Apart from the impressive gothic nave and the beautiful central lantern, letting in light from eight sides, the cathedral is full of splendid decoration. The main altar, which sides under the octagonal lantern, is an explosion of flamboyant gothic, somewhat reminiscent of the enormous altar in Seville. In the center is a panel depicting St. Martin of Tours, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.

By far the most arresting chapel is the Capilla del Santo Cristo. One moves from the stark simplicity of gothic to the extravagant flourish of the Baroque. As befitting that era’s horror of empty space, every inch of the chapel is covered in decoration—shadowy paintings surrounded by delicately carved and gilded wood. In the center a realistic Christ with long flowing hair hangs from the cross. The chapel also contains the Renaissance choir stalls which once stood in the main nave. The final effect is one of extravagance. I am not sure that it is beautiful, but it is certainly impressive.

Yet the most famous work of art in the cathedral is the Pórtico del Paraíso. This is an elaborately carved tripartite doorway, which once served as the main entrance to the cathedral (but has since been engulfed by the growing cathedral). It was designed by students of the legendary Master Matteo, who is responsible for the more famous Pórtico da Gloria in Santiago. According to the audio guide the two cities, Ourense and Santiago, had something of a rivalry; and this doorway was an attempt to keep up with the neighboring city. Having seen both doorways, I can confidently say that Matteo’s is the superior. Even so, the Pórtico del Paraíso is an extremely fine piece of sculpture, which has been well preserved (or restored). The pigments of the paint still shine invitingly, filling the entire ensemble with a joyful glow.

I should not neglect to mention the cathedral museum, which is included in the ticket. There relics, treasures, paintings, altars, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts on display, as well as a few Roman ruins unearthed during excavations and repairs.

Two large churches stand quite near the cathedral. One is the Igrexa de Santa Eufemia, a monumental Baroque church with a concave façade. The other is the Igrexa de Santa María Nai, another fine Baroque church which now stands, it is believed, on the foundation of the original cathedral. However, I mention these churches, not for their beauty, but because I always find it amusing that large churches are placed so close to each other, within a five minute walk of the city’s cathedral. Being a church artisan was a good career in those days; the demand was endless.

After ascending a staircase up to the hill overlooking the cathedral, I came to my favorite part of the city: the Cemetery of San Francisco. This cemetery goes back to the gothic period, and maintains many beautiful tombs and mausoleums. As usual, I felt a deep sense of calm as I walked through the cemetery, a repose from the temporary and trivial concerns that usual occupy my attention. (Rebe, on the other hand, found it creepy.) The hill also provided an excellent view of the city, the cathedral, and the countryside beyond.

The cemetery used to be attached to an eponymous monastery, which has long since been confiscated and shut down. (For two centuries it was used as a nursery.) However, some artwork from the monastery is on display in a free gallery. And right next-door is the old cloister, the Claustro de San Francisco—now detached and homeless. This is without a doubt one of the great sights in Ourense: the cloister is decorated in the finest gothic fashion, a delicate and harmonious space that transmits the meditative peace of monastic life.

Now it was time to cross the river Miño, which runs through the center of the city. The most convenient walking bridge is the iconic Ponte Vella, or old bridge. The origins of this bridge go back to Roman times, though little remains but some foundation stones from that epoch. The current form of the bridge is medieval. It is an elegant construction, resting on a series of arches that stretches 208 meters (almost 700 feet) from end to end, and rises 33 meters (100 feet) over the water. The bridge has proven so important in the history of Ourense that it is featured on the city’s coat of arms.

Yet this is not the only attractive bridge in Ourense. Also lovely is the Ponte do Milenio, a strikingly modern construction distinguished by the floating metal outline of a ship, which hangs suspended from the two slanted support beams. This is actually a walkway, on which you can dip down below the main section of the bridge to get closer to the water, or ascend to the top for a view of the river valley. Normally I am not very keen on modern design; but I was very much taken by this bridge, which combines functionality with an unconventional use, while maintaining an attractive overall form.

I have come all this way but I have yet to mention the greatest attraction in Ourense: the thermal baths. Ourense is highly geothermically active; thus the city is filled with steaming pools of water, many of which are free to visit. I admit that I am unclear on the science of this heating; though since Ourense is not volcanically active, I suppose that the water gets heated by the decay of radioactive elements deep underground. The water, however, is perfectly safe; and it reaches the surface at pleasant temperatures—warm, but not dangerous. This, by the way, is why the bath-loving Romans came to Ourense.

Most of the baths are situated outside of the city center, alongside the river Miño. However, one important bath sits right in the heart of Ourense: As Burgas. This bath has been used since Roman times, and it was believed to have both religious and curative properties. The baths were maintained into the Christian epoch, in part because it provided a welcome comfort to weary pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Also, according to what I can find, the heat was harnessed by artisans and bakers (though I can’t imagine how).

However, I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of taking a bath right in the center of the city, with pedestrians passing by on every side. So, we headed toward the river to visit the baths of A Chavasqueira. The walk there led us across the Ponte Vella to a path alongside the Miño. The place seems designed as a peaceful escape. There are no crowds and no cars, just the quiet murmuring of the river. Still, I felt apprehensive. I had never been to a thermal bath, and I did not much like the idea of sharing a hot tub with strangers. But, I have a blog to write, and this means I have to experience the typical attractions.

A Chavasqueira thermal baths. Image from Wikimedia Commons; photo by Roberto Chamoso G; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

A Chavasqueira, like the other thermal baths, is public and completely free. The baths consisted of four medium sized, shallow pools, rimmed with stone; and each bath is a different temperature. When we arrived, at mid-day, they were moderately full. Now, when it comes to public nudity, Spain is relatively conservative as far as European countries go; you will never encounter naked sunbathers on a stroll around Madrid’s Retiro Park, for example, as you might while exploring Berlin’s Tiergarten. However, they are still less conservative than prudish Americans. It is acceptable for women to be topless; and most people change with a towel rather than retreating to the public bathrooms, as I did. My natural timidity immediately flared up: I felt uncomfortable.

Still, I had come this far, and could not turn back now. Before going into the baths, it is customary to rinse off with the nearby shower. Seldom do I feel more pathetic and exposed than when I am being doused with cold water out in the open. This done, I lowered myself into the least populated pool. The water was quite warm but not scalding. Nearby an older bald man with a potbelly was determinately soaking, his face a serene grimace. I waited to be suffused with the blissful calm of hot mineral water, but felt… quite normal. In fact, I felt a strange combination of anxiety and boredom. The heat made my heart beat more quickly, and I felt my veins flood with adrenaline. What was I doing here? I could be taking a nice hot shower in the comfort and privacy of my own home.

Meanwhile, Rebe was splashing around quite contentedly, seeming to be properly relaxed. I tried to relax, to wait, to adjust. But I felt silly. What was I supposed to be doing, just sitting in water? After ten minutes I gave up, got out, and changed back into my clothes. Rebe wanted to stay longer, so I took a walk further down the Miño. Now, this was relaxing: solitude, cool air, movement, and nature. After thirty minutes I felt properly calmed after enduring the trauma of the hot springs.

After this all-to-typical failure to enjoy myself, I tried the hot springs again on the following day, and had a moderately better experience. Still, I admit that I do not see the appeal and do not find it especially relaxing. Clearly, I am not made for spa life.

But do not let my experience dissuade you. The vast majority of human beings seem to love thermal baths. And, in any case, Ourense is a charming city. Despite my food poisoning, I even managed to stuff myself with delicious Galician food. That is a successful vacation.