Wednesday, June 21, 2017

April in Paris, with Dwarves

In April of 1964 I witnessed a fistfight between two men, both dwarves, outside a bar on the Boulevard de la Motte-Picquet in Paris. It had never occurred to me until today that dwarf-tossing might have been involved.
            I spent the whole month of April, including my twenty-first birthday late in the month, in Paris that year. Everything about that time was memorable and extraordinary, but nothing more strange than the dwarves’ fistfight. My friend Pat and I were usually out in the evenings, bar-hopping, finding a good cheap restaurant in the student quarter, or just enjoying the passing scene. That night we were walking past a bar near where he lived in the 7th arrondissement, when two dwarves tumbled out of the door, got up, and proceeded to slug each other. After the surprise, my reaction—and I think it was shared by a number of those around me—was what do we do? I wouldn’t have felt any hesitation stepping, with some help, into a fight between ordinary-sized people if I thought it needed stopping. Fights that are unequal or in places where others might get hurt often have people separating the combatants. But we were all strangely frozen as spectators. Would these two appreciate such a gesture from big people? A delicate question was how it struck me. Of course some were enjoying it. After a short, fierce engagement, the two stopped fighting; one went back in the bar and the other down the boulevard.
            I’d almost forgotten this incident until today. Listening to an economist talking about strange economic arrangements that some people want to ban even though they might benefit the participants, I heard him mention in passing, dwarf-tossing as an amusement in bars. Of course I had to look that one up. Apparently one of the places dwarf-tossing used to be popular was Paris. (It was banned in Florida in 1989 and in New York a year later, but Paris was the place I was interested in.) Though a community in the suburbs banned dwarf-tossing, and had its ban upheld by an appeals court in 2002, dwarf-tossing is probably still legal in metropolitan Paris.
            Did the fisticuffs on la Motte-Picquet have something to do with dwarf-tossing? One of the additional strange things about the fighting dwarves is that they were dressed up—they were wearing suits and ties. The bar from which they had emerged did not look at all an up-tone place (how I wish now I had gone in to look around), and it occurs to me they might have been dressed for an act, or, perhaps, dressed to go out somewhere after taking off other costumes; dwarf-tossing sometimes involves padded costumes or, more bizarrely, Velcro-costume clad dwarves who are thrown at Velcro-covered walls. And since I’m so wildly speculating, were they fighting about the act? Turf, technique, or the esthetics of the thing? I’ll never be able to find out what was behind that little people’s mêlée in that memorable Paris spring.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Weil on the Iliad

Since I have been working my way into the Iliad, (μνιν ειδε θε Πηληϊάδεω χιλος /ολομένην….), I thought I’d reread Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad: or The Poem of Force.” I think now as I did when I first read it that hers is an eminently satisfying view of the poem, whether one agrees with her or not, and one of the most complete readings of a literary work I’ve ever read.
            Weil says the poem’s hero and subject is force, power, might—which she defines as “that which makes a thing of anybody who comes under its sway.” Force does this literally by killing, but also by enslaving—the slave becomes a thing, and so does the person about to be killed who is utterly in the power of another. What force does to its wielder is convince him that his power has no limit, therefore insuring that power will shift to the other side when he oversteps. This “geometrical rigor” in the shift of power back and forth, says Weil, “was the main subject of Greek thought.” Her reading thus accounts for the to and fro in the Iliad’s battles and the curious sense readers have that Homer doesn’t take sides. She points to the materialistic description of battle, where men are described as blood and bone, with “no comforting fiction, no consoling immortality, no faint halo of patriotic glory;” while, on the other hand, “whatever is not war…the Iliad wraps in poetry.” For there are counterforces to might in the poem in all the forms of love, especially conjugal love, the love of parents for children, and the love of brothers-in-arms.
            The famous similes in the poem, according to Weil, compare warriors to violent forces of nature, OR to frightened animals, trees, water, sand or anything in nature affected by those violent forces, depending on whether the object of the simile is wielding force or being subjected to it. She identifies a tone of regret and even bitterness in the poem, as well as a valuing of precious things precisely because they will perish. The poem, she decides, is a miraculous object, hopeful in that it assigns to the gods all the malice and caprice—“war is their true business.” She concludes that the Iliad teaches that “nothing is sheltered from fate,” that we must never “admire might, hate the enemy, or despise sufferers.”
            When I say I find hers a complete reading I don’t mean only that it gives a framework for understanding so much in the poem—the back and forth of battle, the very brutal description of battle scenes, the similes, the way the gods are depicted, and so on. The final element is that Weil’s essay is finally and unblushingly grounded in history, written in 1939 at the beginning of the war by a Jewish intellectual Frenchwoman when it had already become obvious that the Nazis would not be stopped by any considerations of humanity but would continue to do what they wished because they could. Weil’s essay has often been seen as pacifist, I think just because it is anti-war, which is not the same thing.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Main Street and Uptown

I recently read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, both published in 1920 and both contenders for the Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Prize Committee of 1921 first recommended Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street for the prize. Lewis’s novel is a proto-feminist tale about Carol Milford, a romantic girl who frantically pursued culture at Blodgett College and who marries Will Kennicott, a capable but completely unimaginative doctor in the small town of Gopher Prairie. Carol is almost ill when she walks Main Street for the first time, and the feeling doesn’t ever go away. The ugliness of the town and the insensitivity of its citizens to ugliness is matched with an inner ugliness in which gossip substitutes for morality: the town gossip Bogart, whose son drunkenly assaults Fern the schoolteacher, turns his evil into hers and gets her fired and run out of town.
            Carol looks for allies, but Vida Sherwin turns out to imagine herself as a rival instead, Guy Pollock is weak and has “the village virus,” and the only free spirit in town, the “Red Swede” Miles Bjornstam, is tamed when he has a family and broken when his wife and son die of typhoid—the cause is a neighbor’s stinginess in sharing water. Carol is too prudent to have the affair most of the village thinks she is having with the son of a Swedish farmer, Eric Valborg the tailor. She survives by getting Will to travel with her for several months, and then spending two years on her own in Washington, D. C. She comes back determined to stick it out, but not to like it.
            The problem with the book is Lewis’s lack of humor, which turns what should have been satire into polemic. It is intensely descriptive, almost turning into catalogues at times. If Mencken had been a novelist, this is the book he would have written, but it would have been funny.
            The committee’s recommendation was not followed, and the Pulitzer judges made a political decision to award the prize to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Wharton was the first woman winner. In her novel, Newland Archer falls in love with his wife’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, who ran away from the philandering count her husband and manages to keep away from him, despite his “generous” offer of a settlement if she returns, and despite the pressure of everyone in the family except Archer. He is ready to throw his wife May Welland Archer over to follow Ellen, but the toils of the family close upon him.
            The judges seem to have been unaware of the numerous ironies in their decision. Wharton celebrated the triumph of the conventional, and her book shows in a different way from her The House of Mirth the ineluctable toils which grip women but also their men. Lewis’s book shows a woman who never stops kicking against the traces, whose vision of freedom is confused and never completely articulated, but as she says at the end, in words borrowed from Paul to Timothy, “I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.”