The Return of Martin Guerre
Ever see The Return of Martin Guerre? It’s the best movie.
Actually, it’s the worst movie, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
It goes this way: Martin Guerre is married to Bertrande,
but in 1548, he goes to fight in one of those seemingly
interminable wars that the French were always fighting,
and he doesn’t return until eight years later. Boy,
is Bertrande happy to see him! There’s only one
problem, which is that the new Martin Guerre doesn’t
exactly look like the old one. And when he starts to squabble
with relatives over his inheritance, they say Hey, this guy’s
an impostor, and things don’t get any better after that.
Life is kind of like cooking, isn’t it? It’s hard to get
everything to come out right and at the same time.
When I played high school football, there was this one team
from a tiny little town in South Louisiana that beat us
every time, beat everybody. That’s because they had
this running back named B. J. Bordelon who nobody
could stop. They just had four plays: B. J. to the right,
B. J. to the left, B. J. up the middle. Naomi Shihab
Nye told me there’s a Palestinian-Jewish circus,
but they have a hard time practicing because it’s not
easy to get everyone on the same side of the wall
at the same time. Thing is, you want the person
on the trapeze who catches you to practice a lot.
Nobody knew what B. J. stood for, though somebody
said it was for Boy Genius. Yesterday I went back and
forth with a Facebook friend who told me she’d read
the latest hot novel by the latest hot novelist, and when
I asked her how that had gone, she said, “It was all right”
but that she “didn’t love it,” that “it felt like it didn’t
know it was a novel.” Didn’t know it was a novel . . .
ah, ha, ha! For god’s sake, know what you are, whether
you’re a novel or a regular human being like yourself
or me, although that’s probably easier said than done.
Last week I told my students to imagine there’s a button
on each desk, and if you press yours, you’ll go immediately
to heaven and dwell there forever in a state of eternal bliss,
whereas if you don’t push the button, you’ll leave
as usual at the end of class and walk out into the life
that awaits you, so make your choice and explain
in 500 words or less, and of 36 students, 34 said
they’d stick around and take their chances. How optimistic
they are! And how eager for at least a certain amount
of the rough-and-tumble they see as necessary
to attaining bliss, even though I had promised them
bliss without all that. Part of bliss is having things
turn out in ways you didn’t expect, of course,
as when Francis Bacon’s portrait of Neville Chamberlain,
which is crammed with evocations of Hitler’s bunker
and bloody cow carcasses and other horror-film
imagery, began as a painting of a bird descending
onto a field. If you know what you’re doing, it’s not art.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was the original shock rocker,
but he made one big mistake. Before there was Alice
Cooper or Iggy Pop or Sid Vicious, there was Screamin’ Jay,
who emerged from a coffin onto a stage festooned
with snakes, skulls, and fire pots to sing such songs as
his hit, “I Put a Spell on You.” His shows were sensations,
and tickets sold like free passes out of purgatory,
but before long, he was trapped by the persona he had
created. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be Screamin’
Jay Hawkins,” he said. “I’m sick of it, I hate it!
I wanna do goddamn opera! I wanna sing! I wanna do
Figaro! I wanna do ‘Ave Maria!’ ‘The Lord’s Prayer!’
I wanna do real singing. I’m sick of being a monster.”
Yeah, but he was a great monster. Who knows
how good he’d have been as an opera singer?
“The only paradise is paradise lost,” said Proust.
And Paul Valéry said, “A difficulty is a light.
An insurmountable difficulty is a sun.” Not that all
Frenchmen are as smart as Valéry and Proust, of course.
The painter Ingres liked to play his violin—badly—
for visitors instead of showing them his pictures,
from which we get the expression violon d’Ingres,
meaning “an activity other than that for which one
is well-known.” Come to think of it, I should have
offered my students a third choice besides going
to heaven instantly or staying here and enjoying
a fully-lived life with all the ups and downs that would
turn them into fully-dimensional human beings,
and that third choice would be to go to heaven instantly
and look down on the fully-lived life that they’d
already lived with all the ups and downs that not only
turned them into fully-dimensional human beings
but made them worthy of an eternity in heaven,
which, come to think of it, full-dimensionality
just might be the key to. But that would be a movie,
wouldn’t it? The Return of Martin Guerre ends with
the real Martin Guerre showing up; he’s ugly
and is as mean a snake. Bertrande says well, I guess
he’s the real Martin Guerre, and the phony Martin
Guerre is tried and hanged. When the judge asks
Bertrande why she went along with the hoax,
she says, one, she needed a husband in that society,
and, two, she was treated well by phony Martin—
in the sack, specifically, where he was gentle
and listened to her “before, during, and after”
(“avant, pendant, et après”). Real Martin, besides
being ugly, is angry and impetuous; he doesn’t seem
as though he’s going to be a nice guy anywhere,
especially in bed. As to phony Martin, all he wanted
was to cuddle with Bertrande and . . . oh, that’s right.
