…means: “Pour Toulouse, toujours plus,” “For Toulouse, always more,” in Occitan. For those who’ve asked in reference to the earlier post.
In my recent post Occitan and “endangered languages”, I wrote about the (mostly former) Albanian-speakers of central and southern Greece and how they had never posed an assimilation problem for the Greek state. Quite the contrary:
“…Peloponnesian Albanians were already Greeker than the Greeks in their ethnic consciousness and had proven it by essentially fighting our war of independence for us; it seems that, historically, you give Albanians — Christian or Muslim — an incentive to go to war and they’ll become more zealous crusaders of your cause than you are yourself.”
Elsewhere I’ve written about Greeks and Albanians as practically co-peoples, such has been the extent of migration and intermingling over the past millenium. This winter I read John V.A. Fine, Jr.’s six-hundred page The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest, which I know sounds like a joke about dry academic reading, but it was actually fascinating. The chaos that followed the fall of Constantinople to the Franks in 1204 produced a bewildering number of Greek and Frankish successor states to the Byzantine Empire throughout the Greek peninsula, all constantly at war with each other and at a time when the Albanian highlands were suffering from demographic overload. Thus, whether as mercenaries in the hire of anyone who paid best, or as shepherding nomadic clans who took advantage of the extensive areas of the peninsula depopulated by constant war or epidemic diseases, Albanians in huge numbers were constantly on the move southwards for the next two centuries if not more. (I suspect that this is when their descent into Kosovo begins as well, filling in the gap as as the center of gravity of the Serbian nation moved northward.) Further waves came after the Ottoman conquest in response to Islamization campaigns in recently conquered Albania, but this time not just south to Greece but westwards to Italy and Sicily as well. And settling everywhere you could possibly imagine: Thessaly, southern Epiros, Roumeli (in the Greek meaning of the term), the Ionian islands, places as far flung and unexpected as the islands of Cythera or Ios! My point, without having any Fallmereyer-an agenda — not because I disagree with his basic theses but because I don’t thing “race” means anything — is that regions of Albanian settlement in the past were likely far larger than the regions where we find the language still spoken in the early twentieth century, shown on these maps:
Albanian-speaking areas in 1890 shown in pink above, green below (click)
This documentary that “shocked Greece” was produced by SKAI Television and called 1821 after the year the Greek revolution against Ottoman rule began and the reason it “shocked” is that it debunked long-held myths about the uprisings that eventually led to the establishment of the independent Kingdom of Greece; but really, that anybody was shocked at any of these revelations: for example, that the uprising was accompanied by the wholesale massacre of Muslims (and Jews) throughout the Peloponnese and central Greece;* that the Church anathematized it and did not support the movement (paid the price anyway with the execution of the Patriarch in Constantinople); that the “secret schools” where poor “enslaved” Greek youth were taught Greek in secret at night because the Turks had forbidden the teaching of Greek is a totally concocted fable (and such a projection of twentieth-century, nationalist, totalitarian policies back onto the Ottomans; there is practically not a single European observer of Ottoman life since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century that doesn’t comment on the quality and extent of Greek educational institutions in all Ottoman cities and even smaller towns and villages); that many if not most of the revolution’s “heroes” were Albanians, some who spoke no Greek at all; that the fustanella is originally an Albanian garment…and on and on — that any of these shocked Greeks in the early twenty-first century is just proof of how pathetically brainwashed and historically ignorant nationalism usually leaves a people. And this is the point where the documentary pulls a very cowardly copping out — by claiming that such is the price of building a new nation; it has to create new “myths” of its own. Why a nation — or a people preferably — is not stronger and better off if it knows the whole truth about its past is never delved into. But it’s worth watching, and it has English subtitles:
In any event, such was the Albanian contribution to the struggle that one wonders if the Porte let go of the Peloponnese, not because it was so far from the center of imperial authority, not because it had always been something of a provincial backwater, not because of foreign intervention, but because of some tough-*ss Albanian warriors that the Ottomans felt were no longer worth resisting. After all, they themselves knew the value of an Albanian fighter: favorite recruiting regions for the Janissaries in the classical Ottoman period had always been Albania and Serbia — not random choices.
There’s a beautiful song recorded in 1949 by Sophia Vembo, one of greatest Greek voices of the twentieth century, called “The Song of the Morea” (since at least early Byzantine times until the modern Greek state revived the clasical name, the Peloponnese was called the Morea) which is partly a homage to the role of the region in the struggle for Greek independence (ok, even as a New Territory Greek, I’ll grant them that.) And the refrain says:
“Hail and be well brother Moraites, and health to your women too; Greece owes its freedom to your manhood!”**
And I have a deeply-loved but eccentric cousin, highly intelligent but an unrehabilitated nationalist dinosaur unfortunately and to whom much of this blog is indirectly directed — or one might even say dedicated — who is so profoundly moved by the blood shed by Peloponnesian and Spetsiote and Hydriote Albanians for the cause of Greek independence, that he thinks the refrain should run:
“Hail and be well brother Arvanites (Albanians), and health to your women too; Greece owes its freedom to your manhood!”
