Monday, April 30, 2007

The maestro has left the stage

This striking photo has the formal beauty of an image from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. We first encounter the finely-chiseled features of the dead man: his wide mouth and thin lips, almost smiling, and his pointed nose. At the same time, our eyes are attracted by the pastel-hued hippy-like band around his brow. Then our comprehension of the scene is puzzled by the four fine red-nailed fingers, which seem for an instant, weirdly, to belong to the deceased. An instant later, we realize that the face hovering above the coffin is that of a woman, and that the fingers are hers. She is clutching the edge of the cloth-lined coffin as a support enabling her to move within breathing space of the sleeping personage... if only he still breathed. Maybe she might kiss his dead lips. Maybe she won't. We do not need to know. The virtual embrace is already there, fixed by the form of their pose, forever present.

During my youthful years in Sydney — from my contact with university in 1957, then with computing at IBM, up until my departure for Europe at the end of 1961 — I often attended symphonic concerts at the town hall. In 1960, when he was not yet an international celebrity, Mstislav Rostropovich performed in Australia under the direction of the Ukrainian composer and conductor Igor Markevitch. One morning, when I happened to be strolling idly through the sunny streets of the city, I wandered into the town hall to buy a ticket for the cellist's forthcoming concert. Hearing music, and seeing that all the doors were wide open, I ventured into the almost empty concert hall. Rostropovich was alone on the stage, crouched over his frail instrument in a pose like a gawky peasant milking a goat. The solemn sounds filling the town hall were not however those of a beast, but of a divine creature: the cello of Mstislav Rostropovich. I was transfixed in awe, since I had not imagined for an instant that I might come upon the great artist in these almost private circumstances. I remember feeling vaguely that my presence there was slightly improper, as if I had stepped by chance into the backstage room of a lovely actress when she was changing costumes. I had the terrible apprehension that the cellist might suddenly halt in the middle of a bar, to admonish me: "Young man, what are you doing here? Can't you see that your presence is preventing me from concentrating on my practice? Please leave immediately!" Rostropovich never pronounced any such words, but I nevertheless left the concert hall rather rapidly, because I had the distinct feeling that my presence there was incorrect. It was strange, indeed troubling, to hear this great musician "making mistakes" (in his judgment, not mine), and then repeating a few bars several times over, to get them right. That sunny Sydney morning, I was in the presence of rare ethereal sounds, which I have never forgotten.

Exponential movement

Without wishing to transform my blog into a commercial affair (an unlikely predicament), I would be glad if readers of this post were to take a look at the real estate proposition in Pont-en-Royans that I've recently advertised. It's for a friend. [Click here to display this affair.]

Naturally, your readership would automatically kick up the Google rating, making the website more effective. Having said this, I advise interested would-be purchasers to phone me to obtain the hard facts. It's cheap, but the affair is also a little messy. To put it bluntly, the business was almost swept away, a few years ago, by a tremendous mountain storm. And almost everything in the restaurant needs to be redone, rebuilt, rethought... But it's an amazing site.

My blog statistics are augmenting exponentially, which is great.

It would be lovely, of course, if readers were to send in comments and maybe even reveal their identities... but that's asking for too much. So, thanks for looking in!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sporting language in politics

The TV encounter between Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou turned out to be extremely polite and friendly, with no rudeness, aggressiveness nor even raised voices. In describing the show, French media used the fencing expression "fleuret moucheté". This is a foil without cutting edges whose tip is covered by a round button, so that nobody gets hurt.

A fortnight ago, an amusing Nicholson animation appeared on the website of The Australian, on a theme called sledging, which probably comes from cricket. [Click here to see it.] In a cricket match between political parties, John Howard is the batsman and Kevin Rudd the bowler. The commentator, Ritchie Benaud, has invited along a talkative guest: Paul Keating. The match gets off to a quiet almost gentlemanly start:

Bowler Rudd [to the batsman]: "You spineless sycophantic nitwit!"

Batsman Howard [to the bowler]: "Pull your head in, you useless nong!"

Then the great mud-slinger Keating takes over, with comments of the following kind about the batsman: "Howard's got a brain like a sparrow's nest: all shit and sticks. You know, when they circumcised him, they threw away the wrong bit. He's a dead carcass swinging in the breeze, and nobody's got the balls to cut him down. Etc, etc."

Naturally, at the end of this quaint animation, the Sledging Cup is awarded to Keating. [Click here for an anthology of authentic Keating sayings, some of which have been used in Nicholson's sledging animation.] Personally, my favorite Keatingism is his description of Treasurer Peter Costello as "all tip and no iceberg".

Jumping from one thing to another, I was impressed by the sporting language used in the female entourage of the Melbourne underworld personage Carl Williams. A typical specimen, quoted in the Australian press, consists of one of Carl's ladies referring to another lady as a "trashy piece of fucking carnage". The journalist in The Australian used (invented?) a nice expression to designate this kind of language: trash talk.

Getting back to French politics, I see that Nicolas Sarkozy is resorting more and more to sporting metaphors in his combat for the presidency. The other day, when he heard that Ségolène Royal would be debating with François Bayrou, Sarkozy turned to soccer language. In the days preceding a cup final, he stated, it would be weird if one of the teams that was already eliminated wanted to replay a match with one of the finalists. Today, Sarko (as he's nicknamed) has turned to cycling, in referring to next Wednesday's debate with Ségolène Royal as an Alpe-d'Huez stage in the Tour de France culminating in next Sunday's election. As for me, in boxing terms, I hope that Sarko gets KO'd by Ségo next Sunday.

I need words to express my gut-level aversion to Nicolas Sarkozy. Paul Keating is surely a kind of poet, like Barry Humphries, and it goes without saying that I don't share their rare quality of linguistic imagination. I don't know how you would say "mangy maggot" in French... mainly because I'm not quite sure what a mangy maggot would look like. But, if I did, that might just be the right expression for Sarko. However I shouldn't talk that way, at least not before I get naturalized. Sarkozy has a good chance of being elected. In sporting language, I would then stand the risk of receiving a red card and getting sent off the field.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

TV debate of a novel political style

At the moment I'm writing (eleven o'clock in the morning), the TV is turned on and I'm waiting, like countless French viewers, to watch the 90-minute debate between Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou.

This is a new kind of happening, in that Bayrou is no longer a presidential candidate, but the huge packet of votes he collected in the first round will be redistributed in the second round, and will no doubt determine the final winner.

