Lutèce Diaries, 28: Welcome to the Monkey House, or, Headless Body found in Waterless Arena

notre dame fouquet jpegJean Fouquet, “The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,” circa 1452–1460. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information on the tableau, click here.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”

— Danté (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27)

“Well, you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”

— Leonard Cohen, “So long Marianne,” being sung by a busker behind Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, 2019

PARIS — Here are some of my memories associated with Notre-Dame: Being shocked to learn, from a sign posted on the church’s gates in 2005, that among those who would be choosing the successor to Pope John-Paul was the disgraced Boston cardinal Bernard Law.… Stiffing a French girl I was dating in 2002 to go to an improvisation match between the N-D organ and a tuba, which cued our final rupture…. Crossing the short bridge (its brown iron railings recently replaced with love-lock proof glass) over the Seine in the shadow of the church on which Charles Boyer held a clandestine RDV with Ingrid Thulin in occupied Paris in Vincente Minelli’s 1962 “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (and above where Gene Kelly waltzed Leslie Caron in Minelli’s 1951 “An American in Paris”) in 2006 with a girl named Charlotte Lejeune who made my heart feel jeune again after seeing Katherine Dunham and Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” at a cinema on the rue Christine near where Miles had wooed Greco at the Club Taboo and dining on buckwheat crepes and hard cider on the rue Mouffetard, and hearing her declare upon beholding Notre-Dame, “Elle est BELLE!” My initial reaction to the news was that it’s just a thing — no one died in the fire which tore the roof off the 900-year-old sucker last month — and whose significance, like most of the things in Paris, derives not just from the architecture (in N-D’s case, a pell-mell melange of epochs; the same architect whose spire everyone’s now lamenting has been maligned for centuries for turning the towers of Carcassonne into epoch-inconsistent coneheads), historical context, and personal memories but from the allure with which artists have invested them over time. (Following the catastrophe, Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” soared back to the top of the best-seller lists.) After all, who would give a second thought to Winesburg, Ohio, if Sherwood Anderson hadn’t made it the setting for the first American psychological novel? What made a floating laundry basin — the Bateau Lavoir — the fulcrum of Cubism and the birthplace of Surrealism, if not the alchemy of Picasso, Braque, and Max Jacob that it spawned? Why did this fulcrum migrate from Montmartre to Montparnasse in the 1920s, if not for the ateliers the city set up around the train station and the artists and writers who installed themselves there? What made the Haute Provence so special if not Jean Giono’s lyrical rhapsodies? And the filthiest street in the world a hallowed terrain for urban adventurers if not the imagination and knack for capturing the local lingo of Damon Runyon?

To try to augment my empathy for the Parisians, French, and foreigners who have taken the fire and gutting of much of Notre-Dame’s roof more deeply to heart than I have — “With that woodwork, it was like you could touch history; now that’s gone forever,” one particularly anti-clerical friend confided in me — I’ve imagined what I might feel like if one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly fell off. I’ve also reminded myself that I’m not just the Joe Biden of columnists, so mesmerized by the sound of his own voice that he doesn’t seem to care about the readers who get lost in the parentheses within parentheses never to be heard from again, but a reporter, and that this is my beat. (Or as I reflected on a recent late afternoon while sipping the last of my hot thermos mint tea on a bridge over the Canal St.-Martin where the volunteers of “Une Chorba Pour Tous” — a pirate operation judging by the way they quickly packed up their van and took off afterwards — had just dispensed hot soup and baguettes to the black and brown masses who continue to huddle under the tracks at La Chapelle no matter how many times the authorities clear them out: “Paris. It was his city.”) So on Easter Sunday, after the usual round of skirt-chasing (actually they’re not wearing skirts this season, but high-wasted pants with the ever-present pre-fabricated holes — if Malcolm McLaren were to return to Paris today, he’d find the girls all dressing like his prodigy Sid Vicious and stroking tiny screens instead of live mice — and short shirts or sweaters) and book-hunting and quixotic Dulcinella ping-pong partner courting and having my thermos tea with Delacroix at his fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens (he’s another one: Most of the tourists who pause to take their pictures in front of the fountain have no idea who he was; if I didn’t, would I be quite as inspired every time I sit there looking up at the master of color’s Byronic bust and his Muse’s naked torso supplicating him below it?), I descended to the Seine to assess the damage.

met delacroix portraitFrom the recent exhibition at the Metropoloitan Museum of Art and the Louvre: Eugène Delacroix, “Self-Portrait in Green Vest.” Oil on canvas, circa 1937. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright RMN – Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo: Michel Urtado.

But first, by way of prelude: If I’ve scrapped the political commentary in earlier versions of this piece as it ultimately didn’t seem appropriate to use this catastrophe as a soap-box (even for expounding on pertinent and larger related issues, e.g. as an indication of a generalized lack of official concern for the country’s patrimony which pre-dates this administration, with Nicolas Sarkozy as the exception, his Socialist successor scrapping Sarkozy’s plans for a museum of the history of France), I still think it’s legitimate to cite two issues which have arisen in the debate — and it is a debate — over the appropriate measures to take for the church’s reconstruction.

“It’s a building — We’re human beings. What about us?” This is how one Gilet Jaune or “Yellow Vest” interviewed on French public radio reacted to the news that two of France’s richest families had donated a combined 330 million Euros to repair the church within 24 hours of the fire. Because another fixture that has been eroding in France in recent years, according to many, is the social ‘welfare’ state erected by the National Council of Resistance after the War, the question is entirely pertinent. Or, as the Gilets Jaunes of the Paris suburb of Pantin, right next to mine, expressed their demands in a flyer distributed at a recent Saturday market outside the Church of Pantin, they seek:

** “A minimum wage of 12 Euros an hour.” (Less than the $15/hour minimum many American states have recently adopted.)

** “The means for our schools, smaller class size.” (To which was added the complaint that their children are being oriented less and less towards college and more and more towards brief professional formations.)

