Above the Roofs of Paris: A Non-memoir
April 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
Tout pays où je ne m’ennuie pas est un pays qui ne m’apprend rien.
Any country where I am not bored is a county that teaches me nothing.
Camus, “Death in the Soul”/“La mort dans l’âme”
I’m not sure bored is the right translation—s’ennuyer touches on several different moods and I wonder if English handles well the reflexive verbs. But I think boredom means something else to the French, certainly to Camus, different from what it means to us.
I arrived in Paris the summer of ’73, late morning to a cloudless sky, with little money and almost no French, not knowing where I was going to sleep that night. I had no strong reason for being there. I was 20, and like the rest of the U.S. I was full of anticipation not based on much anything substantial.
Why look back at that time now?
I had finished my junior year in college and felt I should learn another language, thinking I might learn it better in place. French because several works engaged me, Camus’ The Fall, for example, for its absolute irony, what that pointed to, for its introspection, an inward cast that threw the outside world into a different light, unrelenting.
The last thing I want to do is write a memoir. I am not a remarkable person and I do not want to be in that position. Nor am I interested in being interesting, least of all to myself. Besides, it’s impossible to get anyone’s attention now. And if I’m supposed to make a confession, what am I supposed to confess, to whom, and why?
The Alliance Française was my first stop from the airport, the state school that teaches its language to the world. I enrolled for classes and at its bulletin boards ran into another student who told me about a hostel across the Seine where I was able to stay a week, having to change rooms twice. My plan was to remain for the summer. I had about enough cash to fund myself if I were careful. I started classes and kept looking for another place to live, beginning my branching out into the streets of Paris, hobbled by my lack of French and knowing little about the city. The first days were charged with uncertainty and possibilities beyond imagining.
Really those days were a static nothing. Only now do I realize what I felt was exposed. Nothing remarkable happened in the months after. I have nothing exciting to report, nothing that might entice, that might set me off from the crowd who preceded me. But plot works on the assumption that we have power to act in the world and effect some kind of difference, that action matters, that change is always possible, always worth the while. I gain nothing by trumping up the superficial, and it may be the expectation of plot that I most want to defuse.
At the Alliance Française I ran into a Cuban woman from Michigan who told me about her room that she was soon leaving in a house in Arcueil, a commune just south of Paris. I met her there to check it out. It was close to a Métro station and I could afford it. We talked for some time, opening up—travel does that to you. She had just returned from Italy where she said standing before Michelangelo’s David gave her an orgasm—
If you need sex, watch René Clair’s movie. Better yet, read Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. None of us can top that.
By the end of the summer I hadn’t learned much French and felt I had accomplished nothing, so I decided to stay. I did find some work that stretched my funds, again at the school bulletin boards, small jobs getting paid to hold conversations in English with French students and employees learning our language, for which there was demand. English had established itself as the international language, or at least the language of international business. Later I got a part-time job teaching English to bank employees that allowed me to stay another ten months, giving me more time for whatever I hoped to happen that hadn’t happened yet.
I am not going to add judgments of the French, unless I let a few slip. I hadn’t developed much perspective on anything that might have led to insight. Also a year is nothing and my exposure was slight. I wouldn’t trust anything I might have to say now, either, based on what the next forty years have brought, in fact would trust it less. I do want to note, however, that once I broke the crust of their exterior, the urban reserve, the formal skepticism, I didn’t encounter any Parisians who were not kind.
More, I don’t see the point in piling up details, interesting or not, as if accumulating them means anything, as if recording my experience somehow puts me in the world and makes that place significant, gives my life some sharp cast, makes it “real.” Authenticity is an illusion, a trap. Still, I will need to try to locate myself, and there are places, and moments, and people whose existence I want to preserve.
Really I didn’t go to Paris because I wanted to learn French. I only wanted to get away—somewhere. I didn’t want to return not because I had something to stay for but because I had no idea what to do with myself when I returned. At 20, I was already stalled in my life. I had every reason to believe I could pursue a life of material comfort with some kind of status, but I couldn’t see myself in any profession, lacked confidence, and had no conviction, much less desire. I had no special talents, had developed no craft or set of skills, no body of experience or knowledge about anything to make any kind of judgment or decision.
The received notion—idée reçue—is that I hadn’t yet learned how to live, that Paris opened me up and helped me find myself. There are serious problems with all the terms, though in a way that is true. But Paris wouldn’t change my lack of resolve, rather, though I didn’t know it then and couldn’t have, made me acutely aware.
