It’s a godless world. And it’s perfect.

After coming back from Tierra del Fuego and thinking about it a lot, I realised one thing. In our culture, there are many works that describe the sudden revelation that there is a God in the universe. It’s said to be a glorious thing, finding faith, pieces coming together all at once, sudden understanding, purpose and meaning found. Even lesser spiritual experiences are described as wonderful moments.

The opposite, realising that there is no God, or starting to doubt, is almost always portrayed as a grim experience: thinking there was someone with you and realising you are alone in a cold, empty universe that doesn’t care. I’ve yet to find a book or a film where the protagonist faces the certainty that God doesn’t exist and is not instantly distressed. Yet that is exactly what happened to me over there.

All right, not exactly. I’ve never believed in God. Unlike what our culture at large seems to believe, I’ve never imagined that there was a special spot for God or spirituality in my brain. It’s not that I’ve replaced God with materialism or a blind belief in science, or that somehow, my atheism has become some kind of faith to me: it’s just that everything I believe or value fits very snugly together in my head and leaves absolutely no space for any form of religion. Actually, I don’t even think of religion much, except on the (sadly more and more numerous) occasions when the media thrust fundamentalisms of all sorts in my face. But I did think about God on the Beagle Channel, although not in the way we’re taught to expect.

When we sailed between glaciers on the channel, everything was pure alien splendor. Everything existed quietly, outside the sphere of human activities, and we could have tried as hard as we wanted, there was nothing there that told us humans had any reason to be the centre of the world. It was a world for dolphins and albatrosses and tiny rayaditos fluttering on the shore, not people. And that was fine. A bit unsettling at the very first, but you get used to it, very quickly. And in that place so perfect by itself, how could one believe that there could be a God? How could one believe that one being could have orchestrated something so complete it didn’t need anything from humans? The idea of God seems trite when petrels whirl around you. A petrel doesn’t need a god. It doesn’t need an explanation, or an origin story. It is too perfect for anything that could be imagined by humans.

And that was fine. Being more certain than ever that we have no creator and we’re just going our merry way in a universe that doesn’t care felt comforting, not distressing. Who needs meaning when you can have perfection? I’ve been struggling to write although I would love to write pages upon pages about this place, simply because it’s a place that exists beyond words, a place where you don’t need words. The world is so much more precious when you’ve seen what perfection it could contain. The idea that it is a mere creation would taint it. I couldn’t doubt now that God doesn’t exist, and that is fine. It’s great.

It’s perfect.

Get naked. It’s an order.

Since the latest terrorist attacks have been driving much of France crazy, we seem to wait every week for the newest controversy, outrageous statement or ridiculous debate, with varying degrees of anxiety. In the past two weeks, some seaside towns have decided to take a completely unnecessary and possibly quite illegal step, as you’ve probably read in international media: they have forbidden bathers to wear burkini, a type of swimwear used by some Muslim women to hide their bodies while they bathe.

My first reaction was to feel a little bit more exhausted than usual. I’m not the target of those regulations, I’m not part of a religious minority, and I won’t pretend I’m the victim of anything here. But I still have to live in this country. Most of my students are Muslims. Part of what makes my job so complicated is the wedge that these politics are driving, day after day, between ‘people like me’ and ‘people like them’. I’m using quotation marks because that’s how my students see it. I’m not part of their world, so why should they listen to me? Once again, I have to thank some clueless politicians for making my job a little bit harder. Great. I can’t way for the first school days.

I want to be completely honest about one thing, even though it may not be the safest admission to make. I have very little sympathy for women who insist on dressing ‘modestly’. I think women’s modesty is a very loaded issue, and I don’t feel very comfortable around people who insist that coverig your body is a sign of moral virtue. What does it mean, then–am I a bad person for not wanting to hide my body? I’m certain that lots of people would reply that obviously, women who cover themselves up do not do it for or against me, they do it for their own personal reasons and it has no implications about my personal virtue or lack thereof. They would certainly be right, although that doesn’t make me more comfortable. When I walk around Marseilles, I get more or less unpleasant comments from men on a regular basis. The idea that I deserve less respect because I wear short skirts doesn’t seem so foreign to them. That’s why I’m not comfortable around people who parade female modesty as a sign of virtue. Like it or not, it does impact my life.

But there’s one thing this does not change: I’d rather have a real conversation about this, rather than see people toss humiliating regulations around. I know I’ll never get to discuss the implications of female modesty and the presence of the female body in the public space with my students, because one question will always come back to pollute the debate: if women should be able to wear whatever they want without being judged, why are religious clothes prohibited? And I know I can’t answer that question, becuse there’s no good answer. Yes, France is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion, and yet some religions should not be seen in public… Also, I don’t believe that the purpose of law is to make people comfortable, and it’s certainly not to make me comfortable. I’m fine with being uncomfortable as long as I can discuss why. The only thing we’ve gained is that now, there will be no discussion. Only hurt.

