Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ce que dit la bouche d'ombre

I don't actually like Hugo's poem "Ce que dit la bouche d'ombre."  It's a well-engineered but overwrought vision of a kind of Happy Ending Apocalypse.  Full of grandiloquent "O"s, ecstatic exclamations and poetic dexterity of all sorts, this "show stopper" is intended to convey Hugo's devout belief--nay, his "prophetic" certainty--that fallen mankind will at last be resurrected, redeemed and restored by the power of love.  This optimistic assurance is, (as I literally translate the title line) "what the mouth of the shadow says/said." (Actually, the final word of the poem--uttered by an angel--is "commencement."  All the orchestrated hysteria, as in Ravel's Bolero, had been building up to that pre-ordained climax!  Cute.)

Don't get me wrong:  I like the idea that Good will eventually triumph and that the horns of evildoers will simply melt away in the fiery radiance of God's love.

But the very fact that Hugo goes on, and on, and on--piling metaphor upon metaphor upon rime riche upon rime riche--suggests that he's not as sure about all of this as he'd like to be.  He doth protest too much and, in the end, the effusive artifice of his poem makes me question his authenticity.  Is he posturing?  What does he really know?

Like the televangelist screamers who are trying so desperately, pounding their pulpits and their Bibles, to convince their listeners (and themselves?) that THEY are the only legitimate purveyors of truth.  As Robert Graves might ask:  is this genuine nakedness or merely artful nudity?

Can I hear an "amen" here?  AMEN.

But there are parts of Hugo's poem that appeal deeply to me--most especially, the very title.  I am fascinated by the expression "la bouche d'ombre."  How in the world can one translate that formula?  The mouth of the shadow?  The yawp of darkness?  The mouthpiece of the unknown?  The voice of the depths?  The language of intuition?

Well, whatever the translation, I'm inclined to believe that such a "bouche d'ombre" does, in fact, exist.  I can't help thinking about Levin's enlightenment--at the end of Anna Karenina.  After a lifetime of skepticism and doubt, after years of attempting to extract some shred of "meaning" from life, Levin discovers (with a joy and a simplicity that I find lacking in Hugo's overblown poem) that what he is seeking, he has always known--and not just he, but everyone else as well.

"Don't all philosophical theories do the same thing," Levin asks himself, "leading man by way of thought that is strange and unnatural to him to the knowledge of what he has long known and known so certainly that without it he would not even be able to live?  Is it not seen clearly in the development of each philosopher's theory that he knows beforehand (...) and only wants to return by a dubious mental path to what everybody knows"?

In short, when the voice of darkness talks to us (like a shadow's whisper), it says, not something uplifting like "commencement", but dumb stuff that we've always known-- "don't fret; it's OK; all is well."

And this, inevitably, reminds me of Emerson's "Self-Reliance."  And of Jesus' admonition to "consider the lilies."  We don't really need a Hugo (or a Pat Robertson) to be our "lighthouse" or our "seer" because la bouche d'ombre speaks to us all equally--in the ordinary but eloquent commonplaces I just mentioned.

And also, perhaps, in an ancient admonition too little heeded by Hugo, Tolstoy or myself (I'm not humble, am I?)--another commonplace that might just summarize the profoundest wisdom of humankind:  "For GOODNESS' sake, SHUT UP!"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Good War" Nostalgia

Last night, Linda and I went to a play entitled The Daly News.  It's a musical revue loosely based upon the experiences of a single Wisconsin family (the Dalys) during World War II.  A paterfamilias in Milwaukee records  (and sings about) his wartime communications with four sons, all of whom are serving in some branch of the military in some theater of the war.  The play was given a standing ovation by an audience comprising about 200 sexagenarians and 5 youngsters of fewer than sixty years.  In other words, nearly everybody in the auditorium remembered a father (or perhaps an uncle) who had fought in, and told about, World War II.  And so, as these aging children of The Greatest Generation rose to their feet, it was more to honor their fathers than to applaud the quality of the production.

Because, truthfully, though the tunes were melodious and the actors talented, the play wasn't really particularly "good"--in a literary or artistic sense.  But it pleased the folks (often including me) for a couple of reasons, I guess:  1) because it reminded us of the fathers we are now mellow enough to love and regard as heroes; and 2) because it evoked in us a yearning for a communal experience--a great "cause" that would unite all Americans once again as a noble, purposeful, loving family.  In short, though we didn't nudge our neighbors and articulate our thought, as we sat there listening to those ditties about our dads eating Spam and getting shot at, we were secretly wishing (at least a bit) that WE, too, could have a nice little Good War.

