Sunday, March 6, 2011


French Without Tears is the title of the charming playwright Terence Rattigan’s first comedic hit. But this post is not a tribute to Rattigan’s centenary now being celebrated wherever English is spoken. For that, catch a forthcoming Theater Talk program on TV, where critic and journalist John Heilpern, actor Edward Hibbert, and I debate and evaluate Rattigan’s contribution to the theater.

No. This post is about my learning French back in the late Yugoslavia with the help of a French primer, which taught through edifying anecdotes. Two of these stick indelibly in my memory, as I experienced again the other day while shining a pair of my shoes, not as expertly as the professionals, but not too shabbily for an amateur.

Anyway, the first of these anecdotes concerns Voltaire and his manservant. As the philosopher was ready to step out one rainy day, he noted that his shoes had not been shined as usual. Under questioning, the servant replied, “What’s the point? It’s raining, and they’ll soon be muddy again.” “Right,” said the sage, and departed with unshined shoes. Forthwith the servant came chasing after him, crying, “Master, you haven’t left me the key to the pantry. How am I to have my lunch?” “What’s the point?” Voltaire rejoined. “In no time at all you’ll be hungry again.”

A thought-provoking morality tale, this. It is perfectly true that certain actions or procedures have to be undertaken even if the outcome is only of transitory value. So I have realized as a teacher that education must not stop even if students forget your teachings and revert to saying “lay” for “lie” or “With Bill and I” for “With Bill and me.” There are times—many times--when, like Nadezhda Mandelstam, one must hope against hope.

There was, to be sure, very little hope for Osip Mandelstam to emerge alive from the clutches of the Soviet GPU or NKVD, or whatever the secret service was called then. But for Voltaire’s shoes there was a faint but encouraging chance that their wearer might circumnavigate puddles, or at least bypass the muddiest spots, and thus preserve a minimum of polish. So too might students who can withstand the teachings of that greatest of educators, television, and thereby not say “We were laying in the dormitory”—unless, of course, the little lechers were.

In other words, without dreaming the impossible dream, there is no way the possible dream, purportedly inside it--and, like the thin man from within every fat man, just waiting to emerge--can conceivably break out. A slim chance, granted, but a slight polish education may, against all odds, conceivably provide. Voltaire’s shoes may not, like the harvest moon, shine on; yet just perhaps they may avoid becoming eyesores.

Now for the other anecdote. King Louis the Eleventh of France—but let me stop right here: Was it really the Eleventh? My secure knowledge of the sixteen Louis extends back only to the Thirteenth (thanks to Alexandre Dumas pere and the Three Musketeers) if that. Or perhaps the Ninth, known as Saint Louis, may have been the one. But no matter.

One day there came before the appropriate Louis a jongleur--or anglice juggler—and his boy to perform a rare skill. The boy stood several paces away, holding up horizontally a long pin. The juggler then, lofting a sack of peas, proceeded to toss pea after pea at the boy. Astoundingly, each pea landed, firmly impaled, on the extended pin. The King had to concede that this was truly amazing.

At the juggler’s request for a reward, the monarch had a page come running with a well-filled crunchy bag. The happy juggler reached inside, but promptly withdrew his hand in horror. Inside were not gold nuggets but peas. Indignantly, he inquired whether this was the royal munificence. “Well”—or Eh bien—replied the saintly Ninth or secular Eleventh Louis, “for a perfectly useless skill this is the suitable recompense.”

As a boy, I felt that this tale made unimpeachable sense. Today, however, I am no longer so sure. Take, in the first place, the great circus artistes—the high-wire acrobats, the human projectiles shot from cannons, the athletic strongmen, the prodigious jugglers, the vast variety of clowns—none of whom provide a cure for cancer or a substitute for oil from Libya—are they to do this for peas or peanuts? Surely the state of wonder they elicit--our not entirely selfless pleasure in seeing human potential in the ascendant—is not to go unrewarded. They deserve whatever they get at least as much as the TV newscasters who deliver the news in their customary faulty English.

But never mind the artistes; what about artists of the not entirely trendily pop kind? Those so-called singers, millionaires whose earnings should really go, if to anyone, to the makers of their microphones. Should not some portion of the earnings of rappers and punkers, of Justin Biebers and Celine Dions, really be diverted to classical composers (other than Philip Glass and Steve Reich), or given to poets who still believe in meter and rhyme and communication, rather than in nonsensical Ashberiesque verbal masturbation?

