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La Francophonie and the Press.

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg comments on efforts to preserve the French Language.


Other segments from the episode on December 8, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 8, 1997: Interview with Richard Horsley and Neil Silberman; Interview with Dan Piraro; Commentary on the preservation of the French language.


Date: DECEMBER 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120801np.217
Head: The Message and the Kingdom
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests are the authors of a new book that attempts to reconstruct the social history of early Christianity. It's called "The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World." Their book draws from recent studies of ancient Roman culture and from archaeological discoveries throughout the Mediterranean region.

Richard Horsley is a professor of religion at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He's a scholar of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and early peasant movements. Neal Asher Silberman is the author of a previous book on the Dead Sea Scrolls and has written extensively on near-eastern archaeological finds and their political and religious impact.

Horsley and Silberman are trying to understand early Christianity in the context of the political and cultural conflicts of the time. Horsley says that religion and politics were closely connected in ancient times.

RICHARD HORSLEY, PROFESSOR OF RELIGION, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS, CO-AUTHOR, "THE MESSAGE AND THE KINGDOM": Because of the separation of religion and politics and economics in our own society, we assume that religion was separate from politics and economics in ancient society, and that's simply not the case.

Religion went together with social/political life. It was inseparable. Jesus was not simply an individual prophet speaking to individuals in general, but we had to read this in a real context -- where there were real social forms of villages and families, and that the sayings of Jesus then took on quite a different sound when read in that context.

GROSS: You point out in the book that recent findings from archaeological dig sites in the Middle East and the Mediterranean have changed our picture of Jesus' time. Neil Silberman, can you give us a couple of examples of recent archaeological findings that are changing our picture?


GROSS: Yeah?

SILBERMAN: ... it's the finds that people don't think about and that don't get the headlines that are the most important ones, I think. Our flaw in seeing the period of Jesus was to be seduced by the elegance and grandeur of monumental Roman architecture, while there is a whole world living in the countryside.

Now, that world will never become tourist attractions in the sense of tourists coming to see these ancient sites. But scatters of pot shards that show remains of rural villages that are slowly disappearing as the Roman rule expands unlocks for us a whole process that was going on in the time of Jesus that really hasn't been understood.

GROSS: What process?

SILBERMAN: The process of a globalized economy; a globalized empire. We have to look at the Roman Empire as a period of tremendous upheaval and revolution in the Mediterranean world; where formerly very localized economies, even regionalized economies, were slowly brought within the grasp of a world economy, and made to serve the markets and the economic needs of that.

In many ways, it's reminiscent of the modernization of the Third World, or the modernization of the world today, where people that had for generations lived in villages aiming at subsistence were now forced to deal with money, with markets, with employment, and with what the market demanded they produce.

GROSS: With the market being Rome?

SILBERMAN: The market being the Roman -- Rome and its provincial capitals; ultimately, Rome of course.

GROSS: So does -- where does Jesus himself fit into this system?

HORSLEY: The -- just at the time that Jesus was born, roughly in 4 BCE, Herod the Great had died, and the Romans separated his kingdom and assigned Galilee and Peria (ph) to one of his sons, Antipas. So when Antipas then established a capital in Galilee, in the city of Seferus (ph) first, and then he built a second capital in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.

For the first time in Galileean history, the rulers were living right there in Galilee, and within a day's walk of any of those villages. And that meant that with Antipas trying to sort of make his mark as a Roman client king, he needed resources. The source of those resources was the peasant produce. And so it looks as though there was an intensification of taxation and collection of taxes.

And Antipas, of course, wanted to -- to generate whatever other resources he could generate, so he developed a salt fish industry. And just in building a capital at Tiberias, he displaced peasant villages and forced villagers to come into that city to provide the kind of labor and artisans and so forth that he needed.

So the impact right in the generation of Jesus -- the generation in which Jesus grew up -- must have been tremendous on those villages. And then the villagers would have been disrupted, falling into debt because of the heavy taxation; hungry -- and those are exactly the kinds of issues that we can see Jesus addressing in the Gospels.

SILBERMAN: Terry, let me give you a specific example of the kind of changes that we postulate -- we try to sketch out here in the world of Jesus. Jesus' ministry, of course, were in the small villages around the Sea of Galilee. And we tend to have this very idealized, romantic view of the apostles casting their nets upon the water and the peaceful Sea of Galilee.

But what the archaeology shows us is that intensification that Dick was talking about. In fact, Magdala (ph) or Terichai (ph), the city where Mary Magdalene is from, was known by that Latin name "salt fish." The Romans were very fond, for instance, of very thick, very spicy, fermented fish sauces, and that required tons and tons of fish to be fermented and rendered down into these -- into these jars that were exported throughout the Mediterranean.

