Sunday, May 24, 2020

In Search of Lost Time: (Pre-)Revolutionary France

After watching a video on techniques for motivating one's self to do what one would like to do in life, taking precise steps, I decided that what I want to do is to make advances toward writing my long-expected French Revolution story. It will be just for myself; I don't want to publicize a distorted or inaccurate version of history, and instead respect the truth. It might also be a way of working through the coronavirus crisis in parallel: following another topsy-turvy development in history.

The approach I am still taking is the one I took to university essays during the last two years, which is to keep researching and researching, and note-taking and note-taking, until something crystallizes. Plot, characters, setting — all of this must be inspired in the course of gathering subject matter.

Besides I want to write a historical setting with a well-rounded overview of what is going on, more than any one person could have in reality — a heightened reality, as it were. Even though I am living in the present, for instance, there are wheels within wheels of what is happening that I am not privy to. In the context of this story, I could do the 18th century French equivalent of flying into the Chancellor's office and listening to her conversations with German state ministers or with foreign leaders about policy.

Conversely, a French statesman in 1789 likely had little idea of the life of a farmer in one of the remote provinces, so a novelist would need to mend that gap. I think it would still be difficult to have the insight into the Third Estate nowadays, because the historical record is not full of 18th-century French farmers' diaries. I have often thought that it might be easier to approach that reality by reading memoirs and reporting written by people who live in countries with a huge gap between rich and poor in the modern day. At least I presume that social mobility is easier now than then, in most countries, so these records would be easier to find for the present day.

But perhaps I am trying to impose logic and integral order that did not exist in pre- and Revolutionary France: maybe the people of France were no connected dots, instead overlapping spheres of individual feeling and action.

The experience of attempting to research, and reflections about 'leadership' because of my experience in the company I work for (it is incredibly hard even to 'lead' ten people, and as such I have no idea how one would lead a country of millions), have made me determined not to write of the aristocracy. It is not a milieu I have germane life experience about.

The material for my research has also changed. Researching the archives of the French National Library, as I did over the past 3 years, was interesting. But it was also stultifying, insofar as there were mostly high-level, official documents or speeches. They did not give a detailed idea of the situation on the ground.

Therefore the approach I have taken this month is to find little French museums that describe their exhibits on their websites. (Although this has left me with the guilty feeling that I need to support local museums more; many websites are now out of service or minimalist. And of course all of the websites that do exist have messages affirming that the museums are shut due to the coronavirus.) This has been surprisingly rewarding; even a throwaway sentence in the caption for a painting or a document offers little insights that are widely illuminating.

I have also set up new spreadsheets. In one spreadsheet, I am tracking social-historical context that would have informed a French and particularly Breton person's worldview in the 1780s and 90s: dishes, local factories, clothing, military organization, etc. In another, the biographies of French people in the 18th century, arranged by last name and labelled by estate (aristocracy, clergy, populace), field of work, etc. In another, a year-by-year, month-by-month chronology of what happened in France and overseas from around 1760 to 1790.

Besides I have calendars for each year from 1789 through to 1793, and I add events to them along with the URLs where I found the information.

Along the way I am learning about American history during the War of Independence, and World War I through a museum that concentrates on French-American relations. I am also becoming aware that it is impossible to write of 18th century French trade and wealth without broaching the subject of slavery, since it was evidently still going strong and there seem to be fine initiatives investigating this being conducted by French museums today. Looking at 18th-century sketches of plantations, for example, with the fields and the workers' huts, is kind of revolting now; but it was apparently a 'normal' part of business back then.

The research is rewarding, as mentioned; but it is exhausting whenever my curiosity fizzles on a subject, and I mechanically keep recording information to keep up the system.

Yesterday, by way of relaxation, I gave myself a treat by watching a documentary about Marie Antoinette on the website of the Franco-German cultural television channel Arte. It was not comprehensive — Stefan Zweig's biography goes far deeper, for example — but it was helpful to visualize her haunts at the Petit Trianon and it supplied much food for thought. For example, I think it was arguing that Marie Antoinette had sympathetic and sane impulses (like a desire for privacy and simplicity) in what was, from a modern perspective, an insane social environment; but she was not careful or reflective in how she carried them out.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

In the Dusk of Spring/Summer Social Distancing?

Theoretically I wanted to go back to work in the office next week. But after receiving many requests for a catered office lunch next week, which implied that many of us would be doing so, the head of the company's human resources 'pulled the emergency brake.' She told us that Berlin's anti-coronavirus measures had still not been suspended, and that only half of each team should be showing up to work, at most.

So I am spending at least another week in the home office. I feel sure that being amongst the colleagues again would have been marvellous. Also, getting out of the house every week day would have been good. But I feel guiltily pleased too.

