Cross-Country / A Memoir of France, 5: L’amour en fuite et la morte en suite

 

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2011,   2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

With Taglioni and Truffaut, Gainsbourg and Poe in the land of the living dead

The five films of Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle begin in 1959 with the troubled pre-teenager of “The 400 Blows” and end two decades later with the 30-something Antoine (in all the films, Jean-Pierre Leaud) finally finding his true love Sabine (Dorothée) in “Love on the Run” (“L’Amour en Fuite”), his former amours come to the rescue to make sure his ‘histoire’ with Sabine isn’t derailed by his tendancy to run away from true love, no doubt a result of his complex relationship with his mother. Close watchers of the cycle will note that the Montmartre Cemetery figures in three of the five films.  In “The 400 Blows” — which begins with a panoramic black-and-white tour of the rooftops of Paris terminating in the pre-BoBo (Bourgeoisie Bohemian), pre-Amelie Poulenc cramped working-class Montmartre flat where Antoine lives with his ma and step-pa and spends his evenings before a home-made shrine to Balzac which almost burns the house down — Antoine and a pal, hoisting a typewriter stolen from Antoine’s step-dad’s office, traverse the bridge over the cemetery leading from the lower Montmartre of the Moulin Rouge and Theo Van Gogh’s flat on the rue Lepic (up the street from Amelie’s café) to ‘the Butte,’ the top of the quartier where lived and worked Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Steinlin, and Suzanne Valadon with her son Maurice Utrillo and lover Felix Utter. (Amelie “lived” somewhere in middle-Montmartre, on the Street of the Three Brothers.) From the bridge you can see the graves of Sacha Guitry and family, France’s Barrymores, Guitry’s reputation albeit tarnished by his just getting-along with the German occupiers. In the third film, “Stolen Kisses,” the cemetery pops up at the funeral for a colleague at the detective agency where Antoine has found work, one of a series of professions he runs through as he struggles to make his way, a job which includes an assignment as an undercover shoe salesman that ends under covers with an elegant Delphine Seyrig. And in the fifth and final flick, “Love on the Run,” a former lover of his mother, first seen in “The 400 Blows” (in which Antoine discovers she is cheating on his step-father by spotting the pair embracing on the street… while he’s playing hooky) accidentally encounters Antoine in the cellar of a publishing house where he’s proofreading the heretofore secret and previously unpublished account of DeGaulle’s eight lost days during the 1968 student and worker rebellion. (Indeed, it’s not just the one cemetery but, more broadly, the subterranean which features largely in all five films; in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses” – which completely ignores the 1968 rebellion, Antoine having more important pursuits —  we follow a love letter sent to Antoine by one of his lovers, Seyrig I think, as the canister (or ‘pneumatic’) containing it traverses Paris’s underground mail route.) On discovering that Antoine has never visited his mother’s grave because he doesn’t know where she’s buried (he was in the army pokey, as we witnessed in the opening of “Stolen Kisses,” when she died), his mother’s former lover takes him to the cemetery, revealing that she is buried next to the real-life tomb of the real-life model for Camille.

