French Expatriates and Foreign Francophiles

First, a definition: an expatriate is someone who lives outside the country of his birth on a more or less permanent basis. I am dealing here with French expatriates specifically, a fairly rare breed in relation to the size of the French population, rarer than English and American expatriates, for example.

The French expatriates often land in a particular town of a particular country at a particular time for no particular reason. They may have been heading somewhere else and gotten stuck along the way. They always include wives and former wives of natives who may have divorced them, or died. Coming from different epochs (such as before and after the establishment of French social democracy in the 1980s), they form historical strata. Each stratum remembers a different France, and the strata may entertain disparate and often incompatible visions of the fatherland.

They have developed new habits in the country where they live and, without knowing it, they have drifted far from their culture of origin. Many disseminate patently false notions about the country where they were raised; they do it more or less innocently because myth-making and absence go well together. Their French self is forever a young person, or even a child. Their own children are simply natives of their land of residence with a smattering of the French language and no real curiosity, forever strangers to their parents.

The Francophiles are yet another story. They are people who don’t have the luck to have been born French but who love what they imagine is French culture with a degree of repressed hysteria. No part of the world is free of them. I have bumped into them everywhere I have been; they have victimized me everywhere with their undeserved love. Many but by no means all are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture.

They are usually very parochial, doubly so because they are fixated on France and on their own country, to the exclusion of knowledge of any other part of the world. Others are teachers of French who feel professionally obligated to revere that which they teach and, by extension, everything French. Often, they don’t even know the language very well, limited as they are by the cramped discourse of textbooks, without awareness of the vigor, of the colorfulness, and, especially, of the frequent crudeness of the real French language of both literature and everyday life. (“Cul-de-sac,” for example, means “ass of a bag.”)

Once, a long time ago, in Bolivia of all places, I observed that the two groups mixed well. It was at a Bastille Day celebration at the French consulate. The French expats and the Francophiles shared the rudimentary popular imagery of the 1789 French revolution, that beheaded a king for the sake of “public salvation,” and his pretty, frivolous young queen, just in case. (That was after storming a prison-fortress, the Bastille, that was largely undefended.)

Think of reading my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. It’s available from Amazon, under my name. I need the bucks. Please!

La Bêtise et la langue française.

J’ai eu des ennuis de santé occasionant une absence de ce blog. J’aimerais bien pouvoir dire qu’il s’est agit seulement d’un accès de priapisme, mais ce serait exagérer.

En tous cas. il est temps que j’y repique. Ce sera pour maugréer, bien sur.

Je viens de regarder pour la seconde fois le beau, l’étonnant documentaire de l’émissions TV française Thalassa sur Saint-Malo, une ville et une région qui me sont chères.

A un moment, le narrateur mentionne que le grand corsaire malouin Surcouf s’était livré à la traite des Noirs, donc, au commerce des esclaves africains. Le sous-titre en Anglais rend cette simple affirmation par ces mots époustouflants:

“Surcouf respected the Black Treaty,” “Surcouf respectait le Traité Noir.” !

Comment peut-on être aussi ignare; et surtout, comment peut-on être aussi con?

En effet, ne pas connaitre un mot ou une expression specialisé n’est peut-être pas un crime (mais encore, pour un traducteur également spécialisé?) mais laisser en place un expression qui ne possède aucun sens, en aucune langue c’est contribuer à l’abêtissement des foules, téléspectateurs, autant que lecteurs.

Pourquoi cette carence de contrôle de la qualité dans un émission de télévision bien considerée depuis déjà trente ans? La réponse probable est une profonde indifference aux faits. La photo est splendide; le narratif captiv vant si on n’y fait pas trop attention. Pourquoi s’en faire?

J’ai remarqué ailleurs que cette indifférence me semble être liée à l’usage de la langue francaiss. (Voir mon recueil d’histoires: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration.” sur Amazon.) J’ai du mal à imaginer ce genre de bêtise en Anglais, sauf dans des journaux de très bas niveaux, genre l’ancienne “France Dimanche.” Le Francophones disent n’importe quoi; ils possèdent une grande tolérance vis-à-vis de la bêtise qui sonne bien, et meme envers la connerie tout court.