And what actually happened at the time of Jesus was not this peaceful fishing, but fishing on the Sea of Galilee turned from a fairly seasonal occupation of farmers into a massive industrialized process in which quotas had to be met and the fishing went on day and night, year 'round.

And what you have for the fishermen that came -- that Jesus prom -- he said that he would make them "fishers of men," was a response to what we can now see from archaeology -- the sudden pickup and intensification, and the peaceful life of Galilee was suddenly disrupted in a way that no one had expected to happen.

GROSS: So, you're saying that even the fishermen disciples were going through an enormous period of social and economic upheaval?

SILBERMAN: Particularly...


SILBERMAN: ... the fishermen in that there was an unprecedented intensification in their work. And so the whole -- the whole symbol of the fish is something that was caught. The fishermen that were pressed to catch more and more give a new interpretation when we hear Jesus say "follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" with the same intensity that the fishermen were having to catch fish, for instance.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about things that you've learned about what religion was like during the time of Jesus in the Roman empire.

HORSLEY: One of the most interesting things that I've come to see is something I've mentioned before, that you just simply can't separate religion from other dimensions of life; that for the ordinary people living in villages, religion was a matter of growing their crops and having enough to eat; a matter of having a parcel of land in your family that you would pass down from generation to generation.

And then of course, at the higher level -- at the level of the temple in Jerusalem, the temple wasn't simply a religious institution. It was a political and economic institution as well. In fact, we -- we should speak really of the society as a temple state, where the temple was the central political, economic, and religious institution.

And then, of course, and this is something we don't often think about, once the Romans came in, Caesar wasn't simply the political ruler and wasn't simply taking tribute. Caesar claimed to be a god and the savior of the world. And there's a religious dimension to the Roman imperial rule.

So, it's a whole different picture from the kind of sort of individual piety and ethics that I grew up with that emerges from studying the Gospels in the context of the ancient society.

GROSS: Richard Horsley, you're a scholar of peasant movements and you see Jesus as being the leader of a peasant movement. But of course, Jesus was also talking about -- about God. I mean, he was talking about, obviously, religious things. So how do you reconcile him as the leader of a peasant movement, but also, you know, being different because of this, you know, larger spiritual thing that he was talking about, too?

HORSLEY: Mm-hmm. The -- the spiritual dimension is not separate from the other dimensions of life, including raising crops, for example. The -- yes, Jesus talks about God and he's coming from the whole Israel -- Israelite biblical tradition, which represents God as concerned about people; concerned about the quality and the shape of people's lives.

In the traditional Mosaic covenant that we think of often as the Ten Commandments, think of those commandments given by God on Sinai -- "Thou shalt not covet," "Thou shalt not steal," "Thou shalt not swear falsely" -- those are religious obligations, indeed, but they're also principles of -- what shall we call them? -- social policy. They're principles by which people in a village community relate to each other. And it maintains, then, a wholesome and just social life in the village and in the larger society.

GROSS: My guests are Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, authors of the new book The Message and the Kingdom.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

We're talking about the historical Jesus and the social and political upheaval in the time of Jesus. My guests are the two authors of the book The Message and the Kingdom.

Richard Horsley is a professor of religion at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and a scholar of the historical Jesus. Neil Silberman, has written about the political and religious controversies surrounding archaeology of the ancient world, and he's the author of a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In ancient Roman times, what was the role of the emperor within the larger pagan system?

HORSLEY: There's a brilliant book by a man named S.R.F. Price (ph), which is really changing the way we're looking at the Caesar religion -- at the imperial cult.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HORSLEY: And one of his theses is that what the Greek cities did with the advent of the empire -- they were confronting a power that they hadn't confronted before in the -- in the Roman emperor having sort of taken over rule of the whole world. And what they did was to integrate that power into their city religions -- the traditional Greek religion.

So not only would they make new temples to Caesar, but they would put statues of Caesar in the temples to the various gods that they already worshipped like Aeschlepius (ph) or Athena. And that all over the eastern Mediterranean, the imperial cult was integrated with traditional Greek religion.

And then, second thing they did, was to reconstruct -- here's where archaeology opens this up to us -- they reconstructed the city centers so that it was centered on the imperial temples and the imperial shrines. And so the way Price puts it, that the imperial presence simply pervaded public space. The presence of the emperor was all around in the center of the cities like Corinth and Athens and Ephesus -- the principal areas of Paul's mission.

SILBERMAN: And for people like Jesus, and later Paul, that kind of public ideology was the worst kind of idolatry.


SILBERMAN: Well, because what it spoke about was centralizing everything and giving homage to this emperor that had no place in the tradition of Israel; that had no place in the -- that ancient code of behavior by which God had a direct relationship with every individual in every community.

The idea of rendering unto Caesar was something that was absolutely intolerable both on its face and on the effects that it had of increased taxation; of changing, and disintegrating in a way, the traditional village life of the time.

