So last week, I attended this amazing Q&A/Discussion with Fadela Amara—founder of the French feminist organization for minority women’s rights, Ni putes ni soumises, and a particularly progressive cabinet member under former President Nicolas Sarkozy—at the Alliance Française de Chicago. I was there with my friend, former professor and (ahem) soon-to-be-colleague Ellen, who is a specialist of seventeenth-century French literature. At some point, a question from the audience came up about fears that racial tensions in France would “blow up” (exploser). The way the question was posed—by a student who further identified herself as a twenty-three-year-old Parisian woman—was particularly loaded and full of intolerant assumptions, which Amara called to attention in her elegant and nuanced way. She also said (I’m loosely translating here), “Man is not born a wolf. Man is made a wolf.”
I instantly thought of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous edict, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” I leaned over to Ellen and whispered, “De Beauvoir!”
She whispered back and said excitedly, “It’s Voltaire!” Later over dinner, she told me that she was pretty sure that Amara had used a direct quote from Voltaire’s picaresque satire Candide, ou l’optimisme, this bit about man not being born a wolf.
First, of course, that made me wonder if that’s part of where Beauvoir had developed her notion of the construction of woman. (Mind = blown.) But then, the next day, I was in my mom’s garden, which is transitioning leaf by leaf, bloom by bloom, day to day and night to night, from blossoming spring into riotous summer.
And that, of course, made me think about the quotation from Candide that is at least partially, if not fully, responsible for packing me off to graduate school: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden.”)
So Voltaire’s Candide is a satirical takedown of a lot of things, but this particular line advocates a balance between optimism and realism, the idea that even if we need to remain evenhanded about the world around us, there is much in our own day-to-day lives to appreciate and, indeed, cultivate.
And this made me think about the necessity of solitude to get writing done. It’s cultivating our own gardens—working on something inward—forgoing instant gratification in order to work toward the deeper pleasure of something that must be attended to, day by day, night by night, word by word, line by line, paragraph… well, you get the point.
Then I started to think about the French expression that’s more or less equivalent to “growing like a weed”: “pousser comme des fleurs” (in French, it’s gendered, I believe; I’ve never heard a little boy described as “growing like a flower.” But that’s a different issue, and I might be wrong about that.) And that made me think—of course and without question, as most things do—of my daughter Audrey.
This is Audrey in the garden, just about a year ago, with her cousin, my niece, Sophia:
This is Audrey in the garden, yesterday, nearly 21 months old:
Day by day, night by night… a child, a novel, a garden.