When an Anarchist meets the Avant-Garde in Paris et NY: From the exhibition Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde — From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, running October 16 through January 27 at the Orangerie in Paris (in a slightly neutered title: Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse) and March 22 through July 25, 2020 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: Henri Matisse, “Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading),” Paris 1905–06. Oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 23 1/2″ (72.7 x 59.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo by Paige Knight. © 2019 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
“You are the light of the world
But if that light’s under a bushel
It’s lost something kind of crucial.”
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PARIS — For personal reasons, I’ve resolved this week to get out more and circulate: to try to connect with people, with the esperance that the ame-soeur, the soul-mate, is waiting for me somewhere among them. (If you’re also looking, click here to find out more about me — and the us I’m looking for.) So after a moderately successful noon-time Russian Earl Grey thermos tea on the banks of the mighty Ourcq canal here in Pantin / le pre Saint-Gervais — there was the water but there was also the bruit of the garbage truck which seemed to be following me around, and the blight of the gray Centre National de la Danse behemoth which looks more like a prison than bunhead central — last night I was determined to have at least one coffee at Le Danube, a brightly-lit, recoup-furnished pastel colored bar on the place of the same name dominated by a buxom lime-stone babe that I’ve had my eyes on (the bar, not the babe) since attending a vide-grenier (community-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) and activities fair in the ‘hood nearly five years ago. Before that, I planned to watch the sunset and the people jogging and returning from work from a bench high atop the Buttes Chaumont park, my ears caressed by its water-falls and my chest warmed by more Russian tea, moderated with Algerian mint left over from Saturday’s Palestinian and Jamaican chicken twins feast with my Bellevilloise artiste friends K & R. I’d never liked this man-made park, designed by Colonel Hausmann and just as antiseptic as his apartment buildings, with the clumps of cypress trees divided by a concrete periphery path whose connecting trails never seem to lead to the lake at the bottom… until I started translating Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), in which the young street urchin heroes, who’ve just been taken in by two almost as young publishers of an anarchist journal at the same time they’re hosting members of the violent Bonnot Gang, regal in cavorting amongst the caves and falls before running down to the La Villette Basin. Ragon and his wife Françoise have become my model couple since I met them Saturday afternoon, her nudging her older husband on observations they’ve shared and developed together for 51 years, since getting married in a building constructed by Le Corbusier, a Ragon chou-chou. (Ragon told me he switched to architecture after art magazines, pressured by advertisers, started trying to clamp down on what he could and couldn’t write. When the same thing started happening at the architecture magazines, he turned to books.)
Besides the thermos, the chick — er, soulmate — attracting tools I brought with me were the copy of Ragon’s “Dictionary of Anarchism” M/M gave me (they also gave me, as I was hoping for, a copy of his “Courbet, Painter of Liberty”) and my two vintage ping-pong paddles. (They’re not vintage because I bought them in a vintage store, they’re vintage because I’ve had them since 1973, when I came in second in the city-wide San Francisco championships for the 9-12 age group, having won my ‘hood and my region before getting slaughtered by a nine-year-old Chinese kid half my size whose spin-balls I couldn’t touch. I’ve had the paddles as long as I’ve had this adult carcass, and they’re in a lot better shape.)
Would you play ping-pong with this man? (Photo: Julie Lemberger.)
I’d decided to pack the paddles for this Paris trip after seeing Forest Gump for the first time; stacked on top of the tiny valise he brings with him when he goes to retrieve his childhood sweetheart is a paddle. And after a twilight spotting from a bridge off the Ile St-Louis of a pair of kids playing in the Tino Rossi sculpture park on the Left Bank, I’ve got it into my head that maybe the first step to finding my soul-mate is finding a playmate. At first the idea was to sit on a bench near a table with the rackets until she showed up. But lately I’ve been thinking that instead of going where the ping-pong players are — which might just lead to another shellacking by a tiny Chinese kid — I might have better luck, soul/playmate-wise, taking my paddles to where the chicks hang out, brandishing my most innocent Tom Hanks smile (being careful not to open my mouth too widely, at least not until the denture arrives), and attracting the French nana with the innocent abroad thing, hoping I’ll do better than Lambert Strether in Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” whose innocence is ultimately quashed by European cynicism and hundreds of years of European history. (I’ve been hearing the rebuff Strether’s French lass handed him since an Italian boy told me just after high school, “To understand my sister, you first need to understand our history,” an imposing wall for someone who keeps trying to act like he was born yesterday.)
