Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Home Thoughts from Abroad

American Library in Paris: alleged site of bloguiste's alleged work

My “mystery” retreat was Kandersteg in the Swiss canton of Bern, one of the lovelier places on this lovely earth of ours, and for the opportunity to visit it I shall forever be grateful to my beloved daughter. But just now I’m back and in the trenches at the American Library in Paris again or rather, to switch to a metaphor yet more clichéd, on a two-week forced march toward the completion of a little book on the Sobolos rios of Luis de Camões. My deadline is November 15, when I fly back to America to new opportunities and writing obligations, and especially to a new book project.

Today, however, I am having a little trouble keeping up my martial gait. It is trouble roughly of the sort described in one of John Donne’s most brilliant poems. My mind, which should be pressing eastward toward the romantic Malabar coast with the Portuguese caravels, is pulled remorselessly westward to such unromantic places as the fifteenth congressional district in Ohio, where it appears that a Republican named Steve Stivers has just walloped a Democrat named Mary Jo Kilroy in a contest paradigmatic of the huge tidal wave of Republican victory, or rather, of Democratic defeat. (The two are only accidentally coincident.) Complete results will not be available to me in time for this blog, but the general drift of things has been obvious for weeks to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Or has it? We say that seeing is believing, but about half the time it works the other way around. A lot of the time we see or hear what we want or expect to see or hear—or, even worse, what other people tell us we ought to want to see or hear. Surely, all curious minds must construct comparisons, but living abroad virtually forces the comparative perspective upon you. As the American midterms approached, I have inevitably been thinking about them from the perspective of local developments.

Autres pays, autres moeurs, as seen by the British "Independent"

“What developments?” you ask? Well during the last month the economic life of the country was severely disrupted by industrial strikes and street demonstrations protesting new laws, certain to be passed by the democratically elected parliament, that in a most gradual manner will eventually raise the national age of retirement from sixty to sixty-two. Property damage was slight, though not negligible; but the disruptions inflicted some billions of euros of damage on an already wobbly national economy. Prominent among the street protesters, as always, were the lycéens or high-school students. Every graduate of Economics 101 realizes that if present trends continue there won’t be any pensions for these kids until they reach the age of a hundred-and-two, let alone sixty-two, but that didn’t stop Ségolène Royal, the Socialist defeated by Sarkozy in the last elections, from urging them into the streets. Whatever is the matter with Kansas seems to be even more the matter with the gilded youth of the seventh arrondissement.

Vox pop plus teeny bop

American politics gets a lot of lousy press here, as it no doubt deserves in most lands. Yet to compare the absurd French histrionics of pseudo-nullification of the “retirement legislation” with the comparative maturity of American popular opposition to “Obamacare” has been most instructive. But of course that is only the way I see things. Joan flew home on Monday. I accompanied her to the airport, where I bought a copy of the November Monde Diplomatique to read on the bus-ride back, and this gave me an opportunity to find out how others see them. Le Monde is the daily opiate of the French lumpen-intelligentsia, from the political point of view a sort of a New York Times on steroids. The Monde Diplomatique is, roughly, its “Month In Review”.

This month, between the French protests in progress and the American elections in prospect, there was a good deal to review. It will not surprise any of my faithful readers that I am in substantial disagreement with what the Monde Diplomatique’s journalists have to say about these topics. The more interesting comparative point concerns who the journalists are. The interpreter of the anti-Sarkozy protests is Serge Halimi, a public intellectual and journalist who has made a successful career out of attacking French journalists and journalism. He has out-FoxNewsed Fox News in the success of his indictment of a “main-stream media” against which he supposedly stands out in brave, bold profile. He thinks that the fourteen-year-olds so passionate in the pre-emptive defense of “retirement rights” are prescient analysts of a politics that offers them only “a future without hope,” and that “street marches and strikes constitute the best means of avoiding such a fate.”

The other two experts—one addressing the European “austerity wave” generally, the other the American elections—are even more interesting. They are both literary theorists! Slavoj Zizek (whose name is spelled in a variety of ways in America) is obviously against austerity, though I don’t quite grasp why. You have undoubtedly heard the joke question: “What is the difference between a Deconstructionist and a Mafia don?” The answer: “The Deconstructionist makes you an offer you can’t understand.” Zizek is not exactly a Deconstructionist, but he regularly achieves a vatic incomprehensibility. The heart of this essay appears to be the following profundity: “…the credits accorded to Athens will in the first place serve to reimburse its debts to French and German banks. European aid to Greece has no other function than to help the private banking sector.” Presumably rescuing Greece from the social disasters of national bankruptcy is not a legitimate “function”.

For the American scene the Monde Diplomatique turns to an American expert: Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois. Professor Michaels is a theorist whose most widely read contribution to literary theory is an essay entitled “Against Theory”. This is but one of the paradoxes of an intellectual career marked chiefly by his ability to deny differences that most others can see clearly, and vehemently to detect differences that others cannot see at all. It would be an injustice to say that his essay in the current Monde Diplomatique is simply common-or-garden academic pseudo-radicalism, for it achieves—and maintains over many column inches--a truly rare level of superficiality. Professor Michaels laments the fact The Road to Serfdom by F. A. von Hayek is currently on the best-seller list. The totality of what he has to say about this extraordinary book is that its author was an “ultra-conservative”. Actually, The Road to Serfdom isn’t doing all that well. It is only number 157 on the Amazon chart. But then the whole point of this post is that everything is comparative. The Shape of the Signifier by Professor Walter Benn Michaels is at number 614,848.

Given the nature of our officially sanctioned interpreters, it is perhaps not surprising that the nations of the world understand each other so imperfectly. With this thought I am left to imagine the horror with which some imaginary Parisian intellectual temporarily resident in Keokuk, Iowa, might stumble upon this blog.