The body feminine: A summons to appear

By and copyright 2018, 2019 Fatima Khemilat
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Editor / Translator’s Note: With the recent umpteenth resurgence – instigated by a member of a far right political party who excoriated a Muslim parent accompanying a school field trip to a public meeting for wearing a head scarf, entirely legal in France – of the tired national (media) debate over the Muslim veil, instead of jumping into the melee by regurgitating our own tired point of view, we decided it was time to translate a scholarly essay, based on sound scholarly research, which goes beyond this particular polemic to explore larger (and largely unresolved) societal issues relating to the presence of women – and the female body – in the public commons in France which this and other recent debates reflects. A doctor in political sciences from the  Institut d’études  politiques in Aix-en-Provence (CHERPA), Fatima Khemilat is a lecturer at the university Paris-Est Créteil specializing in relations between the Muslim religion and public authorities. Numbered footnotes are the author’s. Lettered footnotes – and any opinions expressed therein —  and bracketed comments, with a couple of exceptions intended to illuminate several references whose meaning might not be apparent to readers outside France, are the translator’s. Because of latent confusion (on the part of the public and the translator, not the author) over the meaning of ‘voile integral’ – literally, veil entire or veil complete – sometimes called the niqab, which generally speaking covers the lower face but not necessarily the eyes, and should not be confounded with either the burka or the hijab (head-scarf) – in certain instances below we’ve kept the original French terminology in order to respect the integrity of the author’s intended meaning. The following essay was originally published in  les Cahiers du Développement Social Urbain,  no. 68, second semester 2018, and is translated and published with the permission of the author. After several attempts to do justice in the translation to the wordplay in the original title without sacrificing its intended meaning, we gave up. That title:  Le corps des femmes : une assignation à (par)être. Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation today by designating your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check. Don’t read English? Drop us a note and, to the extent that the author permits, we’ll drop you the French original. Today’s translation and publication of this article sponsored by Freespace Dance.

The unequal access of women to public spaces has been the object of a major body of scientific and activist literature. This inequality relies on an anthropologically gendered division of territories and of the functions relegated to them: private spaces with their domestic and reproductive tasks have been allotted to women, and public spaces structured by and for men, who see themselves awarded the tasks considered as the most noble and complex. This sexualized apportioning of jurisdictions is still the rule today because if women now have access to public spaces, it’s an access that is conditional. Women are seen as available objects whose essential purpose is to attract.  Their principle capital, to employ Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, thus relies on their physical attributes, their desirability. So that masculine domination “constitutes women as symbolic objects in which the being (esse) is a being perceived (percepi) (A), which has the effect of placing them in a state of permanent bodily insecurity or, at best, of symbolic dependence: they exist first and foremost by and for the regard of others, that is to say as welcoming, attractive, and available objects.” (1)

The female body, permanently onstage

This symbolic violence perpetrated on women is incarnated — literally becomes flesh and blood — in their bodies, notably by the injunction to be thin, or what the Moroccan Muslim feminist Fatema Mernissi refers to as “the 36-24-36 harem.” If women residing in conservative countries are circumscribed to living in a physical harem, between four walls, for women in Western societies this containment (B) is their own bodies. It’s as if the body becomes the continuation of the harem, extended as a space of confinement, in the sense that like the harem, it limits their movements and circumscribes their possibilities for emancipation. There is thus a metonymy between the female body and the intimate space. Taking our cue from Naomi Wolf (C) and Pierre Bourdieu in their respective work on masculine domination, these “’body codes’” insidiously paralyze women’s aptitude to enter the corridors of power. The resources of women who do manage to enter into the competition are so dependent on their physical aspects that there’s no question of equal opportunity.”  (2) (C2)

