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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AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: Thresholds, with art from Balthus, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn and PBI’s Memoir ‘Two-and-a-half with a Bullet’

balthus 7 la chat du mirroir 7 small 2From the exhibition Balthus, running through January 1 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland: “Le Chat au miroir III,” 1989–1994. Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection. Copyright Balthus.

Text by & copyright Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak
Art by Balthus from the exhibition Balthus at the Fondation Beyeler, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn (see captions for copyrights)

Today AVID offers a dialogue between PBI’s time-traveling memoirs of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating in France and the work of Balthus, on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland through January 1 and, from our archives, Ruth Asawa and Ben Shahn. Like what you’re reading? Please subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for $36/year or make a donation by designating your PayPal payment to paubenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to pay by check. This one goes out to Linda, in memory of Bill Clark. The excerpt below, from PBI’s “Cross-Country/A Memoir of France & the U.S.,” is titled “Prelude: Two-and-a-half with a bullet,” and is 90% revised from an earlier version. 

“He’s here again: the man with the child in his eyes.” — Kate Bush

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”     — Wallace Berry, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (George Braziller, New York, 1963. Illustrated by Ben Shahn)

“Songs to aging children come / Aging children, I am one.” — Joni Mitchell, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” from the film “Alice’s Restaurant”)

Mom is crying over the wooden loom that divides the dining room from the kitchen in our San Francisco Edwardian, as the fog over Noe Valley evaporates outside the window. I look up at her from the black-speckled yellow linoleum floor.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

“President Kennedy has been ass-ass-i-na-ted.”

This is my first conscious memory. (Although as my old creative writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates recently pointed out on French radio, what we think are direct memories are often memories of memories, retained by constant replay. The best teachers’ lessons are meted out over a lifetime. Which is not to say that Oates wasn’t already meting them out in 1980. After I submitted a short story in which I confessed to committing “slow suicides,” she handed me an essay she’d written, “The Art of Suicide,” not a how-to-manual but a critique of famous self-immolators: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath….Her main point was that as one can’t desire a void, for the Suicide – she used it as a noun – the wish “I want to die” is really a stand-in for something else: “I want you to love me,” “I want to you to listen to me….” Three years later another Princeton professor, Robert Fagles, would walk into Tragedy class one afternoon with a Washington Post article about a college student who had killed himself after reading the Oresteia… in his translation. Holding the clipping in one hand and tapping the book gently with the other and looking each of us in the eyes, he declared, carefully enunciating each word in his tender, resonant cadence: “I want to be sure you understand what this tale is about.” When I interviewed Fagles about his new Oedipus translation the next year for the Times, he would explain: “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.” My own thinking on the ultimate existential question – Albert Camus called it the only question —  has evolved, following the 2015 Paris suicide of filmmaker Chantal Akerman,  who once built a play around the letters between Plath and her mother, to consider the possibility that when an artist chooses to end her life, it may just be a creative way to formulate a period. Or to breach a threshold. And that we should allow these liberators of our own souls their franchise.)

As childhood memories go, I have only two of my parents together before they split up when I was 12. An electrical storm is rattling our isolated house off Bohan-Dillon Road in rural Northern California, and Dad is late returning from a visit to the Pomo reservation, reached only by a treacherous mountain road. When he finally bursts in, drenched, Mom clutches him desperately, like a fisherman’s bride embracing an errant sailor presumed lost to the sea’s caprices. (From the reservation I also remember a succulent pig roasting on a dripping spit and the Great Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1969, which started with the Indian children and terminated with my baby brother’s pink-speckled body dangling from my mom’s arms. Now that I’ve shared Jordan’s most intimate moment of affliction — to cop a term from another Princeton prof. — here’s mine:  Being bitten on the penis by a tic while climbing the cliffs above the totem pole guarding the Timber Cove Inn, which explains my aversion for going cepes hunting with my neighbor in the South of France five decades later.)

