By Gaither Stewart
(Paris) Some cities are open to surrounding plains or the open seas and the eternal firmament overhead. Port cities and plains cities in fact place no limits. Such cities are to be seen, possessed and participated in. They don’t need to hold onto secrets. Other cities are self-sufficient, turned in on themselves and have no need for the outside world. The latter cities hold the most intimate of secrets, shared only between the city and its own. In such great but closed cities like Prague or Paris which curb encroachments from the rest of the world you probably feel a justified longing for space.
When I first saw Paris, buses still had open platforms at the rear, Les Halles general markets sprawled over the heart of the city and the Gare de Montparnasse surrounded by restaurants and bars stood in the place of today’s skyscraper. In the winter Paris seems hermetically closed. Contrary to popular belief, winter is Paris’ real season—fog and mist and rain, people bundled in multiple layers of clothes huddled in cafés or waiting on a corner for a bus. Then on early spring days not much warmer than winter days dark men from the Maghreb dressed in black populate the cafés along Boulevard de Belleville, waiting for the arrival of the first rays of sunshine, weeks after the change of seasons in Tunisia and Algeria and Morocco. On such days the butchers of the Arab Kosher shops close their counters and join the café sitters and Mint Tea drinkers and hawkers of jasmine branches from Tunis do a brisk business along the boulevard. The Maghrebians are perfectly at home on the streets of this old quartier of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier near the skyscraper headquarters of the French Communist Party. Some people simply seem to be at home in life, settled and well-adjusted participants. They seem to know who they are.
Others are forever discontent, uncomfortable everywhere, unsettled, isolated, wishing they were elsewhere. Or to be ubiquitous. They are sur le qui-vive, nose raised toward the winds, eyes pealed for new sights, ears alert for strange perceptions, ready to raise the tent and strike out again for new territories. Such people travel with a sharp awareness; one eye that of a nomad, the other of a pioneer looking for a place to build a permanent home.
In a suggestive recurrent dream I am trying to return from an obscure somewhere to another no less obscure somewhere. On leaden legs I wander over rural roads in a labyrinthine suburbia searching for the safest and shortest road to an indefinite place. In my dream I am aware that I’ve searched for the right road in past dreams but that I always go astray and end up on roads infested with ferocious country dogs. Or I stumble into a neighborhood where strangers are robbed and beaten. There is a high road but it is forbidden. I have to take the low road, the dangerous road. It is a dirt road. I stand at the entrance to the village through which I must pass. The passage is blocked by a lowered barrier. Signs warn to be careful of children and dogs. I pass the barrier and see two beings in front of the first wooden house. I slow but continue. They are not children. They seem to be dogs but have long thin necks and flattened black heads like pythons, with wide white eyes. Their necks or their thin bodies weave menacingly. I’m afraid but I plod ahead. I agitate my arms to beat them off. I’m disgusted and terrified. But I have to break through. I must get to that other place. I wake up in a sweat wondering where I wanted to go. Did I turn back? Or am I standing still? Fully awake, perhaps awake, I prolong the dream and for a moment consider the dilemma and can’t decide whether to turn back or to continue despite the dangers. Was that the mythological place I was striving for? That’s the magic of dreams; everything is permitted; everything is free. You might protest that this or that is not right, that it is impossible, forbidden, but your dream conductor mocks you and reminds you that you can do anything you like in your dreams. You might hold onto safe persons or secure objects, in your dreams, but for the most part you flee. You try to escape … though on leaden legs. Does everyone have leaden-leg dreams? In one moment you are capable of extraordinary feats and in the next you are fearful and cowardly. You want to say certain things, to warn, to complain, to explain, to confess, but you cannot make yourself understood. You speak another language. A language incomprehensible to others. And you hope the dream will end and save you and you hope it will last forever and you will succeed and escape.
This is the familiar quandary of the radical maverick. The doubter. The dissident. Borges wrote in his fable, “El Milagro Segreto, that “dreams belong to God” and recalled that Maimonedes had written, “the words of a dream are divine when they are distinct and clear and you cannot tell who said them.”
The parvis in front of Notre Dame is considered “kilometer zero” of France. It is the point from which distances in the country are measured, underlining both the significance of the cathedral and the predominance of Paris in France. It is the center. France does not have its Venice or Florence or Milan. France does not have one hundred capitals as does Italy. Paris stands for France. I wander around the city and nothing seems changed. It is familiar. I am not a visitor. The boulevards, buildings and hotels seem unchanging. The metro is homey after the might and speed of the New York City Subway.” In comparison to New York, Paris in the smog is quiet, quaint, genteel, refined, elegant. Paris is a compromise between chaotic Rome and “cradle to grave” Holland. Compared to Italy, France is efficient; Napoleonic compared to Holland.
It has been said that nostalgia is a weapon used by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Maybe that is true. But I am infected by it. Yet despite its youth striving toward the modern, nostalgia infects Paris. Nostalgia for a past the city doesn’t let go. And at times nostalgia for the outside world. Perhaps that is why Parisians are fascinated by Bushian Texas and by the Barack Obama phenomenon in America.