There’s another thing. Earlier this year, I considered shopping for a burkini myself. Not for religious reasons, but for a very simple practical one: my skin is extremely fair, burns very easily, and I want to stop using sunscreen on the beach as much as possible, because sunscreen is very damaging for marine wildlife (just imagine that blanket of clouds that blocks out all sunlight in The Matrix, only the blanket is made of sunscreen particles diluted in the water–you get the idea). I didn’t, because burkinis are not form-fitting and I assumed it would be a pain in the arse to swim around wearing one. But there was one thing I couldn’t help noticing: apparently, when you’re on the beach, you’re supposed to be as naked as possible. Long-sleeved swimwear is almost non-existant, and I found nothing that could cover my legs. Seriously, am I the only person in this continent whose skin is prone to burning? If I want to take a swim while protecting my skin, what is the fucking problem with that?

It’s summer. Go naked. Wear a bikini even if you’re a little girl with no breasts. Bare your legs even if you’re a self-conscious teenager who’d rather stay in her bedroom. If you can’t be bothered to shave, face the judgement that will inevitably come, you don’t simply have the option of wearing something on top of your unsightly legs. Groom that skin cancer or hide in the shade, there’s no alternative for you. It sucks. A lot. That’s why I raised an eyebrow today, when reading an article by a famous French (female) polemist, who argued that yes, of course banning burkinis is probably illegal, but that’s a shame because ‘people go to the beach to relax, not to collide head first with other people’s convictions or ideologies’. Fair enough, but who are these mysterious ‘people’? Apparently not women who would like to wear burkinis, because they will definitely have to confront other people’s ideologies (and have to disrobe) instead of just being able to enjoy a nice day in the sun. Not people like me either, because life’s a bitch and now it makes me so sad to put on sunscreen and realise how I’m contributing to killing off the sea I love more than so many things in the world, and so I don’t always get to relax either. It must be nice to feel so important you imagine that the purpose of your society’s laws and organisation must be to help you relax. Don’t worry, the police are here to make sure that just the right people are publicly humiliated and that ‘other people’s convictions’ won’t hurt your nice day on the beach.

Phones off the hook on Shabbath

Back to the bled, as I used to say, or in a less affected phrasing, to the family home in the hills of Provence. My brother is back from a trip in Israel. We spent the better part of the afternoon diluting the noxious products he uses to develop him black-and-white Leica pictures. After scanning the negatives, he showed me what looked like a mistake: a row of phone booths, with the receptors hanging at the end of their wires on the empty wall.

‘Awrh, that was SO disappointing", he said. "It was the first evening of shabbath, and there were those guys taking public phones off the hooks in case someone picks them up and breaks shabbath, and can you believe it, they left right while I was adjusting the distance scale…"

I stared for a second.

"You mean, that was in the kibbutz, right?"

While in Israel, he had been visiting our granduncle’s daughter in her kibbutz, and had found a lot to tell us about it.

"Not in the kibbutz, no. That was Jerusalem. Near the Wall of Laments."

"Near? Like, they have a security perimetre of holiness arount the wall or something?"

"Nope. They just do it around all the city. I bet the Arabs hang them up again once they’re gone, though."

Hum. Jerusalem must be a kick-ass place for any non-Jewish people to live in, then. There followed more pictures from the Wall of Laments, with people lamenting, praying and occasionally falling asleep on their Bibles. Never saw that many hats on the same picture. The picture of my brother’s room in his dorm at Lyon with all his hats on the same shelf doesn’t count.

The negatives turned out to be rather good. While we were hanging them on the cord in the middle of the bathroom and wiping the last drops of water off their shiny surface, we exchanged some news of our respective weeks. I told him of my upcoming conference in Maryland. He told me about dissecting mice brains for his neurology class. I remembered that dissections tended to put him off somewhat when he was at school, and asked him if he had actually done it. 

"Yup. And I even had to do it for the girl sitting next to me. She was scared she would mess up."

"So girls get squeamish about cutting up mice, then?"

"Not squeamish. It’s just that they don’t want to mess everything up and have to go fetch another mouse in their little cage. But nobody really wants that, you know."

"Oh. Makes sense."

So, one advantage of studying humanities at last. You don’t get a job, but at least if someone asks you whether you would have the guts to kill a mouse and then cut up his brain, you can just answer, "Oh, sure. All for the good of science, you know. I’m no sissy.", and simply prepare the poultry in advance the next time you invite them over, so they don’t see you making faces when it comes to cut out the little birdies’ heads.

And after those pleasantries and useful afternoon well spent for the sake of art, we ended the day with a wonderfully non-vegetarian dinner in honour of my brother’s belated birthday. All hail Andalusia that gave birth to pork in whiskey sauce.

UPDATE: and for dessert, framboisier with caramelised meringue on top and just enough whipped cream. Aix-en-Provence beats Andalusia.