Maybe he shouldn’t have gone after that inheritance
after all. See what I mean about it being
the best movie (because well-made) but also the worst
(because who wants to see phony Martin spinning
at the end of a rope)? The best-laid plans of mice
and men and so forth and so on, mainly so on.
Another singer, not Screamin’ Jay Hawkins this time
but country star George Jones, said he’d rather sing
a sad song than eat. Want to watch a movie?
I know a good one. It’s set in France. Look, popcorn.
Did you know that Galileo was a Mason? Okay, he wasn’t,
but that didn’t stop the Masons from digging up his body
a century after his death, performing a secret ritual known
only to members of that fraternity, and reburying it
in the church of Santa Croce near the tombs of such
humanists as Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Rossini
and in that way doing their Masonic best to put
a sharp stick up the nose of the Vatican that hadn’t
exactly jiggled Galileo on its purple-clad knee and told him
what a good boy he was when he started talking
about heliocentrism. Italy’s a meshuggah country anyway.
I mean, they all are, but Italy is, like, meshuggah-meshuggah,
and I mean that in the best way. Case in point: when I was
in Rome a number of years ago (and I’m not inventing this,
you can look it up), I went to a jazz club to hear a quintet
headed by Romano Mussolini, son of, that’s right,
that Mussolini. See? I mean, if you were in Munich,
you wouldn’t expect to go to a concert by Buddy Hitler
and His Sieg Heil Singers, would you? Only in Italy.
Experts says that’s because Italy was an ally of Germany
during the war and then its foe, and individual allegiances
led to clashes between Fascist and partisan forces that
continue to resonate to this day. The Red Brigades
of the anni di piombo or “years of lead” romanticized
the partisans and continued their struggle with shootings
and bombings from the late sixties forward; their targets
were mainly elected and appointed officials, many
of whom had been Fascist leaders who made no attempt
to hide their pasts. Countries such as South Africa
and Northern Ireland had similar divisions, but they faced
their problems, whereas working out what happened
in Italy is like trying to write on water. When I saw him,
Romano Mussolini was playing the piano and not badly, either.
And the other musicians were rocking out, slapping the hell
out of that bass and pounding those drums. They weren’t
exactly cutting edge, though: they were banging out
“Satin Doll,” “Misty,” and “Mood Indigo” instead of
the newer stuff. It worked, though. Those old fascists
in the audience were shouting and pounding their tables,
spilling their drinks and scattering ashes everywhere.
I’m presuming they were fascists. They looked fascist,
if you know what I mean. Of course, I was there,
and I’m not fascist. Besides, there are worse things
than fascists. Like Nazis: in 1943, the German authorities
in Rome demanded that the Jewish community hand over
50 kilograms of gold or face immediate deportation
of 200 of their members. I wouldn’t exactly call that
neighborly, would you? You know who else was a Mason,
but for real this time? Mozart, that’s who. Now there’s
someone who lived a full life. As he lay dying, Mozart
was visited by a man in gray who asked him to write
a requiem with the condition that he seek not to discover
who had commissioned it, so even though he was rehearsing
The Magic Flute and was 40 pages or so into La Clemenza
di Tito, Mozart took the commission, being typically hard up
for cash and also dying. The man in gray was one Leitgeb,
the emissary of Count Walsegg-Stuppach, whose wife
had died that same year and who wanted to honor her memory
with a piece of music of which he would pretend to be
the composer, thereby proving that Italians aren’t the only ones
interested in cover-ups, fakery, deception, illusion,
and sleights of hand. Now imagine Count Walsegg-Stuppach
saying to the man in gray, “Leitgeb, or whatever your name is,
I hear this Zugzwang or Flugzeug (or whatever his name is)
is pretty good, so tell him to knock out a piece for me,
and nothing too complicated, if you know what I mean.”
Only Mozart couldn’t not be complicated, could he?
You can imagine how upset Count Walsegg-Stuppach was
when the Requiem showed up just brimming with all sorts
of technical achievement. When word got out in Rome
that the Nazis were threatening the Jews with deportation
unless they coughed up that ransom, Jew and gentile alike
streamed into the city’s synagogues to turn over jewelry,
watches, and cigarette cases. Only the goyim didn’t know
what to do once they got inside: take off their hats?
Keep their heads covered the way the Jews did? No one
took their names, either, so there’s no way to thank them.
