Saturday, September 24, 2011

La Seduction

Americans have their stereotypical views of the French, which is why every American should read Elaine Sciolino’s book, La Seduction: How The French Play The Game Of Life (Times Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2011).

Sciolino is the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times and was once a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. Currently, she lives in Paris with her husband, an American lawyer who practices with a French law firm.

Her goal in the book is to examine the way seduction is an integral component of French culture and behavior. She begins with the custom of the male kissing the hand of a woman to whom he has been introduced. The kiss is not romantic or passionate; it is offered like Americans offer each other their hands in greeting, but it is intimate and unique to French custom. It is all part of the way France integrates the fine art of seduction into every day life.

“In English,” Sciolino writes, “‘seduce’ has a negative and exclusively sexual feel; in French, the meaning is broader. The French use ‘seduce’ where the British and Americans might use ‘charm’ or ‘attract’ or ‘engage’ or ‘entertain’…The term might refer to someone who never fails to persuade others to his point of view. He might be gifted at caressing with words, at drawing people close with a look, at forging alliances with flawless logic.”

France remains an enigma for many Americans. This was never more clear than in the days leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which France opposed. French President Jacques Chirac saw his country’s approval rating in the U.S. fall from 80 percent to 30 percent. “French products were boycotted,” Sciolino writes. “French wine was poured down kitchen sinks. Vacations to France were canceled. French fries became ‘freedom fries’ in the House of Representatives’ cafeteria.” Sciolino characterizes the incident as “the most serious diplomatic crisis between the two countries in nearly a half century.”

In France, philosophers appear on television and enjoy the status of rock stars. The country vigorously embraces a café culture, of thought over action, and the life of the mind is prized far more than physical effort.

Arguably, France has one of the most distinct cultures on the globe. However, some might argue that it is in decline. Sciolino believes this as well. “And yet the French still imbue everything they do with a deep affection for sensuality, subtlety, mystery, and play,” she writes. “Even as their traditional influence in the world shrinks, they soldier on. In every arena of life they are determined to stave off the onslaught of decline and despair. They are devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and the need to be artful, exquisite, witty, and sensuous, all skills in the centuries-old game called seduction.”

Emblematic of the need for seduction in every day life is the palace at Versailles, to which Sciolino devotes a chapter. She calls the wondrous chateau “France’s national monument—to love and to power.” She interviews a gardener there who wrote a book about the palace which included such details as: “the famous actress who loved to visit there to expose herself; the older politician who had sex in the garden with a young woman whom he had tied to a tree; the elderly couple who complained when one of [the] gardeners fell from a tree, landing on them as they were in the throes of lovemaking.”

She devotes a chapter to the magic of the Eiffel Tower, explaining the complex method of repainting the monument every seven years. To complete the job takes sixty tons of paint. The color formula is a state secret, but Sciolino learns that there are subtle differences in shade moving up the tower: light color on the bottom moving to darker tones at the top to create an optical illusion of a uniform look.

What baffles most Americans, however, is the behavior of the French. “For the French,” Sciolino says, “life is rarely about simply reaching the goal. It is about the leisurely art of pursuing it and persuading others to join in.” America is a land of finished projects, of goals realized. At the end of the day, we want to see accomplishment, whereas the French are content to let it ride, especially in appreciation of the journey.

Sciolino believes that as deep as the work ethic is embedded in American culture, the life of the mind is imperative to the French. She writes, “France’s history and literature reflect centuries of crafting ideas and intellectual concepts. The French have long pushed to persuade the rest of the world to consider and even adopt them. Modern philosophy originated in France, with Descartes. The eighteenth-century French philosophes—Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot—forged a set of values for society that gave preeminence to reason, democracy, and freedom. In the twentieth century, existentialism bloomed with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir.” France cannot escape its mind-life anymore than America can abandon its obsession with achieving goals and objectives.

Tourists, especially, have differing reactions to the French and their culture. Both men and women in France are expected to please each other on the street—men by verbally complimenting a woman for her beauty, and women by receiving the compliment and enjoying the attention. On American streets, this is tantamount to sexual harassment, the wolf whistle of the working man to the unfortunate beautiful woman pedestrian who happens by the job site. Americans are put off by French behavior. The confusion, says Sciolino, has to do with a smile. “Smiling is complicated in France. Americans are accustomed to smiling at strangers; the French—particularly Parisians—are not. This helps explain why some Americans find Parisians rude.”