Women are, so to speak, eclipsed by their bodies, which thus transformed into objects are availed of like objects. They’re thus reduced to the materiality of their being, or rather appearance, by recurrent reminders in public spaces, as much immaterial as material.  In its immaterial, or if you prefer virtual, dimensions, the public space refers to the public stage: the media, social networks, Internet, advertising. The female body is over-represented in these domains, reduced to the status of an object to be exhibited, at one’s disposition and up for sale. This hyper-sexualization is never synonymous with power, whereas the representation of the male body in advertising, its eroticization, is associated with the ideal of power, of strength, and of virility. In material public spaces (streets, thoroughfares, other spaces open to the public) women see themselves reminded of their rank as objects by blatant harassment, or what’s known as the “male gaze.” (3) Thus it is that men, by a sort of magic social spell, not only see themselves as authorized — and self-authorized —  to judge, gage, and scrutinize women’s bodies but also to share with them the verdicts of their judgments. The whistles, hoots, and other “flirting techniques” are even presented as flattering, because the objective is attained: Please men, no matter which men, no matter what the price. Women’s bodies are thus not only seen as inherently sexual and therefore desirable (passive) but never desiring (active.)

Public spaces, conditional presence

The hyper-sexualization of the female body has two possible consequences when it comes to spatial segregation. In societies where sexuality is forbidden in certain enclosed spaces, notably for religious reasons, women (objects of temptation) are sent home or directed to female-only spaces: hammam, landry-room, “female-only” sections in places of worship, etcetera. They are allowed to access public spaces under certain conditions: that they demarcate the spatial barrier by covering / dissimulating their hair / bodies, being accompanied by a man, or being accompanied by other women. Women thus don’t occupy the public space, they simply traverse it, in transit. Cafés, restaurants, streets, cybercafés are thus seen as inherently masculine spaces of socialization. On the other hand, in secular societies where sexuality is presented as a depoliticized and/or pacified object, when in reality it never is (cf. the interdiction for women to expose their nude torsos in public, which does not apply to men), women can access public space to a limited degree.

The spatial segregation also takes on the form of a temporal dimension. In a certain sense there are two types of public spaces: the diurnal public space and the nocturnal public space. If it’s more and more admissible that women have access to the former, the latter on the other hand remains by and large a masculine space. It’s as if there’s a curfew which applies to “respectable” women, that is to say those not suspected of being “loose” floozies. After a certain hour, the streets are essentially populated by men, and breaking the tacit curfew subjects women to familiar penalties: street harassment and rape. These last operate as vague sanctions, indicating that the public space is, and remains, above all a space belonging to men.

The injunctions are therefore at the least paradoxical. Women are at the same time expected to be desirable, attractive (make-up, high-heels, tight outfits and other aesthetic accessories which restrict their mobility) and yet not overly so, otherwise they risk being labeled with the stigma of “whore.” The [French] misdemeanor of passive solicitation put in place by the law of March 18, 2003 re-enforces the gender differentiation of the temporal and territorial occupation of public space. The simple fact of a woman finding herself in certain neighborhoods reputed as sectors of prostitution, of being there at an hour considered late, of being dressed in a certain way or, worse, having a few condoms in her purse, is sufficient to constitute the misdemeanor of passive solicitation. It’s the judicial materialization of the temporal and spatial segregation imposed on women.

Women, summoned to limit themselves to a ‘type of feminine purity’

In the same manner, at the other end of the spectrum of feminine stigmas one finds women who wear the partial or full veil. The female body being an object of desire, attempting to dissimulate it and, by so doing, essentially withdraw it from the matrimonial and/or sexual market of the dominant population constitutes an offense now punished by the law in France (Law of October 11, 2010 on non-dissimulation of the visage in public spaces). In secularized countries, the figure of the “respectable woman” or as anthropologists might put it “the symbol of pure femininity” is thus circumscribed between these two extremities by, respectively, the figures of the foil and the scarecrow, of the prostitute and the veiled woman. The two are for that matter seen as having legally limited access to the public space. Respectable women must thus take part in the matrimonial and sexual marketplace, without trying to extract themselves from it by wearing a voile integral or charging for access to it, which might suggest that they control their desire and their sexuality, a privilege reserved for men. [Emphasis added by translator.]  Pure femininity is thus a femininity which simultaneously demonstrates a certain probity and reserve while still remaining accessible.