Gamone greenery

In this photo I took this morning, my neighbor Dédé, with his chestnut walking-stick, is standing in front of my white-flowered wisteria. Nearly every morning around seven o'clock, Dédé leaves their place (a couple of hundred meters below Gamone) and strolls up past my house and further up the track beyond Bob's property. If I happen to be up and about, my dog Sophia barks to let me know that Dédé's in the vicinity, and I go out to chat with him for ten minutes or so. Usually, our conversations don't evolve much from one morning to the next. Our first subject, of course, is the weather, then the various animals at Gamone. Dédé knows everything about everybody in the surroundings, but he doesn't talk readily about other people's affairs unless I ask specific direct questions. So, our morning chats are not at all what you would call gossip. On the other hand, concerning inanimate objects at Gamone, he has a remarkable attention to details. Whenever I mention such-and-such an aspect of the house or property that might be modified and improved, I usually find that Dédé has already done some serious thinking about the question I've brought up. Before my recent excursion to Marseilles, I happened to inform Dédé that I would need to purchase a small metal pin to fix the hinged back of my metal trailer. When I returned from Marseilles, I discovered that Dédé had come up to my place, during my absence, and done the job for me. This morning, when I told Dédé that I was thinking about devising a technique for encasing two big steel girders with wood in the façade of my house, I discovered that Dédé had obviouly already thought about this problem, for he immediately described a solution...

On the left, the giant linden tree between my house and the road is now covered in leaves. Funnily, another linden tree, to the right, still has its wintry look. Dédé told me that they, too, have a linden tree of this kind, which doesn't grow leaves until late spring. This morning, looking at all the tall grass that has shot up over the last fortnight around my house, Dédé asked a pointed question: "What's happened to the hand-held weed cutter you used to operate?" I understood, of course, that Dédé was not really asking me a question. It was his subtle way of suggesting that I should move my arse and cut the grass.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Rugby cup: worth its weight in gold for France

The main French campus of the prestigious Essec Business School is located less than an hour away from the heart of Paris, at a place named Cergy-Pontoise. [Click here to see their English-language website.] Recently, this beehive of bright business experts received an interesting assignment: calculate the likely global income, for France, resulting from the forthcoming World Rugby Cup. Well, the result is huge: some 8 000 million euros! In US currency, that's roughly 11 billion dollars. In Australian currency, nearly 13 000 million dollars.

Where is all this money coming from? Let's carry on the discussion in euros, using the US definition of a billion as a thousand millions.

— The Essec wizards inform us that half the estimated income, 4 billion euros, will be deposited in cash before the end of the matches, which will be taking place in September and October. More than 350 thousand foreign visitors will be arriving in France for the rugby festivities, accounting for income of 1.5 billion euros. The matches will ne watched on TV by 260 million viewers, generating revenue of 2 billion euros, whereas ticket sales for live spectators will have generated a non-negligible income of 250 million euros.

— The other half of the projected revenues are of a more ethereal nature. The French "rugby economy" will receive a huge boost, estimated at 417 million euros a year, from the presence of the World Cup. And French tourism, as a consequence of the World Cup, will receive a boost of some 625 million euros a year. So, if you carry out the multiplications, that gives us, for a period of four years, 4 billion euros.

In old-fashioned French village talk, there's a celebrated dictum: Un sou est un sou. In US English: A dime's a dime. In other words, we should respect frugally every penny we might earn or possess, and not spend money lavishly.

Economic and political experts have pointed out that money from the forthcoming World Rugby Cup can be seen already as a fabulous welcome gift to the future president of the French Republic. The funny thing about this whole affair is that the Essec people don't seem to give a screw about who might or might not actually win the golden trophy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Gnostic discoveries

Recently, I started to talk about an Egyptian Christian named Pachomius [292-348], who is thought of as the inventor of the concept of monastic communities described as cenobitic, which means that the monks lived together, sharing their possessions, under the guidance of an abbot. Some twenty years after the death of their first abbot, a strange event took place. The Pachomian monks assembled many of the papyrus books in their monastic library and carefully buried them at the foot of the cliffs of Jabal al-Tarif, near the city of Nag Hammadi. Curiously, the monks conducted this book burying, not to destroy them, but as if they wanted their books to be preserved.

In 1945, the buried books of the Pachomian monks were unearthed. Today, an observer might say: "Show me the books they used to read, and I'll tell you who they were." In any case, the books of the so-called Nag Hammadi Library are totally different to what we now think of as "ordinary" Christian reading, and it can be said that the Proto-Christianity of Pachomius and his monks was indeed a very strange affair.

Researchers believe that the monks buried their books as a reaction to a ruling laid down in a festal letter by Athanasius in 367. The archbishop of Alexandria had made a basically unilateral decision concerning his choice of the canonical books of the Christian scriptures, including above all the 27 books of what would later be named the New Testament. As for all the rest, it was declared by Athanasius to be heretical, and this adjective designates most of the books buried by the Pachomian monks.

Today, for us 21st-century citizens who can buy all kinds of books through the Internet, it's a fabulous privilege to be able to read the authentic Proto-Christian books, designated by the mysterious term Gnostic, that were surely part of the everyday "bible" of Pachomius and his monks. In any case, it's an amazing shock for us, since the brand of Christianity revealed by these books of Nag Hammadi appears, at times, to have little to do with our ordinary concepts of the Christian religion.

Earth's possible soul mate

Like countless stargazers on our globe, I'm thrilled and fascinated by the discovery of an Earth-like planet associated with a red dwarf, a mere 20.5 light years away, whose unromantic name is Gliese 581.

The discovery was made by a research team at the Geneva Observatory headed by Stéphane Udry and Michel Mayor. A prominent member of the team, Thierry Forveille, works in nearby Grenoble.

For the moment, our knowledge of the nature of Earth's possible twin is frustratingly sparse. A telescope used by European astronomers in Chile has been able to prove that the planet exists, and that it is half as big again as Earth. Calculations suggest that the mean temperature lies in the comfortable range of zero to 40 degrees Celsius. But no present-day technology is capable of looking directly at the planet.

I'm constantly amazed to realize that so many gigantic scientific and technological breakthroughs have occurred during the 66 years that I've been spending as a visitor aboard the planet Earth. In other words, I like to think of myself as a humble but privileged visitor. After all, I arrived on the planet at just the right time to learn computing, purchase a Macintosh and have fun building websites.

[Click here to see my latest website, which has nothing to do with scientific and technological breakthroughs. I'm merely trying to help a friend sell his storm-damaged restaurant in Pont-en-Royans.]

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sacred hills: Masada and Gallipoli

Anzac Day. I've often been moved by the fact that, behind the sense of national identity of both Israel and Australia, there are sacred hills submerged in morbidity: Masada and Gallipoli.

At Masada, there's a contrast between the majesty of Herod’s fortress and the grim circumstances of the collective suicide of the zealots when they learned that their resistance to the Romans was doomed. Today, a visitor at Masada might imagine a magnificent white stone palace under the dense blue sky, like the Acropolis in Athens: a place where people would come to celebrate life, not to die. But places are built for one purpose and then used for another. For Jews, the symbol of Masada is, not the plowshare, but the sword. The zealots thought they had God on their side, but they were victims who ended up having to kill one another, transforming Masada into a death camp. Today, when Israeli jets fly over Masada, they dip their wings in respect. If Australian jets were to fly over Gallipoli, they would no doubt behave similarly, for it is our national shrine.

A few days ago, French TV aired the famous recently-found 45 seconds of moving Gallipoli images (moving in many senses), believed to have been shot by the American war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett [1881-1931]. I grabbed my camera and took the following still shot on my home TV, since I don't know whether these moving images are available on the web.