GROSS: In your book, you said that the story of Jesus' resurrection set the apostles' message apart from other reformist creeds of the ancient world. How does the resurrection set it apart? I want you to explain what you mean there?

HORSLEY: To understand the resurrection, we need to -- we need to get right back into the context of Jewish society under the Roman Empire. The Jews had been under empires for centuries by this time and the Roman Empire was particularly onerous for them. And part of the response to being under these empires was the development of something that's often called in the literature "apocalypticism."

And apocalypticism had as its basic message that God had not abandoned the people. God was still with the people. And God would take action to, first of all, restore the people and secondly to judge the empire that was dominating them -- to get the empire off their backs; and thirdly, to bring back to life the faithful people who had been martyred for the cause; who had been martyred because they had stuck to their guns and the traditional way of life and had resisted the Roman and imperial encroachments.

Now, it's in the context of that belief in Jewish apocalypticism that we need to see Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Here are these earliest followers of Jesus trying to figure out what's happened. And they -- they're following a leader of a movement of the restoration of Israel, so they can see that here God is acting to restore the Israelite society. And, they're just hoping that the Romans would disappear or God would take action against the Romans, finally.

And now, their leader has become a martyr to the cause. And they already know of this idea of resurrection; that God would restore the martyrs in this general resurrection. And so with that frame of mind, they came quickly to believe, and then told these stories, that God had raised Jesus.

And that wasn't just an individual resurrection. That was the beginning of the resurrection. And then, that was so exciting for that movement that it sort of mixed those three agenda items up. Since God has already raised Jesus, that means that God is acting not only to restore Israel, but is all the more certain to soon be taking action against the Roman Empire that is dominating us.

GROSS: Neil Silberman, I'm wondering if recent archaeological finds offer any insights into the story of Jesus' resurrection?

SILBERMAN: Really, this is a subject that, as I said, is really impossible with the tools of archaeology. What we do know a lot about is the process of crucifixion, and its role in Roman society and how horrible a public spectacle it was.

GROSS: You point out that most crucified bodies were not buried.

SILBERMAN: Well, that's what really makes the resurrection so important, although this isn't a strictly archaeological find. There has been, in Jerusalem in recent years, we've had the advantage of tremendous development, not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the Mediterranean, to give us more archaeological excavations and a better picture.

But in Jerusalem, hundreds and hundreds of tombs from the time of Jesus have been excavated. And yet only a single tomb has been found with a body with any traces of crucifixion. This is especially rare because from the historical accounts, we know that hundreds, if not thousands, of people were crucified in Jerusalem during the period of Roman rule.

So what this has brought up is examining what crucifixion meant; the fact that the bodies of those crucified people were left hanging on the crosses as more of a public example than capital punishment, and left to be eaten by scavengers, and, if they were lucky, to be bought back by their family for a proper burial. But that apparently from the archaeological finds didn't happen much.

GROSS: The holidays of Hannukah and Christmas are coming, and I'm wondering if you could reflect on what it's like for you to watch all the kind of religious and commercial, you know, celebration and to do around those holidays? -- you know, from your perspectives as a scholar of religion and a scholar of archaeology.

HORSLEY: Terry, one of the -- one of the books I did earlier, oh six, seven, eight years ago now, was called "The Liberation of Christmas." And the motive there was to -- just what you're talking about. It's seeing the, what seems like an extreme discrepancy between the original Christmas story and then the commercialization of the holy days in our society.

It's -- it -- it's been quite a revelation to realize that what we know of as American Christmas is -- has many roots other than the original story of Jesus' birth. In fact, it's interesting to realize that Hannukah, in the United States Jewish community, is much more of a celebration than Hannukah is in other countries for Jews. And that probably has something to do with what's come to be the American consumer Christmas.

SILBERMAN: And what's so ironic is that in the trappings -- so many of the trappings of modern Christmas -- are lots of the symbols of the emperor cult in terms of...

HORSLEY: Yeah, yeah.

SILBERMAN: ... the boughs and the trumpets and the heavenly music. I mean, if we didn't know that Jesus had occurred, we would think that this is a sort of vestigial remembrance of the Roman emperor cult in mid-winter.

GROSS: So, you're saying it's almost like a form of idolatry?


SILBERMAN: Well originally, the birth of Jesus -- I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, Dick -- originally, the birth of Jesus was celebrated in the spring time. It was only several centuries later that it was changed to December 25, which was always the time for the celebration of the Roman imperial gods; of the beginning of the new civil year.

