On Immigration, the Revolutionary Movement of the 21st century: In Homage to Earl Shorris


Like you, I’ve been worrying a lot about the plight of the Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees we’ve been seeing in the newspapers these days. We see haunting images of their silhouettes trudging across a barren landscape, and heartbreaking images of their eyes peering through chain link fences, and painful images of thin young women carrying children, wrapped in makeshift plastic ponchos under the rain, as they bargain and plea to get a seat on a train or a bus out of the turmoil, headed for Austria, or Germany, or who knows where…

I’ll leave it up to the pundits and policy makers to decide how to find new homes for all these poor people in our wealthy Western democracies. I’d just like to cite some words of Earl Shorris (1936-2012), writer, visionary, and humanitarian, founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, who put immigration into a completely different light than I’ve ever seen it before.

It was not much longer than a week ago that I discovered the existence of the Clemente Course in the Humanities (an outreach program which provides elite seminars to impoverished, motivated adults) and got my copy of Shorris’s book, Riches for the Poor.*  Since then, I’ve been reading his book around the clock, captivated by his explanation of what it means to live la vie active, what it means to establish an authentic dialogue with other people, and why Socrates never wrote down any of his words, so as to avoid short-circuiting that essential connection with his pupils.  These are potent ideas!  I’m starting to wonder if writing is the be-all and end-all that I thought it was. Maybe it is enough to be a teacher, to reach out to other people, and to empower them to voice their ideas.

Here are some choice Shorris thoughts on immigration in honor of September 11 and the millions of Syrian refugees who are currently seeking a better life, with or without our help here in the USA.

“The nature of immigration is the search for a new social contract, inclusion, citizenship. Immigration is perhaps the only possible revolution in the twentieth century” (83).

“In every descendant culture, [politics] determines who will long suffer poverty and who will not. Any American, any person, may be strengthened by taking pride and pleasure in the knowledge of the new culture of his or her forbears, but an old culture cannot make a new life” ((83).

“The early years of the twentieth century saw a new kind of social mobility as the waves of immigrants came, but their change in status, from poor Polish or Southern Italian greenhorn to middle-class white was not cultural or even economical at its core. The successful immigrants were the beneficiaries of a political epiphany. To emigrate was to revolt against the past and to immigrate was to strike a new social contract that permitted, among other things, inclusion in the circle of power” (86).

Earl Shorris, Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000).

On Teaching, Revolution, and “Death in Venice”


Now that the new school year is upon us, and many of us college teachers are leading courses that take us far from what we consider our “real work” (that is, our scholarly writing), it can be hard to sustain a research agenda. This blog has shown various strategies I’ve tried over the years to avoid losing hold on a research interest while embracing and enjoying teaching.  Strategies include reflections on the contrast between hard-won measures to defend workers’ rights (such as Labor Day, est. 1894), and the modern-day imperative to keep businesses open 24/7 (“On Labor Day 2009”), the parallels between the Arab Spring of 2011 and the French unrest of 1789-94 (“Arab Protesters in the American Classroom”), and the marketing of French Revolution-themed toys and games (“Marie-Antoinette Action Figure”).

After six years on this blog, I’ve concluded that the best way to refresh curiosity about a topic is not necessarily to read more scholarly tomes, but rather to let your mind roam and unearth analogies farther afield. This weekend is a perfect example. Inspired by Tobias Boes, whose work I’ve been reviewing as part of a writing group we both belong to, I took the time to read  Thomas Mann’s story, “Death in Venice”  (1911).*

Wow.  Although I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to discover “Death in Venice,” in a way I’m glad. (What a waste to make 19-year-olds read this! How can they relate to it, except maybe to be creeped out by the old guy’s lecherous gaze on the handsome young Tadzio?)  I’m glad I waited until this moment, on the heels of my 40th high school reunion in Seattle this summer. After seeing my classmates face-to-face, and learning about the ravages that time has dealt our bodies and hearts, I can certainly identify with a character who inhabits an aging body that nevertheless continues to feel  the sweet old pull of desire.