It’s natural, then, considering how heavily the setting figured in the Antoine films, that Truffaut himself is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery under a simple dark flat marble gravestone bearing his name…. as well as notes left for Truffaut by visitors around the world, many of them asking his counsel, often in love. I came across the tomb my second day in Paris, when I’d rushed from Sabine’s on the rue Lamartine up the rue des Martyrs (half-way up, you can see the dome of Sacre Coeur) and along the Boulevard Rochechouart – Clichy, past the Moulin Rouge to the cemetery. (I eventually left my own note, and was contacted by a documentarian, Emmanuelle Pretot, contemplating a film on the visitors to the tomb of Truffaut.) I was there look for the tomb of Vaslav Nijinsky; I discovered that of Marie Taglioni, the first dancer to use pointe artistically, in 1832. Never mind that Taglioni made Nijinsky possible; where his gravestone (constructed with the aide of Serge Lifar, another just-get-alonger) was spic and span and resplendent with flowers, hers, some steps behind his and off the path (behind every good man there’s an even gooder woman), was in disrepair, the only sign of the stature of its occupant a cracked plaque reading “MARIE TAGLIONI – A sa mere bien-aimee” (to his/her beloved mother), the assumption being that a child of Taglioni had put it there. The only indication of who she was was a pair of ‘dead’ pointe shoes (as a dancer would put it) nestled in the tacky wreath of ceramic flowers, infested by spiders and ants. At this point in my life I still believed in dance, and I immediately saw a rapport between the state of the grave of the woman who was essentially dance’s George Washington and the poor current state of dance’s respect in the world. If dancers wanted to improve the esteem in which the world held them and their art, I realized, they needed to improve the esteem with which they treated their own history; in contrast with Taglioni’s, the tomb of La Goulue – with Jane Avril one of the greatest can-can dancers of the Moulin Rouge — at the same cemetery was treated with fresh flowers every day, left by the Moulin Rouge, still a living institution in part because it valued its own past. I decided that my magazine, the Dance Insider, would launch a campaign calling for dancers around the world to send pointe shoes to be placed on Taglioni’s grave, the idea being that eventually the pile would rise so high that visitors to Nijinsky’s grave would spot them and want to investigate. It was a quest into history that would culminate three years later in a bicentennial conference and performance for Taglioni co-hosted by the Italian Institute of Paris in the one-time ballroom of Madame De Stahl, the legendary adversary of Napoleon, and the dramatic declaration by Taglioni expert Pierre Lacotte (who as a younger dancer had helped Nureyev escape from the KGB at Orly 40 years earlier), upon seeing our projection of the Montmartre grave, “That’s not Taglioni, it’s her mother. Taglioni is buried in Pere Lachaise,” the cemetery whose ‘residents’ include Jim Morrison, Pissarro, and Heloise and Abelard. The ‘mere bien aimee’ was thus Taglioni’s mom. The dancer, meanwhile, was buried in the tomb of Gilbert de Voisins, a member of Napoleon II’s inner circle who, according to a dispatch filed by one Edgar Allen Poe that I unearthed (sorry), Taglioni had divorced after he refused to admit her to the domicile conjugale because she refused to stop dancing. (Taglioni’s bones had been moved there by a grandson from Marseille 50  years after her death.)

My expeditions that first year in the land of the undead dead took me not just to the Cemetery Montmartre and to Pere Lachaise, and the tiny tomb of Sarah Bernhardt and the colombarium of Isadora Duncan, but also to the cemetery Montparnasse, an easy walk from my second Paris habitation, a 1960s, Godard-era high-rise next-door to the Pasteur Institute where the AIDS virus was discovered, with a stunning up-close view of the Eiffel Tower. (As a reporter covering San Francisco for Reuters and others in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I’d written many of the first international stories on the AIDS pandemic.)  There at the Montparnesse Cemetery, standing before the tomb of the Dreyfus family (not far from the unmapped grave of Petain’s prime minister Pierre Laval), I marveled, reading the names and dates of demise on the tombstone, that just seven years after Captain Alfred Dreyfus died in 1935, his niece Julia perished after being deported from France during WWII. Before the tomb of Serge Gainsbourg (who had miraculously survived the Occupation, as a teenager living in Paris and Limoges), I marveled at the idiocy of visitors littering it with Metro tickets, as if they had no other more fitting tributes to leave. This was in 2001, when my French was spare, so while I knew by heart the sound of Gainsbourg’s “Le poinconneur des Lilas,” I had no idea that it was the first-person account of a subway ticket-puncher (the “poinconneur,” in this case at the Metro station in the Paris suburb of les Lilas) who, driven mad by the monotony of his task — “Le trou, le trou, le petite trou,” he complains of the little hole he punches in the tickets all day long — talks of getting a gun and blowing a ‘trou’ in himself, before burying himself in a ‘trou’ in the ground. The song was banned from French radio after its release in 1958. Some 50 years later, the city of Paris renamed the park outside the Metro station after Gainsbourg. It was not the first time official Paris would lionize an enfant terrible who had scandalized it, after the honoree was six feet under and unable to protest. In July 1766, the 19-year-old Jean-Francois de la Barre, who had refused to remove his hat before a passing parade of religious nobles and compounded the crime by singing impudent ditties, had his hands and tongue cut off before being burned at the stake. The French later erected a statue to the memory of the Chevalier de la Barre, which now stands in the shadow of Sacre Coeur — that ultimate symbol of imperiousness, itself built by the forced labor of members of the 1871 Paris Commune for daring to oppose the Versailles government’s surrender to the Prussians — an impudent grin on the chevalier’s visage, in its own narrow park overlooking Montmartre and the city of Paris, including a grand view of the Eiffel Tower. It’s an ideal promontory from which to watch the July 14 fireworks, and celebrate the bundle of contradictions that is France, a country forever reconciling itself with the catacombs of its past.