** “Health care for all; free care (notably dental care).” (Contrary to what you may have heard, health care isn’t free for everyone here, and most French have to subsidize their public plan with private insurance.)

** “Construction and maintenance of affordable housing.”

The second pertinent issue was raised by numerous preseveration specialists, including state functionaries, alarmed by a measure adopted by Parliament May 2 which includes a provision that would allow the government to over-ride existing ecological and preservation regulations during the reconstruction, in the interests of fast-tracking the repairs so that they can be finished in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

My own view is that the country’s real monument is its artistic and literary canon. (Although an argument could be made that as architecture and art repository Notre-Dame falls into this category.)

notre dame jongkindJohan Barthold Jongkind (Dutch, 1819–1891), “The Pont Neuf,” 1849–50. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 32 1/8 in. (54.6 x 81.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Mendelsohn, 1980. Both this tableau and that of Fouquet, above, have recently been showcased at the Met as a gesture of solidarity with those affected by the Notre-Dame fire.

It was my ongoing quest for both of these — as well as the perennial cherche pour l’ame-soeur (soul-mate) — that found me on Easter Sunday morning exiting the Denfert Rochereau Metro station across the street from the Catacombs (some of whose residents have been there as long as Notre-Dame), and heading down the avenue Denfert Rochereau (toujours fixé a le Meridian moi) for the sprawling headquarters of the benevolent association “Big Neighbors,” a sort of Jewish Community Center for recent immigrants, except that unlike the JCC most of its activities are free. The occasion was a crafts — crafts fabricated by the migrants — and vide-grenier sale. The last time I was here — the event is held every month if you want to check it out — I’d scored, for a combined 2 Euros, paperback editions of two books I’d actually been looking for — Céline’s “Voyage to the end of night” and Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” a thinly veiled biography of Cézanne or Monet or both — as well as Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” and tried to score with a woman who was selling hand-lithographed “Les Ping-Pongeurs” tee-shirts, which she explained celebrated the association’s ping-pong table, which had become a kind of community fireside for the migrants, a lieu for exchanging their own stories. Partly to prolong the contact but also for a future Lutèce Diary, I’d given the woman my card and asked her to e-mail me images of the tee-shirt’s design as soon as she had them. She’d given me hers too but as there was no e-mail address, I’d resorted to trying to “friend” her on Facebook, after also noting that we had similar musical tastes and being impressed with the number and type of other associations she volunteered for or “liked,” notably the Palestinian Film Festival.

This time around in the book department I scored once again and for the same bargain rate, the price dropping from 2 Euros to 1 between the time I asked the woman guarding two large bins of them how much they were (“2 Euros”) and the moment I started looking elsewhere (“actually, they’re all 1 Euro”). I found a limited edition copy of a lavishly illustrated history of Modern Art from the ’50s (the best era for color reproduction) I’d used to own but lost, a hefty hardcover “Dictionary of Synonymes” (useful for translating), and, the real coupe, a copy of Victor Serge’s “Les années sans pardon.” Serge being one of the real-life heroes of one of my translating projects, Michel Ragon’s novel “La mémoire des vaincus.” In what I assume to be a thinly fictionalized telling of his own story — Serge was a non-violent anarchist publisher who became a disillusioned ally of the Bolsheviks, unsuccessfully trying to get the French Communist Party to acknowledge Soviet crimes — the book, published in 1947, recounts the Communists’ tracking of one of its Paris leaders after he quits the party, even though he promises to beat a gentle retreat to Mexico (where Serge would die that same year).

(I forgot to mention, important because it comes up later, that at a real gauntlet of a vide-grenier near the la Villette basin on the other side of the Seine earlier that morning, whose sublime and free highlight was observing Paris come to life while having my thermos tea perched on the Crimée pedestrian bridge over the Ourcq Canal and watching the drawbridge go up and then back down for no apparent reason as there was no boat traffic, and that was really more of a brocante — junk — sale, I’d spent all of 1 Euro on a “Dictionary of Symbols,” a gift for a witch I know. (You know which witch you are.) And scored some bargain stomach sustenance: A canned roast chicken salad for a Euro, a pound of dry rice for 50 cents, and a can of duck mousse for the same, the idea being it will give me something local to eat my first night back in the Dordogne, a.k.a. duck country.) (Lest you think I just eat them as this is the second Lutèce Diary in a row in which I’ve mentioned my predilection for this Dordogne staple, I recently had the opportunity to give back, lunching with one famished female canard with a bald-spot on her head on the lip of the pond of the parc George Brassens, calmly gray and sparsely populated on a drizzly Sunday. We dined on left-over Texas-style cornbread and peas, my new friend making duck eyes at me every time she came up from fishing the crumbs out of the muddy shallows.)

Next (we’re back at the vide-grenier in one of the courtyards of les Big Neighbors) I landed a telling item for this column, when a particularly ugly American demanded, in English, of the woman selling next to the bookstand, “I don’t speak French, can you tell her” — her being an older woman with stringy gray hair within hearing distance who’d just set down a tattered box against a nearby column — “that she doesn’t have the right to that space, my friend paid for it and she didn’t pay,” which request he repeated insistently again and again until the seller reluctantly ceded. I guess the young man, unshaven and clad in dirty jeans — who, once the FRENCH woman who UNLIKE HIM HAD THE RIGHT TO BE SELLING AT A FRENCH VIDE-GRENIER sadly walked away, threw down what looked like over-sized tinker-toy wheels on the pavement — wasn’t aware that the reason his friend had had to pay for him was that he has no standing here. Talk about ugly Americans: This loser couldn’t even communicate “I don’t speak French” correctly.

