"When the subject resonates less, the question turns into: Why this one? We need to be told why X matters and beyond that why X matters to me. We need placement, not just in the subject's day, but in our own. Even more, we need a portrait that resurrects and ambles and writing that gives it legs."
It is claimed that the art of being boring consists in leaving nothing out. This book, I am happy to say, should leave one startled by its simplicity. Ironically, it is about ideas, which are plentiful. And as René Descartes offered regarding common sense, an attribute in which few feel deficient. Nevertheless, I have tried to capture only those thoughts that are appealing, that are found successful if not enduring and notable if not profound. And these, whether philosophical, political, artistic, or literary have a distinctly French flavor; you get the picture. But it is also about the people -- known by a some, but strangers to many -- who championed these ideas each in his or her own way by struggling towards humanity's horizons and how we feel about them today. Finally, it embodies controversy since contradictions in human character are one of its most consistent notes.
Few have described the French character as either meek or humble. Toynbee pointed out long ago, the Frenchman's habit of preaching repose while lauding martial qualities: 'a lullaby performed on a trombone' he was heard to chuckle. In recognition of this disposition, there is one small incident from the seventeenth century, related by W.H. Lewis, which, for this author, captures the moment of the modern French national persona. "On the morning of 5 September 1638 to Louis XIII and his Spanish Queen, Anne of Austria, was born in the château of St. Germain, the first child of parents who hated each other, and who had been married for twenty-three years. The birth was hailed as a miracle, the little Dauphin was given the name of Dieudonné, the wine ran free, and even the hungry were fed".
From his cold-blooded, shifty, suspicious father the child seems to have inherited nothing but a love of music and an interest in the minutiae of army administration, while to his mother he owed, among other things, a magnificent constitution and indomitable pride.
From the first, Louis was remembered as a solemn child, very well aware of who he was, and what he was to be. His earliest recorded utterance is characteristic; on April 21, 1643, being then not five years old, he was taken to the bedside of his dying father. "Who is it?" asked the King. "Louis XIV," replied his son.
So the French lean toward the imperious: nice story, not much new. However, it could just be that we all secretly envy the French people, since they personify to many of us that matchless hubris, which we attribute to dictators and the other strong-willed whom tightly grasp the reins of their own destinies and literally make a world of difference. Just ask the likes of a Napoleon, Chanel or De Gaulle.
Hopefully you will find, despite some interesting lessons in arrogance, conviction and culture, that the book's intent is to be entertaining. However, without looking for too great portends in such a small vessel, you might also discover something you've lost. Lost without realizing, or if realizing did not expect. Your destiny.
Whoa. Destiny? That's a serious word, one too vital for the likes of this text and its author. Nevertheless, (with the reader's permission) discovering your destiny -- some might call it your vision -- is a lifelong project, yet, more revealed than found.
How is it then, one could ask, that the individuals in this book discovered and met their destinies, which changed the course of human progress? They were unique, but certainly not all celebrated; some died rich and at the pinnacle of their success, while others expired sick, hunted, penniless and alone. They all began as an unimpressive lot: one copied music for a living, another made hats, and yet another a provincial teacher whose only exploits in WWII were as a theater director in a German prison. Nevertheless, for those like you perhaps, who seek lessons, their lives and destiny are instructive enough.
The book's title, Cavorting With Strangers: Great Ideas and Their Champions means to make merry with unfamiliar people. These famous men and women, usually French and whose names many know, but only vaguely so, have egos that were uniquely altered and are now acclaimed revolutionaries of the human spirit. It could be then, like Pinocchio's shabby friends, they'll whisper of adventure, coaxing you to run off with them to do crazy things like painting nudes in Tahiti, opening a dress shop in Paris, espousing the destruction of sitting governments, or falling prey to some other nefarious end.
And, they were a sleazy lot. Consider this: despite fathering the ideals behind the French and American Revolutions, bringing down some of the great monarchies of Europe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's youthful indiscretions included dropping his pants and exposing himself from the darkened corners of the village square to titillate the girls and faked insanity when he was caught. While none other than Victor Hugo it was rumored, deflowered his daughter's first communion companion after Mass. Or Napoleon leaving his men to die in the Russian snow, while he hastily returned to Paris to save his throne; or Chanel collaborating with the Nazis to keep her suite at the Ritz Hotel; or Sartre sleeping with his lover's students and adopting one.
