The Chevalier de la Barre: The bull who broke free (updated 9h37 EST Thursday)

Break on through to the other side: A certain drawbridge in Arles.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

In case you don’t have the pleasure of waking up to or dining with the French public radio news, here’s what it’s typically sounded like for the past year:

“Covid covid covid vaccine vaccine vaccine Macron covid covid vaccine vaccine Islamism covid covid covid confinement confinement confinement vaccine vaccine climate covid covid incest vaccine vaccine.”

So invested are they in this constrained universe, that when the government announced last week (in very frank terms with absolutely no attempt at dissimulation) what sounded a lot like a quarantine of 16 of the country’s 100 departments or counties where you-know-what cases have been rising alarmingly the past two months (we had more than 65,000 new cases in the 24 hours ending yesterday at 8 a.m. EST, with 10 percent of the public having received at least one shot), the public radio journalists still insisted on calling it a confinement (or lockdown). Never mind the number of times they’ve cited Albert Camus’s “La Peste” (The Plague) over the past year or the number of times they’ve referenced the novelist-journalist-philosopher’s warning about the danger of ‘mal-nomming’ things, these journalists still can’t recognize a quarantine when they see one. (If it walks like a quarantine, talks like a quarantine, and unlike a duck can’t fly beyond a 10K radius, it’s probably a quarantine.)

What a breath of fresh air it was last night, then, when a freedom-loving bull broke through the covid covid vaccine vaccine confinement confinement school of journalism that has constituted much of French public radio reporting for the past year with an adventure worthy of inspiring anyone in need of a break from the reigning and anxiety-fueling media ambiance. And not just any bull. A black bull from the magical, eccentric, quaintly quirky, and very southern city of Arles.

If you’re not familiar with Arles, this is the city where the brutal meridional Sun burnt a hole through Vincent Van Gogh’s scalp as he was hauling around and stationing his easel in the unshielded surrounding fields, frying his brain to the point where he succumbed to an urge to cut his ear off and was promptly hounded out of town by the locals, their progeny hurling stones at his heels all the way to the asylum.

It’s also the city to which that famous bull-fighting fanatic Pablo Picasso repaired whenever he felt the need to indulge his passion for and sketch scenes of “Tauromaquia,” many of them originating in or on the narrow alleys surrounding the same 2,000-year-old arena from whose periphery the bull in question and two cohorts escaped Tuesday from an ill-advised photo-op. It’s also a city that’s part of a region, the Camargue, where the animals, no doubt taking after the artists, the gitans, and even the rural guards (as described by Alphonse Daudet in “Letters from my Windmill”) tend to have their own ornery characters. (They — the animals — even have their own gallery.)

Town, Gallo-Roman remnants, and irrascible Arlesien.n.e characters were enough to inspire Henry James to make the city part of his itinerary for the 1883 travelogue “French voyages,” in which he described the arena as follows (I’m back-translating from Robert Laffont’s French edition of “Voyage en France”):

“For all its grandiose scale, the Arles Arena is less complete than its sister in Nimes; it’s suffered more from the assaults of time and its children, and has been less thoroughly restored. Practically all the seats are gone, but the outside walls, with the exception of the top floor of the arcades, form a rough and complete mass; as for the arched hallways, they seem as solid as the day they were built. As a whole its proportions are superbly ample and of a monumental character as far as a place of diversion (what we call today ‘entertainment’) goes, as only the Roman spirit was able to bestow on this type of establishment. The podium is much more elevated than that of Nimes and a good number of the large slabs facing it have been found and put back in place. The proconsular lodge has more or less been reconstructed, and the grandiose access points which lead to it are still clearly visible and produce a majestic effect; so much so that sitting there, in the magical immobility of the moon, my elbows leaning against the dilapidated parapet of the arena, I could practically hear the murmurs and shudders and the hardy voices of the circus of which the last echoes stretch back 1,500 years.”

That circus was apparently nothing compared to the diversion provided by the black bull which succeeded in breaking away from the outskirts of this very same arena on Tuesday, an escapade which no doubt produced its own shudders (and at least one casualty) among the onlookers privileged to witness the jailbreak.

To fully appreciate the taureau’s accomplishment — specifically, his bold escape from an ill-advised group photo and subsequent navigation of the narrow and labyrinthine cobblestone streets of the old city down to the Rhone river — here’s how James described his own painful attempts to negotiate the same terrain vers 1883:

“I recall with tenderness the torturous alleys… which evoked those of a village, paved with treacherous acierated little stones that transformed all exercise into a penitence. This reminded me of an excruciating promenade that I’d made the night I arrived, with the intention of retrieving a particular view of the Rhone. I’d already been to Arles years before, and I remembered discovering on the quays a sort of tableau. It seemed to me that, on the evening I’m thinking of, a drenched moon gave the impression of trying to illuminate the past as much as the present. But I found no painting and I almost didn’t find the Rhone at all. I got lost, without a creature in sight from whom to ask directions. Nothing could be more provincial than Arles at 10 at night. I ended up by arriving at a type of quay, where I saw the great muddy mass of water gliding in the dark silence. It started to rain, the moon had vanished to who knows where, and the spot was hardly gay. It wasn’t what I’d come looking for; I’d been searching for a past that was impossible to retrieve.”

Animals being more inclined towards living in the present than humans, the search of the black bull who escaped a selfie-op outside the Arles arena (along with the two co-conspirators who were quickly apprehended) Tuesday was a lot more basic, his goal perhaps to ‘retrieve’ his brethren in the marshes of the nearby Camargue, where they can often be seen gamboling among flamingos and white horses.

After making his way a lot more successfully than James down those same cobblestone streets (and without losing nary an ear) to the quays of the Rhone and finding himself surrounded by the gendarmes, the bull took the only course any freedom-loving bovine (or other of God’s creatures) could take and dived horns-long into the river, swimming across the glittering blue water to the other side, where he promptly accosted (or so the radio news alleges) an unfortunate 70-year-old woman out for her own promenade (since hospitalized, with no mortal wounds) before he was finally subdued.

