Paris

Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology.—Walter Benjamin

We own a dog—he is with us as a slave and inferior because we wish him to be. But we entertain a cat—he adorns our hearth as a guest, fellow-lodger, and equal because he wishes to be there. It is no compliment to be the stupidly idolised master of a dog whose instinct it is to idolise, but it is a very distinct tribute to be chosen as the friend and confidant of a cat.—H. P. Lovecraft

Paris is a city of bread fat pigeons and salad thin people. Along the Seine vendors hawk miniature Eiffel Towers and posters of absinthe, impressionist paintings and nineteenth century Montmartre district bohemian cabarets like Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge; further in, on alleyway corners, crêperies prominently display rows of a French favourite, Nutella chocolate spread. Parisian capitalism is more subtly attractive than its Anglo variant and I, who have not enjoyed shopping for at least five years, rediscovered the decadence of browsing enough to buy some decorative kitsch, a mock Soviet flask and early Twentieth Century compass. I have never enjoyed a tea shop as much as Dammann Frères, in which one takes olfactory tastes of potential purchases in a dark mahogany setting decorated by eastern sets and floor-to-ceiling shelves of the assorted selection. The owner of one tiny store selling quaint wooden toys and music boxes—a commonplace with street sellers too—was paradigmatic of the enthusiasm of service; she told me, my mum and brother stories about her items including an anecdote of a ninety four year old woman’s nostalgic joy in playing with the replica zoetrope on sale.

My stay was ambivalently exciting and melancholic; framed by the death of Molly, a warm, humorous feline and vital fixture of the last decade of my life whose absence on returning home made no expressible sense, and reading the end of Peter McPhee’s biography Robespierre whose subject lived an existence structured like a tragedy and whose vividly described, brutal demise, after a gun shot wound to the jaw, haunted my stay:

It was only at 6.00 p.m. that three carts with their twenty-two prisoners began a long and interrupted journey through taunting crowds along Rue Honoré and along the Duplays […] At 7.30 p.m. the executions commenced. Maximilien was the twenty-first to die: his agony had lasted seventeen hours. After he had managed to climb the steps of the scaffold, his head wrapped in a bloody and filthy bandage, he had a final torment to endure before execution. The executioner ripped off the bandage; the lower jaw fell away, eliciting a hideous roar of pain.

Apart from the ruins of the Bastille, a reductively small plaque detailing the Paris Commune of 1871 and certain statuary there is little explicit trace of revolution, at least á la Year II; the more monumental changes documented in another of my holiday reads, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (History of Civilization), constituting something now invisibly ubiquitous. It is much more the city of conquering Napoleon than fateful Robespierre, who has been outdone in public even by the omnipresent image of el Che, a logo as commonplace as the McCafé ‘M’ and globally distinctive smell of Subways. During my stay I never saw a single protester; what were noticeable were the homeless in a place whose narratives are often tailored to the margins; Hugo’s miserable, Benjamin’s flâneur and Orwell’s down and out. Representations of ideals could be found; Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple and, embossed in stone over an unpopulated side street window, ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Reminding me of these hopes, I liked the twin, dark experiences of Hugo’s sombre home—replete with his gothic artwork and soulful whispering voices played from the floor—and the Rodin museum, where Hugo reappears amongst ragged figures tormented by chains and whose work lends truth to clichés about sculpture blossoming (or other organic metaphors) from marble and iron.

Certainly those locations were relatively enhanced by the behaviour of art admirers in the Louvre, where people principally come to shove round the cord guarded Mona Lisa to click pictures—while in imitation young children crawl past legs with inexpensive throwaways and snap their own poorly angled mementos. A woman in bright pink and stockings even lurched past security and struck an unpractised pose in front of Leonardo’s masterpiece for a more timid friend to immortalise, as the museum staff smiled and waved her away. Cameras are permitted everywhere except aimed at art shop windows and, although places like the Louvre and Sacré-Cœur Basilica ostensibly ban flash, nobody takes vocal offense at the more impetuous tourists who flaunt tact even in a building of worship. Perhaps when the Catholic Church sells medallions from vending machines it becomes too difficult to distinguish the line between sacred and profane. I experienced the former most powerfully in the tritest location; neither the Romano-Byzantine Sacré-Cœur nor the Gothic Notre Dame, but standing atop the Eiffel Tower of Exposition Universelle (1889) sightseeing a sprawl of night lit buildings that collectively amounted to the manmade sublime. It was there I recognised a strange affinity for one set of fellow foreigners; the nervous and awestruck Japanese who appeared to regard each detail with shy deference. I have read that their embassy sometimes provides help for a syndrome du voyageur almost particular to the Japanese, syndrome de Paris, characterised by a kind of psychotic weltschmerz.

