France, Paris

Paris – Not Quite a Eulogy

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
― Oscar Wilde

Sometimes Paris doesn’t work. Aside from the fact that the French don’t like to work as is (and this is a true stereotype, I’ve found), the city itself just doesn’t hang together properly. Aside from 6 decades of failed immigration policy, 5 governments since the founding of the Republic, the incessant onslaught of developpers trying to ruin the city, problems with crime, Islam, post-colonial guilt, the echos of WW2, Muslims, the decline of the French language in popular use (it as once literally the linga franca of Europe, no more), the loss of her religion, the increasing wealth gap, the development of a new underclass, the fact that soldiers have to patrol my neighborhood, and, lastly, the fact that Anne Hidalgo thinks that skyscrapers will work within the city itself (hint: no one but real estate developers want that) – aside from this the city just feels wrong sometimes. It feels angry and ambivalent all at once.

It’s difficult to explain but think of the last time you walked into a room and something just  fell out of place. Now thing of a time that you have walked into a room after a tenuous truce had just been made between enemies and their anger still hung in the air. that is a decent approximation of the Parisian atmosphere on many days. It is not just the looming and ever present threat of terror, nor the gaping wounds that last attacks opened. It’s something else; maybe the city changed to quickly, who knows? But it is palpable, not always but when it is, it is a thick viscous feeling that that slows everything down and makes the city repugnant.

But it is not always like this. And during the moments when the weakened but enduring spirit can pierce the fog that has fall – those moments are incredible.

It is during those brief moments that one can understand why the city used to capture the imagination of the greater part of the worth. In these moments the City of Light is dimmer but shining nonetheless. You can’t prepare for these times, sometimes you can’t even stop to enjoy them – they pass like one of those rare strangers with whom you make an immediate connection but never see again.

Artists drawing in museums.

The odd couple on a lonely quai.

Children yelling bonjour monsieur to you as they go to school you to work.

In and of themselves they mean little, but together with a million other tiny, indescribable details, the picture of the old spirit comes together. I can no more tell you how these moments come to be than describe why Marat’s posture in Jacques-Louis David’s painting makes such an abhorrent man so pathetic.

These moments are unpredictable but they tend to lie where the stone better bore the weathering of time. At Sunday organ concerts at Saint Eustache, where Parisians line up to listen to a half hour of music on one of the most beautiful organs in the world. When you attend mass at Saint-Nicholas-Du-Chardonnet, a mass performed in the old way and a congregation whose faith would have been more home in the 12th century than in ours. It can be found in lost corners of museums, on roofs in the 6th, on quais in the 4th, in cafés in the second. The sap of the old city varnished some of these places, so it is harder for the problems of today to penetrate and rot what soul remains.

This is perhaps the most interesting time to live here since the Germans marched down Champs-Elyéee and the future of the city as hurled into doubt. But whatever her ails may be right now, the city comes out of hiding when she feels playful or reminiscent.


Music Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave

Music Notes is an idea I’ve had for a while where I will take a relatively famous classical music piece and quickly run through the history of it. These articles should be short and to the point so, I hope, you will be able to get through them quickly. And, perhaps, discover something new!

One of the first ones that I have been meaning to do is Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave.

The Marche Slave (B-flat minor, op. 31) is a symphonic poem written in 1876. A symphonic poem is a short, one movement orchestral piece that is written to evoke the feeling of, well, a poem. Just using music instead of words. A common accessory to Tchikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Marche Slave is something many people could recognize but few could name upon hearing.

The piece was written just at the beginning of the Serbo-Turkish War. The Russians, as was their habit, supported the Serbians in their cause (due to shared ethnic background an religion). The Russian populace was so supportive of the Serbian cause that many Russians ran to go join the war to aid the Serbs. As an aside, this phenomenon is mentioned in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when several characters go off to join the war.

The concert was actually commissioned for the war itself (well, the Red Cross Society), it was not written out of a fit of patriotic glee; glee such as that which drew Russia’s young men into a foreign war.

The piece itself draws heavily from Serbian folk songs and the Russian national anthem of the time (God Save the Tsar). Giving it strong patriotic and nationalist tones that would have been instantly recognizable to Russians and Serbians of the time.

The piece opened in Moscow in 1876 and was conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein.


Sanskrit and the West – Discovery and Loss

Classical learning in the west primarily consists (or consisted if you want to take a pessimistic view of the state of classical learning) of the study of the major ancient languages – Latin and Greek. However, at the end of the 18th century another classical language entered the tradition: Sanskrit. Having always existed at the periphery of the Classical World (from a Western perspective, of course), Sanskrit the other great ancient descendant of PIE  or Proto-Indo-European.

This is something that British scholars quickly realized during the process of colonization – the similarities between Sanskrit and the languages that they had studied in University were too striking. It couldn’t be coincidence. And returning to Europe with the staggering volume of writing that they had found, Sanskrit had something of a renaissance in the West – or rather, a naissance. It was quickly introduced into English and German universities where the similarities between it and the Greco-roman tradition ensued. During the 19th century this cross study of the three major languages led to the development of a whole new field of study: comparative linguistics. As well as the theory of a much, much older origin language, PIE.

