Whenever I'm doing whatever it is I do I usually listen to a French radio station called 'France Culture'. It's where I first heard the word altérité (a philosophical term equivalent to 'otherness'), I raced to look it up, which was just as well as they sometimes use it several times a day. Such esoteric terms are typical of the station. My friend Declan refers to 'France Culture' as 'Radio Snob', he is adept at parodying the announcers' delivery, employing a confidential whisper and ludicrously long words to describe some banal idea. Declan has a point, but I'm a sucker for sesquipedalia, especially when performed by a sultry French woman who sounds like she's resting the microphone on her epiglottis.
I recently heard 'France Culture' review a contemporary circus, hushed feminine tones argued that the performance was close in spirit to the circuses of old. The voice was seductive, but I remained unconvinced. I've seen several contemporary circuses and have been impressed by the athleticism and wit of the performers, but the experience was nothing like that of attending an old-fashioned circus.
In Britain enlightened types have managed to ban most traditional circuses from performing on the grounds that they are cruel to animals; here in France enlightened types organise governmental grants to keep small family circuses going on the grounds that they are a dying art form.
I remember once, when driving through deepest Burgundy, seeing a bedraggled camel tethered to a tree. Pinned to the tree was a circus poster featuring snarling tigers and that day's date, so later I tootled along to see the show. There was a shabby tent containing about twenty spectators. I settled down on one of the empty benches. The lights dimmed and revived to a recorded fanfare, the family patriarch, dressed in what seemed like Turkish national costume, then jogged into the ring dragging behind him that afternoon's bedraggled camel, along with a goat and a small cow. He then walked them in circles. This act was followed by a couple of clowns who shouted and fell over. I can't remember much else, but I do recall the lack of snarling tigers. After the show I mentioned their absence to the man in the fez, he told me the tigers were sick and motioned toward an empty tiger trailer. They must have been in hospital. An alternative explanation would be that he toured with an empty tiger trailer to warrant putting tigers on his posters. In some ways it was the perfect circus; all the expectation of untamed exoticism with none of the pathos of actually seeing some institutionalised big cat get prodded with a stick.
I attended a less imaginative but more memorable circus a couple of years later. It was a big one, 'Pinder' I think. To get a close look at the animals I sat in the front row where I was soon joined by some small children. No sooner had the show started than we were swamped by hordes of other children from the cheaper seats (policing of seat allocation was very lax). The first act had six or seven elephants rearing on their hind legs, unnatural behaviour that must have put enormous strain on their ligaments. Then came Sven. Middle-aged and corpulent, Sven was heralded as 'The Man who feels no Pain'. He lumbered into the ring in an ill-fitting faux leopardskin leotard whose gusset had seen better days. After stumbling over a bolus of elephant dung he started to growl and bend metal bars around his neck. The bars were quite long and I felt that given the leverage this wasn't too Herculean a task, but everyone clapped enthusiastically (no one more than myself – I didn't want Sven challenging me to have a go, he'd already been eyeing my choice of seating with some suspicion). But what Sven did next was impressive; he started pushing knitting needles through his face. He convulsed and grimaced as he passed the spikes through his cheeks (I thought it strange he convulsed and grimaced if he felt no pain, but to remind him of this seemed churlish, and, given his increasingly hostile glances, reckless). I think many in the audience thought his actions were legerdemain, but for those of us in the front row their authenticity made for a sickening sight. A number of my neighbours returned, distraught and chastened, to their original seating.
There you have it; self-mutilation as entertainment. Behind the crooked smile I could see Sven's tired eyes as he took his bow and slowly backed out of the ring. The 'France Culture' woman would have gagged on her audio equipment, but if it was altérité she wanted it was here, incarnate, slouching toward its bloodied pillow.