Sur l’emission Là-bas si j’y suis: “Antisionisme = antisémitisme ? Un amalgame hypocrite et dangereux.” Entretien de Daniel Mermet avec Dominique Vidal, journaliste et historien. Cliquez-ici /click here pour y ecouter / to listen. (Kicked off public radio in 2014, Là-bas si j’y suis is the French equivalent of Democracy Now.)
David Hockney, ” Sunflower I” (347), 1995. Engraving in 80 ex./Arches. 69 x
57 cm. Copyright David Hockney studio and courtesy Galerie Lelong & Company.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — Ever think someone is trying to send you signs? From Plato, Eros (by way of 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 supercalifragilicous architect’s wage slave on the Metro to learning that, echoing a similar tendency in the United States — so I’m not just 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 overt signs and puzzling evidence 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.)
Tal R, “Ballet & Bobler,” 2018. Engraving on wood, 70 x 50 cm. Courtesy Catherine Putnam Gallery.
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.
Jacques Villegle, “Route de Vaugirard (bas-Meudon),” collage with ripped street posters. April 1991. Courtesy Galerie Vallois.
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.
Floc’h, “A bouquet of authors,” 2018. In and color film on paper, 65 x 50 cm. Courtesy Floc’h.
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 descendant — 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. Examining this last tome more closely much later, I realized that these particularly stories were actually, and explicitly (and ambisextrously) erotic tales. In other words, I may have entered looking to unload but my go-to sanitaire on the meridion of Paris had made sure I exited packed with everything I needed for a spiritually, intellectually, and sensually fulfilling life. I also realized that whoever’d visited this toilet equipped with this particular book before me might have had other projects in mind besides unloading. For a good time, don’t call Jenny 867- 5309, call 17th-century provincial China.
Jacques Villegle, “Tension au bas-Meudon,” March 1991. Collage from ripped street posters. Courtesy Galery Vallois. Meudon is also where the sculpture Auguste Rodin once swapped inspirations with Rilke and swapped sentiments with the sculptrice Camille Claudel. (If you want to talk tensions….)
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 pulchritude 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.
From the group exhibition Artists of the Ille de France: Danielle Zemmour, “Femme Berbere.” Courtesy of the artist.
First sent out by e-mail, and posted today for the first time. After getting more than half-way through with a re-edit seven months later, I’ve decided to leave this piece in its initial, raw, somewhat over-detailed initial state for the sake of authenticity… and for the record. — PB-I, October 23, 2019
PARIS — So there I was at dusk, heart broken and gums bleeding, teeth throbbing, staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: Francois Truffaut.
In the late French director’s five-film, 20-year saga that began with the 1959 “The 400 Blows” and climaxed with “Love on the Run,” Antoine Doinel, played throughout the cycle by Truffaut’s alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud, is always on the run, often from the women in his life: His mother, his wife (the effervescent Claude Jade, whom Antoine, in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” rightly calls “Peggy Proper” for her prim manners), his girlfriend (Dorothee, who made her debut in “Love on the Run” and would go on to become the French equivalent of Romper Room’s Miss Nancy), his older married mistress (Delphine Seyrig at her glamorous apex), and various intermittent mistresses. The only one he seems to chase, apart from Dorthee’s “Sabine,” whom he loves but whose love seems to scare him (he found her after patching up and tracing a photo of the girl a supposed lover had torn up in a restaurant basement phone booth during an angry break-up call he overheard), is Marie-France Pisier’s “Colette,” who we first meet in Truffaut’s 30-minute contribution to the 1963 multi-director film “Love at 20.” (They encounter each other at a classical music concert; Antoine is working at the time in a Phillips record factory, with Truffaut letting us see the hot wax being spun into discs. In “Love on the Run,” Antoine finally tracks Dorothee’s Sabine to her work-place. A record shop where couples make-out in listening rooms.) You may remember Pisier as the vengeful sexpot in the movie adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s “The Other Side of Midnight,” in which she introduces an inventive way of hardening an older man’s penis which might have come in handy in my own recent saga if I’d only have remembered it before now.
The first hint that I was starring in a sort of Bizarro universe re-make of, specifically, “Love on the Run” came when the woman in question — you know her as “Vanessa,” whom I described picking up on (although I’ve since learned that she may have been picking up on me) at a vernissage a few blocks from the Pere Lachaise cemetery (cemeteries also figure in the Antoine Doinel cycle; the Montmartre one where Truffaut was eventually buried turns up in three of the five films, notably as the burial place of Antoine’s mother, revealed to him by her former lover as being next to the real tomb of the model for “Camille.”) and right after having three teeth extracted, e-mailed me from the Lyon train station before boarding a train to that city to visit her grandkids (like Antoine, I seem to have unresolved mother issues) to tell me that the night, our first together which had concluded the previous morning, and which we’d both exuded at the time was extraordinary and unique (she’d e-mailed me afterwards that she didn’t understand why we weren’t still together) felt “incomplete” (later she’d call it “inaccomplished”) because I couldn’t or wouldn’t get it up. (My wording; she didn’t put it so vulgarly.) In the Truffaut film, after Colette calls him from a window on a Lyon-bound train at the Gare de Lyon, where Antoine has just dropped of his son for camp, Antoine jumps on the moving train without a ticket, surprises Colette in her sleeper car right after a fat middle-aged businessman, assuming she’s a prostitute, has rubbed up against her in the aisle (a lawyer, she’d spotted Antoine earlier in the day at the court-house, where with Jade he’d just completed France’s first no-fault divorce, an echo of my parents’ some years earlier). After they catch up, she upbraids him on the revisionist way he recounted their courtship as 20-year-olds in a fictionalized memoir he’s just published — “My family didn’t move in across the street from you, you followed us!” (At the time, Antoine is working as a proofreader at a – literally – underground publisher on a book detailing the 18 minutes when De Gaulle disappeared during the 1968 student-worker uprising. Letters requesting love assignations sent by underground pneumatics also figure in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in this case from Antoine’s older, married lover – his employer’s wife — played by the glamorous Seyrig.) He tries to kiss her, she light-heartedly repels the attempt scolding him, “Antoine, you haven’t changed.” The conductor comes around for tickets, Antoine pulls the emergency chord and jumps off the still moving train. We see the now 34-year-old Antoine running across a field, an echo of the last, poignant, liberating moment in “The 400 Blows,” when a 14-year-old Antoine, having escaped from a youth home/prison, is frozen on screen and in our memories, a broad smile on his face as he runs on a beach, discovering the ocean (the antipathe of Chris Marker’s ocean in “La jete”) for the first time.
