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Vaucanson's mechanical duck (I love this stuff!)

Updated: May 1, 2020

The book stack these days consists of Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, and Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness). Barzun and Pynchon each weigh in at better than 700 pages. I have been occupied with them for a while. Bonjour Tristesse is a short novel but in French. It goes even more slowly than Pynchon and at times with about the same level of comprehension.

Mason & Dixon is a tour de force, a rollicking historical novel about the adventures of astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, best known for their 1763–1767 expedition to survey the line that defined the disputed boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The style is of the period, think Tristram Shandy, eccentric capitalization, creative spelling, dashes, and digressions, rich with humor, often as not of the low and slapstick brands, and characters as apt to burst into song as the cast of a musical. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Johnson make their appearances along with all manner of lesser known historical and fictitious figures, a Learnèd English Dog that talks, a performing electric eel, a bodice designed for ripping, and a mechanical duck. Coffee and spirits alike are consumed in abundant quantities. The book is dense and the tale loosely plotted. My powers of focus and concentration being not what they once were, I find myself flipping back, rereading to pick up a hazy thread in the plot or figure out who characters are when they reappear, in part accounting for the slow going.

A brief passage wherein the duck is introduced will give a taste:

At this point Armand [ once the most celebrated chef in France, now exiled to an inn in some colonial backwater] catches sight of Mason and Dixon, who are attempting to bring their Breakfast to an undisturb'd corner of the Saloon. "Ah, how curious that this Instant, Gentlemen, I was about to advert to your Brother in Science, whom perhaps you have even met, the immortal Jacques de Vaucanson."

Mason squints thoughtfully, Dixon shifts his hat about till presently nodding. "Why aye, thah's it—the Lad with the mechanickal Duck…?"

"Too true, alas. A Mechanician of blinding and world-rattling Genius, Gentlemen, yet posterity will know him because of the Duck alone,— they are already coupl'd as inextricably as…Mason and Dixon? Hawhawhawnnh. The man Voltaire himself call'd a Prometheus,— to be remember'd only for having trespass'd so ingeniously outside the borders of Taste, as to have provided his Automaton a Digestionary Process, whose end result could not be distinguish'd from that found in Nature."

Vaucanson, in Pynchon's account, went on "to repeat for Sex and Reproduction, the Miracles he'd already achiev'd for Digestion and Excretion." It seems that the introduction of the "erotick Machinery" sparked in the duck self-consciousness and even the possibility of l'amour.

A day or two after my encounter with the duck in Pynchon I came to a section in Barzun where he writes about mechanical innovations in the latter half of the eighteenth century: a steam engine fitted on a boat that sailed on the Delaware River, in France a machine that uttered the vowels, a steam car, a hot-air balloon, and "a French engineer named Vaucanson used his spare time to make automata—robots. His flute player performed agreeably and his duck waddled, swam, picked up grain, and (shall we say?) digested it."

The duck! Quelle coincidence! I do not know why I get such a kick out of such things. Maybe I need to get a life. Ah, but that boat has sailed.

Cinema. Préparez vos mouchoirs (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs) is a French film from 1978 with a young Gérard Depardieu, gangly, almost slender. I did not recognize him at first. Raoul (Depardieu) is a driving instructor deeply in love with his wife, Solange (Carole Laure), who is depressed. He decides that an affair would be just the thing to shake her out of it and recruits a reluctant stranger, Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere), to make his wife happy. The premise is ridiculous and the film starts slowly, but it becomes more engaging as Raoul and Stéphane become best pals, each in love with Solange, who remains unhappy, sitting naked in bed knitting while Raoul and Stéphane listen to Mozart records. Soon the two men wearing identical sweaters.

The three of them end up working at a summer camp for boys where they meet Christian, son of a wealthy factory owner, thirteen years old and with a genius IQ. All the other boys are working class. They torment Christian mercilessly. Solange takes him under her wing and the two fall in love. Next thing you know Christian is wearing a new sweater and Solange is pregnant. There's a slapstick chase scene when Christian does not want to return to his parents after camp ends and a très cool kidnapping to reunite him and Solange after his parents place him in an exclusive boarding school. All very French. Lightweight but amusing.

Les soeurs Brontë (The Brontë Sisters) comes from the same period, 1979, and is a cut above, a pleasure to watch. Isabelle Adjani is Emily, Isabelle Huppert is Anne. Two of my favorite actresses. I did not know Marie-France Pisier, who plays Charlotte. She too is quite good. I spotted the name Roland Barthes when the credits rolled across the screen. The essayist and critic makes a brief appearance at the end as William Makepeace Thackeray, a writer admired by Charlotte and to whom Jane Eyre is dedicated. Directed by Andre Téchiné. A compelling and deeply moving account of three remarkable writers. Recommended.

Isabelle Adjani also stars in La journée de la jupe (Skirt Day), a 2008 film where she plays a teacher in a Paris banlieue. Her students are all Muslim immigrants. The students are out of control and the hapless principal ignores teachers' pleas for discipline. When a gun brought to school by a student falls onto the floor, Sonia the teacher grabs it and holds the class hostage with no thought to where this might lead. She is just reacting. A negotiator whose marriage is falling apart, a SWAT team headed by the kind of guy you might expect, and the education minister are called in and squabble among themselves about how to deal with the situation while the principal cares only to excuse himself and place blame elsewhere.

At the beginning I thought everything was just too over the top. Somewhere along the line the film became gripping, a dramatic and serious examination of complex psychological and social issues. Fissures among the students are deftly drawn out. Relationships between boys and girls and stereotypes about the role of women are one. Religion and identity are others. Secular French cultural attitudes place them all in the "Muslim" box, yet they come from different countries and cultures. Some are devout. Others barely know the Koran and face a bleak future where the only path that appears open to them is one of gangs and petty crime.

Near the end a revelation about Sonia's background sheds light on her character. One of her demands is that the government establish a national "skirt day," one day a year when girls will wear skirts to school and not be called whores. The education minister, a woman, resists this because feminists fought for the right for women to wear pants and it would be anti-feminist to require girls to wear skirts. Adjani is by turns idealistic and cynical, fierce and vulnerable. It's a bravura performance and a strong, strong film.

The Saturday morning run was the longest since September, just a tad shy of eight miles. Temperature was fifty-four degrees with very light rain when I set out. Ran into more serious rain near the end and got soaked. Built some character running up SE 72nd Avenue from Division around the east side of Mt. Tabor. That hill would have been a challenge twenty years ago. Today I found that I am still hardheaded enough to see it through. There is something satisfying in that.

Looking back on it, this was a pretty good week. Hope yours was too.

Keep the faith.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor, nonsubstantive edits were made to this piece after publication for the sake of clarity, style, and grammar.

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