The Young(ish) Fogey

A few days ago, I was confronted by a real-life fogey, and while neither of us is young, neither are we truly old, and my Young(ish) Fogey is definitely not sufficient in his years or dryness of ears to espouse what he openly shared with me. Of similar views on many things, and even proximate views on the very thing, we nonetheless diverged in a way I will essay to describe.

Familiarity, and a kind of nonexistent kinship, led me to quickly, too quickly, venture where I should I not have when my Young(ish) Fogey was apprising of the latest in personal developments. We were standing in the midst of an under-lavish event, raising fundraising drinks with an expected enthusiasm, but not more. It was only when I extended too quickly, dashed into an opening that was not one – and I should have known better – that the room and our association shrunk back to its actual dimensions. I will only say, as for his occupations, he is a lobbyist. But that’s okay! We need those, I thought and still want to believe.

It was on a related subject to his issue – central in my mind but certainly not to his – that I for better and likely worse parried, drifted too quickly, giving him the obligation to correct my wanderings, follow them up with further remonstrances, all tell-tale of the Fogey, I already knew. ‘But he was so young(ish),’ I ignored my own warnings. You think you may speak freely, but you may not understand how little your interlocutor may have given themselves to do so, or how long since they had given up on doing so. A quarrel was afoot, one that I had no real use for, nor did I wish to engage for amusement – either of which would have been a better prospect.

Friendship – really acquaintance – is not openness nor grounds for sharing. People can get offended by forward comments, especially in under-lavish settings. An assumption that he might provide helpful insight turned into a realization that I was dealing with a guardian of the middle. It was genuinely startling – a young(ish) fogey in the wild, though actually it was I who had wondered absently into his habitat. I was exhilarated, but all the same terrified with indifference. Convinced that compromise, a return to some unstated agreement and mutual concession was the key to progress and problem-solving, he counseled further, extensive negotiation with the facing-eating leopard Party as the ONLY way forward. I looked around the room and all the exits were sealed. I realized even the bar staff were trapped behind scrimmed tables. The folly of continuing was real and apparent, of further incursions where I only emphasized my blasphemy, or of re-winding the preceding five minutes back to some reparable shore, was all but impossible. I could go neither forward nor back.
I explained the leopards, the half-eaten faces littering our discourse. But, he objected then summarily effused, ‘if you demonize the leopards, you are part of the problem.’

I assured him that I would continue the treachery of leopard portrayals, based solely upon the mangled faces left in their ruin. This only precipitated a kind of filibuster that drained my interest as it went, so much that I was able to finish my drink. Uninterrupted, my young(ish) fogey soon also lost the vim of his harangue. I puffed hm back up with a couple of pepper-ish comments on related leopard doings, until he finally asked me: is everyone who voted for the face-eating leopards Party evil? To complain of binaries but reduce your argument to one is almost the truest sign of the young(ish) fogey. But there is one worse, one still more true. Should they deign to make the charge of ‘revolutionary’ in your pitiful direction, it is two-part gambit. For you will be re-assured, at least in the young(ish) fogey’s mind, when he calls himself, as captain protector of his mighty, right and true intentions, a ‘radical moderate.’

All just to remind: we really should be careful about what we say to people.

Prodigious strength and generosity of spirit

Finally, some Frida reading on Friday. Since it is Banned Books week and I’m reading from Miller’s Tropic of Cancer at an event tomorrow, I’m going through that and have found some gems that I was going to remind you of. But I also found this review of what sounds like a great new book about Alexandre Dumas’ father, on whom he based one of my favorite books ever, The Count of Monte Cristo:

For Edmond Dantès, both winner and loser at the novel’s centre, is to a significant extent modelled on no less a figure than General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas – father of the novelist, French Revolutionary hero, Napoleonic warrior, and a slave-born mulatto of amazing physical strength and greatness of heart: heroic, in short, to the marrow of his bones.

Monte Cristo, it turns out, was more than just the little Mediterranean islet of the book title. Looking much further westwards in the atlas, we find it marked as a port on the island of Hispaniola, which nowadays is partitioned into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The future general was born in 1762 in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, in the western half of the island. He was the son of a black slave, Marie-Cessette, and a renegade Norman aristocrat, Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, who, having paid a high price for Marie-Cessette’s beauty, fathered three more children before selling her off to a merchant from Nantes.

French Enlightenment values meant that young Thomas-Alexandre (known as Alex), brought to France in servitude by his father, was free once he stepped ashore. The pair moved into the smart suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the fifteen-year-old boy found himself addressed as ‘Monsieur le Comte’. He was kitted out by a court tailor and enrolled at the royal fencing academy, where he learned dancing, music, mathematics and philosophy.

On the way home from Egypt, Dumas was captured and imprisoned at Taranto by officers of the Holy Faith Army, a ragtag-and-bobtail force busy massacring republicans, liberals and Jews in the name of King Ferdinand of Naples. Two years of frantic petitioning by Marie-Louise Dumas proved useless and the dungeon door was only unlocked when French forces finally seized control of southern Italy, allowing her husband to totter homewards, wracked with the cancer that would soon kill him. Inevitably his appeals for financial assistance were ignored and, though not cashiered from the army, he was pointedly cold-shouldered by his brother officers. ‘Whatever my sufferings and pains,’ Dumas declared, ‘I will always find enough moral force to fly to the rescue of my country at the first request the government sends me.’ No such summons ever arrived.

Did Napoleon, morally contemptible as he was, effectively kill the general? Dumas’s son, a yet more famous Alexandre, certainly believed so and Reiss presents a plausible case for Edmond Dantès, Monte Cristo‘s wronged hero, as an avatar of the lost father, some of whose prodigious strength and generosity of spirit the novelist inherited. Clearly Dumas cherished memories of the relatively brief time they spent together – a mere four years, cruelly ended by his father’s death – but the devotion went far deeper than orthodox filial piety.

Indeed it did. ‘Best served cold’ in its proper context.