Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dreaming Paris at Thanksgiving Time

So already, Paris has been on my mind and in my ear constantly since the attacks of Friday night, November 13. As I've been driving around--I've been in my car a lot recently--I've been listening to the radio and feeling a low, flat sadness--grief and empathy that alternate with a numbness I seem to manufacture involuntarily in response to details, developments, and forecasts that overwhelm in volume and content. Before that Friday night, I believed the world was changing for the worse. On that Friday night, I believed the world's change for the worse was complete.  

I'm articulating my feeling rather than offering a reasoned analysis in that last statement. But at that moment that the world seemed to me to complete its negative transition, I was sure I heard the breaking string from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, followed by Yeats' alarmed prophetic voice speaking words that have often come to my mind in the last few years: "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; . . .."  

This time, though, Yeats' lines no longer spoke true in one significant way: the falcon can hear the falconer, but the message is encrypted, undetectable except to "the worst [who]/Are full of passionate intensity."**

Music and literature often ground me and light my way as I struggle in the dark to contain a new feeling that threatens to engulf me. So that my mind should leap back to a play and a poem I first read as a student at Needham High School didn't surprise me. Others are also relying on the phrases and images from literature to get a handle on these events, the events they portend, and the certain impossibility of peace of mind grounded in physical safety and security. The cover of the November 27 edition of The Week superposes Joseph Conrad's phrase "heart of darkness" on an illustration of the City of Light that features its iconic beacon, the Eiffel Tower, set against a horizon striped with French flag colors.

By their very nature, Facebook and Twitter seldom capture the existential magnitude of surreal, irreversible events that literature manages to approximate or encapsulate. On the Saturday right after the attacks, a number of the conversations on Facebook didn't speak to me, couldn't speak to me just yet: it was much too soon for me personally to step back and away from on-the-ground emotion of the events and to dive into intellectual, political, and historical analysis of them, as important as it might be. During the two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, many Greater Bostonians could do little but wander and feel. Wasn't that profound disorientation and grief what the French had just begun to experience? Wasn't it enough at that moment to bear witness and to mourn with them? In fact, wasn't that my obligation as a fellow human being?

One of Scott Ketcham's Apparition Series
That's what got me thinking about the part of The Iliad in which the Greeks and the Trojans suspend their fighting temporarily so that both sides can honor, mourn, and bury their dead.  So I was gratified when a former boss and friend of mine shared Frank Bruni's column entitled "The Exploitation of Paris" on Facebook. Bruni described his response to reading some sharp, terse sound byte on Twitter: 

"I felt sick. For a few hours, even a few days, I’d like to focus on the pain of Parisians and how that magnificent city reclaims any sense of order, any semblance of safety. I’d like not to wonder if Hillary Clinton’s odds of election just ticked upward or downward or if Donald Trump’s chest-thumping bluster suddenly became more seductive."***
Bruni was not equating cynical political speculation with Facebook friends' entreaties to their Facebook friends to examine the implications of their differing levels of compassion for and outrage on behalf of different victims of terror. He was asking that the raw grief of those who'd lost so much not be strategically and callously put to use.

I have to admit that the events of Paris have had a stronger emotional impact on me than terrorist events in other places beyond America. Part of it is the scale of the events. A terrible new transnational, effectively coordinated "normal" has been evolving--although I'm sure many would say it's been ensconced since the 9/11 attacks and I've simply chosen not to accept the reality of it until now. For me, Paris now embodies that grotesque new normal that contrasts so starkly with its legendary beauty Yeats' words again capture my sense of what has transpired--and what consequently has been let loose: "All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born."****

In the November 19 Boston Globe, Farah Stockman's column, "Why we care more about Paris,"***** discussed the dangers of "our tendency to care more about about our own kind," then asked, "But is it really possible, even desirable, to care equally about everyone everywhere?" After a brief exploration of "compassion fatigue"--I would wager there's such a thing as outrage fatigue, too--and our propensity with increasing age for "tuning out pain that doesn't impact us personally," she concludes, "It's not just that we feel more for Paris. It's that we're afraid we might be next."

