Today: the dream, cleaning supplies, the dinner, the Frenchman's article in the NYT duly fisked (click to go straight to the Frenchness)
I decided to go to New York, now. I packed in a hurry, one eye on the clock, knowing that the plane left in half an hour. As we raced to the airport I wondered whether this might be a bad idea; I hadnt told anyone I was coming, and if I made a trip without having lunch with Jeff Jarvis hed be peeved. I had no hotel reservations. Id forgotten to pack my camcorder. As I sprinted through the airport i realized, with no small relief, that Id missed the plane - ah well. Another day, perhaps.
But as often happens in dreams, I found myself in the lobby of the Paramount Hotel in Times Square. The clerk was annoyed with me for insisting I had a reservation - arched eyebrows, heavy sighs. But eventually he found it: Room 101. It turned out to be a bed in the lobby itself. A bellboy confided that they gave this bed to guests whod really ticked off the desk clerk. To whom could I appeal? He shrugged and pointed across the room, where a man sat behind a broad wooden desk scribbling words on paper with an air of great importance -
And then I got an elbow in the rib. Sunday morning was my turn to rise with Gnat. We went downstairs in the dim dawn light; she had cereal while I rummaged through the drawers for a piece of paper to write down the meaning of this incredible dream. I was still half-asleep, it seems, because I just found that scrap of paper in the drawer and discovered my daybreak flash-of-genius. Two words: KAFKA HOTEL. Oh, I thought I had struck Fiction Gold when I wrote that down.
There will be no novel called "Kafka Hotel" coming from my pen anytime soon. My promise to you.
An update on the new Target cleaning products described at punishing length last Friday: theyre awful. They smell wrong. The Ylang Ylang scent, which I feared would stink like rutting pandas, smells like very old people. Thats the only way I can describe it. The melon kitchen cleaner smells nothing like melons - but what does a melon smell like, anyway? It has a musky-vanilla odor that wars with the overall citrus profile of the other cleaners, and I dont like it. The bathroom cleaner smells like cucumber, as advertised, but so what? Thats like saying leaves your bathroom celery-fresh or cleans your toilet with the power of watercress. Theyre not exactly words I associate with efficacious surfactants.
I love that word: surfactants.
An unusually social weekend. Friday night we had a small dinner event with sister/brother-in-law and a friend of theirs from England. Since the bro-in-law is French, I was braced for a Good Talking To about current events, but it didnt happen; my guests had too much class. The Englishwoman - Janet - was a big fan of American movie musicals; she grew up with parents who adored Elvis Presley, so shed seen each of his films ten times. With canny Europeans youre always in danger of meeting someone who knows some corner of your culture better than you do - and whats more, its quite likely you know little about their culture. I admit to knowing next to nothing about German modern culture, aside from their strange devotion to kitschy variety shows set in idealized mountain villages, and all I know about Italian pop culture consists of an intense but useless knowledge of the progressive rock scene circa 1975-77. Spain is a void, alas. England, however, I know something about.
Not much, granted. I read the papers, and I listen to the music. Ive always had an interest in postwar pre-68 Britain as described by the Angry Young Men novelists - Amis, Sillitoe, Braine. I read the Colin Macinnes novels of multiracial London in the 60s, and I absorbed every syllable Anthony Burgess wrote. The first volume of his autobiography, Little Wilson, Big God is a pageant of Mancunian life; his novel The Right to an Answer - a modest tale, utterly forgotten - is not only one of the most perfect novels ever written, but a prescient survey of the collision of old and new England. But I recognize that what I know is not only outdated, its filtered through the prism of ART.
On the other hand, art can boil the blather down to a dram of truth; someone brought up on Elvis and Gene Kelly will have an incomplete vision of America, but not an inaccurate one. My England is based on novelists, reading Punch in the Fargo library in high school, studying the early 20th century composers, watching all the grim movies set in 12-foot-wide two-story rowhouses, plus TV: Monty Python / Dennis Potter shows / AbFab / Royale Family. I might be wrong, but at least I have something to talk about.
As the dinner wound down, I felt as if I should make some sort of recognition of the current situation, and I said that whatever disagreements we might have about things geopolitical, I wanted her to know that many of us appreciated greatly the military and political assistance Great Britain has given the US in our recent and future endeavors. Thanks, she said. And we thank America. Period. No qualifications.
The Anglosphere, as represented by two people in a dining room in a city in the middle of North America.
Drinking French wine.
Speaking of which:
If you could find a better name for a high-handed French given to public pronouncements, you couldnt do better than Regis Debray. The name actually looks like Kingly Donkey-Sound. He wrote a piece for the New York Times op-ed piece the other day. Here's his bio according to the Times: "Régis Debray, a former adviser to President Francois Mitterrand of France, is editor of Cahiers de Mediologie and the author of the forthcoming ``The God That Prevailed.''
Twenty-seven years ago, French radical theoretician Régis Debray was sentenced by a Bolivian military tribunal to 30 years in jail.
Desperate nations produce radicals; comfortable nations that romanticize and indulge disorder produce radical theoreticians.
He had been captured with the guerrilla band led by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Fidel Castro's legendary lieutenant. Released after three years, Debray returned to writing. (His 1967 Revolution in the Revolution is considered a primer for guerrilla insurrection.) He spent five years in the early '80s as a special advisor on Latin American relations to French President François Mitterrand.