Moi, il me semble que lorsqu’il y a trop de poubelle débordantes dans l’espace intérieur intellectuel, on ne peut plus penser clairement. La fameuse rigueur francaise, “cartésienne” dont les Francais, en particulier, se targuent toujours a simplement disparu, je crois. Les autre francophones ont été éclaboussés simplement parceque la production culturelle française domine de beaucoup la francophonie de par son poids.

Dites-moi que j’ai tort!

Words and Brain Damage

I am starting my own war against empty, silly slogans and presumptuous words. I think they are the brick and mortar of political correctness which is smothering our brains. Living in Santa Cruz, California and dutifully listening to National Public Radio every day sure raise my awareness of brain cell destruction. (See endnote.)

Somebody had to do it, to start this war, I mean. And it’s in the best of human traditions that old men admonish the rest of the tribe to behave itself. (It’s “itself,” not “themselves;” tribe is singular. There are uses for a plural singular. This is not one. Pay attention. Learn English. I did.)

First thing first: If you call yourself an “educator,” you are not fit to educate anyone, especially children; I mean that you are not cultured enough. Learn to read, please!

If you believe that “educator” gives you gravitas (look it up) because the word rhymes with “doctor,” think again. Medical science exists, incurable warts and all. There is no science behind education. The mistaken belief that there is has led this country to waves after waves of destructive fads. These have left whole generations unable to write simple declarative sentences or to divide 144 by 12.

In twenty-five years of teaching in an expensive university, I met several graduating seniors, Spanish majors, who were illiterate in two languages including their own. (Reality surpasses fiction!) Education science indeed!

The proper word is not the pretentious “educator,” it’s “teacher.” If that does not sound noble enough for you, you should not be teaching. Good teaching requires a degree of humility. I refer to the humility to be ready to get another job if you can qualify for one.

Everyone in the world remembers his best teacher: He or she was enthusiastic yet calm, humane yet rigorous, encouraging yet demanding. There is no science in any of this. These qualities never add up to anything anyone would pompously call an “educator.”

My brain feels better already.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XI, Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet England

The last post was on Anglo-Saxon England, which came to an end in 1066, soon after the death of Edward the Confessor. Harold Godwinson, King of England, was faced with two major enemies on his accession in 1066: Harold Sigurdsson, usually known as Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy (de facto Norman king under the symbolic sovereignty of the French monarchy).

Both began invasions of England. Sigurdsson landed in the northeast of England with a Viking army and his ally, Tostig, brother of Harold Godwinson (married to a Danish princess), giving a good idea of how political power in England was entangled with European power politics and centres of sovereignty. Harold marched north and defeated the Viking army, marching south again to meet the threat from Normandy which came very soon.

Harold and the Saxon army did not survives this second blow, and England was changed for ever. William earned the name he is now generally known under, Conqueror, and imposed his will in a manner which destroyed the existing Anglo-Saxon elites in one of the great massacres of English history, the Harrowing of the North. It also led to the construction of new kinds of stone castles to create military state dominance and new grandiose church architecture to create religious state domination.

The Norman dominance later became known as the Norman Yoke, a rather emotive phrase but it is true that the Saxons had less rights than the Normans, that Norman French became the language of state and the ruling class, and that institutions were recast to suit the Normans, who continued to give priority to their homeland in northwestern France. There was an evolution from expanded Norman state to Angevin Anglo-French empire, when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (southwestern France). Before that the throne was in dispute between Stephen and Matilda, known as the Empress because she had been married to the German ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor.

The Aquitaine alliance gave the King of England more land in France under his control than the French king had under effective control. The combined control of all England and most of France is often known as the Angevin Empire.  The outcome of the Norman Conquest and the Angevin Empire is a very tangled period of centuries of a variable Anglo-Norman, then English Plantagenet presence in France.

