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Jewish World Review March 7, 2002 /23 Adar5762

Dave Shiflett

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In search of an Acceptable Frenchie -- YOU can hardly go wrong kicking the French. Every other day someone from that fair land reminds us that treachery, cowardice, and corruption are part of the human condition, and perhaps a special part of the French condition.

Lately, we've heard high French officials denounce our nation's antiterrorism policies as "simplistic" and seen a French Olympic skating judge given the heave for apparently conspiring to aid the Russians (old habits die hard). These people spend an inordinate amount of time grousing about Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. Americans can hardly be blamed for wishing we had let the Germans annex France and wiped our hands of the whole mess.

Yet the fact is, not all French people are sneering dopes. Indeed, every Frenchman and woman I know — not many, to be sure — are wonderful human beings, in love with life and only slightly obsessed with their appetites and desire to be seen as sophisticated and superior. They are hardly alone in those desires. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a mousy fellow if ever there were one, apparently has told his staff that the suburbs are full of second-raters while city dwellers like himself are the Crowns of Creation. If people want to flatter themselves, what's the harm? They'll end up in Boot Hill with the rest of us and that will be that.

The larger fact is that we should not be so hard on the French. We're at war and it is widely believed the French have excellent contacts within the shadowy world of international terrorism. They might betray those contacts, for the right price. Meantime, a closer alliance between the people of our country and theirs couldn't hurt. We should recognize, after all, that the French don't hate us nearly as much as the papers suggest. Only about one-tenth of the French population is anti-American, according to French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. That's not so bad when you consider that at least 80 percent of Americans don't like the French.

One way to forge closer relations is to recognize the existence of sympathetic Frenchmen. Unfortunately, most Americans probably can't name a single Frenchman they really like.

Lafayette, of course, should come to mind, though one assumes his name barely makes it into our history books any more, lest it crowd out some preferred personages such as the fellows who developed the Comanche nation's central banking system. Charles de Gaulle strikes most modern Americans as being far too arrogant, and of course he was ugly. Jean-Paul Sartre remains a hero on some campuses, in some part due to his love of Fidel Castro and his relationship with the ghastly Simone, who presented herself as the strong independent type but played the doormat with every bit the dedication of the most ignorant, toothless, wood-chopping, water-toting, backwoods-trailer bride. Sartre was also quite ugly as well.

So who can be held up as a Frenchman Americans can love? Victor Hugo comes to mind. Hugo, the great poet and novelist whose 200th birthday was Feb. 26, will be celebrated over the course of the next year. His corpus — and his spirit — may serve as a bridge of understanding between his nation and ours.

Hugo is best known here as author of Les Miserables, largely because his masterpiece was made into a pop opera. He also wrote the book we know as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While writerly types are not the typical American hero, at least these days, he once had a large following here, especially after the publication of Les Miserables in 1862, which was popular with soldiers fighting our Civil War.

And no wonder. Unlike many of our current authors, Hugo could write. Here's his description of the conniving innkeeper Thernardier:

"An innkeeper's business," he once said furiously and in a low voice, "is to dispense to all comers food, rest, light, heat, dirty sheets, maidservants, fleas and smiles; to lure the passer-by, empty small purses and legitimately lighten larger ones; to afford the traveling family respectful shelter and fleece the lot of them, men, women, and children; to reckon the cost of everything — the open window and the closed window, the chimney-corner, the armchair, the straight-backed chair, the stool, the settle, the feather-bed, the hair mattress, and the truss of straw; to know how much a mirror wears out in the darkness and take this into account — and, by God, make the traveler pay for everything, down to the very fleas his dog eats."

That is much better than the ruminations on neurosis, impetigo, crotch-gazing, bungholery, and other topics of current infatuation. More to the point, Hugo wrote about universal themes in a highly compelling way — whether the subject was love, war, revolution, poverty, or religious faith. He also, to be sure, made great copy.

Hugo was a big man, thanks to a sizable beef and wine ration, and also a highly accomplished satyr, to the degree that would put our former president to shame. Hugo had a wife and mistress of long standing, with the latter usually living nearby, along with countless girlfriends of short duration — perhaps a half hour or so.

He was also in possession of an unquiet mind. While pounding out Les Miserables, for instance, he was known to have conversations with fence posts and much greater Beings as well. Hugo is quoted by biographer Samuel Edwards as saying, "I am probably the only person now alive who has discussed the nature of the Godhead with none other than the Holy Ghost himself. It was an edifying experience, principally because I discovered that He and I were in total agreement — in all our views."

Americans admire a man with self-confidence, and also a winner. Hugo earned a large audience and lived into his eighties, with some two million citizens attending his Paris funeral. Today, we can rally 'round him as well, at least until we suffer another slight at the hands of the French, which with any luck will no doubt occur before this column is published.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Dave Shiflett