Here it is; the music and Vembo’s voice are beautiful even if you don’t speak Greek:
The song has always provoked a strong reaction in me as well, a testimony to the power of patriotism if it can move someone who finds nationalism as repulsive as I usually do. But even that reaction is contradictory. The 1949 date of the song is not insignificant; it was recorded in the middle of the most brutal period of the Greek Civil War and was actually more a call to unity and an appeal to brotherhood than a commemoration of the revolution of 1821. Like many Greeks perhaps, my family suffered more losses in the civil war than they did in the Nazi occupation that had preceded it, and the opening lyrics of the second verse always make me tear up for a moment:
“Now that the earth sweats the blood of brothers, and Greece is drowning Greece in the hills..”
and then my heart goes cold again, because the next line is:
“Come out of your grave Thodoris Kolokotronis, and make all Greeks brothers again.”
…because it’s impossible for me to forget that Kolokotronis was the “hero” who boasted of riding his horse over Muslim corpses from the gates of Tripolitsa to its citadel, when that major city of the Morea fell to the rebels in September of 1821.
So I’d like to end this post with just a little bit of perspective, a reality check we all need every so often, because though the documentary mentions a lot of previously taboo subjects, it glosses over a few of them a little too quickly. The following is taken from the blog of a Greek-Australian, and apparently fellow Epirote (though he seems to have Samiote heritage as well), Diatribe from a post called “Revolution Unblinkered.” It’s foreigners’ eye-witness accounts of the Massacre of Tripolitsa, interspersed with some of his own comments:
A month later, in September, a combined force led by Kolokotrones and Petrobey Mavromihalis captured Tripolitsa. Historian W Alison Philips tells a horrific tale of mutilation and slaughter “For three days the miserable inhabitants were given over to lust and cruelty of a mob of savages. Neither sex nor age was spared. Women and children were tortured before being put to death. So great was the slaughter that Kolokotronis himself says that, from the gate to the citadel his horse’s hoofs never touched the ground. His path of triumph was carpeted with corpses. At the end of two days, the wretched remnant of the Mussulmans were deliberately collected, to the number of some two thousand souls, of every age and sex, but principally women and children, were led out to a ravine in the neighboring mountains and there butchered like cattle.”
A Prussian officer described the incidents that took place after the capture of Tripolitsa by the rebels, as follows:
“A young Turkish girl, as beautiful as Helen, the queen of Troy, was shot and killed by the male cousin of Kolokotronis; a Turkish boy, with a noose around his neck, was paraded in the streets; was thrown into a ditch; was stoned, stabbed and then, while he was still alive, was tied to a wooden plank and burnt on fire; three Turkish children were slowly roasted on fire in front of the very eyes of their parents. While all these nasty incidents were taking place, the leader of the rebellion Ypsilantis remained as a spectator and tried to justify the actions of the rebels as,’we are at war; anything can happen’.”
The final word, if there is one, goes to Theodore Kolokotronis, who in his account of the fall of Tripolitsa, was unrepentant to the last: “When I entered Tripolitsa, they showed me a plane tree in the market-place where the Greeks had always been hung. “Alas!” I said, “how many of my own clan — of my own race — have been hung there!” And I ordered it to be cut down. I felt some consolation then from the slaughter of the Turks. …”
New Year’s Eve, 2008. I had a dinner party at my house, and two Spanish friends of mine brought a couple from Madrid along. The husband, Rodrigo I think was his name, later told my friends that I was “super-majete.” I explain this term in the footnote to Toulouse: “Who ever lov’d who lov’d not at first sight?” and it’s part of the text of “Un Verano en Nueva York” . I remember thinking at that point: “I can die happy now. My life has meant something. A real Madrileno has called me ‘super-majete.'” It’s a compliment not granted lightly.
But now a Frenchman is kind enough to recognize that I’ve understood something important about France in my Toulouse post. So I may have to die happy and satisfied one more time.