The July 18 video-taped attack on Marie Laguerre served as the occasion to elevate to the forefront of the public agenda “the battle against sexual and sexist violence,” from which resulted the adaptation of the Law of August 3, 2018 (D). The penalization of street harassment nonetheless was not unanimously applauded by feminist organizations and figures. The latter reproached the discriminatory nature of such a measure, which to a certain extent targets racialized men of modest origins. In effect, reading between the lines, the figure of the “Arab garcon” evoked by Nacira Guénif-Souilamas and Éric Macé (E) is considered to be the real target of the measure, while for their part the dominant white males continue to exercise sexist and sexual violence in the halls of power: in the artistic, political, military, and major business domains, etcetera. The economic and racial dimensions are therefore articulated both as relates to the people committing the acts of violence and those subjected to them.

Of the female body relegated to somewhere else or the altérisation of sexism

In the case of femininities labeled as impure, things are even more flagrant. Historically prostitution districts are situated close to centers of masculine sociability and mobility: train stations, ports, downtowns.  From this fact, these districts and the neighborhoods around them, reputed for being “bad neighborhoods,” are prey to depreciated real estate values. The prostitutes, often represented as being foreigners, are thus progressively turned out to the perimeters of the cities, the suburbs (F), peripheral towns and woods. In the same manner, out of fear that the erecting of a mosque will send real estate values plummeting, certain cities exercise their right of pre-emption or simply refuse to deliver construction permits to push Muslim places of worship out of the cities. Besides this, the law forbidding wearing the niqab [which, as distinct from the hijab or headscarf, covers the lower part of the face though not necessarily the eyes] in public spaces allows for two exceptions: private spaces and mosques. For this reason, and to avoid the public disturbances that the interpellation and legal fining of a woman wearing such a veil might engender, police officers demonstrate a certain indulgence vis-à-vis women [spotted wearing the voile integral] next to mosques which themselves are situated in the suburbs. This is one of the reasons that women who wear the niqab, as with prostitutes, are essentially more visible in the suburbs.

The presence outside of cities of these women regarded (in the eyes of the patriarchy, be it religious or neo-liberal) as inherently submissive participates in the symbolic assignment of sexism to “the lost territories of the Republique” (to employ Emmanuel Brenner’s terminology). In this manner, sexism is framed as coming from an elsewhere (un ailleurs), as symbolic (foreign cultures) as it is territorial, in a spatial, temporal, and civilizational  metonymy: present/city center/European-ness [versus] past/suburb/foreign cultures. This symbolic and territorial circumscription of sexism to the other side of the tracks also enables its embodiment in the figure of the “Arab youth.” This demarcation and this altérisation of masculine domination shrewdly enables remaining silent on and invisibilizing the sexual violence perpetrated on women in the hearts of cities, amongst more privileged social categories. It also more or less enables the defining and unifying of an “us” in a strategy of civilizational differentiation in which the barometer is “the condition of women,” or what the sociologist Eric Fassin qualifies as “sexual democracy.” Certain controversies have thus come to reactivate the idea of an imbrication straddling territorial, gender, racialized, and economic dimensions. In other words, understanding the modalities of the occupation of the public commons by women necessitates realizing a genuine geography of intersectionality, in which women voilées intégra­lement  and prostitutes define, whether we like it or not, the obligatory boundaries.

1. Pierre Bourdieu, “La Domination masculine,” éditions du Seuil, 1998.
2. F. Mernissa, “Le Harem et l’Occident,” éditions Albin Michel, 2001.
3. In English in the original text.

A. Translator’s note (TN): “Esse est percipi” (To be is to be perceived.) – Berkeley

B. TN: In English and italicized in the original text.

C. See Naomi Wolf, “The Beauty Myth.” 1990, Chatto & Windus.
C2. Several years ago the Parliamentarian and president of the French Green party  Cecile Duflot was riddled by several of her male peers for the skirt she was wearing while delivering an address.

D. TN: On July 18, 2018 in Paris – as reported by the Parisian newspaper on July 29, 2018 – a 22-year-old woman named Marie Laguerre was assaulted (before witnesses and as recorded on video-tape) by a man after she refused to accept obscene remarks she said had been proffered at her. The incident – and a years-long campaign against sexual harassment on the streets of Paris and public transit – prompted the passage by the French legislature of the law of August 3, 2018, which sets out penalties for several forms of sexual aggression and harassment.

E. TN: Nacira Guénif-Souilamas is a French anthropologist and sociologist specializing in questions of gender and ethnicity, immigration and integration, and racial, cultural, and social stereotypes. Eric Macé’s work in sociology focuses on power rapports, notably in the cultural and media spheres and as relates to gender and ethnicity.

