Pencils up. Be quick. Who or what are these?
Madame de LaFayette
Bonnie Prince Charlie
Mary and Martha
The Worm Ouroboros
The Diet of Worms
Madame de Récamier
Can you pull the above out of your memory, place each one in his/her/its own century, produce a date of birth or death, provide a quick summary of associated contributions, liaisons, salon memberships, traits, behaviors, qualities, acts benign, violent, or malevolent, such as you might have written down in your cahier at that French lycée you went to, or, as some professor waxed on, in those lecture notes you took, but failed to keep, at university? Come now, let us have some scrap of their historical significance, some sign of your retentive powers.
I’m willing to bet that many of you can, but surely some of you like me suffer from a hangover, swim in murk, impinged upon from time to time by leftovers of a liberal education. Of course, these days, what with Wikipedia, however faulty, and other online sources, I can keep tabs; there’s no need nowadays to remember much of anything, is there? And yet, I hoard them, these droplets, these smidgins. Just to pronounce Hermes Trismegistus, the syncretic combination of the Greek God Hermes and the Egyptian God Thoth, as I might repeat a line of poetry, is a pleasure to me, for the sound of it, and for the headiness, that plunge into what Pope calls the Pierian spring.
A little learning is a dangerous thing, Pope intones, drink deep, or taste not. Fair warning and no doubt sound advice, but I’m going to tell you a little about Vercingetorix anyway, and how it was he entered my impressionable thirteen year old consciousness, never to leave it after.
A Chieftain of the Gauls, he was. An enemy of Julius Caesar whom he defeated in the Battle of Gergovia, 52 BC. He was part of hic, haec, hoc and huius, huius, huius, Alea iacta est, the crossing of the Rubicon, and Veni, vidi, vici. We were behind, a mere four or five of us, because we had gone to benighted schools which had not deemed it necessary to introduce Latin in the 8th grade. Thus, we were obliged to cram it in, memorizing, declining, conjugating, two years in one. And for reading matter we had Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur: Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
What a great name he had this (according to the Romans) barbarian, Vercingetorix. A barbarian and an underdog. Certainly I preferred him to Caesar who was so conceited he referred to himself in the third person. And perhaps I liked Vercingetorix because he was French. Gallia was Gaul, and Gaul was France, and here was I in boarding school on the Philadelphia Main Line where I knew myself to be an alien, someone so out of it she had never heard of the Social Register and didn’t know that rubbers were contraceptives, not the overshoes her father used to wear in New York when it rained. But Gaul I had heard of because for the past three years I had been living in Haiti, a former French colony.
The genitive, the dative, the vocative. The anxiety of waiting for the verb to appear at the end of a long sentence. Sometimes to stave off sleepiness, my friend R would autograph the grainy cover of my loose leaf notebook or, in large letters, the sides of my texts with their pages closed. R never signed her name, she used an alias. Love ya, Judas Iscariot, she might write, with flourishes, Marian+Vercingetorix by a heart surrounded. She had God and Jesus Christ in her repertoire as well. I was flattered by her attentions, never thinking that the indelible and blasphemous tattoos I carried everywhere, that the yelps I let out when her imaginary pet tarantula Timmy landed on my shoulder just as the Silence Gong was sounding on the way into dinner, made me appear stranger than I was, even wicked. We slogged on, R, and I, and the others whose names I don’t remember, learning about Druids and iron ore and the cultivation of wine in territory controlled by the Gauls. For my contribution, I claimed to know more about Voodoo than I really did. I brought back from vacation a small Haitian drum made of termite infested wood with a smelly goatskin stretched across the top, an aid to the ceremonies I conducted after lights out in my room.
