Just Above Sunset
January 9, 2005 - The New Anti-Enlightenment

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From Vancouver to the Caribbean to Paris everything blends together?  Something like that.  In the eighteenth century, from the Russia of Peter the Great and his successor Catherine, to our own Founding Fathers here, the ideas of the French enlightenment swept the world.  Franklin and Jefferson had their years in Paris, after all.  Now there is some else going on.  An anti-Enlightenment is sweeping the world – but not that of radical Islam.  It’s our own.


Below in a dialog that considers just one thing – James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” having rabid fans in the Caribbean in the sixties – and then the idea spreads out to include junk television in France and who Bush appoint to help him lead the nation.


This is an edited exchange with Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta.  As mentioned in these pages, Rick and I spent three or four months in the summer of 1966 on Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands.  He worked at the giant Hess Oil facility on the south side of the island while I pumped gas at an Esso station and the east side of Christiansted, the big town on the island.  Our home base was his parents’ house near Cane Bay.


Rick read last week’s automotive column by Ric Erickson (here) and reminded me that just as Erickson told of a wheel just falling off an old car in Vancouver, the same thing happened to his father way back when.  And things spin out from that memory.  (And the Golden Cow was a hamburger stand not far from the Esso station.)


RB –


I don't know if you remembered this but my dad was driving the VW bus just east of Golden Cow one day, and the wheel just up and fell off.  He sort of crashed into a small hill.  Nobody was hurt.  I'd never heard of that actually happening to anyone else.  In fact, I think it happened because someone at your garage changed the tire and forgot to tighten all the lug nuts.


AP –


Wasn't me.  Alfonso, the guy with the bad teeth, was the tire man - the guy from Nevis.  And it wasn’t the mechanic – the Puerto Rican fellow.  The doofy guy from Nevis did tires.


RB –


But who was that guy from the ABC Islands (I think Aruba, as opposed to Bonaire or Curacao) who was the big James Brown fan?  But in fact, it may have happened before your time there, or maybe after.


AP -


Cosmos and Calixes were the two guys from Aruba who worked the pumps with me.  I don't remember the James Brown thing.  They did teach me how to swear in Dutch - but I forgot it all.  But it wasn't real Dutch of course – just the Caribbean kind.  The guy from Nevis who did the tires seemed to have no language at all, and as I recall, no teeth.  He just grinned.  And the station owner, Bob Carpenter, spoke Okalahoma English.  It was odd.




I do remember the swearing, but also all those Dutch Antilles aphorisms that literally translated into English as stuff like "a trombone is better than a cloud" but that otherwise seemed to make absolutely no sense outside their culture of origin.  Sort of like a 1960s standup routine.  Lots of fun.


I remember Carpenter. But about the James Brown thing, whichever guy it was from Aruba was always singing "It's a Man's World!" and "When A Man Loves A Woman," or something, which as I remember, because of his thick accent, was about the only thing I could understand coming out of him.


Cosmos sounds familiar, but I'm not sure.  It wasn't just James Brown, it was all the guys in that genre, including I think Otis Redding?  I forget who is in that genre.


AP –


We did see James Brown in "Ski Party" at the movie theater in Christiansted, as I recall.  Or I did.  He was big.  But I remember it being very dislocating - much like watching the thirties Errol Flynn "Robin Hood" film on television at your parents' place in Cane Bay - the thing dubbed in Spanish with English subtitles.  Anyway, snow bunnies and James Brown in the summer in the Caribbean?  Errol Flynn being dashing and eloquent in Spanish?  Whatever.  Odd stuff. 


"It's a Man's World!" was James Brown.  "When A Man Loves A Woman" was Percy Sledge.  Not that it matters.  Guys from Aruba humming James Brown…  What have we done to the world?


RB –


What have we done to the world?


I remember thinking that very same thing at the time, which is probably why I retained the memory.  What astounded me, I think, was that whatever it was we did to the world didn't seem to bother this guy in the least - although, in fact, I'm not sure he didn't think of this as us "continentals" (that is, you and me) having nothing to do with this contribution from a "native" genius (that is, James Brown?)


Ironically, I remember Luis, a co-worker at Hess who was a second-generation Puerto Rican from Vieques and grew up on St. Croix, once challenged me to name one "continental" superstar athlete.  I suppose I should have picked Babe Ruth or someone, but I didn't really know much about sports, although I did know that Cleveland Browns football star Jimmy Brown (no relation to the aforementioned) came from my hometown of Manhasset, New York, so I mentioned him.