F. TN: The French term ‘banlieu’ doesn’t necessarily describe the same population, social, living, and economic conditions as found in the American equivalent suggested by the most obvious translation, ‘suburbs,’ at least in the Parisian context. While both are on the outskirts of a large city and there are certainly some well-to-do ‘banlieus’ outside of Paris, in general the banlieus are more ‘cosmopolite’ than their U.S. counterparts, home to numerous ‘cités’ or public housing projects, and economically modest to poor, with youth unemployment in some banlieus as high as 40 percent in recent years. According to some commentators – often from the Right but also including some leading feminists nominally considered on the Left – some of the cafés and bars in some of the neighborhoods of some of the banlieus are ‘no-fly’ zones for women. (My analysis here as throughout in these translator’s notes doesn’t necessarily reflect the author’s point of view.) My own – strictly anecdotal – evidence belies this reading: Living in the immediate Paris suburb of the prè-St.-Gervais earlier this year (down the street from a store-front mosque; I recognized it as a mosque by the pairs of shoes carefully deposited on the sidewalk outside on Fridays), if I remarked that the clients of the bar-café across the street were mostly men in their 20s to late 50s, many probably residents of the nearby Rabelais public housing project, I also observed that the occasional female client who entered for her morning coffee (or late-morning ‘petite blanc’) was welcome. And the male clients who lingered on the sidewalk were regularly subjected to (what sounded to my non-Arab speaking ears like) good-natured haranguing from the hijab (headscarf)-wearing babushka who lived upstairs.

 

Of fly girls & shy girls: From “Bovary” through the Head-scarf (with cameos by Bernhardt & Bausch) — When the body feminine becomes a moral battle ground

Adrien Henri Tanoux Odalisques 1905From the Arts Voyager Archives and Artcurial’s Spring 2016  sale of Orientalist and Arab and Iranian Modern art:  Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923), “Odalisques,” Oil on canvas, 23.62 x 31.5 inches. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Arts Voyager on  May 20, 2016. Tiego Rodrigues’s latest effort to subvert a literary giant’s masterpiece, in this case Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is currently playing at the Theatre de la Bastille in Paris, this time out abetted by the company Stan. 

PARIS — What I love about Tiago Rodrigues, the director of the Portuguese National Theater who is “occupying” the Theatre de la Bastille for two months with three works, one involving the participation of 90 amateurs in its creation, is that he defies the conventional wisdom that attracting contemporary audiences requires jettisoning the classical canon. Rodrigues understands that if an oeuvre like Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (whose original title was “Madame Bovary, or Provincial Morals”) has endured for 160 years, it’s because despite changing mores, its portrayal of societal turmoil (above all the conflict between individual comportment and predominant national values) is still pertinent. Even if today it’s not the loose morals of a married woman that are accused of threatening religious norms, as was the case with the story of Emma Bovary, but the custom of a small group of Muslim women to cover all or part of their bodies that is perceived by some as threatening the norms of lay values, the battle terrain is the same: the woman’s body. (And not just in literature: Eight female politicians, some in powerful positions including in the French legislature, recently accused a leader of the Green party of sexual harassment, charges which the official has denied.)

First, some background is in order on the current social context in which Rodrigues’s “Bovary” — which frames Flaubert’s novel with the legal process the government instituted to ban it (he isn’t the first to use this tactic; filmmaker William Dieterle did it in 1949) — hits the Bastille, where it plays through May 28. When a group of female students at Paris’s prestigious Sciences-Po university (which forms many of the country’s political leaders) recently decided to hold a “Hijab Day” to dispel myths about the foulard, or head-scarf, the philosopher-pundit Bernard Henri-Levy tweeted, “What’s next? Lapidation Day? Sharia Day?” And the Left-leaning feminist Elisabeth Badinter called last month for a boycott of fashion houses introducing special lines catering to Muslim women. (French feminists, particularly, tend to assume that if a woman is wearing a veil, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so.)

moma hijabs smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Display figures with hijab, in East Jerusalem market. Photo by Danny-w. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