The crusader king Richard I ‘Coeur de Lion’, son of Henry and Eleanor, died in France protecting his lands there. The next king, also a son of Henry and Eleanor, John, lost nearly all the French lands. The end of of John’s reign and the beginning of Henry III’s reign included a period when Louis XIII of France claimed the English crown in alliance with part of the aristocracy, and had effective control of a large part of England.

The endless back and forth of English involvement in France will be ended here except for these brief remarks. The two most famous English battles in medieval history were the loss to Normandy at Hastings in 1066 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 near Calais. The latter battle was part of Henry V establishing a claim to the French monarchy, though this collapsed on his death. Calais remained English until 1588. The English monarchy kept up a symbolic claim to be monarchs of France until 1800.

There is no genuine history of medieval England which is not also a history of medieval France. The overall effect of the English monarchy failing to keep continuous control of France, leaving England as the undoubted core territory, was that over time the monarchy, state and aristocracy became more English. The language had changed considerably, partly under Norman influence, so that what the heirs of William the Conqueror and his Norman barons spoke was Middle English rather than Anglo-Saxon and unlike Anglo-Saxon is at least partly comprehensible to an educated native level speaker of modern English. There was a growth of English literature of a kind that is still read, linked with the growing tendency of the upper class to be primarily English.

The process by which the Anglo-Norman state became England with an English speaking ruling class was gradual and roughly speaking came to an end by the fifteenth century. The re-emergence of an ‘English’ England might suit the advocates of a vision of English history as an island pageant of unique independence, separation and strength, and it is not very long since popular books of history used to be written on those lines. However, the Norman, Angevin and subsequent Plantagenet period just do not fit this unless a supposed endpoint of a pure English England is given priority over what seemed most important to historical actors earlier in their own time. Centuries of English history are Norman French or Anglo-French history.

Advocates of a Sovereigntist-Eurosceptic view of British history, if they acknowledge this (and it is difficult for them to do so as the period includes Magna Carta, a topic to which we will return) are inclined to at least see English history after 1400, and particularly after the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, as the glorious path of an England, or Britain, separate from Europe. The next post will test that proposition.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, X. Anglo-Saxon England, the Scandinavian, Frankish and Norman connections

This long series of posts is now going through a survey of British history from the beginning that history to the point where the series started, that is the middle of the eighteenth century. The last post reached the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, which seems to have been more of an elite take over by chieftains and their retinues than a major displacement of population. Nevertheless the Anglo-Saxon conquest was a real cultural transformation in which the evolution of the English language retained almost no trace of the Celtic languages and dialects or even speech rhythms, leaving aside areas where the Celtic languages lingered longer and survived on a minority basis, so influencing English. The Saxon language was not just dominant in England, as it spread in Scotland outside the Gaelic ‘Irish’ speaking areas, displacing non-Celtic languages. So English became the dominant language in what is now the UK and also in what now the Republic or Ireland.

Having emphasised this linguistic transformation,  should emphasise that Irish has some distinctive speech patterns from Gaelic, that there is some modern Irish literature in Gaelic and that some Irish literature in English emphasises Gaelic Irish culture, most significantly the novels of James Joyce. Anglo-Saxon comes from the forms of Old German spoken in the areas the invaders came from in what is now the Netherlands, Denmark and intervening parts of Germany. One consequence is that the first great work of English literature Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, epic poem set in what is now Denmark and southern Sweden. So the literary culture of the English speaking British is rooted in a tale from Scandinavia, though written down in England centuries after the events related, which can be given a rough historical location.

Anglo-Saxon England never established complete predominance in Britain. Viking invasions in the eighth century preceded the formation of an English state at a time when there was still an independent Celtic kingdom in Cornwall, turned into conquests and the establishment of Viking kingdoms. Though the Anglo-Saxons become predominant as far back as the sixth century, the generally accepted narrative of the English state goes back only to the ninth century. In the last decades of that century, King Alfred of Wessex (the west Saxons) in his struggles against the Vikings. Alfred, given the label ‘Great’ in the nineteenth century, a very remarkable figure in various ways, was pushed back into the hinterland of Wessex, but was able to defeat the Vikings in battle and negotiate terms that established a strong kingdom of Wessex, which came to incorporate London.

