Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? That was translated into English by Rossetti as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” That’ll do. It’s the refrain from a famous poem by François Villon – one more meditation on mortality and life’s transience. The past is past. What is lost does not return. Deal with it. And “Où sont les neiges” is used as a screen projection in the first scene of Tennessee Williams’ play about what’s lost and will never return – The Glass Menagerie. Even Noel Coward quotes it – in fact lots of people quote it. It’s useful shorthand for life’s irredeemable sadness. Mention the snows of yesteryear and everyone will know what you mean, and the flat sadness you feel.
No, strike that. Few will know what you mean. That may be one of the most famous lines of translated secular poetry in the English-speaking world, but now we live in the world of American Idol and Facebook and Jackass movies. Cultural touchstones just aren’t what they used to be. And we’re more into nostalgia anyway – baby boomers buying Time-Life collections of Elvis and Big Bopper recordings and that sort of thing. But this isn’t about the good old days, and reliving those good old days. This is saying they’re gone, forever. Hey, what don’t you understand about the passage of time? No more poodle-skirts and car-hops on roller-skates. Time flows one way. You don’t get a second bite at the apple.
But we do like to pretend nothing is ever lost – in hope of the resurrection to come, as the priest says as the casket is lowered into the ground. We will all meet again in heaven, in young and vital bodies, flawless and happy, and have a fine old time.
Isn’t it pretty to think so? There’s no evidence whatsoever that that is so, or could be so. But faith is a wonderful thing. We’ll believe it. The alternative is unacceptable. We train ourselves to dismiss the inevitable, for our emotional survival – François Villon be damned, to use the verb correctly.
But we all know he was right. A few years ago it was a nephew’s wedding in Houma, a small odd city in the bayou far south of New Orleans – a flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte, then the hop down to New Orleans, then the rental car for a long drive through the pitch black thick night to the rehearsal dinner, arriving late and disoriented. What was this place? And the wedding the next day – the giant Catholic cathedral, surrounded by the extensive maze of one of those New Orleans graveyards, ornate crypts and mausoleums for generations who could not be buried in the perpetually saturated ground. They were all right there – in your face. That was spooky.
But the wedding was cool, and the reception even cooler – jambalaya and crayfish pie down on the bayou, just like in the song – which the band played over and over. And it was fun to catch up with the groom’s older brother, there with his cool nine-year-old daughter. And the next day, Sunday morning, it was the long drive up to New Orleans – Zydeco music on the car radio and folks jabbering away in trailer-park French. And then it was Bourbon Street and all the rest. And what was the high school marching band doing there, parading through the French Quarter at midnight, blaring out Sousa? It was oddly wonderful. And of course Monday morning it was chicory coffee and beignets at Café du Monde – one has to do that. And then it was back to Los Angeles.
And then it was all gone. Within a few months Hurricane Katrina had erased New Orleans. And it will never be the same – famous places and tourist traps can be rebuilt, but the demographics changed. Many left never to return. The yuppies remained. If the place is ever rebuilt it will be the Disney version, a theme park about another place, gone forever. And the groom’s older brother and his cool nine-year-old daughter are gone too, later killed instantly in an automobile accident in central Florida – a woman in her eighties, confused and vague, ran a stop sign, and that was that. She was fine. They were dead.
But everyone has stories like that. We all have experiences and things that matter to us that are lost forever – and key people who are gone. You don’t get a second bite at the apple. Life isn’t like that movie Groundhog Day – you don’t get to live the same day over and over and over again until you get it right. Curiously, in 2006, that film was added to the United States National Film Registry as it was either “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” or something. Consider it a modern version of François Villon ballade – one more meditation on mortality and life’s transience. And of course the hero, Phil Conner, cannot keep that old man he cares about from dying. There are losses, and they are forever, and you cannot do a damned thing about it.
Of course, to impress the woman he loves, Bill Murray, as Phil Conner, uses living the same day over and over to learn French and quote French poetry to her – and it sure sounds like Villon. It’s not – it’s just some of Jacques Brel stuff – “The girl I will love / is like a fine wine / that gets a little better / every morning.”
That’s close enough. Phil Conner wants a world in which nothing is lost – the old man doesn’t die, he always catches the kid falling out of the tree. It doesn’t work that way. Life is loss. That’s the deal. Accept it and move on, or remain stuck like Phil Conner. The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time – there’s a song about that too.