Having surpassed my quota of ugly Americans for the day and my book budget as well, I continued searching for the Ping-Pongeuse who was the real object of my visit through the alleys and across the several courtyards of the Big Neighbors complex, weaving among handmade crafts and clothing and over-priced ash-trays and carafes — the association even offers a restaurant and a bench-lined roof terrace over the entrance where you can take your coffee looking out on the tree-lined avenue, surveilling this stretch of the Meridian. Finally spotting her behind dark sun-glasses (“Quick, that Facebook weirdo is coming over here, hand me those shades!”) wearing a large white sweatshirt which showed off her sliver-brunette bangs and deftly rolling an orange ping-pong ball between my nimble if shaking fingers — the paddles were stashed away in my “Re-Nais – Sance” bag — I stepped up to the Ping-Pongeurs table and, while she stared blankly back at me behind the sun-glasses not changing her expression, sputtered, “I’m the guy who asked you for art of your Ping-Pongeurs tee-shirt for my magazine last month.”

“I remember.” (I’m on to you, Buster, with your vintage 1973 paddles and orange ball, if orange balls tickled my fancy I’d stay at home watching re-runs of “The Prisoner.”)

“I’m still interested.”

“I know, I still have your card.” (Buried in my ‘non-recyclable’ pile.) “But we haven’t been able to take any pictures, what with the Sun coming out and all.” (She didn’t phrase it exactly that way, but I’m channeling Carson McCullers. She comes up later.)

My witch not being available to inform my Ping-Pongeuse that despite the missing teeth I really was a frog waiting to be turned into a prince I decided to take my witch gift “Dictionary of Symbols” further down the Meridian to the Fountain of the Four Parts of the World in the Explorers Garden which abuts the Luxembourg, where at least the four maidens carrying the whole world in their hands wouldn’t glare back at me for ogling their bare bronze chests. I’d read on Wikipedia that one of these ladies, designed by Carpeaux, was supposed to be an American Indian and, besides that she was the least demeure of the bronze babes, bending forward into the wind at the haunches instead of remaining loftily above it like her European sister, she was also recognizable by the (stereotypical) braid…. mirrored in the braided manes of the two horse-mermaids rearing their heads below her. Opening the dictionary while trying to protect it from the errant spray of the water fight going on between the bronze turtles on the first level and the fish below the horse-mermaids, I looked up ‘turtle’ first and was tempted to bang my head on the nearest ping-pong table because as I already should have known, having jogged in a colorful “Turtle Island Marathon” tee-shirt for years back in San Francisco, this is the most obvious, four-parts-of-the-world symbolism of the turtle — the American Indian maiden should have clued me in: They hold the whole world on their shells. And if we keep pissing off the noble turtle, or tortoise, he’s going to retreat into his shell and leave us to our own wiles. (According to the dictionary, whose sources are a bit obscure, the turtle is also apparently both phallic and vaginal, making a strong case for augmenting the already onerous acronym LGBQT to LGBQTET, for eunuch turtles.)

Before heading over to and down the Boul’Mich to Notre-Dame to do my nominal reporter’s job, I decided to look up “arrow,” hoping to find a literary significance for Viollet le Duc’s “fleche de Notre-Dame” going up in flames. Besides being about getting closer to Heaven and giving Cupid a helping hand, the book informed me, the arrow also represents destiny, or as Al Dante quipped about the time Notre-Dame was going up (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27):

“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”

I was hit harder by the disaster zone that greeted me from the Ile de Cité than I’d expected to be when I was finally able to forge my way through the somber Easter Sunday crowd congesting the widened sidewalk — the pedestrians spilling over to the bicycle lane — along the Quay Tournelle facing the church across the water, more hushed than usual; even the ten gendarme vans that sped by with blue lights flashing while I was slowly threading my way through the throng, all of our heads askance to look up and over the river at the church, had respectfully silenced their sirens.

Eugene Atget, au tambour quai de tournelles 1908Eugène Atget, “Au Tambourg 63 quai de Tournelle,” 1908.

I’d heard that the twin towers themselves had been spared, but their innards are toast, charred to carbon. Literally, this is all you see through the windows, carbon black. Between the twin towers the roof has effectively been torn off, its curved rim warped on the edge facing the Ile St. Louis, as is the scaffolding which once surrounded the arrow, the fire melting even part of the metal. Two alabaster bishops remain perched high atop the outer ledge of the roof, saluting the Paris skyline from their posts after having been powerless to protect their earthly fiefdom, but the windows below them are also blackened. (This could be from drawn curtains.) When you look at the structure from the Ile St. Louis, which I eventually reached after about half an hour, one of the bishops appears to be turned away from you, his crowned head inclined in mourning.

The real miracle — besides that anything at all is still standing (I’ve seen fires reduce medieval stone houses in my Dordogne village to a pile of rubble in 10 minutes) — is that the ring of gargoyles high up towards where the roof once was (and thus closer than you and me to Heaven) is intact. I know from gargoyles, my first story for the New York Times having been on the gargoyles of Princeton, about which a colleague, Laurel Cantor, had written a precise and elegant book. My favorite was a monkey with a camera peering down from an arch across the street from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who appeared to be taking pictures of those looking up at him as they passed under the arch. (As I write this I’m realizing that gothic buildings have another resonance with me, evoking the surroundings that welcomed me in September 1979 to grounds that otherwise looked like a hurricane had swept through them, because one had, me arriving in Princeton the morning after Hurricane Frederick. It’s really something to live in the garret of one of those buildings, as I did, wondering if you’re big enough to walk in their shoes, but Fitzgerald’s fit mine perfectly, as far as our Princeton expiration date went anyway. We both lasted longer than Eugene O’Neill, Class of ’10, although he and I ran into the same obstacle at PU: “It’s tradition-bound.” Those gargoyles were the beginning of my end at Princeton, the Times wanting more stories from me after that one, written in the Summer of 1983 while I was covering for the regular stringer as a member of the University Press Club, whose other members ordered me to stop writing for the Times when he came back in September. Both me and my editor convinced there was enough to go around, I refused, was kicked out of the club, the bottom fell out of my social life, I stopped going to class, when I sought help, explaining the various stressors, from the dean of the college she scolded me, “Other students are able to have personal problems without letting them get in the way of their studies,” miserable and telling myself I was already doing what I wanted to do anyway, writing for the Times, I left Princeton but it never left me.)