Australian soldiers are waiting there on the beach in a terrible tightly-packed macabre throng, ready to be blown to death. An observer, today, is reminded of later images of crowds of condemned Jews disembarking from death trains at Auschwitz.

[Click here to listen to Eric Bogle singing The band played Waltzing Matilda.]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sharing life together

During my recent excursion to Provence, my friends Natacha and Alain took me (and my dog) to the ancient Cistercian abbey of Sénanque, which functions today as a priory whose monks earn their living by growing lavender in a magnificent site near the splendid Provençal village of Gordes. In their excellent store, I bought a book about the crusades (a subject that has always interested me), a big book about lavender (containing recipes that I intend to try out, using lavender that grows at Gamone) and a guidebook on Sénanque. I was also attracted by a small monograph with a striking red cover on the subject of Athanasius [293-373], but I'm already sufficiently informed concerning this Alexandrian figure [to whom I shall return].

The Cistercians have always been engaged in worldly affairs. In the UK, the organizational prowess of the monks of this 11th-century order can be admired in the ruins of the great Yorkshire abbeys of Rievaulx and Fountains. The so-called "white monks" are perfect examples of a style of monasticism known as cenobitic, which means literally in Greek that monks "share life" together. In other words, Cistercian monks work and dine together, as opposed to the eremitic style of Carthusian monks, for example, who spend most of their time confined to their cells.

In the Sénanque guidebook, the Cistercians trace their history to a fourth-century Egyptian desert hermit named Pachomius, who can be truly considered as the inventor of cenobitic monasticism. Initially, Pachomius was a pagan (who surely didn't look anything like the saintly personage depicted in this modern stylized Greek icon), and he had a hard job trying to persuade his initial Christian companions to behave correctly like a brotherhood of monks. One day, for example, when members of his community were working out in the fields, Pachomius loaded a donkey with food and cooking equipment, and set out to nourish his brethren. These allegedly Christian fellows, having eaten, decided to abandon their "abbot", steal his donkey and set out in search of greener pastures. Pachomius, disabused, had to carry his cooking equipment back to his home base of Faw Qibli, located in the Nag Hammadi region in Upper Egypt, 600 kilometers south of Cairo and 125 kilometers north of Luxor. This was the precise sun-drenched spot, near the frontier between Egypt's fertile Nile land and the desert, at the foot of a rocky mountain, Jabal al-Tarif, at which our great European traditions of Benedictine-inspired monasteries came into being.

That was the source of Sénanque. In later posts, I intend to return to the all-important domain of Nag Hammadi (ancient documents found in 1945), Pachomius, Athanasius and modern Christianity as proclaimed at Sénanque and elsewhere.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Making a queen or a king

Everybody is reassured to discover that the two contenders in the final sprint bear the respective colors of the Left and the Right. In the French political domain, the Left and the Right are a little like Mum and Dad. It's nice to know that they're both there, even if they're at loggerheads, as usual. Recently, in the middle of a presidential election, one of the traditional parents was missing, on that terrible day of 21 April 2002 when the Socialist Lionel Jospin was beaten by the Right Extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. This was a traumatic happening. To avoid the repetition of such a political nightmare, French people have been encouraged to cast a so-called "useful vote". This is a way of saying that they should refrain from taking advantage of the first round of the presidential election to vote for an attractive but lightweight candidate who could not possibly become the president of France. The outcome of this "useful vote" idea is that most of the lightweights got annihilated, to a greater or lesser extent. Le Pen's Extreme Right is still alive but, thankfully, it will be kicking less and less from now on. As for the French Communist Party, we can safely say that it's henceforth just as dead as Boris Yeltsin.

The outcome of the second round, in two week's time, will be determined certainly by the votes of those who have just given the Centrist François Bayrou a result of nearly 19%.

If you examine my website concerning the Skeffington ancestors of Lewis Carroll, you'll discover a couple named Ralph de Neville [1364-1425] and Joan de Beaufort [1375-1440]. They had a grandson named Richard Neville [1428-1471], who was a leading figure in the Wars of the Roses during which he helped in deposing the Lancastrian king Henry VI in favor of the Yorkist king Edward IV. Later, he fell out with Edward and restored Henry VI to the throne. Richard Neville, Duke of Warwick, was nicknamed the King Maker.

François Bayrou has acquired a position in French politics that likens him to a latter-day King Maker... or maybe (I hope) a Queen Maker.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cooking and eating

Some observers might consider that a solitary man such as me is behaving hedonistically when he gets involved in fine cooking. Be that as it may, I like cooking, particularly in my well-equipped kitchen at Gamone. Besides, it means that I eat well, all the time. Over the last decade or so, the only time I recall eating junk food was out in Australia last year, when I was obliged to frequent a McDonald's because they had a wifi hotspot enabling me to connect to the Internet.

It's the asparagus season. This thin dark-green variety comes from Andalusia in Spain. After boiling them in water, I peppered them and soaked them in oil and balsamic vinegar from Modena in Italy.

This apple tart uses commercial pastry, because I'm lazy. There's a bottom (hidden) layer of raisins and poppy seeds, then slices of unskinned apples sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. When it's almost baked, I submerge the apples in a mixture of an egg, cream and milk, then I put the tart back in the oven for five minutes.

Talking about eating, there was an interesting article in yesterday's Le Monde about the major role of fruit and vegetables in the constant combat against today's notorious killers: cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

During my childhood, somebody brainwashed me into believing the popular dictum: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

If there wasn't a constant stock of apples on my kitchen table, I would feel kind of naked, or underfed. Incidentally, the apples are stored here in an ideal container, made out of the bark of a cork oak, which appears to play a mysterious role in their conservation. Natacha gave me this delightful object when she was living in the Riviera region where these trees are to be found.

Now, it's six o'clock in the afternoon. So, let's stop talking about superficial things such as food, and get back to French politics...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Internet outlaws?

Tomorrow evening, the tradition of election-night parties will be in full swing from one end of France to the other. The general idea, to avoid boredom, is that you invite along friends from several points on the voting spectrum. This means that the party is sure to be neither wholly joyous nor totally sad. While one party-goer is lamenting in tears, another is exploding in joy.

Not surprisingly, an interesting party-guest, tomorrow afternoon, will be the Internet, whose Googlistic websites have the habit of behaving from time to time like oracles in Ancient Greece, as if they knew everything... even before it happened. In other words, the Internet should normally be able to tell us who's won the election long before any kind of formal decision has been established. Worse still, tomorrow afternoon, a theoretical French voter, knowing already who has won and who has lost, should be able to wander along to the booths and cast his meaningless vote. Now, Napoléon never reckoned on this kind of technology. And the present-day French Republic doesn't like this scandalous logic at all. One doesn't need to beat around the bush. It's against the law of the republic.

Conclusions. Tomorrow evening, a team of competent French Internet cops will be looking out for offenders: that's to say, webmasters who would dare to announce the election results before 8 o'clock in the evening. I'm alarmed at a personal level in that my journalist daughter would appear to have received a mission from her boss that consists of trying to break the law in this domain... so that she'll be able to write an article from the jailhouse on Monday morning claiming: "Your favorite TV magazine knew who won and who lost at least an hour before the rest of you... which explains why I'm dispatching this article from a prison cell." With friends, I'll bring her oranges.