Oddly enough you can see this playing out in public life too. For example, the Atlantic’s Michael Chabon was troubled with the conclusion of the president’s Tucson speech – where Obama said that “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today” – which everyone seemed to love, but he didn’t:
I’ve been thinking about the president’s speech all night and this morning, how something about it left me feeling left out. Obama’s presence – physical, moral, emotional – was palpable. It carried the charge of authority, of mastering a moment. You felt that he was acknowledging, reflecting, and accepting the hardness of life, drawing freely and even generously on his own experience of sorrow and on his capacity to imagine the sorrow of others. When he reached his peroration, as he moved from an invocation of the innocence and immanence of the dead little girl to a call, part admission, part admonishment, part fatherly exhortation, for Americans “to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations,” the speech found it true importance, its profundity.
And that was bold:
To attempt to live up to your children’s expectations – to hew to the ideals you espouse and the morals that you lay down for them – is to guarantee a life of constant failure, a failure equivalent with parenthood itself. Surely this is something that the father of Malia and Sasha Obama knows all too well. Choking up at one point, imagining the Taylor-Greens’ loss, it seemed to me, in terms of his own unimaginable bereavement, Obama was figuring himself (extraordinarily, I think) not as the Great Father but, more messily and searchingly, as an imperfectly lowercase father, “shaken from [his] routines … forced to look inward,” struggling in the wake of calamity to reclaim and to strive to measure up to a set of principles the burden of whose observance falls so unevenly on the narrow shoulders of the young. He was, at that moment, talking directly to me.
And it was also strange:
And yet … Was it all the weird, inappropriate clapping and cheering? Or the realization that I am so out of touch with the national vibe that I didn’t know that whistling and whooping and standing ovations are, when someone evokes the memory of murdered innocent people, totally cool? I never would have thought that I’d spend so much of that solemn Wednesday thinking – first on publication of Sarah Palin’s latest piece of narrishkeit about the blood libels, then all through the memorial service – please, I beg you, can you not, finally, just shut up?
He didn’t feel like applauding right then:
I tried to imagine how I would feel if, having, God forbid, lost my precious daughter, born three months and ten days before Christina Taylor-Green, somebody offered this charming, tidy, corny vignette to me by way of consolation.
I mean, come on! There is no heaven, man. The brunt, the ache and the truth of a child’s death is that he or she will never jump in rain puddles again. That joy was taken from her – and along with it ours in the pleasure of all that splashing. Heaven is pure wishfulness, an imaginary solution to the insoluble problem of the contingency and injustice of life.
The best he can do is to give in a bit:
But I’ve been chewing these words over since last night, and I’ve decided that, in fact, they were appropriate to a memorial for a child, far more appropriate, certainly, than all that rude hallooing. A literal belief in heaven is not required to grasp the power of that corny wish, to feel the way the idea of heaven inverts in order to express all the more plainly everything – wishes, hopes and happiness – that the grieving parents must now put away, along with one slicker and a pair of rain boots.
We’ll believe it. The alternative is unacceptable. We train ourselves to dismiss the inevitable, for our emotional survival – even if we know none of it is true. Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?
But the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein seems to think that this particular rhetorical flourish was too easy:
For me, the one really false note in the president’s speech last night came when he said, “If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.” It was … cheap, somehow. More like what you tell children when a pet dies than what you tell adults when a child dies. Or maybe it wasn’t. I haven’t had to talk to many parents in that situation.
But Klein just does not like cheap:
It seems like the job of the writer in these situations is to search for some meaning, or try to counsel calm, or try to rationally analyze the various ways the country is reacting to the tragedy. But that’s not how I feel. The shooting was awful and it makes me sick to my stomach whenever I think about it for too long and nothing will put it right and it’s not like human beings have suddenly paid off their cosmic debt: More bad things will happen to good people in the future.
Good things will happen too, of course. But I don’t see any rain puddles. Only cold, hard rain.
And there’s a part of me that feels it’s disrespectful to the victims not to admit that. But it doesn’t really seem like saying it is part of my job, or like it adds any real value. There’s a comfort in reading calm analyses of something, in feeling like you understand it, and maybe have learned a bit from it.
But perhaps that’s as cheap as rain puddles.
He doesn’t know. So what do you say about what is lost forever? Obama, a father of two young girls himself, went for the easy and comforting pleasant nonsense. And maybe that was self-defense. The alternative is unacceptable. It’s just too painful.
But some of us see Bill Murray as Phil Conner, microphone in hand and staring dead-on into the camera, and reporting – “You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”
But you can’t say that.