And when we look at archaeological trappings of the emperor cult -- in Zanker's (ph) book that Dick mentioned -- of pine boughs; of trumpets; of all kinds of heavenly figures attending the birth of the immortal Caesar -- we begin to see that, symbolically, this is quite similar, not to the resistance to empire, but over the centuries of the organized Christianity, the trappings of the emperor creeped in. And what we have is not resistance against the idea of a king, but its sort of apotheosis.

GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

SILBERMAN: Well, it's our pleasure.

HORSLEY: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman are the authors of the new book The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Philadelphia, Gross
Guest: Richard Horsley; Neil Silberman
High: Richard Horsley and Neil Silberman. The two have collaborated on a book incorporating history, archaeology, and politics to contextualize the time of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. The book is "The Message and the Kingdom." Richard Horsley is a professor of religion at The University of Massachusetts. Neil Silberman is the author of "The Hidden Scrolls."
Spec: History; Religion; Books; Authors; The Message and the Kingdom
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Message and the Kingdom
Date: DECEMBER 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120802np.217
Head: Bizarro Among the Savages
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many of the authors you hear interviewed on radio and TV are on book tours funded by their publisher to help promote the book. But when syndicated cartoonist Dan Piraro wanted to go on a book tour to let people know about his latest collection of cartoons, his publisher thought his meager sales could never justify a book tour.

So, Piraro launched a do-it-yourself tour. He traveled around doing readings in the cities where he was able to find fans willing to fly him out and put him up. Piraro is the creator of "Bizarro," a surreal comic that is syndicated to newspapers. His new book is a memoir about his first do-it-yourself book tour. It's called "Bizarro Among the Savages: A Relatively Famous Guy's Experiences on the Road With and In the Homes of Strangers."

Dan Piraro told me he came up with the book tour idea after he had got e-mail and started communicating with his fans.

DAN PIRARO, CARTOONIST, "BIZARRO," AUTHOR, "BIZARRO AMONG THE SAVAGES": I was putting my e-mail address in my cartoon every day, and I was getting anywhere from, well, it was like 30 to 50 e-mails a day from readers all over the country. And so many of them had said: "you know, if you're ever in town, come -- we'd love to have you over to the house;" or you know, "love to buy you lunch if you're ever in San Diego;" or whatever. You know, this kind of stuff.

So when I thought to publicize the thing, I thought, you know, this would be cool. I could go do a little book tour thing around some of the cities and, you know, I could actually drop in on some of these people or, you know, ask them if, hey, take them up on their offer and go over and have dinner with them or whatever, and it might be fun to, you know, a little bit of a publicity gimmick, you know.

So I asked my -- I asked the publisher to send, you know, if they would be interested in sending me, and they said: "well, do you have any idea what it would cost to -- do you know how many books you'd have to sell? How many $6.95 cartoon books you'd have to sell to fund a trip like that all around these different cities?" And I said: "well, yeah -- but, you know, is money really the bottom line?" And they said: "yeah, what country are you from? This is America."

So there was no money for it. So then I got to thinking: I have this next-door neighbor who -- he's a business traveler. He travels so much and he's got so many of these frequent flyer miles that he gives them away for Christmas. He'll give plane tickets away for Christmas. And I thought, you know, there's gotta be just thousands of these guys out there -- people that travel all the time. So maybe I could actually get some free plane tickets also, and just fund the whole thing.

So that was what just boom -- I just got the idea. Well, what could it hurt? I'll write this sort of brazen, comical letter begging people to give me plane tickets and pick me up at the airport and drive me around and let me stay at their house and feed me, and I'll just see what happens. The worst that could happen is nothing.

GROSS: Why don't you read us an excerpt of the letter that you e-mailed your fans?

PIRARO: All right. "My new book, 'Bizarro Number Nine,' will be appearing in stores in the very near future. I'd very much like to take this opportunity to visit as many Bizarro cities as possible, sign books, kiss hands, shake babies, make speeches, and meet as many of my readers as I can tolerate. That's why I'm proud to announce the nationwide 1995 Bizarro Lap-of-Luxury Book Tour, but I need your help.

"If you would like to donate a plane ticket, pick me up at the airport, drive me to a book signing, act as personal bodyguard during said signing, put me up for a night at your house, feed me dinner, drag me to parties, or any one or combination of the above, let me know ASAP and I will send you details on how to apply.

"At this moment, you may be saying: it sounds like fun, Dan, but what if you turn out to be a chain-smoking egomaniac who teases my dog and scares the children? How do I know I really want to get involved in this revolutionary public relations gimmick and maybe end up with my picture in People magazine with my arm around your shoulder?

"Well, that's a fair question, and one I could very well ask of you, too. But let me assure you that while I am visually unusual and an avid non-conformist, I am an exceptionally polite houseguest who has excellent hygiene, does not drink to excess, does not smoke, does not use illegal drugs of any kind, and is invariably loved by animals, children, and the elderly alike."

GROSS: So Dan, what kind of responses did you get to your e-mail?