We could all feel so "inspired" by a war in which OUR guys were clearly the GOOD guys.  And if we had to give up our nylons or our butter or even our lead pencils, what the heck?  We would be ennobled by the sacrifice.  It would be even warmer and fuzzier than donating canned goods to soup kitchens at Christmas.  Once again, we could fly the flag proudly, confident that all other "civilized" people would love and admire us.

Well, yes:  of course, there might be a price to pay.  Unlike the Dalys in the play, some Americans might have to die for the "cause" (whatever that might be--democracy, capitalism, Judeo-Christian values).

But we would all be so happy working together:  Rosie could rivet again; Uncle Sam could count on us again.  And we could all sing beautiful, sappy, melancholy songs about Apple Blossoms or Bluebirds.

To be fair, I should point out that The Daly News was also "about" something more than the national and familial solidarity generated by war.  It was also a slight but heart-tugging reminder that human beings, especially males, rarely allow themselves to feel deeply about (i.e., "love") other human beings except in times of crisis.  Males, especially fathers and sons, avoid such sissiness--unless a good war provides an excuse for bonding.

So in the end, last night's play--despite (or perhaps because of) all its facile sentimentality--left me feeling rather empty and gloomy.  Because even all the tuneful treacle couldn't disguise the underlying truth about men (and women, too, but mostly men):  we just HAVE to have wars.  Whether they are "good" or "bad," they seem to be a necessity for the self-actualization of the human male.  Couldn't we say that Vietnam and Iraq--though morally unjustifiable--were in some sense needed--at least by a great many of those who participated?

The nice thing about a "good" war, of course, is that--like World War II--it makes everyone feel noble, not only while it's going on but--best of all--long after it's over--when it still gets a standing ovation!

On the way home, we stopped at the Dairy Queen and had a chocolate malt.  Still more sugar, alas.  But afterwards I felt a lot less empty.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Out of the Box

We were discussing the passage in Candide in which Candide asks the dervish for an explanation of the evil in the world.  Just before the dervish slams the door in our poor boy's face, the whirling magus shouts, "What does it matter...whether there's good or evil?  When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry whether the mice on board are comfortable or not?"  I noticed that my best student was smiling and shaking her head.

I pounced.  "So you disagree, XX?"

"Not exactly, but I don't like the metaphor."

"Why not? Do you believe in a good God?" I asked.

 "No," my student replied, "not in a 'good' God, but in a god of some sort.  And 'ships' and 'mice' are much too substantial.  God has put us in this unimaginably large box--the universe--and occasionally he watches us.  Sometimes he fiddles around with us, for his amusement or just to see what might  happen."

"So, can we influence him in some way--in order to get him to be nice to us as opposed to other creatures?"

"Nah" she laughed.  "We're much too tiny and insignificant.  God doesn't really have any emotional attachment to us--and by the way, there are lots of other life-forms on other planets in this box.  God can't even see us except through a very powerful microscope. We're a kind of science project for God."

"Well, isn't your belief just another version of 18th Century deism?" I continued.

"Maybe.  But didn't the deists believe that God had created some rules that would always apply--natural laws?  I don't think that the God who set up this box had any rules at all in mind.  He was just messing around with a bunch of stuff--and threw it all together (Big Bang).  It's possible, actually, that his experiment has got a little out of hand. You know--expanding universe, space/time continuum.  He may not have foreseen that and he might not know quite what to do with it, but I guess he continues to find it entertaining and basically harmless."

"In your view, then, what significance does this god have for human beings?" I was beginning to get exasperated.

"No significance, really.  There's a remote chance that Earth might randomly show up under his microscope.  And, in such a scenario, if the collective behavior of Earthlings seems in  any way "remarkable" or "interesting," there's an even more remote chance that he might jiggle things up a bit.  But basically, we're just in this alone."

"Should human beings be trying to accomplish anything collectively or individually?  Should we have some sort of common goal?"  The great existential question, at last.

She paused. "Well, it seems impossible, but I think we should do our best to devise a way to get out of the box.  Outside the box, we would be a little bit like God, wouldn't we?"