In my own Bizarro universe re-make of the Antoine-Colette train scene, it was Colette who, after having joined me in a mutually agreed upon and extraordinary kiss was jumping from our train.
I was devastated, as I thought we’d also both agreed that what made our first night together magical is that the things other couples often view as preliminary — hand-holding, snuggling, French kissing, hand-kissing — had for us been electric. (I’m purposely avoiding citing the many words and motions we exchanged which confirm this because this piece is not intended as an indictment – “If you don’t love me, what was this?”) After writing her an e-mail to ask why she chose to bring this up in an e-mail as opposed to face to face, and explaining that if you want your partner to get it up, the worse thing you can possibly do is tell him it bothers you that he couldn’t get it up, and that a 57-year-old man can’t just get hard on command, I said she should ask herself, “If he was impotent, would I continue with him?” and if the answer was no, get out. She misinterpreted this in a more dire manner, we made up Friday, but only for her to send me another e-mail Saturday — 20 minutes before she knew I was receiving guests, my artist friends K. & R. for the famous Palestinian and Jamaican chicken twins, breaking up. And adding if I wouldn’t mind returning the scarlet scarf her Islamophobic friend had left at my home after I asked her and her husband to leave a dinner part I’d hosted for them all when they started going at French Muslims. So it was with misty eyes that I opened the door to K. & R., and found myself confiding my troubles of the heart with friends with whom I’d not yet reached that level of intimacy. Thanks to their and particularly K.’s good humor — leading the conversation to other subjects but ready to go back to consoling me, even suggesting, “We need to find you a woman!” — I did pretty well, considering a germinating girlfriend had just broken up with me by e-mail. But I guess I must have sounded worse than I felt, because when I asked what I should do if she contacted me again, K. said “Drop it! Do you want to end up jumping out a window?!”
After more e-mail exchanges last week, the tenor of which from Vanessa remained mostly consistent — she was still running from the love express our train had become — I finally ceded, agreeing it was better to cut it off as I couldn’t return to the just-friends thing, she sent me an e-mail where she said that she too (as I’d expressed I was) was in tears, that her life had changed since “1/24” — the evening we met at the vernissage — that she’d never be the same again, that she knew she had a problem with loving, that she hoped I’d find someone but that it was probably too late for us.
This of course — the tears — brought me running, and I wrote her to say that I’d been blind, that she maybe thought she had a problem with love but that everything she’d done in my regard — particularly being ready to lose me — was done out of love.
On Friday we had another magical evening, organizing an impromptu, wintry pique-nique on the banks of the Ourcq canal. I assured her I wouldn’t go all out but just bring what was already in the house; as it happened this also included a vintage wooden unfoldable pique-nique table in a valise that came with the apartment. I’d promised her to go no further than a chaste kiss goodnight at the Metro station. “Vanessa and Paul, round two!” she’d blithely announced over the hummus, and the rest of the evening kept to this light tenor, with lots of laughter. At one point I stopped the converation to note: “This is important. You see? When we’re face to face, we understand each other. E-mail communication is really sinister.” The night concluded with a chaste kiss at the Metro.
Ghosts in the machine
Wanting to diversify my world — I’d be making my famous Palestinian chicken for friends of Vanessa and bringing it to the house they were moving to that day, looking out over (I’m not making this up) the Pere Lachaise cemetery — on Saturday morning I decided to check out the vernissage for a group exhibition in my suburban Paris village of the pre Saint-Gervais. Life is more than women! Life is more than the women in my life over the past few years who seem to be Bizarro Universe interpreting the scripts for Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films!
After sensing that in lieu of the usual joy of discovery I still feel around art I was feeling incredibly wary after entering the art space, in the same room below the covered market where I’d scored my old aborted professor Jerome Charyn’s “The Catfish Man” — I was increasingly regretting that I lacked the coping skills Charyn’s hero (himself) had been inculpated with by being forced to tangle with the urban catfish in the mudflats of the Bronx of his come-uppance — when someone I didn’t recognize at first, a woman in her ’50s with a boyish hair-cut, rose up like one of Charyn’s catfish and announced in wonder, “Paul.” It was another V, the last girlfriend and who, in contrast to the current V., who never stopped blaming herself for being unable to love, had taken the opposite tactic with me when we last tango’d/tangle’d nearly three years ago, blaming it all on me, even though in this case the opposite was true; this was one sick puppy. I know this sounds like the usual break-up sour grapes, but I’m short-handing because she doesn’t merit more time than this. I simply mention the encounter because it may have been an omen….
… And to introduce what I conveyed to “Vanessa” as we marched from the ill-advisedly chosen Pere Lachaise rdv to the dinner at the home overlooking the cemetery. I know it’s not advised to mention an ex to a current, but for me this was a means of delivering a series of compliments:
“Where she doesn’t assume any responsibility, you unfairly blame everything on yourself…. And even though she’s 14 years younger than you, on looks there’s no contest.” Vanessa smiled widely at this. “She’s skinny-ass where you have the body of a woman, uninteresting to look at where you are.”
I was annoyed when …. No, I find I can’t go into what annoyed me, nor any other details of the party related to my interactions with “Vanessa” because it sounds like evidence gathering, and this piece is not intended to be an indictment nor a reckoning, but a first step on the path out — out of heartbreak and out of “Vanessa” — for myself. I also believe that, like an American black-belt I once knew in Antwerp once explained to me in saying why the very fact that his hands are deadly weapons means he has a reponsibility *not* to fight, a writer doesn’t have the right to use his considerable gifts in romantic reckoning.
So suffice to say that the evening seemed to end sublimely, with Vanessa and I getting lost in perpetual circling of a Paris roundabout, this one the Place Gambetta. We held hands from the moment we left the hosue; there was some warm French kissing. When I said I wanted her to come home with me, she responded that she “wasn’t against” this, but reminded me that she had to get up early to go meet her grand-daughter at the train station.
We seemed to part in joy hands taking an extra clutch before separating…
…but..not before, unprompted, she asked out loud again why she was unable to jump into my arms, then answered her own question with “Is it because you couldn’t get it up?,” though not putting it that way, again sorting the demon.