Yet really that is what I most want to recapture, the uncertainty, the exposure, the stripping of the self, to see what might be left, or maybe just the stripping. I don’t gain anything by moving from A to B with climax C in between or by going back to see where I am now and making some kind of comparison. What I want to do is find again that point, a place not for starting over or revision or regret, but for resetting, or better just rest there, discover once more what might have been overlooked had there been remarkable events, what it might mean to be bored.
There is a time for action, however. There is always a time for action.
“Death in the Soul” is an early literary attempt about a week Camus spent alone in Prague. He was only a few years older than I and like me had little cash and didn’t know the language. His days were spent wandering the streets, and he recounts largely mundane events and simple, meaningless contacts, feeling trapped by aging Europe, the walls of the past. He experiences an intense despair that appears gratuitous, though with Camus we know that is not the case, his despair relieved only by his journey further south, to open, warmer climes, a warmer spirit.
Man is face to face with himself: I defy him to be happy. . . And yet this is how travel enlightens him. A great discord occurs between him and the things he sees. The music of the world finds its way more easily into this heart grown less secure.
Yet he qualifies himself, as he does in his remark about the lesson of boredom. It was a thought, he says, that helped him get to sleep. The Prague he visited returned a bitter smell and anguish, not enlightenment, noise instead of harmony, a dead man instead of life. Camus will not rest in his debate between the individual spirit and the world, will not rest with anything, and if his despair appears gratuitous it is because in the face of uncertainty—uncertainty in the larger, or, really, its immeasurable sense—everything we might conclude is tentative, any action without anchor. Absurdity for him is not a stance for a pose. And “Death in the Soul” is not a memoir but a literary staging for youthful mood and later thought.
So much of my time was spent wandering the streets of Paris as well, getting lost in the labyrinth of the narrow, old alleys only to be released into wide boulevards, the plan of Baron Haussmann, its argument between the state and its people—the suspicion has been leveled that Napoléon III wanted to broaden the streets to make it easier to bring in troops. Read a history of Paris and the streets fill with the shouts of protest and run with centuries of blood. There were other arguments, other expressions, other architectural containers and releases, the accents and structural reasoning that gave them face, the flying buttresses that held them up. And there were other places where one could get lost, dark containers of hidden life. Paris is a public encyclopedia of a millennium of the debates between order and chaos, between the passion for order and the order of desire, so many unfamiliar. I didn’t feel trapped but overwhelmed and uninvolved. Yet Paris is a horizontal city, closer to a human scale, seldom rising above seven or so stories. When you look up, you see only the sky.
Language connects us to the world; not having it cuts all ties. Simple but essential day-to-day transactions—buying food, finding a place to live, knowing the laws so as to follow them or steer clear—were a strain, and I often failed. Not knowing the names of the multitude of routine things that define daily life made them hard to get. Even when I developed a functional control, Parisians often pretended not to understand me, probably because of how I butchered the words. They are proud of their language in ways we are not. I lacked sensitivity for the sounds of vowels, which carry sense, and was stuck in my thick, Southern ar, unable to make the French (Crachez!—spit!—one instructor told me). Nor did I ever learn to deliver their formalities of address, which I found excessive, with any confidence or grace. Informalities, the words that breach walls and initiate closeness, I missed at every turn. False steps in both led to injury, offense, or pity. As for slang, forget it. Slang is for the adept. I was always on guard and almost never felt at ease when I spoke. Most, it is irony and intonation that give language meaning, the art of slanting words to put them in their place or take them to heart. I could manage neither, and the sentence Je suis seul was only a sterile formula that had no impact whatsoever.
As for my own language, my English words were seldom returned. I steered clear of the hordes of American tourists, the tourist spots. My faith in talking to myself in my own tongue, my means of self-reflection and self-definition, began to slide. My patron saint, I suppose, was Denis, who, decapitated by Roman pagans in the early years, picked up his head and wandered Paris, legend goes. Saint Denis, however, preached all the way he walked. Where he stopped and died, a shrine was built, later a church, a burial place for kings, the church later enlarged and opened up by Abbot Suger to allow entry of the light of the Word, its union with royal power. I could only mumble and never stopped wandering. Built on top, all the lines of construction around and above me where I found no intersection.
