The Swan
by Charles Baudelaire

To Victor Hugo

Andromache, I think of you! This small river,
Poor sad mirror where once shone
The immense majesty of your widow's grief,
This deceptive Simois which grows with your tears,

Suddenly enriched my fertile memory,
As I crossed the newly built Carousel.
Old Paris is no more (the form of a city
Changes more quickly, alas, than the heart of a man);

I see only in my mind that camp of booths,
The piles of rough-hewn captials and shafts,
The grass, the heavy blocks turned green by the water

of pools,
And, shining on the tiles, the crowded bric-a-brac.

There once a menagerie spread out;
There I saw, one morning, at the time when under a cold
Clear sky Labor awakens, when the road
Pushes a dark storm through the silent air,

A swan which had escaped from its cage,
And, with its webby feet rubbing the dry pavement,
Was dragging its white plumage over the level ground.
Near a stream without water the bird opening its beak.

Nervously bathed its wings in the dust,
and said, its heart full of its beautiful native lake:
"Water, when will you rain down? when will you
thunder, O lightning?"
I see that wretched bird, a strange and fatal myth,

Toward the sky at times, like the man of Ovid,
Toward the ironic and cruelly blue sky,
Stretching its avid head over its convulsed neck,
As if it were addressing reproaches to God!

Paris changes! But nothing in my sadness
Has moved! new palaces, scaffoldings, blocks,
Old suburbs, everything becomes an allegory for me,
And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.

In front of the Louvre an image vexes me:
I think of my great swan, with its mad gestures,
Like exiles, ridiculous and sublime,
And devoured by an unrelenting desire! And then of

Andromache, fallen from the arms of a great husband,
A degraded animal, in the hands of proud Pyrrhus,
Near an empty tomb bent over in ecstasy;
Widow of Hector, alas, and wife of Helenus!

I think of the Negress, thin and physical,
Walking in mud, and looking, with haggard eyes,
For the absent palm trees of proud Africa
Behind the huge wall of fog;

Of whoever has lost what can never
Be found again! Of those who collapse in tears
And suckle Grief as if she were a kind of wolf!
Of sickly orphans drying like flowers!

As if in a forest where my mind is exiled
An old memory sounds as in a blast from a horn!
I think of sailors forgotten on an island,
Of prisoners, of conquered men!... And of many

Also a piece in Camille Saint-Saëns's suite the Carnival of the Animals. A duet for cello and piano, it's the last piece before the finale, and also the most serious and moving.

It was the only part of the Carnival of the Animals that he published during his lifetime. It has seen much success as a short piece in ballet, and was performed notably by ballerinas such as Anna Pavlova.

Latchkey kid. Sent home from school early, but he's forgotten his latchkey and there's nobody home. Weak sun falls on the concrete walkways, bleaches the smell of piss from dank stairwells, throws barred shadows on the peeling paint of his green front door, all locked up. The long afternoon stretches itself emptily out in front of him. He lifts the metal flap of the letterbox, and peers through at a dim rectangle of home. If he pushes his face into the letterbox really hard, he can just see a corner of the lumpy brown sofa where he left the book he was reading last night, but there's no chance of getting at it: too far away. He shrugs to himself - a curiously adult, embittered shrug - rubs out the ridges the letterbox made on his face with a thumb, and falls to chewing the thumb for a while, looking up and down the corridor. No signs of life. Over the wall, seven stories down, a couple of dealers share a smoke in the sun, sat on the rusty bonnet of a burnt-out car. One of them he recognises: his uncle. He doesn't want to talk to him. He slips down the stairs and out the back, through the estate down to the railway bridge, the old warehouses, and the canal.

It's quiet down here: the water seems to absorb all the traffic noise. Even trains going past, so loud at night from his bedroom, are just a faint rumble. His mum says it's something to do with echoes. He wonders where she is, hopes she's all right. Hopes she hasn't met up with her brother, his uncle. He walks down to the first lock, imagines a boat coming through. He saw a tv program at school on the narrowboats, once. Steam-drawn, horse-drawn. He likes animals, loves horses, has never seen one in real life. The only animals down here now are the rats, but he doesn't mind the rats, who seem to do no harm. Soft brown fur, shiny black eyes, tiny human-looking hands, they dart about from shadow to shadow on the old tug moored on the opposite bank of the canal, where half a ton of rubbish from the warehouses and offices has been dumped. It spills over into the brown water and floats by, partly submerged: Sainsbury's carrier bags, rapidly sinking coke cans, folded pizza boxes slowly unfolding in the water like weird blooms, sprouting slimy dark red buds in the shape of uneaten pizza slices. He remembers other snatches of tv, somewhere abroad: a brown river where the dead are thrown, with scarlet flowers. He finds himself looking, half scared, half-excited, for a body. And he finds one, but it is not what he expected.

Something white floating in the water up by the bridge. At first it looks like another Sainsbury's bag, but when he gets closer he sees the white spread of wings trailing. A bird. Duck? Goose? No, it's a swan. A swan, down here. It floats upside down, wings adrift, the long neck curved in a limp U, tiny head at one end with black eyes gleaming. Dead, or only hurt? He thinks he sees a wing move, runs to the water's edge and before he knows it he's tugging at the white shape, trying to pull it out. The little head flops forlornly and the great wings spread, impossibly beautiful, great feathers and muscles (imagine it flying! something this size, which can glide in the air!). It's heavy, so heavy, and the ribs of feathers feel like wire cables under his hands. He puts his whole weight into the tugging, pleading under his breath with it - please be alive please be alive - but when he finally gets it onto the towpath it's pretty obvious that the swan is dead. The head falls limply and the eyes, at close range, are dull and filmy. The boy straightens up, brushes damp feathers from his hands and stares at a thin trail of blood the colour of soy sauce dripping from a black hole in the swan's white back. Air rifle. In his imagination he hears the shot and the laughter. His eyes prickle with tears: he swallows down the hard lump in his throat and feels a sudden, murderous rage.

