The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”
Our second night in the old monastery, thumps on the landing told us company had come. We were sprawling in the kitchen over drinks. From the shadows of a hallway emerged a green jacket, green necktie, a pair of green jodhpurs – draped on a chap who looked as if he’d lately leapt from a horse. It was Roger Scruton, the keynote speaker at our American studies symposium, his curly red-gray hair windblown. He announced he was a foxhunting man, a note that set our animal-welfare nerves a’jangle. Roger harbors such strong opinions on that hoary sport that he wrote a book, On Hunting, to endorse it. With some alarm, I realized our symposium theme of Loisir et Liberté – Leisure and Liberty – would be open wide. My research abstract had landed in Roger’s hands, and though he disagreed with me that rodeo enacts an imperialist nostalgia, he favored the cowboy’s inspiration and proposed we kick off the two-day symposium with a drink.
From a kitchen cabinet, he scavenged a bottle of whiskey and we began to sip. The social lubricant of booze, I’ve discovered, can make for odd bedfellows. Before long I was reciting my favorite Wallace Stevens verse with a deviant zeal. “Two things of opposite natures seem to depend / On one another,” Stevens had written amid WWII. In little time Roger and I came to learn that we agreed on almost nothing. Nonetheless we swapped opinions for an hour in that petite cuisine. Leaning against a kitchen counter, he cradled his ambered glass in his right hand. Only later did I discover his standing as a philosopher, an ethicist, a public intellectual and author of some twenty books.
Roger represents a vanguard in conservative thought. He offers commentary for Forbes, Wall Street Journal, National Review and the Heritage Foundation. He has enjoyed visiting stints at Cambridge and Princeton. Long ago our symposium organizer took courses from him at L’Université de Pau. One of Roger’s more recent books is The Soul of the World, “a defence of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism.” Illiberalism, I concluded long ago, offers safe harbor for a boatload of nostalgic impulses. Roger’s fondness for such leisure outlets as fox hunting owes its ardor to an “experience of membership that crosses the barriers of class,” he claimed. In that clever turn of phrase, he turned around a historically elitist sport to nip at the heels of anyone who despises foxhunting as a species of animal cruelty.
Hunters from adjoining English shires engage in chasing and hounding the fox. The death of the animal is swift, certain, Roger wrote. Even merciful. If the fox takes to a cowardly burrow, the hunters must labor with spades to unearth it. English author T.H. White watched as a fox that had gone to ground was dug up and tossed to hounds. A circle of hunters, he wrote with sad disapprobation, “screeched them on.” American hunting, Roger sniffed, that is mere shooting, not at all the same. The hairs on Karen’s neck were standing up, just as a guard dog’s would in the course of a home invasion.
Roger had not read William Faulkner’s novella “The Bear,” which I praised for its instance of American ritual, American chase. Also I thought to broach bearbaiting, long discredited in civilized nations. But then I remembered historian Thomas Macaulay. He had written with a smirk in 1849, “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” I pledged to myself to sidestep further controversy and honor the late hour; I had swilled my fill of bourbon and conflict alike. Jetlag, moreover, had me firmly by my short hairs. And so I tried to make nice by shifting our conversation into neutral territory. I gazed out the windows and commented that the Eiffel Tower was sporting a set of sparkly lights. Acidly Roger remarked that such ornamentations were modern devices of which he did not approve.
Two weeks after we got back, Roger sent me a letter, a bit of a bitter missive. England had banned foxhunting. He hoped to relocate to the states. He and his wife owned Virginia real estate and he was bending toward a stateside lectureship. Like us, the couple was raising two small children. Roger had been pricing Virginia boarding schools – superior forms of education in any nation, he averred. It was almost as if my newfound friend were showing off his nimble nature, his ability to fall on his feet.
When I read his letter, our French connection came rushing back. I remembered how President Nicolas Sarkozy, when he came into office, tried to quell African Muslims who were protesting his election. In a fit of militant muscle, Sarkozy ordered riot police to fire tear gas at those rowdy crowds of Paris protestors gathering in the streets. He dismissed them in the newspapers as “scum.” In the wake of the Trump election, such protests and reprisals have come to pass. I wonder what Roger Scruton thinks of Trump.
