May 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“The basis of optimism is sheer terror,” Oscar Wilde once observed. But he was, . . . well, Wilde, and not American. And it can hardly be terror—at being found to be less than completely, constantly optimistic?—that makes all our American glasses either half or completely full (if not overflowing!). Others—the French, for example—may find our faith in positive thinking curious or even laughable (if not stupid or disingenuous). But in this, as in so much else, we Americans know better.
It is thanks in large part to our positive thinking that we have become such a great country. And this notwithstanding Native Americans’ vulnerability to small pox and their interest in living on reservations in the least fertile or otherwise unpromising parts of the country, and notwithstanding Mexicans’ willingness to cede California and the Southwest to us and to work for ridiculously low wages, and . . .
And if all of history’s other great empires have declined and fallen, and if ours might seem threatened by the pace at which we are consuming our natural resources; by changes we are wreaking on the environment and climate; by our addiction to consumerism; by the high costs and shortcomings of our education and health-care systems; by the growing disparities between our very rich and the rest of us not-so-rich; by the corruption of our governments or the extent to which they are devoted to serving particular interests, most of them commercial; or by our self-satisfaction, . . .
Well, this is negative, pessimistic thinking, and hardly our point of view. (Did I mention that all we Americans’ glasses are always somewhere between half and completely full, if not overflowing, and that it has been thanks in large part to our positive thinking that . . . ?)
Given all this, you can imagine my surprise, and pleasure, in coming across, during un séjour en France, the following draft law from the pen of the nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant. As shall be seen, the text offers valuable suggestions for how we might eliminate any shadows of pessimism as might still remain to darken the glorious summer of our present, past and future.
Law designed to suppress current pessimism
Article 1 — All French people who can read or write are strictly forbidden to read or write anything about pessimism in our day and age.
Art. 2 — It is strictly forbidden: to be or appear unhappy, sick, deformed, scrofulous, etc.; to lose a limb in a carriage, train or other accident—that is, unless the victim announces immediately afterward that the accident was for the best. Violators of this law may be sentenced to between two and twenty years of hard labor.
Art. 3 — All French people, adults and children, are forbidden to starve to death.
Art. 4 — Those who do not have homes and who are forced to spend their winter nights on benches and under bridges must sing earnest, happy songs from 6 o’clock at night until 6 in the morning in order to show the others, on their way home, that they, the homeless, are content.
Art. 5 — Every rich person who might call himself a pessimist will be immediately put to death.
Art. 6 — An exception will be made for those who, though not particularly rich, have more than ten children.
Art. 7 — Another exception will be made for those who suffer from rare and incurable heart, stomach, liver or brain diseases—conditions that can deform a person’s outlook.
Art. 8 — All French people who are rich and in good health are forbidden to feel bad about the fate of the destitute, homeless and sick; and of old people who have no money, children who have been abandoned, miners and the unemployed; and, more generally, of any of the suffering people who make up roughly two-thirds of the population.
Art. 9 — Anyone who talks about Decazeville or Germinal will be sentenced to death.
Art. 10 — Anyone who is convicted of having bought Germinal or of having a copy in his possession must pay a fine. In this regard, the police may inspect citizens’ homes, and the citizens are forbidden to shoot at the officers.
Art. 11 — The current pessimist tendencies stem from defective thinking on the part of the current generation. With the invaluable assistance of the thirty-six not yet dead members of l’Académie française who met under the chairmanship of M. Ludovic Halévy, the government believes that some of the defective and dangerous ideas now abounding can be corrected. . . .  Since the problem stems from a simple lack of appreciation, people can be forever and constantly happy if only they convince themselves:
(i) That perfection reigns—including in the manners of our taxi drivers and the intelligence of our elected representatives.
(ii) That inherited wealth is more a disaster than a joy, and extreme poverty more a joy than a disaster.
(iii) That hunger provides an excellent means for appreciating the delicious taste of day-old bread, when a passer-by gives you 5 cents so you can buy some; thirst is an excellent cure for drunkenness; physical handicaps help build character; epidemics are ideally suited to helping the survivors get ahead; war’s bloodletting is healthy; and . . .