Rodrigues’s “Bovary” also arrives in Paris at a moment in which a group of Left-wing activists calling themselves “Nuit Debout” (Night standing up) has been occupying the Place de Republique at night since mid-March. But while Nuit Debout promotes a very selective vision of Democracy which excludes anyone who doesn’t agree with them (the rest of us are the “Fachos”), Rodrigues, by quoting from the actual transcripts of the 1857 trial the government instigated after “Madame Bovary” first appeared in serial form (the author himself paid for the stenographer), lets both sides present their best case. As formulated by David Geselsen’s defense attorney (once he stops speeding through his lines, an annoying tendency by many young French actors, especially regrettable when delivering legal arguments which require some mastication), a government zeal which followed to its logical conclusion would require deleting suggestive words from the dictionary because of their proximity with upstanding words like “Christianity” has scary resonance at a time when conditions provoked by an attack on free speech (the Charlie Hebdo massacres) have lead to an environment in which one is not always sure what is considered acceptable speech.

For Rodrigues’s “Bovary,” the government case gets an adept advocate in the person of Ruth Vega-Fernandez, perhaps the most charismatic young actress working in France today. (Although she could do to tone down a tic she seems to have adopted for this role, of describing and punctuating her arguments with articulated arms, hands, and fingers; used once or twice, it’s compelling, but over-used it just ends up calling attention to the artifice.)

Between Vega-Fernandez, Geselsen, and the occasional choice interjections by Jacques Bonnaffe’s Flaubert, the “Bovary” trial as recreated on the stage of the Theatre de la Bastille — where I caught it May 13 — provides a valuable example of juicy, rich, and well-founded (on both sides) constructive discourse in a France in which reasoned and polite debate seems to have been supplanted by virulent polemics. It’s almost as if because the immediate question — whether Flaubert’s tale of Emma Bovary, who seeks to escape a suffocating marriage through liaisons with flighty lovers, promotes infidelity, or whether the author is simply reporting on a social condition — is (apparently) so removed in time, the audience is able to patiently assimilate and consider the merits of each argument without the dogmatic predispositions that make healthy debate nearly impossible today. And makes me think that what we need in the current climate of polarization is not more philosopher-pundits or ZAD (Zone a Defend)ists masquerading as Democrats (and attacking police, 350 of whom have been injured this year; they too marched May 18 protesting hatred of the police) but apt theater directors able to reveal the timeless lessons in ‘ancient’ tales. In a country in which, historically, vigorous debate has sometimes been replaced by, on the one side, anarchist violence including bombings and, on the other, stifling of dissent, theater directors and artists in general who have the ability to frame debate in a constructive, non-manipulative way (Vega-Fernandez’s attorney is not just a fall guy, her convincing arguments being delivered with conviction) have a critical role to play in illuminating the issues in a serene fashion.

alma palacio rodrigues bovaryAlma Palacios in “Bovary,” as captured by and copyright Pierre Grosbois and courtesy Theatre de la Bastille.

There’s just one tendency which *almost* gets in the way in “Bovary,” a misunderstanding of the Brechtian style which repeatedly calls attention to the fact that this is just a performance. Alma Palacios’s Emma regularly introduces different segments of the action — for much of the middle and through to the end of the play, the trial reconstruction gives way to a recreation of the actual drama — by stating, “On page 200,” such and such happens, etc. This is a dangerous device in the hands of a younger actress like Palacios, who already has a tendency to recite her lines in a downplayed, matter of fact and borderline ironic fashion, directly to the audience. But eventually, and as a colleague has pointed out, the power and authenticity of Flaubert’s tale and his portrayal of Emma is able to transcend even post-modern irony. Emma seduces Palacios, who seduces the procurer and Flaubert’s attorney (both break from their courtroom cool at one point and embrace Emma) and has the audience shivering when she takes the fateful arsenic. We’re finally at Rodrigues’s mercy when, in a coda, Gregoire Monsaingeon’s Charles declares (I paraphrase), that like his wife,”I eventually died too, as did the procurer, my attorney, and as will the actors on this stage, and as will all of you eventually die. But ‘Madame Bovary’ lives on.” By this time, no one in the audience is chuckling, unless it’s the nervous laughter of recognition.