So much is bound up in the name Vercingetorix: schooldays and Voodoo, Caesar and the principle parts of verbs, the ablative absolute, my funny friend R who led me to say at the dinner table, school Nurse at the head, that a box of rubbers was my favorite Christmas gift, our Latin teacher Miss L, friendly but serious, responsible for catching us up, a bit stiff I thought, but then she had her mind on other things. She was busy falling in love we discovered when she announced her engagement in the middle of the following year, we silly girls far beneath her notice, but how she might act with her fiancé was hard to imagine. All of this one stream, one strip of cloth.
Down he went in the Battle of Alesia, 46 BC. Vercingetorix the mighty, felled by Caesar, carried in chains to Rome, caged and paraded through the streets in triumph, a war prize. Vercingetorix was done for. And yet for me not quite. For just this month I met a young man, nephew of a friend, who has something going in Haiti, something called Internet in a Box. You may want to look it up, because I could hardly understand a word he said. He seemed to live in another universe in which the Box cost money, but was also free. He spent half his life in the air, that is on flights he couldn’t pay for because he took no salary, which made no difference because he was flexible enough to find cheap fares. He presented the Box, which will be stocked with French educational materials, as a highly useful device, a way to bring Haiti into the 21st century. He showed me pristine photographs of Haitian children, beaming as they do, bearing no resemblance to those stricken with cholera brought to Haiti by the UN, which claims it lacks funds to help with this ongoing epidemic, or those still made homeless by the earthquake in 2010, or by more recent flooding in the South, formerly Haiti’s most prosperous region, who could certainly use funds mismanaged by the Clinton Foundation and the Red Cross.
Once again, I found myself among the Gauls (Marian+Vercingetorix), spun back to Haiti in the early 1950s when school children, those very few who were able to afford the fees, books and supplies, uniforms and shoes, recited daily in uniform and in unison from an official French curriculum taught to them by foreign priests: Nos ancêtres les Gaulois. And there is my father, sipping a rum soda on the verandah, laughing, but ruefully, at this absurdity. Though some Haitian children did perhaps have Gallic forebears, this chorus was what the late poet Derek Walcott calls borrowed ancestries. What Haitian scholars deserved was something fuller, infused like Walcott’s work with the rhythms, idiom, characters and images of the Caribbean, not the rote singsong of slave owners expelled in 1804.
I admire the young man I met for his dedication to the Box, to his strenuous and unencumbered life, to Haiti. He is a visionary. He knows a great deal about the country having lived in the small city of Croix des Bouquets for a year, more intimately in some ways than I did, and much more recently. He can see further. But even he could cite looming problems with class and culture, with Haiti’s two languages, French and Creole, with dissemination and teacher training, attached to his Box, which could further divide the elite from the masses and their appalling needs, at least in the immediate present.
How old was I when I understood at last why I had been called into the Headmistress’s office to be reprimanded for my foul mouth? In my thirties probably, I remember, it was early in the evening, I was taking out the trash. By the time the revelation hit, I was a little more on top of things: the Pill, the IUD, French ticklers. I was a grown woman, married and a mother. Miss S had been too chaste to repeat my long ago indiscretion at the dinner table. Because the Nurse had not dared to say the word rubbers? What in the world was she talking about? I was frightened, shy and quiet. Very nearly mute. But to Miss S, defender of decency, guarded by her Standard Poodle, I was an unrepentant criminal. A hard case indeed.
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise,
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream and in that dreaming weep,
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.
How often we sang that hymn at school, thus acknowledging that Rome must fall, Gaul become France, and France pursue its conquests in the Brave New World, much tarnished now as R and I are, still friends, though we’ve seen each other only once since we graduated in 1957. She has apologized, and I have told her not to be hard on her teenage self. What I haven’t said is how much it means to me, not the apology, but the idea that our friendship was real, something I was never sure of. These days we rely on e-mail, on the Box.
Haiti erodes. Haiti rises and falls, falls and rises. All the people on my list are dead. And so is Miss L, who became Mrs. E, Head of the Latin Department, Miss S too and several of our classmates. We have forgotten much of our Latin, except for Sic transit gloria mundi and the epitaph to which we aspire: De mortuis nil nisi bonum.