For the first time in 18 years, I've been back to Paris, and have had a chance to review the impressions it made when I lived there as a student in 1986, and visited for the last time in 1991. Inevitably, however much I've followed the news -- immigrant riots in troubled surburbs, new metro lines, bike rental systems, EuroDisney, high-speed trains, new museums and libraries -- I still see through my impressions of the city I knew 23 years ago. Those impressions can never be fully over-written because they formed the categories that organise my experience of the city, and categories, by their nature, lurk partly unseen in the life of the senses.
For example, the very essence of a Parisian boulevard in my memory contains the burning acidic smell of car exhaust, because serious emissions control for European cars came only the 1990s. I knew it would be different now, but I also knew that the new impression would never shake off one I formed first. I will always notice the relatively pleasant air quality now, always be comparing it to that of the primal Paris of my memory.
Because the first impression of a place -- regardless of the age at which it occurs -- is a childlike moment, and no life experience can change how we were formed as children.As I wandered the city these three days, I noticed all the ways that Paris continues to thicken and enrich itself, things you might notice returning to almost any city after two decades' absence; the air is cleaner, pedestrians are safer, public transport is even more abundant, and of course there are new buildings and, in Paris in particular, new grands projets; every President since de Gaulle has had to add one or two cultural and architectural icons to the city. For the capital of a country with so many profound social and cultural problems, Paris feels clean, strong, sure of itself, though of course it's always projected confidence even in darkest years.
But here's what really matters:
On a main street lined with local shops far out in the southeast, I come upon a man who seems to hold not just a paper cup but also a key to the city. He rests on his elbows and knees, head down so we see only the short-cropped black hair, no face. His lower arms fold forward from his elbows and his wrists fold again, twist upward with the anxiety of a screw, to hold the paper cup. He seems, from what little I see, to be clean, well-groomed, not clearly young nor old.
He also seems carefully anonymous, showing no identifying features but the back of a head that could be that of a million French men. So it seems possible to take a photo, to preserve and share what he's offering, without betraying or exploiting him.
His pose expresses natural anguish in way that's actually quite composed, sculptural. The styrofoam pads he's improvised -- and notice how carefully placed they are -- suggest that he's ready, like a meditator, to hold this pose for some time; certainly he doesn't move a muscle in the three or so minutes I watch. There must be some serenity inside his anguish.
He seems to quote a specific tradition of Parisian begging. In the Paris of the 1980s I recall young men in striking kneeling positions, as though constructed by a choreographer, head always down though not as completely concealed as this man's is. The practice then was to write on the pavement, with chalk, an explanation of the beggar's circumstances. These ran to a paragraph or two, often so long that interacting with such beggars was like perusing a museum. Look at the man briefly, form a slight interest. Then, read the text next to him, which tells his story in terms of dates and mishaps and relationships and ideologies, like an earnest museum tag. Then back to the folded man himself, notice his clothes, his hair, his stance, the combination of suffering and dignity he's conveying. Perhaps glance down the line comparing him to others nearby (for they often appeared in groups, as though perceiving each other as colleagues, not competitors.) Finally, make a decision, centimes or francs.
As with everything, things have sped up. This man begging in 2009 lacks an expalantory text, but I still see the composition, the intention, the search for dignity on the very point of suffering.
Were his face not concealed, of course, I'd never have taken a picture -- nor left a few euros in his cup after doing so. The concealed face superficially means shame, of course, and it also makes him everyman; he might look up and turn out to be someone we know, or even ourselves. But beyond those obvious readings the concealed face asks us to see him in his entire body, as a dancer does. The hackneyed word expression comes to mind, and I dismiss it. All bodies express, especially without faces to distract us from them, but the outward energy of expression is almost the opposite of this man's condition.
Is he taking the pride of a performer in how well he's constructed his shame?
No, that's not the most interesting question, becuase as with all great art I can say little about artistic intention. Yes, the styrofoam pads look designed, and the sheer power of the effect suggests composition to me, but that's my cynical theatre-trained eye getting in the way. Am I sure this man is a beggar at all, rather than a theatre student or performance artist? No, but in Paris that doesn't quite matter. Parisians simply do not police a hard border between pretense and authenticity, or for that matter between art and life. Everything is both, all the time.
Whoever he is, I believe he's in pain, and that he's working. Parisians have an especially visible way of doing that. To people intent on avoiding pain, it looks like a sort of insult, a showing off. The British in particular find it maddening.
Though my walk largely avoids tourist centres, I do plunge into the
Latin Quarter, where there's a shred of a medieval street pattern -- mazes of
very narrow lanes. It's all touristed to
the teeth, always has been. But I come
back because I attach to streetnames as well as to streets, and at the heart of
this maze is a tiny lane, less than two meters wide, called Rue du chat qui pêche ... the street of the fishing cat.