Look out, baby, the saints are coming through!
“That things are not so ill with you and me as they might
have been,” said George Eliot, “is half owing to the number
who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The important thing is to be kind, and also, if you play
a musical instrument, to play it to the very best of your ability
every time. When I was in grad school, I lived in
an apartment building that was slowly being converted
from a residence for old folks to one for grad students like me.
My next-door neighbor was working on his PhD
in violin performance, meaning he practiced constantly.
Some of the old-timers who lived on our floor
asked him to keep it down because they wanted to nap,
talk to their grandkids in California, watch Jeopardy.
Others left their doors slightly ajar so they could hear.
Let’s talk about how we woo our darlings.
The first thing is, don’t worry about your smell.
You smell fine. You don’t need those pricey colognes.
Sooner or later, your darling’s going to smell the real you,
and then what are you going to do with that big bottle
of Insolence or Nice Flowers in your medicine cabinet?
Have you been in an elevator recently and someone gets on
who has doused him- or herself with most of a bottle
of Perhaps or Unforgivable Woman? If you’re going to be
snorting and wiping your eyes anyway, better that person
should have spilled Ken’s Fat Free Sun-Dried Tomato
Vinaigrette on their clothes or Kraft Velveeta Cheesy
Jalapeño Ranch; at least that might have given you an appetite.
“The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,”
says Whitman, and who’d know better? Perfumes, colognes,
essences, attars, and scents are for the birds. Words are
the thing. Sweet nothings, poetry . . . rhetorical firepower!
So many beloveds over the centuries, so many dear ones,
ducklings, lambkins, chickabiddies, apples of one’s eye.
And so many memorable letters to them! Thomas Jefferson
was a statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher,
and more-than-a-little-hypocritical father of American
independence since he didn’t extend that status to
the 700,000 African-Americans under his jurisdiction,
but at least he used his left hand to write a letter of twelve
pages or just over four thousand words to one Maria Cosway,
a married woman he had just met and fallen for and with
whom he took a walk during the course of which he kersplatted
while vaulting over a fountain, thus proving that within every
future president lurks a lovesick schoolboy, and broke his wrist.
Only one problem. Okay, two, the first being that the letter
consists almost entirely of a dialogue between Head and Heart,
only the two voices sound so alike that you may say that Heart
is just as stuffy as Head is if not stuffier, and if you said that,
you’d be entirely correct. The other thing wrong with Jefferson’s
letter is that it didn’t work: Maria Cosway said fine, whatever,
and stayed with her husband. What’s wrong with these guys?
Beethoven did the same thing, only worse, because whereas
Maria Cosway had only one child, the Antonie Brentano
whom Beethoven called his Immortal Beloved had five.
Wait, I know. These guys were pitching woo to married moms
for the same reason women marry death-row prisoners,
which is that they’re unavailable: you can be as romantic
as you want to be and never have to put up with, on the one hand,
the brats and the diapers and the bills and, on the other,
the tattoos and the shivs and the threats to tell your husband
if you don’t top up their commissary account so they can treat
the fellas in the yard to candy and smokes. Gentlemen,
you have to write with your head, but in such a way that
it sounds as though your heart is speaking, as Joyce did when
he wrote to Nora Barnacle, calling her “My dark-blue,
rain-drenched flower!” but then offering to take her from behind
“like a hog riding a sow, glorying in the open shame
of your upturned dress and white girlish drawers and in the confusion
of your flushed cheeks and tangled hair.” All right!
The scent of these armpits, the scent of these armpits!
Actually, the most beautiful love letter in the world is the one
Virginia Woolf left for her husband on the morning
of March 28, 1941 before filling her pockets with stones
and stepping into a river. “Dearest,” she wrote, “I feel certain
I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another
of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time.”
I owe all my happiness to you, she says, then “if anybody
could have saved me it would have been you”
and “everything has gone from me but the certainty
of your goodness” and finally “I don’t think two people
could have been happier than we have been.”
How’d Virginia Woolf smell? Not very nice, probably.
Who did in those days? But if Leonard Woolf was smart,
I bet he told her she smelled like roses and Parma violets,
like vanilla cake, yeast, bread, like riso in bianco
or rice stirred with Parmesan and lots of butter. I bet
he told her she smelled like ripe peaches, the scent of which
was said to have risen from the bosom of Joan of Aragon,
Queen of Castile, whose skin perfumed her very clothes.
And Leonard, what’d he smell like? Pipe tobacco, probably.
Coal fires. Sorrow. O my beautiful wild flower of the hedges,
he says to Virginia, O the Paradise perfume of your mouth.