Princeton gargoyle monkey with a camera smallWho’s zooming who? Gargoyle from the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy Princeton University.

Beholding those gargoyles of Notre-Dame unscathed by the flames made me think of that monkey, and, later, seeing the way they seemed to be gawking back across the Seine at the tourist gawkers, of the apes on Monkey Island at the San Francisco Zoo, who used to throw their caca at visitors. (I know this from warning the kids I’d take on field trips there not to stand too close to the monkeys, which of course had the opposite effect.) As the Notre-Dame gargoyles stared back down at us staring up at them, I found myself hoping they’d come to life and start heaving fossilized merde at the tourists. (Why such hostility? I guess this is the other reason I’d put off coming down to Notre-Dame to check out the fire damage. I didn’t want to watch the tragedy turn into yet another photo opportunity for tourists, like the Place de la Republique became after the November 13, 2015 massacres: We are not your “I was here” photo moment, tourist-fuckers. We hurt. Now that I start tearing up at writing that it occurs to me that maybe this inability to feel anything about the fire has just been denial. All the things I love about Paris and France are disappearing. Valuable old books are sold for less than fish-wrap (Le Monde costs 1.25), and the social model that used to make France different and unique and the anti (dote) American is also eroding. In my village the post-man, or woman, used to stop and chat with the elders living alone, sometimes bringing them their paper or baguette or having a petite gout of eau de vie with the retired farmer. Now if you want the mailman/woman to spend more than 30 seconds with your 90-year-old grandmother you have to pay the post office for the service…. (Which post-office also eliminated, under  Emmanuel Macron’s Socialist predecessor, the special book rate for sending the country’s literature abroad; so much for exporting French culture.) And Notre-Dame is not just a marketing opportunity to be superficially prettied up in time for the Olympics. It needs to be made whole again.

Ah yes, the books. I was also upset because at least for the first few blocks, the crowd moving along the quay to get a better look at the damaged church across the river was completely ignoring the bookstalls past which this brought them. And yet these bouquinistes, whose lives are not easy — a former friend of mine in the trade worked winters as a museum security guard to support his book-selling habit — are the real guardians of the most valuable monument France has given the world, its literature. This is why on his first morning in Paris, where he’d been sent to fetch the scion of a wealthy Boston family from the clutches of a scheming older Frenchwoman (the Henries seem to have something against this breed, the only thing not quiet in Miller’s “Quiet Days in Clichy” being a Frenchie his hero hooks up with), before he even saw about the boy Henry James’s Lambert Strether (in “The Ambassadors”) headed straight to the quays to search for and procure a complete set of the works of Victor Hugo. At a recent vide-grenier high up on the Meridian — near the Cité Universitaire — I scored a complete volume of the Great Man’s plays that might have been sitting right next to the set Strether bought, given that it was published in the 1880s, for 1 Euro. I’m happy for my library but dismayed about what this says about the value contemporary society attaches to the product of my endangered trade and species. (Further down the quays I joined two older French gentlemen scouring through bins where everything was for sale at 2 Euros, high for vide-greniers but low for bouquinistes. I passed on a volume of the essays, reviews, and other rarely collecting writings of Carson McCullers because it was in French and I was still scarred by an experience with a translation of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which had the Black characters speaking a kind of plantation dialect that made Ebonics seem like Latin by comparison.)

Speaking of dead poets, while the church plaza was cordoned off, its back-side outside the fence and leading to the bridge to the Ile St. Louis — right across the street from the stairs descending to the Holocaust Memorial in what resembles a prison, except instead of Kilroy the graffiti is signed “Albert Camus” — was open. (From my favorite bench on the Ile St-Louis en face you can see the bars of the memorial’s triangular corner room.) The crowd here was more subdued, lulled in part by a long-grey-haired man reprising Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne,” whose theme — gracefully accepting change — was just right for the occasion:

“So long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”

When the singer shifted to a more obvious choice (I’m not being more specific because it would leave you singing the song all day, which would still be more dulcet than the middle-aged Danish woman who walked by at that moment doing so.) (Oops, now I realize I left out the sample of Danish pastry a comely boulangerista handed me as I was heading away from the Catacombs towards my rendez-vous with the Ping-Pongeuse, which reminded me of another comely boulangerista at the same bakery at the entrance to the rue Daguerre who I tried to court 18 years ago by handing her a sunflower — during the epoch this is what I was packing, the idea being that I would spontaneously give my tournesol to whatever woman sparked my fancy — only to overhear her afterwards flirting on a bench outside the Catacombs with one very living beau. If this digression annoys you, just be thankful I’m sparing you the two-page entry for “Tournesol” in “The Dictionary of Symbols,” although my witch, who’s also a gardener and almost as much of a sunflower fanatic as me, will appreciate it.)

Still hoping to make myself cry (unfortunately I’d forgotten how Spencer Tracy achieves this to win an argument with Katherine Hepburn — I can’t even remember the name of the film) or at least feel something besides the urge to will the gargoyles to life so that they could start hurling their caca at the tourists, I crossed to the Ile St.-Louis and descended to my favorite bench, once again miraculously free, and from which perspective in 16 years of pique-niquing I’ve been looking across the water at Notre-Dame. At least this is how I remembered it, but when I got to the bench, I realized that what I’ve actually been looking at is that barred prison cell in the caverns of the Holocaust Memorial, with Camus lurking somewhere on its walls waiting to tell us that prison is just a state of mind.

