Our Retired Explorer

Stanford University recently released a PDF reprint of Time magazine’s 1981 profile of Michel Foucault, for free on the web. Admittedly having read very little Foucault, I have only two touchstones for really even thinking this was an interesting profile. One was my love for Umberto Eco’s novel “Foucault’s Pendulum” which has little if anything to do with the philosopher, and everything to do with the rotation of the earth. The second is to The Weakerthans‘ fantastic “Our retired explorer (dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)” off of their 2003 album “Reconstruction site.”

From the opening smash of chords, the two minutes and twenty-three seconds spent in this fever dream of a date between an old gruff explorer and an inscrutable philosopher, is a propulsive yell for the comforts of understanding between people. Naturally there’s some geeky post-modern fun happening in here too if you’re into that. As John K. Samson, vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for the band, explained in a 2003 interview with Epitaph the clash between the two worlds and the attempts at understanding are what is interesting and important.

However, in a different interview with Canadian magazine Maisonneuve, Samson gives the answer that sheds some light on the collision of these words in his pop song, and the silliness of the video below:

I must say that reading a cross-section of French postmodern stuff last year depressed me deeply, to the point that I didn’t want to do anything and stopped writing for awhile and had a big nihilistic mope. I think this was partly due to the fact that I don’t have a particularly scholastic mind. I refuse to be an anti-intellectual, and I hate the rolling of eyes people do when confronted with something difficult to interpret. The life of the mind is the only life I’m interested in. But still, I felt demoralized by how little I understood, and even more demoralized by what I did understand because I found it so depressing. I felt senile and left behind, like an Antarctic explorer–one of the last great and silly projects of modernity, before the world wars showed us total horror.

What gets me about this song, is the way Samson deals with the challenge of Foucault’s work, which could be any insurmountable obstacle someone faces, whether that is the Antarctic, philosophy or other people. The declaration of “Oh Antarctica!” at the end is a chant to return to the challenge you do understand, rather than dealing with the challenge currently being faced, as well as for the nostalgia of still being on the top of your game.

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