Sanskrit verbs conjugation was very similar to that of Greek, though slightly less complicated. What was extremely complicated, and hence very interesting to this generation of European scholars (these were the people that eventually deciphered cuneiform and hieroglyphs) was the complicated rules regarding sound agreement, called Sandhi. These sound changes where significantly more complicated than those found in Greek (sound agreement and elision in Latin is hardly worth mentioning as it is almost entirely relegated to poetry and in the form of small contractions in the active perfect 3rd plural and a few other cases). This, combined with the fact that there was an enormous amount of material to be read led to a huge explosion of academic interest. The results of which can still be seen today as the major centers of Sanskrit studies are in the USA, England, and Germany not India.

However, this interest was not sustained and the study largely died off after the comparative aspects came to be understood. The demise of the classical education (at least as a requirement), began after the first Word War and as fewer men took up the study of their own tradition, even less took an interest in foreign traditions. Western classicist now fear a similar decline of Latin and Greek that they have seen with Sanskrit: that is, it is now relegated to a very small number of extremely specialized academics. And last time Latin and Greek retreated into the monasteries it took centuries for it to return in the form if the Renaissance.

If you have any interest in this study, University programs still exist at schools that still have serious classics programs. There is also something of a Sanskrit renaissance going on in India as the country rediscovers its roots and it’s own tradition resurfaces (it never stopped being used in a religious context). One of the best things about Sanskrit is the fact that the best literature (or what is generally regarded as the best), that of Kalidasa, is much easier to read than the majority of the Vedic works. His writing was mostly drama and truly excellent poetry.

Despite its complicated Sandhi system, the ancient Indians were extraordinarily serious about the study of grammar. Their intense study resulted in the language not changing nearly as much as one would expect over such a long period of time. This work all started with one of the first true grammarians: Panini.

I studied Sanskrit in school for a few semesters and it was extraordinarily rewarding. However I could not maintain three classical languages no matter how related they were!

Here are some resources for those interested.

Government, Greek, Latin

Ancient Governments and Modern Iterations

There is nothing more indicative of our epoch’s desire to emulate the greatness of our ancestor’s civilizations than our governments. The ideal Western government, to most citizens anyway, is the democracy. Most modern Western governments are actually republics. These very words show how much we owe to the civic innovations of our predecessors. The very words ‘Democracy’ and ‘Republic’ comes from Greek and Latin, respectively. Modern Western governments have made very few innovations to the systems beyond adding to the pool of people who can participate.

In the fifth century BC, the Athenian Democracy was founded. It is one of startlingly few examples of a successful direct democracy, but even then it was short lived. And was hardly ‘inclusive,’ that all important yard-stick by which we measure success in our age. To participate in the Athenian Democracy one had to be male, a freeman, and own land. Hardly acceptable requirements in the modern era! This limited those who could participate to around 1/5 of the population of Athens. Those who could participate, however, were allowed a great impact on the course of government as they could vote on all major matters of state.

This may be acceptable insofar as the administration of a small city-state, but certainly not a large nation. Rome made her entrance as another small monarchy in Latium, but due to internal conflict and growth, she transformed into something novel in 509BC: a republic. A small group of men representing the will of the families of import took over as the main legislating body. To participate in the senate one had to be a male patrician, so it was far less inclusive than the Athenian Democracy. The vast majority of peoples, the plebes, were, over time, given rights and powerful representatives in government – tribunes. This is a government that lasted from 509BC – 44BC, it continued to exist under the Emperors until 476AD (or 1453AD in Byzantium). This is a form of government that proved to be elastic enough to survive a millenium. It certainly proved itself more durable than that most famous modern European Republic, what with its five iterations in three centuries.

Several important points can be drawn from successful governments of the past. One is that the voting class was much better educated than the hoi polloi. If one owns land, or is a patrician, he almost certainly has been educated to a comparatively high degree (especially in the latter case where societal pressure would require one to study both Roman and Greek literature, government, and oratory). Secondly, only those most invested in the economic success of the nation could vote: land owners and patricians. They have farm more to lose and therefore act far more carefully and conservatively. The masses are incitable (see the nike riots) were tempered by the government. Furthermore, the Greek system required one to be actively contributing to the polis, one would not end up with a situation like modern America where a very large percentage of the population is a net drain, yet can still vote for policies that, say, give them even more. This leads to pandering for votes by promising what are tantamount to bribes. But I digress.

Aristotle strongly supported an aristocratic ideal and so does this writer. Especially in Rome to be a successful politician one had to be superbly educated. The study of Latin, Greek, Oratory, Literature, etc. was required merely to have a good chance of a successful political career. Just as importantly these men were culturally obligated to serve in the military if they had political ambitions. Imagine if all of our politicians were required to serve in the military, be heavily invested in the success of the state, and meet very demanding educational requirements. I can think of many American, British, and Australian Presidents and PMs that don’t fit even two of these!