A psychic “revolution” is what jars the protagonist (Aschenbach) out of his growing obsession with the Polish Adonis he admires every morning on the beach. It springs from his sense of propriety. It reminds him of the pleasant fullness he feels when gazing upon the awards he’s won, and confirms his superiority over everybody else. As the character thinks: “‘[Tadzio] is delicate, he is sickly … He will most likely not live to grow old.'” Thrilled by that weakness, which restores his mastery over the forbidden object of his desire, Aschenbach’s mind seeks out reasons to flee. As Mann notes, “He got out at San Marco , had his tea in the Piazza, and then, as his custom was, took a walk through the streets. But this walk of his brought about nothing less than a revolution in his mood and an entire change in all his plans” (34-35).

Thereafter the city turns ugly; the lagoon is “foul-smelling” and the narrow streets are described as inhabited by a “hateful sultriness” full of smells hanging low, “like exhalations, not dissipating” (35). Wandering through the crowds, Aschenbach ends up in the poor quarter, where “beggars waylaid him, the canals sickened him” until “he reached a quiet square, one of those that exist at the city’s heart, forsaken of God and man; there he rested awhile on the margin of a fountain, wiped his brow, and admitted to himself that he must be gone” (35).

Now, readers of “Death in Venice” will know that this revolution does not produce the results which seem inevitable. Despite his decision to flee the pestilence—and the frightening sensuality coursing in his veins–Aschenbach does not leave Venice. Rather he changes his mind again a couple pages later. He returns to the beach, the dining room, and the streets, stalking Tadzio and hungrily seeking chances to live in his presence, possibly to exchange words, or a touch.  He chooses to admit, for once, that he feels something for someone, and to live in the moment, dangerously, boldly, without a plan.

The moment is potent. It symbolizes his—that is the elite’s—false sense of transcendence over existence. It suggests the fallacy of choosing to experience life as an observer rather than as a fully engaged human being, with one’s flaws and longings as well as one’s finer points in full sight. The fact that he refuses the bourgeois moment of “revolution” (that is, revulsion and flight from humanity) to pursue his deepest longings may cause readers pain, but it should also force us to think about our own habits of repression and sublimation. It should make us think twice about who we grace with compassion and who we revile, and why.

Where others use the word as a synonym for upheaval, Mann seems to use the word “revolution” to signify a kind of resistance against life’s fleshy, smelly messiness and joy, a choice for the comfortable non-engagement of the academic, the ascetic, the genius, or saint.  I’m still not sure that I understand where this is leading, but the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it is reason enough to be glad.

*Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice” in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books, 1963).

Bastille Day Anti-Quiz: Answers!

Answers to the daily mini-quizzes published as “From Prairial to Pop Culture: The French Revolution in 2015” (June 12 – July 13, 2015)

  1. June 12. No. 3. “Prairial” is the name of a popular revolt in Paris on May 20, 1795 against the policies of the Thermidorian Convention; widely considered the last popular revolt of the French Revolution begun in 1789.
  2. Jun 13. No. 2. “Those minorities” signifies members of the government, teachers, intellectuals and journalists, according to an angry flyer found nearby the Sorbonne in late May 2015.
  3. June 14. No. 1. Judging from the décor in this ad for Audible books, Le Rouge et le Noir / The Red and the Black by Stendhal would make the most sense.
  4. June 15. No. 2. “Fête Nat” is the name of the character played by Abdoulaye Diop in Coup de torchon (1981).
  5. June 16. No. 4. L’Assignat is the name of a restaurant near the Monnaie de Paris (the Paris Mint).
  6. June 17. No. 3. Le culte théophilanthropique was all the rage in the 1790s, including among statesmen such as La Revellière.
  7. June 18. No. 4. All of the incidents occur in the story “Robespierre et les deux orphelins, ou Histoire secrète des derniers jours de Robespierre.” (No wonder he stayed out of sight for so long!)
  8. June 19. No. 2. Jason Schwartzman, of Moonrise Kingdom, played Louis XVI in Coppola’s film.
  9. June 20. No. 3. “Hoppy” is the equivalent of Messidor.
  10. June 21.

No. 1. “We do not comprehend why Camille Desmoulins, who was so openly protected by Robespierre, is crushed in the triumph of this dictator,” are the last words of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel.

No. 2. ” But I do not. I do not,” are the last words of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.

No. 3. “Surely, before the expiration of half a century, since the return of Louis, France will congratulate herself on another restoration,” states Anthony Trollope at the end of La Vendée.

No. 4  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” are the final words of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

  1. Jun 22

No. 1. “‘Remember me, but forget my fate'” echoes Patrice Higonnet at the end of Goodness beyond Virtue.