While Camus knew unrest and oppression at home in Algeria and was sympathetic, neither “Death in the Soul” nor the other early lyrical essays, written in the mid-1930s, anticipate our soul’s greatest crisis, the massive disruption of reason and wholesale death of the coming war that charged his later writing. Maybe in his despair, the deadness, a hint, but the next years may have beyond the imagination of most of us then. Then again, it was from our imagination that the beasts stirred.
When I arrived, the defining events of WWII had long passed, but with what resolution or understanding? Paris was in the last stages of the Malraux plan to clean its buildings—there was still scaffolding up throughout—while France was adjusting to its declining influence. Restoration gave the buildings a fresh face on the present but lost the impact of the past, surface without the wear of turmoil, display without visible reference. Like the rest of the western world, France was in recession, and the foreign workers welcomed in better times were gathering in slums on the city’s borders. Demolition of Les Halles, the ancient central market made stately in the 1850s with elaborate iron and glass framing, was nearly complete, leaving a huge pit the city debated how to fill. That pit was also the setting for the climatic scene of Touche pas à la femme blanche—I saw it when it opened—a rather glib movie that appropriated Custer’s last stand to represent France’s capitulation to the influence of power and money, notably ours, the waning of native ideologies.
There were student demonstrations in the streets, though none that approached the fervor of May 1968, protests against what they thought the CIA, and by extension the U.S., had wrought in the postwar world and in fact had, still tremors against the overthrow of Allende in Chile, the persistence of our Shah of Iran, and whatever else they thought we might be doing elsewhere in the world and probably were. More generally, resentment lingered over the recently completed Tour Montparnasse, an utterly bland sixty-story skyscraper that broke the horizontal line of the city, blamed on a corrupting American influence. I simply took the tower as a given, what I had learned to accept as a symbol of progress, or maybe better an idée reçue, which I began to question. At six-foot-three I was a tower myself among the French, often brought to my attention—I was dubbed le grand Américain. Bland yet imposing, like Montparnasse, I began to doubt my own construction, what I showed the world, what I contained.
Meanwhile at home—I’d read the Herald Tribune on occasion—with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords we were quickly putting Vietnam behind us. The Watergate hearings gathered momentum; long lines appeared at gas pumps.
I don’t think anyone knew what would happen next or what was supposed to happen or had solid plans or substantial purpose. Like me, the western world was in a stall, that world left with what it had brought within its borders, what it had left unresolved without.
There is a time for action. There is always a time for action. But the times when we have moved ourselves to act the time for action has long passed.
I think it was early morning I saw him, daylight even, a faint, grayish sky not promising, not anything, but that still cleared shadows from the buildings. Maybe I was returning from seeing F—. A street cleaner, he was standing bent over his broom, looking but not looking at the street or beyond him, at the receding prospect of his work, the endless web of streets, the broom an impossible device with a long handle and narrow, conical head, long bristled, like a witch’s. African, most likely from one of France’s former colonies, his face was beaded with tribal scars and he was wearing the official thin, pale blue smock given by the city and on his head a flopping knit cap, rainbow colored, his own touch, his culture’s, but the bright colors not illuminating but withdrawing from the grayness, his face showing not an expression but its removal, and in his eyes a burning look that still burns in memory, of pain, of complete isolation, and still of something else and nothing, a stark nothing. . . .
I was not alone.
I was not alone, only distant. And my life in Paris was not idle but full of contact. Yet while Paris is supposed to be the city of style and lavish emotion, most I encountered, even as I went up the scale, lived closely to their means and practiced a material reserve I hadn’t known. Clothes were put into service for long stretches; appliances were not a given. My landlord took his bike to work, and the doctor who came late one night when I had an attack of appendicitis rode a motor scooter. I felt a superiority that embarrasses me now, if it didn’t then. But I had to adjust myself as I was living on only about two hundred a month. Of course that was not hard to do and my condition was only temporary. I did learn a leanness, however, that has since served me well. My poverty in language meant I also had to practice another kind of reserve, guarding my emotions since I did not have the means to purchase them. At least what I could not accomplish in spirit did not get poured into costly substitutes.