As for the Ile itself, as with Montmartre for me on this trip, during which I’ve been trying not to just resurrect my previous nostalgia for epics I never lived but pay attention to whether they evoke anything for me now, thanks to the assholes who think they can play their annoying music and subject everyone else to it — there used to be a common understanding among We the People of the Ile that this was a music-free-zone — that magic was stifled, at least on this visit.

jardin des plantes lorietteRecently fixed up thanks to a public subscription campaign, the loriette atop the Jardin des Plantes is the oldest iron structure in Paris.

Fearing a similar letdown at the loriette above the nearby Jardin des Plantes — the oldest iron structure in Paris, recently restored thanks to a public inscription campaign — I crossed to the Left Bank and tiredly made my way through the outdoor sculpture garden, stopping only long enough to pee into a metal trough of stagnant amber liquid above which was the inevitable sign from the Mayor: “Paris is clean!” No wonder that when I got there another man was emerging from behind the urinal, where it was no doubt more clean. (Further along in the sculpture garden I found a sort of one-unit “Paris is pissing to fertilize” pissoir with plants in the basin whose complete exposure to the foot traffic makes me wonder what libertine of a deputy mayor dreamed this particular Eco-idea up, although the Serge book informs me that even the Grands Boulevards used to be littered with pissoirs “from which one can see only the cuffs and the shoes” of the piseurs, pissing away the excesses of Capitalism.)

After climbing up to the loriette, where the only free thin metal bench was directly facing the bright 6 p.m. Sun over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris (the main journalistic justification for this effort was that I wanted to compare religious monuments. Speaking of mosques, maybe the Notre-Dame renovation fund could give, I dunno, 200,000 of that 330 million to the fellows down the street form me here in the prè-St. Gervais, who do their worshiping in a storefront the only religious indication of which is the “Vigi-Pirate” sign on the frosted glass door and the sandals on the ledge outside the mosque on Fridays), I decided I had to say coucou to the Kangaroos (I call them that, but I think they’re actually wallabies), another effort to tap into an early Paris sentimental sensation, when I first discovered them in 2000 and liked to sip my cider leaning up against a bullet-ridden concrete wall facing the pen the kangaroos shared with a pair of black swans. That makeshift terrace has now been walled in as part of a restaurant; paying customers only, please.) I was rewarded with a close-up view, through a fence, of a baby kangaroo milking at his mama’s breast before pitching itself into her pouch, and mama hopping away. A three-year-old boy to whom a papa had been pointing out all these marvels shrieked, “Look Papa, pigeons!” “I point out something really special and you talk to me about pigeons.”

After Mama bounded off, baby in pouch, Dad (I’m talking about the kangaroo) stepped forward to grab a very large slice of raw eggplant from where it had been strewn about with tomatoes and leeks — ratatouille! — neatly nibbling everything away but the black skin before tossing it. That did it. Feeling weak having imbibed nothing but mint tea for six hours I decided to open the can of chicken-vegetable salad — tant pis if it might had fallen off a truck of botchulated foodstuffs on their way back to the factory.

I was about to crawl down into the mouth of the Jusseau metro — I knew there was a toilet on the Place Jusseau; all that mint tea — when I looked across the street and realized it was the “Street of the Arenes.” Yes, I was a traffic light away from THE 2000 year-old arenas of Lutèce, the ancient name for Paris and the more recent name of this column. Another landmark — or rather Paul nostalgia point — that I could cross off my bucket list with just a quick detour.

Ignoring a man strumming his guitar on the first level of the park below the arenas (Oops, the musical reference reminds me that I left out the tango party on the Tino Rossi Square below the Sculpture Garden set against the Seine and beyond that Notre-Dame to which none of the tango dancers who packed the square listening to recorded Carlos Gardel numbers were paying any attention, and where seeing three guys pushing 70 dancing with three girls who won’t be pushing 30 for at least five years told me I should have kept up with those Fort Worth tango lessons and brought my new tango boots instead of my 47-year-old ping-pong paddles to Paris), I continued up the stairs to the concrete lodges flanking one side of the arena from which the Emperor once sat looking down on the gladiators and across at the people in the bleachers, Emperor and subjects drooling over the slaves being tossed out of the cages to the lions, and sat sipping my tea on the bench carved into the lodge before noticing that below that, on the roof of one of the cages, a niche had been carved into the stone big enough for a small emperor to squeeze into, which I did, only instead of a slave being chased by a lion a young woman in a short jeans skirt and white blouse came running towards me chasing a metal ball, which is all they’re chasing these days in the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce.

Heading back where I came from after drinking more tea and emptying it in the appropriate place, then sitting down to enjoy the guitar player before leaving Lutèce, not far from the exit I noticed, in an alcove behind a fenced-in lawn on the other side of which was the arena, a naked alabaster maiden with no head reclining on a body-length stone shelf above an empty basin and cuddling an urn-like object in the crook of her arm. In front of the locked fence protecting the lawn between the fence and the maiden was a stationary sign announcing “Pesticide-free rye and poppies coming soon, thanks to the Friends of the Poppies.” Then I noticed the Don’t drink the water symbol (a faucet with a cross through it) above the alabaster lady and, sure enough, looking closer recognized the three rectangular water outlets below her.

In other words, I’d discovered yet another dry, poorly maintained fountain in Paris, whose administration hasn’t yet figured out that, respiration-wise, a flowing fountain would be a lot more reassuring then poppies and rye. (And I say this as someone of Jewish heritage, whose natural inclinations lean more towards poppies and rye than Gallo-Roman idols.) (I know what you’re thinking: If they’d just put up “Pissoir Ici” signs on all the dry fountains around Paris this would solve two problems. Don’t tempt me.)

This is when I had the revolutionary — for a guy who’s always come to Paris, like Malcolm McLaren, to live yesterday today — revelation: This is what is supposed to happen to decrepit monuments. Their heads fall off. This is what happened to Notre Dame: It’s head fell off. Now, if something happened to that Delacroix fountain, I might be singing a different story….

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When art becomes dangerous: Lange captures Americans captured by their country; Asawa makes something out of it

“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.”

— Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1942

lange camps child smallDisappointed by their under-representation in the Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1966) exhibition running at the Jeu de Paume through January 27, or simply unable to get to Paris or to Oakland, at whose museum you can find more of Lange’s photographs of Japanese-Americans imprisoned during World War II, commissioned by the federal government? (Which, once it saw them, realized how dangerous they were if anyone else did and stowed them away in the National Archives, where they languished until 2006.) So were we, until we discovered Tim Chambers’s thorough photo-essay on the blog  of Anchor Editions, where Chambers is making many of the images available as limited-edition prints, donating half the proceeds to organizations fighting to protect immigrant rights. His meticulously documented article is informed by citations from those American citizens (as well as politicians and the media, like L.A. Times screed above) culled by Linda Gordon for her book “Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment,” including this one from Misuyo Nakamura, shepherded to the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Los Angeles before being sent to the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas.: “We were herded onto the train just like cattle and swine.” Lange wrote most of her own captions, including, above: April 29, 2942: San Francisco, California: A young evacuee on bus before it starts for Tanforan Assembly Center. Evacuees will be transferred to War Relocation Authority Centers for the duration. Photo from the National Archives.

ruth nasturtiumsOne of the 120,000 Americans imprisoned in the camps , Ruth Asawa grew up to be not a viper but something just as dangerous: An artist. And a foundry of other artists and artistically-informed citizens. (As well as fountains that began as playdough projects with her charges.) Convinced by her experience as a child locked up in the camps of the importance of education, Asawa went on to found, with other parents, the Alvarado Arts program, which evolved into the San Francisco, now Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. The above lithograph, first published on the Arts Voyager in 2012, is part of a series Asawa produced when she was invited to participate in the Tamarind workshop, which paired artists with master printers. Ruth Asawa, “Nasturtiums,” 1965. Lithograph, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; 1965.214. Image courtesy Carter Museum. Copyright Ruth Asawa 1965. (Arts Voyager and Dance Insider subscribers can e-mail us at paulbenitzak@gmail.com to receive a copy of the complete article, with more images. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today for just $36/year and receive full access to 20 years of coverage of art and the performing arts. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us there to learn how to pay by check.)

Albert Camus – Maria Casarès Correspondence: Gallimard outs its most important author’s private demons

camus casaresAlbert Camus and Maria Casarès. Book cover photo courtesy Gallimard.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Commentary copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

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Previously explored by Olivier Todd in his exhaustive 1996 Gallimard biography and insinuated in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Albert Camus’s inherent self-doubt — in all areas of his life – as he struggled to live up to the principles he extolled for others is now decisively confirmed by the novelist-journalist-philosopher-playwright’s 16 years and 1,275 pages of correspondence with his longtime mistress (for want of a word which would do better justice to their fidelity) Maria Casarès, recently published for the first time by Gallimard after being released by Camus’s daughter Catherine, who inherited the letters from the actress. Portions of the correspondence will be recited this month at the Avignon Festival by Lambert Wilson, whose father George worked with Casarés (including at Avignon), and Isabel Adjani.

A die-hard Camusian ever since being assigned to read “The Plague” in high school (thank you, Ralph Saske), of course I had to request a review copy from the publisher as soon as the correspondence came out, putatively for this article, but with the ulterior ambition of being the first to translate the letters into English and trying to find an American publisher.

Because of the period covered (the pair became lovers in Paris on D-Day 1944, split up the following fall when Camus’s wife Francine returned from Algeria, and reunited in 1948 after bumping into each other on the boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres, remaining together until Camus’s death in a traffic accident on January 4, 1960), I’d hoped to find new insight into Camus’s thought process in preparing “The Fall,” “The Rebel,” and the unfinished autobiographical novel “The First Man” — the hand-written manuscript of the first 261 pages were found among the wreckage and later published by Gallimard — as well as his inner reasoning as he struggled to come up with a resolution for the conflict and war in Algeria, where Camus’s efforts to square his principles with the well-being of his family in the French colony, his birthplace, tore him apart, and his public views pissed off everyone on both sides. (The author ultimately proposed an autonomous state federated with France, and where the ‘colonists’ would be allowed to remain.) From Casarès — the busiest stage and radio actress of the fertile post-War Parisian scene, a major film presence (she played Death in Jean Cocteau’s 1949 “Orpheus”), and the daughter of a former Republican president of Spain — I’d relished the potential accounts and impressions of the playwrights and directors she worked with, a real’s who-who of the French theater world during the Post-War epoch (as attested to by Béatrice Vaillant’s thoroughly documented footnotes), notably Jean Vilar, founder of the Theatre National Populaire and the Avignon Festival.

Unfortunately (if understandably; this is not a criticism of the correspondents, but of Gallimard’s ill-considered decision to make their private, often banal dialogue public), in fulfillment of their main purpose of maintaining the link during their often long separations, necessitated by his retreats for writing, author tours, visits to his family in Algeria, tuberculosis cures, and family vacations — he never divorced Francine — and on hers by performance tours, apart from the travelogues (except where they describe her vacations by the Brittany and Gironde seaside, more interesting on his part), their letters are often dominated by declarations of love and the sufferance of absence (even if your name is Albert Camus, there are only so many interesting ways to say I love you, I want you, I need you), and the often anodyne details of their daily lives apart. Camus tells her to leave nothing out, understandable for an often absent lover, but which ultimately reveals her frivolity and recurrent prejudices (particularly when it comes to male homosexuals, who according to Casarès are typically vengeful). Her manner of chronicling her quotidian activities is often so indiscriminate, investing theatrical rendez-vous with the same level of importance as shopping excursions for furniture to decorate her fifth-floor flat with balcony on the rue Vaugirard, that at one point he mildly rebukes her, “Don’t just write that you had a luncheon appointment, say who it was with.” The best she can come up with to describe the experience of making “Orpheus” with Cocteau is that she was annoyed by the autograph-seekers who showed up at the outdoor shoots, not the only instance where she disdains her public. And when it comes to the radio productions which seem to constitute her main employ, at least in Paris, she often refers to “having a radio today,” without even naming the play in question. (When Camus refers to “a radio,” he means an x-ray to analyze the progress or regression of the chronic tuberculosis which dogged him all his life.) Never mind that the radios in question were plays by the leading European writers of the day, as well as classics. But the part I found myself resenting a bit – as someone who would have loved to have had a tenth of the dramatic opportunities Casarès did – is that at times she seems to treat her theater work, particularly the radio recordings, as almost onerous. (This morning on French public radio, in a live interview from the same Avignon festival, the director Irene Brook, Peter’s daughter, recognized that “we’re very privileged to be able to pass our days rehearsing theater.”)