Ferdinand, meanwhile, is no doubt still grazing somewhere in the neighboring wheat-fields so lyrically depicted by another free spirit.

Born free: Bulls in the Camargue department or county that includes Arles.

Le chevalier de la Barre: Ce 18 mars 1871: Un si bel espoir (March 18, 1871: Such great hope) (English translation follows original French version)

Extrait du “Un si bel espoir” (Extract from “Un si bel espoir)
par Michel Ragon
Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1998
Presenté et traduit par Paul Ben-Itzak

Remercierements à Françoise Ragon.

(English translation follows.)

Ce roman historique de Michel Ragon raconte l’histoire de Hector, architecte visionnaire et utopiste, disciple de Proudhon qui a aussi côtoyé un certain Gustave Courbet, et dont la jeunesse a été enivré en 1848 par les espoirs de Paris soulevé ; histoire qui se termine peu après la Commune de Paris, ce soulèvement, révolte, et insurrection utopiste du 18 mars 1871. Face au Black-out presque total dans les medias radiophoniques classiques sur cette 150eme anniversaire, nous avons voulu partager avec vous quelques extraits du roman. Car c’est ça Michel Ragon : la Mémoire des vaincus — ces ‘beautiful losers’ (beaux perdants) — dont les luttes ne sont jamais complètement perdues tant qu’on ne les oublie pas. (Pour en savoir plus sur la Saison de la Commune, cliquez ici.)

L’année 1871 commença par la capitulation du nouveau gouvernement de la République. Les drapeaux allemands flottaient sur les forts de Paris. L’Alsace et la Lorraine étaient livrées aux Prussiens. Aussitôt le peuple de Paris drapa de voiles noirs la statue de la ville de Strasbourg, place de la Concorde. Dans la nuit du 5 au 6 mars les murs de la capitale se couvrirent d’affiches rouges qui proclamaient: « Place au peuple. Place à la Commune. » Des gardes nationaux, qui n’avaient pas encore revêtu leurs uniformes, s’en allaient en bataillons plus ou moins désordonnés, escortés par leurs femmes et leurs enfants, vers les remparts qu’ils entendaient bien tenir. La Commune, ce fut d’abord cela : des ouvriers, des artisans, des bourgeois, refusant l’armistice signé par le chef de l’État, s’opposant à l’entrée des troupes allemandes dans la capitale, s’improvisant soldats, face au gouvernement soi-disant légal qui, abandonnant Paris, s’installait peureusement à Versailles.

Toute cette foule qui avait reflué de la banlieue, chassée de ses masures, ces ouvriers sans travail, ces paysans sans terre, s’acharnera à défendre une capitale qui n’était pas la leur, la capitale façonnée par Haussmann et l’Empire, la capitale des riches et que les riches avaient désertée. De ce Paris réinvesti, ils voulaient faire leur Commune.

Hector rencontrait souvent [Eugène] Varlin qui, nommé au conseil chargé d’administrer Paris, se livrait à une activité intense. Il raconta à Hector comment, le 18 mars, Adolphe Thiers, devenu le chef du gouvernement versaillais, avait envoyé des troupes pour récupérer les deux cent cinquante canons abandonnés dans Paris et comment la foule, arrêtant les chevaux, coupa les harnais ; comment, sur la butte Montmartre, les femmes se couchèrent sur les canons ; comment le général Lecompte ordonna à ses soldats de tirer ; comment un sous-officier, sorti du rang, cria « Crosse en l’air » ; comment les lignards fraternisèrent avec le peuple et fusillèrent leur propre général.

— Maintenant c’est la guerre entre Versailles et Paris, dit Varlin. Nous avons dressé un centaine de barricades. Le tout est de tenir pendant une mois, le temps que la province s’insurge à son tour. À la Commune de Paris vont répondre les Communes de Lyon, de Bordeaux, de Marseille, de Nantes. La France va devenir une fédération de communes. Ah ! si Proudhon nous voyait !

*Prolos chassé des pauvres quartiers de Paris effacés par les aménagements de Baron Haussmann — aménagements qui ont aussi préordonné le défait militaire de la Commune.

English translation by Paul Ben-Itzak of excerpt from Michel Ragon’s novel:

Michel Ragon’s historic novel “Un si bel espoir” (Such great hope) recounts the story of Hector, visionary architect and Utopian, a disciple of the anarchist writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and friend of Gustave Courbet, and whose youth was inebriated in 1848 by the hopes of Paris in revolt; a story which ends shortly after the Paris Commune, the uprising, revolt, and insurgency of March 1871. In the face of the almost complete mainstream media news black-out on this the 150th anniversary of the Commune, we wanted to share some excerpts from the novel. Because this is the essence of Michel Ragon: the memory of the vanquished, the beautiful losers whose fights are never entirely lost as long as we don’t forget them. (To check out the many commemorative activities throughout Paris through June, click here.)

The year 1871 started out with the new government of the Republic’s surrender. German flags flew over the forts of Paris. No sooner had the region of Alsace and Lorraine been delivered to the Prussians than the people of Paris had draped black flags over the statue of the city of Strasbourg on the place de la Concorde. On the night of March 5/6, the walls of the capital were covered with red posters proclaiming: “Power to the people. Power to the Commune.” The national guard, which barely had time to don its uniforms, marched in more or less disorganized battalions, accompanied by their wives and their children, towards the ramparts which they meant to maintain. The Commune was first and foremost this: workers, craftsmen, bourgeoisie, all refusing the armistice signed by the head of state, opposed to the entry of German troops in the capital, playing at soldier, in the face of the so-called legal government which, abandoning Paris, fearfully set up shop in Versailles.

All this crowd who had flocked to Paris from the poor suburbs*, driven from their hovels by the war, these workers without work, these paysans without land, were determined to defend a capital that was not theirs, this capital fashioned by Haussmann and the Empire, this capital of the rich and that the rich had deserted. From this re-invested Paris they would make their Commune.