Wessex was the nucleus of the Medieval English state and Alfred’s grandson Athelston was the first all-England king, also receiving tribute and symbolic recognition of overlordship from Welsh and Scottish rulers, who nevertheless remained completely independent in practice. Athelstan was certainly not isolated from Europe, marrying his family into continental dynasties. The sense of English culture goes back further than Alfred, but not much further.

The northeastern English historian and cleric Bede, is probably the first ‘great’ English figure in Britain, dying in the early eighth century after composing a history in Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon. At roughly the same time Alcuin of York, the cleric and scholar, became an adviser to the Frankish (Franco-German) Emperor Charlemagne who dominated western and central Europe, reviving the title of Roman Emperor, or had it pushed onto him by the Pope. He was referred to as ‘father of Europe’ in his court and was the model of English monarchs including Alfred.

The only Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred who could be said to have lingered in national memory was Offa of Mercia (the centre of England) in the late eighth century, who seems to have made some symbolic claim to kingship of England, but whose kingdom was lost to the Vikings. The rise of the Kingdom of England was not completely straightforward as Vikings remained in England with their own towns, laws, and customs, and with Scandinavian princes still making claims in England. The consequence was a Danish King of England, Cnut (also known as Canute) reigning in England in the early eleventh century, along with varying parts of Scandinavia.

A rather confused period followed his death of English and Danish claims to the English crown, with other Scandinavian dynasties expressing an interest. This ended when the Saxon Edward the Confessor became king in 1042. However, this was not the triumph of isolated English sovereignty. Edward was heavily under the influence, even tutelage of the Duchy of Normandy, territory given to Viking invaders by the French king, which led to the invading Danes becoming completely French in language and other respects.

Edward was the son of Aethelred the Unready and Emma of Normany. Aethelred who was responsible both for gratuitous massacres of English Danes and losing the kingdom to the Danes, had fled to Normandy beginning an important connection. Edward died in 1066 childless, with the Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway both believing they had claims to the English throne that they fully intended to enforce through military might. The throne went in the first place to Edward’s most powerful subject, Harold Godwinson, because of the support of the Witan, the council of the king’s leading subjects, rather than inheritance or the wishes of Edward the Confessor. If there was ever a moment of isolated English sovereignty that might be it, but it was not to last more than a few months.

Next post, how England became part of a Norman and the Angevin French speaking empire

The Best Book I Have Read Recently

I make some notes about almost all the books I read. I am thinking my notes may be useful to others. Here is an instance; it’s about a good book I read recently:

Jared Diamond’s 2012 The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

A confession first: When I die, I want to come back as Jared Diamond. He had the exemplary academic career; he wasted no time; he took advantage of academia’s largess and low standards to change himself several times into a different kind of scholar. He addresses ordinary literate people with much success. He is a great teacher.

What Diamond means by “traditional societies”  (in the title) is an imaginary aggregate of what social scientists call “hunters-gatherers” and “horticulturalists.” The latter are largely hoe cultivators, people who don’t use the plow but who grow food. Horticulturalists live entirely in tropical and equatorial climates.

Diamond’s book makes very good reading and, in addition, he tries to make it practical, useful at every step. His guiding theme is that by observing traditional people more closely, we may be able to improve many of our civilized practices. He visits in turn how his traditional societies define strangers and how they deal with war, child rearing, the treatment of the aged, attitudes toward danger, religion, language and health.

Traditionals, in general (also called “primitives”) live in fairly small units because their technologies (plural) cannot support large concentrations of people. They have no cities; they are not “civilized.” Diamond makes the implicit assumption (implicit, I think) that small scale and the preservation of “traditional beliefs” go hand in hand. He makes the further assumption – a fairly common one – that today’s traditional societies are similar to the societies in our own past. Thus, the part of the title that says, “Until Yesterday.” According to this assumption, the observation of such societies has much to teach us about how we – civilized people – grew up, so to speak, and about what we lost while growing up.

