Friday, April 29, 2011

From One Royal Wedding to Another: Kate and Wills Marry, and I Remember Charles and Diana

When I wrote yesterday about Austen Ivereigh's anti-gay heterosexist take on the Kate and Wills show, I said in a comment to TheraP that I had not intended to mention the royal wedding at all on this blog.  I chose to do so only after having read Ivereigh's comments, which, in my view, deserve attention as one in a series of male-entitled heterosexist blasts he has made against his gay brothers and sisters in recent years at America and elsewhere.  Blasts that baffle me, since I wonder what causes him to invest so much energy in issuing persistent reminders to his gay brothers and sisters that they do not count and must not expect to be included in his Catholic church.

And now, having set my foot on the path of wedding commentary, I find myself unable to get off that fateful path until I've reached its end.  Or, as our British cousins say (and changing metaphors wildly), In for a penny, in for a pound.  Or, As well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.  Or something like that.  Both seem appropriate here.

I didn't watch the royal wedding.  I find myself little interested in it except as a cultural phenomenon, as an illustration of our willingness to permit those who rule us to mount lavish spectacles designed to manipulate our consciousness and distract us from the real business of our lives.  I find the royal wedding interesting as an illustration of our never-quite-vanquished hankering for a Father who knows best and has our best interests at heart--if only we relinquish our adulthood to Him and let Him return us to perpetual childhood.  In this light, I find the fawning wedding-inspired commentary of many American conservative thinkers about monarchy and all it might do for us, if we could only find the right father figure to whom to yield ourselves, fascinating.  And repulsive, in how it misses the point about what we really need to become a humane society today.

I also find what has been taking place with the Kate and Wills show interesting because it brings back sharp, evocative memories of the wedding of Charles and Diana, which was surrounded by equal fanfare and similar fawning media adulation.  I didn't watch the Chuck and DiDi show, either, though when it was staged, I happened to be living and studying in Canada, a country linked to the Crown, many of whose citizens still preserve a certain nostalgic fondness for the monarchy--though many others find the fuss about the royals baffling, and the institution itself embarrassingly archaic (and a drain on the British economy).

Almost all of the Canadians with whom I studied in the 1970s and 1980s ignored the monarchy.  Some were actively opposed to it.  One friend would deliberately turn stamps (with the head of the Queen) upside down before she affixed them to letters.  The only ardent monarchist I ever met in my years in Canada was, as it turned out, the Polish-born friend about whom I've blogged elsewhere, who was for monarchy anywhere: he supported any king, queen, prince, or princess anywhere in the world.  Just because.  As a matter of principle.  Because that was how things were meant to be.

As a guest in another country, I didn't normally get into intra-national political discussions, unless my Canadian friends invited me to do so.  When I did so, I almost always found them jocular and mannerly, even when they were characterized by good-natured sparring between my Canadian friends and "the" Americans.  "The" Americans who were nothing like me, since I hadn't grown up in the parts of the U.S. with which my Canadian friends were familiar and which they used to form their opinion of the Yanks.  I was very surprised, indeed, to discover that I was a Yank in Canada, when I had been taught throughout my formative years that whatever in the world a Yankees might be, I was to be the precise opposite, with ever fiber of my being.

And, though my family tree is brimful of Revolutionary soldiers, a number of whom died fighting in battle to sever the ties of the American colonies to the Crown, I myself haven't ever given a great deal of thought to monarchy or its alternatives.  I don't quite understand the hankering for royalty many Americans have--not because I'm particularly opposed to monarchy, but because whatever monarchy represents seems long ago and far away to me, given the experiences that shaped me as I grew up in the U.S.  If I was shaped in any overt political direction by my parents and schooling, that direction would most likely be called Jeffersonian democracy, with strong hints of agrarianism.  I was taught to admire and try to emulate those who sought to make democratic society truly democratic, and to provide economic advantages (hence the agrarianism) to every citizen, so that all citizens might find some way to sustain their lives and communities, and become fully participating members of democratic society.

