by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.)
PARIS — Ever think someone is trying to send you signs? From Plato, Confucius, and Krishna ambushing me in a Luxembourg Garden ‘sanitaire’ to accordionists hounding me across the Left Bank to Albert Camus and Maria Casarès winking at me from a balcony on the rue Vaugirard, from busty marble goddesses having coffee with me at the Delacroix Fountain in the Luxembourg to collaged porn queen sirens in St.-Germain-des-Pres beckoning me to call them on a communication system which no longer exists (the Minitel, France’s Internet avant l’heure), from being snobbed by Germanopretan art gallery interns to welcomed by Ile de France artists on the rue Francis Picabia in Belleville, from trying not to knock knees with a supercalifragelosis architect’s assistant on the Metro to learning that, echoing a similar tendency in the United States — so I’m not picking on France here — if a new law passes France will officially no longer distinguish between anti-Zionism an anti-Semitism (which makes me, what, a Jewish anti-Semite?), from trying to decipher “Botoxed” feminine incarnations of Henry Darger’s Vivienne Girls to learning that my shit doesn’t stink too as badly as all that, yesterday like the days that preceded it was as replete with signs as any I’ve had here this past month and a half.
Before heading to a rendez-vous in the 15th arrondissement with neighbors from the Dordogne who also live in Paris, I’d joked to my hosts that the Metro line in question seemed to be the preferred concert hall of subway accordionists who play the same two songs over and over again. Moving from the 9th arrondissement to digs near the Institute Pasteur in the same workers’ housing complex where Soutine once dodged ceilings full of fleas 18 years ago, which required several round-trips on this line, I’d had to listen to dime-store renditions of “Those were the Days” until I was ready to pay the men to stop playing. So I was not at all surprised, on arriving at the line 12 platform below Pigalle yesterday, to find not one but two accordionists waiting to board the train with me. One of whom immediately entered the same car as me. If I was spared “Those were the Days,” there was still the inevitable “La vie en Rose” to contend with. Meanwhile, after having just heard an announcement of all the ways the Metro security was surveiling the lines to make sure male passengers didn’t do anything even remotely associated with accosting female passengers, I was more wary than aroused when a young woman with a generous décolleté in a long slit white dress with black stripes sat down across from me and immediately opened a book called “Surveille et punir,” which, far from being a parenting manual, turned out to be written by the late philosopher Michel Foucault, who primed penal issues before dying of the big disease with a little name that was identified at the Pasteur Institute.
Beside the cylindrical black case she plopped down besides her, the woman posed a bag which read (in English):
“Hi, I’m an assistant. I work for **** (I’m not giving them free publicity) and my boss is forcing me to wear this bag.”
While I was trying to not be glued to the girl, across the aisle a middle-aged man in a tight tie, starched shirt, and with the stiff, red face to go with it was glued to what I assumed was the latest faux-fiction screed from Michel Ouellebecqe, France’s answer to Woody Allen, only without the humor.
How did France — how did Paris — get from Foucault, a real philosopher, to Ouellebecque, a not particularly inventive polemicist imposturing as a novelist? Why are the ’68ers who started out looking for answers in Mao’s “Little Red Book” now seeking solutions from a paranoid middle-aged white man? What’s gone wrong? Or should I rather be comforted that a young woman in 2019 is vigorously underlining Michel Foucault, her way of rebelling against the Yankee imperialist capitalism embodied in the sack she’s forced to carry, Paris still exuding this combination of beauty and brains, like Anne Wiazemsky, one of the Maoists in Godard’s 1968 “La Chinoise,” pensive on a train bound for the provinces, lost in her own interior monologue.
But the counter-balancing signs of a decline in the level of intellectual discourse in France in 2019 are glaring. (I don’t say it’s not the same elsewhere, but this is my beat.)
I’m not talking about the conversation my friends treated me too over a luncheon of scallops with tomato coulis, melt-in-the-mouth beef and potato mousse, ice cream with butterscotch syrup, and the requisite cheese plate augmented with the Perigordian twist of a just ripe-enough Cabicou chevre pellet, as the Sun streamed in through the windows of their salon and dining room overlooking a place with a carousel and an outdoor market, not far from the week-end used book market in the parc George Brassens, a former abattoir — which conversation, from its intellectual density, might have taken place 150 years ago — but the latest imbroglio over Israel, Jews in France, and n’importe quoi Yellow Vest behavior about which my friends informed me. (I’ve debranched from the French media since returning to Paris, and have never been so happy, the news on the street being much more optimistic than the French media bleakitude, particularly as diffused on Radio France.)