PIRARO: Well, I sent a letter out to Los Angeles and San Francisco, to a bunch of readers there, and within -- probably within 30 minutes, I had more offers -- I had 40, 50, 60 offers. It was unbelievable. It was more than I could possibly use.

GROSS: So did you audition people?

PIRARO: Sort of, yeah. I was -- I had no plan of how I was going to handle this. I was completely disorganized, as many artists are. So I just -- I thought, oh gosh, what do I do now? So I wrote another letter -- another basic form letter saying, you know, I got a lot of offers, so here's what I need you to do. You know, tell me about yourself; tell me about the place I'd be staying; where I'm going; what you're offering -- how much, how little. You know, sell me.

'Cause I said I can't possibly accept them all, so -- then I started getting some very interesting letters from people trying to sell me on coming -- you know, on choosing them.

GROSS: Like what?

PIRARO: Oh, I don't know. There was just -- there was this one girl -- this one woman in Berkeley, I guess, who wrote to me and said, you know, she told me this big long thing. She explained this game that she plays at parties.

She said "I'll throw a big party for you with all my friends, and when we're at this party, we always try to break the chandelier in the dining room with this beach ball that we kick around. So far, I'm -- you know, I still think it's indestructible" -- and she just goes through this whole big long thing. And at the end, she goes: "plus, I'm a lesbian so I'll be no competition for your wife."


And I just thought the whole thing was hysterical so I picked her immediately.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PIRARO: And we did, in fact, have that party and we did try to break the chandelier, and we never did do it.

GROSS: What were your secret fears? I mean, you know, you write in the book that you have this life-long fear of strangers. But here you are, setting yourself to be in the homes of strangers; to be dependent on strangers.

PIRARO: Yeah, and I was pretty stupid. I honestly didn't think of it that way. I just thought -- gosh, you know, I mean, I was that short-sighted. I thought of it one step at a time. I thought: "gee, I'd like to go publish -- publicize this book a bit. Well, they won't send me. Well, gee maybe some of these people will send me. Oh, well, gosh they are. Well, now I'll just pick some."

Well now -- you know, and then once it got down to all the arrangements being set, and I thought: "oh, my God, what am I -- you know, what am I doing?" I started to -- I had a real panic attack and I started wondering, you know, I just didn't want to be the one to discover the nation's next Jeffrey Dahmer.

GROSS: Yeah, well, it's funny, you know, you write: "I'll have to use other people's bathrooms. They'll see me with wet hair. What if I actually leave a pair of underpants under someone's bed? What if pictures of me in the shower suddenly appear on the Internet? These are all, I think, rational fears."


PIRARO: Yeah, yeah -- those were more rational than the Dahmer part. But yeah, that was it -- it's just suddenly I thought, oh my gosh, just day to day. I was with two and three different strangers every single day, and always at someone's mercy. And yeah, using all these -- I mean, you know, using what amounted to strange bathrooms every single day everywhere I went, and the, you know, the showers and -- yeah, it was very weird.

It turned out, you know, to be a lot less stressful than I thought it would.

GROSS: But you know, you do have a very funny cartoon about your fears, too. It's a cartoon where you've just arrived into town with your suitcases, and your host is a survivalist who's, you know, carrying a machine gun and wearing camouflage with a T-shirt that says "Give Me Liberty Or Give You Death." Would you read what else he's saying?

PIRARO: The big gigantic building-sized military survivalist guy says: "the toilet's out behind the munitions shed, and there's plenty of field rations in the kitchen if you're hungry. Make yourself to home. If you need anything, I'll be out in the woods shooting at life-size cutouts of the president."

GROSS: Did you meet anyone as scary as that?

PIRARO: Well, nobody exactly like that, of course. There was a guy I call "Ken the Wacko" who was pretty scary. He was in San Francisco, but he wasn't a survivalist at all.

GROSS: No, he was the guy, I think, who when you finally met him and were on your way to his house, he confessed he'd never read any of your comics.

PIRARO: Yeah, he had no idea who I was.


GROSS: So what was the point? How did he manage to...

PIRARO: That's exactly what I said. I said: "oh, really?" You know, I mean, he had this -- he was staring at me the way Carl Sagan must have stared at the cosmos for decades. He was just like staring a hole through me all the time, and saying very little, and he was making me uncomfortable -- just his presence alone.

Then he says: "you know, in that store at the book signing, it was very strange seeing all those people make a fuss over you, because to me you're just another person. I've never even seen your work."

You know, my head is just spinning. I'm thinking: what? I said "oh, really" so we got to talking. I said: "so how did you come to invite me to stay? Where -- how did you get my letter?" "I took it off a friend's computer at work. I didn't know what it was, but I just thought I would offer and see what would happen."


