Mum and stepdad wishing you a great day and a fine year!
Mum and stepdad wishing you a great day and a fine year!
In a long-ago world, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the joys of French literature, principally by Miss Shelley at Lowell High School beginning in the second semester of Grade 10. It was very challenging at first, because few of us in the class had had much real experience with the language and it was a task to lift a corner of the literature curtain when reading the texts was a bit of a plod involving frequent recourse to the dictionary. I soon realized that using contextual clues, along with an increased linguistic awareness, allowed for focus on the content of a piece that transcended the text itself. I watched as the curtain slowly drew back and revealed a universe of tales and verse that mirrored the world back at me and brought on a wealth of insights into politics, social unrest, wars, pestilence, sex and violence. I suppose this might have happened without the linguistic stumbles had someone been able to light the same fire about English (American, Canadian, Australian…) literature, but that never happened, other than little sparks over Conrad and Faulkner in Mr. Lombardi’s English 11 class. Also, there seemed something mildly exotic and risqué about French material, due to the prejudices of the time and place and the prudish newness of North American society. I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for the oriental works that ran across my desk in the course of the World Lit class in Grade 12 because I had to read them in translation and thus didn’t feel the same connection experienced in Miss S’s class.
It follows on that I continued this through a somewhat checkered university stint, and finally, into the public school system here in BC, wherein I found myself attempting to replicate, in some small way, the wonders of what a few had done for me in those risky late-teen days, that is, to drag a small number of students to a point in the study of the language where they could experience the real language and some interesting thought through the study of literature from a somewhat foreign perspective.
So here’s our lesson for the day, a poem by Jacques Prévert:
Tout jeune Napoléon était très maigre
et officier d’artillerie
plus tard il devint empereur
alors il prit du ventre et beaucoup de pays
et le jour où il mourut il avait encore
mais il était devenu plus petit.
Basically, and I’m a poor translator, but there aren’t enough subtleties in this case for me to wreck:
In his youth, Napoleon was very thin
and an artillery officer
later, he became emperor
and he packed on weight and lots of countries
and the day he died he still had
but he had become a lot smaller.
This looks to me as though someone was encapsulating the decay of empire in a few short lines. It happened to France in Metternich’s time, and again after the Second World War, it happened to the British, and we seem to have a front-row seat (popcorn optional for some) for the American Empire, and we all get to pick our favourite figurehead to substitute for Napoleon.
Since some of us have benefitted materially from empire, it’s a bit of a daunting prospect, no matter how fervently we wish the end of empire, to suffer the consequences, especially if we’ve been paying attention to the lot of Cubans and Russians in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the hot mess that has been part of existence in Africa, say, or Southeast Asia. A good part of the fear stems from not having the option to resign gracefully, or to exert any measure of control over the descent from the heights, especially when combined with the disquiet that accompanies the thought that the same perpetrators are also driving humanity off an ecological cliff, seemingly without much real possibility of restraint or course change.
We might as well have a little poetry to usher us down the hallway to that much-vaunted new normal that isn’t likely what the puppet masters wanted us to see.
Soon we’ll be out amidst the cold world’s strife.
Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life.
I sent a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s most recent essay (it came out in print October 19) to a friend in Vancouver, partly as a thank-you for a favour done some months back, and also because he’s the kind of reader that likes material that tickles the brain. He phoned this morning to tell me that Solnit was going to speak with Matt Galloway on The Current, a conversation you can both find and whose transcript you can read at:
I’m finding that Orwell’s Roses adds a lot of insight, both in my appreciation of the life and work of the Orwellian one, but also, in typical Solnit fashion, in general little life hacks. One of the items she discusses in the interview with Galloway is the incident where Orwell was told by a fellow activist and hard-line socialist, that flowers are bourgeois, and therefore worthy of the scorn of progressive activists. So ought those most persistent in the search for a better world to swear off all forms of pleasure and appreciation that don’t directly add to the effort to tear down the capitalist edifice? Evidently, not according to Orwell himself, given that he planted and tended notoriously bourgeois roses and indulged in the sensuality of gardening, amongst other pleasures without, seemingly, diminishing his efforts to warn us of the rise of authoritarianism and the surveillance society.
My mother Maggie was a long-time activist involved in anti-war protests, advocacy for women, housing issues, voter registration, racial equality and pretty much any other cause that worked for a more just society, but who maintained a passion for art, music, design, gardening (including those pesky bourgeois flowers), food, books, and conversation as belonging in everyone’s more just existence, and often mentioned the thought that beauty and humour needed to feature prominently in efforts to broaden people’s perspectives on social and economic justice. She and Dad were both seriously activist in their attitude, but his outlook was more straightforward and looked to simple facts to take the converts down the road. There are echos of Maggie in a lot of the mental meanderings of Orwell’s Roses, a lot of them reflecting the need for balance in the search for a better life.
The Globe and Mail this morning has a post on its site in which it, unsurprisingly, trumpets that:
The problem is the skepticism engendered by the long history of the private sector spending lavishly to buy favour in the corridors of power precisely so as to keep the aforementioned key buried under a mass of commercial profit-making activity and hidden in a safe where no one is allowed to see it. This goes a long way to explaining why so many governments have continued to be willing partners to destructive business initiatives, and it wouldn’t surprise many of us that the global media have been active in lulling people all over the world into a sense of security and entitlement of what has come to be known as “normal” The recently-concluded G20 hasn’t produced any tangible results, and COP 26 could easily turn into a brilliantly-laundered word-churn accomplishing nothing.