When Charles and Diana married, I was teaching a summer course at a Jesuit college in northern Ontario.  The Jesuits who ran the university were French-Canadian to a man, as were almost all of the students in their college.  The summer was good for my French, since I found myself in a sink-or-swim situation at faculty gatherings, in which I had to speak French if I wanted to communicate at all.  I ended the summer with a better grasp of spoken French than I had ever had after years of schoolroom French--though, admittedly, the French I spoke after that summer was heavily overlaid with a joual accent that would have horrified the Sorbonne-educated woman who taught me French as an undergraduate.

And the clash between the standard French I'd been taught in college and what I heard around me during that wonderfully instructive summer sometimes led to ludicrous misunderstandings, including my inability to know how to reply when I answered the phone in my office--an office assigned to a Père Pion, who was away for the summer--and thought I heard someone saying, "Papillon?"  I had no idea what to say when these calls came through, until I finally realized I was hearing people asking for Fr. Pion in a Québécois accent.  Not for a butterfly.

The French Canadian students and faculty at this Jesuit school were gloriously hospitable.  I'll never forget passing the beautifully tended little garden on which one of the Jesuit brothers lavished daily care, and having him pull out of the ground a number of radishes, hold them up to me, and say, Mais manger-en!  Ce sont médicinales.  Just as I won't forget the librarian who taught me to recognize edible wild plants of the area that her grandmother had picked for spring salads--also with medicinal qualities.  

Or the wonderful party the French students threw on one occasion--precisely what it was, I've forgotten, though it had some church significance, as well as I can recall.  It may, in fact, have been St. John's day.  The party taught me how gifted some cultures are at creating the conditions for celebration by pooling the limited resources available to individual members of the community so that, when those limited resources are gathered together and turned into the basis for a celebration, everyone benefits from them.  

A few pieces of fresh fruit here added to several slices of cheese there, along with flowers from someone's garden and a bottle of wine and loaf of bread from another person's larder: and there was the party, with more than enough for everyone.  After we had eaten and listened to music, I remember we walked outside in a kind of procession, which the students of the Anglican college on the same campus gathered to watch in silence: two cultures, with entirely different predispositions and radically different histories, on silent (and somewhat tense) display with the events of that interesting evening.  And I, caught between them, since by cultural and ethnic background, I certainly belonged with the wary, watching Anglos, but happened to be processing with the French with whom I'd affiliated myself when I became Catholic.

This was the context in which I heard news of the marriage of Charles and Diana that summer.  Needless to say, the French Canadian students and faculty among whom I was living as the royal couple married were anything but enthralled with the wedding and its fanfare.  They laughed uproariously at the news that many fellow Canadians and many Americans intended to stay up far into the night to watch the royal ceremony on television.  Why would anyone want to lose sleep to watch that man with such big ears marry? they'd ask when we gathered to discuss the news of the day.

And so it went, and so it goes as Kate and Wills marry: and I have absolutely no idea where this particular posting is going, or why I am sharing these fond memories, other than to point out that things don't seem to change--not fundamentally--over the course of years.  Not easily.  And not frequently.

People remain stuck in cultural patterns that deform them.  People remain altogether too willing to relinquish control of their adult lives to mythic figures and mythic forces that they're taught to regard as saviors, figures and forces that inevitably betray those who give the reins of their autonomy into the hands of those saviors.  Whether political, economic, or religious: mythic savior figures in each and every case.

People remain voraciously hungry for fairy tales, too--but for the easiest fairy tales of all, not for the ones that require virtue or a heroic quest of us.  The fairy tales that enthrall us on television (or in legislative halls or churches) are the ones that promise easy virtue to us, automatic reward, if we but fit the norm.  If we conform.  If we do what's expected of us.

As Mr. Ivereigh says, if we become proper boys and girls and approach the altar wearing properly matched topcoats and gowns.   If we keep the wedding cakes crowned with little men beside little women.  If we uphold the central symbols that make everyone in our society comfortable with themselves.  If we do not challenge those symbols in a way that forces people to think about what they take for granted--or about the injustice enshrined in the world we seek so desperately to reinforce by keeping those central symbols in place, the injustice we seek to keep hidden as we madly manipulate those central symbols and claim that they are readings of reality as God ordains it, and not culturally determined choices that can be changed.

And so it goes, as William marries Kate.  And I certainly wish them a happy life together.  They'll need it, on the stage they occupy.

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