I said: "oh, man." He goes: "yeah, I was really surprised when you called and accepted my offer." And he did sound surprised, too, was the weird thing. I remembered back to the phone call.

GROSS: So were you sorry that you were in his hands?

PIRARO: Well, I was -- yeah, I started -- it -- I started to get very nervous 'cause by this time I was already completely in his hands, and there was little I could do other than jump up and run. And I said: "oh, well, you know, at least I know where I stand with you." And he goes: "yes, that will make my plans more interesting." I said: "what plans?" He says: "it'll be more fun if you have to wait to find out."


Oh, geez, it was like -- it was like an evening with the Addams Family, this guy.

GROSS: So did he have any bizarre plans for you?

PIRARO: Well, I guess you'll just have to read the book and find out, won't you.


GROSS: Now, you've -- go ahead.

PIRARO: As I said, I -- I learned that trick giving book -- book reports in elementary school.

GROSS: That's right. If you want to find out what happened...

PIRARO: Yes, everybody would get up and do the -- they'd do the book report and they'd tell the whole story, and then they'd say: "if you want to know whether or not Old Yeller dies, you'll have to read the book." And they sit down.


GROSS: Now, you've given a name to an experience that I think everyone whose ever done a bookstore reading, with the exception of people like Howard Stern and Colin Powell, has experienced. And that is, you know, you show up and no one knows that you're really coming. There's very few people there. You've called this "the forced celebrity backfire."


GROSS: Describe what this phenomenon is.

PIRARO: Well, that's when -- when someone tries to -- when someone presents you as a celebrity in front of a person or a group of people who have no idea who you are, and there's just nothing more humiliating. And it happens when you sign up to do a book signing, and you sit down at, you know, you arrive at the place and there's -- there's no customers or there's just no one around, or there's people just staring at you and walking away.

And you just feel, you know, here you are with this big shrine around you -- "Meet the Celebrity" -- and nobody, clearly nobody has any idea who you are and you just feel like a schmuck.

And the other one is -- that commonly happens is when I'll be with a friend somewhere and they'll run into somebody they know. And they'll want to introduce me as their cartoonist friend. They'll go: "hey, hey, hey, hey -- do you read the comics in the newspaper?" And they'll say: "uh, no." "Well, do you ever read Bizarro?" "Uh, no, never seen it."


"Well, this is Dan Piraro -- this is the guy that does it." "Oh, oh. Well, nice to meet you." You know, and then -- you're standing there like this big phony nothing. It's -- oh, it's a horrible feeling.

GROSS: Consequently made to look even smaller than life.


GROSS: Now, were you ever worried about disappointing fans? You know, because you're hoping, right, that you're going to be a real hero in the eyes of your fans. And you show up -- they're putting you up at their houses -- and you're just yourself. You are who you are. And when you're -- you know, when you're waking up in the morning in their house, you're not going to look like much of a hero, probably.

PIRARO: Yeah, no kidding. I -- I don't know. I didn't think about that too much, because no one takes their celebrity less seriously than I do. And I always call myself a "pseudo-celebrity" or a -- what is the other thing? I don't even remember now. It's just not something that I do much. I'm not a movie star or a TV star, so people almost never recognize me. Some people occasionally recognize my name.

So I mean, I just don't feel like any kind of a hero or celebrity, and I don't buy into that at all. So I figured all I had to be was just, you know, friendly and amusing and that sort of thing. I did feel some pressure to entertain people, because of course that's the whole reason they went to the trouble to have me come to their house was, you know, so that they could whatever -- you know, just be entertained or have some story to tell someone later.

And on the very first leg of the trip, I came down with this horrible laryngitis which is completely unusual for me. I almost -- I'm almost never ill in any way. And I just totally lost my voice. And so there I was -- a mime on tour. That was horrible -- just being, going from one stranger's car to another, and trying to get to know people without being able to speak.

And some of them were visibly disappointed as well, but they all felt sorry for me. I mean, they could see that I tried. I mean, I tried to talk and that's part of what shot my voice out even faster. I was completely mute for probably two, three days.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Piraro, creator of the syndicated comic Bizarro. His new memoir about his book tour is called Bizarro Among the Savages. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Dan Piraro, and he does the syndicated newspaper cartoon Bizarro. There are several books of Bizarro comics, and now he has a new book called Bizarro Among the Savages, which is about his book tour in which he stayed in many cities in the homes of his fans.

One bitter irony that emerges at the end of your tour is, you know, at the end of the tour, you realize that you -- you know -- you have a growing public; you have really adoring fans, but your marriage was falling -- your marriage kind of fell apart.


GROSS: And you learned that lesson that always sounds really corny, but that apparently is really true, that you can have a lot of fans who adore you, but it's not like -- it's not like the love in your own family.