Wow, I didn’t think I could read such understanding words about any spirit of France from any Anglophone ! And you’re American ! But you’re a real traveler man, it can be easily noticed . The thing is me too had a love at first sight when I discovered Toulouse in 84 . And by this time there were dozens of bars with live gigs every night, even on mondays ! Better than NYC … If you have time, don’t miss 2 very old churches : la Daurade and l’église du Taur . La Daurade played a big role in the resistance against the Northern Barbarians sent by the Pope, and Notre-Dame du Taur is an old alchemistic sanctuary . The Cathars had discret connections with the Knights Templars, Toulouse was full of alchemists and the Kabbalah was elaborated in the South of France at this time, when the first writers started telling about the Graal . If you speak about romanesque love ( l’Amour courtois ) You should mention Clémence Isaure and her Jeux Floraux, a tournament of troubadours . There are many things to say another time, but I’m highly pleased by your article . Cheers and thank you .
( Don’t forget the girls, the most charming flowers of France …)
Thank you. And please do share any other thoughts and ideas. I’ll look up all the other things you mentioned.
Have you seen two previous recent posts of mine about France?:
Clémence Isaure and her Jeux Floraux, a tournament of troubadours (click)
(“According to legend Clémence Isaure was the foundress and president of Academie des Jeux Floraux (the Academy of Floral Games), a poetry and literature society dating from 1322. It is a perfectly real group and is the oldest recorded literary society in the world. This period of time was the nadir of the troubadours, or traveling musicians and poets who roamed around southern France and northern Spain, and who were responsible for a flourishing of culture in that area. The idea of having a literary society came out of their traditions, and this first one was founded in Toulouse, the center of the troubadour area. We know that seven troubadours/poets came together to found the society in 1322, and it was funded by the new bourgeoisie of Toulouse. However, in legend this lady, Dame Clemence Isaure, was an heiress of a wealthy family, and she never married. She left them all her wealth to start this literary society. She is seen as the ultimate patroness of the arts, and her reputation was as a beautiful, virtuous, and chaste woman who dedicated her life to culture.” — From: “To study in Paris is to be born in Paris.”)
Note: Phildange does make a point about southern France that I couldn’t find a way to fit into my original Toulouse post: that its cities were flourishing centers of Jewish life and scholarship and, yes, mysticism, Kabbalah — all of which was of course destroyed, the communities scattered, mostly to the Rhineland, then only a century or two later to Poland, to which they brought their esoteric learning along with the mediaeval High German that eventually became Yiddish.
If people here talk about the Albigensian Crusade like it happened last week, the more regionally nationalist talk about La Vergonha (the shaming) like it happened yesterday. La Vergonha refers to the systematic process of imposing French on the Occitan-speaking peoples of the south (number 7 and 8 on the map and if you want to include Catalan in the same family, which many linguists do, number 6 too) when education became compulsory in the nineteenth century. Reduced to a rural language (which has always come described in nationalist literature as “an unwritten dialect or patois”) after the Albigensian Crusade destroyed its high literary culture, the process involved not only the teaching of French but the systematic punishing of the speaking of Occitan, even outside of school, of the children of the region, and the conditioning of adults to feel embarrassed to speak it publicly as well. The statistics are truly astounding — and sad: “In 1860, before schooling was made compulsory, native Occitan speakers represented more than 39%of the whole French population, as opposed to 52% of francophones proper; their share of the population declined to 26-36% in the 1920s,and then dropped to less than 7% by 1993.” Despite strong pressure to do so, the French government still refuses to grant it official status as one of the nation’s official languages and frankly, with only 7% of the population actually fluent in it, why would they? And this is France, the state that created hyper-centralized statism. How Occitan nationalists think they’re going to obtain the recognition they want is beyond me.
This happened during the formation of every modern nation-state. A Greek Istanbullu of a certain age might find the sign above, from a French classroom, disturbingly familiar: “Citoyen, parle francais!” In Greece, only one linguistic minority really bore the brunt of such oppressive language suppression: the Macedonian speakers of the northwest. No Greek government would’ve ever dared trying to forbid the speaking of Turkish in the northeast; though actually calling yourself Turkish can still theoretically get you into certain kinds of trouble.* The Albanian speakers of south and central Greece were really not a problem; not only was the language clearly dying out of its own by the early twentieth century, but Peloponesian Albanians were already Greeker than the Greeks in their ethnic consciousness and had proven it by essentially fighting our war of independence for us; it seems that, historically, you give Albanians — Christian or Muslim — an incentive to go to war and they’ll become more zealous crusaders of your cause than you are yourself.** As for Vlachs, they were always chameleons, everywhere in the Balkans, mostly keeping their Vlachness to themselves and intelligent enough to let how they really felt remain a mystery to those around them; I recently came across a description of Vlachs as “the perfect Balkan citizens, because they are able to preserve their culture without resorting to war or politics, violence or dishonesty.” (They’re the little mustard-coloured dots spread out over northern Greece and southern Albania and Macedonia in the map above.)