Once home, in a letter I sent on getting home at 1:30 a.m., I felt compelled to repeat my earlier answers, both the defensive and proactive ones: If you want a man to get it up, the worse thing you can do is tell him it bothers you when he can’t; and then detailing, explicitly, all the other ways I’d like to please her, and ending with, “Let’s have fun with it!”
In the last e-mail I sent her Sunday before she let the hatchet fall again (and once again by e-mail), I wrote, rather poetically (she completed the beauty and humor before lowering the ax), regarding our lost midnight turnabout, “I’d rather be lost with you than found with anyone else.”
Oh and I left out one important detail: After one embrace, I finally said the words in person for the first time: “Je t’aime,” with a big smile on my face. “What am I supposed to say?” “You’re not supposed to say anything, just accept it.”
I mention this because since she broke with me after the late Saturday night letters, I’ve been torturing myself with: Did the letters, particularly the lasciciousness, scare her away? What if I’d backed off – after the happy Metro separating – and allowed her the space to come to me. So to counter this self-torturing (I even mentioned this possiblity in my last letter to her – if I’d backed off, I might not have lost you) I’m trying to tell myself that it was more this first face-to-face declaration of love that did it.
Ultimately I think this is the problem, the reason that Sunday and Monday morning she pulled out, saying she was arresting the histoire d’amour with me because she wasn’t “at the hauteur” of my emotions and compliments to her, to a degree that it was making her sick: I don’t think she has a problem with loving (at one point she told me she’s never been able to love, that she ended her two marriages because of this); I saw this manifest from her towards me in copious ways over the past two plus weeks. I think she has a problem with accepting being loved.
Before starting this piece this overcast Tuesday morning, I’d determined not to read any new mails from V. because I knew if I read them I’d have to respond. (And that I shouldn’t have given her the power to confirm or deny that my letters, sentimental and lascivious, of late Satruday had scared her off.) The one I did receive from her this morning, sent last night, confirmed this urge but so far I’m resisting. Not so much because I’ve convinced myself that it’s unhealthy to continue on her roller coaster (I’ve left out the numerous things she’s said or acts she’s done which indicate a profound love because this is not intended to be a requisatory, but a first step towards my own healing .. and advancement / continuation in the search for the vrais amour) but because I’ve told the part of myself unable yet to fall out of love with her, unable to let go even though my brain and a large part of my heart realizes that this is unhealthy, to let myself be swallowed up by a heart that is really broken, that this is my last hope, I’ve decided to follow two precious pieces of advice dispensed to me by my New Zealand-bred horse chief on a pony farm along the Texas – Oklahoma border more than six years ago:
- You can’t blame yourself for the things you can’t predict. All signs — all the signals she sent me — indicated that this woman was crazy about me from the moment she encountered me. I but responded to that with the joy in my heart this provoked.
- If you want a horse/filly to do what you want, the worse thing you can do is keep barking at him. You need to give him/her time to digest what you just said, so that he ultimately makes the decision him/herself.
I don’t know if she’ll write me again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep from opening any mails she might send, or from responding if I do. But this is what I’m going to attempt, at least for a week. What I do know in my heart of hearts is that she’s hurt me so much with the ups and downs that it will take more than an e-mail to convince me of any change of heart that she might have, or rather return to the previous obsession she announced with me. I need her to do what she’d refer to as a “Woddy Allen,” running to me breathlessly along Fifth Avenue Woody at the end of “Manhattan,” arriving panting and breathless at my door before I move on.
But to get back to the French director towards whose whose grave I found myself staggering up the rue des Martyrs as the sun set over the Sacre Coeur church which slowly emerged above it, gums bleeding from the just-extracted tooth, heart still raw. Once at the grave, after filling my green plastic up from a nearby fountain with water and popping a dissolvable 1000 gram Paracetemol into the water, posing it on Truffaut’s grave (decorated with an unravelling 35 MM film spool and a worn photo of Truffaut, Leaud, and a woman who might have been Claude Jade on the set)and watching it fizz away like this love affair, I lifted the glass and, echoing the Charles Trenet song which provides the theme for the 1968 “Stolen Kisses” – in which Leaud’s Antoine and Jade’s Christine fall in love – toasted Francoise Truffaut with “A nos amours,” to our loves. I might have added “This is all your fault,” for setting a model of Antoines and his women I was continuingly trying to counter-act. I wanted to be the anti-Antoine, proposing a definite “OUI!” to all these French women I was encountering. Why did they keep behaving like Truffaut’s Antoine, falling in love only to deny it and jump off the train, fleeing into the great French wilderness, fleeing love – mine and theirs – on the run?
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.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — As today has just been declared National Paul Reconciliation Day, I need to unpack something that’s been obscuring my vision and comportment with others for a while and to an unhealthy degree that now menaces my own happiness and ability to play with others.
On Saturday I rudely and brutally expulsed two otherwise interesting, considerate, smart, and sympathetic people from a dinner party to which I’d invited them, even though it risked alienating a new friend who, at my suggestion, had brought them. And even though I had thought one of the expulsed people might be ‘useful’ to me, though this was not the only reason I invited her.
I did this after this last’s companion made remarks that I considered to be intolerant and hypocritical in regard to French women of the Muslim faith who have made the choice to wear head scarves. (I haven’t yet decided what to make of the fact that one of the two expulsed guests left her scarf behind.) I also believed that the person was not open to listening, after he dismissed my argument that for some French intellectuals, feminists, commentators, politicians, and journalists France only seems to be a lay state when it comes to Muslims, given the large presence of Catholic icons and traditions in daily public life, including as propagated by public institutions. (And also given, I might have added, that the same feminists who have a problem with Muslim women wearing elegant scarves don’t seem to have the same problem with Hasidic women wearing tacky wigs. I also might have — and should have — added that the United States is no different, and perhaps worse, when it comes to breaking its own rules mandating the separation of church and state, the omnipresence of Christian symbols propogated by state institutions and representatives, and in its attitudes towards Muslims and Arabs, not to mention Blacks.)
In other words, I responded to what I considered to be intolerance and hypocrisy with my own brand of intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy. I was not intellectually or morally consistent with what I profess to be my own values.
Why does what I consider to be Islamophobia (I’m not saying the gentleman’s remarks fell into this category — I don’t know him well enough to make that judgment — but that this is how I pegged them) and a selective application of lay values bother me to this point? I’m not a Muslim, I’m not Arab, I’m not French except by literary and artistic heritage, and I don’t have any close Muslim or Arab friends.
