Monday, December 1, 2014

And Then This Polish Guy Eats A Swan


Le vieux Paris n'est plus (la forme d'une ville  
                                         Change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d'un mortel)

THE SWAN in Charles Baudelaire's poem about a Big White Bird is not what I would call a Big Bird-type character. Big Bird is clumsy, OK, and so is Le Cygne (The Swan), to give the bird dreamed up by the French rhymester its proper name. Big Bird is clumsy in a loveable, anthropomorphic, American way.

Or take Louis, the main character of E.B. White's children's book, "The Trumpet of the Swan."  Loosely based on Louis Armstrong, E.B. White's swan is an artist who can play rings around the other avian musicians, but his lack of a voice makes it difficult for him to honk or whatever it is swans do to attract a mate. This being a children's book, Louis also has to learn to read and write using chalk and a chalkboard hung around his neck This being an American children's  book, Louis is destined to mate with Serena, the swan-girl of his dreams, to succeed as an entertainer, and to teach the boy whose pet he temporarily is all about faith, hope, and love.

Le Cygne though, is a French bird with a quintessentially French problem. And here I have to admit that I frequently confuse Baudelaire's poem about the Swan with Baudelaire's poem about the Albatross––a mistake that could only happen in French Literature. For as anyone who has grown up reading English Literature knows, the Albatross is something that hangs about your neck and causes you to get very thirsty while stuck at sea. In high school my friends and I used to have great fun with this, for one of the girls in our group was named Mary Minear; thus "The Rime of the  Ancient Mariner " became, for us, "The Rime of the Ancient Mary Minear." Whether Mary, known as Beth, considered this punny is another question entirely.

I would just like to digress here and point out that the government of the People's Republic of China has just banned the use of puns. Because there is nothing more subversive to national aspirations than a pun. After all, any given pun might  not mean the same thing to different people. Or, alternatively, some people (some peoples!) might get it and others might not. Are there certain ages at which we pun more than others? Will this new law be hard on Chinese First Graders, who, perhaps, as a result, will come to be so developmentally unlike American First Graders, that they will cease to make bathroom jokes? And what of Chinese teens? No adolescent puns for them, as a way of reconciling intense curiosity about sex with embarrassment about same? What Brave New World will these Chinese be inhabiting? And what about enforcement? Will linguistic malfeasance be punished?

But let's return to the French, who are so much easier to understand than the Chinese. To Baudelaire, the Albatross is a Flower of  Evil, it's a part of that Janus-state of being in which the Artist finds himself: so adroit on the page, so graceful in the airy realm of poetic creation, and so equally clumsy when called down from the heights of Parnassus to function in the earthly realm. Thus does Baudelaire's Albatross appear, not around some sailor's neck, like a proper English bird, but either soaring poetically or walking through the streets of Paris, dragging its wings through the dust. And this brings us to Baudelaire's Swan, also dusty, also a wing-dragger.

Baudelaire, Ballivet

I think we can safely say that the Swan as imagined by the French poet is a split-level riddle, a figure of ambivalence. 

Ancient Chinese lyric poetry abounds in birds; the poet sings of geese, of ospreys and magpies, if not often of swans. One finds birds of familiar habits and clear symbolic meaning in Shijing, the world's oldest anthology of poetry: the magpie is honored to raise the cuckoo's young.  In the lyric poetry of Tang dynasty bard Du Fu (712-770), the poet's solitude is replicated by the cry of the swan: "I watch sand and pebbles stirring along the shoreline/ hearing a lone swan call in search of other swans." The Swans of the early Chinese lyric poem are neither figures of ambivalence nor of sentimentality. Either they represent beauty unambiguously, or they represent some other clear value or state, such as solitude or loneliness.

Of course if we are to take this theme seriously, and I suggest that we do not, it's  time to address the place of the swan in the Dobraya shirokaya Russkaya dusha, the expansive Russian soul. And how better to do that than to muse upon black swans and white swans in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake"? The fact that this ballet about a  clearly delineated, color-coded love triangle could be so easily transformed into a movie about female performance anxiety and/ or grim psychopathology starring the beautiful Natalie Portman reveals something about the schematic nature of the ballet, but tells us little about the Russian soul. In fact the Russian soul inheres, not in the story itself, but in the re-creation of the roles of the white swan and the black swan time after time by the Natalia Makarovas (not that there could be more than one Natalia Makarova), those Russian Geniuses of Motion who make us want to watch the ballet interpretation after interpretation, again and again.

So I think we can agree at this point that a Swan isn't an ordinary bird. A Swan is what the ugly duckling turns into. A Swan is what we see streaming across the castle moat, show-boating down the river, speeding out to sea. If not a universal symbol of beauty, the Swan is arguably a universal symbol of something rare. Are swans common in Poland? Are they so common that they need to be culled to protect the Polish waterways and forests from over-population? These birds can and do proliferate, and perhaps some should be singing their swansongs sooner rather than later, in order to protect some other species, some other flora or fauna.

And yet British Law took a great deal for granted when it held a silent expectation on behalf of one of about a hundred thousand Poles to immigrate in a single year to the United Kingdom: the law took much for granted with its expectation that one of the kingdom's newish resident citizens, legally settled on the Emerald Isle courtesy of the EU, should have to guess at the unique status of the Swan under English law. As the Law saw it: who could possibly be so foreign as not to know that the Swan––so regal in its bearing, so princely in its elegant cape of white feathers––that the Swan in England is the exclusive property of the Crown? 

Yes, even in the 21st Century, any and every Swan that finds itself within the borders of the UK belongs to Elisabeth the Queen, to Philip, the Queen's Consort, to Princess Anne, Rider of Horses, to Prince Charles, the Patient Heir, and by extension to Camilla the Long-suffering, to William the Bold and Kate the Beautiful, and to their timely baby boy too.

The doggone swan is mine.

So when this Polish guy moves to England and NOT knowing that it is nearly treason to kill and eat* an English (read "Regal") Swan: does so: what happens next? Does he get fined? Does he receive a royal reprimand? A verbal slap? No my dears, he is tried in a court of law.  Comes now Adam Mickiewicz––no, that wasn't really his name, for the namesake of a poet, of Poland's great national poet, would know that swans, especially British ones, were not to be culled.

Not now. Not ever.

British children's author Roald Dahl made poaching fun in "Danny Champion of the World"––but that British satire sent up country squires––not royalty–– for their decadence. Roald Dahl's tale of two plucky poachers didn't involve a bird as refined as the storied Swan. 

Will future British schoolchildren read and discuss the legal case of the unfortunate Polish visitor who culled a Swan as part of a civics lesson? Why, indeed, did the court defer to the Crown in this matter?

 Moreover, whatever happened to Hospitality? You invite 100,000 Poles to your country in one year, only to treat them to the spectacle of one of their own being taken to court for recycling a Swan? Wouldn't it have made more sense to laugh, collectively –– not to take such an absurd law so seriously?

But the British, you know: inscrutable. Yes! They are far, far more difficult to understand than the Chinese.

* The eating of the swan may be an urban legend. Do Poles eat swans? I do not know. But why not? Culling is, after all, in the words of the Bard Hozier, hungry work.

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