Lutèce Diary / A post-modern American in Paris, 40: The Gift (Le Cadeau) or, Pour en finir avec le Céline-o-mania

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A Sidney, pour les soins….et a Lewis, Jamie, Martin, et tout mes péres, qui rien n’avais obligé d’y etre mais qui se sont comporté comme tel. /To Sidney, for the care…. and to Lewis, Jamie, Martin, and all my fathers who nothing obligated to be but who comported themselves as such.

Prelude: Poete surrealiste chretienne morte a Drancy, car née Juif

“Love thy neighbor”

Who noticed the toad cross the street? He was just a little man — a doll would not have been more miniscule. He dragged himself along on his knees — as if he were ashamed….? No! He has rheumatism, one leg remains behind, he drags it forward! Where is he going like that? He comes out of the sewer, the poor clown. No one has noticed this toad in the street. Before no one noticed me in the street, now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You don’t have a yellow star.” (Voir dessous pour le V.O. / See below for the original French version.)

— Max Jacob, Surrealist poet, comrade of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Picasso, arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1944, in the Brittany village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. In a note hastily scribbled on the train to the Orleans prison, Jacob, who since converting to Christianity before the first World War liked to write personalized proselytizing homilies for his colleagues and whose poetry was suffused with devotional tributes to Christ, wrote: “Dear Monsieur le Cure, Excuse this letter from a drowning man written with the complaisance of the gendarmes. I wanted to tell you that I’ll soon be in Drancy. I have conversions in process. I have confidence in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom which now begins.” On March 5, Jacob succumbed to pneumonia at the Drancy way station outside Paris before he could be deported — or confessed. At Drancy, there were no priests. (Poem collected in “Max Jacob,” edited by Andre Billy, published by and copyright Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946. Letter cited by Billy in “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.)

1932: The Semence

Paris, the Grands Boulevards, a winter evening in 1916. The young conscript, on furlough from the hospital where doctors are trying to determine if he’s crazy or just doesn’t want to return to the trenches of a crazy war, enters the Olympia nightclub and observes, as recounted by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his 1932 “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” still considered by the French and American literary establishments to be the author’s safe, non-Anti-Semitic book (shortly after publication, it was translated into Russian by the French Communist super-star couple Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet; New Directions still proudly hawks the English translation):

“Already in wartime our morose peace was sowing its seeds…. We could imagine what it would become, this hysteria, just from seeing it already agitating in the Olympia tavern. Below in the narrow, shady dancing cave with its 100 mirrors, It pawed the dust in the great desperation of the Négro-Judéo-Saxonne music. Brits and Blacks all mingling together. Levantines and Russians. They were everywhere, smoking, brawling, sad sacks and soldiers, crammed onto crimson sofas. These uniforms, which we barely remember anymore, would sow the seeds of today, this Thing which continues to germinate and would become a dung-hill a little later, with time.” (Translated by PB-I.)

1940-45: The Harvest

Some 13 years after Louis-Ferdinand Céline thus fulminated (the parallels between his own trajectory and that of his first-person hero, “Ferdinand,” make the defense that an author doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the opinions of his personage dubious), the ‘semence’ he (and his publishers, including Gallimard) helped sow (in ‘Voyage’ and three pamphlets taxed as being anti-Semitic, although the Judeophobic grotesque Céline paints of himself and of the anti-Semitic rationale in general in the 1937 “Bagatelles for a massacre,” in which he also wrote: “In the leg of a dancer the world, its waves, all its rhythms, its follies, its views are inscribed…. The most nuanced poem in the world!,” the ‘bagatelles’ being ballets without music, makes that epithet problematic here) by furnishing civilized literary cover for his countrymen who would collaborate with the German occupiers in the Deportation of 76,000 of their Jewish neighbors, including 11,000 children, only 3,000 of whom would return from the death camps — Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago this month — manifests its real-world toll on the sixth-floor balcony of a building on a corner of the rue Hauteville above the “Bonne Nouvelles” (Good News) Metro station, several blocks up the Grands-Boulevards from the Olympia, where a woman straddles the railing, distraught that the daughter arrested by a good French policeman after she was turned in by a good French neighbor has still not returned after the war, the room the woman has reserved for her child remaining vacant.

The precarious mental state of the woman had recently prompted her brother and his wife to return from the United States to France, where the wife will later give birth to three sons, the semence of a new generation of French Jews who have not lost hope in France. Two of the sons will grow up to become, respectively, a general practitioner and a dentist — my doctor and my dentist starting when I lived on the rue de Paradis up the street in the early 2000s — converting the apartment on whose balcony rail their aunt once teetered into a medical bureau, their offices separated by a waiting room decorated by posters of Satchmo blowing, Gabriel, blowing, his cheeks puffed up; Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billowing from the gusts of wind rising out of a subway grating on location for “The Seven-Year Itch” to reveal her underwear; and Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘draguing’ the American Jean Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the New York Herald Tribune with its logo emblazoned across her chest in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” this last poster a nod to what I’d always understood as the doctors’ mixed Franco-American heritage, their mother being an American citizen…. For the complete article,  click here.

