The immortal British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said it best when he wrote, “In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Well, except of course in France, where he must take the ‘bac’ test, guv!” (It was one of the few poems in which Tennyson revealed his Cockney upbringing.)
As I have explained more than once in C’est Ironique (see last year’s installment of this annual feature), to graduate from lycée, the rough equivalent of high school, French teenagers have to take a marathon standardized exam. Called the baccalauréat, it lasts for days and covers everything they have ever learned in school. Yes, literally everything — there are even sections on forging excuse notes, home piercing and Photoshopping sext pictures. And cheating on exams.
But it is generally agreed that the most difficult section is the baccalauréat en philosophie, usually shortened to “bac philo” to save precious energy for the test. France is, last time I checked, the only country in the world where philosophy is a required course in secondary school. In other words, as generations of foreign visitors have suspected, they actually teach their kids how to pontificate.
This infuses many of them with a life-long love of rhetoric, dialectics and formal debate, which is why the discussions among Parisian drivers stuck in traffic are always so civil and rational. And which is why a great many people around the country, even if they haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since before the mimeograph was invented, eagerly await the announcement of the bac philosophy questions at the end of the school year each June.
Including me. There’s nothing I love more than reflecting on an abstract, abstruse intellectual concept, considering its implications, weighing various points of view and then blurting out the first damn thing that pops into my head.
Thus, for the third year in a row, I sat down to take the test. The questions answered below are the actual essay topics from this year’s bac philo. The students are given only two questions, depending on their academic focus (science, literature, hazing technologies, etc.), but in the interest of completeness, showing off and padding out my word count, I have decided to answer all of them.
1) Why should one try to know oneself?
Well, for starters, because it would be pretty stupid to get out of bed every morning, look in the mirror and think, “Who the hell is that?”
But this kind of self-knowledge doesn’t really take any effort, at least if you grow up around mirrors, because it is based on recognition of the face — our most distinguishing physical feature. What’s even more important is learning to recognize one’s own other body parts, so that, for example, if you pass out at a party with your head in the toilet and somehow end up on “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” you can know for sure that it’s you before you post the link on Facebook.
As a corollary to this proposition, I would add that it’s equally important that other people not have detailed knowledge of your non-facial physical characteristics, so that, to cite another example, when your cousin gets her wedding photos and sees that one with you mooning in the background, you can maintain plausible deniability.
2) Do artworks edify our perception?
Not if you don’t look at them. If you do, then yeah.
Case history: when I was a child, my parents had a coffee table book of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes that edified my perception of what naked people look like. Today this edificational function has mostly been taken over by the Internet.
Hey — speaking of mirrors, what if you only ever saw artworks in reverse? You could keep a little hand mirror on you and every time you go to a museum or gallery use it to look at the paintings and stuff. Would that edify your perception in the exact opposite way from everyone else?
A person who did that would no doubt turn out to be an eccentric, a misfit in society, someone who perceives things in an offbeat, original way. And who could then become an artist and edify everyone else’s perception.
3) Is the artist the master of his artwork?
As part of the basic human aspiration for fulfillment, everyone needs to be the master of someone or something.
Since this is an academic test, let’s use the model of the school district:
The school board is the master of the superintendent, the superintendent is the master of the principal, the principal is the master of the teacher, the teacher is the master of the class bully, the class bully is the master of the scrawny weakling, and the scrawny weakling is the master of holding it until he gets home so he doesn’t risk getting caught in the restroom by the bully.
So, to answer the question: yes, the artist is, or at least should be, the master of his artwork. Also of his personal appearance, hygiene, blood alcohol content and intestinal emissions, if possible — although judging from some of the artists I have known, those are not a given, so let’s settle for the artwork.
4) Is choice all we need in order to be free?
I have to say no. “Choice” could simply be an alternative between two things, which does not constitute real freedom.
Consider the paradigm of salad dressing. If I can only choose between vinaigrette and blue cheese, I wouldn’t call that freedom. Freedom would be the ability to have anything whatsoever that I might want on my salad, including refried beans, cocaine, molten lead or Claudia Schiffer.
This, however, leads to another observation, namely that, as historical figures from Richard Cheney to Josef Stalin to the Marquis de Sade have noted, too much freedom can be a bad thing.
5) Should we do everything possible to be happy?
The Marquis de Sade apparently thought so. We all want to be happy, and yet we must all accept aspects of life that make us unhappy, like falling ill, losing the corkscrew, having to take a test, or having to make a speech and then getting up in front of everybody and suddenly realizing that our clothes have disappeared. Also having nightmares.
But we should not do literally everything within our power in the single-minded pursuit of pleasure, because if we did we’d probably get arrested (unless we’re Joseph Stalin) (or Richard Cheney). And then we’d be unhappy.
6) Is the purpose of life to be happy?
In a sense, yes. But ultimately no.
The purpose of life is a topic that has baffled philosophers since time immemorial. Everyone wonders what it is, and no one has found a universal answer.
So here we all are, alive and not sure why. But we’re stuck with it, and the alternative sucks, so we might as well try to grab as much happiness as we can before an epidemic, asteroid collision, alien invasion or grape crop failure makes life not worth living.
The very thought is saddening. Therefore, I conclude that if the purpose of life is to be happy, awareness of this truth can only lead to unhappiness.
And from this I conclude that the true purpose of life is: not thinking about the purpose of life.
And, to conclude my conclusions, I further conclude that, for me today, the real root of happiness is: not being graded on this exam.
© 2014 Paris UpdateFavorite
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