An Institutional Chill
Our travel to Paris had been an ordeal. After a day and night of plane failures and layovers, sprawling in lobbies and shuttling to hotels, we travelers had grown inert as so many lumps of flesh. Twice we trundled ourselves and gear on and off jets at O’Hare without catching any air. Transportation Safety Administration officials patting us down never cracked their plasters with the faintest smiles. A quartet of French musicians trooped along with us. The mandolin player, unshaven and longhaired, got flagged each pass for the most detailed of electronic scans. He bore the undue scrutiny well.
Traveling musicians must find time to practice. In the airport concourse, he and his mates on fiddle and guitar began to play a Franco-Gaelic mix of shanties and reels. All of us auditors sat agog, grateful almost unto tears for distraction from the hurry-up-and-wait routine. As they swung into the tunes they’d borrowed from Cape Breton, the harmonica player sprung up, faint enough sans microphone, grooving and bending at the waist all the same. Our low-tech respite began to knit gooseflesh on my neck and scalp. The BTUs of acoustic music thawed the institutional chill. Karen and I felt as if we could have levitated with the players and swung our shanks on that cold tile floor.
At the University of Paris-Sorbonne we were promised paupers’ lodgings. To that ancient academy-cum-monastery I had been invited to hold forth on rodeo. My talk would earn us our room. My slides of clowns, queens, broncos and bulls would import dirt to the haute couture of Paris. My views on fleet creatures and cowboy culture would prompt some productive dismay, or so I hoped. Seesawing between extremes has always kept me steady. Where the cultural fulcrums totter, there I try to balance and ride.
The call for papers for the symposium had emphasized the theoretical. Organizer Pierre Lagayette urged us speakers to find ways to wedge open the theme of Loisir et Liberté. I proposed to guide his comers around the rodeo arena from an anthropological point of view. I’d excavate rodeo’s custom and culture. I’d look hard at the dodgy ways nostalgia fuels and perpetuates it. Some of my research told me Natives had capitulated to the cockeyed rules of rodeo in order to beat out white competitors at their own game. I’d seen that devastating game take place in the town of Omak, at its Suicide Race, the deadliest horse contest in the world, which injures riders and their rides year after year.
As a conscientious objector to the sport, I shelled out only rarely to mingle with the flag-wavers, country-music fans, buckle bunnies and lanolin wranglers. But I grew up around horses, I rode a fair bit myself, and my abiding favoritism for animals over their handlers colored everything I saw. That prejudice taints my views of the Wild West I live in. Objective scholarship has never been my interest or my strongest suit. Mine is an advocacy erudition, an ecocriticism, an offshoot of the biology that was my first major in college. It’s a pity objectivity is hard to achieve, an almost unrealizable dream.
Objective scholarship has never been my interest or my strongest suit.”
Travel is not a pleasure but a set of problems. Fraught hurdles, tricks and traps.”
An Ivory-Tower Severance
Outside the gates of the Sorbonne, uniformed vigiles confronted us as if it were a fortress still today. Had they been on guard at Le Bataclan nightclub when the terrorists attacked, fewer people might have died. In cracked French, we made it clear we had a room in our names. Head upstairs, they said, and see the president to get a key. And so we schlepped our bags up resonant flights of marble risers, only to find the office locked. We rang a doorbell twice, trying hard to remember the day of the week we’d arrived.
At last a silk cravat opened up a crack. Then, like the castle keeper in The Wizard of Oz, he relocked the door and left us in the hallway. Following two days on planes and subways, we thought we’d already done our dreamy duty – evaded the flying monkeys, slain the witch, fetched back her broom. Finally he admitted us and three fonctionnaires began to flutter. Desired we juice, Perrier, cheese? We requested two bottles of water and stood up to carry them out. But too soon a bottle was opened and poured, and too late we perceived our cultural blunder as we watched the server bend to hammer the cap back on. And so we set out to make amends. We sat and chatted, grateful for reprieve from the Western Laconic we knew too well at home. We were finding welcome respite from the flat affect of the Marlboro man, the contrived languor of the Great Basin states.