Hector often ran into [Eugene] Varlin who, nominated to the counsel charged with administering Paris, gave himself over to an intense flurry of activity. He recounted to Hector how, on March 18, Adolphe Thiers, named head of the Versailles government, had sent the troops in to recuperate the 250 canons abandoned in Paris and how the crowd, stopping the horses, had cut the harnesses; how, on the top of Montmartre, women had slept on the canons to protect them; how General Lecompte had ordered his troops to fire on the crowd and how a junior officer, emerging from the ranks, had cried, “Muskets in the air!”; how the soldiers on the line had fraternized with the people and turned their guns on their own general.

“From here on in it’s war between Versailles and Paris,” exalted Varlin. “We’ve erected a hundred barricades. The most important thing is to hold out for one month, to allow time for the provinces to rebel in their turn. The Commune of Paris will be followed by Communes of Lyon, of Bordeaux, of Marseille, of Nantes. France will become a federation of communes. Ah! If only Proudhon could see us now!”

**Workers driven from the poorer neighborhoods of Paris erased by the renovations of Baron Haussman — renovations which, by eliminating the sidestreets in favor of grand boulevards had also paved the way for the military defeat of the Commune.

The Chevalier de la Barre: In face of mainstream French public radio news black-out* of its 150th anniversary, Peter Watkins film celebrates the Paris Commune – and poses uncomfortable questions about that media

Communards in Peter Watkins’s “La Commune.” Image courtesy of Icarus Films.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on the Arts Voyager on December 13, 2011. The 150th anniversary of the  Paris Commune – installed on March 18, 1871 and ending on May 28 with the fusillade of 20,000 Communards by the Versailles government – has been all but completely ignored by French public radio stations France Inter and France Culture.*)

Halfway through “La Commune,” Peter Watkins’s 5-hour, 45-minute tour de force which simultaneously resurrects the insurrectional barricades Parisians erected around their city to stave off a new conservative government and tears down the barricades between documentary and fiction, I had to stop and e-mail a Parisian friend to ask if she’d seen the film. My friend — an artist denizen of Belleville, one of the quarters evoked by Watkins — had not even heard of it. This vindicated Watkins as far as the one major reservation I have about “La Commune,” that the otherwise educative inter-titles, filling in the basic historical timeline around the events of March – May 1871, sometimes cede to the film-maker’s rants about the obstacles to getting his film distributed in France — even its co-producer the German-French television network Arte screened “La Commune” from 11 at night to 4 in the morning — and claims the Commune is under-taught in French schools. The media blockade is of course not incidental, indeed validates the film’s relevance in presenting a model of a utopian ideal which directly menaces the ruling financial and political elites. (My friend also e-mailed back that she’d just been watching an Arte prime-time program on Al Capone and the Roaring ’20s, a subject less likely to rile its audience to revolt in these heady days of the Euro-crisis. Maybe.) Anyone who doubts that such elites still exist, even in France, need look no further than the country’s Socialist party, which recently imposed non-resident and former presidential candidate Segolene Royal on the Atlantic coast city of La Rochelle as the party’s candidate for the national assembly, denying local party members the right to choose their nominee.

Regardless of whether Watkins’s 2000 film will ever get more currency in France, New Yorkers will be able to see “La Commune” Sunday at Anthology Film Archives, as part of AFA’s festival “Anarchism” on film, which opens Friday and runs through December 23, once again reminding us that anyone who associates ‘archives’ with ‘ancient history’ has never been to Anthology. While technically speaking its “Occupy Wall Street at AFA” week-end isn’t until January 7-8, this film is tailor-made to inspire modern activists with its historic example of a revolution that went beyond militating against a capitalist-driven ruling power and tried to set up an egalitarian alternative.

Watkins also advances his own cinematic anarchy, albeit in an intricately controlled environment. The events are convincingly compressed into the physical stage of a giant warehouse in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, which has its own heady history of Resistance, in which Watkins reconstructs the 11th arrondissement of Paris, home to the Bastille and, in earlier times, one of the poorest of Parisian districts. (The building is on the site of the former studios of animation pioneer Georges Melies, a cinema revolutionary in his own right.) Watkins hired 200 ‘non-professional’ actors to play the feminists, members of the military central committee, first elected council, citizens, and school-children of the Commune, as well as soldiers of military units from the government which has set up offices in Versailles, bourgeoisie merchants who chose or were forced to stay in Paris, prime minister Adolphe Thiers, etcetera. The chief narrative device is nothing new to anyone who remembers the CBS radio and television program “You are there,” with participants in this pre-television event interviewed by reporters from “Commune T.V.,” who have set up an alternative to National Versailles Television, which tends to skew its coverage in hilarious nightly newscasts which perfectly nail the genre. One of the Commune T.V. reporters even quits when the Commune council sets up a “Public Safety Committee” with frightening echoes of the Terror of Robespierre because he can no longer remain objective, only to return at the end to report directly from the barricades as the Communards desperately confront the final assault of the invading Versailles troupes. He — and we — are then directly challenged to crash through the third wall when the citizens he’s trying to interview shout at him to drop his microphone and pick up a rifle.

Watkins’s own anarchy manifests in the eventual crumbling of the narrative wall, when the actors suddenly suspend their portrayals to become their contemporary real selves. A meeting of feminist militants of 1871 becomes a meeting of feminists in 1999, debating not their place in the Commune but the constrictions and restrictions they face in contemporary French society. (As far as women’s liberation goes, France is still stuck in 1960; women are expected to be bread-winners, bread-makers, mothers and mistresses.) The inter-titles suddenly switch from recounting the chronology of 1871 to discussing the plight of women and sans-papiers (undocumented immigrants) in France today. The links are certainly there; in 1871 as in 1940 and 2001, xenophobes blamed the nation’s troubles on foreigners. Intervening about three hours into the film, with three hours still left to go before Paris is stormed, these lengthy sequences of contemporary debates started to make me lose patience with Watkins. Perhaps for a die-hard francophile it might be romantic to watch Frenchmen and women in passionate debate, but for anyone who’s lived among them, it’s nothing new. It also stalls the momentum of the story. But it does also serve to explain how the Commune itself got bogged down, because of factors that still stymie progress in France today and that have always plagued its military strategy. One of the probable causes of its defeat, as a council member bemoans too late, when the city’s forts are starting to wilt under the siege of the monarchist troupes, is that the Communards wasted too much time forming committees, diverting their attention from more practical matters like forging a concentrated military defense. The French have sometimes been more adept at militant didactics than national cohesion.