I will not need to commute yet. And I will be able to spend more time around my brothers and mother, eat all my meals in comfort, tidy things during the lunch break and after work instead of feeling too exhausted to do anything, play the piano or ukulele or violin whenever I feel like it, wear my most comfortable socks and my training pants and my worn-out clothing that I don't want to throw out yet because it feels wasteful, hum songs at my laptop, take relaxing baths and light a candle and knit if I like, exercise freely, and spend more time exploring the home library.

Not that I have huge amounts of time for this either. But the extra hour per day adds up over time; and I find eventually that I have a big smile on my face, because I've had peace to do something that has been more or less impossible for the busy past four years, except around Christmas.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Long Notes about 20th Century Literature and 21st Century Prejudice

Today, after inhabiting a long black hoodie and a green corduroy skirt I've worn since I was thirteen years old for a few days on end, and spending the last two days immersed in an audiobook of Pride and Prejudice and Other Flavors, I took a lovely shower and went outside!

After realizing that my anxiety lately has been having ill effects on my work, I've been reading and experimenting a little. While breathing deeply and regularly for three minutes works, I've also had success with other 'slow' activities, like the piano.

But I also have been dosing myself with audiobooks that have an accessible writing style and a guaranteed happy ending. I can immerse myself in these for hours and tune out all duties and responsibilities, and think or feel my way into a more relaxed rhythm. These are maybe the best way I've found to calm down.

As far as this Pride and Prejudice retelling (from the year 2019) goes, which is set in California and has as its main characters the neurosurgeon daughter of an Indian-American royal dynasty and a cook who grew up in London, it has 'sweep,' which I like.

But I do think that the rapport between the main characters falls short of the romantic, so that pairing them up is as awkward as if a child were smushing the faces of its dolls together. And the political career of the heroine's brother felt more interesting than many other threads of the story. While there is a great deal of discussion about what one does not enjoy in politicians, idealized portraits of politicians are quite rare. (Except in disaster films and thrillers where the fictional US President bravely faces the worldwide tornadoes, interplanetary asteroids, or the freezing of half the hemisphere.)

And with this author I am always interested in how she 'dresses up reality'; there is soap opera panache in her plots and characterization.

Her characterization and details are not entirely surefooted, but she has clearly done volumes of research.

What I also like is that, unlike the dramatic malfeasance of a Hollywood film — although in Sonali Dev's book the malfeasance is dramatic, it is also nice (for lack of a better word) to encounter a truly villainous character who word-poisons people, in a book where this character ends up not getting his or her way. I've mentioned before how brilliant I think that Jane Austen's character of Mrs. Norris is, and that I think we need more villains like her.

Aside from audiobooks, I have been trying to 'tempt' myself to pick up paper books by reading the first paragraphs of books on the bookshelf. Right now a lot of these happen to be 20th century classics, some of those from our Aunt Nora or possibly from her mother, and some of those books from my father and aunt.

The first book I picked up is Tender is the Night, and I think — but didn't get far enough into it to know for sure — that this is a book where people are too amoral for them to be villainous in any fictionally-satisfying way. If they 'word-poison' people, that's just a fact of life.

(As a semi-hermit, I can say with a slightly lower risk of hypocrisy, that where people talk far more than they think, read, or self-reflect — and have few grains of philosophy or religious ethics to nourish them — I think there's a tendency to feel that the duty to be moral lies in being willing to criticize misdeeds in others. Because there may be no mention of the Bible about it, it may be felt not to be sententious or preachy; but I think in a way it's just the same thing that many self-identified Christians were doing when it was more fashionable to be Christian: someone always wants to be the gatekeeper of society's mores, in a way that's the most convenient for one's self. Needless to say, I believe this interpretation of ethics is neither philosophically nor ethically valuable. And it makes it far easier to assume the worst of each other, because then we feel that we are 'off the hook' and don't need to behave well ourselves. I think that this semi-amorality exists far more than undiluted amorality.)

That said, Tender is the Night was written in a lovely style, so I had qualms about putting it down.

Then I moved on to Ernest Hemingway, after having favourable recollections of The Old Man and the Sea (in Opapa's collection, I think) and another work.

But I found the first page of Death in the Afternoon nasty. I read a page of The Sun Also Rises next — and saw a 'joke' about Jewish noses. I decided that I should not force myself to read anti-Semitic tripe for leisure; if I ever wanted to research the early 20th century or something like that, maybe then, but I will postpone the evil day. So Ernest Hemingway was out.

Then I read a few articles about D.H. Lawrence in a college student's critical edition. I imagine that Lawrence in the syllabus was a more popular tool to épater les bourgeois in the 1970s than it is now; at any rate, unlike my parents' generation because it looks as if one of my father's housemates and my aunt had to read him for class, I never encountered him on a university syllabus except for one or two of his poems.