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Cross-Country, a Memoir of France: Chapitre 4, The Return of the Girl in the Green Dress

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                          Copyright 2011, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

The Return of the Girl in the Green Dress: Wise Love, raté

If I wasn’t already set on moving to France, seeing the five films of Truffaut’s 20-year Antoine Doinel cycle (beginning with “The 400 Blows”) all in one weekend at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology FIlm Archives in New York in 2000 made me determined that I, too, would find the ‘femme de ma vie’ in Paris. So I was more encouraged than surprised that the girl in the lime-green two-strap dress who greeted me and my three cats, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey at 33 rue Lamartine — one-time demeure of Baudelaire, which I’d be subletting while the girl was off to produce in the Off festival at Avignon — on July 2, 2001 had the same name as the heroine of “L’amour en fuite” (Love on the Run), the last chapter of the cycle, in which grown-up but not yet mature Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) finally finds his true love: Sabine. The significance of this encounter in the scheme of my life is underlined by my still being able to remember that Sabine had just returned from the swimming pool, the chlorine highlighting her brown freckles under still damp auburn pony-tails (the sheen perhaps enhanced by the esteem of memory), that she served pizza royale and chicken salad for lunch, and that she seemed to have an infinite supply of Schweppes lemon soda and apricot nectar to replenish my thirst as I made repeated trips up the six flights of stairs with cats, stereo components, and even a few garments. (French lesson number one: “Escalier” doesn’t mean “Escalator,” but “Staircase.” French lesson number two: “Fifth” floor means “Sixth.”)

Movies are cleaner than life, though (with the casting sometimes adding other layers; ‘my’ Sabine would later inform me that the the Sabine of my dreams, Truffaut’s, was played by the lady of a whole generation of French kids’ nightmares, Dorothée, remembered by them as the insipid host of a children’s show that dominated the after-school air-waves in the 1980s); our story, that of the Sabine played by Sabine, and I, would rarely be simple over the next decade. Sometimes I think I never loved anyone as much as I loved Sabine. More than that, I loved who I was with her — not the moments, too frequent, in which I had to depend on her, including for advice with more fleeting (and flighty) love interests, which must have made her feel less like a woman and more like a mother — but the moments in which we would easily plunge into a comic interplay, often each playing characters, for Sabine was a clown by profession and I was one by vocation, albeit of the tragic-comic variety.

How much did the culture clash play a role in our tumultuously shifting relationship? Sabine would later recount in company (it was news to me) what an impression I made when I arrived with my three cats: oxblood-red Doc Martens, green denim Carhart shorts, sleeveless plaid button-down shirt from Canal Jeans, red paisley bandana, Indian Jones fedora. But there was also my invisible wardrobe, the chips I carried on my shoulder, the heavy anchor of the past weighing down my Doc Martens, the psycho-history of an (oldest) child of divorce shuttled from dad’s to mom’s house every three days beginning at the formative age of 12 and had the impression that he had no right to protest, which would weigh down our relationship. Once early on, in the midst of a heated argument over whether Judaism was a religion (her point of view) or a culture/race (mine), I took advantage of Sabine’s momentary absence from the car (she’d gone into a party supply store to fetch props for a children’s birthday party her clown-self was hosting for her company Fete un Voeu) to flee into the vast urban generic boulevards of the 19eme arrondissement, my ultimately destructive manner of ending and ‘winning’ an argument. (Later I would come to understand that the French way of atoning for what the country had done to its Jews — registering them as Jews based not on their religion but their parentage, making it easier for 74,000 Jews including 11,000 children to be deported to the death camps — was to henceforth teach their children that Judaism was just a religion,  and not a race.) We didn’t speak for at least two years. It would not be my first over-reaction, and it would not be the first time Sabine forgave me, for, above and beyond all women except one that I have ever known, Sabine fulfilled Yeats’s definition of ‘wise love’:

“In wise love each devines the secret self of the other, and refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror in which the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life, for love also creates the Mask.”

There were never any masks between Sabine and I, although there were at times ‘guises’ to overcome, such as mother and child, right up to the moment when I would call her nine years later from a police station at the Gare du Nord — a problem of papers, penultimately resolved in my favor — and ask if she would put me up for the night in her apartment in Montreuil. She put me up that evening, as she had put up with me for the previous 3,705 days – Sabine, a saint of the quotidian.

ascenseurpourlechafaudsm

As part of the festival Gaumont: Cinema pour tout le monde, opening July 26 and running through September 7, New York’s Museum of Modern Art will be presenting, among other films, Louis Malle’s 1958  “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud.”  Copyright 1958 Nouvelles Editions de Films NEF. Collection Musée Gaumont Courtesy MoMA.