Vanishing Acts: Waiting in Limbo with Maguy Marin, Nidaa Badwan, Gaza, & Lutèce

marin umweltCompagnie Maguy Marin in Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt.” Photograph by and copyright Christian Ganet and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on December 11, 2015, in the wake of the November 13 massacre in Paris of 130 innocents from France and around the world on the café terraces, outside the stadiums, and in the Bataclan concert hall by a bunch of cowards. For an update on Nidaa Badwan — who is no longer waiting in limbo — click here.

PARIS — One of the endurance tests of a work of art is its malleability over time. When I first saw Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt” 10 years ago in its Paris premiere at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, if the choreography was dense, its spirit was still unrelentingly slapstick, with nine performers taking turns surging rapid-fire — solitary, paired, or in triplets — from the opening between three lateral walls of mirrors, le tout, mirrors and humans with their various props (baby dolls, turkey drumsticks, army helmets, guns, aprons, foliage, blonde wigs, laboratory jackets, pills, buckets of dirt…) buffeted about by wind machines as they engaged in everyday human interplay and gestures from kisses to fights, with the occasional flashing of fesses and genitals tossed in to remind you it was, after all, European modern dance. Even the bombastic score — played by a single strand of twine which crossed the downstage from one spool to another, caressing the strings of three prostrate electric guitars en route — didn’t perturb the frothy demeanor of the movement. What outraged me was that where no one had walked from the same theater during a Wim Vandekeybus spectacle the previous week which projected graphic images of children being tortured and killed, 40 spectators fled “Umwelt,” the more optimistic work. On Friday December 4, though, at the opening of the reprise of “Umwelt” on the same stage, I started sobbing at the first appearance of the performers. With their bright pedestrian outfits and variety of human shapes and ages, in their frantic running back and forth, fighting against the torrential currents of the wind and lost in the confines of the buckling rows of mirror-wall centurions, they seemed to be the 130 innocents killed November 13, discombobulated and disoriented over what had just happened to them, trapped in this antechamber like Captain Kirk hovering between two dimensions, juggling the detrius of their lives on Earth until we the survivors could set things right. At the moment, the verdict is still out, as we too seem to be hovering like Kirk between two worlds — or at least two worldviews, that of trepidation and fear and that of persevering hope.

On Thursday, I returned to the Place de la Republique, where previously, reading a note *whose message I didn’t agree with* implying a causal relationship between these senseless murders and Western intevention in the Middle East (Da’esh attacked us first!) — I was nonetheless heartened to see the statement, and that no one had taken it down, because this is the France they want to destroy, the France which embraces debate and disagreement and dissent. In the United States, striking workers are kept a block away from the workplace they’re picketing; in France, they actually occupy the workplace, and police aren’t called in to clear them out. (These rights aren’t a given; workers died for them.) At the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie right now, as part of the first biennial of photography of the contemporary Arab world, an entire floor is taken up by an exhibition on the disastrous effects of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip in 2014, particularly in polluting the area’s water supply. The MEP is an institution of the city of Paris. A similar exhibition would never happen at a municipal museum in the United States, or if it did, Israeli lobbyists would insist on a counter-exhibition postulating a false equivalence of victimhood. It’s institutions like these — vaunting free speech, and a wider opening to Arab perspectives than anywhere else in the Occident — that protected France for so long from the terrorists, with their lying attempts to justify their actions as vengeance for mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims. And it’s this France which the terrorists want to destroy. To them — horrible as this is to say — it’s not so much the body count that matters, as how we react to the blood-letting and whether they succeed in dividing us and getting us to modify our values, or at least our interpretation and implementation of them.

Shepherding the reaction is new terrain for a president who was elected above all to address economic challenges. So far — while there are those on the far Left here who might disagree with me — the response, particularly by the patient interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, has been considered and tempered, given the unprecedented circumstances the country faces, *and* the crucial regional elections he must supervise at the same time and that, if the far Right takes three to four of the new 13 super-regions in Sunday’s second round as they have a good chance to do, could weigh heavily on the 2017 national elections and the fate of liberty, fraternity, and equality in a country that swears by them. So the following is offered not as back-seat driving, but as the perspective of a foreigner who doesn’t want to see France lose what in a way, we all feel a ‘proprietary’ stake in (and should not imply that there are not Frenchmen and women who feel the same, up to and including the president).