Details were all; as London gives me an impression of impersonal, menacing, but seductive scale, Paris (at least the centre areas where I spent the longest) was intimate and fascinating in the twirling, spiralling flourishes of its buildings, lampposts recalling Proust, primary coloured window shutters, the elaborate and bold use of gold. On that last note, as much as the revolution is tucked away, Talleyrand’s sweet Ancien Régime is still boldly displayed vis-à-vis its attachments to power and hierarchy; notably on both sides of the art nouveau Pont Alexandre III: Champs-Élysées and Les Invalides. It’s a vast and oddly barren space, somehow dead and as far from any ideals of egalitarianism as Buckingham Palace. In contrast nowhere are the minutiae as exquisitely fascinating as the passages couverts de Paris, places mostly swept away by Napoleon III’s infamous civic planner Haussmann and the primary material for Benjamin’s nineteenth century history, Arcades Project; the cover for the English translation showing Galerie Vivienne, which I loved strolling and admiring.

It was at the wonderful Shakespeare and Company that I picked up a copy of Benjamin’s book, displayed on the counter not far from a range of philosophy superior to any I have seen outside Cambridge: an eclectic sample from Badiou to Midgley. Originally we had planned to hear live jazz at a bar, but constraints conspired; however, after a reading and signing for Adam Thirlwell’s whimsical Kapow (an experimental novel on the Arab Spring) at that more English than English bookshop, we did hear an all women’s American acapella group from Yale sing titles like ‘Why don’t you do right?’ and ‘Black Coffee’. Moreover, we were in Paris for the traditional midsummer Fête de La Musique and joined crowds for live songs as we traversed the city after leaving Musée d’Orsay. A day of impressionists (Monet, Manet, Degas) and post-impressionists (Van Goth, Lautrec) culminated in trumpets, drums, guitars, etc. The artwork I most remember from there was not the most powerful, but somehow so peculiar as to create a permanent mark, Henri Rousseau’s mythological War or the Ride of Discord. Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette inspired the thought that this artist perfectly depicted a historically specific social atomism for which Proust provides literary equivalence, an ambience in which each person is their own self-narrated story encountering, detaching and reencountering other’s. This can be contrasted to periods in which people are shown as a coherent, subsumed part of a single, cohesive moment—especially true in religious and mythic art.

Eating and travel took a lot of time, but both were superb. Against claims of its superiority I would argue that the Metro was neither better nor worse than the Underground, perhaps the absence of abusive and ageist security personnel giving it a minor edge. A Batobus along the Seine is an effective if obvious way to get a sense of the spectacle of the place; I have a fondness for restful boats. Still, walking predominated; firm, treading rhythms, the rhythms of each day, which ended in the best type of sleep, physical fatigue. Food is both as expensive and as marvellous as popular opinion suggests, but against the sense given by films like Amélie, Before Sunset, Midnight in Paris and even An American Werewolf in Paris it is often hard to find low key places that just serve drinks. Their soupe à l’oignon, an onion soup topped with cheese, was a favourite entrée that I unfortunately (given a strong preference for maintaining a pescetarian diet) later discovered is cooked in beef stock. For mains I had poisson such as salmon and once scallops. And for desert I chose either alcohol (rum or some liqueur) coated crêpes or else a fruit salad in mint sauce. Mint rivalled the popularity of Nutella, but I admit to acquiring their fondness for the plant and developing an especial attachment to le thé vert à la menthe. Only once did we manage to eat really cheap, a three course set meal that started with oysters for about eighteen euros per head not including drinks. And breakfasts of croissants and eggs were affordably satisfying. The best meal was served with the sort of theatricality you would expect in the movies and was memorably fun; I recommend Les Chiméres (133 rue St-Antoine).

On the long train home I read my third and fourth books: Gilbert Adair’s disturbing The Dreamers, about the dangerous sexual and dissenting experiments of a set of cinephile teenagers in Paris during May ’68, and A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarök: the End of the Gods, which combines cataclysmic Nordic mythology with a third person limited account of a thin young girl making sense of the Second World War through a basic, childish scepticism and storytelling, or retelling. Both are intriguing, but neither distracted me from the dour prospect of a catless Tanygrisiau from which unpacking, an activity I enjoy as much as most loathe, eventually offered respite. Meirion House, which I still feel to be more Molly’s than mine, is less alive, but it is also restful and I am exhausted, as I notice is common after a vacation, and from which work provides necessary relaxation until the next.

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