"Bastards," says a fruity Scottish voice behind him. It is so exactly what he is thinking that the boy whirls round, alarmed, but it is only a tramp, staring down at the swan. He has a bushy black beard with streaks of grey and an awesome smell of beer hanging round him, but he looks harmless enough.
"Lunacy," says the tramp. "To kill such an exquisite creature." He stares at the swan for a moment, and then spits noisily on the ground. "Aye lad, there's some scum in this world."
The accent and some of the words are difficult for the boy to understand, but he gets that the tramp is sorry the swan is dead, and nods his agreement. The tramp pats him gently on the shoulder, wanders down the towpath a little and rummages in the weedy strip of earth along the wall. The boy wonders what he's doing - looking for a hidden stash of beer, maybe? - but after a moment the tramp says: "Ah, here we are," holds up a muddy, plaster-encrusted bricklayer's trowel, and gives the boy a complicitous grin.
"Now," he says, "we can bury him."

He finds a suitable patch of dirt behind a scrubby tree, kneels down and zealously applies himself to the trowel. The boy watches, delighted, and within a few minutes the tramp has made a shallow grave of about the right size. He pulls a carrier bag from his pocket, wraps it round the dead swan and places the heavy dripping body carefully in the grave.
"You fill it in," he says, handing the boy the trowel. As the boy complies the tramp is fiddling deftly with two sticks, a sharp knife and some string, and when the grave is finished he sits a neat cross on top.
"There," says the tramp.
They stand side by side, admiring their work. The boy, not knowing what to say, mumbles: "You're a good gravedigger," and the tramp, who is not without a sense of irony, accepts the backhanded compliment gracefully, and gives a little bow.

"You're welcome, lad," he says. "Be seeing you, now," and he hands the boy a long white feather, as a souvenir. The boy skips off down the towpath with the feather in his hand: the tramp smiles to himself, watches him out of sight. The towpath is now deserted. Behind the cover of the small tree the tramp quickly and skilfully disinters the swan, removes its extremities with his sharp little knife, guts it, plucks it, and wraps the carcass in his coat. Nice and fresh: must have been shot last night. He's enjoyed a duck or two in his time, but never a swan. No sense in wasting it. He restores the little grave in case the child comes back, picks up his bundle and sets off down the towpath, heading for home, a cooking fire, and a kingly feast.

When I first heard of the concept of Fox's newest Reality Show (at least it was the newest at the time of this writing), I was at first horrified. Then I was intrigued. Then I couldn't stop watching - much like you cannot look away from a train wreck. As I watched the show, I realized that it wasn't quite as distressing as I had first thought it would be.

The premise of the show is this: They take 16 women whose physical appearances range from plain to butt-ugly, and give them all Extreme Makeovers, and the grand finale is a beauty pageant which will take place as the final episode of the season. During their makeover, they are not allowed to look at themselves. The mirrors are removed from their rooms, and they are kept in relative isolation. They may call their families (as much as they like) but they are not allowed to see them. They are finally allowed to gaze upon themselves after their three month makeover period is complete. Their big reveal takes place on a set made to look like the lobby of a fine mansion, while they are surrounded by the doctors and experts who participated in the makeover process.

Now, when I say "Extreme Makeover", I mean extreme. Most of these women look nothing like they did when they started. Almost every women receives dental veneers, rhinoplasty, botox treatments, facelifts, collagen injections into their lips, and brow lifts. And that's just their faces! Their bodies often recieve butt-lifts, breast augmentation, and extensive liposuction.

Surgery is just the first step. After that, things get tough.

When they are barely recovered from the brutal extensive surgery, they begin a diet and exercise program to firm up any extra skin and fat they have left over. Almost all also receive therapy from a professional psychiatrist. As you can probably guess, none of these women would have been considered great beauties, and most have been relentlessly teased their entire lives. Unsurprisingly, they all have self-esteem issues, and some have anger management and motivation problems.

When the makeover is complete, they should not only be happy with themselves unconditionally - thanks to their emotional therapy - but when they see their new bodies and faces, they get an extreme confidence boost and hopefully this will catapult them into a great (at least healthier or less self-destructive) new life.

Every week two women are made over, but only one of them is selected to go on to the pageant, and the other goes home. At the end of each show the big reveals are done (one at a time separated by commercial breaks), and the reveals have been, for the most part, tearful moments, punctuated by exclamations of shock and gratitude.

The beauty pageant is not based strictly on physical beauty. In fact, there have been a few times when the less physically attractive of the two were selected because of factors like attitude and magnitude of the makeover. None of the losing contestants have been visibly disappointed, because even though they might not go onto the beauty pageant, they've received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of surgery, therapy and physical training. Not too shabby for a "loser", I should say. Also, to soften the blow, the losing contestant gets to see their families for the first time since they started the program, as husbands, parents and kids are filed in to see the new woman.

At first I thought that the concept of this show was exploitative and disturbing. I thought it was going to be a cheap and dehumanizing parade of T&A, with the added shock value that all the pieces of meat used to be ugly. But it's not a that bad a show, if you like Reality TV. At least they're trying to make it elegant and inspirational. Reality TV is exploitative by nature, and so are beauty pageants. The Swan is no less so - but it's not more so either.

At least backstabbing, over-aggression and conflict are not encouraged like they are in other reality shows.

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