I’m going to touch on the latest manifestations of these related issues here (as relayed by my friends from that same French media) because they provide another window to the way intellectual discourse in France — largely abetted by both the private and public media — is careening towards the same place (the toilet) where, later in the day, I would rescue 2,000 years of Eastern and Western philosophy.
What I’m not going to do is look for more details on the Web about these recent manifestations of Jewish-French-Yellow Vest – Journalist – Pundit conflict, precisely because they’d come from that same sensationalistic and unreliable media.
These latest controversies over the Jewish and Israel and Islam and Muslim questions seem to have been fed by two streams.
The first is France’s decision to withdraw from the Eurovision song contest. Never mind that the Eurovision is to music like Bazooka Joe is to art; this annual event is the nirvana (lower-case) of music for many in the popular class. Personally I don’t get it, as the songs — from all over, not just France — seem all hyper-commercial gloss with little originality. I also don’t get why Israel, which is not in Europe (although it should be), is even included in the Eurovision contest. So this year, it seems like France will be represented by a cross-dressing singer of Moroccan origin, and who Israel — which is hosting the event — immediately labeled an “Islamic State”-sympathizing Islamist. This in turn provoked France — probably Israel’s best friend in Europe — to announce it would be boycotting the contest. (Although the government probably did not use that word.) Then, presumably to appease the tensions, French president Emmanuel Macron, addressing the annual meeting of the self-proclaimed counsel representative of Jews in France (a new Franco-Israeli friend joins me in taking exception to this presumption), apparently promised a law against anti-Semitism on the Internet, and which would apparently no longer distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or Jew-baiting and criticizing Israel.
Finally, the France Culture radio host and member of the Academie Française Alain Finkielkraut, who likes to say that anti-Zionism, or criticizing Israel, is just a pretense for anti-Semitism, was apparently treated with anti-Semitic insults (as well as, apparently, criticism of his conservative views) by a group of Yellow Vests Saturday in Montparnasse, where he was depositing his mother in law.
In other words, France still has problems associated with how Jews are viewed, treated, and in my view sometimes coddled here (as in the U.S.), and instead of Zola or Jaures or Clemenceau, the best its intellectuals can come up with to address these issues is Alain Finkielkraut, whose main concern when it comes to Muslims appears to be that they can’t all marry outside their faith. This does not seem to be the most crucial intellectual dilemma facing France, nor of our times. M. Finkielkraut’s thinking on this question — the Muslims in France question — is also disappointing. Where normally the level of his discourse is very high — he makes a point of inviting guests who don’t agree with him on his radio program Replique — he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Muslims. And I’m not just another gauchiste piling on him; as an assiduous listener to M. Finkielkraut’s program — on which he frequently invites those who don’t agree with him — I think it’s intellectually irresponsible for many on the Left to label him a “neo-reactionary.” I was on his side when, after entering the Place de Republique in a spirit of curiosity to check out the short-lived “Nuit Debout” “movement,” he was ignominiously chased away and told “You’re not welcome here.” And of course it’s abhorrent that on Saturday those presuming to fight for the little people told him to “go back where you came from.” In otherwords, the notion of ‘alterité’ — the fear of the other — which in France, as in the United States, used to be turned towards the Jews and is now in some part turned towards the Muslims (but always in the same form, “They don’t dress like us, they don’t worship like us, they don’t act like us”), in no small part aided and abetted by intellectuals like M. Finkielkraut who should know better, was temporarily once again turned towards a Jew perceived as being a member of the privileged classes.
I just ask: What happened to the level, the standard of intellectual discourse, in all its complicity, set by Albert Camus, whose bons mots so many public intellectuals still like to cite? Camus who knew there were no simple answers, Camus the atheist who never stopped talking about St. Augustine and whose most redemptive figure in “The Plague” is that of the priest, Camus who even as his tergivating position on Algeria didn’t conform with his broader views on enfranchisement admitted, to himself and to his public, that this was probably because he feared for the future of his white French relatives in Algeria? Camus who didn’t pray but wasn’t above asking his mistress Maria Casarés to pray for him to her god?
This is the France I grew up idolizing, my mecca and that of generations of Americans, and I don’t see this truly intellectual, inquisitive France often enough any more.
Having thus blissfully retrieved this spirit of debate and exchange chez my friends, I thus made for that other mecca for Americans in Paris, the Luxembourg Gardens, hoping that the barricades would by now be removed from the alley housing the Delacroix fountain, among whose brawny and buxom bronze worshippers, arrayed before a bust of the great master of color, I like to take my thermos coffee. (Barricades apparently placed their because of the alley’s proximity to the French Senate building.)
