Un Canadien errant en Paris
For some years now there has been a general consensus among the literati, and quite a few people have declared categorically — and not without some glee — that Paris is dead. It seems that Paris is now populated with zombies. Well, there may be some truth to this — and yet one wonders why so many people, with their selfie sticks and cameras, flock to Paris in droves — to see the carcass of a dying culture. What are they looking for in a corpse? Or are they the zombies, shuffling around museums with their various electronic appendances?
I’m not your typical ex-pat or ‘American in Paris’, I’m a ‘Canadien errant’ as the song by Leonard Cohen has it. My disposition screams against the baroque: I grew up in big spaces, with giant pine trees and lakes and mountains — I am used to stretching my limbs. Physically, I’m almost too big for this place — a lumbering bear in chic apartments. I’m not a talker or a ‘foody’, which is strange when you live in most famous ‘mouth culture’ in the world. To add insult to injury, I’ve got little interest in ‘fashion’ and I don’t go out much. For all these reasons, I’ve often wondered what the hell am I doing here.
Perhaps it’s that opposites attract. Paris presents a counterpoint to my entire being. It is everything that I am not. (Is this, dear reader, the secret of our diabolical love affair?) So back to the question: Is Paris dead? No, Paris is not dead: it is wounded. But a wound can give a body character, a certain transcendental quality. When there is a wound the body becomes all the more conscious of itself, of its fragility, of its hidden powers.
Certainly, I have lived the ‘down and out in Paris’ cliché to a certain extent — at least before I got married and moved to the suburbs. And yet I’ve found that whenever I’ve tried about Paris, I was at a loss for words. Hasn’t everything about the American in Paris already been penned? How about the ‘Canadien errant en Paris’ — but who wants to read that, even if it evokes a certain comic pathos.
I did read about Paris a lot as a young man. Generally, I preferred Henry Miller and Anais Nin and that whole generation to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and I still do. They wrote about their lives directly, without excessive artifice. I found their Paris rawer, more precise and true — even if they have been accused of lyricism. Nietzsche was right when he said that philosophers (or poets) are biographers anyway, at least if they are on a spiritual adventure. The point is: that even if we are writing about ideas, we are writing about ourselves in some way or another. So why make fictions, when there is a perfect narrative written into our own adventures (and misadventures).
My life in Paris has seemed to me to beone big misadventure at times, a mistake. Taking the suburb train, though its vast arteries, is to behold one of Dante’s infernos spread out before one, a baroque vision of hell. And yet, Paris has celestial realms as well. There are places, like the rose gardens in Bagatelle, where you feel that you feel a heavy imperial beauty. And there is the explosive creativity of the popular quarters, the beauty and vulnerability of immigrant. The sublime and the ugly live in close proximity here, in every moment.
Living here has its advantages, besides all cultural richness and decay. There is a certain proximity to suffering in a big city that makes one more awake, there are also wild forms of human beauty that bloom in a stone garden as it were. To live here is to be in proximity to all kinds of paradoxical worlds.
Like everyone else I dream of going back to the ‘provinces’ — back to nature. Ah, but isn’t our real nature really Paris — the city shaped like a heart — full of dense arteries and darkness and caverns of light, macabre horrors and beauties.
Paris is not dead. It is still the same. A dark opium, that will give you fantastic visions. Paris is She. Paris is a woman.
St Michel Notre Dame
I do most of my writing on trains — specifically the RER C — which is the suburb train from Versailles that snakes around the left bank of Paris. Why? Well, firstly — about 45 minutes of uninterrupted time. In 45 minutes, you can write about 500 words, maybe even a poem. At home, there are a multitude of distractions, primarily my wife, my daughter, and my guitar. As a singer, I’d much rather be writing songs, than other things, but that might be difficult on the train.
There are other reasons to write: the activity galvanizes the spirit and transforms the nature of time and space. It bends and deepens time and space, adds perspective and colour. Even though writing is intellectual, I feel strangely void of thought during these 45 minutes. Time passes so swiftly, it’s like I haven’t gone anywhere at all, and when I emerge, I’m definitely in a different place — I’m even a different person. It’s like some kind of strange submergence into zero, into absence, into zen non-mind. I follow the narrative, like the train follows the river. I don’t think, I let the river of thought take me.
