Wednesday, July 20, 2011
The dog days of summer in Northern Virginia have given me a new understanding of the French word, abrutissant. The nearest transition would be ‘stupefying,’ as in, ‘make stupid.’ Abrutissant renders you a brute. Your head sinks into your shoulders, and your shoulders hunch. Your steps become not a walk but a shuffle. You move more slowly and your thinking is muddled; insects drink the salt of your sweat and you are too tired to swat them away.
I remember as a kid my mother would use the word to describe Algeria in the summer. Algiers and Oran, the two cities where she was stationed with the Free French during World War II would shut down from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for everyone but the soldiers—the French, Americans and Brit men and women who served with the Allied forces. No air conditioning, of course, and since electrical power was haphazard, no fans either. I remember her telling me that people did truly silly things in the sweltering temperature. While driving an Army truck, she said, she once passed out from the heat and ran into a palm tree. The soldier following her in a second truck ran into hers, and so did the third and fourth. The Algerians found it hilarious, all those Europeans incapable of dealing with the heat. They knew better than to attempt anything serious when the temperature hovered around 100˚F.
It’s always been believed that there’s a relationship between heat and violence. Montesquieu noted, “You will find in the Northern Climates people who have few vices, enough virtues, and much sincerity and frankness. As you move towards the countries of the South, you will believe you have moved away from morality itself: the liveliest passions will increase crime.” These observations are somewhat self-serving since Charles-Louis himself lived in a well-ventilated chateau in the south of France.
In modern days, according to Heat and Violence, a paper published by Craig Anderson of the Iowa State University Psychology Department, the more or less accepted heat hypothesis states that “hot temperatures increase aggressive motivation and (under some conditions) aggressive behavior.” The heat effect suggests higher rates of aggression by people who are hot relative to people who are cooler. And, of course, there is a direct relationship between heat and alcohol, and crime.
So beware, and remember Shakespeare’s warning in Romeo and Juliet, “For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”