"Hmm." I replied. "But isn't it likely that we couldn't survive outside the box's environment?  And how can part of an experiment 'get out of' the experiment?"

"Dunno," she admitted.  "Well, I suppose the only other alternative is to work together with other Earthlings to try to transform Earth into something so 'remarkable' or 'interesting' that it might attract God's attention and, potentially, his curious 'messing around.'"

"But what if that 'messing around' made things worse rather than better for us?" I fretted.

"Sounds like you're a Republican.  Are you?" she laughed.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Bark Off

These gizmos are designed to stop dogs from barking.  Apparently, when activated, the "bark off" unit transmits a piercing high-pitched sound that yowling, yipping, yapping dogs find so painful that they are stunned into silence.

Like a mute button, but for real-world situations.

Why hasn't anyone invented something similar for use on human yappers?

The problem, of course, is to generate a sound frequency painful to the yappers, but undetectable to the innocent victim, who merely wishes to be left in peace.

Clearly, there would be no point in creating or acquiring a device that, when engaged, merely increases EVERYONE'S pain.  That would resemble rocking out at the Queen's Garden Party with a boom box blasting 50Cent, Adam Lambert or Tammy Wynette.  Ouch.

I suppose that, as long as all human beings belong, mas o menos, to the same species, we will never be able to discover a frequency that cannot even be discerned by sweet, refined homo sapiens like me--but that simultaneously induces severe auricular discomfort in noisy, loutish homo sapiens like Rush Limbaugh.

Gosh.  I have just admitted that I belong to the same species as Rush Limbaugh.  It's frightening to think it.

Frankly, I'd rather hang out with yowling, yipping and yapping dogs.  So much for Bark Off.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Yesterday, while driving home from Rochester, I spied a billboard advertising a roadside cafe, whose name I have forgotten because it was something like "Joe's" or "Del's".  But I DO recall the notice, in bold red letters, attached to the bottom of the sign, proclaiming that said restaurant was "semi-accessible."  Huh?

Somewhat rattled at the notion of a restaurant that potential customers could only partially enter, I braked and did a double take--a maneuver that nearly got me rear-ended by the big-rig "semi" in back of me.  A semi.  Ah, so THAT was what the puzzling sign meant:  accessible to big-rig trucks.  The cafe had an enormous parking lot, perhaps.  Or a drive-up window 10 feet high.  Semi-accessible.

Funny word, that:  semi.  Spontaneously, my mind began to churn out all the "semi" expressions I could think of:  semi-conductors, semi-solid, semi-automatic, semi-annual, semi-circular, semi-colon, semi-final, semi-literate, etc.  All of which seemed to mean "half" or "partially" something or other.  What, then, is a big mother of a truck "half" of?  Half of a train?  Half of a an even bigger truck that has 36 wheels?  Half of a warehouse?


Gradually, as I drove past Eyota and then past St. Charles, this word began (as the TV commentators say) to "resonate" within my brain as a kind of mantra.  Semi, semi, semi, semi.

And then, about the time I was passing the Lewiston exit, my thoughts snapped back to the enigmatic expression I had seen twenty miles behind on the roadside restaurant billboard:  semi-accessible.

Suddenly, in a flash of  illumination that could have come from either God or a "Road Work Ahead" signal, I saw what all this meant.

Because, isn't everything in life "semi-accessible"--in both senses of the term?  Ordinary people (those like me in Camrys with accelerator problems) have only partial access to the things they desire and/or need in life.  We can't always get what we want, but sometimes we want what we get.  Like it or not, life is just semi-accessible to the people airline pilots call "folks."

Only those guys in badass trucks with 18 wheels, wind diverters and diesel smokestacks can go anywhere they want, anytime they want, for as long as they want.  Life's big-rigs (the French say "poids lourds") are people like Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Paris Hilton:  the plutocrats.  They don't seem to have any accelerator problems, do they?  In their semis, they get their access to Congress, Cannes and the Cabana Club.  Semi-accessible.

So, the question becomes:  how in hell do mere "folks" like us go about getting ourselves one of them there semis?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Phobes, Philes and Ugly Vampires

What foreign people do average Americans dislike the most passionately?  The Chinese?  The Mexicans?  The Pakistanis?  The Russians? No, no, no and no.  The clear answer is:  the French.

Yet, what foreign people inspires the most fervid, unconditional love in many Americans?  Again, the answer is:  the French.