After writing for forty minutes, I feel less upset at the time lost in my commute — precious time that would normally be wasted, being passively transported along. Writing is my protest transportation, against the fact that my own vehicle for transport — my own two feet — have been stolen from me by modernity, because of the great distance between my work and my home. It is also a revolt against the sheer insularity of being in this box with other people, of being herded to work.
The writing gives me angel wings, it releases me from the industrial age, from trains and planes and cars, and from the ‘satanic mill’ of Blake. It’s like I’m in a canoe in Canada again, paddling through the silent waters of consciousness. It makes the mind go quiet; it is a wholesome, expansive activity, when consuming media can feel like drinking poison. I’d rather be the media — or a medium — than be spoon-fed newsfeeds. I’d rather spend that time doing something challenging, than just consuming more death and entertainment.
It’s interesting that the five hundred words I write on most weekdays is the same amount of words of an average newspaper editorial. I’ve become a miniature media outlet — albeit with a very limited readership. Of course, there is a problem with the social media dream: within an endless cacophony of voices no distinctive voice are heard anymore. If social networks used just a tiny amount of its vast earning to finding and promote human excellence, I might be more optimistic. It could, but it doesn’t.
Of course, one writes for the truth, goodness, and beauty and shouldn’t expect to be paid, or even complimented, for that labour. It’s sufficient until itself. The rewards are otherwise. As far as the world is concerned, this shadow work, in Ivan Illich’s words.
Real labours should enliven us, not lead to burnout. I’ve met people who, after working 50 years for a company are rewarded a pen or a mug with the company logo, and sent off to pasture, without even a staff party, for their years of sacrifice. I refuse to be that person. Shadow work is much more rewarding.
How can one measure the value of the hearts labour? Certainly, in the vastness of existence, it’s just a drop in an ocean. And yet when I come upon an insight — it’s priceless to me. It’s even more priceless when somebody is touched by that insight. Consciousness is the real gold. It’s like some mystics say: the ocean is found in the drop.
Back to the present. I’ve been writing for about 25 minutes. I know that because I have just stopped at Pont du Garigliano. Usually I am done my writing by the time I get to the Tour Eiffel & Pont de Mars. By St. Michael, next to Notre Dame Cathedrals, and as I enter the heart of Paris, the writing begins to take on some kind of body.
Being an immigrant is a good way to deconstruct your identity. In a foreign country, your mechanical manners and smooth reactivity get suspended. Defences and habits bred through millennium are broken down — none of the old tricks work. Your reality becomes a bit like a cubist painting, the world you see through with neat concepts becomes fragmented. Being slightly out of sync and perpetually awkward, you have to stretch your limbs in unusual ways — you live in some kind of permanent twilight of meaning.
If you are at the dinner table with a French person, you might have a good level of French but will still be incapable of understanding a shrug or the look in someones eyes — you might confuse irony and cruelty. Paperwork is an occult task, what seems written in stone is not what it seems. A letter of rejection might be a signifier that the relationship is ready to progress to a higher level. A joke at your expense might really be a compliment — an affirmation the subtlest of put-downs. The most complimentary phrase might be the most lifeless formality. You never quite get it.
It took me about five years of living here to understand the word ‘bonjour’, for instance. This word doesn’t mean hello, in an American sense. It is not just an acknowledgment, but also an invitation. You can’t just butt-in and talk to someone, first you have to pass a threshold. And that threshold is the word ‘bonjour’. If you fail to say this world, you are perceived as less than human.
Being a foreigner is a powerful kind of Zen training. When the ground is removed, one’s weaknesses are exposed, neurotic tendencies are magnified. You are always coming up against some kind of limitation, and that makes you resourceful on an inner level. You stop looked for confirmation or comfort on the outside, and fall back to your own powers. You learn to accept the awkwardness of the situation, dance with absurdity and unknowing. It is a most subtle dance.
A foreigner could become an exaggerated version of himself, like the American in Paris who comes off as a loudmouthed salesman. The Canadian is another kind of animal: he is lovingly mocked as a grizzly bear, he is treated as caricature of Canadian-ness, he is something terrible: cute. There is this boundary of cliche which I can never pass over, not really.