(iv) All regrettable states of affairs should be regarded as temporary.
With this perspective, it is impossible to be pessimistic.
— Guy de Maupassant, le Figaro du 10 février 1886
Complete text of Guy de Maupassant’s article may be found, I believe, in Chroniques 1876-1891. A selection of these pieces was published in 2013, in French, by Editions le Mono.
Lines from Victor Hugo’s poem “Ode à la misère” (Ode to destitution, a.k.a. “Aubin”) may be found online, and certainly in French anthologies. I have been intrigued by this book, Victor Hugo on Things That Matter: A Reader (English and French Edition), edited by Marva A. Barnett (Yale University Press, 2010), though I have my doubts that this anthology includes “Ode à la misère.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Dover Thrift Edition).
Emile Zola, Germinal, as translated into English by Peter Collier (Oxford University Press, 2008).
 An extract of the French text was first found in Le Bonheur: Petite anthologie littéraire et philosophique (Editions Garnier, 2013). A lengthier extract was then found on a French blog, and this latter extract gave the impression that the original article, “Le Pessimisme,” continued on after the presentation of the draft law. For the most part I have stuck to the text first found in Le Bonheur, and in translating this text I have made a few adjustments and eliminated a phrase or two that might confuse modern readers. E.g., there was a phrase about the annual incomes of reasonably well-to-do French people. It gave a figure, a quantity of francs, that could seem, to modern readers, extremely low.
 Decazeville is (or was) a coal mining and iron and steel milling town in southwestern France (about 100 miles north of Toulouse). In the second half of the nineteenth century it was the scene of several labor actions which turned violent and ended up calling attention to the plight of the miners, some number of them children. In 1869, the army fired on the strikers, killing 17 people, and in 1886 there was a long strike at one point during which the director of the mines was killed. Emile Zola’s novel Germinal was inspired by and dramatizes these circumstances. Before Zola, Victor Hugo wrote a poem, “Ode à la misère” (or “Aubin,” Aubin being the name of the state-owned company against which the miners struck). The poem takes the form of a 16-year-old female miner responding with childlike directness and simplicity to an interviewer’s gentle questions. A few lines:
. . . la tâche est rude et la sape est étroite :
On sue, on gèle, on tousse ; on a chaud, on a froid. . . .
- Pourquoi ne pas vous plaindre aussi ? – Nous l’avons fait.
Nous avons demandé, ne croyant pas déplaire,
Un peu moins de travail, un peu plus de salaire.
- Et l’on vous a donné, quoi ? – Des coups de fusil.
A brief résumé: The work is hard, the girl says; we sweat, freeze and get sick. “Why do you not also complain?” the interviewer asks. We did ask, she says. We asked for a little less work and a little more salary. “And what did you get in return?” Gun shots.
 In this paragraph and elsewhere the ellipses in the de Maupassant text were also in the original that I have translated, this original being itself an extract. M. Ludovic Halévy was a French writer, the author of Monsieur et Madame Cardinal (1873) and L’Abbé Constantin (1882), among many other works. According to Wikipedia, “Émile Zola had presented to the public an almost exclusive combination of bad men and women; in L’Abbé Constantin all are kind and good, and the change was eagerly welcomed by the [French] public.” L’Académie française is made up of forty writers who, though living, are known as les immortels, and the French use the number thirty-six to refer to an indeterminate number of things. « Il n’y a pas trente-six solutions ! » The options are limited. Hence de Maupassant’s quip about there being only 36 académiciens left, and those perhaps more dead than alive.