By far, the most interesting chapters in the book are the ones devoted to hallmarks of French culture with which the world is so familiar: perfume and cuisine. Sciolino delves into the importance of scent to Parisians especially, giving us a history of the industry. She tells us that perfume has been used in France since Cro-Magnon days, when men rubbed themselves with mint and lemon to remove the taint of body and wild game. In interviews with French perfumers, she finds that Americans value scents of cleanliness and power, meaning deodorant and perfume that can be detected from several feet away. The French, she says, are more subtle and mysterious with their pleasant odors. And food is an orgasmic experience, she writes, full of subtle tastes and textures. The French raise the work of the vine and the labors at the stove to an art form, and tourists should close their eyes and surrender to the experience.

Sciolino also takes us through the gallery of French presidents, explaining how each managed to seduce the world, and where they tripped up in their efforts. Nicholas Sarkozy comes off as one of the worst in history. She brands him as “unskilled as a seducer in the classic French mode.” He is “frank rather than indirect, prone to naked flattery and insults rather than subtle wooing, perpetually in motion rather than taking time for la plaisir. He is contemptuous rather than enamored of the complicated codes of politesse.” He “contracts his words and salts his sentences with rough slang. In a country where food and wine are essential to the national identity, he prefers snack gobbling to meal savoring.”

The book ends with a grand salon dinner party, a fitting finale to a book so connected to good food and seductive culture. In the preparation for the event, we learn that French apartments come with bare kitchens, often with only a water source and maybe a sink. It is custom that the new tenants will install their own fixtures, appliances, and cabinetry. Then there are the rules of etiquette for the dinner party itself. I’ll save a little something for the reader to discover, but let’s just say that the biblical Ten Commandments are positively spare in comparison.

Elaine Sciolino has given us a veritable treat, a meal in itself, in her book. French culture still has much to reveal to the rest of the world, and in an age of global connectedness, it serves us well to be handed such an intricate and intimate study of a country once a super power, but now more of a philosophical influence on the rest of the world. It is not our similarities with the French that should be stressed, but that culture’s uniqueness which should fascinate and intrigue us. France, like a good meal, always surprises, always delights, and Elaine Sciolino prepares a banquet for us, with the depth and nuance of the journalist’s eye on the world.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rage (And Hope) Against The Dying Of The Light

For a week now, I’ve been trying to write something about 9-11 and the last decade. Perspective eludes me; optimism is hidden in the darkness; disappointment and frustration have been my companions. The more I think about that day, watch the replays and tributes at Ground Zero, hear the personal stories of the victims and survivors, I am filled with rage.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, I was uncomfortable with the celebrations on the streets of America over the death. I felt it was crass and jingoistic. Then, I heard a Port Authority police officer speak on television last week of spending days digging, sometimes with bare hands, his colleagues out of the rubble, uncovering their broken bodies piece by piece so they could be returned to their families for burial. He said bin Laden’s death was most definitely a moment to celebrate. In his telling, I made the journey with him; I, too, saw the necessity of celebrating the vanquishing of this enemy. I am deeply conflicted between my unbridled rage and my better nature, and some days, I think rage is winning.

By the time I arrived in my classroom on that day ten years ago, the towers were down and the Pentagon was on fire. The world had literally and decisively changed on our thirty minute drive to work. In the classroom, even before the first bell, several seniors were in my face. I wasn’t supposed to see them until third period, mid-morning.

“Mr. Martin, you have to postpone the test today,” said their leader, a girl who normally slept through class.


“Because the World Trade Center was hit,” she yelled at me, as if the logic of her demand was so obviously rational. She smirked. “You can’t give us the test because we’re too traumatized.” At this point the dean came over the loudspeaker and decreed that all tests, quizzes, and homework were indeed cancelled for the day.

Later in the day, I stood watching a television with some faculty and staff members. The image on the screen was one of Palestinians dancing in the streets over news of the attacks. “This is what the United States gets for the way they’ve treated Arabs and Palestinians all these years in support of Israel,” a staff member said. “America deserves this.”

I turned to face him. “Don’t forget where you live,” I said. “They attacked your country, and like it or not, you’re an American. If you were on one of those planes, or in one of those buildings, none of those hijackers would have given a shit if you agreed or disagreed with your government. They would have killed you just because you’re American.”

When the news broke many months later that we had invaded Iraq under a veil of lies and deception regarding weapons of mass destruction, a student in one of my classes said he did not feel sorry for American soldiers who gave their lives in the war. “They knew what they were getting into when they signed up. Being lied to comes with the job.”

At the close of the decade, where do we stand? The wars have bankrupted us. More people live at poverty level, unemployment stands at almost ten percent, our children sit idle in our schools, our culture rots from the inside as we gorge ourselves on fast food, reality television and celebrity gossip while the sun sets on the empire. We are bereft of leaders and ideas, mired in the muck of our entropy.

Sometimes, though, we get a glimpse of hope in the eyes of a child.

