Memories of Notre Dame Cathedral

I was saddened to hear about the fire that devastated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France today. The Cathedral was an iconic structure in that city for centuries.  Construction of the Cathedral began in 1163 AD, and it was considered officially completed in 1345 AD.

In July 1996 I had the opportunity to attend a three week study abroad program in London, England, followed by a ten day trip across the European continent.  The major stops on the tour were Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

I was only in Paris for three days.  Our group attempted to see as much of that beautiful city in that short period as possible.  The tour guide made some, um, unusual choices, such as spending barely half an hour at the world famous Louvre Museum, but later that day going to a perfume factory for a two hour tour.  As one of the ladies in our group sarcastically muttered, “Where are the priorities?!?”

Nevertheless, despite the breakneck speed and a couple of questionable choices of stops, for the most part it was a memorable visit.  Fortunately one of the places we visited was Notre Dame Cathedral.

I am not a religious person, to say the least.  (I consider myself spiritual, and I believe faith is a matter best left up to the individual.) However, I readily acknowledge that Notre Dame Cathedral was an incredibly beautiful building, a stunning work of art and architecture.  The devastation of the building is a cultural, historical and artistic tragedy.  I hope France will be able to rebuild it.

Here are the photos I took of the Cathedral on that trip.  I was told this was the coldest summer in Europe in 20 years, which is why it looks like the middle of winter instead of in late July. Grey, overcast skies aside, I think the beauty of the Cathedral is apparent.  I’m grateful I had an opportunity to see it in person.

Notre Dame Cathedral 1996 photo 1

Notre Dame Cathedral 1996 photo 2

Notre Dame Cathedral 1996 photo 3

Comic book reviews: The Late Child and Other Animals

Sometimes when you read a book your initial reaction is uncertainty, and you ask yourself “How do I feel about this?”  Such was the case with The Late Child and Other Animals published by Fantagraphics.  I finished it almost three weeks ago, and it took me this long to think it over and finally feel that I could sit down and write about it.

The Late Child and Other Animals is written & colored by Marguerite Van Cook and drawn by James Romberger.  It is an autobiographical work.  The first two segments look at the life of Van Cook’s mother Hetty Martin in England during & after World War II, with the remainder of the book offering a view of Van Cook’s childhood & teenage years.

The Late Child and Other Animals cover

Hetty was a woman who had a difficult life, who had to find the strength to overcome numerous obstacles.  During World War II her husband, like millions of other young men from Great Britain, was drafted into the armed forces.  While her husband served abroad, back at home Hetty, her parents and her siblings were among the numerous civilians forced to endure the nightmare of the Blitz.  Van Cook & Romberger powerfully bring across how the horrors of the war existed alongside the mundane, how the British people strove to endure and go about their daily routines, never knowing when death might fall from above.

The end of the conflict brought little peace to Hetty herself.  Tragically her husband was killed while still stationed abroad, not in battle, but in an accident, when his truck drove off a bridge.  Now widowed, Hetty struggled to retain custody of a young child who she has recently adopted.

A few years later Hetty gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite.  The child was conceived out of wedlock, the result of an affair with a married man.  Hetty was forced to appear before a board of inquiry to plead her case, to convince the government that she should be allowed to keep her daughter.  Van Cook & Romberger render this sequence as a surreal nightmare, the middle-aged puritanical men of the Court morphing into a flock of ravenous crows.  The writing, art and coloring all work to evoke the psychological & emotional duress that Hetty endured throughout the hearing, a thinly-veiled inquisition.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 46

From the perspective of 2015, it must be difficult to conceive of what Van Cook’s mother had to go through in order to convince the government not to take her child away.  In certain respects the pendulum has swung in completely the opposite direction.  Now it often is nearly impossible to remove a child from the most abominable examples of parents.

Having said that, the underlying forces and attitudes behind the ordeal Hetty faced definitely remain.  The moralizing, misogynistic judgments that she endured in that official hearing still exist in society, manifesting themselves in numerous other arenas.

The narrative The Late Child and Other Animals then shifts its focus to Marguerite, who grows up in & around Hetty’s hometown of Portsmouth.  Various facets of post-war British society are viewed through her young eyes.  Van Cook’s narration & dialogue is very expressive.  The art by Romberger, in conjunction with Van Cook’s coloring, evokes a variety of moods & atmospheres.  They very successfully bring to life this past era.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 80

The jump to the final segment of The Late Child and Other Animals is unfortunately jarring.  Marguerite is now a teenager in France in the late 1960s.  She is living with her friend Catherine’s family in Paris, and she accompanies them to the northern coast of France for a lengthy summer holiday.  It is never explained how Marguerite came to be in France, how she knows Catherine, or what happened to Hetty.

While on holiday, Marguerite is given a pet rabbit to care for.  At the end of the summer, though, after having bonded with the rabbit, it is taken from her by Catherine’s mother Yvonne, who has it slaughtered right before Marguerite’s eyes.  I was left pondering the motivations of this seeming act of petty cruelty.  It was one of the aspects of the book that I’ve been continually thinking over since I finished it.

Marguerite had previously depicted Yvonne as a somewhat formal, rigid individual lacking in emotional warmth.  Was the French woman merely being hurtful by having the rabbit killed?  Or was she, in her brusque manner, attempting to teach the English teenager a lesson, to show her that life is not fair, that it will often be very harsh, as well as to demonstrate the transient nature of existence?  After this incident, the young Marguerite is contemplative…

“It seems that things must change. The adult world is barbarous. I began to reconstruct my romantic exclusive view of the world, though now I was a little less pure than when the season began.”

