A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Morose tonight—partly because of the events of the day in the north of the city, partly because I’ve had some bad family news, partly because I’ve had too much wine—and in avoidance, perhaps, of writing this. My wife and I had the iPod on at dinner, Brahms’ German Requieum came on—no help, though its beauty stops all talk between us—then, almost in random perversity, Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny’s exquisite “Message to a Friend,” which put me into a tailspin.
A friend wrote earlier in the day asking that I send another Paris update. My instincts resisted: first, because writing again about what Paris is experiencing has begun to feel self-serving, capitalizing on the fact that we’re here, sharing events secondarily (as everyone not among the murdered/injured/their families/involved as responders are secondary), and there begins to be an inauthentic tinge to the process, a kind of literary capitalism that ultimately disrespects the magnitude of the tragedy. And I resisted also because I’ve been told of internet posts reflecting what some are calling “grief shaming”—the condemnation of those grieving Friday’s (and today’s) horrific events as tacitly insensitive to the coincident attack in Beirut, the U.S. role in the unraveling of the Middle East, the daily slaughter on the streets of every American city—even the Oklahoma City bombing twenty years ago—the list unending. This kind of reductionism angers me, brings up internal invectives against this new, binary way of thinking: zero/one, on/off, if this/not that, as if our brains, screen-seared & less complex, cannot hold a number of griefs simultaneously, consider each, abhor the causes of each.
But then, under wine and having spent the day in Paris and now finishing dinner with Ger, this Charlie Haden “Message to a Friend,” became itself a message: just write it and send it, these words representing nothing more than this: a message to a friend.
So in the morning I did laundry. The socks weren’t quite dry! I put them away anyway! Voilá! Instant mundanity. Ger and I then headed out to an early lunch, and in a sense the Paris day began there, beginning with a very good joke. As we came to a corner on rue Lepic some local imbecile hadn’t scooped up his little Fifi’s formidable hillock of dog shit, and a good citizen had put a sheet of paper over it to save yet another citizen from stepping in it. The sheet of paper? A color photograph of the now-infamous Dominique Strauss-Kahn, his DSK initials emblazoned below his smiling telegenic face. Oh, terrific, drole, too too great.
There’s a little restaurant we’ve frequented for years: three-course meal, good French cooking, great price. Business people go there with their lunch coupons (this is France), and we’ve learned that if we don’t get a seat by 12:30 we’re out of luck. There’s no paper menu: the day’s choices listed on the delicately-calligraphed ardoise (chalkboard), and when an item sells out, a waiter heads toward its script, annihilates it with his sleeve. The bill’s figured out on the paper tablecloth, never challenged, never wrong, and the place empties in an hour-and-a-half.
Today, although we headed over in time, one of the waitresses stood in front idle: few customers yet. What was going on? We were welcomed, seated. But the place, almost empty.
We’d heard earlier about a post-massacre police raid out in Saint-Denis, had heard sirens down Boulevard de Clichy at 4:30 a.m., and now learned via the restaurant’s television that a woman suicide bomber had blown herself up—une femme kamikaze, they called her—that another person had been killed, a police dog killed, eight people arrested. This was big, and explained the restaurant’s emptiness: people were still in their offices, at their computers, watching events unfold. And sure enough, when the T.V. news became repetitive, in came the workers, the restaurant filled, and all was as normal.
As normal, though, is the way it’s been today. A tourist wouldn’t notice much difference: Paris still Paris, its buildings splendid as ever, actual French people on the streets, traffic, etc., horns honking, as normal.
After lunch we headed home. On the walk home, high school kids on lunch break from Lycée Jules Ferry down the street, lounging on the concrete ledge below the wrought-iron fence in Square Berlioz, one girl writing in her notebook with her left hand, eating Chinese food from a plastic tub with her right. Late homework, admirable dexterity. We passed a children’s art atelier, noticed that one of kids had made a peace sign, the kind of which we’d been seeing around town: the Eiffel Tower as the symbol’s central structure. One of the girls from Jules Ferry zipped past us: clean white skateboard, matching clean white jeans. No lack of joy in these kids! Up rue Lepic a few hundred yards, someone had put out on the street what seemed to be the last leavings of an apartment, and a few people gathered around: one man taking away a framed charcoal of a reclining female nude, her curves too exaggerated (this is Montmartre, after all), while a woman friend of his seemed more interested in the unopened packs of Bretonne cookies.
