Four Words for Ali



You unify.  Thank you.

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Jim Rockford, the 1970s Human

Rockford 1When the classic 1970s action series The Rockford Files appeared in the top row of my Netflix options not too long ago, some node in my brain that had remained dormant since about 1977 began to pulse. I could see and smell my grandparents’ den—that sacred room where, at my elders’ feet, I had beheld the worlds of Archie and Edith Bunker and understood that, on the Streets of San Francisco, feverish bongo playing signaled an important car chase.

Plus, a close friend of my generation had recently begun re-watching this show not so long ago, and was really enjoying it. A close family member of mine, who shall remain coyly nameless but who also enjoyed watching 1970s TV as a child, was ready to jump in with me. So we were off. Cue exciting super-modern synthesizer theme music now.

Just a few minutes into the first episode, Jim Rockford delivered. Floating deliciously before us were the old familiar objects: the banged-up trailer on the beach, the leather couch and desk, the answering machine, the Rolodex, and the Pontiac Firebird.

Enough about the props, though. Plenty of snarky, material-world-obsessed ink has been spilled about the 1970s, an era whose look my own millennial kids identify directly with contemporary hipster style. Of course, I find the dramatic close-ups of a computer or a push-button telephone pretty funny, but it’s not the passing staleness of the objects that keeps me binge-watching this show. It’s Jim himself.

Rockford 3

Jim Rockford, currently my favorite 1970s Human character. And, until it’s warm enough to start spending a lot more time outdoors again, my favorite 1970s TV show. Why?

In short:

  1. The really, really, really long car chase scenes, with the predictable burning-rubber sounds around corners, the whole thing mercifully CGI-free and chock full of fantastic early-70s cars of all kinds. Just before most of these scenes, Jim tells whoever is riding with him in the Firebird, “It looks like we’ve picked up a tail.” Almost every time.
  2. The painfully long establishing shots (wait, wait, it seems like something is about to happen here at this police station… yes, now the camera is slowly zooming up to the sign that reads “Police Station”…).
  1. Rocky. Jim’s supposed father is completely loveable, constantly worrying about the danger inherent in his son’s regular contact with thugs and crooks who will punch you in the nose or even, gasp, occasionally shoot a gun at you. Rocky was also clearly designed—a little like Jim himself—to be salt of the earth, an Andy-Griffith-level good old boy who never had much education and who knows his way around a truck engine and a fishing pole and really overdoes 1970s Hollywood’s version of a country or southern dialect. (Note: oddly, the very first episode of the show features an entirely different actor for Rocky than the rest of the eight years of Rockford.)
  2. Jim’s supposed country ways. Originally from Oklahoma, Jim Garner could crank up the Country Boy when necessary, although in scenes where we are supposed to believe he is overdoing it, he falls into a fake-sounding Southern Guy voice that anyone in 1970s Hollywood could have done. When he’s acting more “seriously” (i.e. reminiscing wistfully with his dad by the beach, remembering a lady he had taken a sailboat ride with but who had been recently whacked by some mobster), he sounds a lot more like a regular guy who had actually grown up in the small-town West or Lower Midwest.
  3. The show’s exaggeration of Jim’s supposed country ways. (See #4 above.) When it’s important for us to remember how unpretentious old Jim is, the writers often place him among 1970s Hollywood’s most pretentious rich-folk types, usually near a tennis court.
  4. The trailer.
  5. Jim’s regular smirk, which seems dorky now but remains very likable.
  6. Jim the lady’s man. Every episode, it seems, features a snazzy or attractive young female character (usually half his age, Jim being in his 40s in this show), often an actor who would soon become famous (Lindsay Wagner, Linda Evans) or the majority who never did.
  7. Jim the not-so-believable fisherman. Scenes of Jim returning from fishing dressed like he is going to a disco, or randomly washing a tuna while chatting with Rocky, then inexplicably putting the fish, uncleaned, into the freezer.
  8. Jim’s regular facial sweating.
  9. Jim’s greasy-faced, constant eating and talking while chewing, especially when talking strategy with his lawyer or client.
  10. Jim’s slightly controlling tendency to hold onto a woman’s elbow to “guide” her as he walks along. My co-Rockford viewer and I have begun to refer to Jim, during these scenes, as “the puppeteer.”
  11. Jim’s easy references to his own cowardice, or jokes about how his hand hurts after he had punched a crook in the face.
  12. His loping, wheezing, middle-aged-man gallop when chasing a crook through a vacant lot or down a hallway. The music seems to be asking us to take this charming but unathletic guy very seriously as he pursues the bad guy—who is also usually equally awkward and short of breath—and we do so. Even when the Rockford Files knows it’s funny, as it does in a scene in Season Two after Jim chases a thug all the way through the Hoover Dam to an exit near the bottom, and they both collapse on a stair to catch their breath. I prize my own fitness as much as the next guy, but I love this show’s total disregard for health obsessions. In The Rockford Files, the few characters who openly appear to be visiting gyms are usually hired thugs Jim refers to as “goons” or “apes”—often before lighting a cigarette or taking another sip of wine. No robot perfection in view here.

