delacroixPro patria mori,” said Stuart.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. I’m not sure I ever understood that.  I remember traveling through France and in every town, usually near the oldest church, there would be a monument with the names of those who died in the First World War, and always the phrase, ‘pour la gloire de la patrie.’ Routot monument textAnd I always wondered what those named on the stone would now think of that phrase. Was the gloire de la patrie worth the pain and loss? The lives truncated, the families not earned, the whole sacrifice really just a preparation for the next guerre, the next round of destruction. Stultum est pro patria mori.”

“Is it the war you despise?” I asked, “or is it the patriotism?”

“No question, the patriotism. War will always be with us; I have little hope for humankind’s redemption. I can see no way ending the habit of the strong using brute force to coerce the weaker. But patriotism is something I cannot fathom.”

“Well, we both came of age during the Vietnam war, and I think that must color what we feel, both the anti-war and anti-patriotism. I certainly felt jerked around during those years by the constant appeal to a cheap patriotism…”get a haircut

“Yes, ‘Get a haircut’ was the summum bonum of love for country…”

“You’re feeling very Latin this morning.”

“Perhaps because the Romans seem to have invented the concept. Not so much love of country, but rather a jingoistic sense of ‘Hooray for our side,’ that ‘We’re Number One.’ That we should root for the nation simply because we were born here, or decided to move here. ‘My country right or wrong.’ That always seemed to be a thoughtless idea.”

“An idea rather more of team spirit, like in high school, rather than love of country.”

“Exactly. That reminds me of how I felt when we were required to attend those pep rallies. Why am I supposed to believe my school is better than the other guy’s, or that I owe some sort of allegiance to my school rather than the school in the next town over, which was basically the identical thing, with the identical pep rally but for their team. Didn’t add up.

“There has to be a reason to assent to this tribalism, and I can seldom see it. One nation, like one high school, can be better at some things and less good at others. But school spirit or rabid patriotism demands you believe your side is always better, always right, always worthy.

“So, when I hear politicians say, ‘You don’t want to be like France, do you?’ I say, well, yes, I would love it if we were more like France. Or Norway, or a dozen other places where the standard of living is higher than in the U.S., with better health care, safer streets and happier populations. Why am I supposed to believe that the U.S. is the greatest country on earth, when we rank so low in so many categories. Pretty much the only place we are Number One is in having the biggest military.”

eagle“I see, you hate America.” I was teasing, of course.

“No, but I see a big difference between patriotism and love of country. They are not the same thing.

“I can easily see loving the place you were born; not because you were born there, but because it is the landscape and people you know, that you grew up with. You know the very weeds beside the road. It doesn’t mean you believe it is necessarily better than anyplace else, but because you simply love it.”

“The way you can argue with your spouse, or glance at pretty young women, but it in no way changes the fact you love your wife.”

“Yes, very much like marriage. You don’t have to believe your wife can write better than Virginia Woolf, or play piano better than Valentina Lisitsamadeleine albright or conduct foreign affairs better than Madeleine Albright. You don’t have to believe your wife has no flaws. You may, in fact, love her because of her flaws. It is the same with your love of country.”

“Lately, the right-wing has been upping the rhetoric on so-called American exceptionalism. They want to change the way history is taught in schools, emphasizing the special mission they see for America in the world. They complain that President Obama doesn’t love America enough. It all sounds so high-school, so puerile. After all, every country believes in its own exceptionalism. Is there any nation with more faith in its specialness than France? And Putin’s whole shtick in Russia is reasserting its special place in history. It’s like the Special Olympics: We’re all exceptional. China has its thousands of years history, Tanzania has its cradle of humanity, Great Britain has its never-setting sun, Greece — little Greece, wallowing in economic quicksand — is the birthplace of democracy. American exceptionalism is hardly exceptional.

“And these yahoo Republicans complain if we mention slavery, or the Indian wars or Jim Crow. If you love your country, it has to be warts and all; it cannot be a whitewash job.”

“Ah, but it winds up that way, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, if your love of country is summed up by flag waving.”

“But, isn’t there a problem with that formulation …”

“Probably many…”

“…in that you can love and have that kind of familiarity with a chunk of land and people — say, northern New Jersey, where I was born — but that Iowa or Utah remain as foreign as Northumberland or Brittany? In other words, what is the geographical extent of this love of country?”RE Lee

“Robert E. Lee talked about his love of country. It led him to general an army in revolt against the Union; his love extended to Virginia. He didn’t even have much feeling for Alabama or Texas. His patriotism was reserved for his home state. And I expect it was focused primarily in the northern part of the state. One wonders what he would have made of Wise or Norfolk. It isn’t imbecilic “Hooray for our side,” but a deep reverence for the land. But it is the land whose dirt you know between your knuckles when you squeeze it in spring to decide if it’s time to plant.”

“So, you are saying love of country and patriotism are two separate impulses.”

