(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.)
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