Friday, June 16, 2006

Of Rene Char, David Hamilton, cello music, and chocolate

Blogging from a little park up in a very homey neighborhood in the 13th above the Place d'Italie, in Paris, up the Rue Bobillot. It is one of the most beautiful days we've had all this trip - after some incredibly hot weather for a couple of days, it rained and cooled off yesterday, and today is spectacular - cool, clear, low humidity, blue skies and sunshine. I have a review session to conduct with my international business law students in advance of their final exam tomorrow, and I have managed to finish drafting the final exam. The students on this trip have had less free time than I have had - Jean-Marie, Renee, and I have managed to make it to the Louvre, the D'Orsay, the L'Orangerie to see the Monet waterlilies, and a couple of other museums besides. We - meaning Renee and I - tend to get up late but then it stays light late here too. Last night we had a lovely touristy dinner at Altitude 95 in the Eiffel Tower.

Yesterday, however, I spent most of the day on an expedition of Personal Growth and Learning. I started out down near the Pont Neuf and worked my way slowly up through the neighborhoods to the Latin Quarter, then the Rue Mouffetard, and finally back to the hotel at the Place d'Italie, in a complicated search for the finest chocolate in Paris and also critical works on Rene Char. I started out with the small chain Cacao et Chocolat, on the Rue Buci, where I bought several interesting things. I noticed, however, that almost next door, in one of the galleries, was an exhibition of David Hamilton photographs.

Hamilton has spent the last thirty years photographing female adolescent nudes. I think I've mentioned him before on this blog. How to describe him? He's considered more or less child porn in America, slightly smutty in Britain, and art in France, as someone once put it. I once wrote a review of photography of nude adolescents in the Times Literary Supplement, where I compared him with the (much more serious) American photographer Jock Sturges - here on SSRN. I said, I think, some interesting things in that review, but my wife and former professional photojournalist Jean-Marie Simon said it best at dinner last night - no, of course Hamilton is not a child pornographer, but he is more or less the Ralph Lauren of nude photography, a kind of faux profundity and very superficial beauty. Anyway, it was quite interesting to see photographs that I had reviewed in a photo book full sized in a gallery. They were of course more impressive as full photographs. They are also more impressive as genuine art seen individually - there's something about an entire book of erotic photos of barebreasted 14 year olds that makes it feel smutty in a way that a single image does not. The single image, seen alone, gets attention as a work of art in a way that the whole collection does not.

Okay, and now I'm out of time and I haven't mentioned my search in the bookstores of Paris, especially up in around the unversity areas, for critical works in French on Rene Char - in the midst of my search for chocolate. I'll fill out this blog post more thoroughly tomorrow. What a gorgeous day. Not a day to be inside, but I have to go do the review session with the students. More to follow.

The search for chocolate. Well, the issue is to find outstanding chocolate that is not already available for half the price in Trader Joe's in Bethesda, which means small artesanal shops rather than the large companies like Valhrona. Also, I am interested in chocolate - not truffles or chocolate confectionary. Paris is outstanding on chocolate as chocolate. I stopped by Cacao et Chocolat, which was pretty good - a small chain, I guess. But as I worked my way through the Sixth, the best place I found was Patrick Roger (have to check name, may have this slightly wrong, and I'll put the address). I picked up several bars of single origin cacaos from places I've never tried. Can I really tell the difference? I'm not sure. I wouldn't want to try a double blind taste test. I do pick up certain things like differences in acidity and certain flavors.

Meanwhile, while working my way through the chocolate shops as I moved up the Left Bank, through the Latin Quarter and up to the Rue Mouffetard, I was also going into literary bookstores, in search of critical materials on Rene Char. I've written about Char a lot on this blog. But my interest is very confined - it is about his wartime writings in the Resistance. But while there is some stuff on him generally as a poet in English, it is hard in the US to find critical material in French. So I was pleased to be able to find a couple of serious studies, both favorable and unfavorable, in French. I have this inchoate project in the back of my mind to put together a special section of some journal specifically on Char's Leaves of Hypnos. I am interested in it because of the way that its representation of the ethics of war. But I am interested in what others might say about it.

Char's reputation has declined significantly since his death in 1988. I was talking to my sister in law, Kit Wa Hui, about this last night at dinner. She studied French literature at Cal before becoming a filmmaker, and her comment was that Char had come to be regarded as arrogant, prickly about his reputation, and that his aphoristic poetry had come to be seen as more obscurantist than revelatory. You might say that the most emblematic use of Char's poetry was by M. de Villepin as the title for his silly, silly book two years ago on French foreign policy, with a phrase of Char's as the title, The Shark and the Seagull. The unkind comment would be that one overrated, arrogant intellectual deserves the other.