The tea proved edifying, but — initially anyway — not in the way I’d hoped for.
The last time I took a twilight tea in this spot, I’d been moved by the sight of a young couple who paused at the bench next to me so the man could take the baby-pack from the woman. This time I was devastated by the arrival of a boy in a light blue cap tossing a squeaky ball to a beagle, accompanied by a big man in an olive jacket and darker blue cap who, instead of marveling at this precious moment which will never happen again, remained riveted to his cell-phone screen. I got the impression that if the beagle weren’t there, I could kidnap the kid — perhaps by using the ping-pong paddles as a lure — and the father would keep right on staring at his screen. “Go play with the other dog,” the kid said, as he finally wrenched the squeaky-toy from the beagle’s jaws while his father remained oblivious. “We’ll play with the ball more at home.” I followed them with my eyes another 100 yards until they passed through the iron gate, the distance between the father and son growing.
Things perked up for my own family prospects when a tall and lithesome young woman, perhaps in her thirties, her short curly hair ensconced in a dark brown cap, took a look at me surrounded by all this regalia, hot steaming chrome cup of tea at my lips, paddles by my side, anarchists in hand, and, albeit without slowing down much, spread out her arms and, looking at me in the eyes, smiled as if to proclaim, ‘On est bien la, n’est pas?!,’ to which implicit benediction I responded out loud, “Tranquille.” (Not a worry in the world.)
When it finally got too dark to tell the Christian anarchists from the anarcho-syndicalists from the Action Française anarchists (Ragon lays out five distinct categories in an introduction that’s the most concise sweeping history of anarchism I’ve ever come across), after beholding the layered cushions of the Sun setting over Northeastern Paris I left the park and headed down the street to the Danube, telling myself, “Your sole goal tonight is to buy one coffee. If you do that, the evening will be a success.” But when I looked in at the bar and saw there were just two guys with the requisite five-o’clock shadows seated on leather stools chatting with two crew-cut male bartenders, I decided that there wasn’t any point if there were no women in sight. On the off-chance that She might simply be running late, I decided to walk around the block, hoping that no one would wonder what a swarthy unshaven guy in a dark trenchcoat and “I Heart Golf” beret was doing loitering in the area with a pair of Chinese ping-pong paddles and an anarchist dictionary, and call the “I just saw something suspicious” hotline.
When I returned to the bar, the counter-composition hadn’t changed, and it looked like the chercher la femme playmate crusade would come up empty for the night. But all was not for naught, as I did find a good closer for this column: Looking through the glass at the bright interior of the restaurant to give it a final scoping out before leaving, I spotted, sitting alone at a table — whose neighbor table was free — a woman who resembled either Camille Puglia, Gloria Emerson (the Vietnam war correspondent who’d once chided me in an airport jitney from Princeton to JFK, after I’d bragged that I was already writing for the NY Times at 23, “When David Halberstam was 23 he already had his first Pulitzer”), or my high school advanced composition professor Anne-Lou Klein, looking up towards the heavens as if exasperated by the book in front of her:
“L’Homme Nu.” (The Naked Man.)
C’est moi — comme tu le savez bien, dear reader.
PS: As for my ping-pong paddle as chick magnet theorem: Usually when I smile at a woman on the street here in Paris she just ignores me or grimaces. But as I was crossing the street from the Danube to the avenue General Brunet, paddles clearly in evidence, a young woman who registered Amelie on the light in the eyes scale looked at me and coyly smiled with a glint in her eye, a smile inviting enough to make me want to live to love another day.