Thursday, March 11, 2010

Astounding 19th century facts

The 1872 census records 490,352 inhabitants in the Morbihan [the 2007 census recorded 702,487]. All but 145 protestants and 23 "israélites" (the interesting term used by the 1887 guide book I've been reading) are catholic. More than half of the population speak Breton (and no French at all), and the dividing line is (indeed, as we'd wondered in the past) is between Josselin and Pontivy. Of the total population, more than half (280,534) could neither read nor write (147,665 could do both, and various other numbers could do one or the other). The average age was 32.

I kept going over those numbers last night, thinking through all of the different things that they meant about life in late 19th-century Brittany. It drives home the point about the 19th-century being closer to the Middle Ages than to the 20th. All of a sudden, Gauguin's strange fantasy of a return to a more "primitive" (his term, his quest) land takes on a new dimension. "La vie moyenne est de 32 ans"? Now, I do think this means the average life span, not life expectancy. But a number that low for an average life span means a great many infant and childhood deaths. Mac made me familiar with the thesis that late 19th-century Brittany was actually rapidly entering the Industrial Revolution, especially when it came to industrial agriculture (which is still big around here today), and that Pont-Aven, and other gorgeous little towns like it, was specifically designed to appeal to artists looking for a romantic vision of a time gone by (or, as Gauguin would have it, when he first went there in 1886, an authentic experience nostalgic of the primitive) - the Bretons already being aware that their land held deep memories that others far removed from their roots fervently wanted access to. Turns out that Gauguin was miserable in Brittany - too "primitive"! (Nonetheless, he would go back for another brief stint in 1888). He complained of the dirt and the lack of urban adventure in letters (the scoundrel). He'd go on to Tahiti in 1891 (where he would die in 1903) to really find the primitive (and I'm more and more interested in the train of thinking that led from Brittany, which had so many commercial connections to the French colonies, to Tahiti - of course, his time spent in the French marine service is interesting, too) - and be miserable there, too (although not quite so much).

This painting from 1894 is interesting because a) it's from 1894, and he was already in Tahiti by then, and b) because the faces of the Breton girls are so planar, flat, almost mask-like. He maintains their mystery, giving their skin the hues of the earth and making us wonder about the conversation that would interrupt their work. At this same time, the Breton landscape continues to hold its laborers: the man stooping over his work, the two older women dressed in all black.

Post-colonial theory has helped me understand one of the key strategems of controlling a population that, for whatever reason (economic, religious, social, sentimental) need to be stabilized and fixed in a certain way: don't let history happen there. The 1887 guide book describes Breton as "un des idiomes les plus anciens de l'univers" (one of the oldest ways of speaking of the universe). The universe, mind you! That's old! I'm not so much interested in pointing the finger at Gauguin and his crew for keeping Brittany rustic and as old as the universe - I'm more interested in why it was so important to do at the end of the 19th century. Kathleen Biddick makes this tremendous point in her book The Typological Imagination; circumcision, technology, history in a chapter entitled "Christians Mapping Jews" by tracing how Christians refused to acknowledge the contemporaneity of Jews in 13th-century Europe, associating them with (usually the evils, but also at times the good) of the Hebrew Bible - this despite medieval Jews engaging in every contemporary practice, and having the potential to exercise great power within some of the newer medieval "technologies" of everything from stained glass production to commerce. The questions I kept asking my students in the "Monsters and Marvels" class worked around understanding this necessity of "primitivism" or, lack of contemporaneity.

Lest you think these are by-gone tendencies, I direct you to Eleanor's maternelle class, petite section (love that they call it that), where they are currently studying countries in Africa. We read a couple of the books that she's reading with her this morning (and her French continues to astound by the way). Both books have hip, modern graphics and she adores them both. And both books show Africans in completely primitive garb: bare feet, sorcerers, spear hunting, etc. Lots of thoughts spring to mind, chiefly a statistic I learned in a class I sat in on thanks to a very generous colleague, that over half the population of most African countries lives in large cities. No bare feet, no sorcerers, no spear hunting. So why are these books written, gorgeously illustrated, taught to children? Why is it important to preserve Africa's primitive past so vividly, so entertainingly? Where is the book that shows a little Nigerian girl's day in Lagos (population 9 million)? And again, I'm asking these questions sincerely, I'm not interested in just criticizing the French school system (far from it) - I'm interested in why Eleanor loves it so much. What does this appeal to in her? She's too young to be a colonialist, to have all of the complex emotional relationships that the French have to their ex-colonies - none of that would make any sense to her. So why do these primitive images? And (key question) do they instill a colonial attitude in her? That these far-away countries are to be loved for their wonder and mystical past? I'm also curious to know what the several black kids in her class think of the books. There's this very important question of heritage (say that with a French accent) here - of roots and where one ultimately comes from. It can be quite negative (ask any 4th-generation Moroccan child who speaks only French and not a word of Arabic what it feels like to be asked where he's from), and it can be quite positive (think the "Roots" movement in America, think pride of place, of one's ancestry, of one's customs). And (last point, I promise) the truth is: those fabrics that the sorcerer wears are beautiful, the body paint that the hunter wears is vivid and grand, the weapons are expertly made. But I think that the point is that those are not the only things going on in Africa, that there are also beautiful, engaging tales of modern Africa to be told. And we'll tell them to Eleanor - somehow.

What's so fascinating about living here is that Brittany was, for all intents and purposes, a colony within France, and the government "colonized" this region as it did so many of its other colonies: it forced everyone to speak Breton (and there are many sad tales of children being punished in schools in really humiliating ways for speaking Breton), it established a standard system of education, it connected major roads and railways, and voilà, Brittany was modern and Breton reviled. I have to understand more about the Breton movements, too - is that roots and origins? At the Fest Deiz there seemed to be nothing nostalgic about it at all - very contemporary.

Basta! Enough already! You want pictures!

Today Iris's teacher was out sick and there was no way to get a substitute (there won't be one there tomorrow either). Iris (no kidding) cried when she found out she wouldn't be in school today (seems to be doing ok about tomorrow). She said "But what about Alexia and Selen and Elise? and the goulash?" (at least her friends came first - the fabulous lunch menu second). She accepted our humble offer of soup and baguette for lunch, agreeing with Eleanor that indeed this was "good but not good enough."

Mac played with her in the morning while I worked and this was one of the results: I mean, really, what can't you do with fennel fronds? In the afternoon, I took her to Ploermel (which has a bilingual French-Breton school, by the way) to buy TGV tickets for dear friends who are coming in a couple of months. It was a beautiful day so we took some time to explore the church, fronted here by the WWI monument (this time the Gallic Rooster has his talon on a Prussian helmet!).

The church of Saint-Armel is a wonder. I have yet to make it inside but the northern portal is positively writhing with exotic and fantastic creatures. Here you see (starting in the bottom left), a boar, and a bird, then, moving to the right column and working down: a centaur, three women who are (???) emerging from jars (???), and two naked figures (the sign of Gemini? but I don't see any other signs of the zodiac here). There was also a mermaid (big hit with Iris) and a very intense Massacre of the Innocents that stretched our above the doorway. It's a truly wonderful church and I hope to learn more - Ploermel is one of the older towns, its church having been founded in the 6th century by said Saint Armel.

Iris and I then went to get a coffee and a hot chocolate before heading home to pick up Oliver and Eleanor. It's pretty rare to be with just one kid, so I just looked and looked at her and let her talk. Iris actually prefers less talk, and so I snapped this picture when she lapsed into a comfortable silence and was looking out the window. I will always love to wonder what she was thinking about.

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