2007June14Thursday E Pluribus Insania, An Introduction

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

In France, I live in a 14th century (mostly) stone house, a maison de village, in a tiny village with a sufficiently intact air about it that it was used, with little to hide, as the setting for many scenes in a French movie shot here last summer. The movie was based on two books by the beloved master French novelist, Marcel Pagnol, largely autobiographical as was so much of his work, and more or less taking place over one hundred years ago when he was a boy growing up in Provence.

Our house has many faults, including an elusive irreparable dampness (a fault of centuries-old meter thick walls of rock and rubble and other elements of masonry through several ages of the art). It has had several other defects needing repair. Nevertheless, it is, in all respects, relatively no trouble at all, and a place of readily assumed contentment and pleasure. The little house has no doubt grown (in height, and perhaps breadth, sunk into the street, and been added to, haphazardly, if pragmatically, through the centuries, and through the administration of these regions by many ducal and county and monarchical administrations prior to the present epoch of a succession of five republics.

It has been renovated and revived, most recently since the middle of the 20th century. But it is basically sturdy and well-constructed. Its faults in workmanship are no hardship to correct.

In the United States, I live in a condominium apartment, in a very small complex with eight other owners. Our condominium was originally three buildings — brownstones of a block of brownstones built by one developer in approximately 1890 — to house three families, each in a separate dwelling. Time, and the vagaries of the self-serving mischief of typical city dwelling owners of property close to a world-famous university, with an eye to fortune and little regard to the law, have converted our three buildings into two, now housing, in the aggregate, nine separate apartments and as many households. Among the several alterations made to the buildings in their first 39 years, all quite illegally we understand from the Cambridge Historical Commission, was the addition of first wooden porches that were later converted with a skin of brick to permanent additions to the rear of the three—now two—buildings.

It was insane to impose these changes, especially in defiance (if not sheer willful ignorance) of what few codes and regulations were in force at the time, and particularly through the use of the inferior materials and shoddy designs and bad workmanship that were implemented to accomplish the creation of these enlarged tenements. For such did the elegant three-story townhouse become after these violent transformations.

It all reminds me of the difference [you think I’m weird from my other utterances—hold on to your metaphorical hats] between what appeared as one of the first expressions or mottoes of our young nation and that of another country, with whom we had and have close ties. I mean, in the first instance, the statement on the Great Seal of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” in continuous service as an official phrase of our notional essence since the end of the eighteenth century. Its usual meaning, more or less directly from the Latin, is taken to mean, “From the many, one,” which is to say we are a single nation comprised of many people. That is the least antagonistic way I can think of providing some explication of the phrase. I will have other interpretations to apply by and by.

At about the same time, in France, an equally (by now) famous phrase became the standard, the watch cry, and the motto of this great nation. I am speaking, of course, of the triumphant formulation of three nominatives of significant import and meaning, then, and continuing so today: namely “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Three nouns that even the most doltish and ill-schooled U.S. college attendees can translate and recognize, given the easy cognate relationship with their English equivalents. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. It appears everywhere in France, and almost universally in one most unusual place, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

In the U.S. we buttress a whole phalanx of mottoes and sayings, perhaps starting with E Pluribus etc. and ending with that ringing phrase that appears on the preponderance of our coinage, much of our other currency, and wherever we can stick it on governmental buildings, especially courthouses and the chambers therein, and that is, “In God We Trust.”
Now, the curious place that the French rallying cry, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity appears almost universally, is above the doors of churches, especially those of the Napoleonic era. At that time, the doughty Corsican emperor had whatever might have been graven above the entries of the mostly Catholic places of worship struck out—obliterated. Further, his regime simply seized these edifices for the state—to ensure that the citizenry understood that there was now only one power on earth to rule their lives, and its central figure no longer resided in Rome, but in Paris. And above each doorway, he ordered that the new order—those three familiar words—be painted for all to be reminded that in his realm all were equal and free and consanguineous, if only in some metaphorical sense.

Also, he wanted, of course, of his citizens that the kingdom, or more accurately the empire, they should quiver with excitement to revere was not the kingdom to come, but the greatest kingdom on earth, that of the beautiful (La Belle) France, and that the ruling principles were no longer of spirit, but of pure abstraction, and they applied to all who submitted to the designation "French," before all other identities they believed themselves to embody. And this was a distinction not merely for an elect who took the spirit of one who had died some two thousand years before into their hearts so as to qualify their election and make it holy.
Not quite a state religion, but, as it was for us in the fledgling United States, some attention was being paid to the bad results of the mix of church and state. Of this proposition, and several others suggested by this mere handful of words I’ve cited — the words that separate our sense of ourselves from the sense the French have of themselves, and the consequences on our daily lives—even into our homes, our houses and apartments and all our dwellings, I will take up the discussion tomorrow. At the moment, it’s late evening in France, and I’m going to bed.

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