It is in this tension and difference that real growth takes place. It’s like falling in love. You love the ‘otherness’ of the person, the beautiful strangeness. You love that person, because they will always elude you in some way — not because they match your expectations. They take you beyond your ordinary identity.
But this love affair can become its opposite. If you don’t love that ‘difference’ then you become the embittered immigrant. You become nostalgic for the old country, you are constantly complaining. You live in little enclaves of others who are just like you; you feel that you are not accepted, not welcomed. You become a strange rootless creature — a lost soul — because you refuse to take the step towards the strangeness of the other.
You can’t just live in a foreign country: you have to court it — you have to seduce before you can remove the clothing. In the end, our real luminous identity has no ‘culture’. We are all the same without our clothing, different shapes of awkwardness — and it is in union that we find grace. The art is not in making a romantic cliché or a concept of the other, but in removing her clothing, button by button, stitch by stitch.
Being and Paris
“Paris is a city of the ‘pleasure principle’ — at least in principle. But pleasure here is not about mindless hedonism, but the pleasure of ‘being’. This is why there is something profoundly salutary about French culture: ‘Being’ is still highly valued. Don’t people come to Paris to ‘be’ more than anything else? For instance, looking at artworks means — at least in principle — ‘being with art’, rather than merely consuming ‘cultural products’.
Global culture pretends to be a ‘culture of pleasure’ but is it really? Or is it a rootless substitutes for being (or real pleasure). Are the endless ‘doing’ and production of technologies and entertainments that characterize American adventurism actually anti-being? Is this precisely why, despite good intentions and idealism, American adventurism can cause so much harm in the world?
Doing, devoid of being, isn’t deeply pleasurable, is it. It’s like watching pornography or eating a lot of pizza — or trying to get to the top of the mountain as quickly as possible with a lot of fancy gear. One doesn’t really get to ‘know’ the mountain. To know a mountain is to ‘be’ with a mountain — to eat is to ‘be’ with food and other people. To make love to somebody is to ‘be’ with them or to ‘know’ them in a biblical sense, not just to ‘fuck’.
Being is the opposite of frenetic activity, of a puritan work ethic, of disposable entertainment: those things are substitutes for being, as being requires no appendage. Being is also the opposite of so called entertainment, which means watching television mostly these days. Watching television is anti-being, total absorption in spectres outside of being — the ultimate disembodiment.
The streets of Paris were carefully imagined for being — that is before they were invaded by American automobiles. Original architects here made is a sharp delineation between the being of a private and public person, for instance. The public Paris is filled with Cafes — cafes for public being. And within the stone apartments are almost cloistered enclaves for private being, full of silence and protection.
The context for being gets lost as soon as automobiles and shopping centres come into existence. Of course, many cafes are filled with televisions now — but those people who are attuned to being, won’t go in such cafes. Television screens destroy both the private and the public space of being: with a television dominating the room you are neither here nor there, a real nowhere man in a nowhere land — fully distracted from any kind of authentic being. You feel no pain, but you feel no pleasure either. You are living life under anaesthetic.
It’s not that I am against television in itself — I love certain television shows myself. But many people don’t even watch television, they gaze at it absentmindedly; they keep on in the ambient space, living in constant forgetfulness instead of being. ‘Living rooms’ are no longer living spaces for being but rooms of the ‘walking dead’ where humanity is replaced by television screens emitting subhuman messages.
The catastrophe global culture may be the end of being French. Why. Because being French mean being human. You don’t believe me? This from the dictionary of etymology:
mid-15c., humain, humaigne, “human,” from Old French humain, umain(adj.) “of or belonging to man” (12c.), from Latin humanus “of man, human,” also “humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined, civilized.” This is in part from PIE *(dh)ghomon-, literally “earthling, earthly being,”
I finally got a chance to visit the Bataclan with my wife and six-year-old daughter, exactly a month after the Paris terrorist attacks, on December 13th, 2015. It’s not so far from my old neighbourhood, where I met my present wife and began many and sundry life adventures. I could feel a slight trembling as we neared 50 rue Voltaire.