For a lot of us in Boston, that means imagining a magnification of our experience with the Boston Marathon bombings******--the horrific physical details; the powerlessness; the fear of violent death, life-altering injury, and excruciating loss; the fear of the dangerous mutability of the people we think we know, and even of ourselves. We do not want to have to imagine or manage that.

To some degree, Stockman's article gets it right about my more personal identification with Paris' white city-dwellers who have money and time to spend on culture and wine. But the reality is that I've been paying attention to Paris for a long time--ever since, as a college student, I first visited it, sang with my college choir in some of its most famous chapels and cathedrals, and studied its literature in college as a comparative literature concentrator

When I last visited Paris and eastern France in the summer of 2014, I paid more attention to its historical landmarks than its cultural ones. Signs along the main roads from Paris to Alsace directed drivers to memorials that commemorated the service and sacrifice of American soldiers, and to cemeteries that housed the remains of many of them. French and American blood co-mingled often in France in the last century. Standing in solidarity with France, symbolically and actually, is an established American habit.

All of that said, my relationship with Paris has never come close to being a romance. I've always hesitated to equate Paris with "civilization" as others sometimes do. There's too much history to the contrary. When several of the Jewish members of my college choir visited the Marais, the Jewish section of Paris, on my first visit to Paris in 1976, the proprietors of a large, well-known delicatessen******* warmly ushered us inside in order to extend their hospitality to a group they correctly surmised were American Jews; in 1982, that restaurant was bombed in a terrorist attack. Sometime in the 1990s, Jacques Chirac apologized officially for France's complicity in the deportation of Jews and others during World War II, and plaques everywhere acknowledge the Vichy government's cooperation with the Nazis and the lives lost as a result. The plaques admonish people "ne les oublions jamais,"******** but, in my opinion, the history as well as the people must never be forgotten. In various ways, Paris communicates unequal safety for all: synagogues maintain low profiles through discreet signage or no signage at all.

Statue of Liberty Replica in Colmar, France
To this day, despite "Liberté, égalité, fraternité," not all French citizens have been equally free, protected, and embraced. I think it's Paris'--France's--failure to live up to the promise of its own hallowed motto that most makes me identify with and feel for Parisians: America has a comparable problem of living up to its promise of "liberty and justice for all." Whenever I hear anyone from France or the United States speak with authority about who and what "we" are, how "we" feel, and what "we" need and value, I immediately wonder who is not--and who does not feel--included in that "we." One train ride from Charles de Gaulle to Paris reveals the differences in economics and demographics that distinguish the suburbs of Paris from the city of Paris. In the same way the City of Light seems not to be surrounded by Suburbs of Light, many rural and urban places and people in America seem comparably beyond the boundaries and reach of the American Dream.

But that's not me: I am part of the franchise, part of the American Dream.********* That's why while the citizens of Brussels are in lockdown and airports all over the world ramp up their security checks, I get to drive around the South Shore on my way to some choir rehearsal or other where my responsibility is to try to make the most beautiful music I can. If I arrive early at my rehearsal destination, I get to drive around and peer through roadside woods at scenic tidal marshes and salt-water ponds.

There's been great consolation in music and nature and driving as the radio delivers its steady stream of reports and analyses that further confirm the complexity and the global scope of terrorism 2015. I've felt so grateful for these sources of consolation, keenly aware that having them is a great privilege.

It took a roadside sign in Duxbury to remind me of a French poem that might be just right for this current terrible moment. A swan crossing right off of Exit 11 on Route 3? That surprised me. I had been thinking about Paris, about different wars and the treatment of war dead in The Iliad in particular when I saw the sign warning me to keep my eyes peeled. I hadn't been thinking about the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.

