Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.84.8: IT HAS BEEN SAID OF PARIS (Part 1)

V084-08_metropolitainF1Une Plume, un Cahier, un Café 
Many people go to Paris to write; or at least they seem to feel an obligation to write. Perhaps that is because as Henry Miller asserted: “one needs no artificial stimulation, in Paris, to write, the atmosphere is charged with creation.” James Joyce, who, in Paris, finally found someone to publish Ulysses, said “There is an atmosphere of spiritual effort here. No other city is quite like it. I wake early, often at 5 o’clock, and start writing at once.” (When you write books that long you have to rise early in the day). Then there is composer Alan Jay Lerner:” For a painter, the Mecca of the world, for study, for inspiration and for living is here on this star called Paris. Just look at it, no wonder so many artists have come here and called it home. Brother, if you can’t paint in Paris, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter.” “People wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris, offered Roman Payne. “I’ve been living ten years in Paris and the answer seems simple to me: because it’s the best place to pick ideas. Just like Italy, Spain… or Iran are the best places to pick saffron. If you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or South-East Asia. And if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris.” So, if you at least can’t be inspired by the city to write something about the city itself, you probably should go home.

Maybe that is a bit harsh. Consider these lines from Woody Allen’s character Gil (Owen Wilson) in his movie Midnight in Paris: “You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights. I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.” And therein lies a paradox: a city that is both inspirational and intimidating. A city that all but dares one to write about it; after all, don’t even dare to consider who wrote in and/or about Paris long before you opened your cahier at that table at the café on the Blvd. of Rêves Cassés. Balzac, Hugo, Dumas, Zola, Proust, Hemingway, Fitzgerald haunt the place, along with renowned painters, poets, and filmmakers. American novelist and poet Harry Matthews remarked “when [wife] Niki [de sainte Phalle] and I moved to Paris, there was also the challenge of Paris, an extremely daunting city.”

If the celebrated artists of Paris aren’t intimidating enough some consider the average Parisian daunting. One anonymous (Parisian?) observer put it: “Whatever else it may possess or lack, a great city cannot be dull. It must have a sense of place and a feeling all its own, and its citizens must be different from and more vital than those who live elsewhere. The difference does not even have to be in their favor. The native Parisian, for instance, is born with an ineradicable hauteur that others define as rudeness . . .”. Admittedly, we have all had a Parisian waiter fitting such a description.

Could it also be the language? Listen to the complaint of film director Roman Polanski” “In Paris, one is always reminded of being a foreigner. If you park your car wrong, it is not the fact that it’s on the sidewalk that matters, but the fact that you speak with an accent.” But, if you are Mark Twain, it might just be a matter of perspective (“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”) Then again, one might just need to know the protocols of conversation with Parisians. As Criag Ferguson put it in Between the Bridge and the River, “. . . in Paris, if one desires to buy something, you enter the store and say “Good morning, sir” or “madam,” depending on what is appropriate, you wait until you are greeted, you make polite chitchat about the weather or some such, and when the salesperson asks what they can do for you, then and only then do you bring up the vulgar business of the transaction you require.”

Les Parisiennes 
The name Paris may be associated with the rather injudicious son of the King Priam of Troy; not what John Berger meant when he said, “Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.” But its subsequent associations in literature would probably be more aptly to Helen. “Paris is a beautiful woman,” writes Irwin Shaw, “but so surpassingly so, so vital and self-renewing, that nothing—not the passage of the years, not drink or drugs, not bad investments or unworthy loves, not neglect or debauchery—can ruin her.” More particularly, she is to some, a seductress. “Paris…takes hold of you, grabs you by the balls, you might say, like some lovesick bitch who’d rather die than let you out of her hands,” was Henry Miller’s relationship with her. Thomas Nolan found the city an unfaithful lover: “Paris is a whore—she is loved by all and loves no one.” And Robert McAlman and “… knew all too well that Paris is a bitch and that one shouldn’t become infatuated with bitches; particularly when they have wit, imagination, experience and tradition.” Richard Le Gallienne found her to be “… half Angel, half Grisette,/I would that I were with her yet.” London, he claimed, “… waits me like a wife,/… the love of my life. But was Jack Kerouac intending to compare Paris unfavorably when he wrote in Lonesome Traveler “Paris is a woman but London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub.”?