The house in Arcueil was in a working class neighborhood of other small houses abutting, where many were communist by circumstance and tradition, not intellectual choice. My landlord once showed me a slideshow of his vacation in Moscow; we were both impressed by the subway stations. It was a simple stucco two-story with a tiled roof and little ornament. The family lived on the first floor, my landlord and his wife and two daughters, and they rented out the second, three bedrooms, a small bath, and kitchen. My room had just a single bed, a simple desk and chair I think, some kind of armoire, and one lamp, all the furniture needed, though, for philosophy or a revolution. My window opened south, looking out on Paris but not showing much. Jacques had the other front room with his girlfriend, largely accounted for by its double bed. A couple from Martinique had the back. The kitchen was our common room, where complex arrangements had to be made for cooking, along with others in the bathroom.
One or both of the Martiniquais worked for a ministry, as did Jacques, Youth and Sports. The Martinique couple were quiet and forcibly polite, the brief moments I saw them in the kitchen. When their bedroom door was closed they fought incessantly, shouting at each other in rapid fire. One morning I found blood in the bathroom. I won’t even hazard a guess as to causes. The source of their tension was hermetically sealed from the rest of us, maybe from themselves as well.
Jacques, however, was open, befriended me, and became an unofficial ambassador of culture, high and low, formal and counter. He winced at what I ate, and one Sunday took me to the nearby outdoor market to shop, then prepared a full course meal, inexpensive but distinctive, the hallmark of French cuisine, a kindness that was probably also meant for my instruction. He taught me the slang and standard jokes, none of which I dared try, and corrected me when I attempted standard French and passed on his copy of Grammaire Larousse, along with his little red book, L’indispensable Paris par arrondissement, the collection of maps of streets, both of which I still have. He mentioned in passing literature recent and past, encouraging me to read Bouvard et Péchuchet, Flaubert’s novel about two bonhommes who try their hand at just about everything and fail—for the vocabulary, he said, but I did identify with them. I also received brief lessons on French history as well as current events, along with opinions on the newspapers that covered them. Le Monde had his respect, as did Charlie Hebdo, with a sideways laugh. In case I had missed it, I got the standard criticism of the U.S., but also of France—corruption, alcoholism, the oppression of institutions, including his, his concerns for the future of his, its youth. And I got tips on shoplifting, minor, of course, and only at the large stores, for the principle, a way of getting back. Not tried.
Some of his knowledge came from school, but I suspect he picked up most of it on his own, not for diversion, however, or appearances, but for survival. He had it rough growing up and had to fend for himself early on, so he needed to build an identity based on something that would hold him up, that he could live with, one that pitted knowledge against what he saw in life, that could not afford to indulge itself in affected stance. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the French three-part motto, often came from his lips with pride as much with skepticism and even derision because of their absence, a questioning of those who said them, their motives, as well as of the qualities themselves. Freedom does not come cheap.
We had to speak in English, though, where he struggled, as I couldn’t hold my own in French, and this is my great regret, that I put him in an inferior position that did not allow him to speak full voice. I know it was a strain.
My first work, holding English conversation, took me across the social spectrum and into many quarters I would otherwise have overlooked, inside the personal interiors of apartments, up to attic rooms, and out to sidewalk cafes, their mix of local traffic. The employment bulletin board at the Alliance Française was always covered and served as much as an informal portal for interchange, exploration, and ritual connection, one, I’m sure, of many in Paris. I talked with university students from whom I heard the student rant and banter. It was how I met F—, who was studying for her maîtrise. Also a spirited secretary, a virtuoso at gossip, and I had a chance at an artist, who interviewed me in his studio but turned me down. A young ministry employee, lower level, learning English to advance, whom I met at a café, was soon joined by friends in his or other ministries, who grew to a crowd, ministers themselves to political positions across the board—a cheery communist, a Peronist, socialists of varying degrees, a few who were apolitical, one seriously, another seriously not, still others, and even a sullen National Socialist—yes, a Nazi. Politics got debated in lively crossfire, along with just about everything else under the sun. And in one of the better quarters I tutored a ten year old boy, J.P., whose parents were quite well off and well connected. His mother, Mme S— traced her ancestry down to a Roman solider passing through southern France. However much I might have resented what they stood for, I did not recognize the signs of their status, foreign to me. But they did not force those on me, in fact, after the lesson, I sat at their table for the lengthy family déjeuner, formally casual, and was treated as a guest, where cultural debate took other turns, though largely was politely avoided.
All the talk was in English, since that was my job, so it varied in completeness and perfection. As with Jacques, I was putting them at disadvantage. But I was the one who held back, not knowing what to say before lives similar in some ways but in many others different, ever uncertain of what I represented, ever distant, distant from any self I could name.