French jails, tomorrow evening, should theoretically be brimming over with Internet outlaws. A positive note: the future president might be prepared to announce an amnesty, to rid over-burdened French prisons of all these inoffensive orange-eating electronic outlaws.

Water and the web

Almost without my realizing it, my son François has become a professional photographer. First, there was his book on the Mobylette [click to see]. Then, a few weeks ago, four of his Moroccan photos were included in the prestigious Madame Figaro magazine [click to see].

François tells me that these images are just the tip of the iceberg, since he possesses a rich photothèque... which he would like to present on the web. So, for the last few days, I've been examining ways and means of presenting photos in a website, and I've been using my own snapshots to build a maquette [click to see].

Technically, this question of presenting photos is a challenge. The basic problem consists of building a website that gets displayed rapidly. Concerning my maquette of Provençal photos, Natacha informs me that it downloads instantly in the high-powered Internet environment of Marseille. On the other hand, in Brittany (where François is staying) and here at Choranche, my maquette takes several seconds to download. And I have no idea whatsoever about how it might behave, say, in distant Australia. [Blog readers might provide me with information.]

I find it normal that the Internet, in spite of its popularity and stardom, remains constantly a high-tech challenge. I was going to say that it would indeed be surprising if the Internet could be turned on simply like a water faucet. In fact, the miracles that we citizens of the planet Earth are seeking, and deserve, would be the possibility of turning on a magic tap that provides us with both water and the web.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Long ago, shortly after my arrival at Gamone, while looking out from my bathroom window, I noticed a mangy fox about fifty meters down the hill. I grabbed my camera and managed to get a picture of the animal before it disappeared into the woods. To be wandering around in daylight so close to my house, the fox was probably sick. When I showed the photo to people in a café at Pont-en-Royans, the barman scolded me mildly: "William, as a rural property-owner, you should have grabbed your rifle, not your camera, and shot that sick animal." When I explained that I didn't own a rifle, the people in the café looked at me in disdain, as if I were a naive outsider (which I was), unaccustomed to French country traditions.

In fact, I do own a couple of weapons (not requiring licenses), but there's no way in the world that I could use them to down a fox at a distance of fifty meters. As a child in Australia, I saw my father using a rifle, on countless occasions, to kill rabbits. My uncles, too, owned shotguns enabling them to go duck-shooting in the nearby swamp. So, I found it quite natural, and still do, that a rural house should contain various firearms.

From time to time, I've thought about the idea of carrying out some kind of bush excursion in Australia, and it occurred to me that it wouldn't be a bad idea to carry a rifle in the vehicle. Last year, when I made preliminary enquiries about this idea, I was surprised to learn that Australia's new (?) laws concerning firearms are extraordinarily draconian. It is simply out of the question for an ordinary citizen to keep any kind of weapon in his home. To my mind, this is excellent legislation... although I fail to understand how landowners now deal with rabbits and dingoes.

Talking about things I fail to understood, there's the US myth about the right of citizens to defend themselves with personal firearms. But that's just one of many things I don't understand about Americans. Even after the tragedy that has just taken place in Virginia, President Bush refrains from even hinting that their legislation might be modified in order to keep guns out of the hands of psychopaths.

In a country where many leading figures have been gunned down, various observers have evoked the possibility that a highly unpopular president such as Bush might be a likely target for US gunmen. Somebody said recently that the main reason why Bush is relatively safe from such a happening is that his assassination would result in the presidency being handed over to Dick Cheney. And it goes without saying that no self-respecting US gunman in his right mind would wish to bring about such a nightmarish situation!

English traps

Commercial people in France are constantly using English words and expressions to identify their products, because they think it looks smart, but they often get things screwed up. They love to use words that end in an apostrophe-s, as this looks very English, but few French people seem to understand this construction (which is not necessarily straightforward for people whose native tongue is English). For example, there's a small Red Indian theme park not far away from here. The proprietor has named it Indian's Valley, imagining no doubt that this designates a valley with a certain number of make-believe French-speaking Red Indians who dwell in teepees and ride horses. It would be impossible to explain to him that the name suggests in fact a valley inhabited by a solitary Indian.

The following brand-name patch appears on the back of trousers I bought recently:

First, I'm intrigued by the term Chino. It doesn't seem to mean anything in French but, just as Dick is an abbreviation in English for Richard, Chino happens to be the traditional abbreviation for my son's first-name, François. Don't ask me why. The patch contains another funny word: pant. Obviously, the French manufacturer has heard of pants, he's learned that it's a plural word, and so he has invented a singular version. A pair of pants, so one pant. After all, in French, the word for pants is singular: un pantalon.

An English word that stuns French people is toothbrush. Is it a fact, they ask, that Anglo-Saxons [that's the generic term used to designate people whose native tongue is English] brush their teeth one at a time?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thin line between facts and Fascism

We're four days away from the first round of the French presidential elections. Since I'm not French, I won't be voting, but I have my personal aspirations and apprehensions. I would like to see a great victory for the Centrist François Bayrou, rather than the lightweight Socialist Ségolène Royal, because he appears to envisage French politics in a new light, without the eternal split between the Left and the Right. My vital hope, above all, is for the massive defeat of the Extreme Right of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

For the moment, the super favorite would appear to be Nicolas Sarkozy. I can understand this preference in the sense that many people would like to see France governed by a ferocious little bull terrier, which is exactly the image of Sarkozy. The possibility of a resurgence of Islamic terrorism in nearby Algeria promotes the case of a strongman such as Sarkozy, who doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to pointing a finger at societal outlaws, designated spontaneously as scum in need of Karcher-style cleansing.

In a recent interview with a philosopher, Sarkozy dropped an intellectual bombshell that was picked up immediately by everybody. First, in speaking of pedophiles, Sarkozy said: "One is born a pedophile. Besides, it's a problem in that we don't know how to handle this pathology." Then the pit bull turned to an adjacent subject: adolescent suicides. Here are the words of Sarkozy (my translation): "Some 1200 to 1300 young people commit suicide every year in France. They did so, not because their parents weren't taking care of them, but because they were genetically fragile, victims of a precursory pain." Programmed genetically to die. This is strong language, which brings to mind the terrible theme of eugenics.

Today, few people remember the unexpected but profound collaboration between the French Nobel prize-winner Alexis Carrell [1873-1944] and his young disciple, the American aviator Charles Lindbergh [1902-1974]. Carrell was a believer in eugenics: the science and potential technology of breeding humans like stud cattle. Hitler, among others, was fond of this theme.

Nicolas Sarkozy is a smart guy, and he knows where to stop, before going too far. He's perfectly aware (I hope) of the thin line that separates facts from Fascism.

A small step for William

I've never ventured into a pawn shop with stuff to sell. [I'm told that my mother was keen on this kind of transaction, and that our precious family bibles probably disappeared in this way, once upon a time, in Merv Mulligan's celebrated shop in Grafton.] Apparently, the pawnbroker gives you a paper stating that your stuff has been duly deposited, then you simply wait around for buyers and, finally, cash.