And what about the monstrously unrewarded intellectual laborers, who, for example, as drama critics (yes, dammit, I am arguing pro domo)  work their asses off in uncomfortable theater seats to review often unconscionable plays and are honest enough not to be politically correct and circulationally enhancing professional yeasayers? Sure, there are exceptions, not quite as rare as hen’s teeth, but easily as rare as centenarian ones. If Terence Rattigan were alive today, how many natural choppers would he have left?

This, alas, is late learning. If I had known better in my youth, I might have become a stockbroker or standup comic, anything but a drama critic. At least, though, it disproves those who claim that after age_______(you fill in the blank) one can’t learn anything anymore.


  1. It's good to be King, as historian Melvin Kaminsky demonstrated. Better yet to guillotine Kings, and applaud their beheadings.

    Money, like water, seeks its own level. Ruthlessly, relentlessly. High, low. Mr. Simon, face your sorry fate: the body of criticism you've created is a permanent part of American literature. Its language alone trumpets that fact, as does the taste, intelligence, judgment, and other forces you marshal and deploy to execute the critical essay you write this week. So comfort yourself with some critical chapter and verse from the recent New York Times piece.

    MATTHEW ARNOLD, 1864: “The critical power is of lower rank than the creative. True; but in assenting to this proposition, one or two things are to be kept in mind. It is undeniable that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity, is the true function of man; it is proved to be so by man’s finding in it his true happiness. But it is undeniable, also, that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all but a very few men would be shut out from the true happiness of all men.”

    OSCAR WILDE, 1890: “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes. The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see; and the Beauty, that gives to creation its universal and aesthetic element, makes the critic a creator in his turn, and whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or graved the gem.”

    T. S. ELIOT, 1923: “The most important qualification which I have been able to find, which accounts for the peculiar importance of the criticism of practitioners, is that a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact. This is by no means a trifling or frequent gift. And it is not one which easily wins popular commendations. The sense of fact is very slow to develop, and its complete development means perhaps the very pinnacle of civilization.”

    LIONEL TRILLING, 1950: “The job of criticism would seem to be, then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty. To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty.”

    RANDALL JARRELL, 1952: “Criticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness: a real critic has no one but himself to depend on. He can never forget that all he has to go by, finally, is his own response, the self that makes and is made up of such responses — and yet he must regard that self as no more than the instrument through which the art is seen, so that the work of art will seem everything to him and his own self nothing.”

    ALFRED KAZIN, 1960: “Any critic who is any good is going to write out of a profound inner struggle between what has been and what must be, the values he is used to and those which presently exist, between the past and the present out of which the future must be born. This struggle with oneself as well as with the age, out of which something must be written and which therefore can be read — this is my test for a critic.”

    REX REED, 2000: "But Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, and Carmen McRae are my favorites!"

    Sir, that's the company you keep. Well, not that last guy.

  2. What Joe Carlson said.

    Plus, I just enjoy reading John Simon. With rare exceptions, his prose is like a meal at a French restaurant too good for me, yet still delectable and satisfying. Not infrequently (and certainly frequently enough) I have found myself smacking and chortling away on this or that dish he has served up here or there. I am, apparently, just barely erudite enough to appreciate it, even if I couldn't precisely adumbrate why it's better than the faster food of other current critics.

  3. As for my experience learning French -- if I may get "on-topic" (as they say in Netspeak) for a moment: Some fifteen years ago, with a couple of B.A. degrees under my belt (and a reduced sentence of 3 months in the Harvard Divinity School), I decided I must learn French well enough to enable me to read Salammbô by Flaubert in the original French. I remember hiring a tutor -- a painfully sexy French student -- who told me flatly that it would be impossible for me to learn French that well; and she refused to tutor me. I persevered, and found another French tutor (if not painfully sexy, still impermissibly beautiful) who was willing to tutor me, and who also went the extra mile by taping long passages of the novel on cassette tapes for me to listen to at home. It wasn't long before I began a ritual I have kept ever since, albeit fitfully (if "fitful ritual" is not an oxymoron): a continuous reading of Salammbô from beginning to end, beginning Friday night and concluding at about 3 a.m. Sunday morning, with bottles of red wine on hand, and the music of Tchaikovsky and Cirque du Soleil (of all things) strangely mood-settingly befitting.