La 85eme Victime ou, comment faire avec cet mal?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

— Franklin Roosevelt

SAINT-PIC-LE-LOUPE (Dordogne), France — What I remember with the most delectation from my first visit to Paris took place in the dark, at the Grand Action cinema in the Latin Quarter, which was showing Fritz Lang’s “While the City Sleeps,” retitled in French “The Fifth Victim.” (If French is the more poetic of the two languages, whoever is in charge of translating movie titles is wanting in this department, although it’s no better going the other direction; American distributors reduced “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain” to “Amelie,” denuding the title of this cinematic proverb of its moral.) Returning to Paris the following summer, I luxuriated in walking from my flat at 33 rue Lamartine (where Baudelaire once lived) in the 9th arrondissement, along the rue La Fayette (“I am here!”), then the Boulevard Jean Jaures to the parc La Villette for the annual outdoor cinema festival. Never mind that Emmanuel Beart’s voice was sometimes a minute ahead of her lips, that it was vain to try to “Shshsh!” people come for the picnic as well as the film, the annoying wafts of cigarette smoke or that, because the film never started before a sundown sometimes falling as late as 10:30, staying until the end meant making the last Metro problematic; I was happy to stroll home, past the corner “Turkish” joints with schwarma grilling on spits, the glass facade of the Gare du Nord, a trompe d’oeil graffiti taking up an entire wall, and over the train tracks…. The Cinema in Pleine Air, as it’s called, presenting each year a different theme, seemed the quintessential Parisian summer event, combining pot-luck ensemble dining and cinema, all this under an azure summer sky. And for free — the perfect manifestation of the Socialist thinking — towards the well-being of the collective — so often vilified in the United States, at least pre-Bernie Sanders. Even delicately stepping around bottles of Bordeaux, quiches in aluminum pans, baguettes, cheese, and tomato salads arranged on blankets so close they seemed to compose a giant patchwork quilt was just another opportunity to demonstrate one’s proficiency at the art of politesse.

This afternoon, as the Senate prepared to approve (after an assembly vote okayed it by a vote of 489 to  26 ) a 6-month extension of the State of Emergency in place since November 13 (President Francois Hollande having re-considered his inclination to end it after the Nice massacre), the Paris prefecture announced the cancellation of the rest of this summer’s Cinema en Plein Air, which opened July 13 and was supposed to continue through late August. Before a change in travel plans, I was all set last week to see the triple-header (over three nights) of “Rushmore,” “Miami Vice,” and “Jour de Fete,” this year’s theme being something like All Dressed Up with Everywhere to go.

“Rushmore” is just about the most romantic movie this side of “Splash,” with Wes Anderson’s boarding school hero mounting an elaborate battle on a high school stage, complete with real miniature helicopters and genuine fire-fights, to win the heart of his would-be sweetheart.

“Miami Vice,” Michael Mann’s film extension of his glam ’80s television series, proffers the simple solutions to crime-solving that seem to elude us when it comes to these murderous gangs which masquerade as religious crusades.

“Jour de Fete” is Jacques Tati’s ode to a rural France (in which I spend my time when I’m not in Paris) which, I hope, can still be saved, the last of my illusions in this our year when living became dangerous being that maybe we’re too small for them to notice us.

In rural France, we tend to ‘faire avec notre mal.’ My morning today started with the sound of withered terra cotta roof tiles being tossed on the pavement by the roofer who began working on the house two doors down Monday. I thought he was ribbing me when he said, “We’ll be starting at 6 a.m. every day,” but soon figured out that the hour makes sense given that we’re having Texas-like 100+ degree afternoons here in the Southwest of France, and not even my cat would want to sun on that hot terra cotta roof. So instead of agonizing, I (figuratively) hung a “Gone Fishin'” sign on my door and have been having my thermos coffee on a narrow Eiffel-era rusty iron bridge above the low-lying Dordogne every morning, exchanging the clacking tiles for the tweets of birds and occasional traffic, after checking and writing e-mail outside the tourism office to the cascades of a nearby fountain and the barking of farmers setting up their duck pate, salami, vegetable, and too many tchotchke stands. This particular morning also started with the welcome sound of Fabrice chatting from his attic window with the roofer (our house, in between the two, looks out over another neighbor’s garden where the pink roses are in their second bloom), before he returns to Bordeaux for more leukemia treatments; they are looking for a bone marrow donor. On Sunday, my neighbors Michel and Emilie and their 25-year-old son had me over for the first barbecue on their terrace of this late-breaking summer; the trellises of green table grapes were enough to protect us from the burgeoning Sun, as we savored rillette Charentaise, Toulouse sausages, marinated Texas-style (emphasis on ‘style’) chicken, turkey kebabs, ventriche, and sumptuous cheeses, washed down with parakeets (pastisse + mint syrup), cold Occitania (this being the new-old name for the four regions previously known as the Languedoc-Rousillon and Midi-Pyrenees) rosé, and chalky, earthy, rustic Pecharmant (the local red). Their son in law, who joined us later with his wife to arrose Michel and Emilie’s new car with deliciously fruity champagne accompanied by a home-made apple tart with a crust so buttery I told Emilie it could be mistaken for Brittany shortbread, said that it was inconsistent to have a State of Emergency which theoretically banned demonstrations (easy targets) but which in fact allowed most of the labor demonstrations which took place this Spring-Summer. Personally, I took courage from prime minister Manuel Valls’s passionate assembly defense last night against right-wing legislators who want to set up a French version of Guantanamo to lock up *potential* terrorists that (paraphrasing), “In France, we don’t lock people up based on suspicion. We know where that has lead us over the past century,” a reference to, among other episodes, the Dreyfus affair.