The inside of the Bataclan was cordoned off and still blocked from view, except for the brightly coloured facade. The three of us wandered down the infamous side street where the world saw videos of people running helter skelter in scenes of horror, and my wife started to weep a little. My daughter, with the guileless curiosity of a child, asked: ‘Why did they come here to kill people?’.
I didn’t know why. When faced with the unspeakable we enter a dimension of silence, and a kind of spontaneous meditation occurs. We become more aware of sounds, colours, of the sky — the outline of things. It’s like a portal opens up to the beyond. In contemplating the dead, we are acutely present with the living, the pulse of our existence is all the more alive.
This little side street was most poignant to me. What struck me most were the bullet holes, still smattered all over the place. Some of them were circled with chalk and numbered — for police reason. There were the usual rotting flowers everywhere, gilded pictures of the fallen, lots of shaky drawings and photos, candles and a multitude of offerings. The sky was very overcast and heavy. Still, I felt something bright in the air. It was if, after so much death, souls were being reconstituted into light. Of course, these are just my projections, all-too-human attempts to make a narrative out of what has no boundaries or sense.
I’m sorry but I feel no need put forward any other kind of ideological commentary. Let the politicians make emotional speeches, galvanised patriotism, and plan their counterattack — that goes with their territory. I only want to regard this in silence, and with a tender sadness. We become cowards when, not knowing how to register certain things, we dramatize them.
I felt a bit guilty for taking these photos — there is a fine line between being a witness and a spectator — though still I share them here. Such events catalyse us, bring out the voyeur in us, touch us in places that have not been touched for a long time.
It’s good to remember that this sort of thing could happen to anybody at any time. That our lives are so fragile, that a hard wind or a big wave could just as easily come along as a bullet and end our earthly adventures pretty quickly. That is why perennial wisdom has always said: ‘keep death near’. The reaper exists in our very body, in a cancerous cell, for instance. Life is so very brief and Mr. Death can come and visit at any time, leaving us empty handed and bereft.
Will we be violently torn from life or gladly go into the beyond, having had a full life and fulfilled our birth-right and promise? It depends in part on our agency, but mostly on the fates. If we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, then we might just meet a bullet with our name on it — or a falling tree branch for that matter. What can we do but acknowledge the beauty and gravity of this moment? And the next moment. And the next.
There is a danger of weightlessness in Paris. You tend to forget about the ground — the wide boulevards turn you into a sky gazer. Unlike New York, where you keep your nose glued to the pavement—where windy canyons and monolithic blocks of concrete and glass crush the spirit—here you can look up, feel expansive, take large strides. Certainly, the original architects of Paris understood that for a living city, the human being is ennobled by the sky. To be able to see the sky, after all, is what prevents us from being a stranger to the earth.
There is a quality of enjoyment you feel in Paris, a balance between frivolous baroque glee and classical sobriety. But enjoyment here is not like American fun: it is not a cosy or insular; it’s more upright — the counterpoint to the puffy sofas and giant televisions of American life. Enjoyment here is more than passive entertainment and spectatorship, it involves a lot of talking and food — it is fundamentally about appreciation and participation. Appreciation of the little things (les petites choses) — the fruits of the earth — is paramount.
Of course, let’s not be too romantic. This place has its problems: the traffic, for instance. Modern Paris was built for the 19th Century, and cars have all but ruined many of its public spaces. Recently, the mayor here dedicated a day to Paris without cars, and what difference! It was like, in the words of Rimbaud: ‘Christmas on earth’ for a day. In the future, I hope cars will be banished from the city centre, and Paris will find its pleasure in walking (flâner to use Baudelaire’s term) once again.
It’s not a coincidence that the first thing the Parisian did after the terrorist attack was go out to the terrace. That was his comical ‘resistance’ — having a petite cafe, as if to say ‘fuck you terrorist, I will enjoy myself no matter what!’. The Parisian will continue to enjoy himself, in the grisliest of circumstances; he will still sit outside, under the sky, no matter what. Even if it means eating his dinner in the middle of a traffic jam, he will defend his liberty to partake in those communal outdoor pleasures.
Though some people were gunned down on their terraces, sitting in perfect liberty under the sky, the terrorists won’t make much of a dent in the soul of Paris. You can’t kill the tough kind of sky animal that is the Parisian — he’s just too intolerant of whatever comes between him and his earthly enjoyments.