In many ways, the following uninteresting French document is a little like a pawnbroker's paper:

It states that my naturalization application has been duly deposited, first in the tiny municipal office of Choranche, and now in the Grenoble headquarters of the Isère département, on 11 April 2007. This banal document—filled out by a woman (with whom I've often spoken on the phone) whose handwriting suggests that she might have been a school teacher before working at the préfecture—is the French way of informing me that all is in order, and that I now have to wait patiently until the next higher level, that of the république, handles my application. It's a rational and logical Napoleonic process, of a kind I appreciate. [On countless occasions, over the years, I've felt myself more intrinsically French than the French.] The almost inevitable outcome (maybe in a year or so, unless they were to discover that I've been a criminal) will be a French passport.

A great idea that didn't work in Australia

Antoine de Maximy is an intelligent 43-year-old French TV star. The title of his most popular show might be translated into English as How about inviting me along to your home? It's a travel video recorded in foreign lands by Antoine himself. He starts out by striking up conversations with random people he meets in the street. As soon as he encounters an interesting and friendly person, Antoine rapidly steers the conversation around to the above-mentioned question: "How about inviting me along to your home?" The general idea of Antoine's production is that the ideal way to obtain in-depth knowledge about people in a foreign (non-French) country is to interview them in their own homes, maybe around a dinner table.

An original aspect of Antoine's production process is that it's a strictly one-man show. He does all the video recording by himself, using three cameras that are either hand-held or fixed to his body. As depicted in the show's stick-figure logo, when he's doing his filming, Antoine looks a little like a tambourine man. One of the cameras is located at the end of a metal strut that juts out from his waist, making it possible to obtain shots of Antoine himself informing TV viewers about his on-going operations and intentions. Later on, back in France, all the recorded stuff is cut and edited in a video studio, to produce a feature-length TV program.

Normally, one would expect that, in a friendly land such as Australia, inhabited by warm open-hearted Aussies, Antoine's production technique should be a sure winner. Well, it wasn't. It was a shameful disaster. Retrospectively, an informed viewer (that's to say, an Australian such as myself, aware of what the French journalist had set out to achieve) can end up understanding what went wrong at each stage of Antoine's encounters. But it's a pity that all these mistakes and misunderstandings were congealed into an ugly mess, painting a most dismal picture of "average Australians" at home.

The opening scenes show Antoine in the office quarter of Sydney, probably at lunch hour, surrounded by people in business attire scurrying along the footpaths. It's not exactly the kind of environment where people would want to stop and chat with a guy whose body is wrapped in weird video gear, who speaks English with a strange accent. Sydney office workers seemed to take Antoine de Maximy for a crackpot. Maybe they're right. You have to be something of a crackpot to imagine that you can start talking with strangers and end up getting invited into their homes, to find out what makes them tick. In any case, Antoine never got anywhere near finding out what makes Sydney's business people tick. In an off remark to French viewers, he says: "I've always known that it's impossible to strike up conversations with chaps dressed in suits and neckties."

Next, Antoine heads to Bondi, where he meets up with three or four guys seated on the lawn in front of their beach house, drinking beer and trying to attract the attention of females walking along the footpath. Their mating call to Bondi birds is elementary: "Hey, come on, do you want a beer?" Needless to say, Antoine's camera never captured images of any girls who did in fact want a beer. Instead, Antoine succeeded in getting himself invited into the ringleader's flat and filming a sad monologue on the theme of sexual frustration, porn movies, booze, etc. It wasn't even an account of the seamy side of Bondi, if such a thing exists. It was simply the uninteresting confession of a poor guy who had got into the habit of trying to drown his big dick in beer. Hardly an image of typical Australia?

Antoine then decided to go bush. Coober Pedy, opals, Aborigines and all that kind of stuff, including more beer. Here, of course, Antoine didn't have to beg to be brought inside. I had the impression that owners of dugout homes found it perfectly normal that French TV would have dispatched a video-equipped Martian such as Antoine to explore the interior of their strange underground abodes. On the other hand, God only knows why Antoine should have found himself talking to two ordinary-looking teenage girls, in their parents' dugout, who started spontaneously to relate outrageous stories, which may or may not be totally factual: "Concerning Aborigines, we don't mind saying that we're totally racist. You see, we've both been attacked, several times, by drunken Aborigines. So, we try to avoid any contact with them." Nasty stuff for Antoine's cameras.

The only nice sequence in Antoine's presentation of Aussies was his encounter with a miner who organized a small outdoor get-together with his lady friend and mates in honor of the French journalist. Setting aside the fuzziness due to beer, viewers learned that opal mining is often a kind of fascination that gets transformed into an expensive addiction. On the rare occasions that a miner strikes it rich, he immediately invests his new wealth in bigger and better machines. Other individuals in this rough world were prepared to talk with Antoine, but they shied away abruptly from the idea of taking him back home for dinner, bed and breakfast.

Finally, I could see what was coming when Antoine started to talk with a genuine Aborigine. After listening to the conventional explanations about the plight of Australia's indigenous population, the journalist from another planet sprung his standard "Take me to your home" request. I had the impression that the starkly negative but natural reaction of the dumbfounded Aborigine was more spontaneously profound than anything else in Antoine's vain video attempts to get himself invited into Australian homes.

Latest Provençal fashion garment

When I arrived in Marseilles last Saturday morning, Natacha and Alain gave me an unexpected gift: a high-fashion T-shirt.

A closeup view of the front reveals lovely portraits of three animals (Moshé, Gamone and Sophia) on a background composed of postage stamps forming a map of Australia:

The back of the T-shirt is composed of home pages of various websites:

Highly topical graphics, to say the least. After all, we're in France. And avant-garde fashion keeps in touch with major current happenings, n'est-ce pas...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Losing a war

Some time ago, when I first voiced my belief in French opposition to a US invasion of Iraq, I recall the sarcastic words of a fellow in Australia who asked rhetorically, as if it were an intelligent and relevant question: "How long is it since France won a war?" He believed idiotically that Humanity is still keeping a count of wars won and wars lost, as in Napoleonic times, with a view to declaring an emerging winner, as if it were a global game of golf.

Today, the words hurt, but they will soon have to be pronounced. America has lost the war in Iraq. Australia, too.

Blog readership

It goes without saying that I'm writing this blog primarily for myself, like a personal diary. Over the last few months, since deciding to start Antipodes, I've grown accustomed to the daily challenge of recording an almost insignificant Internet record of the way I see things... which might or might not interest other individuals in the universe.

In the beginning, I looked upon this style of communication as an optimal solution for my communications with Australian relatives, since some of them relied upon local ISPs [Internet service providers] such as BigPond who had concocted the convenient conclusion that everything emanating from France was necessarily shit... not to be delivered. Normally I'm neither aggressive nor revengeful, but I've often felt like telling those ISPs to get screwed. But what the hell does it matter? If there are folk in Australia who imagine that the state-owned ISP in France tolerates spam, all I can say is that they're fuckwits.