I think that the current government is doing its best under ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ circumstances. For the rest of us, on faire avec notre mal.

— Paul Ben-Itzak

degaslandscapesm

From the exhibition Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, running at the Museum of Modern Art through July 24: Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). “Landscape with Rocks (Paysage avec rochers),” 1892. Pastel over monotype in oil on wove paper. Sheet: 10 1/8 × 13 9/16″ (25.7 × 34.4 cm). High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund.

Recuperating & Recovering: Making sense of the senseless, fighting chaos with art

“Mon ame me dit qu’ici c’est trop hard-core.”
— Lola Lafon

“The opposite of death isn’t life; it’s CREATION.”                                                                                                 — Jonathan Larsen, “Vivre la vie Boheme,” from “RENT”

SAINT-PIC-LE-LOUPE (Dordogne), France — This morning on the radio a pundit pontificated that once you become numb to it, you’re no worse than the killers. While I wouldn’t go *quite* that far, I admit to being disturbed by my own numbness in recent days. To wondering if there wasn’t something wrong with me — beyond the need to implement the safety mechanism of ‘blocking,’ of trying not to let into my soul that for no reason — no reason — a madman ran a truck over and mowed down 84 living breathing people and made them dead, including 10 children, on a bucolic beach in the south of France.

I think it’s rather that as a cultural observer, I can’t just think about things in an isolated chamber. Once I *order* my sentiments, I need to share them with tout le monde. And where it concerns a tragedy in which I was not a direct victim or even witness (of course I realize that like all of us living in or visiting France, I was a target) — where I was not at least living in the city that was attacked, Nice — it seems presumptuous of me to try to represent someone else’s pain. To pretend to understand how they’re feeling. Here words aren’t just inadequate, they’re almost… inappropriate. Because for a pontificator — in cases like this anyway — words are an attempt to appropriate someone else’s experience. My children, my wife, my husband, my friend, my sister, my brother wasn’t run over by a refrigerator truck driven by a venomous madman at a moment when s/he least expected it — while on holiday promenading on a beach. How can I claim to *really* understand the feelings of those whose loved ones were? I can’t. In such circumstances, all the tragic language in the world seems like artifice.

What I can do (or what I need to do anyway) is offer some reflections on how other observers are attempting — for the most part with the best of intentions — to process the killings, the maimings, the blood, oh the blood!, mingled with sable, the unprovoked (see what I mean about language being insufficient?) violence of July 14, 2016, meted out on what is for me the most halcyon and peaceful setting possible (Normandy notwithstanding), a beach.

Most of all what I see (and hear — from the French media at least) is an attempt to construct order, to find a system of explanation for an act for which there is no, no explanation, no order, an act which even if deliberate is meant to instill chaos, an act of what I hope certain so-called experts will finally concede is and recognize as nihilism. (Several months back, a professor at my alma mater, Princeton, actually said that the killers and hoodlums of Da’esh aren’t nihilists, but optimists. Comme quoi academic rigor at Old Naussau just ain’t what it used to be.)

Many of us have noted that what makes this one hurt most is the 10 children among the 84 dead. A right-wing politician pointed out that those killed at Bataclan and on the cafe terraces were, also, mostly (though not exclusively) young. And a November 13 widower who wrote a piece called “You will not have my hate,” directed at the terrorists but also meant as an example and testament for his grieving son, said that there is not a pecking order of victims; all are lamentable…. But… it seems to me that what is particularly heart-wrenching about the senseless (and hateful) killing of children is the promise cut down before it can be fulfilled; the sapling stunted before it can sprout up into a tree. So yes, it seems that even though it’s true that all murders are horrible and inexcusable, and all human lives prescious, the gunning down of children is particularly heinous, unfathomable and unbearable.