Maybe when the pollution gets bad enough here (and last summer Paris was competing with Beijing) the Parisian will find his revolutionary spirit and take to the streets, insisting first that we banish automobiles forever from this city. One day, the revolutionary Parisian will get up from his steak tartar and say: ‘enough is enough’. C’est assez! And he will take back the earth.
As I have suggested, I didn’t intend to come to Paris, Paris came to me. It was a woman who led me here — and I was willing to give up my homeland for her. I got burned badly, of course, and she ran off with another guy pretty soon after I arrived. Cities are like capricious lovers in that way: they draw you in and then leave you bleeding on the pavement. When the easy part of the romance with Paris is over, you are left with a monumental task: learning to live here.
The cliché is that if you can live in Paris, you can live anywhere. It’s true: Paris is as brutal as it is soft, as cruel as it is accommodating. I’ve seen this city ravage souls, cause others to bloom. It’s like Notre Dame cathedral: from a distance, it looks like a dreamlike apparition of beauty standing on an island at the confluence of a river. Get a little closer and there are terrifying gargoyles sticking out of the walls, their sharp little teeth bared in a green fog.
How much do we really want to see beyond the cliché and postcard? Recently a crack in the public image has occurred. Breezy young people mostly, celebrating with giddy hedonism at a rock concert, were gunned down en masse by second generation, baby-faced suburbanites, just back from summer camp in Syria. A death cult, founded on comic book-like theology and brutal abhorrent acts, has given Paris a mini apocalypse. It’s good to point out that the killers were not really those who have been suffering the miseries of the Syrian civil war: they were actually Parisians (and Belgians), and most grew up not so far from here — on the city fringes. They went to Lycée and college here, suffered like every French suburban adolescent does. They may not be so different from our neighbours as we would like to think.
The people who talk on tv call them ‘cockroaches’, which is an insult to the insect world. Of course, to put it more accurately, the deadly clowns and vile mutations of humanity don’t deserve another moment of breath for the devastation they have caused. And yet have drawn us into their dark circle, and, whether we like it or not. It’s hard cleanse our minds of them, especially if one’s city, one’s home, has been wounded. I’ve seen students have panic attacks all week; people look at each other with suspicion on the metro. There are strange new rituals of security put in place: they look in your bag and deep into your soul to ask: are you a friend or an enemy?
There is a perverse and magnetic attraction to horror: it’s hard to stop looking at the images of the assassin with his long flowing black hair, or feel his ‘purity’ and ‘purpose’. The shiny charisma and high-powered marketing of the terrorist is impressive: he has so many slavish fans. Of course, his ugliness and brutality is also revealed in the police mug shots — but there are other pictures … such baby faces! It’s striking how ‘young and beautiful’ the terrorists were. Surely, the Canaanite Moloch God, arisen up to sacrifice Parisian children.
I’ve taught a few of such potential psychopathic in St. Denis — and they tell me: ‘it’s a dog’s life’. Just the ugliness of the suburbs alone might cause a young male without a compass to want to join ‘God’s army’, to want to become a warrior. On the other hand, they have food, shelter, all the advantages of the French democratic socialist state. They grow bored in this fat land, they are looking for dramatic gestures, as all young men are. Don’t young men need to be warriors in some way or another — tests and challenges — existential ‘Jihad’. The problem may not as related to poverty or social injustice as we think, but a question of meaning. If people don’t have meaning in their lives, they can easily become monsters.
Young males are a dangerous animal, especially if they have been wounded, or their lives are thwarted. They are souls in search of purpose, in search of reason — they want to feel alive because of the deadness around them. They are not really nihilists, as the common discourse claims — they are believers and idealists. They are searching desperately to escape the depressive landscape around them.
Defending our ‘way of life’ is pretty laughable here — we have to go deeper. A simple explanation is like seeing things with one eye. Such an event tears the curtain off both our eyes, reveals us in our most pathetic and most heroic, or most vulnerable. Going to war with gun blazing seems to be the mood — thoughts of righteous violence give everyone a flush of meaning. This is what needs to be avoided here.