PIRARO: Yeah, yeah -- that's -- that's very true. It was just that very -- the ancient, I guess it's an ancient sort of philosophy that, you know, no amount of money or success can buy you happiness. You know, it really starts at home somewhere. The "Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz" situation: if you can't find it in your own backyard, you probably never lost it anyway -- or whatever it is she says at that -- in the end of that.

And it's entirely true. I had found -- I mean, when the -- the marriage breaking up was what stopped the book tour. I had a couple of more cities planned when I found out the marriage was falling apart. And I just canceled everything and it -- it suddenly -- it was such a whiplash.

Suddenly, none -- nothing about my career, none of the success, none of the publicity -- nothing made any difference to me at all. You know, it just made nothing -- it made no sense at all compared to what I was losing at home with the family breaking up and the -- it was a very -- it was a -- hmm -- a painful, but valuable lesson.

A lot of people assume that -- when they hear that this happened -- they always say: "gee, did the marriage break up because you were gone so much on your book tour?" And it's -- that's not at all -- I mean, that's not at all how it happened. Of course, I was not gone all that often. But it just happened to coincide, I think.

GROSS: Was it hard -- I think this is the first time that calamity struck in your personal life. During your career as a cartoonist, was it hard to churn out comics while you were going through a really miserable period?

PIRARO: Oh, geez, it was impossible. I was -- I -- I mean, I was just so -- I was so completely miserable and my brain just would not stop thinking about the divorce and all the things that had happened. And then every day, I'd just sit there and try to be funny. I mean, it was really like someone -- it just -- you know, putting a gun in your mouth and saying, you know, "make me laugh."

It was a terrible pressure to be under and I really wished that I -- I mean, every single day I wished I was an accountant or something where I could just go to work and push some buttons and go home and not think about -- not have to be creative and funny.

GROSS: Did you come up with any comics that related to your situation?

PIRARO: I ended up coming up with quite a few. That was one of -- one of my many methods of therapy for myself to get over it. I came up with a lot of comics. And at one point, my ex-wife called. She was working in this restaurant, she called and she goes: "I saw your comic today and I didn't think it was funny. I hope the whole world" -- dah, dah, dah -- you know. You know, and she just really lambasted me.

And I said: "well, you know, I -- don't look at them. What can I tell you? I'm doing this -- you know -- these jokes. I write these things for myself. They're not aimed at you." I -- you know, they weren't necessarily specifically derogatory toward her, either. They were just jokes about divorce. You know, I said: "look, I'm -- you know," I said "don't read them." She goes: "I can't help it. All my friends show them to me." "Well, get new friends."

GROSS: So what was -- give us an example of one of the divorce-oriented comics?

PIRARO: Well, one of the ones which I -- I'm not sure I can remember it -- I -- try to remember it -- I was going to a divorce support group, which I highly recommend to anybody going through any tragedy. I guarantee you, there's a support group out there for, you know, for no matter what you're going through, there's one out there for you and I think they're really good.

But I was going to a divorce support group, and so I drew a cartoon of myself in the divorce support group. And the character -- of course, most people didn't know it was me 'cause they don't know what I look like -- but the character is sitting in the circle of people and he's saying: "I've been using my spare time to invent a time machine. I want to go back in time, 16 years, and kidnap myself from my own wedding." And that was -- I think actually that was the one she so strongly objected to. She -- and she called me and got pretty angry about it.

GROSS: Was this the first time that you were doing comics that really came more out of your life?

PIRARO: Yeah, yeah, and it's probably still -- my cartoons tend to -- tend to be pretty surreal, and they really don't deal with things that an actually happen to people. Although I've had a lot of fans come to me and say: "you know, what I love about your cartoons is that they're completely off the wall and totally unreal, but they remind me of real things that really happened." And I think that's kind of a key, too. There's -- that was part of how I was able to incorporate this.

But I don't typically incorporate literal events into my cartoons at all, but -- but, I mean, there is, you know, if you -- if you're -- if you stand back and look at life at all, it can be incredibly surreal. So, there's plenty of surrealism in the real world to draw from.

GROSS: So you're going to go on a book tour for your new book about your book tour?

PIRARO: Yeah, the book about the book tour. I am -- yes, I am doing some cities. I'm not doing it the same way.

GROSS: You're not doing it in the homes of fans anymore?

PIRARO: Right. Although when I go to the cities, the -- a lot of the people that I talked to or that I stayed with when I went the first time, have invited me back and these kind of things. And I've kept in contact with a few of them. They've become kind of friends.

In fact, I'm going next week to -- where I'm going in a week or so to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina to stay with some people that I stayed with the first time, who are in the book. And they've become actually very close friends of mine. I've been three times now to their house. And we've just -- we've really hit it off and just made I think probably permanent friendship.