Once the initial period of mourning opens up enough to allow space for reflection, I think that because recognizing the enemy is essential to defeating him, it may also be the moment to
craft a creative response to the chaos which, if it is not their long-term goal, is along with fear the means by which the terrorists hope to achieve it.

And what is the proper response to the perpetrators of chaos and fear?

Yes, of course, you do the best you can to physically protect yourself and your society from them. You prosecute them for their crimes. You treat and care for the victims, physical and psychological. (I also like the response of the parents of Noemie Gonzalez, the 23-year-old Californian gunned down November 13 on one of the terraces: You sue Facebook.) But because the perpetrators of chaos are also, in their sick, diabolic, and manipulative minds and tactics, presenting a system that pretends — pretends — to order the chaos in the other sick minds that carry out their will, you also offer, you also highlight, you also vaunt, you also celebrate, you also champion an alternative system to counteract chaos. Or systems.

For me, that system — that universe — is art.

Art orders chaos.

Art doesn’t go through words, which can be constricting, misleading, and open to misinterpretation, but through a visual, visceral, and, for certain (but I don’t think it’s required) artists, a metaphysical sensibility. Art appeals to, speaks with, and speaks to all the senses. Art provides a common weal, a common ground, a common thoroughfare. Art is not a polemic, an argument trying to convince you, it is pure sensation. It is pure feeling. It is the innocence of a child, informed by craft and maybe even an aesthetic.

It is pure.

–Paul Ben-Itzak

 

Paris-Nice

(Originally published November 16, 2015. On Thursday night, a lone terrorist in a refrigerator truck brandishing a pistol mowed down 84 men, women, and children of French, American, Russian, English, Ukranian, Tunisian, and other nationalities celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais above the beach in Nice. 200 more were injured, 25 of whom were fighting for their lives at presstime. The image that comes to mind is of a Paris-Nice Air France poster from the 1950s, with a streamlined jet soaring through an azure sky over a turquoise sea and halcyon beach, shadowed only by palm trees, an eternal siren beckoning millions around the world to come to the French Riviera and forget their worries. Don’t stop voyaging, ever.)

Ordinary Heros
The year when living became dangerous

“Don’t say a prayer for me now
Save it ’til the morning after.”
— Duran-Duran, reprised by Eagles of Death Metal, performing November 13 at Bataclan, Paris

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”
— Wendell Berry, “November 26, 1963”

PARIS — Imagine if, instead of the Twin Towers, Mohammed Attah and his gang (can we stop calling Da’esh the “Islamic State”? It’s like calling the Mafia “The Good Catholics Club”) had struck City Center and instantly killed 89 spectators and held 1400 others hostage, simultaneously mowing down diners at Veselka and four other cafes. This is what happened here Friday night, when the terrorists struck down 89 fans of an American rock band known for reprising a Duran-Duran hit and 40 others at restaurants and cafes in neighboring quarters here in the East of Paris. The massacres, as mayor Anne Hidalgo pointed out Saturday, were hardly random, “It’s the Paris of vivre ensemble (living together) which was attacked.” As it happened, I was in the area Thursday night, first at a group exhibition at the three-floor Bastille Design Center on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir whose highlight was a display that humanized the migrants by putting their visages on postage stamps (suggesting they could bypass the migratory ordeal by simply mailing themselves to Sanctuary); later returning from the Theatre de la Bastille after seeing Vincent Thomasset’s take on Julien Previeux’s “Lettres de Non-motivation,” which treats the unemployment crisis at the root of Europeans’ most legitimate fears of an influx of migrants in a humorous fashion, with a series of letters responding to job ads in which the correspondent explains why he will not be able to accept the job not yet offered to him. The last time I was at Bataclan was in 2003, covering a demonstration by striking freelance or intermittent artists, protesting proposed reductions in their unemployment compensation. Angry that the private nightclub had not joined other theaters in honoring the strike, they were there to cajole ticket-holders to go home and to good-naturedly try to get the featured pop singer to cancel, chanting, “Michel Jonasz, avec nous!” The theater management ultimately relented, but even if it hadn’t, the protestors would have simply continued their demonstration — without resorting to violence.

All this is how civilized, normal people respond to societal problems. And it’s just this, a society which has set up a civilized system for dealing with disagreements, processing conflicts, and accommodating difference, a society which represents not one person’s imposed will but a compromise arrived at through dialogue — vivre ensemble, en effet — which Da’esh, in its nihilism, is out to destroy. (A French artist friend commented that the problem is “We are brought up respecting life, and with a fear of dying; they don’t have that fear.” But I think it goes deeper than this: They also don’t see their victims as humans whose lives have any value. Another trait the French — and all civilized people — strive for is empathy.)