My other memory of Mom and Dad together is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tamales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress (her family hid him out in Holland during the war) hosted their annual herring festival with the dozens of children they’d adopted: Smoked herring, pickled herring, barbecued herring, fried herring, herring-shaped bread, salt-water herring taffy. (When the herring festival wasn’t on, we’d beg mom to stop at the Stewart General Store across from Fort Ross, an old Russian bastion overlooking the ocean, for beef jerky.) Dad in his broad tan cowboy hat is carefully explaining something to Mom, not looking at her, as she purses her lips and stares down at the dry brown weeds. (They would separate soon afterwards.) I resume flirting with a mulatto girl from a local school I retrieved every year on the volleyball court, not the first mulatto girl I’d fall in love with.

balthus five Les Enfants Blanchard smallBalthus, “The Blanchard Children,” 1937. Oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris.  Donation of Picasso’s inheritors, 1973/1978. © Balthus.  Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau Blanchard.

My courting of Christine LaMar that same school year, 1972-73 (also when my first cat, Kristen, was mauled to death by the O’Neils’ German Sheppard), was confined to stare-out contests across the aisle of the 24 Divisadero, until she blindsided me one morning by boarding the bus at Market wearing dark glasses. Deciding it was time to up the ante, I dedicated my first, handwritten novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a police duo who took on racial problems, to her. I also dedicated my ping-pong victories to Christine, announcing to my brother Aaron and best friend Eric before every match over our basement table: “I dedicate this game to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be __ and __ . If I lose, I will be….” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing that she was transferring to another school, I was able to declare, through tears not abated by a buttermilk donut, “If I win, I will be 187 and 9,” my final tally. It took so many dry-runs to summon the courage to call Christine and ask her out that I still recall her phone number as faithfully as Jenny’s (from the song: 867-5309): 587 – _ _ _ _. When in 1994 we organized a reunion for Rooftop – our alternative public school, one of the city’s first, was relegated to the roof of another school — I was devastated to learn that Christine had told the classmate charged with calling up other alumni that she wouldn’t be coming, as she couldn’t remember anyone. I did: Besides Christine, Monica Woo, Maura Iaconi, and Kathy D., skipping up to Jackson Park for our lunch break in a red sweater and white skirt, a beret holding back her straight brown hair, and with whom I used to exchange the kind of teasing that among 11-year-olds is another form of flirting. (Also from the lunch breaks, I recall the most popular teacher, Ernie Baumgarten — who often came to school wearing the mask of our mascot, King Kong — laying on the grass with his ear glued to a transistor to follow the Watergate hearings. At the reunion, in a Fort Mason barrack overlooking the bay, after catching up with some of us, now in our ‘30s, Ernie would commiserate, “I know that many of you are still struggling.”) I’d fall for Kathy again eight years later, in 1981 – I remember the year because we saw “Atlantic City” together, Burt Lancaster ogling Susan Sarandon bathing her naked arms with lemon juice – when she was bobbing her hair and, as often seemed to be the case that year in Noe Valley, weighing her sexual orientation. (Though this observation may be my way of processing her lack of romantic interest in me.) When I next had news of Kathy, she was trundling Agnes DeMille around Greenwich Village and living at the aging choreographer’s pad at 11th and 5th, in the same building where Duchamp schemed up R. Mutt and turned a toilet into art. When I last saw her, in 1991, it was at the memorial service for her brother, who had killed himself. Her eyes were as luminous as ever. The only Rooftop girl I ever kissed was Kerry Baum, who with Gio Coppola, Francis’s son, had formed the school’s Bopsy Twins. I’d later interview Gio’s brother Roman – who’d produced one of the first films to exploit ‘70s nostalgia, “The Spirit of ’76,” in which Olivia d’Abo time-travels back to the era and falls in love with David Cassidy – and open my interview with his mom, Eleanor, on her “Making of Apocalypse Now” documentary, by conveying my condolences on the loss of Gio, killed after being bopped on the head by a mast while sailing with Ryan O’Neal’s boy. Another Rooftopper, Chris Perry,  would grow up to be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, which I learned of while doing a story on the Quilt in 1991 and discovering his name on a panel.

Once we’d debarked from the 24 and scaled the six flights of stairs to Rooftop, school would start with Morning Circle, a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by share-time. (I’d soon be studying auto-harp at his son Jodie Guthrie’s house,

balthus the card party smallBalthus, “The Card Party,” 1948-50. Oil on canvas, 140 x 194 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Balthus.

