Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A language lesson

This weekend, my friend Alexis invited me and two other friends to visit him at his apartment in Cambridge as he prepared to fly home to France. Now, I've done the last-minute "goodbye hangout" before, and it usually consists of me running around folding clothes or searching a closet for a lost pair of ski goggles while a friend or two sits perched on my bed with a glass of Kool-Aid, chatting with me as I go.

Not so with Alexis, who is a) French and b) a professional diplomat. Before I came over, he had already gone to the store and picked up a small feast of sushi ("for the vegetarian" - moi), carrots, tzatziki, pita chips and (of course) hummus, as well as a few bottles of wine. Our last-minute goodbye ended up lasting until 3 a.m. I never saw him fold so much as a sock, but he was packed and ready for his flight the next day. (Although his bags did get lost, temporarily depriving his French relatives of the Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Goldfish crackers he was bringing over to Brittany).

It seems natural now that the conversation drifted to the topic of sprezzatura. It's one of my favorite words, Italian or otherwise, and the perfect word to describe Alexis' special talent for this sort of thing. The word comes from Castiglione's "Book of the Courtier", and a courtier, I suppose, was an early form of the kind of diplomat Alexis is today. In the book, one character, Count Ludovico, explains the meaning of grace, and in it he mentions sprezzatura.
"It is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things, a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it....obvious effort is the antithesis of grace."
The idea of sprezzatura went on to hold great sway during the Renaissance -- and still does today, especially in Italy, where living life with great pleasure is an art form, and therefore an act into which some degree of affectation or pretention can creep. Even modern-day observers like The Sartorialist have noticed this, in this case by recognizing the way a carefully careless Italian has left his shoes fashionably unbuckled (scroll down to see the text/photo).

Hinting as it does at a kind of illusion, sprezzatura lends itself to both positive and negative associations, I think: at best, it can define the way a trained athlete can make the impossible look easy, and at worst, it can imply a certain calculating disingenuousness, the way a socialite will accept a compliment on a carefully put-together outfit by saying, "Oh, this old thing?"

Alexis, of course, embodies the former. He's like the star shortstop of sweetness. He's the sort of person who doesn't so much light up a room with his presence as he does the individual people in it, going from person to person paying genuine compliments in a careful way, like a priest lighting candles, until every person is glowing. If you try to tell him that you've noticed and appreciated him doing this, he'll wave you off and say, "Oh, please, I am a diplomat," in a way that in itself suggests he's simply doing his job, like an off-duty firefighter rescuing a cat from a tree. (Okay, I think three metaphors enough for this paragraph.) But I suspect that in truth, Alexis' personality naturally led him to the profession that most suits him, so that he, as a citizen of a notoriously standoffish country, has an official reason to imbrace his inner warmth and geniality, the way his beloved Americans do.

Strangely enough, Alexis, who is taking Italian lessons (yes, boys, and he's single too!), was unaware of the word's meaning. But my friend Aaron, another champion of sprezzatura (in that he's a veteran party thrower, former Quiz Night host and sometime sommelier) recognized it immediately. "It's the ability to throw a dinner party at a moment's notice, and to make it look easy," he said.

(Alexis, embodying sprezzatura)

Alexis seemed to like this, and repaid the linguistic favor later that night, when we were talking about Margaret Anderson. (Yes, we talk about early 20th century lesbian feminist pioneers at our casual social gatherings. We also talked about boys.) Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about sustainable seafood in which I employed a quote from Anderson. I pulled this up to read it again, because I was trying to explain how my how-can-I-help-you-today approach to life often gives way to angry bouts of WTF-itude when issues of fairness and responsibility are on the line. Anderson wrote:
I wasn't born to be a fighter. I was born with a gentle nature, a flexible character and an organism as equilibrated as it is judged hysterical. I shouldn't have been forced to fight constantly and ferociously. The causes I have fought for have invariably been causes that should have been gained by a delicate suggestions. Since they never were, I made myself into a fighter.
"That does seem to describe you", my friend Jenna ventured.
"Yes, but you are not angry," Alexis said. "You just reven -- " and he stopped himself. "I don't know if this is a real English word."
We looked at him quizzically.
"The word is revendiquer. I don't know if there is a word for it in English."

So we looked it up.

According to, revendiquer means "to claim, demand, take responsibility for." The example they give is "Il faut revendiquer vos droits - You have to demand your rights." Alexis explained that the word has been used in situations where, for example, workers were demanding their rights to better pay or reasonable hours.

"It means you fight for what is right, for what is owed," Alexis said.

Jenna wondered if its English analog -- or at least its English cousin -- would be vindicate, which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, can mean "to avenge" or "maintain a right to".