I am skeptical about both assumptions, not rejecting, skeptical. First, I don’t really believe that tradition does not change. I think that traditional people live in environments that change to some extent, sometimes rapidly. They change, in particular, because the powerful civilized societies in which they are embedded tend to grow, thus threatening or reducing the traditionals’ physical space and their resources. The tragedy of the Plains Indians reduction to near nothing must have happened many times before. Thus the thing that defines traditional people, “tradition” itself must change to some extent to accommodate change in their environments. The mere fact that traditional societies are around to be observed at all tells us that they must have adjusted to some extent. Thus, when considering them we don’t know if we are looking at our own past, or at pathetic survivors next to extinction, or on the contrary, at extraordinarily skillful ones. That’ s a problem for the generalizing Diamond invites us to engage in. That’s my second main objection to Diamond’s overall approach.

In point of fact, the traditional societies to which Diamond alludes include none situated in the temperate zone. It’s not his fault, of course, Lapps in Northern Scandinavia and Finland may be the only ones left more or less intact. But this fact aggravates my skepticism about the exemplarity of the primitive groups Diamond describes. I cannot eliminate from my mind the fact that civilization arose only in temperate zones, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in China. And independently, in the temperate elevations of meso-America and of South America. Perhaps, possibly, probably this is not a coincidence. Diamond’s tropical, desert, and far north groups may be in no way similar to our ancestors.

Beyond these general remarks, I have two specific quarrels with Diamond. The first is about health and the second about language acquisition. Diamond contends that the maladies of old age that affect civilized people today, including arthritis, cardiac illness, and diabetes, are practically non-existent among primitive people. He also says that primitive people have low life expectancy, I think he means at all ages. So, I am wondering if the first statement is not simply the result of a major sampling error, of a major optical illusion: If people seldom live beyond age fifty-five there will be few of the illnesses associated with old age in their society. It would seem like a gross error for a man of Diamond’s intellectual distinction to make. He may have in fact taken care of this objection and I missed it. Or, he did not do it loudly enough and then, why?

My second specific objection concerns one of the many statement he makes on language acquisition. At one point, he declares himself in favor of “crib bilingualism.” That’s the practice of speaking to babies in more than one language from birth. Personally, I think it’s a dangerous gamble. I don’t have any systematic data. My judgment relies on anecdotal evidence spread over fifty years. So does his. I believe he has not done enough due diligence of tracking possible downsides of the practice. (I don’t need to track its upsides because they are obvious: Get two languages for the same price, same as heads of cabbage at the flea market.)

I may write Prof. Diamond soon at UCLA where he teaches to ask him to discuss these points. Don’t wait on me to act to read this wonderful book though. Do it, do it critically if you can.

Also, read my book : I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography

Some links I found interesting

The air in Kathmandu is so foul and fetid that within one day I began to cough up mucus, and then to congest, and finally to feel ill to my stomach. But, that may have been the water. Regardless, I am holed up in an Israeli cafe in Thamel, the backpacker ghetto, and I have done quite a lot of reading this afternoon. Here are a few bits of recommend reading:

1. From the blog Absolute Irony, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick

A discussion on an interesting phenomenon in some philosophy: the destruction of one’s own philosophy through one’s own philosophy, in order to produce a renewed perspective on the familiar that one has been philosophizing about. Something of a discourse on method, if you will. A good read if you have the time.

2. From the McGill Daily, “Everything is problematic”: My Journey into the Center of a Dark Political World, and How I Escaped

A reformed radical leftist’s dissection of radical leftism. Read through the boring personal parts to get a good bead on the sort of fundamentalist ideology fashionable on the radical left.

3. From The Imaginative Conservative, Distributism in the Shire: The Political Kinship between Tolkien and Belloc

I was ignorant until this afternoon about what distributism is, though I think it has something to do with equitable distribution of property using legal means, rather than through violence. The insight into Tolkien’s views was rather more interesting to me, but take from it what you will.

4. A wiki devoted to “Anglish,” or what the English language could have been, had Britain not been introduced to words of French, Latin, and Greek origin. I find the development of language fascinating, as well as the backlash to that development, such as this most extreme form of English linguistic pluralism.

Happy reading!