We have all had that uncomfortable conversation, where we try to explain the complex beauty of scorpions to an acquaintance only to be confronted with indifference:
‘I hear they’re just primitive arachnids. What’s the big deal?’
‘Well, morphologically, they appear to be primitive, but if you study the composition of scorpion venom, you will find that evolution has exercised a long and powerful…’
‘Whatever. I think they’re creepy.’
And this is usually where the conversation ends, and not only every conversation about scorpions, but many conversations about other, less important, things. People struggle where there is no comfortable frame of reference.
Scorpion venom is remarkably intricate, and bears the mark of hundreds of millions of years of ceaseless evolution; as though the original, outward design was sufficient, but the scorpion’s rich cocktail of organic materials, mucous, salts and long- and short-chain peptides, each perfectly targeted to the species of prey or enemy, quickly became an obsession for Nature; like Proust, who lay in bed for the last three years of his life pouring every ounce of energy into extending a single novel that would test the limits of human stamina. The beauty of scorpions is thus easy to dismiss, much like the three-and-a-half thousand pages of stuff someone remembered because of a soggy cookie. And, yet, beautiful and essential in spite (and perhaps because) of its obscurity.
When I first visited France, I was disappointed. The cosmetic Bohemianism I had known in California seemed richer than what I perceived there. The French were homogeneous. They spoke in the same tiresome idioms, repeated the same idées reçues, and their cuisine was surprisingly repetitive. How much daube, merguez or choucroutte was a student required to stomach? But the strength of France wasn’t in the breadth (although the breadth was there once I learned to see it), but in the deliberate, thousand-year refinement of its arts.
My heart recently went out to a friend who is trying to pursue a career in France, but his first three months have been excruciating. Barnaby, a young orchestra conductor, searches for the familiar, and is endlessly disappointed. The French are less forthcoming than the Americans. They are lazy. Parisians are assholes. He doesn’t have time for museums. The language course was a waste of money.
‘I can’t wait to get home. Coming to Paris was a mistake.’
‘It wasn’t a mistake, but perhaps it was the wrong thing for you. There is beauty there. Everything worthwhile is in France. But you have to want to see it. You won’t have the tools to discover it unless you are there for more than a year, and unless you try to find it. Unless you allow it to change the way you think, and only then you will recognise the importance is in the details. The many, many vast details that were invisible before.’
‘What the fuck are you talking about? Details? I have to stand in line for everything! The university course is like a pretentious high school!’
‘You need to step outside yourself. You need to get out of your “comfort zone”!’ (I had to put the phone down briefly and gag after repeating these words, but I knew they were the only way to convey my urgent warning). ‘You need to explore what you really want. Are you doing what makes you happy? You can’t expect to find beauty if it isn’t fundamentally what you love. Maybe you need to look more deeply inside yourself.’
‘Are you saying I should start dating men?’
‘Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying.’