Rockford 2

I haven’t even addressed the pleasure of repetition—The Rockford Files possesses a limited number of tricks, most of them I have listed above and which you can find in one form or another in every episode. Flipping on a RF episode is like biking home at supper time, knowing we’ll all soon be sitting together around a table sharing food and conversation. This is one of television’s more dangerous characteristics, I know, but as a casual user at best, I can appreciate the appeal.

It has started to get warm, which means I’m likely to slow down my Rockford TV time soon.  I’m also commuting by bike again, which means spring is here.  Now, though, I find myself regularly looking around to see if I’ve picked up a tail.

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Want to teach? Ask a question.

This short essay constitutes my remarks at “Veritas Odium Parit: On Courage in Teaching, Service and Research,” a colloquium that took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison French House on December 4th, 2015.  Professor of Italian Jelena Todorovic organized the event, in response to growing challenges to academic freedom on American campuses.   This text was one of six short presentations given at the colloquium by scholars in French and Italian.


Does truth beget hatred? The title of our colloquium implies that we are bringers of truth, but the punctuation suggests that we are actually bringers of questions. Like the ones we were asked to answer at today’s colloquium:

What does it mean to write a courageous article or book?
What is a courageous talk?
Who is a courageous teacher?
What are the responsibilities of teachers and researchers?
To whom are we responsible?

What, what, who, what, to whom? It’s hard to start learning anything without what we sometimes call “The Journalistic Six,” which include the “Five Ws” :


And of course the sixth word: how?

In my high school physics class, every time we would ask Mr. Barney, “Why?” he would reply, “I can’t tell you why. I’m not a theologian. But I can tell you how.”

After twenty-six years of college teaching, I still love that retort—maybe because, of all those question words, how, for the humanist, is the most promising tool for understanding a text, a culture or even a person.   And, to understand the kinds of texts, cultures and people we teach our field, sometimes the best answer is another question. For example, the most fruitful kind of exchange I have with my own students is probably some version of this one:

TEACHER: You tell me.

This isn’t just a useful strategy or a rhetorical pivot. It’s a teaching philosophy.  It’s designed to call someone you have been teaching back directly to that thing you have been teaching them, and to ask them to confront that thing with curiosity, creativity and attention.

You tell me.

It is fruitful because, whatever comes of it, it forces both the teacher and the student into the position of learner. It puts teacher and student shoulder to shoulder before a deeper thing. It is an advanced learner reminding a less advanced learner that we are all searchers, witnesses, and proposers of meaning. Or at least that we all ought to be.

You tell me.

This exchange also reminds us that learning has an ethical dimension. Most humans feel, and even exercise, some level of responsibility toward all those affected by us, to some degree.   Those affected by us include the living, the dead, and future human and natural communities, and even physical objects, like a carefully built snowman or someone else’s umbrella. Every action we take has a consequence, and we owe it to those around us to be aware of those consequences.