This year, a young man in my wife’s English class, barely a teenager, wrote an essay about his hopes and dreams for the coming year, and for the future. His essay was written as a meditation on the themes of S.E. Hinton’s novel, The Outsiders.

“I have achieved a lot throughout my life,” he begins, “but what I am most proud of is placing 1st in the spelling bee when in 1st grade. I am also proud of being on the [academic] decathlon team, having an undefeated season with the school soccer team, winning track races, and participating in all kinds of sports. Although I have achieved a lot, I still need improvement…” He also speaks of the need to strengthen his “work ethic,” the desire to be more responsible, and more neat. These are his goals for this year. Long term, he says, his “life long dream is to have my own house, with a good paying job that I enjoy, and a family that I can share my happiness and memories with.”

He closed his paper with the words of Robert W. Service, poet of the Yukon, and his poem “Success”:

"The haply seek some humble hearth,
Quite poor in goods yet rich in mirth,
And see a man of common clay
Watching his little ones at play;
A laughing fellow full of cheer,
Health, strength and faith that mocks at fear;
Who for his happiness relies
On joys he lights in other eyes;
He loves his home and envies none. . . .
Who happier beneath the sun?"

Sometimes we must put down our rage and look to the far horizon. We must, against our darkest hours, realize the smallest joys, the mysteries of love, the comfort of friends and family. In the midst of ignorance, cynicism, cruelty, and dissembling, we must embrace hope. There is no closure, no solace in our tragedy; there is only one tentative, yet brave step, into the future.

I have written previously about 9-11.  You can access that piece here.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Listening Thing

Some time ago, as winter slipped away into spring, William Michaelian asked if I would interview him for the tenth anniversary edition of his novel, A Listening Thing (Cosmopsis Books, 2011).

William is a force to be reckoned with, a great, eccentric ball of energy who publishes his writing and art in book form and on the internet. He blogs every day at Recently Banned Literature.

Our friendship goes back to the early days of The Teacher’s View when William contacted me about my review of Aram Saroyan’s poetry. He has become a source of wisdom in my life, and simply through our discussions, he has made me a better human being. Reluctantly, I must share him with a myriad of readers, writers, and artists around the globe who have discovered William’s incredible work as well as his deeply soulful insights into life and the human condition. I consider his friendship a blessing, pure and simple.

He sent me copies of his books and I found his writing riveting and beautiful. My favorite of his published works is The Painting of You (Author’s Press Series Volume I, 2009), a collection of poems, essays, and literary fragments detailing his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease. The book serves as William’s account of his round-the-clock care of her and his meditation on the fragile, often ephemeral joy and sadness of this life. In the tragic loss of a parent’s mental stability, one might not expect to find optimism and beauty, but it is there on every page, giving us as much a celebration of what was as an elegy for what is passing away.

It is difficult to pick favorites with William’s work. It is an embarrassment of riches. However, when he sent me one of his collector’s copies of the galley proof of A Listening Thing, I knew I’d found a classic. I was shocked to learn the history of his novel, the almost publication, the bankrupt publisher, acclaim so close yet so far. But what a book, indeed.

As I enter mid-life and realize there are fewer days ahead than there are behind, I find deep resonance with Stephen Monroe, the central character of A Listening Thing: regrets, mistakes, and like all of William’s work, a profound sense of the beauty of life and the hope intrinsic in each new year, each new day. The book is wise and sad and joyful like its creator.

I am also proud to have been offered the chance to co-author the interview William and Cosmopsis Books included in this new edition. My goal in taking on the assignment was to get out of William’s way and let him tell his story. I wanted to observe literary journalist Joan Didion’s rule to be the “least important person in the room.” I sent William a set of questions. He refined, sharpened, and then answered them. I followed up and offered a few additional topics. William shaped and integrated the material together. When I came to write the introduction to the finished interview, I nearly quit my writing career then and there. What could I say to match William’s words and his novel? I felt his hand on my shoulder. Just write, I heard him say. Words have never failed me, and they remained true on this project as well. The finished piece is included along with some new words from William. And of course, Stephen Monroe’s story is complete in this authorized print edition.

Fiction has the power to create a make believe world that resonates in our reality. William himself has often posed the question, what is real and what is dream life, and he has taken the opportunity in many of his works to explore the nature of reality, to push against the often blurry line between what is real and imagined. A Listening Thing will bring you into the fictional world of Stephen Monroe’s interior monologue, but it is ourselves we will find on the page. I invite you to embark on a journey, and like Odysseus returning, you will come to know yourself a little better upon reaching the end of Stephen’s story. In reading William’s work, that is the promise and the treasure.

For a complete list of William Michaelian's books in print, go to his website here.