The saving grace of these contemporary digressions is that not only can it be argued they’re not really digressions, because they reveal how the spirit of the Commune and its ideals still lives, however dormant, in contemporary Frenchmen and women, but that these debates not only anticipate those of “Les Indignes” (the European movement which — newsflash!, it didn’t start here in the U.S.! — inspired Occupy Wall Street), they provide the riposte to those ‘journalists’ from the contemporary equivalent of National Versailles Television who snidely insist the Occupiers don’t know what they want. It’s not about “Redistribution of Wealth” but installing a more just set of rules for the acquisition of, not just monetary wealth but social well-being. But countering the propaganda propagated by corporate-controlled media requires a counter-point, and here “La Commune” is a start, furnishing not just an extended polemic but an inspiring precedent.

*France Culture has promised to devote four segments of its 5 p.m. documentary program to the event this week, but given the character of that program, the treatment will more likely be that of a cutesy cultural phenomenon than an important societal and political event with contemporary resonances and that deserves serious journalistic treatment.

Calling all Translators, Actors, and other Academic and Cultural Misfits

The Typewriter in the Attic’s principal mission is to teach, perform, publish and transmit the oeuvres of the renegades, with a special (though not exclusive) interest in American cultural figures and French cultural figures often ignored by American universities. While all curious students and researchers at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels are welcome — regardless of whether they already have degrees — TITA promises a particular commitment to students at all levels who sometimes find it difficult to find a home in American universities often more interested in producing clones than encouraging independent thinking and outside of the box approaches to research, writing, learning, and teaching. The academic misfits. Because the madmen and women, the heretics, the misfits, the Cassandras, the Antigones — those who choose another path or see in other ways – are too often relegated to the attic, the grenier. But the root of grenier is grain (seed), and the seeds need to be sown.

Straddling the French and American cultural landscapes and designed with a tactile pedagogic, research and presentation model that uses theater, hands-on literary translation, puppetry, dance, books, journalism, live poetry readings, criticism, the visual arts (including participation in local ateliers and visits to local exhibits), film, and publishing to transmit the oeuvres of the renegades and provide a forum for their work on the stage and the page, The Typewriter in the Attic (La machine à écrire dans le grenier), is based in Paris and directed by Paul Ben-Itzak, a veteran journalist and foreign correspondent, pioneering online publisher, teacher, translator, director, editor, and cultural critic. Interested teachers, students, mentors, literary translators, choreographers, dancers, actors, and other artistic and intellectual collaborators please contact artsvoyager@gmail.com for details on TITA (and with details on you). Priority given to academic, cultural, political, societal, literary, and artistic misfits. TITA is also looking to rent a new live-work space in Paris or Seine-St.-Denis, Arles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Brunswick/Highland Park, or New Orleans. TITA is also “The Suicide Artists,” a comparative, transnational, and multi-genre research, performance, and curatorial project. (More information available upon request to artsvoyager@gmail.com .)

“Translation has its violent moments, and I suppose it must. It begins with attraction, then a kind of attack, and it ends, if you are lucky, with a strong impersonation of your author.” Robert Fagles

The chevalier de la Barre: White-out conditions: On Radio France, the clitoris trumps the Commune ou, Comment occulté une fois de plus la Commune — et ses 20,000 mortes* — a l’occasion de ses 150 ans

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

You wouldn’t know it by listening to Radio France’s chains France Inter and France Culture, but this month marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Commune, when a substantial, largely proletariat segment of the city of Paris rejected the federal (or Versailles) government’s capitulation to the Prussians and attempted to set up its own, largely righteous (apart from the exactions and summary killings of both Versailles military officials and, towards the end, at least one of their own leaders, Eugene Varlin) and utopian society, maintaining their Paris under siege — with hot-air balloons used to ferry in the occasional food supply refurbishments — until the end of May. (The price was heavy, with the State taking the lives of 20,000, and deporting 7,500 Communards to New Caledonia*; this figure doesn’t include the lives taken by the Communards, including in summary justice.) Mais non! In lieu of devoting any significant coverage to this seminal event in the national story (whether one’s reading is positive or negative; some regret the episode as a bloody and dangerous chapter in French history), both chains have preferred to consign precious air time to discussions of the clitoris in its various ramifications (the organ lead both the news and phone-in programs on France Inter last night and was a central focus of two weeks’ worth of programming on France Culture’s “Les chemins de la philosophie,” en quoi sur France Culture, at least, even the philosopher’s stone has to pass by the erogenous zone). No, the sum total of news coverage the Commune has received — ahead of the March 18 150th anniversary of its official installation — has been confined to two 10-minute historical segments, a history professor’s arguing to Inter’s morning hosts that the 150th shouldn’t be celebrated at all, and the same personalities waiting until the very end of an interview with Anne Hidalgo (“In the 30 seconds remaining….”) to ask Paris’s mayor what she thought of what the historian said.

The cynical explanation for this historical oublie, at least on public radio, might be that in this troubled period when the French are already being asked to do a lot of things many of them don’t want to do (albeit for their own good, e.g. take the frickin’ vaccine, healthcare workers ((many have up to now declined))) or not do things they want to do (police evacuated the Seine this past weekend, and rightly so, after river-goers refused to observe social distancing guidelines) — and in the wake of the “Yellow Vests” ‘movement’ of 2019 — the last thing the government wants is to resurrect a powerful symbol and, to some, ideal, of citizen revolt, the implication being that just because Radio France is under the tutelage of a government minister, the government influences what it does and doesn’t report. However, as someone who has closely followed these stations for nearly 15 years, I think it’s just lazy, sensationalism-driven journalism. When you devote 99% of your on-air time and journalistic capital to covering Islamophobia, Islamogauchisme, Cartoons, Islam and its various derivatives, Covid, Vaccines, “Macronism,” political infighting, the Citizens’ Climate Convention, Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent condemnation for corruption, and Nicolas Sarkozy’s friends’ denunciations of that condemnation (which the ex-president is appealing), there isn’t much time left over to cover anything else. Even if, fear inducing capacity-wise, a Commune-as-the-most-terrible-thing-since-the-Terror angle might seem to fit the requirements. (This just in: On today’s 1 p.m. France Inter news program, the normally astute host Bruno Devic allotted all of 20 seconds to president Emmanuel Macron’s landmark decision to open the French Archives of the Algerian war, following a recommendation by scholar Benjamin Stora in his recent presidential report that both the Algerian and French parties open their archives to researchers from both countries.)