And yet when something bothers me to the degree that I feel justified in kicking otherwise kind people out of my home when I consider they’ve passed into this category (and thus beyond the pale), there’s usual a personal angle.
Besides my generally intolerant attitude towards people who disagree with me — I’m right, they’re wrong — the only thing I could come up with is the Jewish thing. That it *may* also be because as a Jew living in France today I don’t need to be treated special, I don’t need Gallimard to reverse its decision to publish the anti-Semitic pamphlets of Céline, I don’t need for Israel to be given a pass even as it continues to kill unarmed Palestinians, and I don’t need for BDS to be banned. (Although I would like for my neighbors to stop talking about Jews controlling the banks and holding us accountable for killing Christ, I would like for people to stop assuming I support Israel just because I’m Jewish, and I would love for Max Jacob to be as familiar a name among French intellectuals as is that of his friend and fellow Surrealist poet Apollinaire.) What disturbs me is to see some of the same outlooks towards Jews held by many non-Jewish French people (as by many, if not more, non-Jewish Americans) prior to World War II now directed (ibid) towards Arabs and Muslims: They’re different, they don’t dress like us, why don’t they keep their religion to themselves…? That this is often done in the name of Feminism doesn’t make it any better, because to my point of view this is a brand of Feminism tinged with post-Colonial paternalism: If a Muslim woman is wearing a scarf it must be because her mec is making her do so, the assumption being that the Arab or Muslim woman isn’t strong or smart enough to claim her own franchise.
But. Given that the source of Islamophobic attitudes (again, I’m not saying my dinner guest’s remarks were driven by this or fall into this category; I don’t know him well enough to judge), like anti-Semitism before them (and not just in France; my own country is much worse in both aspects; if I’m focusing on France it’s because I live here) is intolerance, often liberally dosed by hypocrisy, if I respond to what I perceive to be this form of intolerance by my own brand of intellectual intolerance, I am no better and I am no less hypocritical. The source is the same: Seeing the ideology, or the belief, or the head-scarf, or even the off-the-cuff maladroitly formulated remark, and not the individual.
Change starts at home.
PS: For more on the scarf thing (in French), click here.
Albert Camus and Maria Casarès. Book cover photo courtesy Gallimard.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Commentary copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
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Previously explored by Olivier Todd in his exhaustive 1996 Gallimard biography and insinuated in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Albert Camus’s inherent self-doubt — in all areas of his life – as he struggled to live up to the principles he extolled for others is now decisively confirmed by the novelist-journalist-philosopher-playwright’s 16 years and 1,275 pages of correspondence with his longtime mistress (for want of a word which would do better justice to their fidelity) Maria Casarès, recently published for the first time by Gallimard after being released by Camus’s daughter Catherine, who inherited the letters from the actress. Portions of the correspondence will be recited this month at the Avignon Festival by Lambert Wilson, whose father George worked with Casarés (including at Avignon), and Isabel Adjani.
A die-hard Camusian ever since being assigned to read “The Plague” in high school (thank you, Ralph Saske), of course I had to request a review copy from the publisher as soon as the correspondence came out, putatively for this article, but with the ulterior ambition of being the first to translate the letters into English and trying to find an American publisher.
Because of the period covered (the pair became lovers in Paris on D-Day 1944, split up the following fall when Camus’s wife Francine returned from Algeria, and reunited in 1948 after bumping into each other on the boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres, remaining together until Camus’s death in a traffic accident on January 4, 1960), I’d hoped to find new insight into Camus’s thought process in preparing “The Fall,” “The Rebel,” and the unfinished autobiographical novel “The First Man” — the hand-written manuscript of the first 261 pages were found among the wreckage and later published by Gallimard — as well as his inner reasoning as he struggled to come up with a resolution for the conflict and war in Algeria, where Camus’s efforts to square his principles with the well-being of his family in the French colony, his birthplace, tore him apart, and his public views pissed off everyone on both sides. (The author ultimately proposed an autonomous state federated with France, and where the ‘colonists’ would be allowed to remain.) From Casarès — the busiest stage and radio actress of the fertile post-War Parisian scene, a major film presence (she played Death in Jean Cocteau’s 1949 “Orpheus”), and the daughter of a former Republican president of Spain — I’d relished the potential accounts and impressions of the playwrights and directors she worked with, a real’s who-who of the French theater world during the Post-War epoch (as attested to by Béatrice Vaillant’s thoroughly documented footnotes), notably Jean Vilar, founder of the Theatre National Populaire and the Avignon Festival.
Unfortunately (if understandably; this is not a criticism of the correspondents, but of Gallimard’s ill-considered decision to make their private, often banal dialogue public), in fulfillment of their main purpose of maintaining the link during their often long separations, necessitated by his retreats for writing, author tours, visits to his family in Algeria, tuberculosis cures, and family vacations — he never divorced Francine — and on hers by performance tours, apart from the travelogues (except where they describe her vacations by the Brittany and Gironde seaside, more interesting on his part), their letters are often dominated by declarations of love and the sufferance of absence (even if your name is Albert Camus, there are only so many interesting ways to say I love you, I want you, I need you), and the often anodyne details of their daily lives apart. Camus tells her to leave nothing out, understandable for an often absent lover, but which ultimately reveals her frivolity and recurrent prejudices (particularly when it comes to male homosexuals, who according to Casarès are typically vengeful). Her manner of chronicling her quotidian activities is often so indiscriminate, investing theatrical rendez-vous with the same level of importance as shopping excursions for furniture to decorate her fifth-floor flat with balcony on the rue Vaugirard, that at one point he mildly rebukes her, “Don’t just write that you had a luncheon appointment, say who it was with.” The best she can come up with to describe the experience of making “Orpheus” with Cocteau is that she was annoyed by the autograph-seekers who showed up at the outdoor shoots, not the only instance where she disdains her public. And when it comes to the radio productions which seem to constitute her main employ, at least in Paris, she often refers to “having a radio today,” without even naming the play in question. (When Camus refers to “a radio,” he means an x-ray to analyze the progress or regression of the chronic tuberculosis which dogged him all his life.) Never mind that the radios in question were plays by the leading European writers of the day, as well as classics. But the part I found myself resenting a bit – as someone who would have loved to have had a tenth of the dramatic opportunities Casarès did – is that at times she seems to treat her theater work, particularly the radio recordings, as almost onerous. (This morning on French public radio, in a live interview from the same Avignon festival, the director Irene Brook, Peter’s daughter, recognized that “we’re very privileged to be able to pass our days rehearsing theater.”)