Of course, the ones with biggest armies will be victorious and our own crimes of the soul will be swept under the run. We so love a linear narrative, a happy Hollywood ending — the black and white instead of the grey. But Paris is a city of grey — especially in the winter — and grey is a beautiful colour. It is beautiful because it can absorb and accommodate the other colours, because it leaves room for the mysterious unknown. It doesn’t answer the question ‘why’ or ‘how’ but gives us more questions to chew on. Paris in essence it is full of possible poetry, rather than triumphalism. Will that Paris emerge again, from all its ennui and from this wound?
I don’t want to give the impression that Paris is all ‘French kissing’, that it’s all terraces and glee or hedonistic enjoyment. It’s also a place of monumental suffering. Remember, just a few years ago, there was whole slew of suicides in all the major French companies. France actually has one the highest suicide levels in the world — higher than any other European country other than Finland, and without the long winter darkness. One wonders why this population, with its long vacations, good food, and apparent emphasis on epicurean enjoyment, is do dammed depressed.
The real ‘French paradox’ these days is between ‘the good life’ and a massive collective identity crisis. There seems to be a whole class of humans who don’t fit in here, to the extent that they are driven to take their own lives — and I am not speaking about the immigrant population. Some have been described as ‘maladapted’ in the grotesque words of the CEO of the French postal service. Since workers in France have more rights and privileges than almost any country in the world — more time for creative endeavours and family communion — the issue isn’t merely an economic one but something else — some spiritual malaise.
I don’t pretend to understand what this is: perhaps one would have had to have gone to school here, to really get what is going on. People are here are often pretty negative about themselves on the whole. There is a lot of pride in being French, and yet a consensus is that the Frenchman is kind of prehistoric creature — nearly extinct. There is a nostalgia for some kind of life that doesn’t exist anymore, the old France.
The problem is that the Frenchman needs a renewed vision—he may be in a petrified state. This may have started with a lack of love, of kindness and mercy towards children — in school, children often do not get the love they deserve. As a teacher here, for instance, you are admonished to rarely give somebody a high mark — because reward is considered insulting. There is a tendency to be cutting all the time, and in an extreme, this manifests as child abuse. This is the opposite of the American attitude of treating all children as special, no matter how beastly they behave.
Being ‘mal dans sa peau’ (a common expression here which means ‘bad in one’s skin’) from self-loathing is epidemic here. Is the Frenchman is atoning for the the collapse of his monumental ego? Why does he he act as if optimism itself is a sin. In any case this country is going through a veritable blue period and needs to find ways to renew its self-confidence.
Paris is not a city of the past: there is too many deep and fertile forces in the shadows waiting to be born. Paris has nourished great creativity in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. This is simply a limbo, which can be felt everywhere in Europe — a failure to imagine that future. There is the sense of a void where and dangerous monsters may come rushing in, in the absence of greater vision.
Paris is not the ‘old country’ as many American seem to think. Even the cultural inheritance of the United States (Jazz music, cinema, modern art) owes everything to France. There is a history of appreciation for expressions of the heart and the art of being human that is singular. I still think that France ahead of the rest, even if it appears to be behind. If Germany has the Bundesbank, Paris has still got the art of life.
Paris is not dead—its gods are in hibernation.
Wheels within Wheels
Why does Paris seem so romantic to the average North American? It’s all in the spiritual geometry. While the grids of American cities reduce and confine the soul, the arcs and wheels of Paris streets open it up to infinite suggestion. On a circle, you can begin and end in anyplace, whereas on a rectangle you always meet a sharp corner. A grid is just a series of dead ends, whereas a circle has infinite gradations — and Paris is composed of circles, wheels, and arcs.
Old cities like Paris were consciously designed to expand consciousness rather than reduce it, to ennoble a person rather than crush his spirit. They are made for conscious human activity, rather than speed and haphazard transaction.
One enjoys getting lost here — whereas in an American city to be lost is to end up in some dangerous ghetto or cul de sac. When I first arrive here I got lost a lot — I often found myself miles from where I had planned on being. GPS doesn’t seem to work well here—it’s better to use your sixth sense if you want to discover some hidden treasure. (Just the other day, for instance, I found De Tocqueville’s old apartment by sheer accident).