GROSS: Well, Dan Piraro, thank you very much for talking with us. And may I say: good luck with your book tour.

PIRARO: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: Dan Piraro is the creator of the syndicated newspaper comic Bizarro. His new memoir about his book tour is called Bizarro Among the Savages.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Dan Piraro
High: Cartoonist Dan Piraro. Since 1985, his "Bizarro" cartoons have been featured in papers such as the Boston Herald, the Seattle Times, and the Toronto Globe and Mail. When his publicist would not pay for a promotional tour of his book "Bizarro #9" Piraro asked his fans if they might be able to provide him with lodging, transportation, and food as he traversed the country. He's since written a book about this experiences on the road: "Bizarro Among the Savages."
Spec: Media; Cartoons; Bizarro; Dan Piraro
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Bizarro Among the Savages
Date: DECEMBER 08, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120803np.217
Head: Saving French
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Last month, French President Chirac met in Hanoi with leaders of more than 40 countries where French is spoken. They're all members of an organization called "Le Francophone" -- sort of a French-language commonwealth of nations.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg happened to be in France while the summit was going on, and noted how differently the story was covered in the French and American press.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: France spends more than a billion dollars a year promoting the use of French around he world. And if you happened to be in France looking at the coverage of the summit of French-speaking nations held in Hanoi a couple of weeks ago, you'd have come away convinced that the money is well-spent.

The evening news led with footage of President Jacques Chirac surrounded by a gaggle of Vietnamese school children singing "Frere Jacques," and French commentators lost no opportunity to remind everyone about the importance of maintaining the use of French in the world for the sake not just of the French, but as one commentator put it: "for everyone who's concerned about the hegemony of American culture and who refuses to accept that the entire world will wind up in 50 years expressing itself in the thought-deadening mercantile idiom of American English."

Not surprisingly, the English language media gave short shrift to the meetings, and most of the coverage took that amused and condescending tone that the U.S. and British press always assumes whenever the French get on their cultural high-horse.

One paper headed its article: "Adieu Anglais? Non" and predicted that the attempt to make French a serious rival of English on the world scene would translate to still another defeat for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who became the head of La Francophone after having been denied a second term as United Nations Secretary-General last year.

It's hard to disagree. Statistics on language use are notoriously unreliable, but even at the most generous estimate, there are only about 100 million native French speakers in the world, which puts it somewhere about 10th or 11th place among world languages. And even if you count all the people who use French as a second language, it only moves up a couple of notches on the list.

Even in a former French colony like Vietnam, only around one or two percent of the population still speak French, and students favor English over French by a factor of around 30 to one.

Of course, raw numbers aren't everything. As the 13-year-old daughter of a French friend reminded me, French is the only language other than English that's used in countries in all five continents. But that doesn't translate into a decided advantage unless your itinerary happens to include stops in French Guyana, Quebec, Gabul (ph), and Tahiti.

And while it's true that French is the language of Moliere and Diderot, as its supporters never tire of describing it, it isn't clear why that should make it any more worthy an object of study than the languages of Cervantes, Dante, Schiller, or Pushkin; or while we're at it, then the language of Allen Ginsburg.

In fact, when you consider how few real advantages French has going for it as a rival of English, the remarkable thing is how successful the French have been in preserving its special status. For example, French still has a privileged place alongside English as the official language of the European Union, the Olympic Games, and most of the UN organizations.

That's partly just an accident of history, of course, but among elites in most of the world, a knowledge of French is still a sign of cultivation, even if it's no longer quite as com il faut as it used to be.

Even here in thought-deadened mercantile America, speaking French confers at least as much social advantage as dressing Italian or driving German. And come to think of it, Frere Jacques is probably the only song in a language other than English that's known to school children all over the world.

You have to hand it to the French. They've made the case for their language and culture with such passionate self-assurance that it can be hard to tell where the grandiosity leaves off and the genuine grandeur sets in. Cynics may say that the policy of Francophone is really just aimed at building overseas markets for French products. But while the French are not averse to making a franc here and there, the policy's really motivated by a sense of cultural pride.

As President Chirac's representative said: "French is a language with a special virtue for translating the state of the human soul. To speak French is to defend a certain vision of civilization."

There's no doubt the French are sincere when they talk like this. But that's sort of the problem: when you believe that your language is charged with a sacred mission, it's hard to hear it brutalized in the mouths of all those foreigners.

That's one thing you can say in favor of the hegemony of our own language and culture. It may be mercantile and thought-deadening, but so long as everybody speaks English, we don't try to correct their pronunciation.

GROSS: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox-Palo Alto Research Center.

Dateline: Geoffrey Nunberg, Palo Alto; Terry Philadelphia, Gross
High: Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg comments on efforts to preserve the French Language.
Spec: Language; Europe; France
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Saving French
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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