Even the apparent justification of the past week’s obsession with the clitoris — the need to demonstrate, on International Women’s Day, that women don’t or shouldn’t view sex only as a vehicle for male harassment but as a means for pleasure — still doesn’t justify the female sexual organ getting so much attention to the detriment of the Commune, where during that episode women surpassed this sexualized identity and were literally at the forefront, marching to encounter the first 200 troops sent to combat the Communards by Versailles chief Adolphe Thiers and convincing them to flip their hats and turn their coats — details gleaned from Michel Ragon’s “Un si bel espoir.” (The next time out they weren’t so lucky; the troops fired.) This 75 years before French women won the vote and at a time when a man could still kill his cheating wife and legally get away with it.

Speaking of feminist-Communardist-optimistic-pessimistic causes — and how I plan to apply my own artistic proclivities and capacities to spreading the news of the Commune on this its 150th anniversary: I’d like to mount a production of Jean Anouilh’s version of “Antigone” (in which the heroine’s primary virtue is a determination to say “No,” even at the cost of her life) premiered towards the end of the Occupation, and which we’ll resituate in the epoch of the Commune of Paris. This could be a masked version, with Antigone costumed to evoke Communard war widow, anarchist, and feminist Louise Michel, and Creon Adolphe Thiers. We’re looking for actors, singers, dancers, a choreographer, and a costume-mask designer. Drop me an e-mail at artsvoyager@gmail.com .

PS Fortunately, other Parisians are more proud of their history than the folks who set the news agendas at France Inter and France Culture: Our friends — and former neighbors on the rue Voltaire — at the Quilumbo bookstore collective have just hipped us to Commune commemorations central. Go ‘dere, Paris Insider!

*As noted by Michel Ragon in “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” Editions Albin Michel, 2008.

The unbearable fadaise d’Anne Hidalgo

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

After instituting week-end confinements in two French departments experiencing exponentially exploding Covid outbreaks last week, the Alpes-Maritime county around Nice and the county around Dunkerque, the national French government announced consultations with leaders in 18 other counties also experiencing elevated levels of cases. The mayor of Paris’s initial response (albeit floated by a deputy mayor) was to suggest a three-week confinement, with the goal of being able to re-open bars, restaurants, and cultural establishments. In other words, so that the mayor could repeat the same conneries of last summer and early fall, when she declined to cancel three typically crowd-intensive events: an outdoor summer film festival, the month-long “Paris Plage” festival which pretends that the Seine is a beach, and the “Nuit Blanche” all-night art event night in early October, when France was already riding the crest of a second wave. Giving the mayor the benefit of the doubt, I ignore what crowd limitations may have been imposed on any of these events. What I do know is that masks were not required for Paris Plage. (I was shocked at the time to see a photo of young people with “Paris health department” tee-shirts passing out information, presumably on safety measures, while standing shoulder to shoulder and not wearing masks.)

After the idea of a three-week new confinement fell flat, the mayor back-peddled and

** Called the idea of a week-end confinement “inhuman,” in and of itself not inaccurate to objectively qualify such an imposition, but given the mayor’s presidential ambitions and previous denigrations of, for example, the pace of the government’s vaccine roll-out, implicitly impugning this quality to president Emmanuel Macron’s government, lead by prime minister Jean Castex.

**Proposed opening classroom windows and holding class outside — as if no one else had already thought of this.

** And, most solipsistically in my view, said the vaccine allotment for the Ile de France region which includes Paris should be quadrupled — when she well knows that vaccine supply in France as in Europe is still limited. (As of last weekend, according to the European Centers for Disease Control, 40 million doses had been distributed to the 27 member states, and 32 million administered.) The implication here being that Parisians are more important than the rest of us.

The frank-talking Castex promptly and properly characterized Madame Hidalgo’s pronouncements as “des fadaises.” (Oxford: “Fiddle-faddle, trifle, nonsense, insipid, silly speech.”)

Meanwhile, while the mayor of Paris was fiddle-faddling, her counterpart in the Southwestern city of Toulouse was taking concrete, practical measures. After residents flooded the banks of the Garonne last week-end, many ignoring social distancing measures and leaving local police to hand out fines, he announced that henceforth the quays would be closed on week-ends. He evidently realizes that it would be … inhuman… to expect the police to act as hall monitors.

Why am I making more of a federal case out of Mayor Hidalgo’s actions and statements than the federal government is?

I think we need to examine the Paris mayor’s recent words in the context of both her reported presidential ambitions and an overall administration of the city frequently characterized by more concern with opportunistic ‘show’ than actual effects, particularly as concerns pollution, the ecology (in a large sense that includes ombrage — tree protection — and water flowing), and privatization.

Let’s look first at that characterization of a possible week-end confinement — and by association the strategy, or at least part of the strategy, of Mr. Macron and Mr. Castex’s government — as “inhuman,” with the concomitant assumption that Madame Hidalgo has a monopoly on that quality. Where exactly does a mayor whose approach to resolving the city’s ongoing homeless population dilemma has included replacing benches in public parks and on the boulevards with single-unit monstrosities (so the homeless can’t sleep on them; out of sight, out of mind) get off applying the epithet ‘inhuman’ to a proposed measure by a government whose president, Mr. Macron, began his tenure by earnestly announcing that he wanted to see 0 people sleeping on the street? On my very first visit to Paris in the fall of 2000, I remember reclining on a bench in a tiny square off the Butte aux Cailles across from the place Paul Verlaine, which still boasts an accessible water source and where the first manned balloons first landed (or took off) in the late 18th century, my arms stretched out along the bench-back as I basked in the gentle fall afternoon sunlight and thinking, “This is the life, and this is where I want to live.” When I returned to that square in 2019, the long benches had been replaced by a row of one-person units, the pigeon-shit that covered all of them leaving me with no desire to rest my fanny at that particular moment. (Benches aren’t just places for homeless people who can’t find correct shelter to sleep; they are also incredible aubaines for the type of ‘vivre-ensemble’ Anne Hidalgo claims to champion. And settings for intrigues; if Georges Simenon were alive today, he would not be able to write “Maigret and the man on the bench” in Anne Hidalgo’s Paris.)