But are they preserving their culture? That’s the question I get stuck on, no matter how much an enemy of forced nation-state homogenization I am. Or more specifically, how much is something like Occitan language-nationalism sincere and how much is post-modern micro-identities coming alive for some reason I’m not able to explain really? Is it just dilettantism? You hear a lot about Occitan here in Toulouse, the dialect of which, in fact, is the basis for the language’s standard; what you don’t hear is any Occitan. I live around the corner from an Occitan cultural center here in the Carmes quarter of the city and they have classes for kids and I hear them singing sometimes or reciting things. And whenever I see their parents out front waiting for them and the kids are let out all anyone is speaking is French. I don’t mind the EU spending money on bilingual signs — here, in Galicia, in Brittany, wherever — but those expressions of recognition actually seem more petty than anything else and some even seem disrespectful, almost a mockery: announcements in the Toulouse subway system are bilingual, for example. Great. So now the young descendants of the troubadours can proudly say: “Watch the closing doors. The next stop is Esquirol” in the Occitan of their ancestors.
Bilingual street sign in Toulouse
Or even in Greece. For the life of me I can’t imagine what “Arvanitika” organizations in Greece do: when nobody speaks the language, and they call themselves “Arvanites” and not “Albanoi” which would imply Albania, which is where their ancestors came from and that would be taboo. Do they try to revive the language? Not that I know of. Do they do anything that the Albanian-speaking communities of Italy do? Do they go on trips to Albania to get to know the land of their ancestors? Of course not. Do they set up aid organizations for recent Albanian immigrants to Greece in a spirit of fraternal support? Even less. They’re much more likely to have put them to work in their fields in Boeotia picking tomatoes for slave wages, or were until the new Albanians wised up. Or Vlachs. It seems that every year the number of Vlach cultural organizations and fraternal associations increases in inverse proportion to the number of true, living native speakers of the language that are still around. The material or music and dance culture of Vlachs is not noticeably different than that of their neighbors; if they’re not learning Vlach, what are they doing? Pane ekdromes? They could do that as regular Greeks too.
There are more dangerous and toxic manifestations of that kind of localized-identity nationalism as well, most noticeably the Basques. Less than 25% of the people who claim that they are Basques ethnically in Spain can actually speak the language at all — at all. I once caught a hysterical comedy skit on Spanish television where a man in San Sebastian was trying to pull off a bank robbery in Basque — on principle. And it wasn’t working because the teller couldn’t understand him. Then the neighboring teller chimes in about the robber’s grammar and that it’s incorrect according to the teacher at the night-school Basque classes she goes to and the other customers on line start arguing with him and the tellers about noun declensions and whether his use of the subjunctive is correct or not. And the robber starts to scream, frustrated: “I’m in Donostia (San Sebastian in Basque) goddammit! Not Burgos! And I can’t even hold up a bank in my own language!” Finally, the cops arrive and instead of apprehending him, they get caught up in the one-upmanship of the group of barely Basque-speaking Basques’ grammar arguments and the robber, frustrated, makes his escape. It was hilarious and it was on YouTube for a while but I haven’t been able to find it again. But that’s not all a joke. People killed each other in the hundreds for decades for a an identity with only the most fragile of real footing and a language that none of them spoke; and in post-Franco Spain, one of the most liberal, progressive on social issues nations in Europe, where you’re free to learn any language you want and maintain any kind of culture you like. So, at the risk of sounding glib, make the effort to learn the language first — BE a Basque first — before you start killing people.
I guess I’m a supporter of American style laissez-faire policies culturally and linguistically. No language should be prohibited; but none should necessarily receive state support either, especially for a language that actually has very little chance of survival. Reviving it, maintaining it, disseminating it is the community’s choice; if they can do it, halali. But a language or culture that’s strong enough or rich enough to survive will not need support of any kind, almost by definition. In multilingual situations where practical problems are presented, like with the immense number of Spanish-speakers in the United States, I think it’s fair for the state to step in and offer services that facilitate bureaucratic operations. But nothing more than that.
What’s irritating is the ethnicity-based nation state’s inability to believe that people can be successfully, functionally bilingual. People have been so for centuries, especially in our part of the world, where, especially in the cities, being monolingual was the exception rather than the rule, and almost as much so in rural communities, at least among men who had more dealings with the outside world or had emmigrating experiences. Puerto Ricans, both in New York and on the island, are going on their fourth generation of being successfully bilingual. I understand that with the spread of literacy and compulsory schooling some kind of standard had to be established, but that standard doesn’t have to be the same for every community. And ultimately, it’s not proper or efficient social functioning that the nation-state is looking for in imposing language uniformity (New York bureaucracies, where five or six or a dozen or more different languages are regularly used in the daily functioning of one office are much more efficient than, say, Greek bureaucracy); it’s ideological uniformity. The fear is not that you won’t be able to function in the national language; the fear is that if you speak another one as your first language it’ll serve as a conduit for anti-national ideas.
