Legends of Myself 36

Posted on December 31, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 35

36.  Old Pop, Part 1:  Libre-pensée

Teddy was just my name, the name I went by until the age of 12.  Tat was, consequently, my only nickname during childhood or that’s how it seemed to me.  The person who gave me that name, and really the only one who used it, was Pop.  I never knew, and still don’t, whether he assigned it to me according to a Gallic fashion of pet names or whether he made it up especially for me.

I always knew Pop as merely Pop.  Even the term Old Pop was begun in reminiscence, in family conversation, in the years after he died.  My father and his generation had named him Pop when they were children, the equivalent of Dad.  It probably felt comfortable for the expatriate Frenchman to be called that.  For French children, père is papa, so the words are very close.  Despite its origin, by the time the name reached me, it had lost its equivalences.

Pop was a unique quality.  There was only one.

Of course, I knew the Pop I saw, the one before me, the one in whose care I was.  Only he knew his past.

His home country, France, was long accepted as a given, but not elaborated upon.  He had always explained the name Collins as being close to the French word colline, hill, a symbolic representation of his wandering ways.  This is the story which my father passed on to me growing up.  As an explanation it turned out to be a deliberate misdirection, concealing the real Collins—whoever he was, dead so long ago, whose name our family borrowed—and dusting over Pop’s own secret past as blanket stiff and erstwhile Wobbly outlaw.

My grandfather’s real name, Tauber, didn’t become known until his multi-millionaire older brother Gustave contacted him in 1967.  That contact almost didn’t happen because Pop was still quite reluctant to admit his real identity in case the authorities remained interested in deporting him.  The authorities had evinced such an interest two or three times before, after all, even if half a century had passed since the last deportation—when they’d packed him off to fight in the French trenches of WWI.

Freethinker.  Tauber—considered as reputation—possessed bourgeois sheen and respectability on one side of the Atlantic yet was outlaw and renegade on the other.  How that happened was a story which I can only guess at.  Surely, though, young Georges’ Freethinking father had something to do with it.

Libre-pensée, a term attributed to Victor Hugo, is a philosophy which rejects dogma and authority in favour of reason and evidence.  As a social movement, it has a well-deserved reputation for agnosticism and atheism, but often—as in the case of Victor Hugo—it was wielded in opposition to and as a challenge to the moral authority of the church and other institutions.  In his epic novel Les Misérables, for instance, Hugo opens with a portrait of a saintly bishop, a portrait which contemporaries would recognize as a contrast to and implied criticism of the general run of unsaintly bishops which folk encountered outside of novels.  The church itself felt the criticism—which resulted in Hugo’s magnum opus appearing with scandalous regularity on official Catholic lists of prohibited books.

Freethinking was not merely or even particularly about iconoclasm, although it attracted its share of iconoclasts and anarchists.  It was in fact a profoundly idealistic movement, advocating the separation of church and state, upholding democracy and republicanism and intending to give meaning to la Liberté, l’Egalité , la Fraternité, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the slogan of the French Revolution.

‘The tool to the labourer, the land to the tiller,’ “l’outil à l’ouvrier, la terre au laboureur,” the Freethinkers wrote in 1889.

“Freethinking is democratic, secular and social.  In the name of human dignity, it rejects dogmatism in everything, but in particular the triple yoke of religious and moral privilege, in politics and in economics,” a congress of Freethinkers declared in 1904.

Anatole France, a prominent leader of the movement all of whose works were at one time banned by the Catholic church, was author of the quote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

With its preference for science, democracy, humanism, and optimistic rationality, Libre-pensée was liberal even by 21st Century standards, and was radical liberalism in the 19th.  However, even liberals—some say especially liberals—can be divorced from the issues they espouse.  La Belle Époque, the name given to the time before the First World War during which Pop grew up, was a label attached after the fact by people peering backwards through rose-coloured pince nez.  In fact the remembered prosperity of the era was founded on colonies overseas and cheap labour domestically.  Oceans, explicit class-barriers, and the advent of subways, tram cars and mass transit ensured that the poverty, ugliness and exploitation which rendered La Belle Époque so Belle could exist comfortably out of sight in its own climes and neighbourhoods—and thus mostly out of caring of the bourgeois who flourished on the sweet side of that uneven social bargain.

Pop remembers a school vacation wandering barefoot all summer with a friend on a pebbly beach.  Early in the summer their feet were tender.  Later on their feet grew tough—they thought.  He and his friend one day encountered a peasant woman who was walking also barefoot along the beach, bearing a large basket, and they volunteered to help her carry it.  With a certain irony, the peasant woman allowed him and his friend to try.  But when they lifted the basket, pain shot through their feet and they immediately had to drop it again.  Saying nothing, but giving them a look of amusement, she picked up her burden and continued barefoot on her way.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 37

Posted in: memoire