In general, an American city is a place to do business, whereas a European city like Paris is, or at least was designed to be, a place to live. That’s the difference. That is why the business centre — la Defense — is outside the city, where a business centre should be. Paris belongs to a world prior to the automobile: that mechanical beast which kills so much of liveable space. I believe that Paris will only realize its full potential as a city, when it bans automobiles from its centre. For the automobile is a contradiction to the human scale.
In America, the dream is to take an automobile and drive towards an infinite horizon; no matter how shiny and prosperous a city is, one dreams of heading for the hills. You are always trying to escape an American city; whereas Paris has — at least the possibility or potential or remnant — of a communal world. Not that Paris is immune to the dehumanization, but this is against its origional nature.
One wanders in circles here, goes nowhere. And yet, paradoxically, going nowhere is why Paris really feels like somewhere. Paris streets deepen one’s perceptions, rather than exhausts them. While Kerouac took flight racing crossing America, Baudelaire dreamed of walking, or being a ‘flaneur’ — somebody who just strolls along, enjoys the fantastic stone garden that Paris is. One is no longer ‘On the Road’ like Kerouac, but one has arrived.
Something that has been forgotten — neglected in modernity — is our conversation with the dead. We idolize what is novel, what is bright and shiny, our projectiles of technical prowess — and yet underneath it all, the dead still rule our world. Our ancestors, biological and blood spirits, are still speaking to us, whether we are conscious of that fact or not.
We need to talk to the dead, to ward off deathliness in life. But talking with the dead is not just about exorcism, but a passage to creative renewal. Life is a continuity, it doesn’t start when we are born or end when we die. In order to touch depth in life, we must touch the spirits that rule us, the benevolent ones and the destructive ones and everyone in between. We must find them, negotiate and converse with them. Why? Simply, because our ancestors still live in us — they go as far back as atoms and stars.
We are not talking about occult rituals here — like talking Evis or ones dead mother though a ouija board — but something more basic and homely. All healing and creative processes are involved in this conversation, including psychotherapy and art. The dead are spirits that live inside of us: they need to be acknowledged, reformed, or discovered — their burdens relieved, their gifts uncovered.
During my first visit to Paris as a teenager, what interested me more than monuments, was Pierre Lachaise graveyard. A graveyard is the quietest outdoor space in a city, and of course a place to talk with, to curse, to thank, to negotiate, with the dead. People tend to avoid graveyards, because they are too busy living; and that living often involves cheating death, ignoring and running from death, frenetic activities of achievement and failure. And yet all of that adds up to a ‘kingdom of dirt’ in the end, if one has spent one’s life avoiding the most important contemplation: one’s eventual extinction. It is in keeping death close, that we find, paradoxically, what is vital in life.
Going to cemeteries and talking to Jim Morrison, Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan and those illustrious ancestors, might seem like an eccentric activity. But these ‘immortals’ are still living with us — often in more intense ways than those who are walking around in bodies. Actually, the unknown people still live with us too. The people shot down at the Bataclan, for instance, some of whom are buried in Pere Lachaise graveyard. They might be need of our company, our assistance, our poems and prayers, in their passage.
The dead have made their statement, have given us their essence. In that sense they are more alive than we are are, because they are, paradoxically, free of death. It is the living that have to confront their own non-existence, their own nullity, their own hesitation to be fully alive.
It’s not that we should return to some kind of ‘primitive’ ancestor worship — that is not necessary. But even writing these essays is a conversation with the dead — they are so much more congenial than many our so-called living friend — and they don’t usually have ulterior motives. Often we need to thank them, because when we need inspiration they are always available, in books or in our thoughts. But not just in books, also in our bodies. In order to talk to our mother and father, and our entire lineage, we have only to pinch ourselves: we are their quintessence in flesh and spirit.
Paris is a place where the dead are very present, and that is why there is so much of eternity here.
The Kings Orchard
Walking around Versailles at night, a half moon is shrouded by clouds. This is the perfect time to ‘visit’ the chateau — without ever entering. The fact that there is an impossibly high wall and tall trees provokes a sense of longing. It’s better to be an outsider here — to be outside looking in — because you can be active in imagination. The few lit of windows near the opera house are filled with shuffling ghosts, the chateau is like a woman: becoming fluid and alive rather than monumental or fixed in. Archangels, demons, and other nameless beings are woken. They come to life from the shadows, from the depth of time, under the gaze of centuries.