“Of course. And by extension, we have to remember that what we call a country, a nation, is a fairly recent invention. Treaty of Westphalia and all that. Before that, nationhood was defined primarily by ethnicity, unless it was co-opted by conquest and you had to pay your taxes to a foreign invader. Borders were whatever you could defend and were constantly shifting.”

“There was a neat internet animation that showed the shifting borders of Europe from Medieval times to the present; looked like squirming worms on the map. Whole countries appeared, disappeared and reappeared in another location. Poland, especially rolls around the map like mercury on a dinnerplate.”

“And so, your patriotism is a fugitive thing, dependent on the vagaries of time. But this only brings up another dragon to slay. The modern notion of nationhood is defined by lines on the world map: Here is France, here is Indonesia. But all across the world, there are people corralled inside those lines screaming to get out: Basques and Catalans in Spain, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Chechens in the Russian Federation, Russians in Ukraine, Scots from Great Britain, Quebecois from Canada, Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, Uighurs in China …”

“Driving around southern France and the Camargue, I kept coming across angry graffiti demanding Occitan separatism.”

“… It is everywhere, it seems. Northern California wants to split from Southern California. So, in all this, where does your patriotic duty lie? Are you a Jerseyite, a Northerner, and Easterner, a Tri-Stater, a Yankee, an American, and English speaker, a Norwegian-descent immigrant, a world citizen, what?”

“You can be all those things, can’t you? Can’t you like Jersey pizza and Chicago pizza, too?”

“And what happens when one allegiance conflicts with another? That is certainly what many Southerners faced in 1861. Heck, many still face it. How many times have you heard the extreme right say, ‘I love my country but I hate my government’? Is your love of country based on the dirt you stand on or the government you pay taxes to? Is it all amber waves of grain and purple mountains majesty? Because, you know Russia has those, too.”Russian wheat

Russian wheat

“You have made a dichotomy, but really, I see a three-way split. One can feel allegiance to the nation, as defined by arbitrary borders, or to the land you grew up in and know like the breath you breathe, or, thirdly, to the people you know and feel comfortable with. And this third may be the most human, and the most dangerous. When the national borders break down and you swear upon the sword of ethnicity, you get the former Yugoslavia, or the genocide in Rwanda.”

“All of which is why I find the very notion of patriotism toxic,” Stuart said. “A curse on both your houses.”

“Or all three.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Linville Falls
It has been nearly 50 years since I first saw Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back then, getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over into.Linville Falls 03

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.Linville upper falls

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

Leaping from rock to rock across the cataract could easily have got me killed, swept over the precipice, but I was young, and therefore, an idiot.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.Linville Falls from above

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those five decades in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge from Ashe County towards North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farmsite along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the “Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.Linville trillium

It had been 20 years since we visited that farmhouse and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill towards it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nailheads still showing.

In the years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In just those few years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 20 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

 
 
 
 
 

rules of the game 5In Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic, “The Rules of the Game,” one character sums up the problems of existence: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”

The film, which tops many lists as the greatest film ever made, has no heroes, no villains; it has no right, no wrong; no simple lessons to be learned, no closure. It is as French as it gets, and despite Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, it could never be made in America.

On the other hand, the 1980 “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” has plenty of heroes and villains: It’s the quintessential American film; it could never have been made in France. “Horizontal boosters. Alluvial dampers? Ow! That’s not it, bring me the hydrospanner.” empire strikes back 1

Jamais!

The difference is more than merely language; it’s sensibility. Both excellent films, they sum up the divide between European cinema and Hollywood movies, a divide filled by more than the Atlantic Ocean.

One doesn’t have to take sides. There are great films from both sides of the pond. But it is important to realize when you go into the theater that there is a difference and which kind of film you’re about to see. If you’re looking for an amusement-park ride, European cinema probably will bore you to tears; if you want intense drama about the human condition, Hollywood films will feel trivial. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

This is not to dismiss American films. First of all, they remain the most popular films worldwide. Many countries, including France, have felt the need to restrict the percentage of American films available to their citizens, to subsidize the local product. Steven Spielberg would always sell more tickets than Jacques Rivette. It doesn’t matter where you go, American films remain popular.

Second, American films remain the major influence on world cinema: The tics of Hollywood become the universal style of everyone else, too. There are the editing rhythms, the lenses and equipment, the green-screen technology, the CGI — these are all the lingua franca of movies everywhere. Even a quiet film like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s popular “Amelie” would not be possible without computer assistance: Most of its signature color was digitally added.

One should not forget that the inspiration for the French New Wave in the 1960s were the Hollywood films the movement loved. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is his take on American films, with their gangsters and girlfriends.breathless 2

We in the U.S. now are exposed to more foreign films than ever before. There are Hong Kong martial-arts films, Bollywood films, the emerging films of China and Korea, not to mention those from Iran, Israel and the Arab world.

All that is in addition to the many French, German, Italian and British films that traditionally have constituted the world of foreign films.

They’re not only in theaters but frequently available on cable channels, on DVD and from Netflix. Even Turner Classics has its percentage of foreign-language films.