Returning to the Place de la Republique Thursday December 3, then, I found the monument around which the notes have been posted below the votive candles encircled by barricades which made it impossible to approach closer than 100 meters, and thus no longer possible to read the declarations which were the main souvenir compelling Parisians and visitors to hover there in silent contemplation. The two discrete national police officers patrolling the place had been augmented to 20, with a fleet of vans standing nearby. There was a reason and even a noble motivation for this; on the previous Sunday, some demonstrators had reportedly trashed some of the mementos, so that the police were there to protect the shrine and prevent further damage. Still, it made me sad that, at least at this site, it was no longer possible to link ourselves in solidarity around the WORD, the word which has been precious to France and Frenchmen and women since Descartes, since Voltaire, since Moliere, the Chevalier de la Barre, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Sand, Zola, Jaures, Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir and right up to modern scholars and philosopher-pundits Stora and Onfray.

gazaGaza, Beti Hanoun, April 2015: A girl from Beti Lahia leads her little brother to a water distribution point. In June the U.N. described the devastation in Gaza  following Israel’s 2014 invasion as “unprecedented.” According to the U.N., Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians among whom 551 were children. Hamas killed 72 Israelis, including 67 soldiers and five civilians. Photo copyright Massimo Berruti, who received the Prix Photo AFD / Polka for his work. Courtesy Maison Europeenne de la Photographie.

The second decision which saddened me — even if I understand the well- intentioned reasoning — was that to temporarily suspend free Wednesday late afternoons / early evenings at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie. The reasoning is evident; a magnet for the (mostly) young (less likely to have the resources to pay for a ticket), cosmopolitan, hip, and decoratively dressed, of all cultures, this is demographically exactly the type of event that was targeted on November 13. Popular and crowded — even if the MEP carefully monitors capacity — with several floors and essentially one exit, it’s obviously a vulnerable assemblage. Still, the contemporary Arab world photography exhibition is the perfect counter-argument to the terrorists’ (false and duplicitous) recruiting tool that the West is out to harm Muslims and Arabs. Andrea & Magda’s “Sinai Park” shows the deleterious effects of, among other factors, Daesh’s terrorism on tourism investment in the Sinai. And the Italian photographer Massimo Berruti’s “Gaza: Eau Miracle” shows the calamitous effects of Israel’s 2014 invasion of this occupied territory on the area’s water supply, particularly in his photos of Gazan children searching for water amidst the rubble. In other words, the high visibility of both the biennial in general and these exhibitions in particular proves the contrary of Daesh’s claims as regards France. Perhaps MEP could take a cue from Theater de la Ville director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who, in the face of restrictions on school outings following the declaration of the state of emergency, has promised to bring the artists to the school so that the theater can continue its ambitious education programs. MEP could, for example, bring a slide-show version of Berruti’s award-winning work to French schools, including the banlieus or suburbs.

The MEP room devoted to Berruti’s Gaza work also featured, in continuous loop, a France 24 television report on the devastating effects of Israel’s Gaza invasion, part of which was a featurette on Nidaa Badwan, a Gazan artist caught between two extremes. Prevented by Israel from leaving Gaza, frowned on by Hamas’s “morality” police (who even beat her after arresting her for an outdoor performance) because she dresses like, well, like any Belleville artist, and distressed by the dilapidation that confronts her every time she goes outside, the 28-year-old artist decided to create her own cocoon in her 9-square-foot bedroom, lining it with egg-carts to diminish the outside noise and taking a series of self-portrait photographs (illumined by rare moments of sunlight). When the director of the Jerusalem French Institute read about Badwin’s book based on this project, “100 Days of Solitude,” in the New York Times, the institute organized an exhibition in East Jerusalem. When it came time for the opening, Israel refused to issue her a visa.

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Gaza Artist Nidaa Badwan captured — and free — in her home and studio. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

I think of Badwan, armed only with her beret and her camera, determined to make her art even in the face of extremes on both sides. And it occurs to me that if she can persist and create a niche in a space of liberty smaller than even many Paris apartments, maybe we can maintain ours, and liberate Noemie Gonzalez and the other 129 November 13 martyrs from their limbo.
PS: Taking my lunch yesterday abreast of the Ourcq canal in the suburb of Pantin, right outside the Paris Peripherique, I noticed a motorcyclist in a municipal uniform stopping by each of the trees and lowering his vacuum…. to suck up dog poop. We here are much more comfortable preserving beauty than fighting destruction. We are finding our way. So when the Canadian militant Naomi Klein gets up, as she did earlier this week in Paris during the climate conference, and invites her followers to defy the State of Emergency’s prohibition of demonstrations, having the gall to call the government’s ban “draconian and opportunistic,” I want to say: You are a guest here. (And one who has been welcomed on the public media waves.) We are not here to help you sell your books. Please take your self-promoting defiance elsewhere while we work this out, in our fashion.

nidaa badwan new roomNidaa Badwan in the “New Room” — as this photo is called —  and studio accorded to her by Italy after this story first appeared. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan