Saturday, August 29, 2009

Adversely Creative

Ever since I have arrived in France two months ago, I have been increasingly impressed by the French appreciation of jazz, and of science. This is very encouraging for me, since neither of these things is particularly popular in the United States at the moment. There is so much truth in this that I am beginning to wonder why we still have some of the greatest innovation, and some of the best music coming out of the States. Quality of innovation is subjective, so any point I make is arguable. Still, while I don’t have any agenda as an American, I would like to figure this out as a professor and an improvisational musician. Like most positive things there seem to be an equal amount of negative. The negatives I am referring to may even be the cause of the creativity.
Last month the guitarist Les Paul died at the age of 94. My family and I had seen him perform twice just in the last 2 years, which was a pleasure from an entertainment and historical perspective, but I never really thought about it beyond the music. I of course knew that there was a Gibson guitar called the Les Paul, and that he must have somehow been involved with the development of this instrument. It was only when I heard a rebroadcast of 1992 interview of him, that I realized how much Les Paul himself straddled the worlds of artistic and technological innovation, and how much his contributions were in part due to the personal obstacles he overcame. Les Paul invented the process of multi tracking, for instance, in order to be able to continue a recording session even after his bass player left the room. He invented extended sustain and looping, because of the immobility in his hands due to extreme arthritis. With these techniques, he could play slower and less notes at the same time, while achieving a sound that was more complex than he was able to achieve when he had perfect fingers. Les Paul also told a story of a time when he was in his late 50’s and could not get a gig. He volunteered to play on Monday nights at Fat Tuesdays in New York, because the club was closed on Mondays. He even worked for door money alone. All of this is to say that his contributions came from adversity.
As I write this, there are protests all around the United States about the proposed health care bill which is being debated in congress. Regardless of what stance people take on this particular plan, there is one thing that seems very obvious from here in Paris. That is that the United States has adversity. There is a very small middle class. More babies are dying than in the rest of the western world (we are ranked 33rd in the world in infant mortality), and the country’s poor are living in fear of bankruptcy due to health care bills (over 60% of personal bankruptcies in 2008 were due to health related issues). Though France has its problems, access of health care is not even discussed here, as the problem has been essentially solved by a proven government run system. Like most things that we get used to, it is assumed that this is a universal status quo. Health care is just one example of this. When my daughter was 4 days old in Brooklyn, we took her to the pediatrician for her first check up. As any new parent knows, this is an anxious time, when you have no idea what you are doing. We waited in the lobby, and were not allowed to enter for the appointment because we had forgotten the health insurance card at home. We have health insurance. I can’t imagine how parents without manage. In France it is forbidden to even ask, before taking in a patient. Other examples of this are pregnancy leave which is 4 and 1/2 months in France (for the first child, more for subsequent children), and universal Pre-K, which starts at 2 ½ years old.
My French wife and friends will point out that France is not the Utopia that I make it out to be, and certainly they are right. I am new to France, and already I have seen how the famous French bureaucracy can lead to frustration, or apathy, while perhaps discouraging entrepreneurship. While this is no doubt true, it doesn’t address the lone talent, who has a vision for composing, painting, or even inventing. While government is a hassle and a help, the society in general is left healthier and more educated than in America.
So how these two stories relate, may answer some questions that could help us learn on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps America’s adversity, like adversity faced by Les Paul, has brought about innovation. Perhaps this feeling that Americans have a positive ambitious creativity is simply out of necessity. A kind of creative survival of the fittest. This is scary, as this will leave out most Americans. For those that do survive however, they may produce some great art and technology. This should not be good enough for us Americans. We should realize that not everyone needs to be a Les Paul, and that everyone does need to have health care. Here in France, the situation is reversed. While the French appreciate art and science, they need to take more risks. In a society that gives as much as France does, it becomes necessary for the artist and scientist to step back from the comfort of that, and recognize what personal shortcomings they may have despite the luck of being born here. When they do that more people will be able to see that their own immobility, like Les Paul’s, may be their greatest asset.


  1. Having lived both in France and the United States I couldn't agree with you more.

  2. I want to participate in the discussion, but I'm afraid what I have to say will come off as offensive as an "outsider" in France. Namely that the large majority of my adult students claim to be very depressed. Individuals need adversity to progress and motivate themselves and moreover, they need hope. Hope that the choices they make and the efforts they put out into the world will pay off in some way. Social services are wonderful and frankly, should be a given in the civilized world, but control over one's destiny (to the extent that we are able) and the freedom to make choices in our lives are what liberates us.

    Adversity motivates, social limitations depresses.

  3. CC,

    I agree with you. Universal social servives SHOULD BE a given. But it is not.

    I couldn't agree with you more when you state the importance of HOPE as a prerequisit for mental sanity. And I do love America for this very reason: because it's a country of possibilities, of surprises and where hope really has a meaning.

    However, the older I grow, the more I realize how "security" (as opposed to "hope"?) is equally as important to one's mental sanity (lacking a better word her).

    The opposition Security/Hope is key in the way I see life in general. My entire life has always been a constant battle (or at least search) for the right balance between security (as opposed to precarity) and Hope (as opposed to limitation).

    This is, I believe, a major challenge that our generation has to face. Giving people enough hope and room to grow (or simply just change), while providing them a decent frame...

    Not so simple... Especially because the scene of this debate is not outside (governements, laws, corporations etc.) but inside each of us.

    What are we willing to settle for? What's for us to take without compromising what counts? These are key questions of our century.

  4. Laetitia,

    I'm not sure I agree that America is a country where hope "really has a meaning." America has become a land of addictions: addiction to food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, violence, sex, money, religion.........etc. Why is this? I think that the illusion of possibility, the illusion of the "American Dream" has been unmasked and left people here with a sense of fear and despair. Living on credit cards debt and sub-prime mortgages is not indicative of a land of hope and possibility. It's indicative of a people flailing desperately to preserve the illusion of possibility. It's indicative of a culture of denial. I don't think the French are more depressed than we are. Perhaps they are just more willing to acknowledge their hopelessness. Stripping away illusion, and acknolwedging reality, is the first step towards becoming truly creative and innovative.

  5. These are such great comments. Though I am so new to Paris, I have been married to a french woman, and been doing business in France for many years. I tend to think that the French are not depressed. Certainly not in a clinical way. We were talking last night about this, and the French are bit like the pressure cookers that they use so much here. They let out a lot of steam. Yesterday working at a science University, I was with professors who were as enthusiatic and passionate as any American. They were not depressed. When we got to dinner they told me all of the bad things about France. i think this is pragmatic and healthy really. Complaining can be annoying, but it is also something that can keep your society honest, which i think we are having trouble with in America. We live with a lot of dillussion, about success and wealth.

  6. French people are more depressed. Maybe not in a clinical way, but they do see the world with negative eyes. Complain about everything. Last weekend I was in Vegas with European clients and they are happiness-challenged. I am sorry, but it's true. Let's take this example: Las Vegas. This city certainly is a little ridiculous. But, so what?!?! My client was there for the first time and for only 3 days, we were working on a trade show (and we all know American are gifted with shows in general, and trade shows in particular, there are many things to be copied and imported to Europe). She spent her time criticizing: The carpet was white and very high quality -> What a bunch of idiots to use that carpet for a tradeshow!!! Why didn't she say: Oh wow, I am impressed because American show organizers really use superior products, even if the show only is temporary... Then I took her for a lille visit of the Strip and our first stop was the foutain show in the front of the Bellagio: everyone who has seen that is paralyzed because it's so impressive, beautiful, grand... She told me: "oh but wait, what do you think? we have water fountains too in Barcelona...", then we went to the Venetian hotel (she is Italian by birth) and I proposed we should eat on the Plazza San Marco -> What? I don't think I want to eat Italian food in Vegas... that's a little ridiculous. People in Europe (not only French I guess), are just not able to enjoy the moment (and I am one of them...). They cannot settle for little moments of happiness but GOT TO have a big, perfect picture. Everything need to make sense. That's a pity, because sometimes enjoying little details can be extremely satisfying.

    Robert: I agree with you. America can be wonderland sometimes, that's the drawback. Americans know how to enjoy the moment so well that they can seem a little naive. And providing them to much Freedom to achieve their dreams is not always the best gift (credit cards are a business, not a charity). However, I am still convince that America is the Land of Hope... where IT is possible. Not easy, not systematic, not granted, not fair. just possible. And that's the beauty of it.


  8. Very interesting discussion, Matthew. Thanks for sharing the link.

    Having lived in both countries, I agree with the strange idiosyncracies from the two nations.

    In the US, science isn't lauded monetarily or socially as well as, say, sports and entertainment. Yet, many Americans are lauded and are known for its innovation and work in the sciences. Six of the nine 2009 Nobel Prize winners in Medicine, Physics and Chemistry are Americans/US-based. (Granted a couple are foreign born, it still makes the majority).

    In France, science/mathematics are embraced more than in the States (in my opinion), yet the innovation and risk-taking is stifled by a strange educational rigidty -- or pigeon-holing, for lack of a better term. One is defined by his/her field of study in university and it is uncommon and difficult to deviate from this path. However, it is change that can spark innovation, as change promotes a new way of thinking or a new approach at problem-solving.

    I found this phenomenon in France to be so counter to my understanding of the French as I learned it -- a country of citizens who question and explore, and a country that has produced scores of philosophical and free-thinking legends. I was suprised at the lack of mobility of thought/exploration in one's own working life/career...

    Regarding the discussion on health care, it is true that France has one of the best national health care systems in the world. Just a stone's throw away, the UK has a reputation of a failed one. I lived in the UK for three years and I had experienced what mediocre national health care system can be. It was common to hear of people traveling to the Continent (France, Germany) for more thorough treatment or care.

    The simplest difference, I had read, is in how much money (taxes) is put into it. Scale is important here. While I believe in the right to national health care, I don't know if it can be done successfully in such a large country with already an incredible national debt and with people so averse to high taxes...

    - Catherine (who is having trouble adding my name in the "Comment As" section)

  9. Thank you Catherine for the long response.


Please feel free to comment. It helps me with ideas, and to start a discussion.