Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fallen with the last rain

Compared to English, the precision of the Latin-based French language is splendid... and I often feel that this explains why French literature and philosophy—not to say French thinking in general—have a superior quality.

There's a delightful anecdote, maybe apocryphal, about the great French linguist Emile Littré, author of a celebrated dictionary that is still in use today. He was having a good time with a lady friend when his wife burst in unexpectedly upon the naked scene.

Madame Littré: I'm surprised!

Monsieur Littré: Not exactly. It's my lady friend and I who have been surprised. You, my dear wife, are merely astonished.

For readers who might not have seized the nuance: People are surprised when, like Littré and his female friend, observers catch them out doing something that might be judged as reprehensible. From a strict etymological viewpoint, surprise is the notion of being caught with your pants down. As for being astonished, that's merely a question of one's coming upon something unexpected.

A French expression of which I'm fond is "tombé de la dernière pluie". Fallen with the last rain. It's a synonym for naïveté (naivety).

On countless occasions, I've had the impression that Australia is a naive nation whose citizens are prepared to believe the latest information that the local media have fed them. The intellectual baggage of a typical Aussie fell down with the last media rain.

In the context of Anzac Day, the daily newspaper The Australian attempted (successfully, it would appear) to promote the idea that it would be more appropriate to put an accent on honoring the dead of the battlefields of France, where 46,000 Australians died in the Great War, rather than those of Gallipoli (original inspiration of Anzac Day). Fair enough. Why not?

A Sydney reader has reacted enthusiastically to this suggestion by referring to France in the following naive terms: "This is the forgotten front that people just don't know about." Hey, just a moment, Sir. You're talking about the Great War. Verdun, etc. Millions of mindless deaths. You, personally, may have forgotten (or never known) that this terrible conflict was fought essentially in Europe. But please don't generalize your ignorance. In the historical context of that appalling conflict, France has never been a "forgotten front". On the contrary. Pay attention to your dumb and offensive language, Sir.

As I said, I feel that much Aussie thinking fell down with the last rain.

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