September 25, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingRemembrances

Is Paris Still Paris?

“In a beautiful turn of phrase, Hugo von Hofmannsthal called [this city] ‘a landscape built of pure life.’ And at work in the attraction it exercises on people is the kind of beauty that is proper to great landscapes–more precisely, to volcanic landscapes. Paris is a counterpart in the social order to what Vesuvius is in the geographic order: a menacing, hazardous massif, an ever-active hotbed of revolution. But just as the slopes of Vesuvius, thanks to the layers of lava that cover them, have been transformed into paradisal orchards, so the lava of revolutions provides uniquely fertile ground for the blossoming of art, festivity, fashion.”                                                                                                                    -Walter Benjamin, “Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris,” The Arcades Project

I want to take a group of students to Paris, but I wonder, is Paris still Paris? Is it more than simply a photograph of itself, matted, framed, and sold to tourists? I admit that I’ve been fascinated with the city for a long time. My father, who paints and draws and filled our bookshelves with coffee table books on Impressionism and Cezanne and Archibald Motley and Jack Kirby, introduced me to the enchantments of fin-de-siécle Paris. A degree in English acquainted me with the 1920s, from Gertude Stein’s international circle to the American New Negroes who sojourned there, took classes at the Sorbonne, penned memoirs and novels we still learn from. When I discovered James Baldwin (and yes, it is a special kind of crime that one can have a degree in English literature without having been assigned a single piece by Baldwin), I went on to explore his milieu, reading books like James Campbell’s Exiled in Paris, Barry Miles’ The Beat Hotel, and for the broader view of world events in that period, Mark Kurlansky’s excellent 1968. I would want students to explore what it was about this place that attracted all the artists and writers that it did, what it gave them as far as a way of life and a perspective on their lives in America, and think about whether or not it still has something to offer. More specifically, I’m interested in the long arc of black American creativity that flowered in Paris, from the Harlem Renaissance through James Baldwin and Richard Wright and Beauford Delaney and Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman and even the arrival of American hip hop acts like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions in the 1980s. But does this tradition continue today?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguably the closest thing this generation has to a writer like Baldwin in terms of writing about the meanings of American identity (I agree with Coates that his writing is not, first and foremost, about race and racism), has headed to Paris to live for a year with his family. He already completed a fellowship there, and it will be interesting to see whether a year turns into a longer stay, and what being in the city brings forth from him. Saul Williams seems to have found a valuable distance from America through his recent expat experience. Early in his 4-year stint in the city of light, an interviewer asked him if he viewed his stay there in the longer tradition of black writers and musicians like James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Richard Wright. He said that he didn’t, that he ended up in Paris by accident, when a friend suggested that Williams, who was planning to leave LA, take over his rooftop apartment in Paris. Williams then moved there with his teenage daughter. One thing he learned from the city is the lived experience of privilege that come with being an American abroad, even a black American, and especially a black American in Paris. He watched one friend after another contort their face into a question mark when he told them that the Arabs in Paris felt the boot of racism most painfully, that they could have some insight into white privilege but being attentive to how people treated them after they realized they were American. Baldwin hinted at this strange sort of privilege when explaining his decision to return to the states during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, which he often referred to as the Second Slave Revolt. In “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” he writes:

“The crucial day may be the day on which an Algerian taxi-driver tells him how it feels to be an Algerian in Paris. It may be the day on which he passes a café terrace and catches a glimpse of the tense, intelligent, and troubled face of Albert Camus. Or it may be the day on which someone asks him to explain Little Rock and he begins to feel that it would be simpler—and, corny as the words may sound, more honorable—to go to Little Rock than sit in Europe, on an American passport, trying to explain it.”

This is not to say that Paris has not changed from Baldwin to Williams. For one, it is more expensive, and downright prohibitive compared to that storied Paris of the Roaring Twenties that attracted Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Lost Generation, with its public baths, bad plumbing and cold water flats. Back in 2008, novelist Dinaw Mengestu wrote that Paris was missing the “vibrant American cultural life” that it once had. He said that the French publishers, editors, and writers are still there in the legendary cafés, but the Americans aren’t. This might have something to do with the expense of discussing ideas in such a setting, as Mengestu points out: “If Baldwin and Wright were to sit down today to two cups of coffee on the terrace of Les Deux Magots to argue about an essay, their bill, without tip, would be almost $15.” But for him, the absence of a solid expatriate community isn’t lamentable. On the contrary, he enjoys the relative quiet of Paris, where he doesn’t have to define himself as a part, or against, an expatriate community, where he is “free to wander and sit in complete anonymity with only our own thoughts for comfort in a way that would have been impossible 20 or 40 years earlier.”

Where is this generation’s Paris? Mengestu mentions Buenos Aires, a city that was still cheap enough to be attractive to creative types (a good friend of mine who is a painter spent some time there a while back). The food is good, the culture vibrant, the pace laid-back, the architecture reminiscent of Europe—all the proper features of an expatriate mecca. I know musicians, anthropologists, and other types who swear by Mexico City as the place to live, eat, write, and create. Some are looking to depressed economies in Europe, such as Portugal, to buy small properties in beautiful locales and fix them up, make some money when the market rebounds. Stateside, I see songwriters and producers moving from LA and New York to Nashville, seeking cheaper rents and a lower overall population density of hacks and posers. The creatives I know who are staying in New York are plugged into consistent Broadway gigs, or some other stable income. The cost of living in the city is reaching a whole new level of staggering. In a conversation with Jonathan Lethem back in 2010, Patti Smith described in no uncertain terms: “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.”

Perhaps it is difficult to identify this generation’s Paris because we only know when a city has had a legendary art and music and literary scene after the fact. Perhaps the idea of place has changed in such a way—for it has certainly changed—that the distinction between here and there doesn’t hold the way it once did. Perhaps, then, our world is more like the geographically fluid settings of Don DeLillo’s 1966 short story “Coming Sun. Mon. Tues.” where the boy and the girl walk in the park as the sun goes down “behind the Dakota Apartments or the London Hilton” and he “chain-smokes and drinks a lot of wine. It is Greenwich Village or the West Side. It is either of those or it is Soho or it is Montmartre.”

I first visited Paris in 2003, for a week. With little money, my fellow traveller and I spent a lot of time walking around the city, visiting museums on discount days, reading, talking, meeting people in parks and sitting by the river. I returned the following year and my dad came to visit me there, so I had the privilege of showing him the paintings in the Louvre that he had shown me for the first time in those heavy Taschen books so many years ago. My cousin, who was more of a brother to me, was there too, and the next year I was back again, to spread his ashes in the Seine, but that is another story. With all that is still happening in Paris—the art, the books, the mass shootings, the migrations, the protests, the fashion—there is so much life in that city, so many stories, still, so much that that city can teach, though the lesson might be different than the ones it taught us in the 80s or the 60s or the 20s. In the end, if I take students to Paris, I hope we can still find that critical and creative distance from our own lives, occupy that space where the familiar is rendered strange, the strange beautiful, that space where the best artists have lived when they were at their best, where there is so much beauty it is unbearable, where no thing is inanimate.