As scholars, teachers, and intellectuals, we are accountable to the truth before all else. This is true of other professions, too, but it is especially true of ours. What’s more, as humans doing this work, we must be especially vigilant about keeping the search for that truth open. Even in Southern Baptist seminaries they have debates. Some things may go without saying, but hunting for the truth we are responsible for can require an awful lot of saying.

At some point, though, in our work, the lion’s share of the saying needs to come more from the student than from the teacher.

TEACHER: You tell me.

If my work were not in a classroom but rather some kind of allegorical text, this dialogue would take place in a forest. I’ve been in this forest many times, but not in this part. I’m with my students, a few yards out in front of them, and I’m holding a torch. The kinds of trees and vines they are seeing, I have some familiarity with. Their job is to observe, to study, to wonder. I’m leading them to something that will soon belong to them, in ways I can’t always see.

So, to come back to our questions, who is the courageous teacher in this forest scenario? What are my responsibilities? To whom am I responsible? What must I do?

I must defend my student’s right to explore the trees and vines I have explored, to which I have given him some access. This might take some courage.

My guidance will have succeeded when he gets farther than I could into the forest, once I have finished or even while I am still guiding him. I can light him a new torch, and in exchange he should go farther. I will carefully and thankfully watch my work fade while his brightens. This might take some courage.

I must answer his questions with more questions, and also with some answers. It is critical that I be completely honest in my answers to him at all times, and this includes embracing that most famous of answers, which is “I have no idea.”

After which, hopefully, I will say, “You tell me.”

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Paris, Youth and the Future

Americans of all stripes show support for their oldest ally.

Thursday afternoon, I was having dinner in the Atlanta airport, between flights on a business trip I was taking over the weekend. As is often the case in layover scenarios, I ended up soon in a conversation with the guy at the next table, who was also traveling alone.

As it turned out, fresh out of twenty years in the U.S. Army, he was out looking for jobs, returning from an interview in a large Southern city.

“What about you?” he asked.

I answered that I was on my way to give a lecture at a small liberal arts college, on ways Americans can combine their study of French and the liberal arts with their hunt for jobs after college.

Je parle français,” he said, after which we had quite a long conversation, entirely in French, about his childhood in Lebanon (he was a Lebanese immigrant to the U.S.), and the fact that his nieces, as we speak, all speak great French, which is the language they use in their school in Lebanon.

When it came up that I was from Kentucky, he said, “My sister lives in Louisville.”  Apparently she really likes it there.  She is a financial executive there, and her husband is a doctor.  She apparently speaks French, too.

We both paid and went our separate ways.  The next day I gave my lecture, and then a small group of young men killed 129 innocent people in Paris.

*     *     *

Foreigners in the U.S., Americans in foreign countries… for the last few nights, I’ve been dreaming of Paris.

Yet even though I teach French for a living, this sentence tells you almost nothing about me. For centuries, anyone with half an imagination has probably dreamed, more than once, about Paris. Anyone calling himself ‘a painter’ or ‘an artist’ and who has not dreamt of Paris on a regular basis should have his tools confiscated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t dream of Paris—he “drifted” to it. Arrogantly, too: “The American in Paris is the best American,” he quipped. Plus, he added in that famous quote, living in “an intelligent country” was “fun.”

But, all this Jazz-Age literary whippersnappery notwithstanding, Fitzgerald really liked France for its gravitas. France, and even Paris, was like a good aged wine, some leathery-gold treasure from the ages, and being drawn to it apparently said something about you. “France has the only two things to which we drift when we grow older,” he said, “intelligence and good manners.” In short, France was not a country. It was the only imaginable way to age with grace and dignity.

Paris:  a grand, intelligent, well-mannered, fun place.  Fair enough.

*     *     *

But, as anyone who has ever been there will tell you, Paris is also a place of youth.  This, in any case, is what my friend French journalist Clara Schmelck said when she emailed me right after the events:

“Une nuit d’horreur.  Le Bataclan, le stade de France sont ces rares symboles vivants d’une France jeune et pluriculturelle.  Ces rares endroits du pays où le milieu social, l’origine, l’âge, la profession n’ont aucune importance, car seule compte la passion.  Pour le football, pour le rock ou tout simplement pour le petit vent qui fait trembler le vin dans les verres.”

