Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Mea Gulpa

I had promised Lillet that I would blog the story of the woman at BQE liquors who rebuffed my rose recommendations because they were for French wines. I let this go for some time for two reasons. One is that I am spectacularly lazy. The other is that I could not think of a way to tell this story that would be fair to the rebuffer, that would communicate the genuine disappointment I felt without making this woman seem like some sort of ignorant monster.

So, here I am ready to tell the story from my point of view and realizing that Lillet got it exactly right. I would like to say that the woman didn't really "sneer," but she did. I would like to put her in a more sympathetic light, but I don't see a way to do that.

One thing that bothers me about this incident is how rude this woman was to me, and rude in a way that most people would find to be typical - or stereotypical - of New Yorkers. I was born and raised in New York and was genuinely surprised and somewhat distressed to learn, upon moving to California, that New Yorkers are supposed to be very, very rude and unfriendly. This, in my experience, is simply not true. Far from it, I find New Yorkers to be forward, to be direct, not to mince words, but also to be genuine and very friendly, very helpful. So it was doubly disappointing to encounter this woman who was clearly a New Yorker, a Brooklynite, and just about as rude as anyone could be, rude in the face of genuine helpfulness.

It is to me utterly uninteresting that this woman presumably refuses to drink French wine because the French have the temerity to say that perhaps we ought not to be bombing and then occupying Iraq. What interests me is the ways in which people perceive other people and countries and cultures that have nothing to do with the direct experience of those people and countries and cultures.

Let me let you in on a secret. I know lots of French people. I've been to France a whole bunch of times. They are really, really nice, really, really, smart, care about being good people, care about the state of the world, about making the world a safe place. They do. I will vouch for them. I've met them. I know them. Yes, they are proud of their language and literature, their food and wine, their music, their contributions to world culture and the fact that they helped us win our independence. They ought to be, just as we are proud as Americans of what we have done.

They will occasionally disagree with us, just as you often disagree with your friends. What sustains you as friends are shared values. And what sustains us - or ought to sustain us - as friends with the French are the values that we have shared for more than 200 years, the values of the Enlightenment, the values that all men and women are created equal, that rationality must always trump faith or superstition. If anyone has strayed in this regard it's America, not France.

This has nothing to do with the French but is virtually emblematic of America. Why is it that we cannot be proud of who we are and what we've done without denigrating who others are and what they've done?

There is a very moving passage in J.M. Coetzee's _Boyhood_ that reminds me of this and recalled for me with a visceral quality fears from my own boyhood. Coetzee is growing up in post WWII South Africa and is, as any boy would be, fascinated with the war. He carries around with him this deep, dark secret: when he plays his games of fighting the Nazis he is not British, as he is expected to be, or American, as he could be, or even French. He identifies with the Soviets, with the Red Army. And this is for him the cause of great shame. It is something that he cannot deny. It is also something he cannot tell any adult, nor even his playmates.

There can be, morally, no question about Coetzee's choice. We were ALL in this case fighting the Nazis, opposed to evil. Whatever else you may think of what was the Soviet Union, there can be no denying their crucial role in defeating Hitler. What remains is aesthetics.

To read about Coetzee's secret was to recall my own, for when I was a boy - oh, 11 to 15 or 16 years-old - I was a very dedicated and even obsessed chess player. Bobby Fischer had won the world chess championship in 1972 (when I was 11) and had defeated the Evil Empire.

And then Fischer was gone, drifting into psychosis. And if you wanted to learn about chess, if you really wanted to learn, you went where the information was, and that was to the then Soviet Union. I learned to read enough Russian to read chess magazines. I haunted the old Russian bookstore on 4th Avenue, kind of scared of all the communists I thought must be there, but completely fascinated by this new language, new alphabet, new world.

And why not? What new knowledge is bad? Yet I felt that way all the time. I felt that because I was interested in chess, in this culture that had produced so many great chess players, in this alien alphabet and language, that I was a bad boy, that it was something I couldn't celebrate, but had to hide.

It's only as an adult that I realized how pernicious and obvious and stupid was the myth-making on the part of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union with respect to their chessplayers. I grew up believing that Fischer was the lone cowboy, the rugged individualist up against the big communist machine. Only recently can I see how exactly analogous is this to the Soviet insistence that their system led to order, logic, and world chess championships. I mean, a paranoid schizophrenic from Brooklyn is not exactly John Wayne in The Searchers.

Let me let you in on one more secret, one which may make reading this blog easier if you should decide to do that. Lillet and I are the world's biggest GEEKS. By this I mean nothing about our education but that she and I both want to follow every little interest we have to the greatest depths. All of this would surprise you if you were to see pictures of us or to meet us, but really all we want to do is to find stuff out, to celebrate beautiful and useless things. We have absolutely no political agenda and are genuinely perplexed as to why anyone would not be interested in French roses or what Botvinnik had to say about the Caro-Kann or who exactly was hiding behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive.

Really. That's all.


Blogger DG said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:22 PM  
Blogger DG said...

Your first clue should have been that the woman wanted a rose.

4:23 PM  

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