Hence the irrelevance of the French in Central America. The Times piece is an amusing example of the intellectual's ability to sneer and sigh simultaneously. But lets look at what he says, and see whether he might be right.
In the year 212, Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all free men in the Roman Empire. Emboldened by that precedent, a friend of mine, a former high French official, once asked a president of the United States to treat Europeans as compatriots. It was an agreeable fantasy; only vassals were wanted.
Oh, shove it down your brie pipe, Pierre.
Sorry - we were going to be nice today. Thats not helpful. So - which president was it, incidentally? I know, I know - they come and go with such kaleidoscopic confusion its hard to tell the Reagans from the Fords, but specifics are useful.
Eight out of 10 Europeans on the street agree with the French-German position, and the governments of Britain, Spain, Italy, et al., have cut themselves off from public opinion. In confronting that awkwardness, the United States has chosen France as its scapegoat.
Please. If we chose France as our scapegoat, its because it has behaved like Arnold de Horshac for the last few months, thrusting its hand in the air and shouting Oo! Oo! Pick Me!
Not having any training as a satellite state, unlike the countries of Eastern Europe, France has assumed the right to judge for itself (despite a number of elites firmly in the American camp).
So: a half-century of forced obedience to the Soviet hegemony is analogous to freely choosing an alliance with the US. They are not capable of assuming the right to judge for themselves, and the evidence is the fact that they have chosen not to stand with France. Remind me who it is that wants only vassals?
Europe no longer takes its civilization for civilization itself, no doubt because it is better acquainted with foreign cultures, notably Islam. Our suburbs, after all, pray to Allah.
Well, thats your problem, isnt it? If you no longer take your civilization for civilization itself, then it will be overrun by those whose faith in their own civilization exceeds your own. He elaborates:
Europe has learned modesty. A civilization that believes itself capable of making do without other civilizations tends to be headed toward its doom.
In other words: if the United States ignores the civilization of France, we are taking the first steps that will lead us to become, well, France: irrelevant, noisy, and impotent.
The stakes are spiritual. Europe defends a secular vision of the world.
A perfect summation of the EU mindset: they are on a spiritual quest to defend their secular vision. The secular is the new religion; the old religion is just a musty, dimly-lit place smelling of wax where you have a doddering old man splash water on your babys head.
It does not separate matters of urgency from long-term considerations.
Except when the long-term consideration - disarming a despot - might require urgent action, lest he grow too strong to dissuade. To put it in terms familiar to France: Confronting the remilitarization of the Rhineland was not an urgent matter; what counted was the long-term consideration - how best to give Hitler his way without war.
In any case, the author seems unable to realize that the US is acting because it seeks to eliminate the long-term consequences. And he seems unwilling to realize that long-term considerations inevitably become urgent. (See also, North Korea.) Todays crisis is always a decade in the making. When the smoke-alarm goes off, you dont convene a panel to discuss a state-funded initiative to install flame-retardant drapery in all homes by 2013.
The United States compensates for its shortsightedness, its tendency to improvise, with an altogether biblical self-assurance in its transcendent destiny.
Was the Marshall Plan shortsighted? Was the half-century involvement in Europe to counterbalance the Soviet bloc shortsighted? Granted, the US can be preoccupied with short-term threats, but perhaps this is preferable to being paralyzed by the long-term, a view which always leads one to a shrug, a cynical epigram about human nature, and another round of Grand Marnier. In the long term, were all dead - but Id prefer to succumb to geriatric organ failure than smallpox or radiation.
You have to say tendency to improvise with a French accent to realize its an insult.
As for the biblical self-assurance in its transcendent destiny - sounds rather long-sighted to me.
Puritan America is hostage to a sacred morality
Oh, cram it down the croissant hatch, Chanticleer. If we were a Puritan nation Courtney Love would be arrested on the Slattern Act and forced into the stocks, and wed all put on our big black buckled hats and head to the square to throw rotten fruit at her head. Puritans dont show up for church in sweatpants.
"Old Europe" has already paid the price. It now knows that the planet is too complex, too definitively plural to suffer insertion into a monotheistic binary logic: white or black, good or evil, friend or enemy. When, one wants to ask, will Washington agree to count to three and think not this or that, but this and that?
Not oppose Saddam or leave in him place, but oppose him in public and sell him fighter jets in private. As for that monotheistic binary logic - I wasnt aware that the nation was gripped by Manichean theology. It sounds sophisticated, but its as facile and reductive as the administration he derides. Its obvious from looking at the nations with which the US has allied itself in the war that this isnt a black/white, good/evil situation. There are more marriages of conveniences than youll find at a Moonie mass wedding, because they are useful for a larger purpose. The rhetoric is stark; the reality is more subtle. Or sin isnt that we are acting like the French, its that we arent talking like the French.
Whence this paradox: the new world of President Bush, postmodern in its technology, seems premodern in its values.
Somewhere in a Republican Guard bunker, the hard men confess: they have heard rumors that the US will use postmodern weapons! Missiles that dissolve context! High-powered electronic beams that underscore the relationship between power and culture! Rockets that can destroy the legitimacy of the authorial voice within a two-mile radius!
In all, an interesting piece about the war, in a radical-theoretician sort of way. Its just peculiar that he could write about the war and forget one word that sums up not post- or pre-modern values, but the eternal values of power and cruelty: Saddam.
Yes, yes, Saddam is appalling on a practical level, as are all dictators; nothing new. But America is appalling on a philosophical level, and thats much more interesting.
Dont you think?