Next let’s consider the sanitary environment — or at least one aspect of it on which I have some expertise — in Paris that preceded the Covid outbreak. (Madame Hidalgo has been in power since 2014.) On my last extended stay in the capitol, from early January through late May of 2019, I observed that the sinks in about three quarters of the public sanitaires (at least the ones I visited, and when it comes to the sanitaires of Paris, I’m the guy Leonard Cohen was talking about when he said “I’m your man”) or outdoor toilet huts weren’t working. That’s an awful lot of people running around the streets of Paris with unwashed hands. Public toilets in general haven’t fared well on Madame Hidalgo’s watch. (Which is relevant because, in a city where people have a propensity to piss on the street, it’s a question of propriety. “Everybody pees on Paris; watch me now.” — Malcolm McLaren) The free public toilets in the Metro stations were sold off by the mayor to a private concession which charged as much to relieve oneself — 1.50 — as a Metro ticket. And soon shuttered most of them. The pissoir off an alley midway up the parc Butte Chaumont was blocked off by debris for years. And the most luxurious toilet in the world, an Art Deco model below the Place Madeleine between the storied church which took 100 years to build as the country alternated between church-friendly and church-hostile regimes, the Maille Mustard Boutique, and the Ladurée Macaron bakery, where each client had his own mahogany stall with private sink and could get his shoes shined as the attendants played Piaf on the radio, was closed by the mayor with the excuse that it was too expensive to maintain. The last time I saw my favorite toilets in Paris — I used to take visitors there before we went across the street to sample the latest mustard concoction — garbage was piled up before the locked door at the bottom of the entry stairs. Never mind that the city spends, under Madame Hidalgo’s instruction, the same amount, 100,000 Euros, on a 30-minute New Year’s Eve light show, as if Paris needs the extra publicity.

Speaking of running water, one of the most elegant — and egalitarian — features of this most elegant and proletarian city used to be the fountains that dotted neighborhood gardens. The last time I saw Paris, most of those fountains had stopped flowing… except for those in the busiest tourist zones. This is one of the egalitarian qualities that first impressed me about Paris: You didn’t need to live in the city center, or a tourist zone, to have access to well-kept garden — and green space — with a fountain, pond, or even creek. (The Japanese-style one that borders a summit at the parc Georges Brassens in the 15th arrondisement, famous for its weekend old book market, has been dry for at least a decade, so that can’t be put on Madame Hidalgo.) Fountains now gone dry include, as I’ve previously noted in the Lutèce Diaries, a limestone naked lady reclining in a recessed basin just behind the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce whose spout no longer spouts, and a metal sculpture-fountain nestled in a little park on the boulevard Arago in the 13eme arrondissement designed by Cesar Domela, who used to live in the Villa Fleuri next door. Even the cascading fountain that intersects the parc Belleville high above Paris sometimes runs dry. (And I’m not counting fountains like the ring of spouting tortoises under the four breasty beauties from around the world holding up the globe in the Carpeaux fountain at the entrance to the Explorers or Marco Polo garden which abuts the Luxembourg, which seem to be turned on in April and off in October, as there may be a good reason for that seasonality.)

And then there’s the trees.

As part of what I consider the mayor’s ecology de facade campaign — because apart from promises to eventually ban diesel engines from the city, as with her predecessor Hidalgo’s ecology program, cautioned by her Green party collaborators, is more about show than substance — City Hall has been lining certain streets, like the rue des Envierges which leads to the esplanade above the parc Belleville (offering the best view of the Eiffel Tower on the Right Bank) with cumbersome square wooden planter boxes hosting unidentifiable shrubs, presumably meant to indicate that the city is getting more green. (Meanwhile, the Arab-French bakery at the end of the street across from the esplanade has been replaced by another BoBo soup shop.)

I never thought the day would come when I’d favorably compare anything in Texas with anything in France, but contrast this superficial greening with the ‘shading’ policy of the city of Fort Worth, where I lived for nearly four years, and whose official policy dictates that a certain percentage of the municipality’s streets must offer tree coverage, or protection from the Sun.

In Paris, on the other hand, in 2015 I watched with horror from the window of my apartment on the rue Tourtille in lower Belleville as city-funded construction workers chopped down two hundred-year-old cherry trees (no doubt relics of the time when Belleville was a semi-rural suburb of Paris) in the back courtyard as they replaced an existing apartment building with a new one which would extend farther into the courtyard. (Residents had fought City Hall for years to try to stop that project, as the Bellevilloises have had to fight Madame Hidalgo on other projects aimed at privatizing different aspects of this oasis of a neighborhood, be it an apartment conversion project — allocated to a private builder by the city — on the rue Ramponeau, named after the sector’s most famous cabaret owner, which would have torn down one of the neighborhood’s last artisan ateliers, or her attempts to convert the space that once housed the “Museum of Air” above the park’s lower esplanade and amphitheater to a restaurant or private meeting hall.)

And what about the pollution? When I moved out of Paris in 2007, in large part because I couldn’t breathe, pollution was killing on average 40,000 people per year in France. In the most recent year studied, it was killing 48,000, with about 2000 of those in Paris, also the fifth most polluted city in Europe. The point isn’t that this is Madame Hidalgo’s fault; it’s not. But at the least the steady progression of the numbers confirms that for all the bally-hoo around measures like banning cars from the periphery of the Right Bank of the Seine (which only displace the cars, and the pollution they promote, to other sectors), her much-publicized actions have (apparently) had very little real effect on the pollution she’s supposed to be targeting. (I also remember, during my Spring 2019 stay, gasping for breath in front of a sign off the Butte aux Cailles assuring me, “Paris respire,” “Paris is breathing,” as if closing small sectors of the city on Sundays for six months of the year was sufficient.