When it comes to discussing his work, at most Camus refers to his progress on the literary task at hand or writers’ blocks impeding it, rarely going into the philosophical or political issues he’s grappling with – some of the headiest of the Post-War period, French intellectuals’ inclination towards which Camus was instrumental in forming. As for the letters from Algeria, typically occasioned by visits to his mother, uncle, and brother’s family, if Camus’s native’s appreciation for and adoration of the landscape is apparent, even lyrical (particularly in recounting excursions to Tipassa), he dwells mostly on his ageing mother’s maladies, and rarely comments on the sometimes violently contested political encounters he was having at the time. If anything, their relationship was their havre, a refuge and sanctuary from the demands of his calling and the rigors of what she seems to have considered more obligations than labors of love. (From his letters to his wife cited by Todd – at one point he tells her he regards her more as a sister than a spouse – Camus was much more likely to discuss his thinking process with Francine than with Casarès, at least in his letters.)
This is not to say there are no newsworthy stories here. For Camus, the story, albeit one already explored by Todd in his biography (for which Todd apparently had access to the letters), is the author-philosopher’s continually frustrated efforts to live his private life in accordance with his public principles. Moral responsibility (and fidelity) to one’s community, and the need to be exemplary even in the most trying of circumstances and times — two of the principal themes of “The Plague” — dictate that he remain in a conjugally loveless marriage, which means he can never shack up for good with the woman he loves, to her great frustration. (Never mind that he’s an atheist — which he hedges here at times by asking Casarès to pray to her god, sometimes on his behalf — Francine is a practicing Catholic.) The right, voir obligation, to be happy — another pillar central not only to “The Plague” but Camus’s over-riding philosophy of positive Existentialism, where one must still find meaning even in the most trying of circumstances — would insist that he fully commit himself to Casarès and the complete realization of their love. Because he ultimately can’t square the two principles, everyone — Francine, Maria, and himself — is often miserable.
A fourth, and perhaps the author’s most personally invested, theme of “The Plague” — absence and separation — is indeed one of the two principal unifying themes that emerge from the letters, but given that the book was published in 1948, when their relationship began in earnest, at best the letters furnish an after-the-fact illustration and elaboration of this theme, their particular separations having played no role in its actual development. (The absence and separation which inspired “The Plague” being the one the war imposed between the author and his wife Francine, who remained in Algeria.)
If there is a bonafide, universally resonant story here (besides the humanizing of a super-human philosopher), it is that of the ultimate unconditional love. After some initial resistance (expressed in face to face, and animated, arguments referred to and regurgitated in her letters), Casarès never demands that Camus leave his wife, even though it means she can’t have a true domicile conjugal, with a companion and children to come home to (at least as manifest in the letters, she remained loyal to him, even though he had at least two other mistresses during the time they were together, according to Todd). For his part, if he doesn’t hear from her for more than a week when they’re apart, he worries that she might be drifting away and sinks into a morose depression, unable even to work. If I know these things — here’s where the unconditionality comes in — it’s because they’ve made a pact, referred to in the letters, to share everything without holding back, no matter how ridiculous or petty the sentiment might seem. And they stick to this agreement faithfully.
The other element that links the author and the actress — how they fulfill and complete each other — is a shared, desperate need for nature, primarily the sea (although he’s also able to appreciate the pictorial value of the mountainous terrains he often finds himself confined to, for writing and health retreats; but we didn’t need the publication of these letters to know that Camus was an adroit paysagist). Maria’s most brilliant and moving passages describe her merging with the sea on an island in Bretagne or off a beach in the Gironde, her two vacation retreats. (If I use the first name, it’s because on these occasions, watching her galloping into the waves to meet the surf head on, I feel like I’m discovering the child inside the woman.) Camus’s descriptions of a return to Rome — which he values as a living monument to art and archeology — are also inspiring (they made me want to go there, or at least watch “Roman Holiday” again), and a personal review of a London production of “Caligula” that he finds lacking is scathingly funny.
The most poignant moment comes not so much at the juncture we expect — Camus’s final letter, of December 30, 1959, alerting Casarès he’ll arrive back in Paris by the following Tuesday “in principal, barring hazards encountered en route,” and where he looks forward to embracing her and “recommencing” — but earlier in the same year. Casarès has just decided to leave the TNP (over Vilar’s latest caprices, this time insisting on his right to call the actors during a well-earned vacation), after five years, which followed a shorter stay at the stodgy Comedie Française. I dream of living in a roulotte — or covered gypsy wagon — and hitting the road, she tells him. (He’s welcome to join her, but her plans don’t depend on that eventuality.) He encourages this dream, but notes, in the manner of a supportive but prudent parent, that she should realize that just because she’ll be living in a roulotte doesn’t mean she’ll be free and independent; it just means she’ll be living in a community surrounded by other roulottes. “Even in roulottes, there are rules.” This could be an analogy for their 16-year relationship, an emotional vagabondage inevitably — and fatally — tethered by the rigors, responsibilities, and rules of living in good society.
If the example of unconditional love revealed in the letters is compelling and inspiring, the moral problem I have with Gallimard’s publishing them is that there’s no indication that the professional writer involved intended for them to be made public. The problem is not just one of intrusion and indiscretion (Todd cites a note to Camus from Roger Martin du Garde to the effect that a writer owes the public his work, not his private life, inferring from this that Camus subscribed to the same belief), but that *with works he knew were destined for publication*, Camus was a scrupulous and meticulous perfectionist. Counting the war, “The Plague” took eight years to write, from gestation to publication. “The First Man” started germinating in 1952, and by the author’s death eight years later was only one third finished, according to his outline. Both Todd’s biography and the letters themselves confirm that Camus worked, re-worked, and re-wrote his books and articles, and even after they were published continued to be besieged by doubts. (Notably over “The Rebel,” virulently attacked by Sartre and his Modern Times lackey Francis Jeansen, the former not confining himself to taking on the treatise’s arguments but attacking Camus personally, like a Sorbonne senior with a superiority complex upbraiding an underclassman who has the moxey to challenge him.)
