Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?


Some five hundred years ago François Villon (1431-1463) wrote his Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis about important women, who, alas, were no longer. At the end of each such evocation he concluded with the wistful mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?, ‘ where are the snows of yesteryear ?’ This line, frequently quoted in the original even by speakers of other languages, may well be the best loved in all of French poetry.

Now fast forward a few hundred years. Back in the 1940’s I was part of the Trotskyist movement in America, some decades before this movement turned more or less anti-Semitic (for an account of this development, see my old essay on this). While in this movement, I was fortunate enough to enjoy the friendship of an exceptional group of people, all, I was sure, brilliant like me, all able to see the unspeakable evil and ignorance of the non-Trotskyist world.

Now and then, the Internet being informative about the famous and obscure alike, I get glimpses of these erstwhile comrades. Some seem to be as smart as before (i.e. they evolved their thinking as I have), but about some there is a cloud of uncertainty. In this latter group there is X, who had been, as a girl, really, but really smart. In those days of our youth, that is to say the 1940’s, X had known all about the pretense and phoniness (a favorite term then) of conventional big shots. But I did hear, over the years, that perhaps X turned into a bit of a pretentious windbag herself. Could it be ? What is she like today ?

Recently I was involved in a project that led me into some collaborative work with Y, a long-term colleague of X at an institution of higher learning. I asked Y: you know X as a colleague. What is she like today ? I understand that X may have political opinions that differ from ours (Y and I are together in our work now), but, surely, beyond that, and remembering her from days of old, she is still a very decent human being ?

So here is Y’s report, which I have every reason to trust completely:

I doubt that I knew X. in the days of which you speak. She should live and be well, but she very much hates me, and I have to admire her capacity to hate lastingly. Not many civilians have it. Has she gone all the way to Chomsky? That is far.

So here is the lesson about the snows of yesteryear, as I see it: those snows that looked so bright and white probably never were what they seemed; as is the case with so much that glitters clean and white, they more than likely always had plenty of dirty mud just below the surface.

One thought on “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?”

  1. The beauty of youth is that white is white and black is black. And the beauty of old age is that the world’s nuances, the greys, beiges, mauves can now be appreciated. The beauty of Villon’s refrain is its clarity like snow or tears…or both! That’s why it still resonates.
    Nicholas Cunningham MD Dr P.H.

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