Sometimes the stack of books on my desk fills me with ennui, like that time it was nothing but narrative theory and I wanted to die. Other times it gets me so incredibly stoked, like that time it was nothing but histories of monsters in fiction.
Now is one of those times!!
“CITIZENS AND CANNIBALS”
“Les Démons de la Nuit”
and its English translation “THE DEMONS OF THE NIGHT”
“History of the Secret Societies of the Army”
and finally, a biography I have to read, of a French dude, which in and of itself wouldn’t be that awesome, except that
(a) it’s very celebrated
(b) but it’s in English
(c) and, it’s extremely short
I have become so enamored of my native language. There’s all this stuff I have to read that’s never been translated out of French, and it is so much harder than I ever imagined, even though yes, I can kind of read French. When I see that something has been translated and is in English, in the library, I feel this genuine affection and love. “I’ll read that shit in two seconds,” I think to myself proudly, “I’ll know all the conjugations without even trying!” It is empowering to know a language so well, even if it’s the only one you know. Actually, it’s not that empowering. But, it’s making me think about language in a weird way. I’m finding my English is getting mixed up because I am trying so hard to speak French. My brain will be such a muddle that I’ll say something like “ME NOT HAVE!” while trying to speak English. Then suddenly yesterday in French class I opened my mouth and THE ONLY WORDS I could think of were in Spanish. Just like that! Wonderful, fluent Spanish poured into my mind, and I just sat there gaping and the teacher had to help me “remember” words like “moi” and “être.” No joke! I finally just said “je suis désolet” and gave up (you never forget how to apologize in another language). Language is weird. We Americans are fools for not forcing our children to go to immersion schools to learn literally any other language as children. Also, why did I study Spanish for seven years?? And when I finally switched, why did I switch to German? How was I to know that one day I would need desperately to speak French? And all that Spanish was for naught…I never even went on the Ecuador overseas program because I wouldn’t have been able to graduate on time. And I need not tell you how the German was for naught. All I can say now is “schnell!!!” which I already knew before I even took German. My life has been a series of failures. If only we could look into the future in order to decide which language to take in 8th grade when you had to pick between Spanish or French. Spanish seemed so much more useful! And the Spanish teachers were always so much more fun. Why was that? But I digress.
The other day it actually took me three hours to translate four pages of this guy’s history of the Reign of Terror. But I am still pleased. Check this out:
“The orator knelt down, got up, and then, turning towards us, he thanked…he PAID TRIBUTE TO…the guillotine, in the name of liberty, with a variety of expressions so graciously frightening, with a conviviality so appalling, that I felt a cold sweat stream over my forehead and bathe my eyelids. I wanted to forget all that is sad in my memories…but I was not able to forget it, this fanatical procession of Le Propagande that had the executioner for a pontif, and the guillotine for an altar!!!”
THAT IS AWESOME.
It’s weird to be studying ancient beheadings while there is somehow a new trend of beheadings sweeping our world. I think it started with Daniel Pearl, maybe?? But what is going on? That guy in Canada beheaded that person on that bus, and then some other guy beheaded that woman in a restaurant recently? And then that guy who runs the TV station dedicated to destroying stereotypes about Islam just beheaded his wife. BEHEADING?? What is going on? How do you just up and behead someone? Doesn’t it take a lot of work? I mean, do you have a knife that is sharper than I can comprehend? It’s terrifying to think you could just be sitting at a restaurant and then somebody beheads you, just like that. I can think of many ways I would rather die than being beheaded, although it’s better than being eaten by a shark.
Did you know that France didn’t stop using the guillotine as its method of capital punishment until the seventies? The NINETEEN seventies. It’s true! They just moved it from outdoors, where people could have a picnic and throw dogshit at the condemned, to some gnarly indoor steel bunker. Can you imagine? Capital punishment is always gnarly, but THE GUILLOTINE.
Also, England still practiced the art of the pike, i.e. “cutting off somebody’s head and sticking it on a sharpened spear for everyone to look at while it slowly rots, in order to illustrate some sort of point,” until surprisingly late. I can’t find it now, but it was the mid-to-late nineteenth century! I can’t believe I can’t find it…I know I taught it to my class full of undergraduates, so hopefully it wasn’t one of the many made-up lies I purveyed as truth before them. Was it Cromwell, the last piked head? Jesus
(in searching for the class notes where I may have written down that little historical tidbit, I found the notes for a class on renaissance music in which I apparently spent the entire 50 minutes talking about all the different ways medieval governments tortured people to death. I also apparently retold the plot of an SNL skit. Basically, you should take a class from me (God knows I will give you an A).)