Thursday, March 17, 2005

I go on at Length About Things that are Probably Only of Interest to Me

I have something to confess which is going to make my conservative friends even angrier at me than they all ready are. I’ve started learning French. I’m sorry. But I’ll have you know I did stick up for the USA recently (see blog entry a few days back).

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of history from 19th century Europe, and particularly France. It’s a subject I was first turned on to during my “Modern Europe” class at Calvin. In middle and high school, none of my history classes ever talked about the age of revolution in Europe. I had assumed that European history had essentially ended after America became independent, and nothing of any importance happened there again until the World Wars.

But the cycle of revolutions that shook Europe during the 19th century seem to me to be more exciting than any of the political turbulence during the 20th century. For instance the Revolutions of 1848, which started in Paris, and then quickly spread to every European capital. Added to the wars of independence in the same year in Latin America, and unrest in India, 1848 can legitimately be called the greatest year of worldwide revolution, which makes 1968 look very tame by comparison. Although most of the revolutions of 1848 ended in failure, it must have been an exciting time to be alive. Much of the today’s radical politics were formed in 1848.

Or the history of the first International is interesting as well. The men and woman of the first International, including Karl Marx and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, traveled Europe working for Revolution in an age where the collapse of government, an end to war, and the universal brotherhood of mankind seemed like it was just a few steps away. The fact that the members of the International came from every country in Europe, and worked for revolution in every country in Europe, shows a real romantic view of true international revolution.

The Paris Commune in 1871 also fascinates me, when the left briefly took control of Paris for two months. Unquestionably the Paris Commune was a diverse lot, consisting of socialists, communists, Jacobins, and Blanquists. But if we broadly define anarchist as anyone with Proudhonist sympathies, than a large portion of the Commune can be classified as anarchists. Imagine that the anarchists once had control of a major European capital. And to think that all this, the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, were not happening in the back waters of some 3rd world country (as we might expect today) but in the heart of Western Civilization.

Anyway, that’s why I’m interested. I don’t know if this will lead to anything in my future, like further studies in graduate school someday, or not. Reading about it in my spare time is one thing, deciding to dedicate my life to it is quite another. But I’ve decided that it wouldn’t hurt to start learning a little French just in case.

I had previously been trying to learn Korean. I had bought a couple books and language CDs, and had asked a Korean woman at my church to tutor me. She graciously agreed to study with me once a week, and I tried to study by myself on a daily basis. After about two months, I hadn’t learned a single word of Korean. I knew how to say “Hello” and “Thank you”, but since I knew that before anyway (from my trip to Korea 8 years ago), I essentially didn’t learn a single word in two months of studying. The sad part is I’m not exaggerating. I did however manage to get a shaky grasp on the writing system, and could read and write the characters by the end of it (for what that’s worth).

So I’ve decided to give up on Korean, and substitute French instead. And wow, is that ever a whole lot easier.

After studying Japanese for the past 3 years, I’m beginning to think I should have switched over to French a long time ago. I haven’t studied French at all and already I know a lot of words. “L’ Internationale”? I’m pretty sure that’s “The International.” “humain”? Turns out it means human. “criminel”? It means “criminal”. After years of staring at Kanji figures in a textbook, this seems like a piece of cake.

I’m even learning a lot of Japanese from my French studies. When I tried to learn Korean, it was a one-way street. I’d listen to the Japanese word on the CD, and then if I knew it I could try and learn the Korean word as well. Now if I don’t know the Japanese word, chances are I can recognize the French word and then learn the Japanese word as well.

The only thing that discourages me a little is no one expects you to be too good at Japanese or Korean. Whereas for French the expectations are a lot higher. Canadians and British people, for instance, study it from elementary school. So it does seem a little silly to be just starting to dabble in it a little at 26 years of age.

But I’m hoping my Latin background will help out a bit. Also since my only goal is to be able to read it, not write or speak it, I hope that will help as well.

Right now I’m trying to learn some French by memorizing the words to “The International” and “La Marseillaise”. I was recently reading a book by Howard Zinn in which he talks about how in the early 60s civil rights workers in the South used to sing “La Marseillaise.” It’s amazing to think that a song written in 1792 still seemed relevant enough to sing during the civil rights movement.

“The International” was written during the Paris Commune. A book I was reading on the Paris Commune commented that given the bloody suppression of the radicals involved, you would expect an angry anarchist song to emerge. But “The International” evokes the image of a hopeful future in a world without kings and a united human race. I’d like to think the dream is not completely lost even now.

One of the language CDs I bought recently has the words to “La Marseillaise” on it, so I’ve been listening to that to help me with the pronunciation, but I still don’t know the tune. By contrast I know the tune to “The International” from listening to the English and Japanese versions of it, but I don’t know how to pronounce the French words.

Also when I was at the demonstration in Quebec I heard a lot of other revolutionary French songs which I’d like to learn, but don’t know the names of. Perhaps someone can help me out. I remember one was to the tune of “The Ants go Marching.” Does anyone know what it is?

And while I’m asking questions, those accent things on French words: do the French themselves actually write with the accents, or is that just something for foreign textbooks? And what is that thing that sometimes hangs off the “c”?

1 comment:

PB said...

Hey Chewie,

You might really like this book called _The Rites of Spring: World War One and the Birth of the Modern Era_. I read it for a History Graduate school seminar, and it blew me away. The book essentially argues that the cultural struggle between France/Britan and Germany mirrored the First World War. If you ever get back to the US, I'll give you my copy!
Peter