J.P. soon wearied of his lesson, and I sometimes filled out the rest of the time sitting with Mme S— in baroquely curved chairs at the dining room table, chatting idly, a fleeting intimacy beneath the glints from the crystal chandelier overhead, feeling, maybe, but only slightly, I had stumbled into a Henry James novel. She was an open, gracious woman, and it was one of the few times I felt comfortable speaking French.
One day, while I was at the café waiting for my ministers to arrive, I noticed a woman sitting at another table, striking in several regards, lâche in others, her posture, her pose worth a Manet study, her hair the same color as the Irish setter who lay at her feet, striking himself. Two men came up to compliment her on her dog. The one with the mustache began petting him with increasing vigor.
Doucement, she said.
When Jacques took me to the open market to shop for the dinner, he stopped at a stall to buy grapes and asked for a smaller bunch.
Je peux vous les couper—I can cut them for you—the woman behind, provincial, young but worn, said with acid. Jacques recoiled with a smile.
It was a common joke, a rallying cry of sorts. What could be cut, he explained later, were the male parts. A pair of severed testicles once appeared on the front page of Charlie Hebdo with the headline Ne coupez pas!
Desire, of course, was everywhere on the surface, and its obverse edge.
Culture, learning the language, did not cost much at all.
The Alliance Française, on Boulevard Raspail, was close to the Latin Quarter, near the Luxemburg Gardens, the universities, the sidewalk book stalls. Tuition was modest, and classes ran in units lasting a few weeks, a constant rotation of instructors and students from around the world with varying needs to learn the language.
A random few students:
A black Algerian worker out of work, who battled his version of the language against the state’s.
Nuns from New York, preparing for parochial school, probably. How flat their voices, how little music, the Irish woman next to me once said, whose husband had relocated to Paris for business.
A Cambodian who saw no problems with the Khmer Rouge back home and was planning to return.
Two instructors, memories of whom have most survived:
Mme Veulter, a handsome older woman with a long face that showed dignity and ironic reserve prevailing over the lines of wear, who was well versed in many fields, stately, magisterial even, but also forgiving, who endured our stumbling without disdain.
Mme Beaurain, young, short, with a straight posture not rigid and a strong, attractive Gallic face, her head always up, her hair in a tail that hung to her waist, her poise, like her voice, a springboard of energy and intelligence, her tail keeping the beat with her vibrance. And she’d look at us and listen as if we were spirited and intelligent, too. She was working on her doctorate, in political science, I think, or comparative literature, or maybe both.
For both women, speaking French, as well as teaching it, was a way of being, and their bearing as much as anything they said or did encouraged us to persevere and believe in our study. Both, too, I’m sure, had higher ambitions. I doubt they were paid much.
I went to every art museum I could find as well as some plays and movies, all inexpensive, though with the latter I had to rely largely on faces and gestures. I did develop an ability to listen to formal speech and sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne and other university branches. If I knew the subject I could follow fairly well. I doubt, however, knowing the language better would have helped me with the poststructuralist F— recommended, where I discovered new ways to get lost. I also learned to read French and read its literature for myself, without plan or guides. I crawled through Balzac’s Le Père Goriot on my hands and knees, looking up words about every other sentence, struggling with the student Rastignac to escape the squalor of Mme Vauquer’s boarding house, richly detailed by Balzac, and make my way through the novel and up, out into its world, powered by his moral engine. But I persisted, and words began to return familiar and take on the emotional cast that give a novel’s world coherence, or at least this appearance. I also read Zola’s Germinal, descending into the bowels of France, the coal mines, emerging with the strike, and Stendhal, and Flaubert, and later Proust. I found it easier to live in the 19th century works, steered by the authors’ direct passions, or Flaubert’s passionate distance, their clearer sense of motive, of failing, of conflict within the self, within the world, between the two, or those appearances. I could even rise to Proust’s meditative reflections, the quiet, subtle mysteries of ordinary things and common sensation, to the possibility of transcendent connection, of climbing his enchanted ladder, yet another appearance.
All of which fell apart in Camus’ simple Stranger, which I did not find simple at all. Informal speech in life is difficult, clipped as it is by what we assume is understood by our listeners, what we cut off from them and even from ourselves that is not. In a first person narrative the cutting extends several levels more to what the writer, the world, clip from themselves, the gaps between the words compounded to orders beyond sortable complexity. Aujourd’hui, maman est morte—the first sentence took me nowhere, not even to Meursault’s disaffection. I had to keep the English translation close by to enter the novel’s mood and distance, and still may have missed.