En route I gave a coucou to the phantoms of Camus and Casarés, tipping my beret towards the top-floor balcony at 185 rue de Vaugirard that I imagined to have been the one captured in a photo of the pair, happy and absolutely in love, circa 1950-something. (The storm windows looked like they hadn’t changed.)
(While we’re talking about berets, and ‘alterité’: Pausing on a quaint bridge over the Ourcq to find the ideal endroit to take our crepuscular rose-hips and green thermos tea Tuesday, my friend C and I were surprised by an older, heavy-set, Baba/Mama Cool ex-hippy looking woman who popped up out of nowhere to proclaim, “You’re from Berry!” At least this is what I at first thought she said, until I realized it was “You’re wearing a beret! We don’t see a lot of those around here these days.” Rather than interjecting “Except on aging Americans who’ve been here so long they think they can pass as French,” I said I lived in the Dordogne, a bad idea because it launched her on what at first seemed a benign anecdote about her friends who have a house in Bordeaux, but which quickly degenerated into an anti-migrant tirade. Still distracted by our search for the perfect tea emplacement, all I understood was something about “all the empty houses” and “all the people loitering about,” until C. later recounted to me that the lady’s concern was actually 400,000 people roaming about who aren’t like “us” — presumably the non-beret wearers — according to her. “And they come from where, in your opinion?” C. had pursued. “From outside France!” At that point C. bid her adieu, leaving the woman to sputter, “I’m on the Left, really!”)
At about 77 (we’re back on the rue Vaugirard heading for the Luxembourg) I stumbled upon a shop advertising that it specialized in ‘art documentation,’ meaning old art magazines and books. “I’m looking for Marcel Gromaire” I inquired of the spectacled woman with greying wavy hair discussing something arcane with a hefty, sickly looking man in a rumpled brown suit comfortably ensconced in an arm-chair against one of the overflowing bookshelves and leaning on a cane. After I’d pronounced the name five more times — my ‘r’ seems to have stopped rolling lately — she searched her computer for ten minutes before fetching a metal ladder and precipitously leaning it against the shelves where the “G”‘s were stocked high up near the ceiling. The slim volume she extracted, an exhibition catalog from 1967, was all in black and white so after thumbing through it in case they were the black and whites Gromaire had drawn in the trenches of World War I (which a bouquiniste at the parc George Brassens book market had priced at 900 Euros) I returned the thin volume to the woman. “I’m looking more for color.” At this point the man struggled up and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow then with the books.” “Couldn’t we have dinner too?” the woman timidly advanced.
Finding the Delacroix fountain blessedly unbarricaded — I wish I could say the same for the rest of Paris, where the ugly green and white barriers seem to have become a permanent part of the landscape — I was so ecstatic that I must have looked to the sleek silver-templed gendarme who cast a glance at me like the substance I was sipping from my green plastic thermos cup was some sort of forbidden elixir.
It wasn’t just the brilliant yet douce 17h00 light which made the moment magical, but the girl-watching. I’d forgotten that besides the busty bronze babe on my left, presiding over the fountain and the spigots that served as its sentinels spewing water next to my coffee cup, the alley was also a prime track for joggeuses. That’s the good news. The bad news is that here too I-phone and Co. seem to have made inroads, snatching the brains of more Parisiennes. A young, Nathalie Wood-bright-eyed and smiling woman who on her first go-round was texting while running (shouldn’t there be a law against this?) by the second time she passed me had her eyes moving down the tiny screen hypnotizing her faster than her legs were advancing through the garden. (I’m too word-tired from writing all day to fix that convoluted sentence.)
Having already pushed my own body to the limit — the sensation of sipping coffee with Delacroix and his muses while looking for mine on a brilliant-douce late afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens was just too divine to not want to prolongue it by another cuppa — I then set about to search for a potty.
You may not be aware of this if you don’t have gastric issues and drink a lot of coffee and eat a lot of spicy food, but the security of knowing you’ll be able to take a dump in Paris when the need impropitiously arrives seems to have decreased in inverse proportion to the augmentation of the “Vigipirate” security alerts over the past 18 years. (I still remember rushing down the boulevard Arago towards a gathering of French friends who wanted to offer me solace on the place Contrascarpe on the evening of September 11, 2001, and being frustrated to find all the sanitaires closed, “as a Vigipirate measure.” Still haven’t spotted a single Vigitarian pirate.)