Wasn't there a poem about a swan? And wasn't Andromache, Hector's widow, an important grieving figure in that poem? Yes. "La Cygne"--"The Swan," in English. I share here most of the second part of the poem in a translation by William Aggeler, but strongly recommend that you read the whole poem:**********
Paris changes! but naught in my melancholy
Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,
Old quarters, all become for me an allegory,
And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.
So, before the Louvre, an image oppresses me:
I think of my great swan with his crazy motions,
Ridiculous, sublime, like a man in exile,
Relentlessly gnawed by longing! and then of you,
Andromache, base chattel, fallen from the embrace
Of a mighty husband into the hands of proud Pyrrhus,
Standing bowed in rapture before an empty tomb,
Widow of Hector, alas! and wife of Helenus!
I think of the negress, wasted and consumptive,
Trudging through muddy streets, seeking with a fixed gaze
The absent coco-palms of splendid Africa
Behind the immense wall of mist;
Of whoever has lost that which is never found
Again! Never! Of those who deeply drink of tears
And suckle Pain as they would suck the good she-wolf!
Of the puny orphans withering like flowers.
It was Baudelaire who first taught me how to look at Paris, how to see the Parisians who were languishing at its margins. The "Tableaux Parisiens" section*********** of Les Fleurs du Mal is peopled by these forgotten Parisiens--the grieving widows, the consumptive immigrants, the orphaned children--exiles often from multiple perspectives. Though industrialization was the dehumanizing change that Baudelaire lamented, the way he presents alienation, loss, and grief seems equally right for this current moment. And so I am consoled even as I am alarmed, saddened, and attentive.

So I keep driving, reading, and singing--and praying in my own awkward way. Josef Rheinberger's "Abendlied," which I've just learned, particularly consoles me. I sing it as a request to G-d directly: "Abide with us; for it is toward evening."

At this Thanksgiving time, may we all have much to cherish and give thanks for. And if we are fortunate enough to see light and feel hope during this particularly dark November, may we find ways to share them with a world that needs and yearns for them.

Abide with us; for it is toward evening,"
Abide with us; for it is toward evening

* Chekhov's play about which David John Tyrell says the following in his blog: "In rural Russia, through the lens of The Cherry Orchard, we view a family living in agricultural arable farm land composed of cherry trees. . . . The play explores a society comprised of classes including serfdom and the land owning aristocrats. This in itself is a system undergoing change but at what cost? . . . We face a similar problem where we are living in a supposed classless society, but it is argued that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer and the financial crisis is looming over our heads." (Tyrell, David John. "The Relevance of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in the 21st Century: an Analysis using Socratic Dialogue." Web blog post. Performance Philosophy. 20 Apr. 2013. 20 Nov. 2015.
** from William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming."
*** Bruni, Frank. "The Exploitation of Paris." Editorial. The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 14 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/opinion/the-exploitation-of-paris.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0>.  
**** from "Easter 1916" by William Butler Yeats.
***** Stockman, Farah. "Why We Care More about Paris." n.d.: n. pag. The Boston Globe (Boston, MA). 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-38988299.html?refid=easy_hf>.  
*(6) Screen shot of Boston Globe e-paper front page of April 16, 2014: <http://epaper.bostonglobe.com/epaper/viewer.aspx>.
*(7) Rabine, Joel. Suspects Identified in Deadly 1982 Paris Jewish Deli Attack. 1982. Paris. The Times of Israel. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <https://www.google.com/search?q=images+Restaurant+Jo+Goldenberg&tbm=isch&imgil=jQXRPdEjac7l1M%253A%253BuKJRlimAwvADRM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.timesofisrael.com%25252Fsuspects-identified-in-deadly-1982-paris-jewish-deli-attack%25252F&source=iu&pf=m&fir=jQXRPdEjac7l1M%253A%252CuKJRlimAwvADRM%252C_&biw=1119&bih=629&usg=__LgQJHpCOOCMIaOJymKK3ZhzkNcY%3D&ved=0ahUKEwi3n8X0vqfJAhXJKh4KHatBCDIQyjcIKg&ei=a4VTVve9FcnVeKuDoZAD#imgrc=jQXRPdEjac7l1M%3A&usg=__LgQJHpCOOCMIaOJymKK3ZhzkNcY%3D>.  
*(8) "Let us never forget them." 
*(9) In fact, I'm a "Dreamer" in recovery, as Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me has helped to understand. 
*(10) William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954). Be sure to scroll down below the French text of the poem. 
*(11) I wrote my senior thesis about this section of Les Fleurs du Mal.