Yet there remains the tantalizing question of the extent to which the city’s metaphorical gender owes to Parisian women. Here, images of Irma la Douce and those severe dames of the Toulouse-Lautrec demimonde compete with Gigi, Catherine Deneuve, Delacroix’s “Marianne,” or that casually-naked companion in La Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. What comes less likely to mind is the context of Peggy Kopman-Owens’ remark in The Mist of Montmartre that “In Paris, women were not considered interesting until they were middle-aged”; Although in The Prince and the Butterfly Harold Pinter wrote that “Paris is the middle-aged woman’s paradise.” Perhaps the influence of Mary Cassatt paintings, or the matured sultriness of Simone Signoret? If Paris is a “she,” which she is she? Perhaps she is capable of being whichever she we wishes herself to be.

L’ Amour
The characters of cities and that of their residents are often differentially regarded. That James James Baldwin could remark “It is perfectly possible to be enamoured of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French” might well be echoed in sentiments about New York and native New Yorkers, or many other cities. The “personalities” of cities are expressed in summary, transcendent terms that can be confirmed or dis-confirmed in a single human encounter. We like the convenience of the sound bite, the apercu, but reality is always richer than diction. Furthermore, time alters such sentiments as well, as Irwin Shaw observed in Paris, Paris: “All cities, with the possible exception of Venice, have the right to change and, for good or ill, Paris has chosen to alter her face and figure in a thousand different ways. An American arriving in town these days, after a twenty-year absence, might feel that his memory had played him false as he searched for the Paris he had once known. And the writer who rereads his description of an earlier city must pay homage to today’s truth in adding and subtracting for today’s reader.”

The notion of the city as Cupid is no less complex. At a minimum, as Lauren Morrill claimed inMeant to Be “Paris was [is?] a city of love for unimaginative folks.” And fauna as well according to Samantha Schutz: “Even the pigeons are dancing, kissing, going in circles, mounting each other. Paris is the city of love, even for the birds.” Apparently, the pigeons have taken to heart E.A. Bucchianeri’s dictum in Brushstrokes of a Gadfly,“… you’ll have to fall in love at least once in your life, or Paris has failed to rub off on you.” Even if that doesn’t work, still “Paris is a heaven for all woman’s obsessions: hot men, great chocolates, scrumptuous pastries, sexy lingerie, cool clothes but, as any shoe-o-phile knows, this city is a hotbed of fabulous shoes” for the likes of Paris Hangover author Kirsten Lobe. And from the other side there is Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, “For in Paris, whenever God puts a pretty woman there (the streets), the Devil, in reply, immediately puts a fool to keep her.”

But the course of true love in those romantic cobble-stoned streets does not always run smoothly. “In Paris, you couldn’t really turn around without seeing the result of lovers’ bad decisions. An artist given to sexual excess was almost a cliché, but no one seemed to mind. As long as you were making something good or interesting or sensational, you could have as many lovers as you wanted and ruin them all.” So avers Paula McLain in The Paris Wife if Ernest Hemingway’s romantic volatility is the measure. Perhaps this is because men appear less inclined or susceptible to such sentimentally. “People think of Paris as the city of love or the city of light, but where you got love you got hate, where you got light you got darkness,” opines French film director Mathieu Kassovitz. Nor does there seem much constancy in Michael Simkins’ remark that “Paris is a place in which we can forget ourselves, reinvent, expunge the dead weight of our past.” (Detour de France: An Englishman in Search of a Continental Education). What would Proust have to say about that?

© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.27.2013)