Even though I live nearby, it took me a couple of years to get around to visiting the interior of the Chateau Versailles. It was, as I had suspected it would be, a disappointing experience — I wouldn’t recommend it. There are too many bloody enormous frescoes of Napoleon on his white horse inside, too much gold, and too many mirrors — endless monuments of egomaniacal displays. However, I do love the vast grounds and high walls, the kings fruit tree orchard, the mysteriousness geometry of this this place.
Maybe it was the rare glass of Cote de Rhone that is put me in this clairvoyant state, that unhinged borders of time and space. Somehow the cafe was less dismal than such cafes usually are; the seasonal cheer and made me feel something I rarely feel here: a sense of belonging. There were faces from every corner of the world: indian, polish, middle eastern — all somehow adrift in this ancient world capital of the 18th Century. A quiet descended, from a time before radio noise. Some things haven’t changed: the migrant poor still labour for the filthy rich, they share their joys and suffering in little communal places over some fermented grapes. Everything I still life — caught in its unchanging aspect.
One of the salutary things about Versailles is that the there are certain spots where you can totally block out all traces of the 20th or the 21st Century. In the middle of the kings orchard you squint your eye to see remnants of the old village and a steeple — no trace of any mass produced architecture or machine. It reminds us that everything was once made from human piss and blood, from fleshy rather than machine hands — it was another life entirely. And in the half-light a time portal seems to open — and that other life can be glimpsed.
The human being needs shadows — it is home in the shadows. We are all wanderers and vagabonds on this earth, and, after the daily debacle, our time of greatest joy is in the in-between hours — imagination grows in those twilights. The descending dark allows us to remove our anchors, to set off in dream ships to wilder places. Everyone is an immigrant here, in the land of dreams — a world still strange and uncharted.
Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire. Patti Smith
For a couple of sweet years, I lived on the second floor of this tiny apartment in Montmartre, where my daughter was conceived. It was located on a staircase going up the mountain to the top of Paris, just above the ‘Au Petit Théâtre de Bonheur’, which was a performance space so tiny and intimate-looking that I never dared enter. On summer evenings, a stream of giddy voices wafted through the window, tourists and noisy students lined up to get cheap Mojitos at the Peruvian bar just below. The village idiot lived next door in a tent all winter, and drank at the bar at the top of the stairs — he must have had the fire and endurance of a mystic to have survived there in such a cacophony.
I never entered in this theatre even once, even though it kept me awake many a night, with its gaiety and melodrama. The name ‘au petite theatre de Bonheur’ was enough magic for me — like one of those magic boxes which you never open. Similarly, I sometimes go into bookstores just read the names of books; the actual contents of the book might be disappointing next to what the name suggests. Sometimes the books of the imagination are much better than literature anyway — the title more potent than what has been elaborated within.
Actually, I hardly ever entered any of the other cafes, theatres and bars when I lived in Montmartre. I preferred the solitude of my own thoughts and the company of my little family. We didn’t stay in that apartment for long and left soon after my daughter was born. This was no place for children: the damp walls were turning black with mould, it was hard to sleep privy to all that human pathos. There would be knife fights below, love-cries though the walls, a crazed flamenco player serenading us on the stairs, water balloons and shouts raining down from our upstairs neighbour — the occasional person jumping out a window to his death …
All of this happened in a dream of a younger man, in the space between the walls, the little theatres of happiness that arise spontaneously in the midst of life. You don’t need to create them, they just arise if you are open hearted, in the carnivals of spontaneous creation. But you do need a salutary belief in ordinary magic and in the alchemy of the moment. It is the ordinary things that contain the magic.
Somehow Patti Smith reminds me of this time. I’m now reading her congenial book, M Train, in which she writes ecstatically about something as simple as the daily ritual of drinking a coffee. Personally, I prefer a long coffee, to extend the moment (pipi du chat, as it is called here) but a bitter expresso in little square near Place Des Abbesses, near the carousel where they sell salted caramel is a beautiful thing in itself. Such simple moments are a little theatre of happiness.