And that’s what the Vergonha was all about.
* “The Greek government refers to the Turkish community as Greek Muslims or Hellenic Muslims, and does not recognise a Turkish minority in Western Thrace. Greek courts have also outlawed the use of the word ‘Turkish’ to describe the Turkish community. In 1988, the Greek High Court affirmed a 1986 decision of the Court of Appeals of Thrace in which the Union of Turkish Associations of Western Thrace was ordered closed. The court held that the use of the word ‘Turkish’ referred to citizens of Turkey, and could not be used to describe citizens of Greece; the use of the word ‘Turkish’ to describe ‘Greek Muslims’ was held to endanger public order. Greece continued this stance in the beginning 21st century when Greek courts ruled to dissolve or prohibit formation of Turkish associations.“
**More on Albanians in Greece in an upcoming post.
Nole bombed out in Melbourne against…Wawrinka, so after being bumpd out of No. 1 by that mousey Catalan last year, this season starts off on a not-great footing.
Here’s part of the Times’ description of the match:
“MELBOURNE, Australia — Stanislas Wawrinka’s forehand sailed wide on break point in the fourth set, and Novak Djokovic screamed. Then he screamed again. Then he screamed once more. He screamed as if he won the tournament. He screamed as if he won the lottery. He screamed so loud for so long the chair umpire issued a warning.
The whole scene felt familiar: Djokovic against Wawrinka in a Grand Slam contest, the match more like a marathon, Wawrinka close but Djokovic beginning to pull ahead. It felt that way until the Australian Open quarterfinal ended with Wawrinka in front, the final score, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7. As the final point concluded, his face — eyes wide, mouth agape — registered the most shock of all.
Same movie, different ending. For Djokovic, a horror flick.
Wawrinka won their latest duel more than Djokovic, the defending champion here, lost it. Still, the final two points unfolded as if an understudy had subbed in,“
That last line’s bold emphasis is mine, because this seems to be a summation of Djok’s style, and which, paradoxically, may be exactly what makes me so loyal to him. First, however he’s doing on the court — well or badly — he’s never complacent. Never a Federer or the New York Yankees, for example, sailing through everything so elegantly that even when they lose you feel like they’ve won. Nole can be playing at the absolutely top peak of his game, his elastic frame all over the court, creaming his opponent — and it’s still a heart-and-soul struggle for him. A true agon, a passion in the original sense of the word. And that’s why I feel like I’m allowed the poetic license to call his sudden plunges into catastrophe those of the tragic hero. He’s hammering away like a god at one moment, and then suddenly some tragic flaw, some Achilles’ heel — I dunno, Kryptonite maybe — crushes him in an instant. You can never even tell what it is, like just now in Melbourne. Some tiny something undermines his confidence, some sensitivity pricked unnerves his soldier’s zen, and he goes to pieces. And it’s that vulnerability — aside from my Serb-crush, which readers have finally realized is kind of a running joke of the blog and not politically “incorrect” — that makes him so appealing and disturbingly loveable. He’s certainly consistently enough of a winner to admire — No. 1 seed for how long? — but then he always manages to give us that little bitter-sweet taste of defeat, in which, Borges says, when discussing why throughout the centuries readers of the Iliad, including the Greeks themselves, have always liked the Trojans more than the Greeks: “there is a dignity which can hardly belong to victory.”
The basic premise of the New Yorker’s stupid piece on him by Lauren Collins last September was that Djokovic is just too much of a savage (read ‘Balkan’ or ‘Serb’) for the genteel culture of tennis; “can he make us like him?” Collins actually writes at one point and the whole article seems to be asking the same question all through. And if I’ve half-jokingly made him represent something archetypically Balkan or Serbian on this blog, it’s been from the opposing position of a true fan and a joking that’s only a front for a deep seriousness. Because I really do believe there’s something heroic and archaic — even irrational — about this kid’s game. He’s fighting to the death every time. Mostly, the gods favor him. Then, at times, for some caprice known only to them, they abandon him and he falls.
And so his general brilliance is always tinged with the fear of some sudden, impending catastrophe of that kind, that’ll strike him down just as he’s reaching the summit. And that’s why he’s fascinating. And that’s why we watch him.
Biti dobro Nole. And on to victory next.
Miguel de Unamuno (click)
“Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly — but then perhaps, also inwardly, crabs resolve equations of the second degree.”
