/ Culture /
I once bled a drop of absinthe, real absinthe, Pernod Brothers, bottled in Paris, 1888 into a glass of water. The instant the cork was loosened on the bottle the apartment was filled with a liquorish reek, stronger than any stench I’d encountered (by then, the late 1950s). The water instantly turned green, the green we know from Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas.
(Don’t confuse modern legal absinthe with the absinth of the Moulin Rouge of 1888.)
Ordinary water seems “clear” to us; but this absinthe-tained liquid was alive, evil. Tendrils of green invaded the neutral water. The water took on the characters of a dragon … From the first breath of the mix I was hallucinating. My buddy who brought me this gift could have sold the unopened bottle for thousands of dollars (then, much more now). John freaked and poured the remains down the drain. The drain reacted as to Draino! Pfft, hiss, gurgle, cough.
I wasn’t the best chemistry student. Even so I’ve since noticed liquids mix, partly because of that 1958 or so encounter. I knew that absinthe was illegal, had been for some time. I’d heard that it was a genuine narcotic, like herois, and that for alcohol it was like 150 proof! I had a sip before dumping mine too; John used me as his guinea pig: he had none. All that treasure, all that myth: down the drain.
Anyway, those green-water tendrils have been vivid in my mind ever since. Miscible, with a high complexity-quotient.
Keep that in mind as I scribble notes about the mixing of cultures, of languages, of grammar, politics, vocabulary …
Jan and I watched Mrs. Miniver last night. What a wonderful movie, Greer Garson was such a great star. The brave English withstand Nazi bombings. At the end Lady Beldon’s band launches into The Triumphal March: Verdi, Aida. Patriotic immortality.
But hold it, folks, that’s Verdi: “Italian”; this is “England”, suffering under the Axis. What right does a German American, William Wyler, Hollywood power, have to give Italian Verdi to the English, however suffering? Shouldn’t a 1942 Verdi have to go to Italy and to Mussolini, Hitler’s buddy? Shouldn’t Verdi be drafted by Hitler? not by a Hollywood “Churchill”?
(Sure: just like California has a right to supervise what happened to Sutter’s gold, Sutter’s farm, Sutter’s lumber …
Rights go to the guys with the guns. and no scruples.)
For weeks I’ve been discussing a phenomenon with my daughter-in-law: English is a Germanic language, coming from the old German dialects spoken by the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons pushed the native Celts into the corners: Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland. The Anglo-Saxons were from “Denmark”. The allpha danes of the day would have monopolized the best land in “Denmark”: the have-nots sailed off to take the prime farmland from the Celtics in Britain. Their language became English. In 1966 some other Vikings pushed the Anglo-Saxons aside: William the Conqueror.
Everyone knows that, everyone knows all of that: here’s the thing that fewer know: William and his bureaucracy spoke Norman French. They were war lords in Normandy. Bear with me, here’s the point, couln’t be gotten to quicker: The Normans too were Germanic: Vikings. The Anglo-Saxons were from “Denmark”; the Normans were from Denmark, and Norway, and Iceland … all Germanic languages areas. So where’d this “French” come from?
My field (trained, official) is English; my daughter-in-law’s field is French. She is herself French, has a PhD in French, taught in France, in the US … I know where the “English” comes from. I have some sense of where it’s going. And I have some parallel ideas about “French”: what I don’t know is where William’s Norman French came from.
Till just the other day, I finally came upon the relevant facts:
the Norman warlords swore fealty to Charles II of West Francia!
Understand: there was no “France” then. (That’s there’s a “France” now is an illusion, and artifact of slow-motion geo-political time.
Modern “nations” reserve power and resources for those who agree to confuse culture and politics with geography: mutability with permanence.
Some bubbles in the stream last longer than some other bubbles in the stream.
Gregory Bateson & others
will, if I live, grow as a scrapbook