I’d been wanting to visit the ongoing memorial at Place de la République; we’d consciously stayed away since Friday night’s brutality. Ger decided she’d stay back, still overwhelmed by events, not keen on taking the metro. So I took the metro down, the metro, as normal, a saxaphonist playing in one of the tunnels, the usual litter—more police presence, though, their rifles at the ready, fewer Roma musicians (I haven’t seen a single Roma busker since Friday: they must know this is the time to lie low—police patience even more diminished; things would go badly for them.) On the subway cars,
fewer people than usual looking at phone screens, more looking around, noticing, no hysteria, more a kind of renewed attention. Not much laughter, few loud conversations.
As I arrived into the wide Place de la République I figured I’d find a diminishing memorial: after all, the massacre was five days ago, and surely whatever flowers were there would be wilting, the ad-hoc citizens’ memorial soon to be cleaned up. How ignorant of me.
For those who haven’t been in the area for a while, the Place was expanded during Paris’s mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s administration, paved with stones, made more accessible to pedestrians and crowds. It’s huge: 3.4 hectares (about eight acres) its central feature a massive circular monument at the top of which is a bronze of glorious Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, her olive branch held high; below her, statues representing France’s essential Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, powerful in the days after January’s horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks, doubly powerful today. Bronze bas-relief plaques, heroic figures, encircle the lower part of the monument at about ten feet high. Even before Friday’s attacks the monument was graffitied with words of solidarity, encircled with hundreds of candles, bouquets of flowers.
What I came into knocked me back. Around the edges of the place international media outlets had set up their white canopies—not obnoxious or intrusive, as might occur in the States, but rather low-key, interviews taking place under those canopies. Much media there, of course, but no “media circus” by any means.
And the monument. When I went home the only way I could describe it to my wife was as something akin to the emptying out of five hundred hundred florists’ shops: bouquets of all sizes and expense encircling Marianne, stretching maybe twenty feet from the monument in the full circle, a madness of color, a confusion of clear plastic bouquet-wrappers and ribbons amid thousands of candles, some lit, some gone out days ago, many being re-lit by new arrivals.
The mood somber, of course. Some muted crying. No “Fucking terrorists!” being shouted, no shouting at all—a funereal evenness across faces of every possible color, every age: kids with their parents, elder mothers and fathers with their adult children. The monument re-graffited with “We will not be afraid” sentiments, the bas-reliefs all around stuck with many bouquets, much of the bronze itself was occluded in sprays of color. They seemed almost celebratory, unquestionably defiant.
Amid the tumult of flowers, candles dead and alive, a single white rose in a carafe of red wine.
I’ve lived my life believing in the importance of words—sometimes to my detriment. Perhaps because of that I couldn’t help but move closer and try to read some of the hundreds of notes, affiches, testimonies-under-photographs, letters in upside-down black umbrellas, torn notebook papers. What moved me deeply is the fact that of the thousands of notes I saw yesterday, only a very few of them had been typed on a computer, printed out—as if such artificiality would reflect yet another larceny of humanistic endeavor. Some sheets of paper sent anger: quick screeds in French against religion: “Will the religions responsible for ongoing danger in our world be held civilly liable for damages?” “Idiots!” “In the name of WHAT?” And the bilingual “Fuck you, assholes: no pasaran!”
And pictures: a beautiful young woman: “à Elodie, une cousine éxceptionelle. pray for Paris.” An Arab man, “Il aimait la France, mort sous les balles des terroristes.” (He loved France, dead under terrorists’ bullets.) At times, looking at these many pictures, it was hard to breathe. (I wasn’t alone in that.)
Paris is a place that believes in the importance of words, too, and some of Republique’s testimonies quoted poets. Some lines by René Char were off in the distance next to the base of the monument, and, closer, I bent to pick up an expensive card carefully scripted in blue ink—that inimitable French penmanship of which this left-handed scratcher is so envious. The card? All of Baudelaire’s “À une passante”:
À une passante
La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;
Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.
Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?
Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!
To a Passer-by
(translation by William Aggeler)
The street about me roared with a deafening sound.
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;
Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate,
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.
A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?
Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!
