Tuesday, November 17, 2015
I want to write about Paris because I must, but in order to keep things real and to avoid some of the sentimental excesses I am finding in the press, I begin with an anecdote. In 1962, newly married, Joan and I set out from Paris into the provinces of France in search of certain medieval manuscripts in local municipal libraries. We had purchased an old Citroën Deux-Chevaux. Its license plate, beginning with 75, identified it as Parisian. Somewhere far from the city we stopped to buy something at the edge of the road. Joan’s French is excellent, and it is Parisian French. A local woman rudely cut in front of her at the stall where she had begun to shop, saying to the stall-keeper, “She can wait—they’re Parisians!” When Joan told her she was in fact an Englishwoman and I an American with a second-hand car, both of them apologized profusely. Obnoxious, pushy, selfish—such were the characteristics they were eager to attribute to Parisians en masse, and to counter with an uncharacteristic rudeness of their own.
A Deux-Chevaux of the belle epoque
I have lived and worked in Paris long enough to understand that woman’s point of view which, while not the truth, was not without some truth. Paris can be pretty cold as well as pretty cool, and it is nothing like the little towns of my youth where strangers on the street smiled and said “Hi,” as others in passing pickups half raised a laconic hand in friendly greeting. Still I struggle in vain to imagine a level of anomie or alienation or ghettoization or cultural indignation or in fact anything else that might be assuaged by spraying a sidewalk café with Kalashnikov fire or blowing oneself up at the gates of a football stadium. I think attempted explanations, in fact, defy the powers of human imagination, despite the best efforts of the Op-Ed pages of the Times.
In those pages this morning I find a letter from some woman berating me for lavishing upon the Paris slaughter an outpouring of concern not previously expressed over similar terrorist atrocities in Nigeria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The truth is that there is such a thing as shock fatigue. God’s heart is infinite. He knows of every sparrow that falls. My own experience is constrained by a demeaning but inescapable finitude. I know some things, a paltry few. Paris I do know, at least as a man with a pail full of sea-water knows the ocean, and that is enough to know the horror of this moment. Every American, indeed every Westerner of however modest cultural attainment, knows Paris well enough to know the horror.
It’s the place young Americans fought and died to protect in one war, then fought and died to liberate in a second war. Long before that it was the place that sent us, in the eighteenth century, military aid without which there well might never have been a United States of America. Above all it’s the place that approximately from the twelfth century has been sending to the whole world, at least to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, great books, great art, great ideas. Oh--and great wine. That one requires palates to taste. So there is something peculiarly atrocious about the Paris slaughter, as the Allahuakbarists surely perceived. Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo. Je ne suis pas parisien. Je suis américain, moi. Nonetheless I am a brother in pain, and I do express my outrage and my condolences with the rest of the sentient world.
I learned of the slaughter while I was in Philadelphia at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 “for the promotion of useful knowledge.” In fact I was being formally inducted into that august society. They obviously made either an exception or a typographic error in my case. Not too many life experiences can accurately be described as “awesome”, but writing my signature in a book containing the earlier autographs of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson has to be for me one of the few. The obvious models for the APS were the royal societies of the great European powers. Franklin and Jefferson in particular had close life-long ties to French intellectual life.
The American Cathedral in Paris in the good old days
From our Paris apartment at the very edge of the Fifteenth Arrondissement on the Avenue Suffren we used of a Sunday morning to walk to church at the American Cathedral. As we would cross the Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower, the gypsy con-artists would already be trying their tiresome “lost ring” ploy on a few early birds among the Chinese tourist. We walked down the little Rue du Général Camou past the American Library until the street ends in the Avenue Rapp. Then we would turn left, walk along Rapp and cross the river by the Pont d’Alma. Just on the right bank at the Place d’Alma is the striking monument, with an eternal flame, marking the place where Princess Diana died. We then continued up the de luxe Avenue Georges V past the vast Chinese embassy to our church.
That’s quite a lot of international complication in one short Paris walk, but for me the quirky highpoint was something uniquely, inescapably, and perhaps insanely French. It is the art nouveau decorative portal of an apartment house at 29, Avenue Rapp. We passed it going and coming, and I hope to once again, despite all the powers of darkness.
29, Avenue Rapp