When it comes to discussing his work, at most Camus refers to his progress on the literary task at hand or writers’ blocks impeding it, rarely going into the philosophical or political issues he’s grappling with – some of the headiest of the Post-War period, French intellectuals’ inclination towards which Camus was instrumental in forming. As for the letters from Algeria, typically occasioned by visits to his mother, uncle, and brother’s family, if Camus’s native’s appreciation for and adoration of the landscape is apparent, even lyrical (particularly in recounting excursions to Tipassa), he dwells mostly on his ageing mother’s maladies, and rarely comments on the sometimes violently contested political encounters he was having at the time. If anything, their relationship was their havre, a refuge and sanctuary from the demands of his calling and the rigors of what she seems to have considered more obligations than labors of love. (From his letters to his wife cited by Todd – at one point he tells her he regards her more as a sister than a spouse – Camus was much more likely to discuss his thinking process with Francine than with Casarès, at least in his letters.)

This is not to say there are no newsworthy stories here. For Camus, the story, albeit one already explored by Todd in his biography (for which Todd apparently had access to the letters), is the author-philosopher’s continually frustrated efforts to live his private life in accordance with his public principles. Moral responsibility (and fidelity) to one’s community, and the need to be exemplary even in the most trying of circumstances and times — two of the principal themes of “The Plague” — dictate that he remain in a conjugally loveless marriage, which means he can never shack up for good with the woman he loves, to her great frustration. (Never mind that he’s an atheist — which he hedges here at times by asking Casarès to pray to her god, sometimes on his behalf — Francine is a practicing Catholic.) The right, voir obligation, to be happy — another pillar central not only to “The Plague” but Camus’s over-riding philosophy of positive Existentialism, where one must still find meaning even in the most trying of circumstances — would insist that he fully commit himself to Casarès and the complete realization of their love. Because he ultimately can’t square the two principles, everyone — Francine, Maria, and himself — is often miserable.

A fourth, and perhaps the author’s most personally invested, theme of “The Plague” — absence and separation — is indeed one of the two principal unifying themes that emerge from the letters, but given that the book was published in 1948, when their relationship began in earnest, at best the letters furnish an after-the-fact illustration and elaboration of this theme, their particular separations having played no role in its actual development. (The absence and separation which inspired “The Plague” being the one the war imposed between the author and his wife Francine, who remained in Algeria.)

If there is a bonafide, universally resonant story here (besides the humanizing of a super-human philosopher), it is that of the ultimate unconditional love. After some initial resistance (expressed in face to face, and animated, arguments referred to and regurgitated in her letters), Casarès never demands that Camus leave his wife, even though it means she can’t have a true domicile conjugal, with a companion and children to come home to (at least as manifest in the letters, she remained loyal to him, even though he had at least two other mistresses during the time they were together, according to Todd). For his part, if he doesn’t hear from her for more than a week when they’re apart, he worries that she might be drifting away and sinks into a morose depression, unable even to work. If I know these things — here’s where the unconditionality comes in — it’s because they’ve made a pact, referred to in the letters, to share everything without holding back, no matter how ridiculous or petty the sentiment might seem. And they stick to this agreement faithfully.

The other element that links the author and the actress — how they fulfill and complete each other — is a shared, desperate need for nature, primarily the sea (although he’s also able to appreciate the pictorial value of the mountainous terrains he often finds himself confined to, for writing and health retreats; but we didn’t need the publication of these letters to know that Camus was an adroit paysagist). Maria’s most brilliant and moving passages describe her merging with the sea on an island in Bretagne or off a beach in the Gironde, her two vacation retreats. (If I use the first name, it’s because on these occasions, watching her galloping into the waves to meet the surf head on, I feel like I’m discovering the child inside the woman.) Camus’s descriptions of a return to Rome — which he values as a living monument to art and archeology — are also inspiring (they made me want to go there, or at least watch “Roman Holiday” again), and a personal review of a London production of “Caligula” that he finds lacking is scathingly funny.

The most poignant moment comes not so much at the juncture we expect — Camus’s final letter, of December 30, 1959, alerting Casarès he’ll arrive back in Paris by the following Tuesday “in principal, barring hazards encountered en route,” and where he looks forward to embracing her and “recommencing” — but earlier in the same year. Casarès has just decided to leave the TNP (over Vilar’s latest caprices, this time insisting on his right to call the actors during a well-earned vacation), after five years, which followed a shorter stay at the stodgy Comedie Française. I dream of living in a roulotte — or covered gypsy wagon — and hitting the road, she tells him. (He’s welcome to join her, but her plans don’t depend on that eventuality.) He encourages this dream, but notes, in the manner of a supportive but prudent parent, that she should realize that just because she’ll be living in a roulotte doesn’t mean she’ll be free and independent; it just means she’ll be living in a community surrounded by other roulottes. “Even in roulottes, there are rules.” This could be an analogy for their 16-year relationship, an emotional vagabondage inevitably — and fatally — tethered by the rigors, responsibilities, and rules of living in good society.