“El hombre, dicen, es un animal racional. No sé por qué no se haya dicho que es un animal afectivo o sentimental. Y acaso lo que de los demás animales le diferencia sea más el sentimiento que no la razón. Más veces he visto razonar a un gato que no reír o llorar. Acaso llore o ría por dentro, pero por dentro acaso también el cangrejo resuelva ecuaciones de segundo grado.”
See a beautiful full-length piece by Stefany Anne Golberg: The Philosophy of Death: Miguel de Unamuno was a man of contradictions. He saw tragedy and death in life, and that was why he loved it.
“Who ever lov’d who lov’d not at first sight?” Those who know that line know it’s Shakespeare from “As You Like It” – but actually it’s Shakespeare quoting Marlowe, a little homage to his more accomplished contemporary; interesting, particularly, because in my opinion Marlowe was a keener analyst of desire than Shakespeare, though I have only instinct and no textual support to back that up. The important thing is that it’s true. There’s now even science to support it; in “Narcissism Guides Mate Selection,” published in Evolutionary Psychology 2 (2004) Liliana Alvarez and Klaus Jaffe (?) write:
“Research has shown two bases for love at first sight. The first is that the attractiveness of a person can be very quickly determined, with the average time in one study being 0.13 seconds. The second is that the first few minutes of a relationship have shown to be predictive of the relationship’s future success, more so than what two people have in common or whether they like each other.”
And so it was with me and Toulouse. My first morning here I walked out onto the street at dawn, as the sun started coating the walls of the slightly pinkish brick that the whole city is built with and that was it. I think it actually took 0.9 seconds in my case. But I was finished. It was all over. I was lost, tumbling into that so familiar abyss. I had never fallen for a city so hard and so fast in my entire life.
Why? Well, “you can’t really say why you love somebody,” Stella says in Streetcar… but you try anyway, only because the temptations of let-me-count-the-ways and the attempt to grasp the ungraspable are so powerful.
To start with the most banal and obvious, it’s beautiful. Not a stunner, a Paris or a Florence or a Venice, but even more loveable because it’s not so perfect. Who wants every city to be Paris anyway? The medieval quarters are amazingly well-preserved and in the nineteenth-century neighborhoods it’s interesting to see the classic Haussmanian idiom of French cities translated into the local brick. But that’s not really it.
There’s the immediacy and availability of pleasure in all forms, somehow even slightly more than in the rest of France. Here, I’m reminded of Istanbul actually, because I think Turks might also have that same keen sense of “the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure” as the French do and even in Istanbul’s current hali, you feel, like in France, that you’re in the presence of a very ancient tradition of the production and consumption of luxury. New York tempts you at every turn as well, except New York makes you struggle so much to reach the promised gratification that it in the end it feels as if you’ve had it pulled through your nose, as the Greek expression has it.
The food: though these things are eaten all over the country, this is the home turf of foie gras and pork belly and duck confit and restaurants that proudly assure their customers that their french fries are made in goose fat, the way McDonald’s promises you there are no trans-fats in anything. The wines are thick and rough and tannic and delicious; the only place where there’s no need to worry about ordering: whatever house red comes by the carafe is always perfect. The streets are filled with always-full bars and cafes and the disconcerting sound of talking, of discussion, I mean of people really conversing. Then it’s a university town, so it’s full of beautiful young people trying to fix all of their above oral fixations: talking and drinking and smoking and making out in public all over the place just like they should be. And it’s not just the young; that magical ability the French have to make it seem like they have more available leisure time than people in any other industrialized country is even more visible here than in Paris, to the point where even someone as anti-work as me sometimes wants to ask: “Does anybody here work?” And it’s not Italy, where everything is so homebound — all so tied to mamma’s apron strings — that most life happens domestically and out of view. Here, more like Spain, it’s out on the street, even in January; it’s public, like in the natural polis. It makes all the difference. You can feel people needing interaction hungrily, like Greece in better days, craving the stimulation of others.
(This is a characteristic of the French everywhere — this love, this need for language and the exchange of ideas, sometimes what seems like nothing but a deep gratifying pleasure taken in the sheer enunciating. It’s why — if you don’t speak any French at all and have no clue what people are talking about — every conversation you hear seems to have this tone of desperate urgency about it. That the French are rude or cold or unfriendly is patent bull-shit; they are absolutely none of those things — quite the opposite; but if interaction or closeness is sometimes a little difficult to achieve if your French isn’t at least very good, it’s the importance of language again that explains it. Sorry — I think they feel — but life is too short and there’s too much to talk about for me to help you with your halting French right now.)