The simple things in life are always hard.
The first effect of all this exposure is destructive. Learning a language from the start is to trap yourself in the basic yet unfamiliar structure of its grammar and be left with the filling in of slots with words without creating meaning or connection. Sitting at desks and writing the dictées, speaking the other drills, is to be reduced to a child in grade school again, sitting lost at your desk, hands folded, straining to keep up, to pay attention. Répétez, s’il vous plaît—the words often repeated themselves by our instructors—still echo in my head. Going to museums and standing for hours is to endure sore feet and tired eyes and an aching head while you try to come to terms once more with the basic language of space, the possibilities, the possible meanings of perspective, from the flat, gilt, ritual space of saints and Christ to the vast stages set, deeply reasoned, for rulers, other superior persons, their conquests and trials, the figurative display of the ideas of state and religion, of belief and social order, then to be thrown back to the close, ambiguous spaces of ordinary people and common scenes, transient impressions and interior moods, unreasoned yet sensual, yet expressive, only to see space exploded, perspective challenged and thrown out. Art forces you to question how and what you see, your ability to stand in the world, the terms of stance.
As much, however, to look at art is to be exposed not just to the world’s projections, but also to its own uncertainties and doubts, its disarray, its turmoil, its explosions and collapses, winged Nike of Samothrace celebrating victory armless and headless, flying above the starved, maddened wreck of humanity left stranded on the raft of the Medusa.
And to read for yourself is to cut yourself adrift.
Culture, like freedom, does not come cheap either. I don’t know how we got the idea that art is supposed to divert us.
I also was exposed to something else quite common, not of culture but its depletion, or its antithesis, or its failure, yet which at twenty I had not yet experienced, the grind of routine, the questioning, pervasive and unresolved, from the wear of life day to day. On a tip from another American at the Alliance Française I discovered an agency that brokered English teachers, and after a cursory interview was given an address off the Champs Élysées, where I taught from scratch beginning English to bank employees, who stayed after work several nights a week and bolstered themselves after a long day to learn our language and meet the challenge of the growing influence of the world’s business. While roles were reversed—I was now the teacher—I was still constrained to converse on a basic level. I also found I didn’t know our language as well as I thought—our verbs, for example, while irregular in construction, give a complex dissection of time—and had to relearn it. Then, after the lesson, it was on the ride home I learned the meaning of another three-part expression Jacques taught me and often repeated, what I’d see on his face when he returned from the ministry, then saw on all the faces, métro, bureau, dodo—subway, work, sleep, though he gave dodo another interpretation he explained with a gesture—that countered liberté, égalité, fraternité, or left it hanging in air, that dissolved distinctions one might make in time.
I took the southern perimeter line, Ligne 6, that ran from Charles de Gaulle/Étoile to Nation, that had not yet been modernized, that still had the old metal cars with wood seats, that still ran on steel rails, ran slowly, seemingly endlessly with its many stops, home, the next day, distant thoughts, put on hold, a timeless stalling, and all the cars were always crowded to capacity and most of us had to stand, standing close to but not looking at each other, or at anything, not even at the distant view of Paris opened up where Ligne 6 ascended on elevated tracks and crossed the Seine, that tower, the parks, the monuments, the boulevards of Haussmann, and we were always silent, our weary faces without expression, our suits and dresses rumpled, our painted faces smeared, our hairstyling unraveling as the train lurched and screeched and the mass of us absorbed the jolts and readjusted and returned to our weariness, our massing, our not looking, the burnt, electric smell of the train, the ozone of its sparking mixing with our stale breath, the stale wine on our breath, the faded perfume, the unsortable mix of smells of perpetual mass human wear and use, vaguely foul and uncertainly human, and as the train moved away from the Elysian Fields, the more affluent got off, leaving the less, their dress, their unraveling, other smells of mass the same or slightly different or greatly so but no more or less sortable, and then the train descended once more underground, taking us, the apparitions of our faces fading, wilted petals, down to a blackness. . . .
As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment. . . . Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that’s always worth the taking.
Jean-Baptiste Clamence, Camus’ judge-penitent, tells us in The Fall, speaking from the heart of Amsterdam, a city he likens to an inferno peopled with bad dreams.