(A horrible night.  The Bataclan nightclub, the French National Stadium are those rare living symbols of a young and pluricultural France.  Those rares places in the country where your social class, origin, age and profession have no importance whatsoever, where the only thing that counts is your passion.  For soccer, for rock and roll or just for that little breeze that causes the wine to tremble in the glass.)


I invited Clara to give a talk in French to students at the University of Wisconsin luncheon last spring, following the tragic events at Charlie Hebdo and the HyperCacher kosher foods market in January.  (Paris has now experienced something that felt to them like their own 9/11 not once now, but twice this year.)  Her talk was about homegrown terror in France, and that country’s difficulty in coming to grips with the fact that young French people themselves could become radicalized.  As recent events have shown us, one doesn’t have to have grown up or even lived in a foreign country to fall into this dangerous trap.

Could it be that physical violence, even mass violence, could have more to do with youth and passion than it does with immigration or religion?

But the youthfulness of a few killers is not the only youth in this equation, as Clara pointed out in her email to me.  There is something maybe a little symbolic about the youthfulness of the crowds targeted this time.  In January, the targets were differently symbolic:  journalists using their freedom of speech to criticize religious fanatics in one case, and a community defined as Jewish in the other.  This time, the targets felt more like the traditional 20th-century terrorist variety:  the regular crowd, the general population.

But this time they weren’t tourists on a plane or workers in an office building.  They were largely young people, or at least people associated with what French society identifies with youthfulness on a Friday night:  nightclub-goers, soccer fans, people out on dates in a restaurant.

*     *     *

Paris petit journal interview

A few days ago in Paris:  a very young Parisian tells it like it is

Back to America for a minute.  There I was, the night before the tragedy, traveling, conversing in French with a young(ish) Lebanese-American who was fresh off 20 years defending my country.  France never once came into the conversation.  A few days later, I was back in Madison, watching a moving video message one of my own students (from France, this time) had made for his own friends, family, and YouTube audience in France.

I had seen my student Yoann’s videos before on his YouTube channel (which he has titled “Ma vie aux Etats-Unis,” or My Life in the United States), and I recommend it to those interested in a quick glimpse of what America might look like to an enthusiastic young French graduate student who appears to really love this place.  (This kid’s laptop is covered by a large American flag, if that gives you a sense.)  The messages in that video, from Yoann’s American friends to his audience in France, are full of hope and caring.

And youth.

There have always been young people in Paris, and as long as there has been a United States, there have always been French speakers here, immigrants and otherwise.  Whenever society decides that fighting will be the necessary response, it’s the young who end up doing it. That society might be a country, or a city, or an ideology bent on terrorizing that city, but it’s always young people on the front lines.

Whatever comes next of this tragic turn of events in France, Fitzgerald’s grand old Paris never seemed younger. Over here in our own relatively young country, we recognize this sign.

It’s a sign of hope.

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No Art Without Constraints

Langer 3A couple of days ago, my colleague Ullrich Langer and I got together for a drink. We had been meaning to do so for months, precisely so we could talk about the importance of constraints in creating good work in the humanities. Constraints are present everywhere, of course—not just in the humanities. Note, for instance, that expression we all use “to get together for a drink.”

“Glass of wine?” asked Ullrich, when we got settled into his dining room.

“No thanks,” I replied. “I don’t drink during Lent.”  Constraints!

We were at Ullrich’s apartment because of another constraint: the café we were going to meet at, it turned out, is closed on Monday. Having arrived five minutes before Ullrich, however—another constraint, following the constraint of the Unexpectedly Closed Café—I sat down on a small wall and did something I haven’t been able to do for months: I relaxed in the sun. Melting snow trickled along the gutter in the street a few feet away. A nearby cardinal, on a wire, was singing his head off. Without the constraints of the café closure and my early arrival, I would have missed these gifts.