No. 2. “But that, as they say, is another story,” are the last words in Marisa Linton’s Choosing Terror.

No. 3. “The French Revolution ended with the triumph of Hobbes over Rousseau,” notes Howard Brown in closing Ending the French Revolution.

No. 4. “Old and strong forces were woken by the Revolution, they began to know themselves in a new way, and they changed the world,” announces James Livesey at the end of Making Democracy in the French Revolution.

  1. June 23. No. 1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the author of the shocking quote, “Pectore si fratris gladium,” in his Discours sur l’origine et des fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755).
  2. June 24. No. 1. The Constitution de l’An I / Year One was adopted today in 1793.
  3. June 25. No. 3. Françoise de Graffigny is the innovative author of the best-selling Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), where you’ll find that interesting early usage of classe to denote economics, not taxonomies.
  4. June 26. No. 4. The Conciergerie prison remains almost as ghoulish as in Marie-Antoinette’s day. You can easily imagine the large river rats scurrying down the halls.
  5. June 27: No. 4. Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just declared that happiness was a “new idea” in March 1794. Thanks to Laurent Loty from bringing this to light in his excellent article, « Des Lumières à la Révolution : le bonheur en Constitution », Les Cahiers de l’Observatoire du Bonheur, 2, numéro spécial « Bonheur et petits bonheurs » dirigé par Michèle Gally, 2011, pp. 12-15. You can also read his article on this blog, posted on September 24, 2011.
  6. June 28: 3. Abbé Barruel, author of Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism full of virulent charges of conspiracy: he claims the Revolution was the result of a long-term plot hatched by philosophes, freemasons, Illuminati, anarchists, and économistes. Notre Dame own three titles by Barruel, including the five-volume Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (1798-99); and the 1798 English translation in four volumes. It sounds like a lot, but that is a small fraction of his output.
  7. June 29: 4. All of the above. In other words, lots of people made profit out of the Revolution, but in the short run, things did not go better, they went worse, for the weak, vulnerable, and the poorest urban dwellers. It was not until the Third Republic that France would become the amazingly supportive state it became (at least in American eyes).
  8. June 30: No. 3. Les Enragés is the name of a political group. I like the way they describe it on Wikipedia: “la réflexion enragée d’une critique de la représentation nationale s’appuie sur une méfiance permanente envers les représentants du peuple.”  Hmm, sounds like some of my friends in Paris.
  9. July 1: No. 4. La mauvaise mère pardonnée par l’état is the correct answer, that is, an imaginary title. All the other books are real titles one can see on WorldCat.  Pierre Augustin de Beaumarchais, L’Autre Tartuffe ou la mère coupable, Paris, 1791. Pigault-Lebrun,  La mère rivale. Paris, 1791. Nicolas Thomas Barthe, La mère jalouse, Bruxelles, 1792.
  10. July 2: No. 1, Soupe Jacobine (actually “Jacobin sop”) is a medieval dish: a kind of French potage with cheese.  For a recipe and a great explanation of its history, see http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/08.1histrecept.htm
  11. July 3: No 4., le traître or traitor, has been in existence since 1080, acc. to Le Grand Robert de la langue française.  The other three words were coined during the 1790s.
  12. July 4: No. 2. There was no république sœur named “La République deutsche.”
  13. July 5: No. 5, the Loire River, is in the names of the following six departments: Loire Atlantique (called “Loire-inférieure” until 1957); Maine et Loire; Saône et Loire; Indre et Loire; Haute-Loire; and Rhône et Loire.
  14. July 6: No. 4. All of the above. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to finally know that.
  15. July 7: No. 4, a cherry, cerise. Seems fitting for this sweet, luxuriously green summer in South Bend.
  16. July 8: No. 1, Olympe de Gouges’s claim to fame is a rather humble little place near the old Bourse du travail in the 3rd arrondissement. You can get there by metro Filles du calvaire or Oberkampf, or bus Jean-Pierre Timbaud. While in the neighborhood, why not have a bite at the Caffé Soprano 2, rue Dupetit Thouars? possibly under the platane trees…. right across the street from the old Temple prison where the royal family awaited their fate! At least they put her in an interesting neighborhood!
  17. July 9: No. 3 Hoppy took the place of Messidor (June 20-July 19).
  18. July 10: No. 2, the poissarde or fishmonger, a fascinating figure in French literature. Check out the article on this blog entitled “How to Translate a Poissarde?” in homage to Sonja Stojanovic’s amazing translation of “Le Falot du peuple.”
  19. July 11: No. 3, “Madame Guillotine” will soon cut off their heads, said the mean Jacobin in Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure, by Elizabeth Bartelme (1959).
  20. July 12: No. 3. In fact, Camus writes that: “The Catholic Church, for example, has always admitted the necessity of the death penalty . . . not only as a means of legitimate protection, but also as a powerful means of salvation.” This comes about, Camus writes, because “even the worst criminal examines his own conscience when faced with the actuality of execution.” As a Swiss councilor wrote in 1937 and Camus cites:  “He repents, and his preparation for death is made easier. The Church has saved one of its members, has accomplished its divine mission.”  Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” 1st ed. 1957, repr. in Evergreen Review Reader, 1957-1967, ed. Barney Rosset (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 88-106.  Citation from p. 103.  That was news to me!
  21. July 13: No. 2. The Left was furious with Lennon’s revised “Revolution” because he withdrew his support for violent action. Watch the interviews about Lennon & Yoko Ono’s honeymoon where he explains why. (All you need is love.)

