Sunday, March 13, 2011

Liberty, equality, fraternity -- and conformity?

The news is so depressing right now, I feel compelled to present an alternative -- anything to distract us from the catastrophes in Japan and the Oval Office. That said, this is not one of our unpolitical weekend posts.

I'd like to offer a response to Islamophobic fear-mongers like Congressman Peter King. But we're going to get to King in a very roundabout way -- by visiting France.

I'm a bit of a Francophile. I've even concocted a singable English translation of La Marsellaise. (Go here and scroll down.) There is no beauty like a French beauty: Claudine Auger, Isabelle Adjani, Laetitia Casta...yow. Ye gods. (Ye goddesses?)

Naturally, this Salon interview with actress Juliette Binoche compelled my respectful attention. This bit popped out:
Well, since you mention the veil, I have to ask you about the recent law in France, which forbids Islamic women from wearing it in many public situations. How do you feel about that?

You know, we come from a different history. The revolution in France really places things on a different scale. The fact that the French policy really comes out of the revolution, the idea that everybody has to be the same -- égalité, fraternité, liberté -- which is, between us, a whole debate. From an outside point of view, it's very hard to understand that. It's not about pushing Muslims away from their beliefs. It's like, everybody's the same, and if you're going in the swimming pool, you've got to be the same as the others. If you put yourself in the swimming pool completely covered, that puts that kid away from the others, away from the group.
Juliette, Juliette -- if we followed your logic, there would be no room in your nation's heart for the very first French girl to capture my heart. And here she is.

For the most part, this video reworks a collection of images taken from another video which you can find on YouTube. In this version, the soundtrack features Joseph Cantaloube's "Baïlèro," from his Songs of the Auvergne. I chose that lovely piece because it's sung in Occitan, the language of the Troubadors, the language of the Cathars, the language of King Richard the Lionheart (betcha didn't know that!) -- and of Bernadette Soubirous.

Long-time readers know of my embarrassing, inexplicable, life-long crush on Bernadette. Please understand: I'm not religious. I've almost never set foot inside a church except to look at the architecture.

I first learned about Bernadette's story during a childhood viewing of the film Song of Bernadette. In the film, Vincent Price plays the embodiment of 19th century anti-clerical rationalistic bah-humbug-ness. Although he's supposed to be the heavy, the movie cleverly leaves open the possibility that he's right about everything.

Then, around the age of 13, I stumbled across a photo of the real Bernadette. That round face...those piercing eyes...the flawless skin (never touched by cosmetics). Jennifer Jones never did anything for me; Norton Simon could have her. But Bernadette was, in my instant decision, the most beautiful girl in all of human history.

At that age, of course, puberty had kicked in, which meant that every few days there was a new "most beautiful girl in all human history." Bernadette held the office for a full month. Eventually, she was dethroned by Ann-Margaret in Kitten With a Whip. (Hey, I wasn't completely gloppy.)

Since then, I've read tons of stuff about Bernadette, and even had a glance (back when my French was much better) at Father Cros' magisterial study. That Jesuit scholar met her once and instantly developed a lifelong crush on her. Many in France felt similarly. She had something.

The apparitions? I don't know what caused them. Don't much care. That's the least interesting aspect of her life. She wasn't crazy -- in fact, she may have been closest thing to a rational well-known person the Second Empire had on offer. This peasant girl's indifference to sudden international fame is both admirable and astonishing. (Consider the sad examples of such modern celebrities as Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears.)

What tickles me is the stuff left out of hagiographies: Her life-long tobacco habit, her fondness for wine (she never drank to excess, but she did sneak bottles into the convent), her stint as a 13 year-old barmaid (her aunt fired her for dipping into the stocks), her Garbo-like aloofness, her flares of temper, the time she was tempted to run off with a handsome young priest, the postulants who formed "girl crushes" on her. There is also the possibility that something very troubling happened to her while working as a servant in Barthes -- a job she deserted just two weeks before you-know-what happened. (Zola once obliquely referred to this episode as the key to her story.)

She wasn't stupid. The Jennifer Jones movie got that part all wrong. She became a respected nurse, more or less running what we would now call a M.A.S.H. unit during the war with Bismarck.

So what does all of this have to do with Juliette Binoche's defense of an indefensible law, not to mention the equally indefensible pronouncements of Peter King?

Simply this: Bernadette never appeared in a single photograph with her head uncovered. The proof is in the video.

She was, by some accounts, the most photographed person of the 19th century -- despite the fact that she came to hate having her picture taken. (Note that she smiles only in the very earliest photos.) She was forced to adopt poses which she considered ridiculous. The whole business reeked of commercialization, which she detested.

Part of her commercial appeal was her costume -- specifically, the head covering.

This factor is probably invisible to modern Americans. She always wore traditional Pyrenean costume, which made her the most prominent representative of a culture considered quaint and charming -- a vanishing culture. A culture under attack.

Paradoxically, even as those photos spread throughout the nation, the French government was doing everything it could to wipe out the language and customs of her region. Occitan was forbidden in schools; the schools told children to speak only in French.

Today, a small but loud segment of the population of Occitania remains infuriated by the cultural imperialism imposed by Parisian dictates. If you know where to look, you'll find websites where Occitan nationalists express their fury at the French, whom they regard as foreigners.

That resentment may explain why Bernadette -- or Sister Marie-Bernard, as she was known in the convent of St. Gildard -- had only one thing to say when she heard that the Communists had burnt down the Tuileries (the royal palace): Good. That was one of the few political statements she ever uttered -- and it would have shocked the French right, had they known about it. (The monarchists had made her their poster girl.)