If the example of unconditional love revealed in the letters is compelling and inspiring, the moral problem I have with Gallimard’s publishing them is that there’s no indication that the professional writer involved intended for them to be made public. The problem is not just one of intrusion and indiscretion (Todd cites a note to Camus from Roger Martin de la Garde to the effect that a writer owes the public his work, not his private life, inferring from this that Camus subscribed to the same belief), but that *with works he knew were destined for publication*, Camus was a scrupulous and meticulous perfectionist. Counting the war, “The Plague” took eight years to write, from gestation to publication. “The First Man” started germinating in 1952, and by the author’s death eight years later was only one third finished, according to his outline. Both Todd’s biography and the letters themselves confirm that Camus worked, re-worked, and re-wrote his books and articles, and even after they were published continued to be besieged by  doubts. (Notably over “The Rebel,” virulently attacked by Sartre and his Modern Times lackey Francis Jeansen, the former not confining himself to taking on the treatise’s arguments but attacking Camus personally, like a Sorbonne senior with a superiority complex upbraiding an underclassman who has the moxey to challenge him.)

If an argument can be made for making them available to researchers for biographical purposes — in the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale, for example, or of the university in Aix-en-Provence, a region where many of Camus’s papers are located — my feeling, as a Camus loyalist, is that these letters should not have been published. If Catherine Camus’s motivations in releasing them should not be questioned — she’s been an assiduous guardian of her father’s legacy, and who can interject themselves into the complex considerations, even after death, created by the relationship between a daughter and the father she lost prematurely at age 14? – I’m flummoxed by Gallimard’s decision, given the meager literary and biographical value of the result.  (A caveat and reservation: Camus does tell Casarès at one point that everything in him which connects him to humanity, he owes to her; at another, on July 21, 1958: “As the years have gone buy, I’ve lost my roots, in lieu of creating them, except for one, you, my living source, the  only thing which today attaches me to the real world.”)

After finishing them, I was still, nonetheless, on the bubble about the letters’ inherent worth, and worthiness as a translation project. What red-blooded Camusian doesn’t want to be the first to translate freshly released words by his idol into English?! Less self-interestedly, I considered that perhaps the lessons of this extraordinarily unconditional love justified the value to potential English-language readers of a translation. And then there was the lingering vision of Maria running joyously, fearlessly into the waves in the Gironde, or holed up in a cave on the obscure side of a Brittany island as the tide rises and the waves begin to crash against the uneven rocks under her naked feet, imperiling her own life and engendering Camus’s chagrin when she describes the episode to him. And above all the penultimate image of Casarès, liberated by a relationship whose restrictions might have fettered anybody else, terminating her contract with the TNP and setting off to see the world in a roulotte, after Camus’s parting advice to be careful.  When it informed me that the book was still in the “reading” stage at several Anglophone publishers, with no firm commitment for a translated edition, I even asked the foreign rights department at Gallimard if it would be open to a partial, selective translation of the letters.

But then, after dawdling over the 1,275 pages of correspondence between Maria Casarès and Albert Camus for three months, I read Gallmeister’s 2014 translation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and was reminded of what literature is. (This despite the rudimentary translation; it reads like one.) And isn’t. Albert Camus, like Kurt Vonnegut, set a high bar for what constituted literature, working it, re-working it, and re-working it again before he felt it was ready for his public. (And even then, continued to be wracked by doubts.) These letters were not meant for that public. When Vonnegut, for “Breakfast of Champions,” decided to share his penis size, he knew he was exposing himself on the public Commons. When Camus shared his innermost thoughts, doubts, and fears with the most important person in his life, he did not.

Post-Script: Because you got this far and deserve a reward; because they do reveal a rare lighter side to Camus which, their correspondence suggests, Casarès was at times able to elicit from an author whose work rarely reveals a sense of humor; because I can’t resist the urge to translate, for the first time in English, at least a smidgeon of previously unreleased Camus; and above all because these morsels were at least theoretically intended for a public larger than their couple, voila my renderings of several “search apartment with view on ocean” letters written by Camus on Casarès’s behalf in 1951 and 1952 appended to the correspondence (and which serendipitously mirror my own current search):

Dear Sir,

At times I dream — living in the midst of flames as I do, because the dramatic art is a pyre  to which the actor lights the match himself, only to be consumed every night, and you can imagine what it’s like in a Paris already burning up in the midst of July, when the soul itself is covered in ashes and half-burned logs, until the moment when the winds of poetry surge forth and whip up the high clear flame which possesses us — at times I dream, therefore, and as I was saying, and in this case the dream becomes the father of action, taking on an avid and irreal air, I dream, at the end of the day, of a place sans rules or limits and where the fire which pushes me on finally smolders out, I’ve been thinking that your coast with its nice clear name would not refuse to welcome the humble priestess of [Th…  ], and her brother in art, to envelope their solitude in the tireless spraying of the eternal sea. Two rooms and two hearts, some planks, the sea whistling at our feet, and the best possible bargain, this is what I’m looking for. Can you answer my prayers?

Maria Casarès

Dear Madame,

Two words. I’m hot and I’m dirty, but I’m not alone. The beach, therefore, and water, two rooms, wood for free or next to nothing. Looking forward to hearing back from you.

Maria Casarès

PS: I forgot: August.

Dear Sir or Madame,

Voila first of all what I want forgive me I’m forced to request this from you but everything’s happening so fast and everyone’s talking and talking and nothing comes from all the talking it’s too late so here’s what I need I am going in a bit with my comrade to take the train to Bordeaux it gets better it’s on the beach and even better it doesn’t cost anything question that is to say I don’t have any money but I’m confident. So, goodbye, monsieur, and thanks for the response which I  hope comes soon it’s starting to get hot here.

Maria Casarès

To a housing cooperative

Two rooms please open on the night
I’ll cluster my people and hide my suffering
As far as money goes it’s a bit tight
I’ll be on the coast but no ker-ching, ker-ching.

— Albert Camus, for Maria Casarès, translated (liberally) by Paul Ben-Itzak