I’d received an unwelcome and impeccably ill-timed reminder of the deteriorating toilet maintenance in Paris on Valentine’s Day evening, when after an impromptu urge to rush from the Centre Pompidou to the Ile St.-Louis (I am one of the Pique-Nique People of the Ile St.-Louis, the opposite of the I-phone invasion pod people when it comes to socialization), where of course ‘my’ bench at the head of the line and facing both Notre Dame and the Left Bank was free despite the abundance of premiere pique-niquers of the season drawn by the faux printemps temps we’ve been having, and where I was delighted to find myself in the presence of so many good ghosts — highlights include a 2005 pique-nique with La Belle Mere and a 2005 birthday celebration that terminated with two comely parisiennes, one blonde and one brunette and both provocatively smart (especially the one named Emmanuelle) walking ahead of me down the Boulevard Sebastapol towing the rests of a much-depleted box of Cabernet — I realized I’d run too fast and would shortly have the runs.
The good news is that when it comes to localizing a toilet n’importe ou in Paris, I’m the guy Leonard Cohen wrote that song about. (Your Man.) The bad news is that the portable toilet infrastructure in Paris is falling apart. (Dropping my pants and going on the Ile was out, given that the last time I even tried to take a piss by a tree, simply following the encouragement of Malcolm McLaren — “Everyone pisses on Paris, watch me now” he chants to Satie in “Paris” — I was busted. “You wouldn’t piss on the Streets of San Francisco, would you?” the policeman had prodded me. Not if Karl Malden was still around to scold me.) My toilet of first resort, outside the Metro Pont-Marie where you cross the Seine from the Ile to the Right Bank, was… out of order. What felt to my increasingly pressed anus like about seven blocks further down the River — somewhere after Chatelet — I found a sanitaire that seemed like it had all in order until the door had bolted and I’d lowered my pants, only to find the six-feet tall metal toilet paper container was empty. (Yes, I blame this on City Hall; they’re the ones who hire the concessionaire who’s supposed to make sure that no Parisian, resident or tourist, is left unwiped.) So, after rejecting sacrificing my Taureau tee-shirt, silk 2nd Avenue tie, or la Belle Mere et Mere’s home-made scarf I was reduced to a couple of flimsy left-over pork bun napkins, an empty plastic sac, and a handful of business cards. Using the dubious looking soggy black camisole scrunched in a corner under the ‘sink’ was out. (These sanitaires are also used for needle and sex assignations.)
The real good news is the fact that my bottom was not completely poop-scooped finally provided the opportunity to test the veracity of the assurance my own New York Doll Piper Cappuccio had declared 30 years ago over steamed Buddhist fish in a San Francisco restaurant lost in the Avenues as I nervously sat across from her tongue-tied, stunned by her pouting beauty: “My shit stinks too.” And in the most appropriate of circumstances: I was headed towards the opening of the “Fleurs pour Valentin” exhibition at the Catherine Putnam Gallery in the Marais, my theory being that this would be the perfect place to find women without Valentines.
But would they be interested in a 57-year-old semi-toothless semi-French literate journalist-translator-DJ who arrived with actual olfactory proof that his shit really did stink?
As it happened, the cloying manner in which the exhibition was mounted — no names besides the multi-artist works, meaning everyone had to cluster around the one set of sheets where the thumbnails revealed the names of the artists to identify them — made it impossible to avoid hovering near, over, behind or around a bevy of beauties, most of whom were so young and glisteningly beautiful I assumed they’d rule me out before the shit-stinks-too question even arose, so to speak. But I had to test the shit stinks theorem at least once before I left — and it was after all Valentine’s Day! — so I decided to try to open a conversation with the (again) zaftig, MOT (Member of the Tribe) looking woman (a gallerist had addressed her as Talia) serving the bubbly. “What do you think of the exposition?” “C’est bien.” The conversation being not as provocative as my pants, I left.
Returning after that multi-paragraph scatology of romance digression to the high ground and the grounds of the Luxembourg gardens yesterday, then, which found me poop-full and searching for an appropriate place to empty, my first stop, a pay-to-poop toilet house a couple of hundred yards up from the pond before the Senate building as you march towards the Observatoire gardens, was closed, and the, as usual, upside down map to where to find its open cousins was useless. So I continued heading towards the sanitary toilet I knew should lie just outside the other end of the Observatory, near the Boulevard Montparnasse. I guess I should have known something had changed when I noticed that the exit to the Luxembourg was guarded by a young gendarme who wasn’t letting anyone else in. Normally, to enter the Observatory gardens you just cross the street and open the gate, but all the gates there were closed, and with the gendarme still in sight I wasn’t comfortable following the example of the youth in front of me who had just climbed out and stumbling over it. About half-way further on, after the ping-pong tables, I noticed that another sanitaire just outside the playground and near a side gate was freeing up; that gate was also locked.
