I was walking late last night through my neighborhood when I saw a man weaving toward me along the sidewalk – short dark hair, mid-30s, dressed in jeans and a windbreaker, probably Polish. He staggered into a waist-high fence and flipped onto it, the blunt iron fenceposts plunging into his stomach. The shock and pain straightened his legs and his eyes cleared for a second.
‘Be careful there,’ I said as I walked by. He tried to follow my voice to me but I had already moved past him and he went staggering away.
‘In Paris, when they want to disparage a man, they say: ‘He has a good heart.’ The phrase means: ‘The poor fellow is as stupid as a rhinoceros.”
– Honore De Balzac
Im reading ‘Eugenie Grandet’ and as always, Im astounded by Balzac. The mixture of penetrating observation – both in psychology and physical detail – is paradoxically, seductively combined with the most heart-rending melodrama. It’s strange that he’s not read more widely or isnt such a critical darling as say Flaubert, although I think Flaubert might lend himself more easily to certain kinds of critical theorizing. Certainly Balzac is much more of a joy to read than Flaubert or almost anyone else, for that matter. One of the great pleasures of life is that I’ll always have more Balzac to read (ninety plus novels?).
In ‘Eugenie Grandet’, a young Parisian snob is sent to live with relatives in the country. While he sleeps, his relatives read in the paper that his father has killed himself. The pathos is built by having the young man continue to sleep while the family prepares breakfast. The sense of gathering doom on a sunny morning is a small display of Balzac’s perpetual genius machine.
For many reasons, Balzac clicks with me, maybe because he’s a Marxist romantic before there were Marxists (Marx loved him but Balzac was of course actually a complete royalist). I think his work would lend itself well to serial TV treatment in some updated version.
I teach a writing class at an inner-city boy’s center. I like it, not least of all because after class I get to play ping-pong with the kids. At first, they assumed I’d be a vic, but now Ive shown them that I got game.
When I walked in this week, the director was making a speech to the kids in ‘study hall’ where they apparently had been acting up. The speech rambled across racism, prejudice, the illusion of a professional sports career, self-esteem, etc. The director started talking about television shows with Black role models, how there was the Cosby show back in his day, and now there were a few more shows but…’We have ‘Girlfriends’ yeah, we have ‘Girlfriends.’ But you know, we don’t even write that show. Jewish people write that show.’
That woke me up. He couldnt have said it, but then, to make it emphasis his point, he repeated himself. ‘Yeah. Don’t be fooled. Jewish people write that show.’ He didnt return to that theme, as if it could be easily understood from there.
Now, this director is a light-skinned African-American guy, and most of the kids in the program are black and Latino (in a room with about twenty-five people, there were two white kids and me). In our few conversations, Ive understood that the director is from a pretty established middle-class family, one going back for several generations, you know, ‘talented tenth’ material. I understand that an anti-semetic element infiltrated the Af-Am middle class long ago, but it chilled me to see someone promoting it to a room of fourteen year-old boys in between demands that they stop chewing gum in class and encouragement to think closely about their academics.
It’s always fascinating and disturbing to see bigotry expose itself from out of the fabric of everyday life. You realize that there is a reservoir of bias and hate out there waiting to be called upon and manipulated.