33:  ANSWERS PUBLISHED!   Happy Bastille Day!

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Two, on “those minorities” who will ignite the next Revolution

La Revolution versus ces minorites 2015

While walking near the Sorbonne a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a flyer on the sidewalk that announced an imminent revolution in France, a “Revolution of Life!” that will bring “Justice, Peace, and Life.”

Intrigued, I took a closer look and immediately felt a chill on seeing a text that astutely mobilizes people’s fear of ridicule to upset us and make us want to retaliate.

“Ces minorités se moquent de nous!” it declares.  “Those minorities are making a mockery of us!”

Now, this could connote ridicule—those minorities are making fun of us–or it could connote indifference—those minorities could give a fig about us; such is the ambiguity of the verb se moquer de.  But anger is clearly the goal of this flyer, as one realizes in the rest of the text: “Those minorities consider us incapable of rebellion [… ] That is the ultimate insult.”

Who are “those minorities”?

  1. Arabs, North Africans, Southeast Asians and other “people of color” who now live and work in France
  2. Members of the government, teachers, intellectuals, and journalists
  3. Hedge fund managers, loan sharks, and the other unscrupulous kingpins of today’s financial universe
  4. Professors employed at the Sorbonne, notorious for their parsimony in judging students’ work at its rightful value

p.s.  The entire flyer will be posted in the answers to this quiz series, “From Prairial to Pop Culture: The French Revolution in 2015,” on July 14, 2015.

Secular Values to the Rescue

In the wake of the horrible tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we have been waiting with baited breath to see which way the French government was going to try to deal with religious extremism.  Would they opt for a free-floating multiculturalism and slide ever closer to the American model where religious leaders hold a dangerous sway over politics?  Or would they reassert the specificity of what it means to be French, and protect their citizens with a newly invigorated republicanism?  As a French teacher in the USA, I frequently encounter students who, in the arrogance of their ignorance, feel entitled to express indignation about the laws banning head scarves and other public signs of religious belief in the public sphere in France, and decry the “inflexibility” of the French.  “They should be more like us,” students say.  Each time I hear this, I wince, because it means that we have not done our job well enough.  Those who believe the French lack “flexibility” have never learned what the French Republic really stands for.  They ignore how long and hard people had to work and struggle and fight, from 1789 to 1905, until France achieved a definitive break between the Catholic Church (or any church) and the State.  They are oblivious to what it means to live in a State where the public sphere is a protected place, where believers and non-believers are equally free from coercion.  So it is with joy that I read the article in the New York Times today entitled, “Paris Announces Plan to Promote Secular Values,” which I invite you to read here.

For those who may not understand why secular values are so crucial to the French, you need to keep studying.  As with many facets of French culture, the origins lie in the past, in this case, the struggles of the French Revolution.

Vive la laïcité!

Will 2015 be the new 1789?