We talked for about an hour. Busy academics, we had tried for months to organize what should have been a spontaneous little café chat. But, what with the teaching and service and research and writing and outreach and advising we are doing all the time (politicians take note of this fact), it took us nearly a year. Still, once we got rolling, we came up with what seemed to both of us like a few useful principles.

Those of you who have read this blog for a while, or even read a handful of essays from it, know I began The How-To Humanist as a way of exploring how people “practice the humanities,” both inside and outside classrooms of all sorts. I’ve known Ullrich for over twenty-five years now, and it’s always great to have a drink with a friend at the end of a workday (even during Lent, given Ullrich’s taste in non-alcoholic ciders), but my interest in this particular conversation was as a blogger. A blogger, but also a writer more generally, and a teacher, and a composer, and a guy who fixes the family bikes and occasionally makes furniture out of garbage I find on the street.

For some years now, I have periodically quoted something I understand Orson Welles said: “No art without constraints.” (I should probably research this, to make sure it’s really Welles, but ultimately it’s the quote that interests me more than the identity of the quoter—as cool as Orson Welles was.) How do others I know, who work in the humanities, feel about constraints? What kinds of constraints do they work under? What kinds of constraints do they impose on their work, and which others are imposed on them by someone or something else?

Langer 1

This is more or less what we talked about. Here are a few of the main principles we emerged with.

Constraints have everything to do with freedom.

A scholar of Renaissance literature, especially French literature, Ullrich has been working on this one for a while. He reminded me that both Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance held two views of freedom. The first view: the ability to do whatever you please. A total lack of constraints.

But this “freedom” is false. After all, say the writers from those periods, if you know no constraints at all, you tend to do things that only serve your own interest . If you believe you are free because you get to do only whatever you want, you are just a tyrant.

The other kind of freedom—the one preferred by writers of those eras—is the true kind, one that allows you to live well. That kind of freedom comes from responding creatively to constraints, especially those imposed on you by having to live with and among other people. It’s not the constraints themselves that make you free, it’s the extent to which your response to the constraints hones your skills, your place in things, and your ethical relationship to others and to your surroundings.

Constraints make for a stronger experience

When I was in my early twenties, my dad stumbled onto the late Mississippi novelist and former firefighter Larry Brown. I remember Pop whipping out his copy of Dirty Work and reading a couple of chapters to those of us still at the table. The book, as I recall, alternates narrators, taking place in a VA hospital and featuring roommates both very damaged by the Vietnam War. One is black and paraplegic; the other is white and suffering from mental illness. My dad read one short chapter, then the other.

Whence the strength in this experience?

Well, partly it was in the reading. I have many family members who are partly to thank for attuning me to language (a speech pathologist, an amateur poet, a skillful vocal impersonator, several different kinds of pets), but my dad’s deep voice doing funny accents while reading to us at bedtime surely contributed to my own love of reading and of stories.

What did he love so much about this writer he had just discovered?

“He has such economy of language,” he said. (This was a guy who gave me Strunk and White’s Elements of Style as a gift at least three different times in my youth.)

Ullrich’s contribution to this point was his own research on 16th-century French poetry. (Ullrich’s latest book, coming out this year at Cambridge University Press, is titled Lyric in the Renaissance: from Petrarch to Montaigne.) A dominant argument of the day was simple: when you write a poem, use the decasyllable (ten syllables) instead of the more prosaic Alexandrine form (twelve syllables).

A difference, in every line, of a mere two syllables!

(At this point I have the urge to remind the reader that I am simplifying the point, but I am finding it hard to do so without using the word “vulgar” or lapsing into a slightly British-sounding accent.)

But, to put it simply, the idea was that what my dad called “economy of language” just made the thing stronger. Writers of the Renaissance, according to Ullrich, compared it to human breath, to blowing through a small hole as opposed to a big one. The smaller the hole, the stronger the concentrated breath flowing through it.

(Asthmatics might disagree, but you understand the comparison.)