Apart from that, I'm discovering with joy that a lot of people, in many places, are in fact reading my daily words. This makes me immensely happy, and encourages me to carry on with my modest blog.

Today, halfway through April, here's the readership breakdown:

It's normal that about half my readers are French, and the other half Australian. That, as planned, is my personal family of readers. I can understand, too, the Canadian one percent. That's probably Patiti. But I marvel before the huge twelve-percent of American readers, followed by minority scores for Chinese, Japanese and Germans. It's a fine feeling to be read, even if I'm not quite sure who's doing the reading.

America didn't listen to France

It has just been revealed publicly, in the prestigious daily newspaper Le Monde, that the DGSE [French secret service] submitted to the CIA chief in Paris, on 5 January 2001 (eight months before the destruction of the Twin Towers), a precise report concerning the threat of aircraft hijacking by Al-Qaeda terrorists. This note even included an organizational chart of the senior Al-Qaeda hierarchy.

Since France had been the target of terrorist attacks at an early date, French intelligence concerning Oussama Ben Laden was far in advance of US knowledge in this domain. The report sent to the CIA by the DGSE mentioned seven airlines that might be targeted by Al-Qaeda hijackers, and this list included the two that were finally chosen: American Airlines and United Airlines. The January 2001 report spoke of timing, explaining that the hijacking project, initially prepared for 2000, had been postponed.

Bush invaded Iraq without paying attention to warnings from France concerning the grave consequences of such an idiotic act. Today, we learn retrospectively that, well before Iraq, ignoring French advice had already become a style of foreign affairs "thinking" in the USA. It would be well, I feel, if this situation were to evolve soon in a positive sense.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Return to Gamone

At the end of my third splendid day in Provence, Sophia and I got the train from Marseilles to Valence, where I picked up my car and drove back to Gamone. Today, Natacha and Alain introduced me to Gordes, Sénanque Abbey, St Saturnin, Roussillon and Lacoste. I've just been looking at today's photos. It's too late in the evening to start talking about these exceptional places. I'll have more to say about these three marvelous days in Provence. Sophia, exhausted, is already sleeping soundly in her big wicker basket in the kitchen. I wonder whether she might be dreaming about the extraordinary places we've visited.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Les Baux, Arles and back to Marseilles

We spent the morning in the magnificent rocky environment of Les Baux de Provence:

Then we picnicked in a nearby grove of olive trees:

On the road to Arles, the ancient Montmajour Abbey was the source of Catholicism in the Royans (my homeplace):

Stately Arles:

In Arles, I saw for the first time a Rugby World Cup poster:

Back in Marseilles, Natacha led me into the mysterious basilica of St Victor, near the Vieux Port, where I saw the celebrated Black Virgin.

To wind up a dense day, we were invited to dinner by Natacha's parents. In the middle of our pizza meal, my dog Sophia decided to piss on the fine dining-room carpet. Then Natacha's father invited me to use Flight Simulator on his computer to fly a plane from Grafton to Yamba and back. An exhausting day! And I missed out on seeing O'Grady winning the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. But it was a truly splendid day for me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Provençal excursion

This morning, I drove to Valence, accompanied by my dog Sophia, we jumped aboard a TGV (high-speed train), and an hour later we were in Marseilles, where we were picked up by Natacha and Alain. I admired for the first time their delightful new flat in a quiet neighborhood of the city. For a cold lunch, Natacha had prepared an excellent Provençal dish whose name, aïoli, I would not attempt to translate: vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beans, etc) accompanied by thick mayonnaise mixed with garlic crushed in a marble mortar.

We then spent the afternoon strolling through the sunny streets of Aix-en-Provence. Posters in the Provençal capital remind us that a major French election is just around the corner. On the Cours Mirabeau, a grand statue of Good King René identifies the ancient but eternal chief of this magnificent city. With such a monarch bestowing his grace upon them, one wonders if the people of Aix really need to elect a president.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Maybe a whitewash for Chirac

Everybody in France is familiar with the time-honored satirical weekly named Le Canard enchaîné (the duck in chains)... including people who've never actually read it. Long ago, tabloid newspapers were referred to disparagingly as ducks because their content was likened to a quacking noise. [In English, too, fake doctors are called quacks, probably for the same reason.] The great statesman Georges Clemenceau [1841-1929] edited a newspaper called L'homme enchaîné (man in chains). When the Canard enchaîné was founded in 1915, its name was a humorous allusion to Clemenceau's newspaper. These days, in the title of the newspaper, the "ears" on either side of the name (which generally present a topical pun) feature ducks.

The Canard enchaîné has just thrown a spanner into the electoral works by suggesting that, "according to informed sources" (as the saying goes), the candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has promised Jacques Chirac that, after his re-entry into civilian life, the ex-president will not be pursued by the law for misdemeanors allegedly committed back in the days when he was the mayor of Paris. Naturally, both Chirac and Sarkozy immediately rejected this allegation, but there's a good chance that it's true, because claims made by the Canard enchaîné usually turn out to be based upon factual information. In any case, it's true that Chirac will have some serious explaining to do when the law starts to ask him questions. So, the idea that he might have bartered his support for Sarkozy, against a legal whitewash, is perfectly plausible. It's an interesting hypothesis. All we can do is to wait and see.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut's peephole has closed

I mentioned the great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut in my February post with the title Watch out for life! And I quoted these opening lines from Deadeye Dick:

To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life. I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings.

The 84-year-old writer died yesterday in Manhattan.

To me, Vonnegut's novels are like a bugged computer program. When you examine a detailed section, everything seems to be in place, and it should work fine. But when you assemble all the sections into a whole, either the global program doesn't work, or else it produces the wrong answers. For Vonnegut, the source of the bug is life itself. He was a joyous pessimist. His philosophy: If something can blow up, it will... and there'll be a great bang and fabulous fireworks. He might be described as an existentialist novelist. A great story-teller, too.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Comparing the candidates

I've translated the thumbnail descriptions in this banner that points to an excellent website, the Comparotron, created by the newspaper Libération, which makes brief point-by-point comparisons (in French only) between France's twelve presidential candidates.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Traces of the past

As a child, I often used to accompany my father, of a weekend, to his bush paddock near South Grafton, at a place called Deep Creek, where Dad would leave the Jeep and wander around on foot, inspecting the cattle. Although it was not a particularly wild or remote setting, I always liked to nurture the absurd thought that we were surely the first human beings, since the dawn of Creation, to stroll over this virgin land. It was fairly easy to cling to this illusion, in spite of the fact that this land had no doubt been exploited by previous proprietors for beef grazing. Except for my father's barbed-wire fences, there were no visible traces of human intervention in that dull environment.

Here at Gamone, the situation is totally different. I often have the impression that I'm a usurper on a territory that belongs to hordes of more or less ancient phantoms. Yesterday, Natacha sent me a paper written at the end of World War I concerning agricultural activity in the Bourne Valley. The author points out, not surprisingly, that the male work force was decimated, here as elsewhere in France, by the ravages of war. But he adds: "From Rencurel to Pont, no land is abandoned. Women, old people and children make sure of that." That's where Choranche is located: between Rencurel and Pont-en-Royans. Today, alas, there is no longer much agricultural activity here. In emptying the French countryside of its rural families, the economic attraction of urban areas has been even more effective than warfare.

