THE IDES OF MIDDLEMARCH

It’s March 15th, and with it come two ides-of-March birthdays I’d like to note — but first, a note about the post’s title, which came to me from an 1874 novel I had heard of, but never read: MIDDLEMARCH, by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). It turns out that MIDDLEMARCH has nothing to do with the middle of March; it’s the name of a town in the Midlands of England (the novel’s setting). But let’s forget that I told you that. What’s the harm in letting it seem as if I made an educated choice for the title of this post?

In any case, what this is leading up to is a selection of George Eliot quotes, which I daresay you will find to be an oasis of reflective relief in America’s desert of bombastic hot air:

What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?

All meanings depend on interpretation.

No story is the same to us after a lapse of time; or rather we who read it are no longer the same interpreters.

A toddling little girl is a center of common feeling which makes the most dissimilar people understand each other.

What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?

Adventure is not outside man; it is within.

Now, as to those two birthdays, I expect that neither of the persons (both deceased) I am about to introduce is known to you (for which you are forgiven, but don’t let it happen again). But all is not lost — I remember them well. Their names: Philippe de Broca and Zarah Leander.

DE BROCA, born March 15, 1933 in Paris, was a French film director from 1959 to the year of his death in 2004. Of the 30 full-length feature films he directed in his career, I have seen only two….but those two are among my favorite movies of all time: THAT MAN FROM RIO (1964) and the cult classic KING OF HEARTS (1966). Here are three short clips from the former and one from the latter:

LEANDER, born March 15, 1907 in Karlstad (west of Stockholm), was a Swedish singer and actress who achieved her greatest success in Germany in the 1930s-40s. The German film industry had been seeking a new Marlene Dietrich since Marlene left for the U.S. in 1930. Leander made a name for herself in the same homeland as had Swedish screen diva Greta Garbo, which (beginning in 1936) led to starring roles for Leander in German language films in the hope of filling the void. In her memoir, Leander tells of her initial difficulties dealing with the German Ministry of Propaganda, since “Goebbels was highly displeased that the leading lady should be a foreigner. The fact that the mighty Third Reich could not produce its own Greta Garbo seemed to him an admission of inadequacy.”

For years, I exchanged correspondence with an elderly German first cousin (on my father’s side) who had remained in Germany until her death a decade or so ago. In one of my letters, I mentioned that I had a number of Zarah Leander recordings in my record collection and liked her voice. My cousin informed me that “The German soldiers were infatuated by her songs during the war.” Perhaps this clip will help you understand why:

 

STRICTLY, FROM HUNGARY

You must remember this — the opening scene (after opening credits) in CASABLANCA:

I am reminded of that scene’s “tortuous, roundabout refugee trail” when seeing reports  of tens of thousands fleeing from war-torn Syria, west across the Mediterranean in small boats to Greece, and thence overland hundreds of miles through passageway countries to Germany and other destinations. Some die in the attempt (recall the picture-worth-a-thousand-words of the lifeless body of a 3 year old boy washed up on a Turkish beach in early September). Many “wait….and wait….and wait….and wait” in refugee camps. Many more have been kept from continuing on, stopped on their way by the far right government of Hungary, which has been particularly strict in this regard. If you thought “exit visas/letters of transit” were hard to come by in CASABLANCA….

Perhaps you’ve read some of the recent series of articles in USA TODAY called TREK WITH MIGRANTS in which journalist Kim Hjelmgaard follows “migrants on their arduous 1,500 mile journey from Greece to Berlin” to witness their challenges. Particularly illuminating was Day 7 (CHECKING OUT WALL CURLING ACROSS HUNGARY) of that series, from which I quote:

I sat next to Robert [Kim’s guide] for most of Thursday as his car zigzagged around small-town Hungary in search of new additions to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s controversial barrier. The Hungarian leader has already erected a 15-foot-high rampart along the entire 110-mile border with Serbia. Now, he was starting work on a fence to close the 25-mile [border] with Croatia.
On my way up here this week from Greece, I had been told by several people not to mess with Hungarian police. They are prone to violence, they said. Last week, several journalists said they were beaten and detained for speaking to refugees. So it was Robert (and Naomi), or go straight to the Austrian border, and I didn’t want to do that. Naomi, his girlfriend, wasn’t in the car in the usual sense, but they were in frequent contact by phone, Facebook and text message.
He told me that the “very beautiful” Naomi — she is 19; he is 23 — was studying to be a physical therapist, and she wanted to one day own a “big, big” house in Sweden and possess extremely expensive things.
This wall in Hungary had been a flashpoint in the migrant crisis;
I asked if he thought it was good for Hungary to be trying to seal its borders when so many people were intent on getting through anyway.
Robert said he didn’t have an opinion either way. And so I asked about Naomi, what does she think, this policeman’s daughter? And of course Naomi had an opinion. I could hear that by the way her voice was spilling out over the edges of Robert’s cellphone. “She said she thinks the wall is a good idea, and that she also understands why the people are leaving their countries,” Robert said.
“And Sweden?” I asked. “Was there any contradiction in her wanting to go there for the ‘big, big’ house, and people wanting to come to Europe for a house?”
He didn’t know. I didn’t either.

There is, of course, more to the refugee crisis than the one scene here. Still, one wonders, why can’t Hungary abide terrorized people passing through? Is Hungary worried that they’ll see how wonderful Hungary is and change their minds about continuing on? Is Hungary concerned that they’ll devour all available food and leave the country so Hungary that it will starve? Is Hungary afraid they’ll leave a trail of drugs, crime, and raped women in their wake? If so, why doesn’t Hungary say so? When it comes to demonizing illegals crossing borders, Hungary’s right wing counterparts in America have no such qualms (and, unlike America, Hungary’s “illegals” don’t come to stay).

This is a post without a happy ending….but before I close, you younger-than-I trivia buffs may be interested in the origin/meaning of the idiom on which the post’s title is based:

Strictly From Hunger: Explanations, investigations

DIET OF WORMS

The above title, for those who aren’t historians or Lutherans, refers (if memory serves me correctly after having just looked it up) to a meeting in 1521 of the Diet (assembly) of the Holy Roman Empire in Worms, Germany. This creepy-sounding town is where Martin Luther ran – hence the name “Lutheran” – to respond to charges of heresy by the Pope and his popets, who were trying to make an ex-monk out of him. Luther (1483-1546) died this very month (February 18th, to be exact), but this post can’t wait until tomorrow to commemorate the day because, as you know, tomorrow never comes….besides which, the rest of this post has nothing to do with Martin Luther. Still, I wish to thank him for the part he played in providing me with a juicy title for my poem:

DIET OF WORMS

Chancing to glance out my kitchen
window one early spring morning, I
notice two robins in the yard battling
furiously over the prize one of them
has extracted from the ground.
Fascinated, I watch as the feathered
fiends fight to claim (you would think)
the last earthworm on earth. Finally,
one of the orange-breasted warriors
prevails, and the unlucky night crawler
is dead meat. I don’t know if the winner
was the one who found the worm first.
All I know is the worm was the one
who didn’t have much to say about it.