Fortunately, on rounding the sanitaire outside the garden and on an ile across the street outside of which a group of high school students were gossiping, I found that none of them were waiting for the toilet, which was open.
Not only was the paper canister sufficiently stocked, this time I’d remembered to bring a couple of rolls with me. A good thing, because I’d have hated to be forced to resort to provisioning myself with the 1800 pages of Classical Greek, Hindu, and Confucian history and philosophy carefully balanced in the ‘sink’ in the form of four books miraculously only barely saturated by the last automatic cleaning:
“Platon” (Plato), Oeuvres Completes, printed on October 21, 1939, in a then new translation, complete with the snazzy inside cover binding painting, and hand-inscribed “Yvette, 1954.”
The 1949 “L’Enseignment de (Teaching of) Ramakrishna,” works grouped and annotated by Jean Herbert with the collaboration of Marie Honegger-Durand and P. Seshadri Iyer, part of the Hindouismes series of the Spiritualites Vivantes collection directed by Herbert and published by Albin Michel, coincidentally the same publisher as the book a translation of which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher for, Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus.” This one was inscribed “Yvette, 1963,” suggesting that after nine years of Socratic dialogue Yvette had had it with the Greeks and decided, like many of her contemporaries, to migrate further East for her spiritual guidance.
…. which, judging by the fact that the pages stopped being cut in the middle of it, lasted until Chapter XIX, “Jnana et Bhakti,” right after part A, in which “Jnana et Bhakti end up by being identical,” at which point Yvette was apparently ready to move on to…
… “Le Guide du Yoga,” by Shri Aurobindo (and copyrighted not by a group of San Francisco Zen Buddhists but by l’Ashram de Shri Aurobindo, 1951), also published by Albin Michel and inscribed “Yvette, 1964,” suggesting that our girl was now plunged into direct practice.
The fourth book, (I’m translating) “The jade fish and the phoenix-shaped hair-pin — 12 Chinese folk-tales fro the 17th-century,” published by Gallimard in 1987, bears no trace of Yvette, indicating that it may have belonged to a descendent — perhaps one of the high school students chatting outside the toilet — who finally decided to follow Hamlet’s imprecation “Bollox for your philosophy, Horatio!” and chuck it all.
Being a worshipper at the shrine of books, I had no such option (if I left the books there they would surely have been hosed in the automatic cleaning that followed my departure), and so it was with more than 2,000 years of Western, Confucian, and Hindu philosophy, the four books awkwardly cradled under my right shoulder (the canvas string bag holding the thermos, a can of Moroccan sardines, the empty green thermos cup, and Ragon’s “Courbet, Peintre de le Liberté” being strapped to the other) that I made my way down St. Mich, over on St.-Germaine, and finally down the rue de Seine for a gallery opening of problematic promise, the only draw being that the pony-tailed woman either excavating or stone-maisoning in one of the paintings resembled my latest anima. (Slightly zaftig, blonde, and pony-tailed.) If my own shit wasn’t stinking this time, the books must have retained a certain je-ne-sais-quelle arome de sanitaire, because the petite at the welcome desk refused to even look for the publicist I’d been in contact with. If another opening, for an exhibition entitled “Ladies Only,” seemed more promising cote chercher l’anima, I was less impressed with the curating when a galleriste to whom I compared one of the larger collaged paintings, “Botox,” to the Vivienne Girls of Henry Darger had no idea who I was talking about, never mind that the Bruit artist and writer who’d hidden the 15,000-page saga of the Girls in his Lincoln Park Chicago walk-up all his life had been the subject of a major 2015 expo at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris.
Fortunately, this Germanopretan gallery ramble was saved from being a bust by the profusion of busts on display in the Galerie Vallois’s latest exhibition for the street poster collage pioneer Jacques Villegle, “Young, Gay, and Imprudent,” the title being misleading because most of the collages on display in three ample rooms, many of them wall-sized, were more focused on ample breasts than temptations to imprudent young gay men, many posters hawking phone sex hotlines catering to all genders, often cleverly overlapping posters whose remnants still advertised “Supported by Humanité,” the French Communist party rag.
From this profusion of feminine humanity from that innocent distant pre-AIDS era of the late ’70s, after hopping the Metro 11 to Belleville and turning down the rue Tourtille towards the Gallery of the Associated Artists of Belleville for a vernissage for artists of the Ile de France, I got a reminder of how much that innocence has been lost, and how much France’s Jewish question — let’s say religious and ethnic tolerance question — remains unresolved (and will not be resolved, perhaps only be exacerbated, by a law equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism) in the fact that the green iron fence surrounding an unmarked Jewish school not far from where Tourtille turns into the rue Francis Picabia seems to have only gotten higher.