The soil nevertheless remains a vast storage house full of traces of the past. After reading Natacha's paper, I was out in the yard digging up a plot of earth to plant tomatoes, and my hoe unearthed this curious iron object (which I've cleaned up and painted with anti-rust liquid).

It's a bullock shoe, which must be quite old. I would imagine that a Gamone farmer once used a pair of bullocks to drag a plow on the slopes. When I think of the effort involved in planting a tiny plot of tomatoes, I realize that it must have been incredibly difficult for these individuals to survive in such a place. In any case, I look upon trivial traces of the past such as this old piece of metal as small treasures. I have a tremendous respect for the hordes of phantoms.

Monday, April 9, 2007


Maybe I have a distorted way of looking at things but, when I first saw this image, I had the impression that the red-haired angel was handling a roll of toilet paper. When you think about it, that would be a great question for Byzantine theologians: Do angels use toilet paper?

Sometimes, in the middle of a spirited conversation between several people, the talking stops abruptly, for no particular reason, and there's a gap of maybe ten seconds or so of spooky silence, up until somebody takes up the conversation once again. In French, there's a quaint expression to designate such an incident. They say: An angel just passed by.

You might be wondering why I've brought up the subject of angels. I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with Easter Monday or the alleged resurrection of Jesus. On the contrary, I wish to mention a down-to-earth affair: a white paper with a curious title, République 2.0, on the challenges of digital technology in French society.

A few weeks ago, the presidential candidate Ségolène Royal called upon a distinguished Socialist personality, Michel Rocard, to produce a report on this highly topical subject.

And angels in all this? In browsing through the report this afternoon, I was intrigued by the following recommendation, in the section of Rocard's report that deals with technological innovation in France:

Encourage logic of a "business angels" type.

Here, the abstract term "logic", which is highly popular in technocratic French, simply designates a way of doing things. The expression "business angels" appeared as such in Rocard's report, in English, and the inverted commas ("twitch twitch") were no doubt inserted to underline the author's awareness that he had switched momentarily into less than academic French. And what exactly does this recommendation mean, when translated into everyday language?

In case you didn't know, so-called business angels are wealthy individuals who get a kick out of operating as venture capitalists, using their personal cash. They're the sort of individuals who are capable of being so enthralled by the great ideas and ambitions of a talented innovator (who knows how to sell him/herself) that they're prepared to bury him in bags of money (like in a Dilbert cartoon) enabling him/her to set up a business. It goes without saying (but I'll say it all the same) that Michel Rocard is convinced that, in the domain of digital technology, there are many brilliant young French innovators who would be able to achieve marvels if only they had the financial resources enabling them to get into action. Who knows? Maybe he's right...

I've never thought of France as the kind of country where it's easy to start off with a brilliant idea and build it into a business. First, the competition's stiff, in the sense that, in a brilliant country such as France, there are hordes of bright individuals with brilliant ideas. But the real problem is that, in France, the concept known elsewhere as free enterprise turns out to be a terribly expensive affair. As soon as an individual decides to set up a business, to do anything at all (or even nothing in the immediate future), the entrepreneur is hit with a massive volume of charges of all kinds, and it's hard to survive. Either you have to make piles of money rapidly, or else the charges drag you into bankruptcy. That's France.

Years ago, I had a brilliant idea (in the course of a lifetime, this can happen), and I would have loved to be discovered by a business angel hovering in the skies of Paris. I remember writing down a neologism, wearware, on a piece of paper, and trying to explain to friends that it was a matter of designing exotic garments incorporating various kinds of digital devices, maybe coat pockets that flashed messages of a kinky kind with graphic and audio effects. Just imagine it. If only I had been able to develop the brilliant idea of wearware, I would have become filthy rich, and I wouldn't be here today in my modest Alpine abode typing this silly blog message. Retrospectively, I believe it's quite likely that my guardian angel stepped in, fortunately, and saved me from spending my life as a filthy rich developer of wearware.

All-purpose automobile

I often think it would be great to own a nice new automobile, sparkling on the outside, and spotless inside. The only problem is that I need to be able to cart around such things as fencing material and miscellaneous rural stuff. The nice thing about my old Citroën ZX is that it runs perfectly and I don't have to worry about it getting dirty or scratched. Back in the days of the primitive but much celebrated Citroën 2CV, American tourists used to refer it by a quaint title: basic car. Today, that expression suits my vehicle well.

Mixed messages

When speaking, we often quote other people's words, or use expressions that, if written, would be surrounded by inverted commas. Some speakers, whenever they do so, have developed the habit of holding up their hands and twitching a couple of fingers on each hand, to represent visually the inverted commas. Although I like and employ natural hand movements of all kinds during conversations (a Mediterranean habit), this relatively recent "twitch twitch" mannerism always irritates me, because it glares out as an acquired quirk, rather than a spontaneous gesture. Now I realize that I shouldn't be irritated by the "twitch twitch" thing, because it's a pure example of the acquired behaviors known as memes, which I referred to in an earlier post whose title was Imitation. Basically, a meme is an act that individuals encounter by chance and then imitate impulsively. So, there must be something in the "twitch twitch" mannerism that urges viewers to do the same thing.

In France, over recent years, a popular hybrid verbal/gestural meme has enabled people to reply negatively to a request for a service. The meme, which soon spread like an epidemic, consists of pointing to your forehead and saying: "There's no sign there marked Post Office."

Countless memes are purely verbal, consisting of no more than a fashionable expression such as "doing his thing" or "getting a life".

I've often thought it would be fun to invent and introduce a striking meme, to see whether it would succeed in proliferating. Here's one of my schemes: If ever I were to appear on a TV talk show (an unlikely idea), I would wait for an opportunity to introduce the ordinary expression "bare facts". This would be easy. In replying to a simple question, I would ask: "Do you want me to give you the bare facts?" At the same time that I pronounced these words, I would casually turn my backside to the camera, make a gesture as if I were going to drop my pants, then slap myself on the arse, hopefully evoking the theme of bare buttocks. That's all. (I would need to practice this act in front of a mirror, to get it right.) Afterwards, if my meme were successful (that's to say, to catch on and proliferate), we would find other participants in talk shows turning their backsides to the camera whenever the question of bare facts arose, and tapping themselves on the arse. Later, if it were a champion meme, certain courageous users would unbuckle their belts when the discussion turned to bare facts, and actually exhibit their buttocks... which would be much more spectacular than just twitching your fingers in the air.

The question of successful memes is similar to a theme that I talked about in an earlier post, whose title was Second-hand creativity: the way in which a few adolescents wearing used and embroidered jeans can create, unwittingly, a vast fashion and marketing phenomenon.