What accounts for Americans' seeming inability to think of the French as they do of almost all other national groups:  with slightly smug but largely benign indifference?  Remember:  I'm not talking about "illegal immigrants" here.  Sure, Americans can get pretty agitated about Mexicans or Somalis who actually want to live in America--but they don't much care about these peoples as long as they behave themselves and stay in Guadalajara or Mogadishu.

The French, however--well that's a different story.  Whether a Frenchman is walking the streets of his native Paris or trying to take pictures of Ground Zero, he almost inevitably either angers or fascinates the Americans in his midst.  In Paris, he seems aloof and much too self-confident--insufferably oblivious to the manifest needs of American tourists.  At Ground Zero, he has the effrontery to ask annoying questions such as:  "What did America do to provoke such a dreadful deed?"

So again I ask:  what explains our love-hate attitudes toward the French?

Well, as an American with a longtime passion for France and the French, I'd like to advance a theory.  I wonder if both America's Francophobia and its Francophilia might be products of the the heightened awareness and the corresponding self-consciousness that the French seem to incite in us.  Because unlike most people with whom we share the planet, the French just won't let us be blissful, indiscriminate vampires.

Oh, you know what I mean.  Secretly or overtly, you've been reading the Twilight books and drooling over those shirtless / blood-deprived studs in the movie versions.  Vampires can't see themselves in mirrors, right?  So they don't have to worry about their poor complexions or sickly countenances:  they can troll along in blissful ignorance, regarding themselves as lovely and loving love-interests.  And so it is with most Americans.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, we are generally quite content being such unknowing vampires with no unflattering reflections--and, fortunately for us, most foreigners just leave us alone--perhaps avoiding us or keeping out of our way, but rarely caring enough about us to, well, draw us pictures (since mirrors don't work) of how we really appear.

But zee French, zay are arteests and zay DO care (zat's zee eenteresting zing).  Alors, zay draw some preety unlovely (i.e., honest) peectures sometimes.

For instance, they remind us that we are bloodsuckers.  They remind us that we are FAT bloodsuckers.  They remind us that we eat weird food, consume weird drinks, play weird games, fight weird wars, make weird movies--and, quelle horreur, see nothing at all wrong with going to the market in a striped top over polka dot Capri pants and Nike tennis shoes.

Worse, after they have drawn a picture of us, they sometimes LAUGH at it.  Really, this is most unpleasant.

So, let's face it:  the French make us squirm uncomfortably in our Calvin Kleins. Because, what if THEY are right?  What if hard work ISN'T the meaning of life?  What if Anglo-Saxon free enterprise ISN'T the best economic system?  What if the U.S. Constitution ISN'T the ultimate expression of humanity's political aspirations?  What if--and this is an awful thought--Jerry Lewis ISN'T a mere buffoon but, in fact, a talented comedian?

For Americans, France is the world turned upside down:  no eggs at breakfast, fast trains all day, public transportation everywhere, waiters who don't smile because the tip is already included, 360 kinds of cheese (most of which smell bad), strikes instead of tailgate parties, pedestrian shopping zones where only feet provide mobility, men peeing and/or jacking off in the street, old ladies in impeccably tailored suits and heels sniffing melons at an open-air market, thieves with no guns but really vile language, rabbit stew or goose gizzard salads for lunch, thousand year old churches that no one attends or dusts, bathrooms that have bidets but no toilets.

And that's only a partial list, of course.  But my two preceding paragraphs summarize why many Americans just get itchy about the French--and decide to hate them without even trying to know them.  And, conversely, these two lists provide a clue as to why Americans like me are so thoroughly intoxicated with France.  Because, frankly, I feel a whole lot less like an Ugly Vampire when I have a chance to see myself through the eyes of the French and, to some extent at least, experience the world as the French experience it.

Oh, I know that I will always be American--and I accept that fact without any rancor and even, when the CNN news is good, with a measure of gratitude and good cheer (we still suck up about 25% of the world's blood, after all).  But I figure that, as long as I'm a bloodsucker by birth, I might as well ACKNOWLEDGE  it and GET THE MOST OUT OF IT.  So, like my fellow Francophiles all across the U.S., I heartily rejoice in the opportunity that my French friends and my Francophilia have afforded me:  to be served life's red meat succulent and really, really saignant.  

Miam miam.