I guess what I’m saying — and the link to Hidalgo’s ‘inhuman’ comment with its implicit criticism of Mr. Macron’s government — is that if the mayor of Paris is concerned with humanity, perhaps she should be taking more steps to humanize — and civilize — the city of which she has the honor to be the steward and whose propriety has only diminished under her reign. (Turning those fountains back on and gettiing that water running in the bathrooms would be a good start.) And to bring back some of the elegance which since the epochs of Benjamin Franklin and Henry James has drawn Americans to Lutèce, making us feel that we too have some investment in its future.

Clarion of the Beats: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1919-2021, in his own words

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Introduction copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

In memory of William Clark, who, holding court down the block from City Lights on Columbus Avenue (and in various bistros du coin), was also King of North Beach. And of Eileen Darby, who made the scene when Ferlinghetti helped create it. And in appreciation for my parents, Ed Winer and Eva Wise, who made sure that I made my own San Francisco debut — “in swaddling clothes” — in North Beach.

If Lawrence Ferlinghetti — who died Monday evening at the age of 101 in his second-floor walk-up in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco he put on the map 70 years ago when he co-founded the bookstore and publisher City Lights — first made waves by piloting a boat in the Normandy landing that liberated France in 1944, he breached the shores of Eisenhower’s America to liberate the corseted Yankee mind in 1956, when City Lights published the long-form poem “Howl.” While the groundbreaking words, which would earn their author and publisher an obscenity trial (and subsequent vindication when the judge declared the poem had redeeming social value and thus could not be deemed ‘obscene’) belonged to Allen Ginsberg, it took the visionary publisher to give the words and the Beat poetry movement they heralded international currency and secure its place in the national literary Zeitgeist.

Rather than regurgitate here the essential biographical facts, including the poet’s influence on the San Francisco scene and the 20th century literary mind — Baghdad by the Bay’s superb cultural chronicler Sam Whiting does it much better than we could here — we’d like to use this space to share Ferlinghetti’s biography in his own words and reflections on poetics, excerpts from “Pictures of the Gone World,” and from “A Coney Island of the Mind,” all as published in “The New American Poetry” in 1960 (see below for credits); and “The Statue of Saint-Francis,” as transcribed from Fantasy Records’s recording of the poet’s legendary session (accompanied by Beat-era jazz) with Kenneth Rexroth at the Cellar.

From the self-written Biographical Notes section of “The New American Poetry,” edited by and copyright Donald M. Allen, Evergreen Books Ltd., London and Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1960:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Probably was born in New York about 1919 or thereafter. He seems to have been transported into France in swaddling clothes, saw the white mountains of Alsace from a balcony, and returned to the States sometime, years later, to distinguish himself in the upper grades by outstanding achievement in the art of flatulence. After that the record is none too clear. It seems he returned to France during World War II and had some underhand connection with the Free French and the Norwegian Underground. After the War he may have written two unpublished novels and a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne which should have been titled Histoire du pissoir dans la poésie moderne. It also seems fairly certain that he reached San Francisco overland about 1951, built a bookstore, and began to publish the Pocket Poet series.”

From “Pictures of the Gone World”: (Here and elsewhere, WordPress’s editing system has unfortunately not allowed us to retain the line justifications of the original publication, for which we apologize; line justifications are anything but anodyne to the poet and the sense s/he is trying to convey.)

23
Dada would have liked a day like this
with its very realistic
unrealities
each about to become
too real for its locality
which is never quite remote enough
to be Bohemia
Dada would have loved a day like this
with its light-bulb sun
which shines so differently
for different people
but which still shines the same
on everyone
and on everything
such as
a bird on a bench about to sing
a plane in a gilded cloud
a dishpan hand
waving at a window
or a phone about to ring
or a mouth about to give up
smoking
or a new newspaper
with its new news story
of a
cancerous dancer
Yes Dada would have died for a day like this
with its sweet street carnival
and its too real funeral
just passing thru it
with its real dead dancer
so beautiful and dumb
in her shroud
and her last lover lost
in the unlonely crowd
and its dancer’s darling baby
about to say Dada
and its passing priest
about to pray
Dada
and offer its transcendental
apologies
Yes Dada would have loved a day like this
with its not so accidental
analogies.
(1953-55)

Francisco Goya, “War.” Visiting Nagasaki two weeks after the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on the city influenced the engaged direction Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life and poetry took thereafter.

From “A Coney Island of the Mind” (published in its entirety by New Directions):
1
In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment
they first attained the title of
‘suffering humanity’
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
of adversity
Heaped up
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
slippery gibbets
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
of the
‘imagination of disaster’
they are so bloody real
it is as if they really still existed
And they do
Only the landscape is changed
They still are ranged along the roads
plagued by legionnaires
false windmills and demented
roosters
They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
The scene shows fewer tumbrils
but more maimed citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
and engines
that devour America

15
Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day
performing entrechats
and slight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be
For he’s the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
with gravity
to start her death-defying leap
And he
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
of existence
(1955-58)

From Statements on Poetics in “The New American Poetry” (which credits Fantasy 7004, 1959), edited by and copyright Donald M. Allen, Evergreen Books Ltd., London and Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1960:

…I am put down by Beat natives who say I cannot be beat and “committed” at the same time, like in this poem [“Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower”], man. True, true, William Seward Burroughs said, “Only the dead and the junkie don’t care — they are inscrutable.” I’m neither. Man. And this is where all the tall droopy corn about the Beat Generation and its being “existentialist” is as phony as a four-dollar piece of lettuce. Because Jean-Paul Sartre cares and has always hollered that the writer especially should be committed. Engagement is one of his favorite dirty words. He would give the horse laugh to the idea of Disengagement and the Art of the Beat Generation. Me too. And that Abominable Snowman of modern poetry, Allen Ginsberg, would probably say the same. Only the dead are disengaged. And the wiggy nihilism of the Beat hipster, if carried to its natural conclusion, actually means the death of the creative artist himself. While the “non-commitment” of the artist is itself a suicidal and deluded variation of this same nihilism.