There's a successful verbal meme that has recently acquired celebrity status in the mouth of George W Bush: the metaphor of sending messages. It's a hi-tech substitute for the old-fashioned notion of "giving an impression". For example, when Democrats urged that means must be found to put an end to the US intervention in Iraq as soon as possible, Bush shot back with rhetorical questions about the kind of "message" that such measures would send to the forces. Recently, a remarkable Democratic lady, Nancy Pelosi, has been doing essential diplomatic work that should have normally been performed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or by Bush himself.

Bush and his associates have hastened to criticize Pelosi's visit in terms of the kind of "mixed message" of national disunity that it will be sending to people in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Today, sending messages is primarily an e-mailer's pastime and a blogger's preoccupation. International diplomacy, on the other hand, is surely a more serious activity, or art ("twitch twitch"), than simply sending messages. Bush should change his verbal memes.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Benedict XVI on the historicity of Easter events

We know with relative certainty the day of the week on which Jesus was brought before Caiaphas, then Pilate, and fixed to the cross. It was the day before the Jewish sabbath: that is, a Friday. This information is provided by two of the four evangelists:

— Mark 15, 42
By this time evening had come; and as it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the sabbath), [...]

— John 19, 31
Because it was the eve of the sabbath, the Jews were anxious that the bodies should not remain on the crosses [...]

We also know with relative certainty the day of the month (but not the year) on which Jesus was crucified. It was the day of preparation for the Pesach (Passover) festival: that is, the Hebrew date of 14 Nisan. This information is provided twice by one of the four evangelists:

John 18, 28
From Caiaphas Jesus was led into the governor’s headquarters. It was now early morning, and the Jews themselves stayed outside the headquarters to avoid defilement, so that they could eat the Passover meal.

John 19, 14
It was the day of preparation for the Passover, about noon. Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Here is your king.’

It is also provided by a purely Jewish document:

Babylonian Talmud, Nezikin ("Damages") order,
Sanhedrin tractate, V, 2, 43a

The day before Pesach, they executed Jesus of Nazareth [...]

Using the fact that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, 14 Nisan, historians have been able to conclude that this event probably took place on Friday, 7 April 30, when Jesus was about 36 years old.

At some time prior to this fateful Friday on the eve of Passover, Jesus had a final meal with his apostles.

Concerning this celebrated Last Supper, which inspired the Christian ceremony of the Eucharist, there is a dating problem that has not yet been solved in a way that satisfies everybody. Most people consider that it took place on the evening of Thursday, 6 April 30, but this convenient date raises problems, for reasons that I shall now summarize.

There has always been a ceremonial Jewish dinner on the eve or the first evening of Pesach that is known as the Passover Seder, or simply Seder. Christians often refer to this Jewish ritual as the paschal supper. Clearly, since Jesus was tried and executed on the eve of Pesach, then the Last Supper could not have possibly been an ordinary Jewish Seder. Besides, at the start of Jesus's final meal, John describes a curious event that is not part of a traditional Seder: Jesus washed the feet of his companions. Furthermore, as described by the evangelists, essential ingredients of the Seder appear to have been absent in the Last Supper. The gospels make no mention of the presence on the table of lamb, matzot (unleavened bread) and various symbolic foodstuffs.

In spite of these negative factors, the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) persist in speaking of the Last Supper as if it took place at the start of Pesach and constituted a traditional Seder. For example:

Mark 14, 12-16
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, his disciples said to him, ‘Where would you like us to go and prepare the Passover for you?’ So he sent off two of his disciples with these instructions: ‘Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him, and when he enters a house, give this message to the householder: “The Teacher says, ‘Where is the room in which I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’” He will show you a large upstairs room, set out in readiness. Make the preparations for us there.’ Then the disciples went off, and when they came into the city they found everything just as he had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

The Catholic Church has always recognized, of course, that there are contradictions in the Gospels concerning this central theme of the Last Supper. Last Thursday, in his homily during the Holy Thursday mass in the basilica of Saint John Lateran, Benedict XVI made an allusion to these contradictions. Then he went on to make an astonishing reference to Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Here are the words of the pope:

In the narrations of the Evangelists, there is an apparent contradiction between the Gospel of John, on one hand, and what, on the other hand, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us. According to John, Jesus died on the cross precisely at the moment in which, in the temple, the Passover lambs were being sacrificed. His death and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.

This means that he died on the eve of Passover, and that, therefore, he could not have personally celebrated the paschal supper; at least this is what it would seem.

On the contrary, according to the three Synoptic Evangelists, the last supper of Jesus was a paschal supper, in its traditional form. He introduced the innovation of the gift of his body and blood. This contradiction, until a few years ago, seemed impossible to resolve.

The majority of the exegetes thought that John did not want to communicate to us the true historical date of the death of Jesus, but had opted for a symbolic date to make the deeper truth more evident: Jesus is the new and true lamb that spilled his blood for us all.

The discovery of the manuscripts of Qumran has led us to a convincing possible solution that, while not accepted by all, is highly probable. We can now say that what John referred to is historically correct. Jesus truly spilled his blood on the eve of Passover at the hour of the sacrifice of the lambs.

However, he celebrated Passover with his disciples probably according to the calendar of Qumran, that is to say, at least one day earlier -- he celebrated without a lamb, like the Qumran community who did not recognize the Temple of Herod and was waiting for a new temple.

Now, the explanations of Benedict XVI are really weird, for two reasons that I shall outline briefly before concluding this lengthy article:

— In suggesting that Jesus was an Essene, the pope has decided, as it were, to rewrite New Testament history on the basis of archaeological findings at Qumran made in the middle of the 20th century.

— Among the great Qumran scholars, nobody has ever imagined for an instant that the historical Jesus might have been an Essene.

My own explanation of the contradictions (for what it's worth) has the merit of being simpler and more orthodox than the pope's. I would imagine that the instructions about going into the city and meeting up with a man carrying a jar of water were in fact given by Jesus on the morning of Thursday, 6 April 30. After all, since the troublemaker from Nazareth and his followers were being spied upon by the authorities, it is feasible that Jesus thought it wise that his followers should be assembled in the "large upstairs room" well in advance of the eve of Passover. One can imagine that this room might have assumed the role, in the mind of Jesus, of a temporary shelter from his pursuers. But, by the end of Thursday afternoon, when everybody was present in the upper room, Jesus foresaw already that he would never live to see the eve of Pesach, twenty-four hours later. So, he transformed Thursday's assembly into an advanced and abridged ceremony: a sort of symbolic Seder. Since it was too early to envisage their evening get-together as a real Seder, there would be no lamb or special Jewish foodstuffs on the table, and the bread would be ordinary, not unleavened. But Jesus, knowing now that his time on Earth was about to end and that he would never be able to participate in a real Seder with his companions, improvised a virtual Passover supper... whose powerful spontaneous symbols (Jesus was equated to a sacrificed lamb, with Thursday's ordinary bread and wine of the upper room symbolizing his flesh and blood) gave rise to the Christian ritual of the Eucharist as we have known it ever since. To my mind, there is no need whatsoever to drag the Essenes into the picture.

In any case, the words of Benedict XVI, the day before yesterday, were astonishing and his reasoning is hard to fathom.