As you know, many of the murders in Friday night’s massacre were drive-by’s: cars passing cafés, Kalashnikovs from their windows. This in mind, what an astonishing choice of poems. I held the card, turned it over in my hand, trying to imagine the person who must have written it: he or she who also could have been sitting at a café terrace, wrong place wrong time… je suis on terrace: one of the slogans appearing around town.
Reverie interrupted: two men in their seventies arguing heatedly at the side of the plaza, a small crowd gathered around them. I went over. The gist of the argument, as well as I could tell: Man One: if peace had been made in Israel, none of this would be happening. Man Two: Israel has nothing to do with it. These people are nuts, and we’re quite right to be bombing the hell out of them. Man One: Bomb whom? Bomb where? It’s indiscriminate. This is not France. Do you remember Voltaire? Rousseau? What was the Enlightenment about? This? We become like them in these bombings. Man Two: Then what idea do you have? Tell me your idea! What do we do?
This went on. Voices raised, but here, in this city where débat is a tradition of hundreds of years, each man prefaced his argument with Mais, Monseiur—But Sir, and though the volume was high, their faces were not shot with the blood of anger: this, a civil discussion of complex issues, each listening, each responding.
So much to take in: a man holding a sign saying he’s a naturalized French citizen, that he’s fier d’être Francais—proud to be French, and woman comes over to interview him not for media but for herself, and he speaks to her about repression in Indonesia, about how Sartre opened his eyes…
I left the place in deep respect and sadness, still hearing the Buddhist monk beating his quiet drum at heartbeat rate, and remembering one of the newspapers my dear friend Barney, an editor for the International Herald-Tribune for many years, saved for me after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January. Its headline: Site of Horror Now Shrines: Scenes of Paris Attacks Draw Dignitaries and Citizens, Sharing Grief. And here it is again, ten months later.
And here it is again at the Bataclan Theater, to which I walked next in a pilgrimage I first thought macabre and later came to see was just about the best way this agnostic could pray. I’ve lost track of how many died here: the massacre’s total today stands at 129, more certainly to die of their injuries. Most deaths happened here at the Bataclan; “An inferno,” is how one survivor described it: 89 is a number I’ve heard, but it’s one and one and one until the end, isn’t it?
The ground floor of the theater itself virtually hidden behind white police buses, white plastic sheeting, metal police barriers.,. a big banner on the second floor proclaiming La Liberté est un Monument Indestructible just beside the sign in black letters proclaiming Friday’s concert: Nous Productions Present: Eagles of Death Metal…
And across from the Bataclan, fellow pilgrims, Parisian and otherwise. A half-acre of flowers, signs (Je suis le 11eme: j’aime: le musique, le sport, la biére, et j’emmer d’ les terroristes), the first words meaning they’re from this district, the last words meaing Fuck the terrorists. And again, pictures: a guitarist. An engineer. A mother. All dead.
A van pulled up at the Batalcan site, and a group of people got out. A dozen, maybe, dressed similarly: dark clothes, the women in long gowns and veils, the men in suits. I went over to a man and asked who they were. Iranian French, he told me, in horror over the events of Friday. He handed me a flyer: a statement by Maryam Rajavi, an Iranian leader in Paris whose sister was killed by the Shah’s secret police. I won’t translate her statement fully, but here’s the gist of it: in the name of the people’s resistance in Iran, we Muslims condemn Friday’s attacks. We’ve lived under atrocities like this, we know what it’s like, we’ve endured thousands of political executions, and we abhor these attacks: they do not represent Islam. They came to pass out these flyers, lay flowers as near to the site as people were allowed.
And again, there at the Bataclan, new flowers being brought, new candles lit, extinguished candles relit.
It continued: at La Belle Equipe, a simple corner café´where victims were unlucky enough to be having a drink Friday night. A corner place, drive-by, now a shrine: the flowers and testimonials of the sort I’d seen earlier, but a new element here: the bicycles of those who had ridden to the café still chained to the streetside grille, flowered now, the keys to their locks not to be recovered.
This is what’s happening in Paris today, friend, in the view of one writer, thinking about what surface means, and how many float just below it. But they float.
Paris’s motto has been appearing many places these days: Fluctuat nec mergitur: She’s tossed by the waves, but does not sink.
Copyright 2015 Gerald Fleming.