forcing my instructor to teach me “Your Daddy’s Home,” and, later in Paris, would chow down with Woody’s daughter Nora.)  At one Morning Circle, a long-haired, freckle-faced kid named Aaron Burg divulged, “I had dried cat food for breakfast this morning. It’s actually quite good!” Another Aaron, my brother, signed his school picture to me that year, “Love, Aaron W..” And yet another would help launch my show-business career. A reporter for an about kids, by kids local t.v. show, “Whatchamacallit,” Aaron Wolf anchored a segment on Rooftop in which he said all we did was sit around reading comic books. (Actually, we made them. And Super-8 movies about vampire-heroes set to the theme from “Mission Impossible.” And tape-recorded Watergate spoofs in which I played Nixon: “Mitchell’s thinking of spilling the beans.” In 1985, regaining consciousness in the emergency room after passing out in the Herod-scale sunken mosaic bathtub of my dad and step-mom’s home while immersed in Swiss bubbles from her shop, Common Scents – I’d been nervous about a first date with an older woman, or maybe it was Kennedy’s bullet, the dread that anything can end when it’s only just begun — when the good-looking doctor asked me who the president was, I answered, “It’s not Nixon, is it?”) When “Whatchamacallit” refused to let us rebut, we decided to start our own show, What’s New With Kids?, which ran on radio station KPOO. (If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.) This lead to my being invited to audition for a new t.v. show, Kidswatch, and this oracular rejection note: “You seemed more like the brains behind the talent than an actual on the air personality.” But the Wolfs weren’t through with me yet. In 9th-grade drama, Aaron’s dreamy sister Naomi would play Roxanne to my Cyrano before she went on to play Rasputin to Al Gore, turning him into a girly-man with the image make-over that inadvertently launched a war and landed me on the front-page of France’s Communist paper, leading an American contingent demonstrating in Paris against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

shahn civil rights small

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ben Shahn, “Civil Rights March.” Copyright Ben Shahn.

Despite retaining all this minutia (I left out Inca Robbins’s nose-ring, marching with my mom against the war in 1966, and betraying the 25th Street Gang for the Jersey Street Gang, lured by Roxanne Sanchez), I have no other memories of my parents together from this period. Which is not to say I don’t have other charged souvenirs from the year we spent in Timber Cove in 1969: Knocking Aaron unconscious for four seconds; Aaron and I erecting our own fort in a cluster of trees overlooking the Pacific, and the set of Children’s Encyclopedias we stowed there getting water-logged; our discovering a typewriter in the secret attic that ringed the house; the towering redwoods outside our  room’s window whose foliage I made into faces; Aaron whining “Lemme go to sleep!” when I would not stop talking; looking under the bed for simians from “Planet of the Apes”; and obstinately refusing to return to school after glimpsing the slip of Mrs. Klein, who taught the lower grades in our little red schoolhouse of 40 kids. (I also associate a leather belt with this memory.)

PWI91668

Balthus, “The Cherry Tree,” 1940. Oil on wood,  92 x 72.9 cm. Roman Family, London. Copyright Balthus.

The upper grade teacher and principal, Mr. Cash, was run out of town at rifle-point after holding all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next to teach them about racism. (Which is not to say that racism was confined to rural California. Back at Alvarado School in Noe Valley the next year, 1970, I remember our work on the schoolyard mosaic mural – supervised by Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American artist whose World War II imprisonment had taught her the importance of education – being interrupted one afternoon by the cry “A fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!”)

balthus la rue smallBalthus, “La Rue,” 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. ©Balthus. Photo: 2018. Digital image, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Note the thick-licked, drugged-looking Black – or Arab — man assaulting the white girl, as everyone else goes blithely about their business.

From Timber Cove, I also remember plastering wine bottles with papier-maché to turn them into candle-stick holders as Christmas presents for my parents, and walking into the woods to chop down the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had, so tall we had to carry it lengthwise to get it through the doorway. And Linda Murphy, our first teacher at Fort Ross, with her shoulder-length curly blonde tresses, handing out plastic blue raincoats the same Christmas and leading us in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” And clinging to the mountainside along a narrow path teetering over a creek at the end of the year picnic, thinking that’s the first life I owe when I didn’t slip and plunge into the water.

