Like a love affair, my feelings about Paris have gone through several stages. My first solo visit was a coup de foudre. Though I had read about it in novels, memoirs, histories, and though I had seen it in picture books, Paris still took me by surprise. I had never imagined that a city could be like this.
It was early summer. The streets and cafes were full of people, and I felt that they had all come out to meet me. Everything had come out to meet me, as if my unconscious yearnings had been living in Paris. I thought that here, for the first time, I might be myself. Paris introduced me to seeing. Until then, it was as though I had only thought of things, seen them merely in my mind’s eye. Now I realized that the real world was out there, shimmering. I became a voyeur, and looking became part of my life. Taking a walk was both an intellectual and an emotional activity, like reading.
The speech of Parisians was a woodwind concerto by Poulenc. When I spoke to them in my version of their language, it was the beginning of a translation that I am still working on. Strolling through the streets, I saw every building as a monument to civilization. I was just beginning to understand what civilization was.
Paris reminded me of things. I could not say precisely what they were, these things-the possibilities of life, the beauty of history, the consequences of cities-but they were thrilling and important. I was in the grip of grand nostalgia, nostalgia for life itself. As soon as I arrived in Paris, a longing for it seized me as if I had been trying to get back to this place all my life. Like so many other born travellers, I felt an acute homesickness, not for the city where I lived, but for the one I was thinking about.-photograph elliott erwitt
Wandering through the city, I understood why so many French poets are called Symbolists: everything here was a symbol. I began to grasp the appeal of existentialism: in Paris, you existed. Simply to be, was a vocation here.
However, underneath my elation in Paris, there was anxiety. I had arrived too late - it is always too late in Paris, always fin de siecle. One always asks where is the Paris of yesteryear? Why could not history have waited for me?
In his essay “The City in Literature,” Irving Howe talks about “remorse over civilization,” a deep, nagging sense that history has gone wrong, that the cultures we have so painfully built up have been betrayed. As Howe says, “This remorse appears first as a powerful release of sensibility.” Nothing is as rich as the death of a beautiful civilization-it is the theme of some of the best nineteenth-and twentieth-century writing.
By the 1960’s Paris had recovered from its postwar depression, and prosperity was rearing its ugly head. Neon was appearing. It was just a small blemish, but it showed that, like power, prosperity corrupts. Prosperity democratizes taste, and democracy and beauty are strange bedfellows. Just as Parisians invented infidelity in marriage, they are the first to be unfaithful to their city. They think of their disloyalty as an independence of mind. Somewhere in his heart, nearly every Frenchman is a revolutionary taking revenge on history. Just as the French Revolution destroyed churches and palaces - the Commune left over two hundred important buildings in ruins in Paris - the Parisian destroys his traditions. He is tired, he says, of keeping museums for other people.
“Histoire rhymes with pourboire,” a Parisian said to me. “Visitors will tip us for keeping everything intact.” “But don’t you do it for yourself?” I ask. He blew his lips, the Parisian raspberry. “Imagine,” he said, “being condemned to live forever with your grandparents and your great-grandparents-all the way back into time. No, life is a form of patricide - the new must kill of the old.”
For me, the cars were the worst thing - like another Commune - that happened to Paris. Neither Napoleon III nor Baron Haussmann could have imagined what their boulevards would lead to.
The Parisian has a passion to circuler, to go somewhere in his car.
While the Italian loves his car as a thing-in-itself-for its noise, its speed, its power-the Frenchman's car is a vehicle for his impatience. For the modern Parisian, the automobile is a tumbril that takes the past to the place of execution. Every car is a getaway car. While there is no environment more beautiful than Paris, its citizens cannot wait to leave it.
The Parisian, who used to have a nostalgie de la boue, a romance with squalor, had developed a lust for a bright vulgarity-drugstores, fast food, and hard sell. Every country finds the grass greener on the other side of the ocean, and while we were sentimentalizing them, the Parisian was aping us.
When I walked up the Rue St.-Denis, I found that even the fabled sensuality of Paris was failing. One of the oldest streets
in Paris, the one through which kings' funeral processions traveled to the cemetery, the Rue St.Denis also used to be the street where ordinary prostitutes-as opposed to the more pretentious kind near the Opera-plied their ancient trade. There were hundreds of them, confined to doorways by a law passed in the sixties, crammed like flowers in a vase, or vegetables in a pot, laughing, calling, and making wisecracks.
By the late seventies, sex shops and pornographic videos were replacing them. As I walked up the street, I felt that the old, easy understanding between men and women had changed too in Paris.
With prosperity had come ressentiment. The Parisian drinks moral indignation like wine. I had begun by loving the bohemianism of Paris but in the seventies, I suddenly bumped against the bourgeois. (Every Frenchman is a closet bourgeois.) I had fallen for an idealized Paris, and now I saw the actual one.
I came to live in Paris in the early 1980’s. I came rather reluctantly, expecting the worst. I will get it out of my system finally, I thought. I will have it out with Paris. However, Paris fooled me by being seductive once more-and in a different way. The city was clean, proud, stirring with life. The cars were still there, and the neon signs, but Paris seemed less disfigured by them. The city had life enough now to neutralize or absorb its mistakes. There were revitalized areas, like the Place des Victoires or the Place des Vosges, which had been sad, shabby, and half-forgotten the last time I saw it.
Of course, there were new mistakes too, but because I no longer expected the impossible, I saw them in a different light. I now understood that every great city ultimately caricatures itself. At some point its spirit cracks and gapes open and the visitor sees its anxiety, its humanity, and its bad taste. For the first time, I relaxed and saw the humor of what was happening to Paris. No one is as humorless as an infatuated person, and that is what I had always been before. Now I was like someone looking back and smiling at her own absurdity.
Today, there is a tension, dialectic, between the old and the new in Paris. Before, there had been uneasiness, a feeling of spoliation. Now Paris' mistakes are grand enough to qualify as gestures. As someone said, the French are enamored of profound banalities, a naive attempt to be modern by a city whose talent is antiquarian and traditional.
Parisians have a remarkable talent for the disconsolate. Life in Paris is so congenial in so many ways that its citizens have nowhere to put their anxiety, no city to blame-and so they divert it into disconsolateness. The Parisian is so nervous that he needs disconsolateness to calm him down. In Paris there's a magnificent literature of disconsolateness, stretching all the way from Francois Villon and Restif de la Bretonne up through Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine to Tristan Corbiere, Jules Laforgue, Paul Eluard.
To fall in love is to condescend to one's own self, to allow one to be silly and to accept another's silliness. Like all beautiful things, it is impermanent, changing. But to be an adult is to forgive your parents, and to be a true traveler is to forgive a city for betraying itself and you. There is no other way for a great city to go. It is inconceivable that it should grow greater.Thank you dear friends for your hospitality.