I thought of KINO, the film group I have collaborated with over the years in Montreal. A “microcinema” organization, KINO hosts regular screenings of short films made by its members, who range from an Oscar-nominated rock star of Quebec film all the way down to the guy who just made his first little film at the family cabin next to some lake in the Laurentides. Founded in 1999, KINO also hosts “kabarets”—48-hour filmmaking festivals at which all kinds of participants form crews and create complete short films out of nothing in the space of two days.

For over a decade, this kind of challenge-art, based on rules and constraints, has been popular in North American cities. Make a film in two days. Write and stage a one-act play in a single weekend. Make an album of songs every month for a year. At KINO, for a while, there was a rule stating that, if you planned to submit a film for a monthly screening (and upwards of 300 people attend these events in Montreal), you had to schedule a meeting with the KINO co-directors and explain to them why you needed to surpass the ten allotted minutes. A little like being called the principal’s office, this tended to intimidate newer members into editing their films a little more rigorously. Those who wanted to explain their aesthetic choice at least had to come up with an interesting and convincing argument (another constraint).

No art without constraints.

Langer 2Those of us who grew up in the 1970s learned quickly that, to express yourself, you needed to unshackle yourself from the grim constraints most of us now lazily associate with the 1950s. It’s all right to cry! Free to be you and me! Color outside the lines! Make mistakes!

Marlo Thomas, Miss Frizzle, certain English teachers, and just about every adult I ever met in a Unitarian Church during those years had some good points. We probably did need to relax a little more in the 1970s, and our kids probably did need to look beyond the tight Dick-and-Jane world view left over from the previous era. But a lot of us misunderstood these new instructions, about “freedom” and “expressing ourselves,” as proof that any kind of rigor or craftsmanship or expectation or criteria imposed by any kind of authority was necessarily repressive and maybe even dangerous.

My art teachers, however, struck a finer balance. “You need to practice,” my high school art teacher once told me when I was in the eleventh grade and rushing too quickly between projects I had started too soon and wasn’t devoting enough time or attention to. “You are developing a style, and that takes practice.”


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Being Charlie, Immediately

A book that came out about six minutes ago

A book that came out about six minutes ago

It is hard to imagine that a blogger who teaches French for a living, and whose blog is called “The How-To Humanist,” could have waited nearly two months to write about the violence at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris.  Those events of January 7th, and the massive solidarity march that followed on January 11th, were as close to the “French 9/11” that I have seen yet, and French friends and colleagues are still trying to make sense of it all.

(Well, okay, I did write an op-ed on the matter, a few days after it transpired.  But it wasn’t at the How-To Humanist.)

What is even harder to imagine, though, is the editorial and publishing marvel I hold in my hands, having just finished reading it tonight:  NOUS SOMMES  CHARLIE, the 164-page collection of little essays and other writings by 60 French authors, published by the Librairie Générale Française on February 5th–less than a month after the events in Paris.  Less than a month–and I hold an old-fashioned copy right here in my hands.  Remember this the next time anyone suggests the French are slow.

Having just finished reading this little volume, I headed over here to the How-To Humanist not so much to write a review of the book, but to toss out a few quick thoughts about it.  Here they are.

1.  Man, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and writers sure had some loyal friends.

2.  Man, do those loyal writerly friends–satirists, mostly, from what I know of those I recognize–take their freedom of expression seriously.

3.  I knew this, but I still reel from the consistent message one feels, across much of French society, about the freedom of expression, the separation of religion and government, and the sacredness of secularism–if one could put it that way.

4.  On the sacredness of secularism:  we Americans have a hard time understanding how the French could pass their 2004 “Law on Secularism”–mostly because we don’t think it appropriate to tell a teenage girl she can’t wear the headscarf that is traditional in her family into the classroom.  I just gave a talk to a European history class at a local high school–on French secularism, as a matter of fact–and one of the kids was wearing a headscarf.  To me, it’s just a fashion choice.  To a lot of French people, it is against the social contract.

This last fact is maybe the most interesting to us Americans.  I have seen a lot of interesting comments, pictures, and short essays on Facebook about the Charlie Hebdo attacks (some of which also include, as all of them should, the parallel killings at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket), and most of us in the U.S. get two things immediately:  first, that homegrown terror is a possibility in France (as we saw it could be in the U.S., last year, in Boston), and second, that the freedom of expression is or should be sacred in a democracy.

