Of worms and France, and the United States

May 2013

“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.

Few of the worms can have asked themselves if they belonged in this new land or new earth, and in the space of just a few generations they must have so transformed the ecosystem and their relation to it as to be able to feel entirely at home. Further, if we reflect on the worms’ success or, say, on the experiences of tomatoes, corn, pigs and horses, which came to play significant roles in lands previously unknown to them, and on humans’ lives in these lands, we may find somewhat shaken our sense of home or of native species. I remember having a similar feeling when I read in William Cronon’s environmental history of New England (Changes in the Land) that, long before we Europeans arrived, the forests of that region had been subject to regular burning by the Indians in order to facilitate hunting and other aspects of their way of life. Of course this practice had tremendous effects on which species could thrive in New England, and thus on which species, landscapes and ways of life seemed “native” to European newcomers. Nor can we trace all such transformations to human behaviors. Long before our species emerged, wind, currents, volcanoes, meteors and other phenomenon were having similar effects, as indeed they continue to do.
I write this now because, after some years away, I have recently come back to a particular part of Europe, Paris, and I have been impressed by how rapidly it is becoming the place of residence of people with non-Western-European roots and whose skin is of a range of shades. It seems only a matter of time before it will be difficult for Parisians to imagine that the residents of their city were, once upon a time, almost entirely “white.” Perhaps it will soon be difficult to understand how “white” could have been an adjective to describe skin color, or how skin color could have been one of the parameters used by human beings to try to classify, divide and conquer one another.

In addition, as compared to in the place where I make my home, near the large natural harbor of New York, it is easier for me visiting Paris, in 2013, to appreciate the arbitrariness of great cities. Paris is a vast spreading of people and their fabrications along the banks of a not particularly large river, in the midst of a much larger and impressively fertile plain. I assume that Parisians have long had much the same sense that many of us New Yorkers do—that we are not living just anywhere, n’importe où, but in a place that has a kind of intrinsic meaning, and that this place thus gives meaning to their lives, and in a way that, say, Peterborough, New Hampshire, one of my ancestral hometowns, or Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I spent some of my youth, may not. If history and the media have found such significance in New York, Paris or another grand capital, then there must be, or may be, a non-arbitrariness to “me,” too, if and when I am a resident of or visitor to this place. In New York this feeling—this illusion—may be reinforced by a sense of the geographic inevitability of the place; how could a great city not grow up around such a harbor and at the mouth of such a long and wide river? But in the twenty-first century Paris can seem to have been built in the middle of nowhere, at a point chosen at random from any number of such points along the twisting path of the Seine. I stand on the rise above the great Place de la Concorde, with its view of the Eiffel Tower, le Grand Palais, the gold dome of Les Invalides, and I am not only struck by the spreading beauty, the miraculousness of this place (which Parisian friends tell me is all the more beautiful at this time of year because of the position of the sun in the sky). I am struck, too, by what I am calling the arbitrariness (and this must contribute to the feeling of miraculousness, of the sublime). All this construction and design and movement of people and vehicles in the middle of nowhere.

Meanwhile, hardly insensitive to a seemingly growing threat of arbitrariness, the French media has found yet another crisis to give their efforts, and perhaps their clientele as well, a sense of importance and urgency, of non-arbitrariness. Throughout the world the language of the sciences is now English, with 75 percent of scientific papers being published in that language. And it is much the same in the worlds of finance, commerce and diplomacy (to say nothing of the prevalence of English-language pop music, Hollywood movies and American television shows). Some French leaders are proposing that, if France wishes to continue to be a center of learning, some number of its university and professional school classes will need to be conducted in English. And this would seem to necessitate, at least in the short term, more hiring of native English-speaking professors.