Transcribed from “Poetry Readings in the Cellar,” with the Cellar Jazz Quartet, featuring Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth (Fantasy Records 7002):


This is, uh, “The Statue of Saint-Francis.” It really happened.

They were putting up the statue of Saint-Francis
in front of the Church of Saint-Francis
in the city of San Francisco
in a little side street
just off the Avenue
where no birds sang
and the sun was coming up on time
in its usual fashion
and just beginning to shine
on the statue of Saint-Francis
where no birds sang
and a lot of old Italians were standing all around
in the little side street
just off the Avenue
watching the wily workers
who were hoisting up the statue
with a chain
and a crane
and other implements
and a lot of young reporters
in button-down clothes
were taking down the words
of one young priest
who was propping up the statue
with all his arguments
and all the while
while no birds sang
any Saint-Francis Passion
and while all the lookers kept looking up at Saint-Francis
with his arms outstretched
to the birds
which weren’t there
a very tall
and very purely naked
young virgin
with very long
and very straight
straw hair
and wearing
only
a very small bird’s nest
in a very
existential place
kept passing through the crowd
all the while
and up and down the steps
in front of Saint-Francis
her eyes downcast
all the while
and
singing
to herself.

The Chevalier de la Barre, 2-16 (updated 9h00 EST 2-17): Why Israel is not a ‘model country’ for Covid vaccine distribution, depriving Palestinians under its control of their fair share

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

As radio journalists go, globally and particularly in the sometimes professionally problematic (news-standards wise) universe of Radio France’s France Culture and France Inter stations (which share most of their foreign correspondents), Florian Delorme, who hosts the daily “Culture Monde” program on the chain’s middle-brow station France Culture, is an exemplary journalist, adroit and authoritative interlocutor, and versatile world affairs expert, nimbly bouncing from country to country and conflict to conflict, and mastering micro ramifications of macro issues with deft agility. So I was shocked and upset last week to find out that when it comes to accurately covering and discussing Israel and its treatment of the several million Palestinians whose lands it has illegally occupied since 1967 and whose health and welfare therefore fall under its jurisdiction according to international law, specifically Israel’s failure to adequately distribute Covid vaccinations to these populations, Delorme apparently has a blindspot: Thus it was that when a supposed expert on Israel qualified the country as a “model” in vaccine distribution last week on Culture Monde, her claim went entirely unchallenged by Delorme.

If — as he clearly does on every other subject, if one is to judge by his ability to parry with his expert guests — Delorme had done his homework, he could easily have learned that by all evidence, when it comes to its global failure to distribute the vaccine to Palestinians (only deigning to designate 50,000 doses for health-care workers under United Nations pressure, which the chain’s correspondent did report), Israel should be regarded not as a shining example of vaccine distribution but as an example of blatant discrimination towards a population it has the legal responsibility under international law to protect.

Here’s how a local Palestinian expert described the situation on the American radio program Democracy Now on February 8:

As of that date, Raji Sourani, human rights lawyer and director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, contended, the Gaza Strip alone had tallied 51,000 cases among its population of 2 million people locked into a narrow strip of land under Israeli-imposed blockade, with 522 deaths since reporting began in July 2020 according to the World Health Organization, with the United Nations warning that the health system could collapse if cases keep rising. (The clean water supply, vital in times of pandemic, has been problematic since Israel invaded the strip in 2014, in a war in which more than 2000 Palestinians were killed, including women and children, compared to 164 Israelis.)

“We’re unlike any other part of the world having this pandemic,” explained Sourani. “What makes Gaza unique is that it is subject to an illegal…, inhuman blockade, [with] no movement for goods or individuals.” (Israel’s argument is that the blockade is necessary to stop arms flow to Hamas, the extremist group which governs Gaza.) “Accordingly we have completely [devastated] infrastructures, our hospitals are in very bad condition, the equipment is unable to deal with the emerging situation. Israelis are not allowing up until now the proper equipment and medications to come to Gaza….They are responsible… [for the] Gaza Strip as an occupying force, they should allow with no conditions equipment and medicine to come through, and they are responsible as well [for the] vaccine distribution to the occupied people of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.” The reported Israeli explanation — that by mutual agreement the Palestinian Authority is responsible for healthcare in the West Bank — may be legally supported by the Authority’s agreements with Israel, but I don’t think this absolves Israel from moral responsibility, particularly given the constraints the Israeli-imposed Gaza blockade imposes on hospital conditions including supplies of equipment and medicine, notably oxygen machines.

PS 1: On Tuesday morning, France Culture’s Israel correspondent reported that 43 percent of Israelis had received the first dose of a vaccine and 27 percent both doses. And had absolutely nothing to say about the Palestinians — nor was he pressed for this information by the chain’s news anchor or morning host.

PS 2: A French colleague the other day suggested a more nefarious reason for, or benefit from, Israel’s failure to ensure adequate vaccine distribution to the Palestinian populations it controls: their not having been vaccinated might provide another reason for Israel to restrict these populations’ travel in Israel proper. I thought of this harrowing possibility this morning when France Culture’s correspondent said the country is considering a “vaccine passport.”

PS 3: On broadcasts aired yesterday, both France Culture and Democracy Now reported that Israeli authorities had blocked 2000 vaccine doses from being delivered to frontline healthcare workers in Gaza, the latter attributing the claim to the Palestinian Authority. France Culture also once again demonstrated poor journalism standards in reporting another claim (this time in Israel’s disfavor) and which, given the lack of any specific attribution, we won’t dignify by sharing here, but which supports my over-riding point: The question is not one of journalistic bias, but of incomplete reporting, with the chain consistently failing to include Palestinians in the Occupied territories iin its evaluations of the efficacy (or inefficacy) of Israel’s vaccine distribution campaign.