Saturday, May 22, 2010

From Theory to Practice and Back Again

I'm searching for a rubric, for a frame, to remember and rethink this wondrous evening by, and I'm having to reach higher and higher each time, until I get to this Pretty Big Insight Really: to think theoretically is the highest form of humanity; to act practically is its most poignant form. So let's move between the two a bit.

The first thing we all need to savor is that Mick Jagger speaks really good French: relaxed, plenty of "most justes," and clearly enjoying himself. Who knew? He was interviewed last night on the news, and Mac and I just sat there open-mouthed. But in spring, life is filled with surprises like that. Still, where when how and with whom did he learn the French? A tale of theory to practice waits to be told...

A second thing to savor is Eleanor reciting the entire French alphabet according to these images. "Abeille, Bonbon, Crocodile..." - I think that she was working through "Igloo" when this picture was taken. Language is, I would say, the most theoretical theory we have going: language is a theory, an idea, a proposition and we have all agreed to it. It is the one human theory that everyone agrees to practice. The very first of Social Contracts we undertake. And best of all, it's not really a rational choice - it's a desire to communicate that is met by a practice (speech). My dear Julia is watching her little guy yearn and strive to speak, and feeling the thrill of his success. And tonight, I met a brave soul who is looking to understand Arabic. Are there illustrated alphabets in Arabic? How can I not know the answer to that? The big question (the Babel question) is why, if language is an enormous commonality of the human condition, do we have so many variants? I don't know the answer, of course, but I do want to ponder the extrapolated result: multiple languages, multiple cultures, multiple value systems. This is where the theories (of language and morality) become clashing practices. I'm looking at the picture and wondering what on earth Eleanor thinks about this Great Big Bother of coming up with an entirely different language (and children are universal and not-too-culturally specific in a way that most adults just aren't anymore, which is what prompts me to wonder). So far, it's no bother at all to her, and she's even got "W pour Wapiti" down. To exaggerate, but also to make my point quickly, for oh my it is late, Eleanor is experiencing a different language, but not really a radically different value system. She has moved from one theory to another with the same practice. Consequently, the difference is not the one that she would experience, say, if she were a little Muslim girl growing up here in anticipation of donning a veil at the "age of puberty."

At what point does a child become a culturally specific person? I can't decide if what we saw this afternoon with Iris and Oliver's classes at the movies was a belief in the universalism of childhood (all children no matter what age and culture laugh at and cheer on the same things), or the beginning of a series of value systems associated with French culture (good will prevail over evil; evil is garish, good is plain; absurdity reveals a breakdown in moral order). We saw La Table Tournante, (1988), a series of animated films by Paul Grimault from the 1940s-1970s. "Le Petit Soldat" is from 1947 and was co-written by Grimault and the poet Jacques Prevert - to my mind, it pits the horrors of war (military and sexual) against the purity of love (individual and unconditional). Love wins, but not before some heart-wrenching scenes of helplessness. When the petit soldat loses his agency, he loses he identity; when the little doll claims her agency, she gains everything. See for yourself:

Oliver did not like it at all when the petit soldat was wounded and still; Iris thought the petit soldat was girl. The kids in the audience clapped like mad at the end.

In honor of Mac mentioning the poem "Barbara" by Prévert, which commemorates the bombing of Brest (Brittany) in WWII, here it is (first in English translation, then in French if you scroll further down). We had half an hour between dropping Iris's class back off at school and going to pick all the kids up at school - turned out to be just enough time to have a coffee and start pondering the film. Some of those cartoons were dark and wild - what were the kids to make of "Le Diamant"?

The viewer comments are interesting: "sens caché" (hidden meaning) and lots of statements about France and colonialism, or rather, decolonisation, since the film was made during that period and Grimault was in favor of it. Colonialism, to my mind, being the entire civilizing theory of the French Enlightenment being put into practice abroad - and everything (I really think just about everything) going terribly, terribly wrong.

So tonight, in the warmth and excitement of friendship, we had a conversation we'd been eager to have, but tremulous about having, for five months. It's ostensibly about a bill that may become a law prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the "voile intégral" - the full face and body veil that only reveals the eyes. But it quickly becomes about the theory of a progressive state, and the values of individuality. It pits the value of the state (its hard-won (think French Revolution) principles, its history, its mission) of "laïcité" (a state ruled by lay, not religious, principles) against the value of the individual to choose (and this matter of choice is a key point of debate) to wear something signifying their religious identity. For an American like me, it pits the Feminist (no veil!) against the Civil Rights Activist (veil!). Back to the theory of language for a second: "hijab" means "curtain" or "cover" - but very quickly takes on meanings of "modesty, privacy, and morality." You can go all the way to meta-physical and see the veil as that which sits between humanity and God.

Which is more sovereign - the state or the individual? This this this is the question. If we can decide that, everything will just fall right into place. !!! If we looked back a bit, we could probably see that people have been asking this question for millenia (my favorite questioner being Camilla in Corneille's Horace when she rails against Rome for its war's sacrifice of her love - and dies for it at the hands of her brother, who is rewarded for his act of patriotism, his defense of the state). In the modern (post-medieval) period, I've always heard my political science friends talk about the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) as the moment in which the State (as opposed to the King) is recognized as sovereign. How, will you ask, can the State be considered apart from individuals since it is made up of individuals? If the State is sovereign and respected as such, it can order its subjects to behave in certain ways. That's terrible, you say. And then you stop and think of how Civil Rights legislation in the American 1960s (the State moving from theory to practice) ordered its subjects to (in brief) stop practicing racism. It wasn't/isn't easy, individuals were trumped, but it was right. What if the State of France is right, and the veil is wrong and no woman should wear it? Are we willing to say "It doesn't matter that the State is right? Individual rights matter more."? Are we really willing to say that? An absolutely gripping statement that was made about the veil bill was that when a woman is found to be wearing the veil, she will be brought in for "education," - specifically, to understand "why democracy calls for uncovered faces." I'm just fascinated with the uncovered face being such a prized value in Western culture that it becomes a political issue, a mark of the state. (Some thinking about the history of portraiture in Western art history would probably help here.) This was where Oliver blew me away and entered the conversation, and spoke honestly saying "I don't know why we need to see faces, we just do." The "we just do" to my mind signifies the depth of the cultural belief - Oliver can't find the source of the need to see a face, especially a new one (he pointed out), and truth be told, neither can I. Do I impose that need on Muslim women? Do I make that need a political principle? That's what's happening here in this clash of religious and political theories and cultural and legal practices.

On the one hand, I don't want to let these thoughts go - I don't particularly want to resolve them, either. In some ways, it's like trying to wrap my mind around the stuff I was reading today which revealed that, in the 16th century anyway, satire was seen as a means of moral reform (think on that for a minute - wo-ha!). On the other, I fear that it's all become too complicated and we've lost sight of what really matters, which is the homecoming of human contact. I think of this because of our gracious hosts, whose acts of kindness and generosity result in the gifts of feeding a table full of people, bringing a California son near, taking a little toothless girl seriously, making chocolate that is specifically "moelleux" (just say the word for its luxury), and sharing an evening's conversation in the trust that nothing may be resolved but everything will be explored. There is a deep theory here, a profound commitment, but it does not need to be articulated by anything save its practices.

We're going to Nantes tomorrow and spending the night in the hopes of getting to ride the impossibly enormous mechanized elephant at the Machines de l'Île. Is this why I love France? Because so many of the theories here are completely impractical? And therefore all the more wonderful?

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