Sarah Bernhardt would never have been accused of post-modern irony. But if actress Astrid Bas and director Miguel Loureiro spared her that in “Paris-Sarah-Lisboa,” which opened the annual Chantiers (building projects) d’Europe festival organized by the Theatre de la Ville May 11 with a performance supposedly tailored for the Divine One’s old dressing room at the theater, they didn’t offer much else. The 30-minute piece consisted of the actress — dressed not in Belle Epoch style but a zipper-back dull dark blue dress from the 1950s — galloping on her stilettos to different corners of the room (a Bernhardt-sized tiny bathtub, a makeup sink, both framed by mirrors) to retrieve sections of the script, off which she read excerpts from Bernhardt’s journal, with the drop in investment and nuance which reading from a script for a performance often induces. Even the potentially liveliest section, in which Bernhardt prepares for a performance with tongue-twisters (“She sells sea-shells,” etc.) was rote. So that in the end, even if the texts recited were supposedly rare, I didn’t feel I knew anything more about Bernhardt than I did before. It seemed a particularly uneventful way to open what normally promises to be a portentous festival.

Pina Bausch Agua Ulli WeissTanztheater Wuppertal’s Regina Advento and Jorge Puerta Armenta in Pina Bausch’s “Agua.” Ulli Weiss photo copyright Ulli Weiss and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Pina Bausch’s 2001 “Agua,” which I caught the same night at the same theater, as performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal, suffered from an opposite impediment: too much action. The argument for the work’s sonic, scenic, and kinetic splendor would be that insouciance doesn’t need an excuse, especially in an era where the insouciant have become the targets of terrorists, including in this city. And perhaps an audient less aware of how much more Pina Bausch can offer by way of meaning and catharsis would have been sated with “Agua”‘s tropical, life-affirming antidote to the nihilism with which the “Islamic State” is trying to afflict us. But as a dance and theater critic, my problem with much of the late choreographer’s work in the 2000s (she died in 2009) is that for the actual choreography, Bausch seems to rely more on the skills and body maps of the individual performers and the opulent film work of designer Peter Pabst than any grand scheme and for me, calisthenics and pyrotechnics are no longer enough, especially from a master story-teller so much of whose works had something to tell us about the times. (On my way home, I wistfully regarded a poster of Wuppertal performing Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” which along with the equally somber “Cafe Muller” the festival of Nimes is getting. Can the programmers really think we’re less sophisticated than the provinces?)

From a promising beginning, in which the playful Wuppertal veteran Helene Pikon heartily munches on an apple, the juice dripping, as she recounts how a perturbed sleep which forced her out of bed created an opportunity to catch a breathtaking sunrise, “Agua” devolves into a beach party. Hilarious at times, even riveting — Pabst saturates every corner of the stage with an Imax-style film of a boat ride through what might be the Amazon, leaving the impression that we’re riding on the boat, as is the dancer who cascades across the deck; it was only when the boat became a raft and took to sea that I started getting nauseous — in the end “Agua” is not so much insouciant as feather-light. When a reporter asked Bausch, at a 2006 Paris press conference, why she had turned away from darker work, she answered that it was precisely because of the bad things happening in the world that she felt the need to offer some relief and reveal some light. Things have since gotten a lot worse, and (see above, under “Bovary”), considering the vast and illuminating repertoire available to them, I’m not sure that Wuppertal’s directors really serve an audience in need more than ever of cathartic revelation by giving us a frothy Carnaval.

Speaking of exotica, and getting back to woman’s body as a fertile terrain for cultural battles, a historical reminder of why some Muslim, or Arab women might want to hide their visages from disrobing Occidental eyes was provided by Wednesday’s sale of Orientalist and contemporary Arab and Iranian art by Artcurial, the leading French auction house: Just take a look at the come hither topless babes (one of whom is an alabaster white) in Adrian Henri Tanoux’s 1905 oil “Odalisques,” on sale at a pre-estimated price of 40,000 – 60,000 Euros (above). It certainly confirms my assessment that women’s bodies have been a terrain for political and moral battles for a mighty long time.

 

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….

The Lutèce Diaries (a Post-modern American in Paris), 23: C’est ça, la France, or, is the Muslim the new Jew?