It's one of those rare names that cuts straight through all the
posturing and egotism of typical street names to elicit a pure moment of life
centures ago. The street gives out onto
a quay on the left bank of the Seine, and once, no doubt, it was just a muddy
track through filth down to the river.
But someone noticed a cat, enjoyed watching it fish, built some lore
around it, and hurled it toward eternity.
(Wikipedia advises that the street was named for a pub, but of course that doesn't
erase the cat, just sets it at one remove.)
It's just an outdoor hallway, really.
In one direction the explosion of light at the end blinds all else -- a
slice of a vast display on the walls of the Police headquarters across the
Seine, 30-foot high images of happy police offiers in all their earnest
But the walls of the street itself are rich with artistic claims, some not even signed, like this clownish face claiming "La rue est à nous" -- the street is ours. Unsure if this nous includes me, I can feel embraced and rejected in the same gesture, an consummate Parisian sensation.
Almost any night in Paris, at least since the 1970s, it's been possible to find an evening of theatre in which attractive young performers get naked for some concept of social change. Translated literally, the title sounds painfully banal: "I buy! Or the decadence of a consumer society." You just can't say that with a straight face in English; at least not in 2009. But then in English you wouldn't end a business letter with "We pray you accept the assurance of our most distinguished sentiments," as I was taught to do in French. For better or worse French is a language of excess, long defined by a kind of emotional arms race in which the most intense and overwrought word must be used for expressing the most desiccated quantum of feeling. It is your right as a Parisian to be presumed to be feeling the most deep and refined emotions, even when buying toothpaste.
At one point in my
wandering, I stumbled out of Saint Lazare railway station into the 9th
arrondissement, a frankly rather tedious collection of Napoleonic facades and
fast-moving streets full of rushing businessmen.
But almost by chance -- though surely part of
some planner's design -- I stumbled onto a gallery, one of those long, high
spaces that runs right through a building, or even through several, lined with
shops. This particular gallery had the
odd feeling, not uncommon in American shopping malls, that as I moved deeper
into it the artifice was falling away, as though at any moment I might be among
the rubbish bins. Fashionable shops gave
way to less fashionable ones, and unphotographically baroque embellishments to
the architecture also fell back to something that looked unremodelled, dusty in
an appealing way.
Names applied to intersecting hallways, for example, spoke of a marketing mood that might have moved shoppers over a century ago. But now, where the Galerie des Variétés met the Passage des Panoramas, a half-painted electrical cord dangled between them.
As the artifice declined so too did the value of things for sale, until I reached a kind of terminal economy in the darkest and mustiest section, where rubbish bins really were imminent. Entire shops devoted to old postcards, for sale for a euro or two apiece. And finally, topping even that, tray upon tray of tiny, abundant, but now useless things: Coins from before the euro, still just a decade or two old so hardly collectible. Defunct cards that once commanded telephone calling plans. And I thought: We have achieved a dictatorship of the proletariat. Here are their millions of tiny disposable sceptres.
As time ran down, I knew with increasing urgency that I had to get back to Parc des Buttes Chaumont, deep in the city's east, to close some loop with my memories. When I lived there in the 80s, it was still easy to get mugged in the downscale eastern third of Paris, so there was always a certain frisson to trips to the Buttes. Getting there also involved using a small out-of-the-way metro line, the "7bis," and emerging, ideally, out of one of Guimard's flowers at Botzaris station, as though I were a stamen.
Paris is mostly flat or gently sloping, but there are two isolated hills, big chunks of volcanic rock not yet digested by the slow work of river and wind. One is Montmartre in the north, once an arts ghetto, now a tourist ghetto. The other is Buttes Chaumont, which few tourists have found. Here, the steep rock has been carved to create a lake with a very tall island -- really a pillar of rock perhaps 20 m high -- with a viewpoint on the top, linked to "mainland" by a high pedestrian bridge. Paths wind along cliff-faces, sometimes crossing fast-falling streams. It's a classic spectacle of sheer verticality, such as one expects in California or Switzerland or New Zealand but not in Paris. Parisians love it, and fill it with all kinds of self-directed expression.
So here, a cafe in a park makes no big deal of having a wonderful collection of old hanging lamps, all seeming to guard a sensuous but sickly-green blob rising through the counter -- poised right on the treshhold between plant and animal.
And there's nothing remarkable about a block of scaffolding on a hillside announcing, in English, that there will be no miracles here. (The yellow police tape is a nice touch.)
There will be no miracles, so there must be art. In Paris, art must be everywhere. It's as essential to urban life as parking meters or fire hydrants. It shows that we're working, and in pain.