It’s nearly impossible for the curious filmgoer to remain provincial in the comparative flood of world cinema.

It is true there are American indie films, but even those, no matter how gritty they are, tend to follow an American world view.

Americans see the world differently, so their films portray the world differently. We prize directness and informality; we despise hypocrisy and airs; we look for answers, not questions. We are fundamentally optimistic.

It is partly a matter of history. Because we have seldom suffered the devastation of war on our homeland, we have a different relationship with the past. Europe is haunted by history; for Americans, history is largely a matter of colorful costumes.paul schrader

The American writer and director with the most European sensibility is Paul Schrader, who wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and he puts it simply:

“American movies are based on the assumption that life presents you with problems, while European films are based on the conviction that life confronts you with dilemmas — and while problems are something you solve, dilemmas cannot be solved; they’re merely probed.”

The American sensibility demands we open the box to find out if the cat is dead or alive.

For American audiences, an unsolved story is profoundly unsatisfying. We demand closure.

It’s the Oprah in us.

 
 

triangles
The late writer George Plimpton was famous for his participatory journalism: He risked life and limb while playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, trading punches with boxer Archie Moore, blocking 100-mile-an-hour hockey pucks as goaltender for the Boston Bruins. All to get a good story. plimpton

But the only time Plimpton admitted getting scared was when he played triangle for the New York Philharmonic, facing conductor Leonard Bernstein.

“He would stare at Bernstein over the top of the triangle, metal rods gripped tightly, and look for some cue in the whirlwind of Bernstein’s movements that suggested it was time for him to play. And then: Ping!

The story was remembered in Barry Green’s book The Mastery of Music, by Philharmonic percussionist Walter Rosenberg, who tried to help the poor journalist.

“Bernstein would look at him and say, ‘George, would you play that note for us again?’

“George would pick up the triangle and play it again: Ping!

“The maestro would ask George to try it one more time.

“Another, rather tentative Ping.

“‘Once more,’ Bernstein would say as he cupped his hand behind his ear.

Ping.

“The tension in the room was mounting — the orchestra members didn’t quite know where Lenny was going to take this one. Finally, he said to George in a rather impatient, dissatisfied manner:

” ‘Now, which of those four pings do you mean? They’re all different.’

“Poor George was obviously in shock. He stood there trembling, his face a complete blank, not knowing what he had done wrong, or what he could possibly do to play his ping any better.”

He was playing the triangle, for goodness’ sake, an instrument that even kindergartners negotiate easily in rhythm bands. How hard could it be?

“A lot of people come up to me and say it must be easy to hit the triangle,” says Bill Wanser, former principal percussionist for the Phoenix Symphony, who retired in 2013 after 38 years at the back of the orchestra. “I tell all my students, you don’t hit anything, you play it. You touch the instrument because the touch you give the instrument determines the kind of sound you get from the instrument.”bill wanser and triangle

Bill Wanser

I talked to Wanser when the orchestra was going to play the Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat, which has such a prominent part for the lowly triangle that when critic Eduard Hanslick first heard it in during its premiere in 1855, he dubbed it the “Triangle Concerto.”

We talked in his home studio, surrounded by the drums, xylophones and timpani of his trade. A soft-spoken man, then 62, he had been with the Phoenix Symphony since 1975. He was hired by the late Eduardo Mata and has seen the orchestra through five music directors.

He has thought a lot about the lowly triangle and his part in the concerto.

“You have to have a concept in your head of what you want that sound to be like, before you actually play that note, because that’s going to translate, if you practice, to what kind of touch you give that beater when the triangle and the beater meet. If the touch is correct, the sound you have in your mind will come out correctly. But you have to have that idea.

“I’ve heard recordings when the triangle just sounds terrible because someone’s just hitting it. But with the right kind of touch, the right feel to the rhythm, the whole thing sparkles. That is what I try to do.”

Thus begins a mini lesson on the complexities of playing the triangle.Grover Pro triangle

First, there’s the triangle itself. It comes in many forms and sizes, mostly from 4 inches to 8 inches, made from steel, bronze or some alloy.

While a grade-school triangle can cost as little as a couple of bucks, a professional triangle sells for an average of about $75.

A Grover Pro bronze model is “meticulously hammered in a compact randomized pattern,” as the company’s catalog says, which “ensures that the inherent fundamental pitch is dampened and that the instrument’s intricate and complex harmonic structure is enhanced.”

The 6-inch version sells for $140.buddy and thien gold triangle

For those who admire James Galway’s gold flute, there is a 9-inch all-gold triangle, sold by Buddy and Thein, which goes for a cool $650.

The triangle came to European orchestras from Turkish janissary — or military — bands. The original version of the triangle had a series of rings attached to the bottom rung to make more jangle when the instrument was played.

It came to Europe after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks outside Vienna in 1683, when, supposedly, the fleeing Turks dropped their instruments in the field. By the time of Mozart and Beethoven, such “Turkish” instruments as cymbals and triangles had become part of the orchestra, at least for military effects.