While his books are famously 'not safe for work,' I read about him mostly in the context of Bertrand Russell's autobiography. That reading was ~17 years ago. But what I recall from Russell's characterization — I think they were forced into an uneasy alliance because both were not in favour of the war, for different reasons, and they were at times the only people who would still talk to each other — is that he was an amoral fish who was not nice toward women, not warm in any of his relationships, and indifferent to national loyalty or national welfare in equal measure. Perhaps this is unfair.

Anyway, I was interested that in the British periodical Athenaeum and elsewhere, Lawrence's contemporaries generally found him ingenious, but unsound in his psychological theories and far too fond of explicit scenes. Their criticism grew even fiercer during World War I because his wife was a German woman. (I think that anyone who knows anything about D.H. Lawrence will already know this, but I wanted to repeat it anyway.) Lawrence roamed around the world after a while and may have had greater unaccountability elsewhere.

A year or so ago, I watched a Lucy Worsley television show about love in British literature, and I liked the way she contextualized Lady Chatterley's Lover. I guess this is still Lawrence's most important work? I've read critiques of several films that have appeared over the years, and there must have been articles on the anniversary of Lawrence's libel trial.

That said, I am never too fond of stories where individual people (even fictional people) are seen as avatars of an idea or of a thing one desires for one's self. And it has seemed to me like this novel does tend to 'fetishize' (for lack of another word) upstairs-downstairs relationships. So just like the rest of D.H. Lawrence's works outside of one or two poems, I think I will leave Lady Chatterley's Lover unread.

In the end I landed with Letters From an English Judge to an English Gentlewoman. Even before reading it on the internet, I was pretty sure that these letters were not genuine, but in fact written by the 'English Gentlewoman' herself. They're written maybe a decade or two before Indian independence, so in the 1930s, and they are extremely well-meaning — about social hierarchy in Anglo-India and about the perfidy of racism. They also mention a lot of local details of the houses etc.


But lastly, I said that I had gone outside.

So the details: my mother went per bicycle to a nearby park, my brother and I jogged part of the way and walked the rest. The horse chestnuts have been in flower and are now shedding dry debris on the paths, the purple lilacs fragrant, and iris spears rising from the flower beds like Myrmidons. Pink and white rhododendrons were either clad in their flower frock already, or on the way there; and the graceful columbines, with their blossoms like cupolas, are out in pink and purple. The May lilies are ringing their bells in the dips beneath trees. Late daffodils, grape hyacinths, hyacinths in white and pale blue and pink, and even a spindly species of snowdrops, are still flowering. And blood-red tulip flower petals were languishing on their stalks in Roman decadence.

While strips of white and red banded plastic hang from playgrounds here and there, these are now open to the public again; and ping pong tables, tennis tables, teeter totters, etc., resounded once more with the clamour of vox populi. What I enjoyed less — seeing the closed playgrounds caused me to ache a little every time I saw it, so I was really happy to see that the need for that had lessened — was the three or more medical masks that had been abandoned on the sidewalks.

This synopsis doesn't even capture a fraction of what we saw. But suffice it to say that it was summery — despite the clouds that drifted overhead; there is a welcome front of rainy weather that has been reviving the barren terrain of Berlin and Brandenburg, and reducing the forest fire danger, for the past few days.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

An Unremarkable Day in Virusy Times

Today I had no scheduled work meetings, aside from the 15-minute meetings that take place anyway. As my mother witnessed, I literally did a 'happy dance' when I looked at my calendar yesterday evening and saw that.

(After missing an important meeting two years ago, I asked one of the managers for advice. He said that he checks his calendar last thing in the evening, to see which meetings are scheduled the next day. His advice has been so helpful that I've kept following it.)

But many surprise tasks and questions came up. So even without the meetings, I was quite absorbed and absent-minded, and had to take pains to make sure that I kept up with developments in my team and others.

For lunch I put on a pot of potatoes to boil, and later stirred together yoghurt with chopped onion, salt, and cracked black peppercorns — although the melted butter that I had with part of the potatoes was even nicer.

Then Ge. came home and went grocery-shopping with his red mask, obeying the anti-coronavirus measures that have been ordered by Berlin's city government since yesterday.

Now we have a greater variety of food to eat again; I've been culpably reluctant to drag myself around to the grocery store, and had begun to 'scrape the bottom of the barrel' when deciding what to make.

Ge. also fried an omelette for us, and he and Mama and I took turns boiling water to make a kind of grain coffee throughout the day.

Also, I broke off work earlier, at 6:15 p.m. — the day began before 9 a.m., so it was fair. Then I exercised and read in a paper book until the Berlin city evening news began, when I dashed back to the living room and listened to the TV news. At the same time I finished up the last daily tasks for work.