Nonetheless, I still regard Char's Leaves of Hypnos as an extraordinary achievement in the literature of war and war's ethics. To describe war as "this time of damned algebra" captures something exactly. There is much of that kind of insight in the book. I'm not especially interested in viewing it through the lens of the literary critic or the poet. I'm interested in it from the standpoint of war and the ethics of war, and in that, I think that Char's actual experience carries, and continues to carry, considerable weight.

Now, where would be a good venue to ask for a handful of articles in a mixture of English and French on Char's Leaves of Hypnos? Telos, perhaps - I'll have to take it up with Russell Berman, the new editor.

Cello music. I stopped in a couple of music stores looking for cello sheet music that I might not have seen. The truth is, though, that sheet music is widely and easily available on line. It used to be that I would sort through the sheet music available in any country I visited, to see what I wouldn't see at home. But these days, it is all posted on line.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Flowers for Voltaire

We went yesterday afternoon to the Pantheon in Paris – walked up the Rue Mouffetard and past the Ecole Polytechnique on the Rue Descartes. We had visited the Pantheon before, and I had a very specific reason for going back this time, which was to leave flowers at the tomb of Voltaire. You remember, good old Enlightenment Voltaire? ‘I disagree with everything you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’. Free expression is under deep attack from the new clericalists (nearly exclusively Islamist when it comes to violence, but with too many Christian, Jewish, and secular progressive fellow travelers, hoping to cash in on fear of Muslim violence against those who offend them with a reversal of the Enlightenment’s great achievement in removing the legal sanction against heresy and blasphemy), on the one hand, and in deep surrender by today’s morally spendthrift, multiculturalist heirs of the Enlightenment, on the other, who frankly have no legitimate claim to the title “liberal.” Voltaire would not recognize those who call themselves ‘liberals’, supposed defenders of universal rights today. Today’s multiculturalists would shut up Voltaire in a hurry, and then hound him from place to place; if he were to find refuge, it would not be in Geneva, but, as in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in the United States – as against the whining of Western, including American, “progressives,” who despise America’s First Amendment, mostly because it is so … liberal.

So I thought I should walk up to the Pantheon to leave flowers at the grave of Europe’s chief historical defender of the principle of free expression. The guard was very kind and let me leave flowers in front of his statute. Actually, there are lots of flowers and notes left at different tombs all over the Pantheon – a lot when we were there for Malraux, Rene Cassin, even some for Jean Monnet. But none that day for Voltaire.

(There is one other person in whose memory I make a point of leaving flowers each time I visit – Bartolome de las Casas, the Catholic monk who was one of the earliest to declare within the Catholic Church and in the teeth of the Spanish monarchy, that the New World’s inhabitants were … human beings. His famous work, Tears of the Indians, is a classic in the history of the development of the idea of liberal and universal human rights. His ancient church is in Guatemala, and when I am in Alta Verapaz, I make a point of going there to leave flowers.)
(The Pantheon, of course, reflects precisely the deeply ambivalent, divided inheritance of the Revolution in France. The great temple of St Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, seized from the French Church following the Revolution and turned into the ‘temple of the nation’ in an act of simultaneous religious desecration and secular sacralization that characterized a revolution defined by Rousseau as interpreted by Robespierre. At least twice it was revived as a Catholic church but then re-seized and returned to secular functions.)

World Cup mark 2

Okay, so maybe the World Cup is just a little bit interesting.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The world cup and sports generally

I don’t care about the World Cup. And it’s not just because I’m an American who doesn’t care about football – I don’t care about sports at all. And I refuse to get defensive about it! I just don’t follow any sports. So sue me.


Yesterday we came from London to Paris on the Eurostar. Of course it’s just another tunnel, but I had never gone under the Channel before and I found it very exciting, even if everyone else on the train was fast asleep. Our hotel is in the Place d’Italie, in the 13th. It is adjacent to a very lovely neighborhood, with a number of small restaurants and a very homey feel to it. I’m afraid that Renee and I were exhausted and slept through the morning – my wife, who always wakes up at 6:00 am no matter what the time zone and is ready to march across the city, was not so thrilled but was able to adjust to husband and daughter’s laziness. I’m now sitting through Professor Viano’s really outstanding introductory lecture on the founding and evolution of the EU – it’s terrific, I’m learning a lot, and I thought I knew a lot (it is always helpful even with stuff you know to hear a well-organized review, it helps sort it out and organize it in your head). I wish, actually, my kid were sitting in. She’s shopping with her mother. Someplace called Agnes B. Hmm – I’m starting to wonder if this trip will actually break even. But I’m skipping out early from the lecture in order to go to the Pantheon, which is perhaps a mile from here walking. The weather, once again, is fabulous – in the low 80s and blue skies and sunshine. (The only difficulty in all this – and it is minor – it is hard to get web access in the hotels – wi fi in the lobby, but the connection is very slow and unreliable.)