That percussion became a regular part of the orchestra in the 19th century, and such exotic instruments as the cymbal, the tam-tam (Chinese gong) and the lowly triangle became means for composers to “colorize” their music.

But the triangle itself is only the beginning. There is the beater to consider.triangle beaters

Black Swan Percussion offers a set of six differently weighted beaters in a nylon case for $127.

“I have a collection of color-coded beaters,” Wanser says. “They’re various thicknesses. They used to make triangle beaters from solid metal, but these are not solid.

“We found that we can eliminate some of the contact sound if we don’t use solid beaters. So this guy came up with different thicknesses of metal wrapped around a shaft and separated from the shaft with epoxy.”abel triangle

Wanser has spread out his collection of triangles and beaters on a soft cloth over one of his xylophones. There are eight triangles of various sizes and metals and some 20 beaters.

He picks one up.

“I’ll probably use this one for the Liszt,” he says. “The metal is fairly thin, just a nylon insert in there, but still enough weight I can produce a pretty big sound. And then, it won’t have quite the tick.”

The tick, he says, is the enemy. You don’t want a metallic sound, like machine parts clanging together. You want something more like the “eructation of an angel,” a scintillant, chiming ping. If you hit the triangle the wrong way, or with the wrong beater, you can make it sound like a traffic accident.

“You have to think about where you hit the triangle. These are things most people don’t know.

“Hit it here and you get this tone: Ping.

“If I play more toward the corner, where the metal is a little denser, then you get this: Ping, but a different ping.

“Or hit it near the top, and you have this: Ping.”

The sound of a triangle is not a simple note, like a violin note or a piano note. It is a mix of upper harmonics, all mixed together in a ping without a pitch. But hit it in different places, and you draw out different harmonics.

“You can almost get a triad out of it,” Wanser says. “Ping; ping; ping.

“And, of course, if I play at the very tip of the beater, I’m going to get a brighter sound. If I play more in the center of the beater, I get a much darker sound. Halfway in between, I get this sound: Ping.”

The sound of the triangle is usually meant to blend in with the orchestra, a coloration effect.

“There are not a lot of triangle solos,” Wanser says. “One that comes to mind is in Brahms’ Third Symphony. It’s a single triangle note that comes at the end of a quiet string passage and puts a period at the end of it: ‘Ding.’ It’s just a color that you want.

“But for the Liszt concerto, you want a bright, articulate sound because it’s a rhythmic passage, not just color, and you don’t want too much shimmer in it.

“When I play that, I’m going to move the beater around on the triangle because the second note is going to be a little brighter than the first, a little sharper sounding.

“Plus, it’s easier rhythmically if you move your beater along the triangle instead of hitting it in the same spot over and over. If you’re playing rapid successive notes, if you move just a little bit, it’s easier to phrase and make the rhythm clear and more articulate.”

And we haven’t even mentioned counting.liszt score

The score for the triangle — like that of many percussion instruments — has very few notes on it and many, many rests. Sometimes a hundred bars of rest before a note is hit. Percussionists count those rests. Wanser’s score for the Liszt concerto shows four lines of empty staves, with bars numbered on them. Over a single rest on the staff, there will be a number — 17 in one place, 32 in another — that tells you that rest covers 17 or 32 bars of tacit, or silence from the triangle. Wanser counts each bar.

“There’s tons of counting,” he says. “I’ve played for a lot of years, and I’ll find myself counting my steps as I walk down the street. I’ll sit and have big, long rests, and it’s a challenge to keep focused on what you’re doing.”

Click to enlarge

There are stories of percussionists reading books or checking how their stocks are doing while they are waiting for their single cymbal crash or gong cataclysm.

“That was probably more prevalent in the past than it is today,” Wanser says. “I studied with the legendary Fred Hinger, who was percussionist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and later for the Metropolitan Opera. I asked him, ‘How do you count?’

” ‘First of all,’ he said, ‘Never rely on any cues; never rely on anybody else. Do your own counting and always be 100 percent sure of where you are in the score.’angelica kauffmann Allegra

“You have cues written in your score,” Wanser says, “but I don’t rely on those cues because maybe the horn has miscounted or something. It doesn’t happen very often, but it would be the one time it happens, and it could throw everybody off.”

Is it any wonder that Plimpton sweated his time with Bernstein?

Of course, a triangle player doesn’t only play the triangle. He is a percussionist who will play whatever instruments are called for, drums, xylophones, woodblocks, glockenspiels, and even back up the principal timpanist if needed.

“I have a friend who plays with local amateur groups, and he’ll come over to discuss a part once in a while,” Wanser says. “He’s a decent drummer, but I’ll show him what I would do, and he’s amazed because he hasn’t been able to do it. He’s not a professional player.