If an argument can be made for making them available to researchers for biographical purposes — in the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale, for example, or of the university in Aix-en-Provence, a region where many of Camus’s papers are located — my feeling, as a Camus loyalist, is that these letters should not have been published. If Catherine Camus’s motivations in releasing them should not be questioned — she’s been an assiduous guardian of her father’s legacy, and who can interject themselves into the complex considerations, even after death, created by the relationship between a daughter and the father she lost prematurely at age 14? – I’m flummoxed by Gallimard’s decision, given the meager literary and biographical value of the result. (A caveat and reservation: Camus does tell Casarès at one point that everything in him which connects him to humanity, he owes to her; at another, on July 21, 1958: “As the years have gone buy, I’ve lost my roots, in lieu of creating them, except for one, you, my living source, the only thing which today attaches me to the real world.”)
After finishing them, I was still, nonetheless, on the bubble about the letters’ inherent worth, and worthiness as a translation project. What red-blooded Camusian doesn’t want to be the first to translate freshly released words by his idol into English?! Less self-interestedly, I considered that perhaps the lessons of this extraordinarily unconditional love justified the value to potential English-language readers of a translation. And then there was the lingering vision of Maria running joyously, fearlessly into the waves in the Gironde, or holed up in a cave on the obscure side of a Brittany island as the tide rises and the waves begin to crash against the uneven rocks under her naked feet, imperiling her own life and engendering Camus’s chagrin when she describes the episode to him. And above all the penultimate image of Casarès, liberated by a relationship whose restrictions might have fettered anybody else, terminating her contract with the TNP and setting off to see the world in a roulotte, after Camus’s parting advice to be careful. When it informed me that the book was still in the “reading” stage at several Anglophone publishers, with no firm commitment for a translated edition, I even asked the foreign rights department at Gallimard if it would be open to a partial, selective translation of the letters.
But then, after dawdling over the 1,275 pages of correspondence between Maria Casarès and Albert Camus for three months, I read Gallmeister’s 2014 translation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and was reminded of what literature is. (This despite the rudimentary translation; it reads like one.) And isn’t. Albert Camus, like Kurt Vonnegut, set a high bar for what constituted literature, working it, re-working it, and re-working it again before he felt it was ready for his public. (And even then, continued to be wracked by doubts.) These letters were not meant for that public. When Vonnegut, for “Breakfast of Champions,” decided to share his penis size, he knew he was exposing himself on the public Commons. When Camus shared his innermost thoughts, doubts, and fears with the most important person in his life, he did not.
Post-Script: Because you got this far and deserve a reward; because they do reveal a rare lighter side to Camus which, their correspondence suggests, Casarès was at times able to elicit from an author whose work rarely reveals a sense of humor; because I can’t resist the urge to translate, for the first time in English, at least a smidgeon of previously unreleased Camus; and above all because these morsels were at least theoretically intended for a public larger than their couple, voila my renderings of several “search apartment with view on ocean” letters written by Camus on Casarès’s behalf in 1951 and 1952 appended to the correspondence (and which serendipitously mirror my own current search):
At times I dream — living in the midst of flames as I do, because the dramatic art is a pyre to which the actor lights the match himself, only to be consumed every night, and you can imagine what it’s like in a Paris already burning up in the midst of July, when the soul itself is covered in ashes and half-burned logs, until the moment when the winds of poetry surge forth and whip up the high clear flame which possesses us — at times I dream, therefore, and as I was saying, and in this case the dream becomes the father of action, taking on an avid and irreal air, I dream, at the end of the day, of a place sans rules or limits and where the fire which pushes me on finally smolders out, I’ve been thinking that your coast with its nice clear name would not refuse to welcome the humble priestess of [Th… ], and her brother in art, to envelope their solitude in the tireless spraying of the eternal sea. Two rooms and two hearts, some planks, the sea whistling at our feet, and the best possible bargain, this is what I’m looking for. Can you answer my prayers?
Two words. I’m hot and I’m dirty, but I’m not alone. The beach, therefore, and water, two rooms, wood for free or next to nothing. Looking forward to hearing back from you.
PS: I forgot: August.
Dear Sir or Madame,
Voila first of all what I want forgive me I’m forced to request this from you but everything’s happening so fast and everyone’s talking and talking and nothing comes from all the talking it’s too late so here’s what I need I am going in a bit with my comrade to take the train to Bordeaux it gets better it’s on the beach and even better it doesn’t cost anything question that is to say I don’t have any money but I’m confident. So, goodbye, monsieur, and thanks for the response which I hope comes soon it’s starting to get hot here.
To a housing cooperative
Two rooms please open on the night
I’ll cluster my people and hide my suffering
As far as money goes it’s a bit tight
I’ll be on the coast but no ker-ching, ker-ching.
— Albert Camus, for Maria Casarès, translated (liberally) by Paul Ben-Itzak
“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, The Paris Tribune
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PARIS — While the intrepid reporters of France Culture radio were over at the Place de la Republique Saturday not getting the story of what 200 “Yellow Vests” convened for a Study-In might have done to provoke the riot police into resorting to tear gas, I was down the street at the tony Filles du Calvaire gallery checking out a more studied manifestation of French culture. Notwithstanding a technical glitch — Mercury was definitely in retrograde Saturday, playing havoc with both electronic and personal paths of communication — which prevented the artist from delivering the potentially most pertinent epiphany promised in her debut solo exhibition / installation, involving the possibility that her delicate fingers might get snapped off at the joints by one of the 12 open school desks arrayed like relics from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” on the gallery’s second floor, Emma Dusong provided a schooling on just how vital artistic, contemplated expression can be in our reactive times.
The first indication I had that my day might go haywire came when I arrived at the top of Eastern Paris on the Place des Fetes and immediately realized that what had been advertised as a “vide grenier” (like a community-wide garage sale; ‘vide’ = empty, grenier = attic) was actually an empty-all-the-crap we weren’t able to sell during 2018 junk sale, organized by a motley collection of what used to be called ‘chiffonniers,’ who famously scoured the trash-cans of Paris looking for treasures. (If you’ve seen Elia Kazan’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” you know that in the Lower East Side they used to call them ragmen.)
It was partly by reminding myself of this fact that I was able to beat Zola at his own game when I came upon one of the three things I was theoretically looking for, a record player (for 78s as well as 45s and 33s) in a suitcase.
“How much?” I asked, faithful to Henry James’s imperative that these be the first words out of any self-respectingly acquisitive American’s mouth when dealing with the natives.
“10 Euros,” the burly, balding, and swarthy middle-aged man busily unwrapping something on the curb 20 feet away from me barked out, not looking up.