What have we accomplished in the last forty years other than build more tall, bland towers and wage senseless wars and run ourselves into debt?
And write memoirs. James Atlas, in “Confessing for Voyeurs,” which came out some years back, reviews the deluge of memoirs from writers and academics, who detail their sex lives, their obsessions and their other oddities, in a rush of words embracing the urge to confess and be seen. The masses have joined in with similar. Another writer for the Times found at Amazon from 40,000 to 160,00 books of memoirs, depending on the search. Personal blogs now number in the millions. I wonder, though, if it is a matter of confessing—do we really care what anyone else thinks?—but rather we are deflecting judgment with another kind of reprieve.
Clamence speaks to us directly and on every page strips the mask, peeling the onion of the self. The successful lawyer in Paris, held in high esteem, richly rewarded in bed, charitable, even kind, reveals the motive behind his every action, the protection and preservation of the self against all. But, as he tells us at the end, he is not confessing his life but holding up a mirror. There are no holes in his argument. The logic of the self is airtight. He has moved himself to a plane beyond judgment, perhaps discovering what we have been putting off, that judgment doesn’t have a place to stand.
It might be as simple as this, that we have finally learned to stop fooling ourselves with the illusions of beliefs and the perspectives that might contain them. There is nothing to base them on; there are no forms that touch on anything beyond us that might give them shape. Even progress, the false word I grew up with yet still believed, seems to have been discarded or has lost its sense, if it ever had one. I suppose it takes some kind of perspective to reject perspective. Then again, we may have learned to move beyond framing comparisons. So our only guiding theme is the endless projection of ourselves, the only form that matters is the one that tracks one detail after the next in a present moment that doesn’t look past itself or forward, an accelerating plot that shoots straight into the void. It is a way to avoid extinction. Debt, after all, can be postponed or passed off on others. These are skills we have perfected. The same may be true for the reprieve we grant ourselves with memoirs, which may well last a lifetime.
The greater temptation, however, is not to write a single word or even say one, to think of nothing, hope for nothing, except, perhaps, self-annihilation.
I didn’t see them at first because of the crowd, then caught glimpses of their hands and faces through the shifting mass but couldn’t tell what they were doing. I was returning from my stint with the bank employees, Ligne 6 again, back in the Métro, the timeless stall, the jolts, the smells, the weary faces, the not looking. But they kept maneuvering for openings, and I’d see their faces appear with looks of frustration but also eagerness as they reached and found gaps for the gestures from their hands and caught each other’s eye. They were two deaf men in common dress holding a conversation, the only two people in the car talking. As the train moved further around the circle, and descended, and the crowd thinned, they found seats close together, freeing them to unobstructed exchange, their hands moving quicker with what they were passing, their faces brightening with what had been received and what they had yet to say, with where their conversation might be going, unknown but drawing them in quickening anticipation. I had left Arcueil and moved to another room further west, thus stayed on the train longer, and as I approach my stop the car is nearly empty and the timeless stalling longer, seemingly interminable now, the darkness of the tunnel darker and the figurative comparison to hell becomes more literal, the silence now seemingly absolute but for the deaf men’s conversation, yet still they talk, faster, with greater animation, and on their faces a building joy that doesn’t seem it will ever find a stopping place, a rest.
The Fall is not a confession, but an examination of confession taken to extreme, its utmost limits. However careful Clamence’s investigation, how deep his sounding, how great his reach, how unassailable his argument, what we realize most is what he has left out, what he has not captured, what he cannot capture, what escapes him, what penetrates the fortress of the self, yet that which wordlessly illuminates his darkest thoughts and releases another kind of joy. Our best arguments fall apart before what we do not and cannot understand, yet which stubbornly persists.
Where Ligne 6 takes me now, however, is back to the house in Arcueil, once or several times, late afternoon, after so many months of self dissolution brought by the language and the culture and the streets of Paris, by my distant, failed connection with its people. I am sitting at the kitchen window with a bottle of wine, looking out. The small yards behind the houses on my street and the houses on the next street are enclosed by a grid of rough block fences, squaring the backyards and joining them. Each yard has something that distinguishes it, and the rural influence remains here, just outside Paris—a vegetable garden, pens and sheds for animals. Someone has chickens, someone else a goat. Also sheds for storage or some personal labor, hidden. In my yard, a swing set the girls no longer use, a rusting memory of childhood. There is nothing else to see, other than a high-rise apartment building in the distance, modernish and sterile, not even the setting sun, off to the side and behind several houses. There is no streaking light, no dramatic break of clouds, no place for saints or angels to sit or a chariot to descend, nor the lurid glare from war or revolution, just a pale blue diminishing into grayness. The world is silent, save for an occasional ratcheting cry from the goat, the flutter and coo and cluck from the hens. As the sky darkens, cats come out and negotiate the grid of walls and climb the roofs of the houses in their liquid, feline stealth.