Happy New Year, readers!  The most interesting new trend afoot in French politics for 2015 is the increasing prominence of the Association for a Constituent Assembly.  Founded in 2004, this group’s impact is now being felt on policy debates across the Hexagon.  The APUC proposes a peaceful, time-honored means to bring the government of the French Republic back in line with the its founding principles.  Although APUC leaders include a former deputy of the National Assembly, writers for the high-profile Le Monde diplomatique, and academics employed by France’s elite universities, its members hail from all walks of life.  Constitutional “circles” have formed in 19 French cities and their numbers are steadily growing.  Will they succeed in creating enough momentum to prompt a national election?  In order to help Anglophone readers understand the gravity of the French situation, and the relevance this group’s efforts to the inspiring principles of 1789, we’re posting below the English translation of the Association’s call to action.  Click here for the French original, on the APUC website.  This may be a rare chance for us to witness deliberative democracy in action!

Association for a New French Constituent Assembly

This is a call for a grassroots vote of no confidence in our governing institutions. This is a call for the creation of new Constituent Assembly (originally established 1789-1791, but also 1848, 1871-1875, 1945, and 1946).

Fellow citizens of France,

The time has come to make known to the professional politicians that they cannot legitimately represent the people’s interests anymore.

During the last few years, the leaders of France have adopted a technocratic mode of governing that has made matters less and less transparent to those who do not walk the halls of power. They have abandoned the country’s political and financial sovereignty, claiming that the welfare state cannot be sustained, given the need to compete in world markets.  Instead of heeding the people’s legitimate demand for representation and justice, they have thrown their efforts behind an anti-democratic effort to build up Europe. The technocrats currently leading the “political class” are overlooking massive sectors of the population and dismissing calls for greater representation and democracy.

Furthermore, the executive branch has evolved into an autocracy led by a president whose decisions are dictated solely by his own views.  Forgetting his campaign promises, the president has led with an antidemocratic, antisocial iron hand.

The government’s indifference to popular opinion has reached the breaking point.  Who can forget the government’s reaction to the French vote of NO against the European Constitution in 2005?  Despite a resounding majority of negative votes, the referendum’s result was ignored. Organizers of the vote willfully overlooked article 3 of the constitution, which stipulates that “national sovereignty belongs to the people.”

Over the last ten years, the founders of the Association for a New French Constituent Assembly (Association pour une Constituante) have striven to put policy decisions back in the hands of the electorate.  Instead of waiting for the system to fix itself, or watching in vain for the lame-duck Parliament to regain its role in the balance of powers, we call for a grassroots movement to demand that the people’s voice be heard.

Our goal is the creation of a new Constituent Assembly: a corps of elected deputies entrusted with the creation of a new Constitution that would reform governmental institutions to serve the people of France.  We encourage citizens across the country to create local groups of deliberative democracy, in the hopes of organizing a national vote on a new Constituent Assembly.

Citizens, pass along this call to action!  Organize!  To reform the current institutions and redefine the rules governing the political system, we must demand the election of a new Constituent Assembly!

Contact: The Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr

13 rue du Pré Saint Gervais, 75019 Paris


Bonnet1 2mo pour Assoc pour une Constituante

On Eric Hazan, French turmoil, and doing something to keep the spirit of 1789 alive

Check out the latest interview with Eric Hazan on the Verso website, then read on.

What can you say of a man whose work is sometimes inspiring, and whom you’d like to admire for his long and principled life, but …  I have to admit I have a problem with people like Hazan who don’t vote and claim it is some sort of civic act.  Or incite people to think of making others “vanish.”  Revolution did happen so you could vote! And so we could avoid violence in public affairs.   Democracy demands that we believe it matters, remain informed, and make elections count. France does have deliberative processes by which change can happen without violence. When Hazan speaks of “thinking about the means of insurrection,” and dismisses the ‘intermediate stages’ such as “election of a constituent assembly etc.,” what exactly is he encouraging?   The ambiguity is irresponsible.

After reading the Verso interview, I think it only fair to give a “tip of the hat” to a group in France which is trying to bring about change from within the system, using the tools inherited from the revolutionary past, for the better.  They are called Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr .

A personal note:  My admiration for the ideals of the Fr Rev (plus having kids come of age) has led me to start teaching a weekly class of writing for children, which I’ve been doing since 2012. It seems so puny and insignificant next to the “revolutionaries” calling for “insurrection” or “vanishing” of institutions.  But equality is my personal dream, and giving underprivileged kids a way to speak and be somebody is my chosen method.  My wish for all of us is peace, and to have a chance.   What is yours, readers?


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