“Ca marche? Ca function?” (I’d learned a decade ago that, when it comes to electronics of questionable provenance, there’s an important distinction between these two words, one meaning it actually does what it’s supposed to do, the other promising no more than that it will start up.)
“The cord doesn’t work.”
“The cord? You mean the branchement?”
“The cord doesn’t work.”
“Alors ça ne marche pas.”
“Si, ça marche.”
I’d asked him so many times whether it worked that he’d finally surrendered and given me the answer I wanted to hear.
After figuring out how to lift the arm from its holder, I verified that it still had a needle. (One of my rules is not to purchase anything that’s not 100% good-to-go, because I know I’ll never get around to fixing it.) Everything else looked impeccable: The removable top with the speakers, the sleek metal dials, the cords connecting the power source and the speakers. There were just two hitches: The guy wouldn’t look at me. And the open record player was wet, the seller having done nothing to protect the item from the morning’s intermittent drizzle.
For a moment I tried to convince myself that “c’est pas grave,” it’s no big deal; if upon getting home I discovered that the record-player didn’t work, I could just take it to “Mood,” the handy-dandy vinyl and record player repair shop around the corner. (I could even get some records to test the device; the guy at the next stand was selling his collection of “Songs of the Cuban Revolution” for 2 Euros a pop; if I could find a branchement at the demonstration the “Yellow Vests” were throwing later that afternoon at the Place de la Republique, a few blocks from where I was heading, I could even be the DJ. “American journalist arrested for fomenting Red Revolution among the Yellow Vests at the Place de la Republique.” In 2003 the back of my head made the cover of l’Humanité, the Commie rag, now about to go out of business, the head being turned to lead Americans against the War in anti-Bush chants.)
Then I imagined the subsequent conversation with the repairman.
“There’s water all over the parts. Did you leave it out in the rain or something?”
“No, it was already wet when I bought it.”
“You bought an electronic device that was already wet?”
“Well, the guy told me it worked.”
“The guy at the vide-grenier that was really a vide-everything-we-haven’t been able to sell in 2018 sale. I only paid 10 Euros.”
“You have 10 Euros to waste?”
In fact I don’t, which is ultimately why I decided not to buy a wing and a prayer with a classy chassis, and why I can say I beat at his own game Zola, one of whose characters in “The Happiness of Ladies” (Le Bonheur des Dames) enters the spanking new mega-department store of the title (basically a mall before its time; Zola always was ahead of his in detecting the built-in time-bombs in progress) promising “It’s just to look, looking is free, isn’t it?” and ends up with five store employees behind her towing the five cart-loads worth of this-and-that’s (“that fringe would go great with my curtains,” etcetera) she’s bought which will prove the ruin of her functionary husband. Less here than in “Germinal” and “L’Assommoir,” my problem with Zola is that his characters don’t seem to have any free will; they exist to serve the arguments of their creator. I had not just beat the master at his own game, but asserted my own free will against the gods of pre-determination and Haman.
My conviction that I’d made the right move was confirmed when, seeing a man toting fake tulips in a stained-glass lantern as I walked away from the Place des Fetes I thought, “Now there’s something that’s absolutely useless, and yet he’s holding onto it like he can’t do without it,” and realized that if I’d bought the record-player and been lugging an old rectangular rusted valise as if it were true gold, he’d probably be thinking the same thing about me. And it was bolstered when, wandering down the rue Doctor Something towards what I hoped was the rue de Belleville, I crossed one of those “Died for France” plaques, this time marking the life and passing of a Resistant who had been arrested and deported to Auschwitz. “He didn’t die for France,” I reflected, “so that 76 years later an American with the delusion that he can buy his way into French culture could procure a decrepit turntable of dubious functionality.”
Speaking of decrepit, I wasn’t sure if I was heading back to Lilas (another frontiere Paris suburb) or Belleville until I saw the inevitable sign pointing me towards a cemetery, this one for the old Belleville bone-orchard, if I can cop a phrase from Tennessee Williams’s “This Property is Condemned.”
A sign posted on a balcony and indicating the opposite state of propriety greeted me at home base — the rue des Cascades high above Paris, which links Belleville and Menilmontant — with an “another apartment sold” announcement from a real estate agency calling itself “App. Art,” the two words separated by a pineapple. As if by putting “art” in their name the speculators helping the BoBos buy up Belleville could mask the fact that, as in San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg before this cosmopolitan neighborhood, the very artists and ethnic communities who have given Belleville its caché will soon be priced out.
Convincing my gammy leg, which wanted to turn on its heels and head back home, that “it’s all downhill from here,” I turned onto Menilmontant, crossed the boulevard of the same name and, after detouring a block to pick up the customary Diplomate bread pudding to fortify me, continued down Oberkampf to the Metro of the same name, a few steps from the rue Filles du Calvaire and its gallery, my Rubicon being the rue de la Folie-Mericourt just above the boulevard and not far from where the gunmen had mowed down dozens of people on the terraces of three cafes on November 13, 2015, on which terraces all the memorials have disappeared. (Depending on your source, the Folie-Mericourt is either named after a Revolutionary heroine who went mad ((Wikipedia)) or the country house of sire whose name started out as Marcaut before it was mutilated by history. ((“Lutèce, à présent nomée Paris, Cité capitalle de France,” Jacques Hillairet, Le Club Français du Livre, 1959.)) En tout cas, I’ve learned to avoid all Paris streets which start with “Folie,” as they usually turn out to be dead ends.)
“Classe,” 2012. Motorized sound installation with activated light, words, voice, and composition by Emma Dusong. Co-produced by the City of Paris, Nuit Blanche. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.
“The exhibition isn’t quite ready yet,” announced one of the at least five chic-ly attired (mostly in black) women and one thin man at the desk, pointing to the stairs at the rear of a first room as a group of us entered the gallery foyer after traversing the courtyard and buzzing open a grill guarded by meticulously trimmed midget trees. “But you’re welcome to look at this one,” she said, inclining her hands towards a floor splattered with shiny ceramic still lives which reminded me of the wreath of porcelain flowers decorating Marie Taglioni’s mother’s grave at the Montmartre Cemetery. (That makes two so far, if you’re counting.)