And then there’s St. Sernin, the spectacular Romanesque basilica named after the patron saint of the city, which has become a major obsession of mine and in which I’m finding myself unable to keep from spending at least an hour every day. This may not be the most beautiful church in Europe but it’s certainly the most beautiful Romanesque church in Europe, and for me, therefore, the most beautiful, since I have what’s almost – no, what’s clearly — a powerful erotic attraction to the style. Knowing the renovation history of European ecclesiastic architecture, its interior is almost suspiciously austere, so I’m pretty sure it was re-Romanesqued or de-Baroqued, or however you want to see it, at some point. This happened a lot in the nineteenth century, when Romanticism made the mediaeval more attractive to people than anything that had to do with the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries: it generally involved stripping later decorative accretions from older churches and restoring their “purity.” Especially in southern Italy one finds this having been done fairly often, with mixed results: some before and after images I’ve seen of Sicily’s Byzantine churches seem successful; with the famous convent church of song and legend, Santa Chiara in Naples, they didn’t have a choice, since the Baroque church had been bombed by the Allies into a burnt shell and they rebuilt according to the original Gothic plan; others, like the practically made-up design of that silly Moorish cathedral in Amalfi, are clearly failures. But whatever distractions they removed from St. Sernin I’m all for: nothing should impede the soaring, muscled athleticism of this structure and the space it embraces so powerfully. It has to be seen — and felt, like flesh — to be believed.
St. Sernin is god-like; the building itself overwhelming the idea of whatever deity is supposed to be honored there. The city’s other churches are more human and all quirky in the extreme. There’s the Jacobins, named after some father monastery dedicated to St. Jacques and not those Jacobins; but still kind of jarring — like Our Lady of the Bolsheviks or something. Only in France. This church is described as having two naves, but only has one nave really, with a towering row of palm-like columns running right down the dead center (?) like the rope at a Hasidic wedding, so that the view of the apse and altar are obstructed from almost everywhere, so much so that mass is said at an altar set up against one of the side walls because if you’re further than even ten feet from the real altar you can only see it by peeking from around these, granted, beautiful columns. Then there’s the city’s cathedral church, St. Etienne. This was begun as an unusually low-arced and unusually wide Romanesque church, but that idea was apparently scrapped as not grand enough, so they continued the rest of the church in a higher Gothic style. The thing is it wasn’t continued on the same axis. So you enter the older Romanesque part, which now almost feels like an exonarthex in an Orthodox church, then the building’s axis makes a left turn, for about 50 feet, then a sharp right, then continues down the central nave. Later they pasted a Renaissance — but it being France, still slightly Gothicky — belfry onto the northwest corner of the façade, and at some point a shorter little clock tower in front of that, so that, as disconcerting as the interior is, the exterior looks like it was put together from leftover pieces of different Lego sets. And yet it works. Works the way that French girl in the bar can put on an orange sweater and purple scarf and make it work. And, like her, St. Etienne is quite elegant and well-loved by all, in fact. And almost every other church in the city is that kind of pastiche; they must’ve been some art historian, early post-modernist’s wet dream back in the eighties.
“History is a personal emotion for you” a good friend once told me, and all these buildings are obvious signs of a weighty, turbulent past. Is that why I fall in love? Because someone has a complicated past? What we used to call “baggage”? You don’t have to be too long immersed in Toulouse’s diffuse and slightly transgressive air of sexiness (a national poll apparently voted the local accent the hottest in France), or venture too far out into the surrounding countryside, which even in the dead of winter looks so lush and cultivatable that you half expect figs and quinces or roasted partridges from somewhere to fall into your lap, to believe that what we recognize as Europe’s first love poetry and, in fact, the West’s entire concept of Romantic love, as perverse and ridiculous as it seems to the rest of the world (and is: “Wait, you mean you’re supposed to not get what you want?” Yep. “And just pine and suffer forever?” Uh huh…) all come from this little corner of southwestern France.* In fact, so much of what’s considered quintessentially mediaeval in the popular mind took some consummate form in this region. And that includes the fact that so many of the skylofrangoi Crusaders that effed us over in 1204 came from around here. But that no longer matters, you see. Because while the Pope’s apology for the sack of Constantinople in 2004 left me cold, Toulouse and love have taught me to forgive.
That brings us to the crusade which brought an end to all that love and poetry. If they think you know no history, which the French automatically assume about anyone who speaks American English, people here will talk to you about the Albigensian Crusade like it happened last week. The ostensible purpose of this “crusade” was to eliminate a group of heretics that were probably never such a large percentage of the population of southern France; I think a popular Dan-Brown-type interest in “alternative” Christianities has perhaps exaggerated the importance of the Cathars, who were actually weirder than any mediaeval Mormons one could imagine. But it was the perfect excuse, with the blessing if not egging on of the Always and Eternally Holy See, for the kingdom of France and its northern dependents, to go on a conquering rampage throughout the independent duchies and counties of the south, decimating and depopulating whole swaths of the most urbanized, prosperous and sophisticated part of Europe and ending, as well, Europe’s first vernacular literature by destroying the court culture that supported it and reducing its language, Occitan or Provencal, to a despised folk dialect. This strikes all the chords in my personality that are peculiarly sensitive to the marginalized, the subjected, the memory abandoned, the tradition vanished, the lost, the forgotten — “all those things you know and tell me of, things that are long dead,” as the lyrics of a favorite Greek song testify.