(I normally don’t drink coffee, but on this trip I seem to be having a very tough time changing my internal clock, so I’ve been drinking espresso mixed with chocolate. Also, I have been yelling at my kid to stand up straight – French posture is so good compared to American slouching, and my kid is first on the list of American slouchy kids, hunched over and walking with a craned neck. Looks terrible and so very bad for you. A French friend in Spain – she was about to move to the US with her two half French, half American daughters – told me she was worried they would not learn to walk like Frenchwomen, and walk instead like American girls. I asked what she meant and she was quite specific – American girls, she said, hunch over like they’re embarrassed to have breasts, lead with their shoulders like football players instead of standing tall and walking from their hips, crane their necks in and out with each step like a chicken, and generally give the impression of being Neanderthal, slumped over and knuckle dragging, and not tall, proud homo sapien, the only primate with truly upright posture – regular readers of this blog will understand that it is very far from America-bashing, but she is absolutely right. V told me that her father said daily to her and her three sisters growing up – stand up straight, stick your chest out and show the world what you’ve got. Yes – and let’s hope my darling daughter is listening.)

Teaching in WCL summer comparative law program in London

So, we just spent a week in London, while I did my IBT teaching. “We” means my wife, daughter, and me. The hotel in London was on Trafalgar Square – you couldn’t come up with a more central place for theatre, bookstores, museums, etc. It was fabulous – we got half price tix for a couple of kid-friendly musicals – Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. And we also went and saw one serious theatre piece, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the Hungarian novel Embers, with Jeremy Irons. Serious drama, extraordinarily well-acted. We also went to one lovely concert – at St Martin’s at Trafalgar Square – the London Concertante, a string sextet, which performed the Souvenir de Florence and a Brahms number – they were also outstanding. All of this stuff was within a five minute walk from the hotel. It had been a very long time since I had been in the London museums, but this trip – it helps to have a straight week – we went to the Tate Modern and saw the Surrealists, went to the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, and also went and saw the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill museum.

My brother is a lawyer with an American law firm in London, where he does tax and private equity law. His wife is a rising young star in the world of independent film – her short film, Missing, was shown at Cannes, and she was awarded a Cannes writing fellowship, which she is currently doing in Paris – her husband travels weekends from London to Paris on the Eurostar to be with her. So we have family reasons to be in both London and Paris. In London, we spent a lot of time with my brother, when his schedule permitted, which my 13 year old daughter especially liked, as it gives her a chance to get away from her fuddy-duddy parents. But I also managed to catch up with Philip Bobbitt, who spends much of the year in London these days, and then my old and dear friend John Ryle, head of the Rift Valley Institute and now a hoighty toighty chair in anthropology at Bard College in New York, who hosted us all for dinner at his flat, despite the fact that he had just arrived back in London from Sudan, where he had contracted typhoid fever. (Not quite all of us – my brother John took daughter Renee out for a Saturday night going around to various London places with one of his tax partners – she came back at 2:00 am and felt so very, very grownup!)

The weather, I should add, has been unbelievable, so I’m told – blue skies, sunshine, temperatures up around 80 degrees, no rain or mist or anything else the whole week.

Traveling and teaching in WCL's summer comparative law in Europe program (advertisement!)

I haven’t been posting because I have been traveling, without good web access. My law school has a very nice comparative law summer program (this is an advertisement to all you law students) that starts in London, moves to Paris, and finishes up in Geneva. The first week, in London, is a class – taught this summer by yours truly – on elementary international business transactions. Second week, in Paris, is on European Union law, taught by the organizer of the program, Professor Emilio Viano – he is both an outstanding teacher as well as fabulously knowledgeable on the European capitals where the program takes place. The third week, also in Paris, is on international human rights law, taught this year by our school’s dean and famed human rights scholar, Claudio Grossman. Then the last week, in Geneva, is on international environmental law, taught this year by WCL’s own David Hunter, who is a very well know litigator in this area before joining our faculty (there’s someone else teaching that as well, but I’m not sure who).

The program also takes a day trip from Paris to Brussels to visit EU institutions – in fact, the whole program has many, many excursions to official institutions, with lectures and presentations by various officials, arranged by Professor Viano through his many years of contacts in the program. It is a terrific program, for six units of law school credit, and my impression is that it is pretty cost-effective as education abroad goes. Most of the students are between the first and second year, and I, at least, teach on that assumption – I treat the IBT section as an international contracts class, and don’t assume much knowledge of business associations law. This year the program has about 50 students, mostly from WCL, but maybe 20% from other schools. Check it out at – it somewhere there on the school’s website.