Monday, August 01, 2005

Comment c’est ici a cette heure...

A  DEAR OLD FRIEND spent the afternoon yesterday. He’s French, a Parisian, and intelligent, somewhat reflective man though a very active one, formerly in law, now in film production.

We’d seen the film he brought the previous night, as part of the Napa Film Festival; I’ll write about it later. (It’s not yet in release in this country, so there’s no hurry — but it should be in distribution; it’s really quite wonderful.)

We had lunch — sliced tomatoes and basil, a green salad, good cheese, all from Healdsburg. And a bit of cheap Pinot Grigio from Trader Joe. Truly we do live well hereabouts!

We talked about our children, marriage, sex, politics, terrorism, the war. It was the kind of conversation you have with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. And it reminded me once again of the gulf between the American and the French mentality. And it revealed, when I heard myself telling him what has become of the United States since last he visited, perhaps nine years ago, how drastic the change has been.

To simplify things as much as possible, the current American mentality is both quantitative and linear; the French sensibility is qualitative and situational. I think one of the most fascinating aspects of current American politics, left and right, is the insistence on absolute values. Politics is, famously, the art of the possible: and the possible is never absolute. (This is what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote that “meaning is never monagamous”.)

Philippe and his brother are the first men in his lineage to survive into their fifties in a number of generations. World War II; World War I; the Franco-Prussian War; various revolutions; the Napoleonic Wars... the litany of sorrow goes back for generations. France and Germany agree now, and so I think does most of the rest of the European Union, that peace in Europe is worth paying for — paying money and sacrificing, where necessary, long-held ideas (“values” if you like) of narrow national interest.

I said, well, every war in Europe ended with negotiation; and one of the earmarks of the current international crisis is that the United States is irrationally indisposed to negotiate. We explained what was happening with the Bolton nomination — that it would be a recess appointment, unconfirmed by the Senate — and we asked what he thought, what people in Paris thought, of our Secretary of State; and his eyes widened and he was at a loss for English words, though “worse than Thatcher” and “dragon” came to mind.

Over and again, whether the subject was politics or sex, culture or environnment, I was struck with what I take to be a representative French intelligence taking an attitude of practicality, of negotiation, of compromise, of workability, opposed to what seems to me to be the prevailing American attitudes of principle, of dictation, of win-or-lose, of entrenched impracticality.

Most of all he was saddened and almost unbelieving when we described what seems the present state of our country: the impotence of the left in the face of the (probably jiggered) elections of 2000 and 2004, the poverty, the intellectual poverty of the middle class, the decline of the educational system, the collapse of health care, the default of pension systems. These are all areas in which the United States seemed to offer noble and practical models at one time, to a Europe left destitute and destroyed by its series of wars: how had it all collapsed to this extent in so short a time?

He turned for understanding to Germany, 1936: a democratically elected leader of great charisma, dedicated to a clearly stated ideal of national policy, patient enough for its implementation so gradually that the horrors of its working details could be either unnoticed or accepted by even the intelligent and educated classes, let alone the ignorant, fearful, and readily inflamed sectors.

He saw Stalinist parallels as well, in the manipulation of the industrial and banking cartels through their attachment to an increasingly militaristic society, and in the co-option of established press and educational institiutions.

It was fine to renew an old friendship, to have a pleasant lunch, then to go in to Healdsburg for supper at El Sombrero and walk the twilit streets, oddly bare on a cooling Sunday evening. But we look forward to spending next month in Holland again, beset though it is by Christian-Muslim disagreements, vulnerable though it may be to London- and Madrid-style terrorism, allied though it is to Bush’s — our — invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I have the feeling Europe is adjusting herself to all this, and will somehow come through. I count on her long tradition of addressing these things, of trying one way or another of accommodating them and getting on with a daily life in which a modicum of security from age, illness, and hunger is accounted a normal guarantee, a part of a social contract that is worth keeping, on every side of the agreement.

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