I have no thoughts of leaving the window. I feel I have found a place, feel myself in place, but it is not a place I can name. I think about nothing, don’t even think to think, have no thoughts of that day or of the past months or the coming, of who I am or what I am supposed to do. I do not feel depressed. I do not feel anything. I only feel alive, and all I am aware of is the quiet hum of existence in the lingering light.
I was not alone. I am not alone. I will never be alone.
To put yourself in this moment is not an act of humility, or contrition, or the backward arrogance of denial. It isn’t anything, and being there is doing nothing. To try to locate it is to get lost, as it isn’t anywhere and everywhere at the same time, perhaps to realize the error of trying to find, of location.
We could use what this moment reveals to build a philosophy, even a religion, but could just as easily use it to tear apart all thought and faith. It is only by tearing the self apart and seeing what is left, however, that we can start again and rebuild.
Trying to create a psychology would be a waste of time.
Clamence, at the end of The Fall, lies in his bed, feverish—dying?—staring at The Just Judges, a stolen painting rescued from a bar at the center of his infernal Amsterdam, a side panel from the van Eyck altarpiece, the judges riding on horseback to adore the sacred Lamb. . .
I want to believe it was my exposure to art, its tearing down and all its divergent and conflicting paths for reconstruction, that brought me to this moment. I also want to believe that the moment at the window is the source for the creative act. I don’t know if either is true, however, and have no way of proving them. I will make this leap of faith, that the creative act is our best shot at staying alive. What I know for certain is that all creative expressions and forms are necessary, and necessarily incomplete. We always have to start over. And we always need a place to return.
Quelles jolies fleurs!
And sometimes, once dismantled, we are taken by surprise. I am holding them, the flowers—a large bouquet of gladiolas, a clumsy mistake in floral language I didn’t know, and I later learned she did not like them, gladiolas—and am horribly self-conscious about them and feel wholly exposed but I have no way to hide them as I leave the flower shop and a little girl ahead of me on the sidewalk turns and looks at them and makes that remark. I am walking to Rue Serpente, a narrow, winding street in the heart of Paris, off boulevard Saint-Michel, and I am on the threshold of a declaration, exhilarated and torn apart by fear and doubt and anticipation, afraid of failure, of success, anticipating results that could end quickly or last I did not think about how long or where they might take me, and I try not to look at the people and hope they will not look at me, at the flowers, fearing their judgments, but they are not looking or judging, I was, thinking what I was about to do was beneath me, was beyond me, I was not worth it, I didn’t know what I was worth, I didn’t think I was worth anything, and the faces on the street blur and I question my direction and the familiar streets look strange and begin to blur themselves and their intersections seem to rise and disperse and the flowers loom larger, weightless, and then there is only the smell, a fragrance subtle and immaterial that overwhelms the smells of the street and I can’t think about anything else, but I find it, Rue Serpente, and begin the slow climb on the narrow stairs four flights up to F—’s small room in the attic where one wall angles with the roof and has a window that looks out—
About the pictures
I did bring a camera and take pictures, black and white. To save money, I only had negatives developed. It was a cheap, used device I bought for the purpose, whose exposure meter was off, which I didn’t discover until I returned and tried to enlarge them. While there I couldn’t decide what to shoot. I didn’t want to play the tourist and saw no point anyway in taking pictures of what was better reproduced in countless books and postcards, a dilemma of indecision resolved later when the shutter broke. So I only took shots of whatever fell between the cracks of my indecision, mostly ordinary places, the backyard of the house in Arcueil, for example.
Lately I scanned the negatives onto my computer and have been looking at them again, grainy and gray, underexposed, nondescript, dumbly enigmatic.
Like memory. . . .
James Atlas, “Confessing for Voyeurs: The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now.” The New York Times Magazine, May 12 1996. The essay can be found here.
Neil Genzlinger, “The Problem with Memoirs.” The New York Times, January 28, 2011. The article can be found here.