“The perception is that anyone can be a drummer, but it’s not so. There’s a lot of people who can play drums and pick up the sticks and hit a drum, they have the coordination and can play very complicated rhythms. But do they practice eight hours a day, the way a professional musician does? Have they developed the muscle memory?

“So, when people say, ‘You’re a drummer,’ I say, ‘No, I’m a musician.’ “

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

missionariesThe time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage or the veneration of Mary?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant — just as the Islamist believes in the Quran or Republicans in Fox News — nowhere have I found a Bible verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I eventually came to feel bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion. I just don’t see the point; and now, I don’t see the point in arguing over it. You can have whatever supernatural beings you want, as long as you leave me out of it.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. But there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants your wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a creed that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

gabin 1I love French films; I own well over 200 of them on DVD. And not just the New Wave films we all know, but the pre-war films of Julien Duvivier, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carne, Sacha Guitry — and above all, those of Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol.

I am afraid that under the influence of such films as “Le jour se leve,” “La bete humaine,” and “Quai des brumes,” I am guilty of writing a pastiche short story Which I here present to you. Please read it in black and white. 

L’echafaud de mon desir
ou
Mon desir pour l’echafaud

My name is Etienne Duford and I am the chef de cuisine of a small restaurant in the town of _________. It is hardly more than a village, near Orleans, and a stopping place for truck drivers hauling cargo from Bourges to Paris.

And my restaurant cannot be called haute cuisine. It is only irony that causes me to name myself “chef.” Mostly I serve the truckers blanquette and gigot along with vin de table and rather a lot of digestif. I guess there was a lot of digestion needed to process the food I served. Next door is a small six-room auberge called the relais de St. Pierre. The restaurant is part of the St. Pierre, and its owner is my boss.

St. Pierre. It makes me laugh. “On this rock I build my church,” said Jesus. Well, we grow sugar beets in this corner of the world, and they are hard as rocks. Farmer, I joke, do you really need to plant the beets, can’t you just plow up the rocks that are already in the ground?

The beets pile up in the autumn in little pyramids beside the fields and along the roads, waiting to be picked up and brought to the factory. That paysage is the only thing that gives our region anything you might claim to be distinctif. Otherwise, this is flat country, both as geography and as culture.

Yes, I am married, to la belle Helene, as I like to say, a farmer’s daughter. No, she is not really all that belle anymore, although, for 47, she still has a decent figure and I can’t complain. We still sleep together, although I seldom touch her. Not that she doesn’t have her own affairs to keep in order. Affairs. I can’t really call them amours. That would be much too grand a word. I don’t mind them, and it leaves her a little extra spending money.

But it is the other one you want to know about — my Juliette. Daughter of old Ambroise, owner of the St. Pierre. Julie, ma jolie. The perfect ideal of womanhood. Une vierge de 28 ans, and the main reason I have never left this dusty town. I knew her when she was a child and I was in my 20s, just opening my restaurant. I watched her grow up. She is the only pinpoint of grace in this town, or in my existence.

I would see her sweeping the dirt in front of the auberge every morning and see her shake the laundry out back. No, I didn’t pay much attention to  her when she was young. It’s strange, now that I think about it. This isn’t something that happened those many years ago. I really thought of her as a child, at least until she was in her mid 20s. Then, I realized how beautiful she was, how graceful, and how she was a door to un monde plus gentil, more refined. Too refined for me, helas. I watched her, but I could never approach her.

Then, there was Jean. If a movie were to be made, he would be Gabin. He was one of the truckers who stopped regularly at the St. Pierre. He ate at my place, and perhaps drank a bit more of the vin ordinaire than was good for him. I loathed him.

Why? Because of the attention he paid Julie, ma jolie.  She deserved better. He smiled at her. I wanted to paste him one. This was no belle et la bete. There was no prince buried underneath the coarse skin.

Twice a month he came through with his truck, spent the night at the St. Pierre and ate my rillons with mashed potatoes and mustard sauce. He smacked his lips. In others I would have taken that as a compliment.

“What do you think,” he said one evening. “Great piece of meat, no?”

Surely, he wasn’t talking about the cutlet, which should have been turned into a shoe.

“I would love to get me some of that.” And he indicated, by a rude gesture, he was referring to his nether regions in contact with something soft and feminine. “She’s really something.”
Loathing doesn’t accurately describe my feelings; I hated him. He was a pig.

That Thursday, he came to dinner. I remember, he had only oeufs and some vin rouge. There was pomade in his hair and the smell of the barber shop. His suit hadn’t exactly been pressed, but it was cleaner than usual and I assumed that he had steamed it in his room.

“She gave me the high sign.”

“She?”

“The morsel. I’ve been after her for years, and I think she’s finally ready to give in.”

A big grin covered his face like the wrong sauce on a magret de canard. He wiped his mouth with his forearm.

“Another glass, s’il vous plait,” and he slammed the empty glass down on the table.