The incident prompts Marguerite to begin experiencing some of the disenchantment that many of us go through in our teenage years as we become more aware of the unpleasant realities of the world, the ones that challenge our youthful optimism & idealism.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 168

Another aspect of this occurred to me.  Shortly before the rabbit was slaughtered, Marguerite had joined Catherine, her parents and her extended family in an enormous end-of summer feast, a culinary extravaganza containing numerous exquisite dishes and recipes.  All of this, when you think of it, came some somewhere; the ingredients did not just materialize out of thin air.

As the summer draws to a close, Marguerite has returned to Paris with Catherine and her family.  One autumn evening, Yvonne serves a stew that Marguerite finds “delectable.”  Asking what it is, she is informed that it is rabbit.  She then asks if it is HER rabbit, and the answer is yes.  Marguerite accepts this.  As Van Cook writes of her younger self, “And so it was I ate my pet and remembered all the fun times of the summer.”

Yes, this could be regarded as a rather blasé attitude.  But I recalled something that filmmaker John Waters wrote in his 1981 book Shock Value.  Reacting to viewers’ outrage that he actually killed a chicken during the filming of Pink Flamingos, Waters queried…

“Don’t most of the people who are horrified at this scene eat chicken? How do they think it gets to their plates? The chickens don’t have heart attacks, for Godsake!”

As with other elements of the narrative, I think that Marguerite’s actions and reactions here are somewhat open to interpretation, offering the reader food for thought (no pun intended).  There is a great deal of depth to the material that Van Cook & Romberger present in The Late Child and Other Animals.  This is one of those works that undoubtedly benefits from re-readings.  I look forward to finding out what impressions it leaves me with when I examine it again in the future.

Charlie Hebdo, free speech, and terrorism

I am certain that everyone is familiar with the horrible events that have unfolded in the last week in Paris, France.  In short: on January 7, 2015 several cartoonists & staff members of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, as well as several police officers, were murdered by militant Islamic terrorists.

I was not intending to write anything about this tragedy.  But there has been , inevitably, a huge amount of debate across mass media, including the internet.  This caused me to finally put my thoughts down.

There is a line of reasoning among certain people that the creators at Charlie Hebdo were somehow at least partially responsible for causing their own murders.  By publishing cartoons & illustrations that were inflammatory towards Islam and that certain members of that faith found sacrilegious & offensive, these cartoonists recklessly created the resentment that led to their deaths.  Or, worse yet, Charlie Hebdo’s creators were far-right racists and Islamophobes, and that they got what was coming to them.

I definitely do not agree with any of this.  I find this type of rationale to be grotesque, the worst example of blaming the victims.  Innocent people were murdered; there is no justification.

Free speech is one of the cornerstones upon which our society was founded.  The free & unrestrained exchange of ideas is the vital lifeblood of freedom.  And that means that, inevitably, there is always going to be something said by somebody that is going to offend somebody else.  As others have observed over the last week, we do not possess the right to not be offended.

I have to be honest: I am not familiar with the work that Charlie Hebdo presented.  From what I understand, they are an extremely irreverent publication that is deliberately provocative.  However, it appears that their harsh satire is directed towards the entire spectrum of religion and politics, and not just at Islam in particular.  I am sure that over the years they offended a great many people from very diverse backgrounds.

Truthfully, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t even sound like my type of humor, and I doubt it is the sort of thing I would read.  But I can understand how their brand of satire would appeal to others.

Yes, it is absolutely true that free speech does not exist in a vacuum; it has consequences.  One cannot simple say whatever they want and then be upset if others vehemently disagree with them.  But there is an appropriate manner in which to do so.

A reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by cartoonist David Pope
A reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by cartoonist David Pope

Obviously certain people were extremely offended by Charlie Hebdo’s commentary on the Islamic faith.  There are a number of reasonable ways in which these individuals could have responded.  They could have boycotted the magazine.  They could have written angry letters to the editors & publisher.  They could have picketed outside the offices of the magazine.  They could have gone on television or created their own publication to air their grievances.  They could have organized like-minded people to march through the streets of Paris in protest.  All of these are rational responses; murder and terrorism are not.

Look, there is plenty that offends me.  I find the contents of Fox News and the New York Post to be racist, sexist, homophobic, inflammatory, partisan distortions of the truth.  Whenever possible I avoid them like the plague.  While I do read the Daily News because it is more aligned to my sensibilities, even then I find certain of the pieces in that newspaper to be insulting or ignorant.  I once commended on Facebook that “You don’t have to be a reactionary douchebag to get a letter to the editor published in the Daily News… but it helps.”

Yes, there are certainly occasions where I have been less than open-minded.  Plenty of times I have viewed or read something that offended me and my immediate reaction was “Why doesn’t that asshole just shut the fuck up?!?”  But you know what?  Hopefully, given a few moments to think things over, I will eventually attempt to consider whether the opinions being presented might actually have any validity to them, to try to understand where that person is coming from.

Not once have I gone out and shot anybody whose opinion I disagreed with.

It is not known if the 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Whether he did or not, he certainly believed in those sentiments.  However, in his 1763 book Treatise on Tolerance he wrote “The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.”

Voltaire’s words are certainly as applicable today as they were 252 years ago.  Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are difficult; they require us to allow others to express beliefs that we may find abhorrent, and to respond in a rational manner.  But without that we become willfully ignorant creatures who violently lash out at all who would differ with us.  Any kind of free & civilized society cannot exist under such circumstances.