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PANTIN (Seine-Saint-Denis), France — A month ago I found myself in a confrontation with Islamophobia as only Islamophobics on the Left are capable of producing it. To explain why they had a problem with Muslim women covering their bodies, their heads, or even their hair, two otherwise presumably cultured and intelligent people (she’s an independent publisher) I’d invited into my home offered the contradictory justifications that a) France is a lay country and b) France is a country with a Judeo-Christian tradition. The woman would later tell me that she found the simple head covering “monstrous.” This is a sort of colonialistic-paternalistic brand of feminism (whose primary theorist is Elisabeth Badinter) that assumes that if a woman mounts her faith with her wardrobe, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so. In other words, she’s too stupid to think for herself, and it’s up to liberal white feminists to think for her and save her from her backward customs. (No one seems to have the same problem or make the same assumption when it comes to Hasidic women wearing tacky wigs.) Some of them see such garb as a threat to the French Republic, presumably because in their view it’s the first step to sharia law and thus dictatorship. After I politely asked the couple to leave, the man revealed what it was really about, coming out with the equivalent of “They don’t dress like us, they’re in our country, they need to conform” or basically hide their religion — which is not what the lay principal in France is about.

I think it was this confrontation that finally clarified for me why Islamophobia — which is often just a disguise for Arabophobia — bothers me so much. Part of it is the hypocrisy; for people like this, France is only a lay country when it comes to Muslims. But I’ve realized that it’s also because in the way they’re singled out by some, and because it’s no longer acceptable (and rightly so), to criticize and ostracize what used to be referred to here as “Israelites,” for many in France Muslims are today’s Jew. They don’t dress like us. They don’t worship like us. (My guest had even defended himself by saying, “Some of my best friends are Muslims.”) This racism or if you prefer prejudice has tangible effects on the Muslim and Arab populations. Testing by SOS Racisme and others has consistently shown that a job applicant with an Arab-sounding name is less likely to be hired than someone with a more “French”-sounding name of equal or lesser qualifications.

Outside my window right now, at the other end of the side street it looks out on, lined principally with two to three story stone and red brick buildings, I see a group of men clustered on the corner, some in gowns and wearing skull caps. The only indications that the low building in front of which they’re congregating is a mosque is the “Vigi-pirate” sign on the window and the mirror above it which lets those inside see who’s coming in. It’s like they have to be ashamed of their religion. In France. As I crossed the corner coming home this noontime, several men were taking off their shoes and entering.

Unlike the Jewish school in Belleville which I walked past on a gallery ramble last night, there are no high barriers around the mosque. Unlike the early 19th century Portuguese synagogue in my old neighborhood in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, there’s no police guard.

Before picking up groceries for lunch today, feeling sorry for myself (because most of you don’t want to pay for this) I’d walked down to the Ourcq canal, which leads to the Canal St.-Martin, which feeds into the Seine. From the other side of the water I heard what sounded like bagpipes and drums. Crossing the bridge, I saw it was a wedding party emerging from the city hall of Pantin (which borders Northeastern Paris). From the dress of the musicians, I realized it was an Algerian-style wedding party. (To get an idea of what the music sounded like, check Gérard Krémer’s field recording here.  The bride and some of the guests had their heads covered. Some wore full-length gowns. Others did not. (The bride wore a white wedding gown.) A group of men was clapping hands and dancing around the musicians. A few younger girls were also dancing. Several of us watched the celebration from the other side of the grill, including a woman about my age with curly red hair next to me who kept proclaiming “C’est beau.” At one point half a dozen young men and women took trays filled with petites-fours and bottled water into which a slice of orange had been inserted from the back of the car blocking the entrance and began circulating the refreshments amongst the guests. One young man reached through the grill to offer a petite-four to a babushka guarding a stroller.

Regarding the couple, their families, the musicians, the dancing, and the petites-fours, I looked up at the arch under which the wedding party was standing and saw the “RF,” Republique Française. And thought: “C’est ca, la France.” Et c’est pas de tout monstrueux. Ca qui est monstrueux c’est que certains gens ne comprendre pas le devis de leur propre pays. And it’s not monstrous at all. What’s monstrous is that some people who consider themselves good French people don’t understand the guiding principals of their own country.