Sacred. Funny word to use in this setting.

I say that because the “republican values” (valeurs républicaines) that guide so much of these debates in France are quite different from those that guide our conversations about such things in America.  Our “freedom” is mostly an individual thing.  (It’s a free country usually means As long as I’m not hurting anyone, I get to do what I want.)  In France, the freedom of a citizen has as much to do with solidarity and a certain definition of public space as it does the individual. Note how grieving writers, still fresh from the shock of those events mere weeks ago, talk about it.

"Democracy, secularism"

“Democracy, secularism”

Antoine Sfeir, for example, in his essay “Réapprendre la résistance” (Relearning Resistance), calls for us to say No to a number of things:  allowing violence by masked criminals, allowing those criminals to claim to be good Muslims, discriminating against the law-abiding 8% of the population of France (which some writers here exaggerate to be more like 10%, which is what it can seem, in spite of the overall secularism of the majority of French Muslims) to be stigmatized.

Yes, though, to this (my translation):  to affirming that “in France, there are no ‘communities’ but individual citizens; that our secularism, unique in the world, guarantees its citizens not only the respect of every kind of faith or philosophical opinion, but also the restriction of these convictions to the private sphere.”

Restriction!  A freedom?  Hard for us to grasp, but when you’ve spent some time in France and among the French, it begins to make some sense.  You don’t necessarily agree with it, but you get it a little more.

Our founding story in America, at least to my mind, is mostly with the Puritans–they left England so as to be free to practice their faith without being repressed.  In France, which is also a secular Republic (as ours is), this freedom is different.  No one left and crossed an ocean to get away from the big mean powers trying to make them believe one way or another.  (Mayflower or Guillotine?  Hmm.)  So they have public space–schools, government offices, and such.

Sfeir, whose work I don’t know, was surely writing in the moment, but his passage gives a pretty French view of it.  Be religious, but do that in private if you don’t mind–anything else is imposing it on me.  And even though I know it may offend many of you who are not at all prone to violence or hurtfulness–this kind of satire, published in magazines and online and in other forms, is just the price of admission to the Republic.


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Jesus, Montreal, and What a “Humanist” Does

Lothaire Bluteau

Lothaire Bluteau

Last night I introduced one of my favorite Quebec films in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Lubar Institute “Religion on Film” Series:  Denys Arcand’s 1989 now-classic Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal).  We had a pretty good turnout and had an interesting little Q & A after the credits–featuring French, Canadian, African and American audience members weighing in with all kinds of interesting ideas about what parts of the movie seemed to mean.

Without spoiling the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen this movie, here is the gist:  a group of actors in Montreal rewrites the tired Passion Play given annually by the diocese, on the Mont Royal.  They give it all kinds of new twists–including questions, induced by recent archeological evidence questioning a lot of things we have long assumed were true about Jesus of Nazareth–and get in quite a lot of trouble with the high-ups.  Along the way, there is a regular, scathing critique of the advertising and luxury-products industry, a good deal of modern biblical allegory, and some epic Eighties Hair and Guitar Riffs.

Having asked the audience before the film to consider “what seemed really Eighties” about this movie, I found the post-film discussion enlightening.

Arcand’s harsh criticism of the superficiality of advertising, said one audience member, and also of the financial-district-ish worldview of a couple of major characters, was totally of a piece with the go-go free-enterprise worldview of the late 1980s.  (We didn’t talk about the turbo’ed-up version to come in the subsequent decade or beyond.)  Left-leaning Quebec filmmakers with social-democratic ideals were right to focus on the dangers of selling out, suggested this audience member.  Big business and consumerism had moved in by 1989, pushing aside most 1960s- and 1970s social idealism about public funding and state-funded institutions like hospitals and schools.  Arcand’s response, aesthetically:  focus, quite literally, as much as possible on individual human beings, on the temporary warmth of friendship, love, food, the moment.  Lothaire Bluteau is a particularly good choice–as the actor so humanistically playing Jesus–for this kind of exchange.  He can look you right in the eye, but not necessarily to intimidate.  Mostly his character makes you want to tell the truth.  So, I learned as a child, did Jesus.