After hours, I've been listening to an audiobook and doing language exercises on Duolingo after neglecting it for months. Right now I'm focused on Swedish and Turkish.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Under-Sense and Over-Sensibility

It's late at night and I'll hopefully go to sleep soon.

The week has been like a merry-go-round of continuing activity. Aside from a heavier schedule of work, I overdid the exercise and underdid the eating so that the analogy is even more apt in that I've been spit, also physically, exhausted and half-nauseated into the weekend.

Today a few colleagues and I also concluded what were hopefully the last phases of a debate about principles and company-wide interests at work. My conscience hadn't left me alone until I rushed into a fray that I'd rather have avoided.

And mentally I am still spinning in circles like a caffeinated squirrel. It is also a bit depressing to realize — in the middle of writing answers to questions at work — that I've written error-filled and irrelevant stuff; maybe I really do need to build in more pauses.

But that's the glum view of things.

Then in the evening I read up on the U.S. President's views on the possibilities of the internal use of disinfectants in fighting viruses, which were not reassuring. Even if he later claimed — a claim that appeared in no wise supported by the video footage that I watched with my own lying eyes and lying ears — that it was 'sarcasm.'

Then I found that Twitter threw me into another 'anxiety spiral'. So although I am curious how other Republicans are reacting to his pearls of wisdom, it didn't appear wise to check it.

I've been catching up on YouTube subscription videos that had gathered unwatched for the past three months, on classic literature and home cooking and baking. Besides I have written two emails this evening, neither of which were in English so there was more head-scratching than usual.

The wind is wuthering, I think — the Brontës might disagree that this wind sound is what they heard — and rattling the windowpanes every now and then. It's a restless sound and a restless feeling, after the sun-soaked idyll of the past days. But let's hope that it's a wind like the one in the Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews film version of Mary Poppins, and if we must interpret it subjectively and unscientifically as a sign, it may be a sign that a change is coming, but a good one.

A colleague is reading Sense and Sensibility, and perhaps it is time to immerse myself in something soothing and subtly critical like that too. The Marianne Dashwood within me is likely too strong and I must swing over nearer the spirit of Elinor.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Lamb of March and Lion of April

Today has been mixed.

To begin with the harder stuff, the Berlin evening news had a segment about the postponement of burials and funeral services due to the coronavirus crisis. They showed film of a recent interment and the sight brought back recollections of my father's funeral.

I've been meaning since 2017 to go to the graveyard where the funeral took place and to begin to think of it as just another graveyard again. But I need to have someone who did not know Papa, to go with me to help me keep up a stoic façade. I feel I can remember every detail — what I wore, how many people were in the bus, the trees, each flower that we cast into the hole for the urn — of the day of Papa's funeral. It is too fresh.

Maybe in 2019, I almost had a mini-panic attack when my colleagues and I were on a weekend walk and we passed a graveyard that looked like it. I told myself to breathe, in and out; and reminded myself that we were in a different part of the city; and I don't think any colleague saw that anything was wrong.

So I find it hardly bearable to think how much worse burying a loved one is, under the present conditions (the number of attendees limited to ten, not being able to hug people, having ceremonies postponed indefinitely due to virus-related understaffing), for other families.

Then the newscast mentioned that a neurologist and 30-year partner of our former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, had just died at 54 from the effects of a Covid-19 infection. And then, of course, the death by suicide of the finance minister of one of Germany's states, due in part to the pressure of trying to figure out how to rescue the state's economy.

Fortunately there were also cheerful parts of the newscast, and the weather.

But there were good experiences today, too. It hailed a little, white pearls that could almost have been shaken from the blossoming trees; the breeze stirred the budded twigs and whirled the hail; and little snowflakes streamed through the sky and one of them — like the song from The Sound of Music — stayed on my nose.

In the afternoon, Ge. and I jogged to a park. I never feel like I can run or jog for longer periods without a long warm-up first, but today it worked. He is a nice person to jog with; despite his longer legs he went at a gentler pace for me. He also demonstrates the 'social distancing' well, planning where we run so that we wouldn't come too close to others, and slowing down his pace nearly to a standstill when we had to accommodate walkers.

In the park there were the plane trees, whose wintry trunks seemed to say that they had seen war and peace for over a century, and yet they were there still. I felt tempted once or twice to pat them. And we heard a woodpecker in the distance.

But the loveliest part was a bridge, which was renovated perhaps last year and now gleams very brightly. A dense dark grey cloud banded overheard, behind the tan-brown clock tower of the Schöneberg City Hall. Sunlight poured out from behind us. The tasseled twigs of a willow were ochre almost turning into pale spring green in front.

And everywhere, running and walking and cycling and pushing children's strollers through the deeply green lawns, with dark-blue-veined chionodoxa hidden in the margins, there were people who were numerously but safely turning to Nature for cheer and help, at a time of benign but sustained imprisonment.