For some reason, I prefer the French word. To vindicate sounds almost clinical or legal, as if you're stamping a document: "vindicated." Pronounced "reh-VON-di-kay", revondiquer sounds like a proper action verb. It sounds like the way a large flag whips as it's raised into a strong wind. It sounds like it should have an exclamation point permanently attached to the end. In short, it sounds like an onomotopoeia for the action and emotion of stepping up, at first begrudgingly and then with greater and greater intensity, to fight against an opposition that should never have existed.

(Margaret Anderson, founder and publisher of The Little Review, who fought to have James Joyce's Ulysses published in the United States)

As I thought about this exchange, I realized how often I am moved by this concept. In this blog alone I have posted diatribes on subjects outside the purview of my professional work, to which this blog is supposed to be dedicated. In these cases, I have gone beyond the assignment, when there was an assignment at all, to express my anger at an act of unfairness or incompetence that, in my mind, was beyond comprehension or legitimacy. Revondiquer was all I could do. I suppose that's one of the reasons why I became a journalist. (That, and the free cheese.)

This month, I posted on the failure of one of the English-speaking world's top fashion writers to provide consumers of my generation with an adequate guide for environmentally-conscious clothing consumption, and the failure of the fashion and luxury community at large to acknowledge issues such as poverty and environmental responsibility, when such awareness is de rigeur for their peers in the equally glamorous fine dining industry. Last month, I posted on the misguided best intentions of the Prop 8 proponents I knew and the demoralizing consequences for our GLBT fellow Americans. Before that, I posted on the ignorance of a restaurateur who could not tell me where his food came from, and the laziness (or lack of courage?) of other restaurateurs who know but don't care. Before that, I posted on the inefficiency and waste within our country's current agricultural system as described by Michael Pollan.

But my need to revendiquer, to demand what is "owed" to us as a thinking, compassionate people, often goes beyond (or should I say below) the scope of this blog. I am a mad forwarder, sending on news stories both bizarre and infuriating to my friends, and more than one person has commented on how frequently I post these stories to Facebook. It seems that these days I am generating a veritable newsfeed of la revendication. In the spirit of the new year and new President, a quick roundup:

- Campbell's decided to run an ad featuring a lesbian chef, her partner and their young son eating soup for the holidays, and the right-wing American Family Association called for a boycott of Campbell's. A boycott, for acknowledging that families with lesbian moms exist, and that they sometimes like to eat soup. Campbell's stood their ground and defended both their ad and the family. asked its readers to buy a can of Campbell's and mail it to the AFA with a note expressing their support of gay families and the companies who aren't afraid to do the same.

- On December 19, the Bush Administration quietly attempted to auction off parcels of public land (that's public land, as in land that belongs to you and I) adjacent to several of Utah's national parks that had not been adequately reviewed, in a process that was not cleared with the National Parks Service. Now several environmental organizations have filed a lawsuit to stop the high bidders (who had to cross a line of shouting, angry picketers to get into the auction) from taking possession of said lands.

- In one of its most spine-tinglingly inspiring and visionary editorials in recent history, the New York Times has called for a "secretary of food" to replace the Secretary of Agriculture position in the cabinet, someone who will reform the food system to reduce consumption of fossil fuels (for fertilizer and transportation), increase standards for animal treatment and organic farming, and push for healthier foods to be made available to the poor to combat diseases like obesity and diabetes. Obama appears to have ignored this plea -- he's appointed a Sec. of Ag. with ties to Monsanto -- but advocates for food reform are not giving up.

- While consumption of bottled water continues to outstrip that of beer and milk in the U.S., Toronto's attempting to divert 70 percent of its waste from the landfill by 2010.

And so it goes.

The idea that we should work hard to preserve our environment so we and our descendants can continue to live in it, I think, is the most pragmatic thing in the world. The idea that we should not deprive other human beings of the same rights we enjoy is ingrained in me. These are not issues I want to fight about. The causes I have fought for have invariably been causes that should have been gained by a delicate suggestion.

I still maintain that, like Margaret Anderson, I wasn't born to be a fighter. But perhaps no one is.

I wish that my job entailed simply offering delicate suggestions, as Kristof so eloquently did when he recommended, via the NYT, that Obama bring some sanity to the way our our broken country nourishes itself; as Rachel Maddow so skillfully does when she suggests that perhaps, maybe, we should do something about all those banks wasting our money and all those loose nukes stashed away in the bunkers of countries hostile to us; as Tim Russert so gracefully did when he asked simply that politicians confront their own words and tell the truth. But sometimes even well-intentioned people (and Presidents) are deaf to gentle suggestions. Sometimes we can't all get along. And since we can't, revendiquer is the only choice. And I am so grateful to Alexis for helping me to find in his language a word for the urge I could never adequately explain in my language, a word that belongs to all good journalists the way sprezzatura must belong to all good diplomats.


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