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Denys Arcand

Denys Arcand

So here we are, back from a rather long hiatus at the How-To Humanist. (Long enough for me to have lapsed into a kind of royal-we first person plural.  Sorry about that, folks.) We have undergone some politically strange times where I live of late, and most of the commonwealth I love about the state I live in has come under some serious pressure of the late-1980s-free-enterprise-idealism variety.  The humanities, which started out this blog project, have continued to suffer from a reduced social status.  (In one particular scene from Jésus de Montréal, a visibly powerful lawyer brags about the kind of big money-making publishing projects he is involved in, one of them being “littérature”… How times change.) So what kick-started me back into blogging here?

Jesus, I suppose.  Or “Jesus,” in quotes.  The discussion I found myself involved in at the Union South Marquee Theater last night focused as much on ethics as it did aesthetics, and we did quite a good deal of talking about the difference, in the film, between the Roman Catholic Church (the hierarchy, its rules, its institutional power) and the kinds of basic Christian kindnesses it espouses but which increasingly happen outside the confines of physical churches or even religious thinking.  “My friend isn’t religious,” one often hears, “but she is very spiritual.”  This distinction reminds me a little of this question of Church Christianity versus Christianity in action.

All this can be yours.

All this can be yours.

In one particular scene in the film–probably one of my favorite–Bluteau, playing the actor Daniel Coulombe, playing the man Jesus of Nazareth, playing the role of Son of God, which he tells his followers really means the Son of Man–addresses the stodgy Catholic priest-bureaucrats in the crowd directly.  Talking to his followers in general, “Jesus” here is staring the priests directly in the eye, reminding them that no hierarchy counts here on earth except one.

At just the right moment, he wheels around toward the camera, a manly pre-Mel-gibsonian tear rolling down his left cheek and he stares right at us and reminds us that “vous n’avez qu’un maître, qui est aux Cieux, et vous êtes tous frères!”

Theology aside (I was brought up to consider this a personal thing), I wanted to stand and clap, or at least vote for the guy.  You have only one master, who is in heaven, and you are all brothers!  Humanity, a great band of brothers!  I felt like I was at Agincourt, where Shakespeare imagined King Henry’s rousing “band of brothers” speech!  Except that the guy playing Jesus here was the descendant of Frenchman, who lost to that particular band of brothers (who had better bow-and-arrow technology), but I digress.

You are all brothers, says the French-Canadian actor playing a French-Canadian actor playing version of Jesus whose very existence is questioned in the text of the very play he is playing in… talk about a box within a box.  Then add to that a roomful of spectators, once the lights have come back up here in 2015, twenty-six years after Arcand shot the movie (twenty-six years since 1989, mon Dieu), and you have yet another box.

This is my point.  For me, the “how-to humanist” I am talking about in this blog–in all these blog posts, really–is interested in the boxes.  He has nothing at all to do with “humanism” of the Christianity-versus-atheism variety.  (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just use the masculine singular.)  He is not the “secular humanist” the televangelists of 1989 warned us about.  He is not necessarily an atheist, nor is he necessarily a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist.  Rather, he is a human being, experiencing the world–its history, its art, its creative events, its material reality and its spiritual dimensions–and reflecting on it, with passing time in mind.  His religion is not necessarily right or wrong.  It’s just his business.

The humanities, however, are ours.

As we continue to wonder what the value of the traditional “humanities” might be in the education of our children, we might do well to notice the humanities taking place around us outside school and the workplace.  How do we tell ourselves the important stories, and how to those stories guide our actions?  How do we spend our time with our close friends and loved ones, and how do we tell ourselves what we believe in?  How much of what we are doing is so that we can receive a later reward, and how much is because, well, it’s just the right thing to do?

Arcand’s film, which you really must see if you have never seen it, is arguably about just that.



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