Paris is both old and new, reminiscent of when it was the center of the world. It is glittery new and luxurious and aimed at the future. Paris is pure luxury, rich, self-satisfied and fearless. Paris is the bourgeois Parisian concerned about the explosion of violent crime in the strange and isolated banlieues, which for most people exist only in images seen in television. Paris is the ignorance of its frustrated suburban youth and its vocabulary of six hundred words and its resulting dependence on violence to express itself. Nonetheless, despite social indicators of the demise of modern society, growing unemployment, the widening gulf between rich and poor, Paris emanates a sense of eternity. Yet you are not forced to feel that you are part of its eternity as in Rome. While Rome embraces you, Paris shrugs indifferently. Rome is jealous and petulant and stamps her foot like a betrayed mistress if you don’t love her. Paris could care less whether you love her or not. Whether you stay or not. Paris does nothing to hold you and sometimes everything to alienate you. Yet, like an irresistible mysterious woman, Paris spins and glitters and sings her hypnotic songs of enchantment that have attracted men for over a millennium.
Paris still believes it is the Center! There is an analogous Italian story: “the bar in Foligno, the center of the world.” This café-bar is in the center of Foligno, Foligno is in the center of Umbria, Umbria in the center of Italy and Italy is at the center of the world. But in reality neither is the Center. Old centers come and go. In Paris however I come to doubt my theories about shifting centers.
My strivings toward the edge, toward the Perimeter, are perhaps only a creation of my imagination.
Yet Paris, oh so much more than Rome, is the symbol, the Capital of the Center. Paris is the symbol of the safe, secure, closed and limited Center. Rome is the disconcerting and dangerous Perimeter. From nowhere else in Europe can you feel more at the Center than from the top of the Champs-Élysées from where the twelve spokes of the Etoile, its twelve great avenues, reach outwards toward the provinces beyond Paris and—albeit futilely—toward Europe, an expression of its old-new desire to shine majestically over all its parts. Over failed empires.
For that reason I set myself the project of walking each of those spokes-avenues extending so invitingly from the Center outwards—Champs-Élysées, Marceau, Iéna, Kléber, Victor Hugo, Foch, Grande Armée, Carnot, Mac- Mahon, Wagram, Hoche, Friedland. The amusing, almost pathetic reality is that none of those magnificent avenues extend more than a few kilometers or so before they peter out and vanish into the perimeters of the city.
I’m almost afraid of this modern siren. The Center. Sometimes in la ville de lumière I feel forewarnings of a storm brewing—palpitations, sweating and stewing over mundane problems. A few years ago just as I walked into the Jardin de Luxembourg in search of traces of the Tuscany of Queen Marie de Médicis who had her palace there modeled on the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, my old leg weakness hit me like a sledgehammer. Wham! Whop! I staggered a few steps, wondering why, stopped in my tracks and looked around for a bench. Could I make it back home? What if I had an attack? Would people just pass me by, lying on the ground unconscious, my arms and legs twisted crazily in all directions? Maybe foaming at the mouth. Would I die there, alone and a stranger? Would they call an ambulance? Did I even have my address in my pocket? For who walks around with address and phone number conveniently available in case of emergency? Who would know who I was? Like the westerner in the Sahara who when he loses his passport loses also his sense of identity—as Paul Bowles wrote in Under The Sheltering Sky—he doesn’t know who he is. Would I die forgotten and unknown in an emergency clinic? Was that my destiny? While I stood there magnifying my fate, well-integrated Parisian pigeons, ignoring me up there in the stratosphere, waddled around my feet. Brightly colored, resplendent shiny blue yellow green, definitely fatter than pigeons in Central Park or Piazza San Marco in Venice, slicker, more refined, like pampered racehorses. Was it the French cuisine they shared, I wondered illogically, imagining myself mud-splattered, sprawled on the pavement of the opulent Jardin, one hand reposed in fresh dog shit? Alone. However, by one of those comforting but astonishing coincidences that tend to accumulate in life, when I returned safely to my apartment and with a sigh of relief opened the novel I was reading, I found under my eyes, as if written for me alone, the surprising quotation from Stendahl—such coincidences mark our lives even if they don’t turn things upside down (But they stagger you even if many claim coincidences don’t even exist!)—to the effect that “there’s nothing ridiculous about dying on the street if you don’t do it on purpose.”
I had just read of a former Prime Minister of France who after forty years of efforts to reach that office, no sooner had he arrived than he lost his mind and was confined to an institution for the insane. And again, as our bombers took off from Italy to bomb Serbian Yugoslavia accused of genocide against its Albanian minority in Kosovo, I recalled a note for my newspaper story about the Serbian terrorist who shot Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the remote Balkans: at the time it had seemed like an obscure political assassination by a small group of nationalists—and look what happened to the world!
Sometimes you wonder what gives you a sudden sense of lucidity. You see a world reacting to the election of Obama in a way so different from you. You wonder why this dichotomy? Or why millions of Frenchmen voted into office a savage capitalist like Nicolas Sarkozy, ever active against the interest of the people against his electors. Or they cast their votes for Obama who promises more of the same things of the last eight years.
Though life sometimes seems short, it’s nonetheless a long affair. Many things happen. Many people pass across the screen of your life. And, if you are fortunate, many changes, too. Changes of direction, changes of place, time and circumstances, changes of your perceptions and your own points of view. Yes, we should welcome such changes. Today, we wonder: is change really about to happen? I wonder.
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