When he left, I pulled the towel from my belt, put it on the bar, and followed him. I kept a ways behind, and ducked behind the corner of the St. Pierre as he went in. Looking in the window, I saw him laugh his greasy laugh, slap the concierge’s desk and yell out, “Juliette!” I had an instant chunk of ice coagulate in my gut.

I went back to the restaurant, closed up for the day, and went upstairs. Helene was sitting by the door.

“I’m going out tonight,” she said. “Don’t wait up.”

I’m a man with some small education, although I claim no sophistication. I never finished school. But, I have a tolerant nature. I was not going to make a fuss over this habitual betrayal. I haven’t been the best husband to Helene, and she hasn’t been the best wife to me. It’s a little compromise we both make with life. I don’t ask and she doesn’t rub my nose in it.

But that wasn’t a good night to hear it one more time. I put my coat on, went back downstairs and out the door. I walked down the street and out of the village, out into the fields. I could see only black. It was still twilight and I could make out the hills of beets by the roadside, and the windbreak of trees at the far end of the fields. I could see the windows of the village light up behind me. But inside, it was all black. I wasn’t thinking about Helene. My thoughts passed instead to Julie. “How could such a gem exist even in the same dimension as that slug? How could she abide his barbarity?”

By the time I got to the trees just to the west of the village, I sat on the ground, looking back at the houses, silhouettes now against the graying sky. I’m a grown man, but I sobbed, wiped my nose and took a deep breath. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around them and sat still, continuing to look back at the cluster of homes.

Homes? What is a home? What is one supposed to expect from life? Is there anything like a good marriage? Is it all accommodation? All a matter of giving up? In those books, there are great love affairs, but how do they all end? They all end in death. Anna and Vronsky, Romeo, Juliet. Juliette?

If they end in marriage, they are Charles and Emma. Helene.

The air was unseasonably warm that night. Thursday. The day of the week with the least character. It is a bland day. An empty day.

I heard something in the woods to my left, a shifting of branches and leaves.

I hoped Helene had found more in existence than I had. I had looked for foie gras and found turnips. No sauce helps the turnips.

What’s that?

I was certainly feeling sorry for myself. The son of man knows not where to lay his head.

Again?

I wiped my nose and took a deep breath. Then there was a giggle. There was no doubting that voice.

I got up and walked quietly down to the noise.

There she was on the ground, with her legs split open and the beast wedged between, grunting and rooting. She giggled again. I yelled out. I picked up a beet, hard as stone and took a whack at the beast’s head. He rolled off his prize and looked up at me with the slack uncomprehension of a farm animal. I lifted my arm for a second sally when he pushed me off, grabbed his trousers from around his ankles, yanked them up, rolled away from me, got up and began running off into the beet field, leaving the astonished Julie on her back, white and naked from the waist down, and her tuft of pubic hair, smoke above the fire, a punctuating point in the whiteness where the two legs met, downhill from her upraised knees. I yelled a second time and brought my arm down on her head. I did it again. And again, and again. Her head split open, it was gummy with blood. Her eyes looked up, but they didn’t see anything anymore. I dropped the beet and yelled a third time.

“Julie, ma jolie!” And I cried. I cried like a baby and collapsed next to the slab of meat that used to be the girl I loved.

Now my only assignation is with la veuve, the “widow.” Its blade will will take my best part — my mind — and slice it from my gross part, and the division will be the end of me. No great loss to the world, I fear, but rather a disappointment to myself.

Signed on this 30th day of November, 1937
Etienne Duford

treblinka sign

I’m wearing a virtual foam collar around my brain stem, suffering from a kind of whiplash, having finished one book, so devastating and depressing, and having begun another so invigorating and life-affirming — really, brain-affirming — that my poor psyche feels like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, slapped back and forth by Jack Nicholson.

I recommend both.

The first is a recounting of the inhumanity humanity deals to itself; it is a tale of humankind seen not as individuals, but as an aggregate of categories. The second is a memoir of humans seen as individuals, with all their flaws and foibles. It is the macro view vs. the micro view.

The most distressing thing is that we all have to live in both worlds; we have our families and friends, but we also cannot escape the things our governments, our religions and our employers do in our name.

bloodlandsThe first book is Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, which recasts the central story of World War II — really from 1933 to 1948 — in a way which finally makes sense to me, and is a needed antidote for all the triumphalist D-Day feel-goodism you are weighed down by in endless TV documentaries about the war.

We are too often deluded into thinking that World War II was a time in which America waged a “good war” against Nazism and won. I had always found this view indefensible, simple minded and ultimately jingoistic. The U.S. certainly had its part to play — and I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and those on the homefront —  but when I looked at the figures, it was hard to reconcile the idea that we were the major player when our war dead totaled half a million but the Soviet Union’s dead exceeded 12 million. Either they were terrible soldiers and ours were magnificently efficient, or the real war was not in Normandy, but in the Eastern Front.

But even my own prejudice about the war really being between Germany and Russia turns out to be a gross simplification.