To get to the university’s fourth floor we had no help from an elevator under immobilisation, its sign told us, for weeks yet to come. Up another set of echoing stairs and along a hallway paneled in old-growth oak, we wheeled our capacious bags and stood before a doorway whose punch-code had been entrusted to us. We put in the numbers, we breathed relief, we rose to yet another creaky floor. Panting at last before Les Appartements des Professeurs, we plied our precious key and flung open the door.
A wainscoted hall wound past scant monastic windows. Outside them the lighted Eiffel Tower arose. My latent travel aversion faded, my adrenal saturation drained. The tension from the vagaries of our protracted journey flowed away like so much water from a rooftop gargoyle’s throat. The windowed corridor gave out to a marbled parlor with built-in bookcases, to an indoor phone booth (a cabine téléphonique) dedicated to the land line, to ornate chairs and cut-glass windowpanes, and to a furnished kitchen we would share with three other symposium speakers. Woozy, jetlagged, we flopped on the bed. I pulled aside Karen’s long hair and nuzzled her neck with a stubbly chin. Paris for us would be a second honeymoon, some eight years after coupling up.
Travel aversion like mine at its pathological extreme can ripen into hodophobia, or so I learned when I researched it. Greek for path, hodos (or ὁδός) lies at the root of hodophobia. Sufferers fear paths, literal and figurative. Travel is not a pleasure but a set of problems. Fraught hurdles, tricks and traps. Jittery hodophobes can stomach neither level roads nor channelized streams. Just as natural rivers meander, like the game trails I traced as a child, natural paths and streams follow geographic contours, the capricious curves of Earth. While living rivers wander, roam, and stray, straight paths estrange.
The next morning, we dozed a long time. Musical notes began to pierce the floor beneath our room. A practicing pianist was gentling us awake. The music shivered softly at first, then with ardor once the blood grew warm, the coffee kicked in, the passion built, the day grew bright. Were we earwigging Brahms, Berlioz, Debussy? To be driven to rest in bed inside a building where scholars kept their studios and offices was novel.
Robert Sorbon, the King’s Chaplain, founded the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1257. He thought likeminded scholars ought to live and study in ensemble like monks. Soon the school became synonymous with the doctrinal practices that shot through most other medieval universities. Church fathers led interpretive studies of ancient texts; they practiced “patristic exegeses” on their pupils. Traces of that tradition stain the building’s towers and spires, its echoing passageways that twist like gangways on a ship, its broad brass handrails and icons of hollow-cheeked saints, its pictorial homage paid to intellectual elders. Old cigarette smoke clung to posters and walls and made the common areas musty. The toilet stalls were so hampered and cramped that even slender vegetarians had to turn sideways to get inside. And for all this, the Sorbonne managed to maintain a studied composure, an ivory-tower severance from the burly world below.
A Surrogate for Dirt
Once the hour for my talk arrived, I set up a slideshow of snaps from rodeos and began. In the front row Roger leaned in to see the animal imagery on the screen. My address was the nominal reason Karen and I had traveled all the way to France. Now I found myself in a defensive posture, my ideological adversary so very close at hand.
I trotted through rodeo’s key events then asserted that the peppercorn sport typifies a conflicted desire for bygone times. As a leisure outlet, it fulfills an “imperialist nostalgia.” Sociologist Renato Rosaldo had coined the term to characterize imperialism; I extrapolated from his portrayal and I brought the image home. Rodeo participants romanticize the Old West and the native cultures that their ancestors set out to subdue.
Such intricate wistfulness allows rodeo participants to contend with the guilt that stems from benefitting economically from a century of annexation. Renegades like those who occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016, near the town of Burns in the U.S. state of Oregon, believe a centralized government infringes on their rights. They hope to seize the public’s lands, as if public benefits and privileges have become entitlements.