What she said in 1871 was the equivalent of a modern celebrity voicing approval for the burning of the White House. Or the fall of the Twin Towers.

Suppose Bernadette were alive today. (The corpse certainly looks like it could sit up and say bonjour.) She would pose a challenge to Juliette Binoche and to Peter King (who is presumably Catholic -- after all, he supports the IRA!).

If she were alive today, she would keep her head covered in defiance of the French law. She belonged to a despised minority group, and proudly spoke a language that most Francophones considered barbarous. Not only that: She is reliably quoted as voicing support for an act of Communist terror, one which shook France as much as the WTC disaster shook America.

So, Mme. Binoche and Congressman King...what would you say to Sister Marie-Bernard? Would you force her to accept liberty, equality, fraternity -- and conformity?

Isn't there room in America and France for those who do not speak, dress or believe as the majority does?

Added note: Although the song is in Occitan -- Bernadette's language -- she spoke the Gascon dialect; the song is in Auvergnat. She would have understood most of the lyrics, and may even have known the tune. (Cantaloube orchestrated a traditional folk song.) In her late teens, she learned to speak, read and write in French; her calligraphy was exquisite.
There is a difference between a babushka and a berka. One keeps hair in place protected from dust, insects and leaves, the other subjugates women.

You are right about Bernadette's sour expression, specially in the photos where she is draped in a cowl, the berka's first cousin.
I haven't been to France in decades but when I was there, two Frances were obvious-- the rural, poor, sorta pro-American French, and the urban, richer, virulently anti-American French. I wonder if it has changed that much.
Thank you so much, Joseph. Astonishingly beautiful music and a depth of gaze from Bernadette that attests to a remarkable human awareness, spiritual or otherwise.
Beautiful story and music. Thanks, Joseph.
"If she were alive today, she would keep her head covered in defiance of the French law."

Uh, BONG. All that for a completely wrong conclusion? It would not be illegal for her to wear a head covering. It would be, and should be, banned for her to wear a full face mask. You'd have never seen that intoxicating round face under a burqa. Good grief, Joseph, you're usually on top of details like that.

France has completely the right idea on this, and the actress explains exactly why. This should be what we're discussing here, too. We shouldn't leave this discussion for the Republicans to define. It's not enough to name-call them and abandon the topic. I live in an area with a lot of immigrants, and it's not only the Muslims who have to adapt to American standards, and struggle with the next generation rightly embracing the freedoms we enjoy. It's just that they are more extreme, in resisting it. The focus, as France realizes, should be on our standards. And no, "free to wear the burqa" as Obama put it, is a twisted faux freedom, both because there are entire nations of women forced under them on pain of death, and because none of the rest of us are "free" to wear full face masks 24/7.

This embracing of "cultures" should work both ways. If people want to come here and call themselves Americans, they're going to have to accept that their women and children are going to be free to choose new ways. I always thought this "war" would be, and should be, won by bikinis. In fact, it's bad enough that women have to wear tops on the beach when men do not.
Bong yourself, Zee. Check out Wikipedia's entry (which I HAD looked up before hitting the "publish" button):

The khimar, specifically banned, is pictured here...

I don't see much difference between the khimar and the traditional Pyrenean scarf and capulet.

Also, the French law bans the display of ALL religious symbols in public schools -- thus, Bernadette could not display her ubiquitous rosary (which she always carried, even as a not-particularly-religious youth).

Before anyone says that her veil was a symbol of patriarchal dominance: The Pyrenees have always had the most pro-feminist culture in Europe. In classical times, the Romans thought that the tribes who lived in that region were barbaric and bizarre because they allowed women full rights and even had female leaders. In Bernadette's day, the Pyrenees were just about the only place in Europe where women could inherit property, own a business, join a higher profession, even run for office.

And they didn't really give a damn if a woman had children out of wedlock, a practice which they called "Farting at Vespers." Bernadette's aunts had both, uh, farted.
Oh, OK, then. Are you talking about in schools or in the general public? What's the problem if all religious symbols are banned in school? That's equal. If the school girls are forced to wear head scarves or instruments of death on chains around their necks (crucifixes) by their parents they are free to go to Muslim or Catholic school instead of French public schools. So what? All the better. They are discussing banning the burqa on the streets, not headscarves. Headscarves would not be banned on the streets. So if your bygone heart-throb were alive today she would NOT be able to wear her habit in a public school if she were a young school girl, and she would, as I said, not be "defying" the law by walking down the street in a scarf. She'd be rightly not allowed to attend a public school in religious garb, but she'd be utterly free to go to a convent or walk down the street in her religious get-up. You need to compare apples to apples.
All this reminds me....I've always wanted to wear a little guillotine around my neck, to symbolize my "religion" ---freedom and its little instrument of death. But when my son went to France he couldn't find me one. If anyone can find a link to a guillotine charm, please post it!
A guillotine? Zee, you've gone wacky. Citoyen Robespierre was the fellow who ruined the reputation of the left for the next two hundred years. Hell, we are still fighting his legacy.

C'mon -- if you have any humanity (and any appreciation for great music), you must shed a tear when you see this:

You wanna see a big, foulmouthed tough guy get all soppy? Just fire up that video.
Yeah, no doubt wacky, but this is an old yen of mine that hadn't come to mind in a while. Joseph, give a gal a break and a machine doesn't do videos ... give me a week or so to view that via someone else. Damn you, I'm interested, so any text version in the meantime please point to it.

Meanwhile, I take it we concede we were talking about two similar but differing scenarios, and while I haven't had time to look up the Pirate Party in regards to your new party efforts, I did run across a fascinating take on Hillary's mission...I will post a link in a more relevant thread.
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