It all makes interesting reading, but make no mistake, despite their vaunted reputations, these citizens were just as sick as the best of us. So you won't have to bend over far to see the underbelly of fame. Therefore, put those pompous testaments of their superlative qualities away, their disembodied quotes hung out on the line to impress us. This book isn't about their fresh linen, but the personal lives of the people who soiled them.
The French Revolution seemed a likely place to start, or as close as one could strive for a time to be called 'relevant'. Louis XIV, the Sun King had set the stage and Versailles stood in his place, a symbol of more than royal housing. His successors Louis XV and XVI, paid brief visits to history, but were more famous for their women: Madame De Pompadour and Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI, lacking any unusual talents except as a locksmith, was beheaded by Robespierre and his lackeys, lamenting the theft of his slippers...they had taken the shape of his feet, he said. In Europe, the curtain was rising on Paris, the City of Light -- the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.
But, to start with the French Revolution is debatable of course. It was a terrible idea to many, supposedly dreamed up by disgruntled aristocrats, egged on by what Simon Schama in Citizens calls the "polemical incontinence" of hack writers and bad actors. Individuals, he said, who had read too much Rousseau and so succumbed to Romanticism, with its addiction to the Absolute and the Ideal, its obsession with the heart; its preference for passion over reason, and virtue over peace.
In Schama's opinion, despite a corrupt court, an absentee king, incompetent ministries, suspended parliaments, huge foreign debts, a domestic recession distilled into bread riots and a tax system of unimaginable inequity, Louis XVI's ancien régime was well on its way to becoming a modern capitalist state. All it needed was better middle-management. What it got instead was a revolutionary calendar with a month for wine and a month for mist, weeks for hazelnuts and roses, festival days for heroic deeds and hearts of martyrs in agate urns. Could a book on France start with anything else?
I would like to believe what John Leonard said in 'Brilliant Together in Paris': that the reader needs only to be reminded that he or she was not one of those prurient souls, "...who are incapable of imagining backwards except to finger sores, and seem never with a shiver to appreciate nobility of sentiment, heroic action or genuine regret." So ours, like theirs, despite our faults, is a mission. To seek the best in ourselves and perhaps change the course of history or, failing that, at least keep our guests amused at dinner.
Finally, my task was to give a convincing life to the book's fictional characters in order to make their existence and their feelings resonate with the lives of the historical figures. The two main characters, Jean-Michel Levasseur, a French-American professor who drinks far too much, and his client, Charlene Brooks, a travel guide trainee recently given the boot from her editor's position at a textbook company in New York, have as their job to cover the culture of Paris in ten days; an enviable, but impossible task.
From the book's perspective, their job was to highlight some of the important cultural and contemporary issues of today. But they and their friends, being scallywags all, often get caught up in their own lives and foibles - seemingly real but modest reflections of their idols. Nevertheless, the questions remain. For example, what made their creations enduring? What was the source of these great ideas? The curds and whey of a swirling gene pool perchance, or the mysterious power of our creator obliquely exploring the landscapes of His creation?
Perhaps there are no heroes left. Man, once elevated by Descartes to the 'master and proprietor of nature', is now seen by many as a mere thing to the forces of technology, politics and even history that surpass him and possess him. To paraphrase Milan Kundera, it seems the more man advances in scientific knowledge, the less clearly can he see or be seen. It's time to take a hard look at this creature, man, through the prism of his culture. And who better than the French?
Please join me on an unusual trip to Paris, with our companion James Joyce...
"Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
Good reading. Bon voyage...
F. Patrick Butler
(sample pages from the book)
Book I: New York
Book II: ROUSSEAU
Book III: NAPOLEON In Love
Book IV: VICTOR HUGO on the wild side
Book V: CLAUDE MONET: Impressionist
Book VI: Maurice RAVEL
Book VII: COCO CHANEL
Book VIII: Charles de Gaulle arrogant autocrat
Book IX: Jean-Paul Sartre
Book X: Cousteau