The notion of nostalgia arose in the seventeenth century when a Swiss physician fused the Greek words nostos (a return home) with algos (a painful state). That mix typified a strain of melancholy experienced by the nation’s mercenaries, by soldiers paid to engage in combat far from their birthplaces and feeling sick for home. Enactments of wild times in rodeo share a similar pathological smack. In some rodeo events, humans deck the animals as they might dress children or dolls. Cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep, less often horses or bulls, are gigged up in hats, skirts, frilly shirts and forced to enact skits.
Such complicated humanizing of animals is the behavior of those seeking novel ways to overtop more-powerful beasts. The patriarch Torvald Helmer, in the Ibsen play A Doll’s House, shares a like desire to control his wife. He dresses Nora up in gypsy garb and has her dance a frenzied tarantella. Rodeo participants might likewise mourn, without acknowledging it, the absence of those qualities and objects they have altered or destroyed. For the patrician Helmer, it represents the undomesticated woman he had wed, the free and easy wife-child. For rodeo patrons, the past had cattle roaming on the open range. Untamed Indians living self-sufficient and outside reservations. Wild creatures unconfined by brands, barbwire, rifles, swords and knives. Such refining ~ such dressing and controlling ~ demonstrates the dominance of culture over nature.
Rosaldo also assessed the ways “someone deliberately alters a form of life, and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to the intervention. At one more remove, people destroy their environment, and then they worship nature.” As I spoke, I began to quake. The room was filled with top-flight international scholars. Spent energies from my adversarial evening were compounding my time warp and my hangover, my inborn fear of travel. The podium seemed to totter. I gripped its sides. Investors eying the markets, I asserted, bring about the end of nature. They name cars and shoes and office parks to commemorate razed places, lost species and beings. When I travel the highways, I see them as they pass. Cougar, Cherokee, Mustang, Apache.
It bewilders still today – that process of yearning for what we have destroyed. Rodeo as a cultural category had to be invented. Although the frontier folded long ago, rodeo can stun for its revelation that raw possibility and borderline wildness still might thrive as an impulse; that costumes, drama and dander might replicate its violence.
We city dwellers eat it up. We find quaint solace in the rodeo, in paying witness to the disorder and the dirt. When riders enter the arena, hoofs raise clouds of dust. When bull riders tumble, when ropers bulldog a calf, dust haloes them. The quest to subdue large mammals, if only for the eight seconds aboard a bucking bronco or pinwheeling bull, confirms the rodeo rider in an elevated identity. It bestows on him the powers of those bareback beasts. If some hunters commune with their prey by stalking and eating it, the rodeo rider gains a dirty interspecies merger with her horse. I spoke slowly at times, let the images work for themselves, I took long drinks of water.
Objections to my talk were vehement, but so were my apologists. One professor from the University of Calgary protested that we should not have to turn ranchers off the land and I agreed. Another said the risks of rodeo to humans were perceived risks only, negligible when held up against other extreme sports and transports. Perceived risks, I rejoined, become actual risks mighty fast on a bareback bull whose weight can run a ton.
Roger used the question-and-answer session to tout fox hunting. The scholars in attendance came to know his disposition. He accused me of class prejudice, of snobbery and opposition to rural folk. Woozy after our whisky-sodden talk, I held my ground and kept on my feet, thanks to support from several in attendance that had actually attended rodeos. No fop, I decided, was going to lecture me about the America I know.
It bewilders still today – that process of yearning for what we have destroyed.”
Like a pair of characters in a comic drama, we gnashed in tandem, dripping on sidewalks and our hands.”
City of Light, City of Scents
Time to go, Karen whispered. We packed up and headed across the university courtyard. Statues of Victor Hugo on one side, Louis Pasteur on the other, framed the whole quad. Like so much of old Paris, it is paved in massive cobbles, three-foot stones rounded at the corners, uneven enough to turn an ankle on. How did she do it, Juliet Binoche, when she high-heeled her way across such cobbles in the movie Bleu?
Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen beckoned us, the largest flea market in the world, fifteen acres of it, 2,000 covered and open stalls. Gauntlets of gee-gaws reached out to seize our euros. Colored crafts crowded cardboard tables. Awnings gaped. African vendors hawked their wares. Wisps of incense squiggled to reggae rhythms. The funk of a cheese shop down one side street seeped into the perfumery next door. Being the rube who was foolish enough to buy it, I ate a dated fromage that welted up my tongue. We were ingesting soil of a sort alien to us. Urban dirt, less familiar and more aromatic.
At an art-print shop we paused to catch our breath. Karen untucked her hair from her new mauve scarf. Waist-high racks cached jewelry and engravings. Illustrations of New World nature glowed from within, peaches and penumbras like Allen Ginsberg’s supermarket. Images of les Indiens by Theodore de Bry mesmerized us, oiseaux by Mark Catesby and Alexander Wilson, plantes by William Bartram. One anonymous engraving titled Les Indiens d’Amérique du Nord à la Chasse featured a herd of pinto ponies, their noses arrowing after a herd of bison on the plains. Atop the horses a band of monstrous Indian riders thrashed them to the chase. The kicker came in the riders’ facial shapes – the thick lips, the dark skins, the heavy brows and kinky hair. The artist had imagined and depicted those Native Americans as Africans. Briefly considering a lowball bid on the oddball 8” x 12” picture, priced too high at ninety euros, I decided it held only archival value, antiquarian appeal. It would never do for display in office or in home.
A greengrocer’s cry of “Un euro!” – used to attract buyers to the purple-fleshed figs at his sidewalk stand – carried beyond the narrow streets to scramble and mash reality’s candor. Ridden hard and hung up wet, as the saying goes, I likened myself to a saddle blanket from rodeos whose images still filled my head. The taxing travel, jet lag, Jack Daniels, strong French coffee, and ideological ferocity were teaming up to bust my rusty French. My tongue wrung dry, I was grateful beyond words that Karen knew the city well. She rose to the challenge and guided me, blind and bumbling Mr. Magoo, till at last I began to relax into our French sojourn and fell into a species of Parisian swoon. I knew that nothing momentous lay on the horizon and that no further mischief loomed.
The event of entering the city and walking its streets gained a surreal edge. The farther we strayed from the Sorbonne, the more the strange sensation pleased me. The dishing out of coins and bills, the commerce of words swapped in the course of buying a scarf or drink, made it seem as if my lover-wife and I were scarcely parting air. Never before had I felt quite so insubstantial. The tremors of my travel antipathy fell away.
We were sightseers no one noticed till commercial promise gave us shape, till we entered zones where the loss of currency lightened our load. Time’s disorder and the sundry fluids had so far de-centered me, I felt as if I had the capacity to cut through glass and stone. We gained substance when we lost it, and the losses themselves invited courtesies: Bonjour, Merci, Au revoir. Fellow symposium-goer and poet Alan Michael Parker appeared and led us. In a casual shop he hailed a tailor, tugged the vest he’d bought and piped, C’est bon! Smiles creased each visage. Un euro! the greengrocer bawled again, as a calf might do to summon its mother, an udder, some warm milk.
Through doorways of galleries and stores we slipped without notice, we tripped from booth to booth in the outdoor markets, as if finger food could carry us throughout the day. Spectral in the city, linked to others by trade if we were linked to them at all, we found the illusion of insubstantiality broken only when $5.80 euro left our pockets, when we shared the airy baguette baked around a bed of calamata olives and oil, when our teeth tore the bread, when we scuttled the vessel where the pond of oil swam. Like a pair of characters in a comic drama, we gnashed in tandem, dripping on sidewalks and our hands. We walked, wiped, laughed, gawped and chewed. Far from being Americans of substance, we were light enough in pocket and heart to float upon the notes of cathedral bells and the Mediterranean spices that seemed to have no origin or source.
Ours were substances we could abuse – our American bearing, our indigent ways, the intoxication of financial exchange, salivation triggered by ornate window displays. Awakening as if from hibernation, we found ourselves, we steadfast vegetarians, lusting for the salts on the smoked and hanging shanks of hogs. Pressed to a glass, fogging it up, we admired the delicacy of the sugar that powdered the berries on the fresh-baked tarts.
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