Thursday, January 28, 2016


So the other day I began to read a piece by Sartre, "Les maos en France," which begins:

"Je ne suis pas mao. C'est pour cette raison, je pense, qu'on m'a demandé de présenter ces enquêtes."

For a moment I was confused, and thought that Sarte was saying that he had been asked to write about Maoism in France because he wasn't Mao. Then of course I realized that he was saying that he had been asked to write it because he was not a Maoist, and that "mao" is French for "Maoist."

I think that for many people whose native language is English, not just me, saying "mao" instead of "Maoist" will sound very strange and wrong. Perhaps more so the weaker our French is, and mine is not Proustian. Even before we begin to wonder just exactly how "mao" is pronounced in French.

But of course, unless we have some familiarity with Chinese -- and I don't -- we can't judge which is the more quaint transliteration, "Maoist" or "mao."

I envy people whose guardians educated them well and took them on international tours while they were still small children, they must have a much better instinctive grasp of the size and diversity of humanity. It was not until my late 20's that I first traveled to a non-English-speaking part of the world and saw bookstores with familiar worldwide bestsellers on their shelves with titles which looked bizarre to me, and had to grasp, not just know, but also feel and see, that Hundert Jahre Einsamkeit was no more bizarre and wrong a title for Gabriel García Márquez' masterpiece than One Hundred Years of Solitude. And then on semester break I went to Paris and was confronted with Cent ans de solitude. And, for example, La guerre et la paix, when I was still just getting used to Krieg und Frieden, and still having a hard time accepting that Krieg und Frieden was every much as legitimate a falsification of Tolstoy's novel -- because to translate a text means to fuck it up unless the translator is as great a writer or better the original, and often even then -- as the War and Peace I'd read for the 1st time before I was full-grown.

Of course, no one had to explain to me that things are translated into many different languages, especially things like great works of literature. But I had to actually be in those bookstores in order to really feel it, in order for a sense of what world literature is to begin to sink in to my consciousness.

I happened to be reading some French newspapers in 1998 when Joschka Fischer was the brand-new Foreign Minister of Germany, and was confused at first by the frequent occurrence of the word "baskets" in the headlines. Until it clicked: sneakers. Fischer had caused a bit of an uproar when he first rose to national prominence as a legislator in Germany and came to work wearing blue jeans and sneakers. Fischer was the first Green politician to appear in legislatures. Greens in the 1980's didn't wear suits. Occasionally tweedy jackets and-or loosely-knit ties with their uniform jeans. Looking at the chronology, it seems to me that the Greens may have been a major international force behind the creation of casual Fridays.

Anyway: sneakers. Basketball shoes. That's how and when I learned that "baskets" is French for "sneakers." "Baskets" sounds silly to you? (It surely did to me at first.) Stop for a moment and meditate on how "sneakers" sounds. It has been speculated that the majority of the universe, the greatly prevalent element, is stupidity. That may be. Or maybe it's just silliness. Compared to stupidity, a universe made of silliness wouldn't necessarily be so bad. Think of how Kevin Smith, who I gather believes God exists, portrayed God in his movie Dogma: a smiling, mute, very sweetly silly and childlike Alanis Morissette. Where was I?

PS: Susan Sontag SUCKS!!!

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