The book is an accounting of all the dying that took place in the shifting-border areas between Germany and Russia — the areas that were sometimes Poland, sometimes Ukraine, Belarus and parts of the Baltic states, Romania and Hungary — death caused by the political choices and policies first of Stalin in the Soviet Union and then Hitler in Germany.Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942)

By the accounting of the author, they are culpable in the deaths of 14 million civilians. This is above and beyond the military deaths caused by the war itself. This was the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian farmers in the 1933, the “Great Terror” of 1938, in which Stalin wiped out his political enemies, rivals and phantoms of his paranoia, followed by the mass shootings in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1941, the starvation policy used by the Germans on 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war and the intended extermination of Jews by Germans from 1941 to 1945. It is a dismal story of humanity’s inhumanity. These were not accidental deaths, but deaths of central planning and political purpose.

The overwhelming bulk of death during those years took place between the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop line that divided pre-war Poland in half, and the eastern borders of Ukraine and Belarus.

Snyder footnotes the exact counts, often village by village, with anecdotal horror stories of those shot, burned, gassed and garroted. One hardly turns the pages without choking and weeping.

From Snyder’s view, the war in Europe was not merely one between Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, but rather one in which Hitler and Stalin colluded in first wiping Poland off the map, splitting it between them in 1939 (the aforesaid Molotov-Ribbentrop line), and then, when Hitler’s plan to evict all the Poles and Jews from what was formerly western Poland got bogged down in difficulty (the plan to deport them all to the east, vaguely somewhere in the Soviet Union, perhaps Kazakhstan was nixed by Stalin), it turned into a plan to murder them all.

It should be noted that in Russia, the official dates of World War II are 1941 to 1945. They don’t acknowledge the invasion of Poland by Germany on Sept. 1, 1939 as the start of the war, because they were equally culpable in that dissolution of the state of Poland. But they start the conflict in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Except, of course, that Hitler didn’t first invade the Soviet Union. He invaded what used to be eastern Poland, on the other side of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, but had since been declared to be part of the Soviet Union — the formerly Polish part. For Stalin it made no difference that this was formerly Poland; now it was de facto part of his Soviet Union.

When Hitler’s army failed to take Moscow quickly, as his Blitzkrieg model had planned, the war turned into a protracted and mass slaughter of German and Soviet armies.

While we in the West call World War II “the good war,” in Russia they remember it as the Great Patriotic War, but in reality the whole thing should be called the Soviet-German war over the dismemberment of Poland.

To that bloody conflict, D-Day, Sicily, North Africa, Dunkirk, the Battle of Brittain were all basically a side-show. Our propaganda portrayed Hitler as seeking “world domination,” but that was never more than a comic-book arch-villain sort of plot. France and England were brought into the war because they had a defense treaty with Poland. Hitler would have preferred to avoid war with England and France. His beef was with Stalin over the land he wanted in Poland for German expansion — primarily to provide farming land and food for an expanding and industrialized Germany. Having to deal with England and France in the west was a pesky bother to him.

(The war in the Pacific, which happened concurrently, can be seen as primarily a separate war, beginning with Japanese invasions of Manchuria and China in the 1930s and ending after the war in Europe. The Pacific war was essentially America’s war, unlike the war in Europe.)

Back to the book: What makes it so dismal is not just the magnitude of the statistics — how many million shot in the back of the head here, so many million run through the death camps there — but the documented stories of individual deaths, or whole villages prisoned in churches that were then burned down, or men required to dig pits the length of two football fields, and then told to lie down in the graves, where they were shot, and layered like lasagne with another pile of bodies, shot, and another, and another, then covered up with dirt.

One fears turning the page in Bloodlands to find more starvation, more cold-blooded planning of mass murder, more mothers torn from their babies, more husbands worked to death in labor camps, while their parents were shipped off to Treblinka or Chelmno.

We too often think of the concentration camps as the place of the Holocaust, but Snyder makes clear that as many Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, and that the version of camp death we most often think of — say Auschwitz or Buchenwald — were not actually death camps, but rather holding camps in which death was a too-common byproduct. The real death camps were small facilities with no barracks, just changing rooms. The victims arrived by train, stripped of clothing and possessions and were herded directly into gas chambers where internal combustion engines piped carbon monoxide in, killing all in about 20 minutes of terror, and then the corpses were carried out an burned in huge pyres, kept fired up like so many charcoal grills. Treblinka was built exclusively to empty out the Warsaw ghetto. When that was accomplished, Treblinka was closed down. The extermination camp at Chelmno did the same thing for the Jews of the Lodz ghetto. The industrialized purposefulness of such factories is all the more chilling. deportation to treblinka 1942

We tend to think of Hitler’s atrocities as being 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. And in terms of ethnic cleansing, it is one of the most ghastly in human history, but the suffering was also spread out in the period Snyder covers, from so-called kulaks in Ukraine to Polish officers massacred after the division of Poland in 1939, to dissidents and potential dissidents in the Soviet Union. Some 60 million people died in those years from political violence, less than half of them were military. That was 3 percent of the world’s population at the time.