I remember how privileged I felt when Miss Stettner, my kindergarten and second-grade teacher back in Noe Valley, came to visit us in Timber Cove. I have a distinct memory of her fording the rocks along the coast with her boyfriend in her knee-high black boots. (Retrieving Miss Stettner in 1991 teaching at a school where I was working in the after-school program, I would betray her request not to tell our common charges that she’d been my teacher, which she then denied. Joan Baez would have a similar Thanks for making me feel old reaction when, during a 1987 interview, I told her how my mom had introduced me to her at my first concert, by Bob Dylan, when I was four.) I remember refusing to traverse the field that lead to George Bohan’s house, even in my brand-new bicycle, because it was infested with wasps. And playing with our astronaut doll, Matt Mason, in an arroyo where we also discovered Pomo arrow-heads.  (Our pacifist parents wouldn’t let us have GI Joes or even cap guns. Back in Noe Valley, my best friend and his little brother had solved this dilemma by torching GI Joe and launching him from the roof of their garage.)

ruthnude2 smal

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nude.” Lithograph, 1965. Courtesy     Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

I remember returning to the woods to find the makings for a kipa for Cousin Jane and Martin’s wedding at the Timber Cove house, transformed into Fontainebleau West with all of Jane’s parents, step and birth, flown in from Boca Raton. (10 years later my mom’s young cousin, divorced from Martin, would in her turn guide me to another threshold. Seeing Camus looking out from the orange cover of Germaine Brée’s biography on the bookshelf of her Greenwich Village high-rise, and strolling on the Prospect Heights boardwalk with Jane — coquette in an orange blouse tucked into a short late-summer white dress — and her older friend Earl, a Hemingway biographer, the week before I started Princeton made me feel like I’d intellectually arrived. Even if finding a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the desk of my new roommate, Gordon Humbert Jones III, next to his neatly folded ROTC uniform made me wonder exactly where. No torching Gordon Humbert Jones III and tossing him off the roof of Princeton Inn College.) And making another kipa in the woods with Tracy Wedemeyer, who had been my girlfriend ever since we had neighboring cribs at Marin General, and the confidences we exchanged under our makeshift wedding bough. “You pick your nose too!?” (When Aaron married a Catholic girl in 1992, the red-nosed priest would let them install a kipa in the altar and crush the sacramental wine glasses with their feet. Which accommodation didn’t prevent four Jewish boys, me, Jordan, Eric, and my mom’s first ex-boyfriend Ralph – Jordan had once burst into the bedroom and cried “You’re not my daddy! What are you doing in my mommy’s bed?”  – from squirming uncomfortably when the priest began talking about the blood of Christ.) At nine, after Tracy’s family moved to Berkeley, I’d buy her a plastic engagement ring at Mr. Mopp’s. At 13, I’d have my first date as a teenager with Tracy, trying the old stretching arm around the chair and back maneuver, prompting her to lean forward in her seat in the theater where we were watching Tina Turner or Anne-Margaret bathe herself in baked beans in “Tommy,” on a double-bill with “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Where, yet another Guthrie promised, “You can get anything you want…’ceptin’ Alice.”) From the playmate who used to bite and scratch me up (“Come with me to Nursery School,” published in 1970, features a photo of Tracy using her feet to defend her swing from a pair of boys under the caption: “It’s important to take turns. Can you tell whose turn it is now?” and another of me determinedly climbing up a tree),Tracy had metamorphosed into a svelte, bronze-skinned California Girl with long straight blonde hair. When I last had news of her, she was married to a CBS Records vice-president and living in Venice Beach. When I last saw her, it was my 14th birthday, and we were both perched on the cusp of adulthood.

balthus 1 therese smallBalthus, “Thérèse,” 1938. Oil on carton on wood,  100.3 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of  Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, with William S. Lieberman, 1987. ©Balthus. Photo ©2018. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.

For my third birthday, Tracy’s father Bill had given me what is now the oldest object I still possess, Ben Shahn’s illustrated book of Wallace Berry’s poem “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three”: “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” To which Bill had added an equally poignant inscription: “Years from now, you will learn of this event….  It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream of men that some of our minds hold, that indeed man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.” The dedication is signed “Bill, Patty (Tracy’s mom), Tracy, Bill again (her kid brother), and Breathless,” Breathless being the Wedemeyers’ Saint-Bernard. (And a sobriquet I now realize, in Francophile retrospect, may have been inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film, at a 2003 Paris screening of which I was the only one in the audience to laugh when Jean-Paul Belmondo exhaled cigarette smoke after he’d already expired.)

Oh Breathless, where are you now?

dad timber cove smallChild is the father of the man: Ed Winer and his three sons Aaron, Jordan, and Paul behind the house on Bohan-Dillon Road, Halloween 1969. (The red strips of felt are for devils.) Photo: Eva Wise (then Winer).