On a deeper level, what they want to infect the rest of us with by these massacres is a lack of faith, a sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness. Why go out, why see art, why have a drink with your friend on a cafe terrace, why take a stroll on the beach with your children — why do whatever profiting from life means for you — if you might get killed doing it, for no reason? Initially, I was afraid they’d succeeded with me; I felt numb. I couldn’t even confront that these murderers’ barbaries were no longer happening someplace else (I was not in Paris during the Charlie and kosher super-market killings), but around my neighborhood, on all the streets that are part of my daily routine; two of the cafes, Little Cambodia and the Carillon, are at the intersection of the rues Bichat and Alibert, which I pass by whenever I walk from Belleville to the Canal Saint-Martin. I’ve strolled along the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir for 15 years, going to antiques fairs or to the Theatre de la Bastille, but also because this street — where Simenon’s fictional Commissaire Maigret ‘lived’ — is part of the Paris myth for me. (Maigret, who was never just interested in finding the culpable, but in understanding his psychology — the reasons he killed, even though they were not reasonable — would be stymied by this particular case.) It’s at the boulevard Richard-Lenoir where the Canal goes underground, resurfacing at the Arsenal of the Bastille before connecting to the Seine. (Before these recent attacks, the closest I’d ever come in Paris to taking my life in my hands was walking across the narrow lock separating the two fleuves. Today it feels like my life is no longer my own.)

It’s this beauty which these Obscurantists (even that term today seems feeble, because it sounds like someone just turning out a light, and masks the carnage, the ‘body parts everywhere’ evoked by witnesses, which these devils wreaked) are after, and it’s this beauty which finally broke my numbness when, Sunday morning, I walked up to and through the parc Belleville. First it was, simply and literally, the light: The late morning brilliance of the Sun reflecting off the multi-colored autumnal leaves. Then when I reached the belvedere, which looks out on the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks of ‘les Lumieres’ like the Pompidou Museum of Modern Art as well as the Pantheon, where are enterred artists like Zola and Hugo who confronted societal problems not with swords but minds, as well as Marie Curie, who cured diseases and, most recently admitted, resistants to the Nazi Occupation. But more immediately, in the park which descends several city blocks of this neighborhood in which Chinese, Arab, African, and even some American and English immigrants live together along with artists and BoBos (bourgeoise Bohemians), you see the plaza beneath and descending from that, a rectangular fountain, terminating in a circle, now dry. Spotting a man leading about a dozen students in Tai Chi or Tai Kwon Do exercises and demonstrating combat ‘rules,’ I thought: No more rules. But then hearing and seeing children of all colors playing, laughing, and yelling, I finally lost it and started to cry. First, because of their blissful ignorance. A week ahead of November 21, I thought of Wendell Berry’s “November 26, 1963,” a tattered copy of the book of which, illustrated by Ben Shahn and given to me on my third birthday, I still retain, the words, “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now” even more prophetic now than they were after President Kennedy’s assassination. (Also prophetic was the inscription of the family friend who gave it to me: “For you, Paul, on your third birthday. Years from now you will read about this event. It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream or image of Man that some of our minds hold, that indeed Man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.”) And I cried because Paris, or the idea of Paris — beauty, art, ideas, and, yes, even the sometimes (verbally) violent, or vigorous confrontation of those ideas — this is what Paris represents not just to Parisians but the world. When one child announced to his father, “Au moins il y a du soleil,” “Well, at least it’s sunny,” I didn’t know whether to be re-assured or discouraged that this was all the boy had the right to expect.

Is this the world we’re leaving them?

These days, and like everywhere, Paris can also represent polemic and political recuperation. In 2003, marching here with Americans against the War against the U.S.-lead invasion of Iraq (one of whose consequences was the firing of the Bathe officers of Saddam’s army many of whom are now the cadres of Da’esh; I am really trying to avoid any polemics in this piece, but as an American writing in part for a French audience, I think it’s important to take some responsibility and own up that this is not just a “European” crisis), I was unnerved when, at one of the marches, a group from one of the unions muscled us out of the way so they could get to the front of the march, as I was by the various banners advertising political parties and other unions.

So it was that I was heartened on returning to the top of the parc Belleville Sunday evening to watch the Sun setting behind the Eiffel. When I first noticed the larger than usual crowd I thought it was another food distribution organized by an association that supports Balkan immigrants. But no, it was just ordinary Parisians, and — judging by the different languages — tourists gathering. Not an organized demonstration of solidarity, no signs, and no political recuperations. Just people like me who felt the need not to watch television replays and endless if well-meaning coverage, but just to be reminded of what we’re here for, of the things they can’t kill — and to search for this solidarity, this fellowship in Paris’s most cosmopolitan of neighborhoods. As I leaned against one of the railings looking out at the purple and gold deepening sky (“Look, there’s even green!” one boy said to his father) setting over the Eiffel, I heard and saw next to me an elegant young French man with a Johnny Depp van dyke, long hair, and top-hat speaking with a young blonde Dutch woman — in English. When he opened up his aluminum thermos and poured a couple of cups of something hot, I opened mine and, after filling my plastic cup with fresh mint tea, lifted it to them and proposed, “Tchin.” “Sante, Monsieur,” the man answered steadily. “We need it especially now.”

We also need artists. The government will strike back against these murderers, as they should. They will institute more protection measures, which should strike the proverbial balance between protecting our lives and the values which Da’esh is trying to kill. (I think President Francois Hollande gets this, announcing succinctly that it’s our freedom they’re after.) But we will also depend on artists to defy these Obscurantists, these worshippers at the shrine of death — and after the attack on a theater, for performers and audience defiance is what it is — and keep reminding us what we’re fighting for: culture, light, the right to debate, the prism they offer which is not always one-dimensional….

And we will depend on artists to help us remember to laugh, even at the problems society is faced with. In this context, Vincent Thomasset’s dramatization — and physicalization — of Julien Previeux’s book “Lettres de Non-motivation,” compiled of his responses to real job announcements in which he informs the employer why he will, unfortunately, be unable to take the position (not yet offered him), is an acid take on the bitter situation in which so many find themselves today, chiefly applying for jobs with employers who rarely bother to respond any more, or who reply with form letters. This last fact is born out immediately by the large proportion of prospective employers — their help wanted ads variously projected on a compact upstage screen or read out loud by the actors or pre-recorded — who reply to the often sarcastic ‘Lettres of non-engagement’ with notes saying, essentially, We regret but despite your high qualifications, we are unable to offer you the job.

If one of the challenges Thomasset, also a choreographer, set himself was that of theatricalizing a literary albeit humorous work, he mostly succeeded, largely thanks to the diverse talents of his five-person cast. In the most original response, Johann Cuny informs the company advertising for a high-tech position that he is writing them from the year 2065, where unemployment is at 78 percent, and where consequently a whole separate unemployment office has been created seeking jobs in the past, thanks to a time transporter, before concluding that as the machine is malfunctioning and the time transporter repair-man is stuck in 1962, he will be unable to accept the job. As he recites his more or less straight response, the multi-talented dynamo known as Michele Gurtner, standing next to him, makes clickety-clackety sounds accompanied by robotic arm movements, indicating that this is the way people talk in the future. Later, Gurtner only slightly shifts gears to reply to another ad as if she is an android made to please. This powerhouse performer then again alters her dramatic tempo to deliver an employer’s (real) formulaic response a la Sarah Bernhardt, by the end rendering the traditional French business closing “I assure you of my sentiments the most distinguished” as if it’s the culmination of a tragedy, breaking down in tears and collapsing over Cuny, who had earlier delivered the non-engagement letter she’s responding to.

The teaser comes with the cloying, husky-voiced Anne Steffans’s ebulliently danced response (mimicking a cheerleader routine) describing the letter she wrote about how perfect she is for the given position and how she’d love to take it — before announcing that when she woke up in the morning the letter had disappeared and “perhaps it will get to you under someone else’s signature,” a line taken up as a choral refrain by the rest of the cast (also including David Arribe) before “Lettres of Non-engagement” ends, as it must, with the stoic bearded Francis Lewyllie reciting the ultimate of non-engagement letters, as might Melville’s Bartleby (as inscribed in the minds of school-children here as in the U.S.), enumerating why he’d prefer not to do all the tasks required in the job.

Unfortunately, as of Friday, November 13, “Je prefere pas” — to go out to the theater, regal on the terrace of a cafe — has become a tempting option. “I prefer not” to be *engaged* — in the French sense of the word (which means ‘committed’), less.

“Lettres of Non-engagement,” co-produced by the Theatre de la Bastille, the Festival d’Automne, and several other presenters around France, continues through November 21 at the Theatre de la Bastille, in the Bastille neighborhood, where Parisians will, defiantly, continue laughing and arguing on the many cafe terraces — parce qu’il faut continue.

— Paul Ben-Itzak