When we were finally allowed to mount the stairs, 20 minutes after the scheduled opening and following a cameo descent to the lobby by Dusong, who’d replaced the black smock of the press kit photos with a form-fitting red dress and dawned librarian glasses, I was initially under-whelmed. We were met by the 12 connected desks, each open to reveal a light and a metal-spool like object, apparently where the technical problem lay, if one is to believe the press release (which had promised the artist sitting at one of them and inserting her hands la dedans, with no idea if the desk would do a “Little Shop of Horrors” number on her delicate digits) and judging by the technician-like looking man seated at one of them and scratching his head quizzically.
The announced technical glitch might also have concerned a short film projected beyond a curtain under an “Emergency Exit” sign, which up until the screen abruptly went black mid-promenade and mid-song inspired the exhibition’s most moving moments, starring the raven-haired Dusong moving slowly around a serene pond guarded by a sort of combination Yabba the Hut – Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome labyrinth. After repeatedly chanting in her soprano voice a mantra whose only recognizable (but powerful) words to me were “Je brave, J’ose,” I brave, I dare, while slowly walking in bare feet around the periphery of the pond — set against a tropical bay — Dusang, this time wearing a gently swaying gossamer gown, enters the labyrinth, but after a couple of twists and turns and before she can get out, either the film ends where it’s supposed to or the power went out and the tiny space went black. Given that the press kit includes a picture of her exiting the mouth of the object, I tend to vote for the latter.
Moving as Dusong’s words and the child-like yet sad voice in which she delivered them were, the experience was constricted by the fact that only those able to grab one of a handful of headphones were able to hear her mesmerizing voice straddling the delicate tightrope between melancholy and hope. Perhaps the artist didn’t want the voice of her film self to have to compete with the voice of her taped self, running on a loop in the main exhibition room. There she spoke a bit too fast for me to follow, but I’m assuming she was repeating the same tiny text featured in two Lilliputian notebooks encased in glass boxes affixed to the walls. Over the vast hole in the middle of the space a scrim reflected a projected blue sky with white clouds. I’d no sooner groaned at the banality of it than I noticed the shadow of a guy leaning over the rail guard surrounding the hole’s periphery projected on the scrim. I had to try out a couple of spots before my shadow followed suite and instantly thought back to the shadow room at the Exploratorium, a science-is-fun museum in San Francisco where I worked in high-school as an Orange-Jacketed Explainer, and where intermittent flashes made the green wall retain the form you’d pressed against it during the flash. (In case you’re wondering what my specialty was, I was the go-to Explainer for the cow’s eye dissection; 40 years later and I’m still dissecting others’ visions.)
The gist of all three texts — spoken, walled, and abortedly projected — involved a young woman or girl summoning the courage to speak for and up for herself. The exhibition is called “La voix libre,” with the PR claiming the artist is “libertaire,” the polite word in France for “anarchist,” but given as this was the third event in two days that I came across with aspirations to anarchism, it’s a stretch; all were in organized spaces, either bourgeoisie (the ambiance at the Filles du Calvaire seemed particularly chi-chi), municipally, or nationally funded, the last being a two-day event at the Centre National de la Danse somewhat brazenly called “Occupation.” (If the owners invite the occupiers in, it’s not an occupation.)
It’s a sort of rebellion that falls within socially accepted norms, like the so-called “Yellow Vests” so-called “Movement.” I’m not calling for real physical rebellion — if anything, I’m a hardliner who believes the State was right to arrest one of the movement’s self-proclaimed leaders for holding a protest without a permit. But to cite a precept that a lot of pundits and politicians on the Left and Right have been liberally tossing around lately, as Albert Camus — another French philosopher the libertaires have claimed as their own — said, “Mal nommer les choses, c’est ajouter au malheur du monde.” (When you misname things, you only add to the world’s unhappiness.)
How I interpret Camus’s argument in the current context is that when you give people the idea that simply proclaiming “I brave, I dare” makes you a libertaire, you’re not setting the bar particularly high. Far from really acting up, the Frenchman’s pattern is to act out. (Unfortunately, what elevated the “Yellow Vest”s’ campaign from a harmless temper tantrum to senseless violence was when their round point blockades lead to the deaths of at least eight people.)
Hiking up the Canal St.-Martin after the… artistic … manifestation, I saw a group of men take a table in a brasserie and break out laughing. The only thing that made them stand out was their yellow vests, which they were sporting like a five-star general’s medals, only the generals would be more modest. “We’re special, we’re the stars, because we have our vests.” (Later on on the rue la Villette approaching the parc Buttes Chaumont, I resisted the temptation to ask a group of men standing in front of an official-looking building if they were “Yellow Vests” or municipal workers wearing yellow vests.) A few minutes later, I counted seven dark blue Mobile Gendarmes vans speeding up the boulevard Richard-Lenoir — where’s the Commissaire Maigret when you need him? — towards the Bastille, sirens blaring. This Monday morning, when France Culture radio finally got around to telling us what had actually happened Saturday night, it reported that another of the self-proclaimed leaders of the “Yellow Vests” claimed the gendarmes or police had purposely fired in his eye with a flash ball or a circling grenade or something like that; that he’d been targeted because he was HIM.
They all want to be Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows,” playing hooky during the day and praying at Balzac’s shrine at night, but in the end they always wind up walking back across the bridge (over the Montmartre cemetery looking down on Sacha Guitry’s grave) to return the stolen typewriter to dad’s office… and getting busted and sent to the reformatory camp anyway before breaking out and running along the beach in liberated joy, like the hero in Chris Marker’s “La Jeté” fatally repeating the cycle and never finding out who that woman was.
After being mistaken for one of them — an artist I mean, not a “Yellow Vest” — while taking notes in front of a tree-stump with a “real tree coming soon here!” sign from the mayor next to which somewhat had stapled the upper half of a real yellow Formica chair that looked suspiciously like the one I left behind in my flat on the rue de Paradis 11 years ago, and grimacing at a stuffed grizzly bear with a top hat on the inside of a taxidermist’s not too far from the gallery, I finally sat down to rest my tired but not quite dead yet dogs on a thin metal bench (too thin to sleep on; see yesterday’s item) by the Canal St.-Martin to sip my green thermos tea and devour what remained of my Diplomate, causing two drifting mallards and one female duck to change course, paddle towards me, and vociferously accuse me of being a quack until I surrendered and tossed some squishy Diplomate their way. The first dispersement went well, but after I relented and offered a second helping, the sea-gulls and the pigeons descended and started fighting for the remains of the rapidly dissipating diplomat.
“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.