It is not difficult to appreciate the objections that some French intellectuals are raising to this proposal. On a sophisticated level, we may note, as a French friend of mine did, that what may be taught in French and from a French perspective is simply not the same as what may be taught in English. French mathematics or biology or ways of doing business or of organizing government institutions has not been and should not be the same as English approaches to such things. (And—besides the delicious food, the beauties of the cities and landscape, the gentle climate, the riches of the language and the love of literature, philosophy and discussion, and . . . —why bother coming to France to learn from an English speaker?) And if France, having lost so much of its former military and economic status, should now also lose the exalted standing of its language, . . . certainly there is plenty of sadness there. And all of this could be considered secondary to the matter of jobs. Will the hiring of English speakers mean there are fewer jobs for French speakers, and force French youths to leave the French university system in order to get a first-rate English-language education abroad? (Or will the rising tide of English raise all boats, with more students wanting to study in France and overall faculty employment, of both French and English native speakers, increasing?)

Nicely, while the media has taken up this latest crisis or debate, I have been reading a biography of Montaigne which briefly discusses the languages of instruction of sixteenth century Paris. At the Sorbonne, classes had long been in Latin. Then, in 1530, in an attempt, ultimately successful, to reduce the power of the Sorbonne, le roi Francois Ier and Guillaume Budé, a scholar and opponent of censorship, created «le collège royal », where teaching was to be done in three languages: Latin, Greek and Hebrew. (The implication was that this would allow the students of this institution to have a better understanding of the Bible and thus of God’s will than those who were merely reading the Latin translation.) Among the distinguished professors of this new college, however, one, Pierre de La Ramée (called Ramus) was the first person to give his courses en langue « vulgaire »—i.e., in French. And this may have been one of the reasons he became one of the victims of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572), from which Bude’s family may have but narrowly escaped.

Over the next 400 years Latin was slowly but surely pushed out of the French curriculum, with French mainly, and also English and some other modern languages, taking its place. I imagine that there was a sense of finality in this transition, perhaps a claiming of linguistic and cultural sovereignty—once and for all. And during the colonial period, and in the neo-colonial period still ongoing, la francophonie—the speaking of French, the celebration of French culture, and the study and further development of French ideas—has been vigorously promoted.

But meanwhile the worm of English was working its way into the subsoil of France and its colonies. And the effects of this worm on foreign ecologies have been as profound as the effects of related invasive species such as the dollar and the euro, or NATO, the European Union, neocolonialism and the United Nations system. Future historians may come to think of the effects of French on the world as being congruent to the effects of the French Revolution and Napoleon on the Europe of their time. That is, French may come to seem a kind of hot gushing but short-lasting volcano which transformed the European ecology along with aspects of the larger world, but whose lava was rather quickly covered over by other disruptions of the temperature and composition of the land.
In the United States we now have, at some superficial level, this feeling or illusion of what I have called finality, of being established for all eternity. Some years ago one of our number proposed that we had reached the end of history, one possible implication being that the United States and its approach to government and economics would not be subject to the same invasions, erosions and natural and unnatural disasters that had, quickly or slowly, done away with other wealthy and powerful entities. But my sense is, too, that impermanence clings to many of us, and not just to those living along the San Andreas Fault or where the hurricanes often hit or the rivers often flood. This feeling may stem from our being recent immigrants or recent invaders.

Many have observed how often Americans pull up stakes and the planned obsolescence or throwaway nature of our products. I think, too, of our tag sales. Are we attached above all to the possibility for exchange, to include for conversation, that consumer goods offer, or is it a kind of endless game of musical chairs, of shifting the placements of things and people before the music stops? On my family’s four-acre country estate, assuming that the sweet produce would be welcomed by grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren long after he was gone, my father with hard and loving labor planted fruit trees. Hardly were they planted than he sued for divorce. The land was sold to some sort of hedge fund whiz whose favorite trees, it would seem, were those on which money grew, and whose wife’s dominant idea was that whatever might be the condition of land, trees and buildings that she and her husband took over, they must be remodeled and without delay. In a world in such rapid transition we must make our marks quickly or not at all?

The four acres are on the shore of a lake, not a mile from the sea. If the climatologists not in the pay of the oil companies are right, it will not be long before this parcel and whatever plants or structures may be attached to it are deep in salt water, out of the reach even of worms.


Photograph of la Place de la Concorde is credited to the photographer Bensliman and the agency Dreamstime.com.



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