(It’s why I love the Italian South as well. And it would maybe be why I’d love the American South too, if there weren’t so much else so ugly about it.)
So does that explain it? I don’t know. Who did you fall in love with Stella? Obviously someone completely in love with himself. That’s a powerful draw, isn’t it? Self-confidence. Probably goes for France as a whole. We think they’re all that because they’re so obviously convinced of it themselves, and that’s fine with me: “Great souls are always loyally submissive,” Carlyle said, “reverent to what is over them: only small mean souls are otherwise.” But even for France, I have never come across a city or a population so cocksure confident of their specialness than Toulouse and the Toulousains. Remember, we’re not far from D’Artagnan’s hometown here, and actually, if there’s any truth in the exaggerated cliché that Toulouse is a little bit of Spain in France (when it’s really Barcelona that delusionally thinks it’s a little bit of France in Spain), it’s that people’s comportment here has a definite element of swaggering, almost Spanish majeza** to it; and add that to the already elaborate culture of French flirtiness and you get a heady mix for sure. And it’s the only city in France where rugby is more wildly popular than soccer and that tells you something too. St. Sernin, come to think of it, is built like a rugby player.
So is that it? I dunno. A mix of all that? Self-confidence bordering on the sweetest kind of arrogance? Sophistication with a definite rough edge? A behind the scenes complexity you don’t see all of, not at first at least, if ever? Something quirky and slightly off: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” as another Brit said? I don’t know. And probably don’t really care. I just know how it feels. And for those of you who have made it this far, sorry, I have no images of the Beloved to share — just the bricks. He’s all mine.
– For G., Toulouse, January 2014
* The most powerful, searing contemporary treatment of Romantic or Courtly love in all its cancerous beauty is Kaija Saariaho’s 2002 opera, L’amour de loin (Love from Afar) with a libretto by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf. It’s based on the real, historical figure of Jaufre Rudel, a 12th century Aquitanian prince and poet who fell in love with a Toulousainne princess married to the Count of the Crusader state of Tripoli in Syria (makes Maalouf’s collaboration even more interesting) without having ever seen her. The music and poetry are beautiful and the opera’s psychological insights are razor-sharp — disturbingly so. The end leaves you in pieces on the floor — me at least. You’ll never come closer to the soul of Majnun in the desert than this.
It’s a shame only one aria is in Occitan; it would’ve been a real coup and homage if the whole libretto were. Get the DVD; Dawn Upshaw has to be seen and not just heard.
**Majeza,n., or majo, adj.: you can read the whole post where the meaning of this word appears previously: “Un Verano en Nueva York”, but if not, here’s the quote from it:
“Majeza is a very Spanish term that encompasses such a complex of qualities that it’s difficult to explain, especially in English, which is tragically lacking in a comparable term, as its speakers (aside from the Irish) are in most of its qualities. It means openness and frankness and humour and swagger; it means being hospitable without being in anyway servile; it means being able to put away copious amounts of wine and pig meat; being friendly and spirited and generous while always maintaining a kind of stylish dignity and flair; it partakes of some of the qualities of Greek and Turkish leventeia in that sense; in fact, it’s a word with a certain undoubtable Balkanness about it. Soon after the term appeared in, I think, the late eighteenth-century, working-class barrios of Madrid, it almost immediately became associated during the Napoleonic Wars with the city’s street kids, who terrified the French with their suicidal bravery, so it probably originally implied a quickness to pull a knife too and no squeamishness about seeing a little bit of your own blood shed as well. That doesn’t apply anymore, though the ferocity into which demonstrations in Madrid have descended these days makes you think twice about that; I’m proud of the angry tenacity of the Spanish protests; don’t know what they’ll accomplish but it’s good to know Spaniards can still be scary; that anger has become such a stigmatized, pathologized emotion in our civilization (“You know…I think you have a lot of anger…”) is partly what’s let banks and governments get away with what they have over the past few decades and generally has brought us to the civilizational crisis we find ourselves in. No, it’s not the other way around. In any event, courage is still certainly an implied element of being majo. There’s a great, chapter-long analysis of majeza in Timothy Mitchell’s Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting, if you’re interested and can get your hands on it.”