But Luis, in a "gotcha" moment of his own design, then pointed out to me that Jimmy Brown wasn't a "continental," he was a "native"!  I tried in vain to argue that Jimmy Brown had probably never even visited the Virgin Islands, much less lived there, but was told that where Jimmy Brown came from or had ever lived was obviously beside the point.  Hmm.


AP –

So Luis adopted Jimmy Brown in a leap of geographical fiction?  And the Dutch guys from Aruba felt right at home with James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul.”


Everything does blend together.  The years since only confirm it for me.


Somehow that our "culture" has rolled over the world like a wave of slimy shit never bothered me much on all those trips to France in the last decade.  It is their choice to buy Marlboro cigarettes and Hollywood chewing gum and import words like "le weekend" and all that.  All modern cultures blend together.  Right now I'm wearing a shirt I bought at the GAP around the corner from Sartre's favorite café - Les Deux Magots on the Left Bank.  As I mentioned, each time I arrive in Paris I switch on the television in the hotel room and watch "Friends" or some such thing, dubbed in French, to get a back a feel for the rhythms and pronunciation - working on my timing.  The adjustments are manageable.  As with London, you do your minor shifts.  In France of course the language is different - but there is a common ground.  So I'm watching, a few years ago, their version of the quiz show "Do You Want to be a Millionaire?" - and "Star Academy" (still running on TF1) - their version of "American Idol."  Whatever.  Starbucks hit the town too - as covered in Just Above Sunset (see this http://apavlik0.tripod.com/id235.html in these pages from January 18, 2004).


The French?  Do they care?  Their own wave of shit rolled over the world in the eighteenth century - Peter the Great and his successor Catherine (see below) caught that bug.  Jefferson and Franklin too.  That damned Enlightenment!  My US passport is in English and French - the common and default language of international diplomacy since the early eighteenth century.  They had their day.


But in 1999 in London, Ontario - I lived there, and worked there, for two years, and it was hardly foreign, or marginally foreign - I chatted with a young black waiter at a restaurant - he was wearing a Kobe Bryant t-shirt and loved talking about the Lakers.  I found that odd.  Well, also the restaurant was an Outback Steakhouse – and American imitation of Australian stuff.


But Kobe Bryant?  We're spreading something around the world.


I believe we're now living in the anti-Enlightenment.  I was watching Tina Brown's talk show on CNBC last weekend - Topic A (they revived it) - and she was interviewing Ed Koch, the former New York mayor, about Bernard Kerik, the fellow Bush wanted to replace Tom Ridge running all of homeland security for the country.  Koch was amused the Kerik guy didn't know a whole lot about much of anything.  No college degree - in fact, Kerik dropped out of high school, and there is no clear record of him even getting an equivalency degree, that GED thing.  So no high school diploma.  He was Rudolph Giuliani's driver - his chauffeur (a French word!) - and that's about it.  These days it's character and loyalty - and "moral values" - and certainly not competency, intelligence or knowing much.  That's what we're spreading, and what more than half the country voted for.  Karl Rove dropped out of college for the political life, of conniving and manipulating. 


What to make of it all?


Kobe Bryant - a fine basketball player, maybe one of the best there ever was - but a shallow man of questionable judgment - is a model for us all.  And the Bush team - screwing things up so very badly, but with conviction and certainty - are also American heroes.


What a world, what a world....






See this


In the early eighteenth century, midget-collector and gadget freak Peter the Great opened Russia to the West, with an emphasis on engineering and the practical arts. He had traveled Western Europe (in disguise!), seen Western industry and wanted to bring Russia along. But while he enacted fundamental reforms that strengthened and centralized the state, and brought in foreign engineers and artisans to live in special enclaves (think Saudi Arabia), his efforts did very little to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the West.


When Catherine the Great took the throne in 1762, she did something quite remarkable. Instead of asserting her claim to the Russian throne on traditional grounds (and can you have a better precedent for autocracy than Ivan the Terrible?), she presented a flowery defense of enlightened despotism based on her readings of Voltaire and Montesquieu. Suddenly, French natural philosophy was all the rage at the Russian court. Catherine bought Diderot's entire library, devoted an hour a day to assiduous reading of Montesquieu, and bought French paintings by the boatload. French became - and would remain, for a century - the first language of the Russian aristocracy.


These days?  Drop by the tea room at the Hotel Intercontinental in Paris (rue Castigleone, northwest of the Louvre a few blocks) around four on a weekday afternoon and eavesdrop on all the Russian old folks, émigrés in their nineties, sipping tea and chatting in Russian and French about the good old days before the Bolsheviks tossed out the last Tsar.  And you thought that film "Anastasia" (well, there were a few versions) was fiction?



Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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