One of the arguments one hears from the so-called Holocaust deniers, is that the Shoah was simply too vast to be believed. No humans could possibly have exterminated that many people in that short a time. Yes, they say, Hitler had anti-Semitic policies and maybe a few were killed, but the vast numbers were not believable. One has to laugh at this argument, not only in the face of Snyder’s careful accounting, but in the long view of history, and the slaughter of conquered peoples from the dawn of time. The Holocaust was not a singular event, but something like the standard order of things. This is what people do to each other, over and over and over. One must remember the wholesale extermination of city populations by Genghis Khan, the pyramids of skulls of Tamerlane. The slaughter of Cathars in the 13th century, or earlier, of the Wu Hu in China in the Fourth Century. One voice echoes through history: Carthago delenda est. So, ethnic cleansing continues in our own time, whether in Rwanda or Sudan or Cambodia.

I have gone on is rather more length than I had intended. The book is overwhelming, the pessimism it engenders is oppressive. I do not hope for a brighter future; I cannot knowing the lessons of history.

But I can put the book down when finished, and pick up another, one that gives me as much pleasure as Bloodlands gives me pain.

And here’s where the whiplash may hit you, too.

trilogyBecause the next tome I picked up was H.L. Mencken’s three autobiographical books, published as a single volume by the Library of America. I cannot convey to you quite the pleasure to be had by reading Mencken. His writing is full of the vigor and intellectual energy of a man in love with life and in love with the way language can convey that love.

It is not that everything is wonderful in Mencken’s life, but rather that the failings of human existence — seen as the acts of individuals, rather than classes of people — are at bottom so entertaining.

It is particularly his volume on his early newspaper work that fills me with joy. Newspaper Days covers the years from about 1899 to 1906, and lets me know that journalism hadn’t changed much from his day to mine (that it is now nearly extinct is another sorrow I feel).

Just as I dreaded each new chapter in Bloodlands, I check to see how many more pages I have left of Mencken and dread instead the final page, when my pleasure will come to its end. Prejudices

The Library of America had previously published his six series of  Prejudices, which were collected essays, always a joy to read, even when what he says might be outrageous and, well, prejudiced. At bottom, Mencken is clear-eyed and unbowed, and we value his fellowship, even in print, as we might value it sitting on a barstool next to him, sharing banter over a foamy beer. You might not agree with Mencken’s opinions, but they were always magnificently expressed, in a kind of journalistic language raised to the level of poetry.

I have his three volume The American Language, which is about as entertaining a scholarly book as you could find. Thorough, amused and amusing, it is indispensable.

The best way I can convey to you the qualities of Mencken’s writing, and of his mind, is to quote him. Here is a section from Newspaper Days, in which he talks about the artists employed back at the turn of the century to illustrate newspaper stories, before the days when photographs could be easily reproduced. As editor, he had to deal with their eccentricities.

After a few anecdotes about artists getting themselves into trouble and drink, he reminds us that:

“The cops of those days, in so far as they were aware of artists at all, accepted them at their own valuation, and thus regarded them with suspicion. If they were not actually on the level of water-front crimps, dope-pedlars and piano-players in houses of shame, they at least belonged somewhere south of sporty doctors, professional bondsmen and handbooks [obsolete slang clarification: bookies]. This attitude once cost an artist of my acquaintance his liberty for three weeks, though he was innocent of any misdemeanor. On a cold Winter night he and his girl lifted four or five ash-boxes, made a roaring wood-fire in the fireplace of his fourth-floor studio, and settled down to listen to a phonograph, then a novelty in the world. The glare of the blaze, shinning red through the cobwebbed windows, led a rookie cop to assume that the house was afire, and he turned in an alarm. When the firemen came roaring up, only to discover that the fire was in a fireplace, the poor cop sought to cover his chagrin by collaring the artist, and charging him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. There was, of course, no truth in this, for the lady was nearly forty years old and had served at least two terms in a reformatory for soliciting on the street, but the lieutenant at the station-house, on learning that the culprit was an artist, ordered him locked up for investigation and he had been in the cooler three weeks before his girl managed to round up a committee of social-minded saloonkeepers to demand his release. The cops finally let him go with a warning, and for the rest of that Winter no artist in Baltimore dared to make a fire.”

mencken 3The book moves forward with speed and irony, full of vivid expressions and entertaining stories. Mencken recalls cops and judges, editors and pressmen, drummers for patent medicines and press agents of dubious veracity, kindly murderers and scapegrace yobs of all descriptions, many of which Mencken counted as his special angels of the kind of humanity he most valued. He detested all cant and corporate or governmental doublethink, and anyone who would put life into a file cabinet alphabetically.

It is the pleasure of coming across his book after reading Bloodlands that restores the oxygen to a world otherwise noisome with the mephitic stench of death. And reminds us that it is a grace that we live in a world of individuals rather than in the statistical world of categories and proscription lists. Grace is what keeps us alive.

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