Vive la France?

French soldier & GOne year ago the French soldier in Paris said, “I love America. Very patriotic!” I wondered what he meant. You Americans love your country? Or something else?

Today’s French election offers a moment to reflect more philosophically about the social, cultural and political dynamics that divide the French and Americans alike.

For starters, there is the age old question of the relation of the part to the whole. In this case, the part is a particular, and often unique, culture: French! French culture shares many similarities with its European neighbors, but the old joke about Hell – “Hell is a place where the police are German, the chefs are English, the car mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it’s all organized by the Italians” – has some grounding in the real differences in the distinctive history and culture of each national culture.

The European Union is the sum of its distinctive parts; the parts make up the whole. The European Union created a common currency, relaxed the borders, and eliminated trade barriers among the member states of the E.U., a thing to celebrate in a world where it becomes increasingly clear that the planet itself is our home.

But what happens when the distinctiveness of the parts – the French in this case – are morphing quickly into something unrecognizable? What happens to the psyche of the traditional French citizen when the languages in the cafe, on the Metro, and in the apartment next door are not French – or the visiting German, Italian, English, and Spanish of tourists on holiday at the Louvre or on the beaches of Nice – but Arabic, Parsi, or Urdu spoken by Syrians, Moroccans, Indians, or Pakistanis?

A culture is a home, a kind of safe nesting place. A cardinal is not a robin, a wren, or flicker, and it’s not easy for any of them when they perceive their nests as under threat by the European Starling that would rousts them from their nests.

“I love America. Very patriotic!” said the Parisian French soldier guarding the Jewish synagogue against a terrorist attack while the headlines from America featured Donald Trump’s rise in the polls in May 2016. “Make America great again!” was the word from the  across the pond. “Which America?” I wondered then, as I wonder now what “Make France great again” means today in the French election.

Was the patriotic America in the mind of the French soldier the America that speaks Spanish, Parsi, Urdu, and Arabic as well as English or the one that speaks only English? The one that is white European in origin? The one where African-Americans take their seats again in the back of the bus? The America where there are no mosques; no sombreros; no anti-American leftists or immigrants – only starlings?  The America where being “very patriotic” means returning the U.S.A. to what it was before the starlings raided its nest?

Philosophically, the issues are not as simple as they sometimes seem. The question of the relation of the parts to the whole is as vexing today as at time in the course of human development. A year ago the world celebrated the signing of the Paris Accord on climate change in recognition that the whole is bigger than its parts and that every part depends on the well-being of the whole.

A parable of Jesus holds together the relation between the part and the whole: distinctive nests (cultures) in the the branches same shrub (world):

“The kingdom of heaven [the whole] is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” – Gospel of Matthew 13: 31-32.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 23, 2017.

8 thoughts on “Vive la France?

  1. Christopher Smart’s poetry was used by Benjamin Britten for his work Rejoice in the Lamb. It has meaning that I only understand through music, but then it brings me to tears repeatedly. (The same is true for other poets, for example, George Herbert; Ralph Vaughan Williams set five of his poems in the stunning Five Mystical Songs. We did the first for Easter with a simply stunning bass-baritone.). I have trouble with short poems — maybe because I love loooonnnnnnnggggggggg: Wagner (music, definitely **not** the man), Mahler, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc. But when the short text is set to music it just enters my soul somehow. And speaking of short/long, I should say the Britten texts are drawn from a longer poem, Jubilate Agno. Text at I *do wish* you could hear it; it’s an astonishing piece.

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  2. It is my perhaps naive hope that enough people who want all, but *all* illegal immigrants deported will feel a slight tightening in the pit of their stomachs when they hear about a man seized just after dropping his children off at school (How will the kids get home after school? How will they live without one of the breadwinners in the family?), or a woman who was the only caregiver able to help a chronically ill child, that those people will feel a disturbance in their belief that every immigrant must go. And that that disturbance will increase to the point of deciding that the issue is nowhere near as easy as they thought.

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    • Carolyn, Let’s hope so. Nothing is as simple as it seems.

      This morning we sang a hymn by Christopher Smart, a poet/lyricist whom you no doubt know. Lovely lyrics. But there was another I found in the Hymnal Index – a Christmas hymn about the meekness of the Eternal, the Friend of the friendless and the Solitude of the Solitary. Only after being struck by the profoundness of his poetry did I learn that Christopher Smart, like Van Gogh, was institutionalized in an asylum for the insane.

      Raises the question again of collective madness, doesn’t it? Who is the sane one?

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