May 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“il faut dire des mots, tant qu’il y en a”
one must keep using words, so long as they still exist
— Beckett, L’Innomable (The Unnamable)
Among the many bits of information that Charles Mann has offered regarding the effects of the European invasion of the “New World,” one above all has fired my imagination. According to Mann’s book 1493, before European colonists arrived on the western coast of the Atlantic, there were no worms in North America. Thus, for example, decomposition was something that took place first and foremost above ground, aided by sun, wind, rain and fire, rather than below, aided by worms. An hypothesis noted by Mann is that there were worms in the English soil used as ballast in some of the first trading ships, and when the soil was unloaded to make room for the timber desired back in England, the worms found themselves free to explore the virgin soil. Non experts such as me might guess how long it took the most adventurous or adventurous offspring to comprehend the subsoil of the entire continent. My assumption is that we would be surprised to learn how few years or weeks this required; in any case—for all the worms were lacking muskets or six-shooters, or axes, whiskey, barbed wire or the small pox viruses—well ahead of “the white man,” they must have imposed their way of life on previously well-ensconced species. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In The Genealogy of Morals (as translated by Francis Golffing), Nietzsche writes about how
as a man divinely abstracted and self-absorbed into whose ears the bell has just drummed the twelve strokes of noon will suddenly awake with a start and ask himself what hour has actually struck, we sometimes rub our ears after [an] event and ask ourselves, astonished and at a loss, “What have we really experienced?”—or rather, “Who are we, really?”
I have dug this passage out of my files after reading an e-mail from one of my electronic friends, Carolyn (or Whyde Eide, as she first introduced herself to me). She has, apparently, just spent a long weekend at some kind of “Nietzsche retreat” in the Catskills. I quote from her post-retreat ruminations:
“One thing I learned is that people who like Nietzsche, or who like to go to Nietzsche retreats, also like to think that he went crazy not because of any illness or psychological problems, but because of the power and daring of his thinking. He stretched his mind all the way to a breaking point, or got so in touch with the lack of moorings for our thoughts that, one day in Turin, his own boat kind of drifted away. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The last sentences on the last page of the May Harvard Business Review are the following lines from Maya Angelou, in answer to a question from the Review about what makes a leader great:
A leader sees greatness in other people. You can’t be much of a leader if all you see is yourself.
There are two separate assertions here, one about not being too focused on oneself, and the other about seeing greatness in others. This latter one interests me particularly; however, when I mentioned it to my son, he had what may be called the family response: But what if the others aren’t great? « Read the rest of this entry »
April 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
History will record that the cellphone and later mobile, but still external devices were above all precursors for an electronic device that was implanted under the skin, from where it sent signals to the brain and other parts of the body. For example, instead of an alarm clock it was possible to program this device—by sending signals, say, from an office or hotel computer network—to produce a slight, agreeable vibration feeling in the brain at the set time. Other signals could, at set times or randomly over the course of a day, recall pleasant memories—of youth, vacation spots, beloved friends, the office or hotel, favorite tunes. It became no longer necessary to consult lists, be they hand-written or stored in an out-of-body electronic device. The new device, which might be implanted in the forearm and look quite like a tattoo, could be programmed to access the essential thought—pick up dry cleaning, call pediatrician. Such thoughts could be brought to the device wearer’s attention subconsciously, so that the device wearer would feel that s/he her/himself had recalled the task at the appropriate time. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Shortly after I completed my essay on The Importance of Being Earnest and the role of the unsaid in literature and philosophy, my son’s Russian teacher had him read a 24-line Pushkin poem, “Кавказ,” The Caucasus. On the Web I found an excellent translation by Irina Zheleznova, best known for her translations of fairy tales. Herewith a few key moments, let’s call them:
Below me the silver-capped Caucasus lies…
A stream at my feet rushes, foaming and roaring. . . .
He lashes about like a beast in a cage
With food out of reach, full of hunger and craving,
And licks at the boulders, and, howling and raving,
Strikes out at the shore in a frenzy and rage. . . .
April 9, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Clarifying, I note that the title uses the word “just” in the sense of “merely,” “only”—“just another manic Monday”—and not in the sense of “justice.” At the same time I note that this essay risks descending into sophistry, and this may be exemplified by the possibility of now proposing that just being could be the most just way to be.
When I was thinking about this piece I had lunch with a French actress for whom my “just being” recalled the idea that we should live in the moment. This led me to dig up the long famous line from Horace: “dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” While we are speaking (and eating and digging up old Odes), envious time will have fled. And so—and instead, in some way?—we should seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future. Which means? My friend and I should have gone back to her apartment, slipped off our clothes, spent the rest of the afternoon, or of our lives, in bed?
One of the glitches here is connected to this word “should,” « Read the rest of this entry »