Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Thomas Sanfilip

I have no doubt the modernist painter Robert Delaunay understood the problem of Paris, both as a physical and spiritual entity as well as artistic force capable of creating a profound philosophic dilemma. His series of repeated renderings of the Eiffel Tower make entirely good sense in spite of the intellectual cul-de-sac one is inevitably driven into by their redundancy—still they offer a clue I believe to the perplexity that is modern-day Paris, a living idea more than actual locale. This is not a unique assessment of the city, but in truth it has come to exist paradoxically as both a geographic reality and a mental construct by all non-Parisians who have dreamed of self-realization in its ancient, but well-preserved confines. Hemingway’s movable feast is no more, a phantasmagoria playing to the aspirations of those who believe they must purge themselves of their elaborate conceptions of the idealized Paris, or insinuate themselves as its denizens in order to better ferret out the complexity of the city’s indefinable meaning.

A mute testament to this endless quest are tables of worn out faces barely able to smile, hovering over glasses of beer and wine every other address on, for example, the Rue des Abbesses on approach to the Sacre Coeur that towers above the bustle. Leafy treetops obscure the approach and the look upward, the walk upward, but not before witnessing an exchange of three middle-aged alcoholics arguing, two men and a woman planted in the Square Jehan Rictus at the very end of the street. The woman shouts, then cajoles one minute, her arms around the shoulders of one particularly abusive drinking partner, crying for sympathy one minute, the next, stomping off to a distance, then turning and shouting out a mouthful of colorful French obscenities. A black dog shoots out across the square, disappearing somewhere behind brush that ssomehow rings the Sacre Coeur, perched like a beautiful carved white marble stone dissolving into a muted gray as the sun dips away to the west, casting a cold shadow over the church’s white dome, glistening in the late afternoon sun.

The contrast between the upper and lower world is striking, for there is something strangely disjointed about the juxtaposition of the scene I witness below and the spiritually unreachable above. I feel as though I am at the very center of a cold emptiness brought on by tourists’ continual invasion into every corner of the church, until finally there is nothing left but cold stone to touch and balustrades and towering arches that have lost their mark and are holding up the air to all useless questions. It is impossible for me to imagine that I have found such emptiness in such a  profoundly elevated setting, even as I walk out of the church in moody reflection and gaze out over Paris, watching it tumble down into a disarray of structural groupings that offer no other point of reference but the Eiffel Tower.

Still, the authenticity of the city eludes me wherever I go, wherever I search for a taste of its true elixir embedded in its bricks and mortar, elegant doorways and buildings of glowing white facades, mute and austere. Perhaps I will recognize Paris by a chance meeting or encounter with some denizen who speaks only French and is capable of understanding me by the mere lift of an eyebrow. But these are only self-deceptive moments wherein I always arrive too late after turning into a street, smelling something fresh, though evanescent in the air, the dissolving presence of something real having just escaped me.

When I enter the Place St. Michel and find myself at the corner of the Rue de la Harpe, I find on the curb a spiral-bound wedding program that someone has apparently dropped in haste. I sense the wedding party having just passed and dispersed before my arrival, and a pleasant, joyful feeling in the air, in the sunlight left behind. I glance over the heads of tourists on the street for a glimpse of the bride and groom, even one member of the wedding party. What is left is the savoring of one sudden, but ephemeral moment of authenticity, the program that has fallen into my hands of what on the cover reads the “Benediction de marriage de Aude et Ivan, Samedi 3 Juin, Eglise Saint Severin-Paris.” I read the church program, following in my imagination the entrance of family and friends into the church, the bride with her father, the organ playing “Plein jeu of Veni Creator,” then a Gaelic song and the priests, the oration, the liturgy, and then the reading of a poem written by Jacques Brel, followed by a psalm, an alleluia, and another reading, this from the Gospel according to Luke. The sermon is next and afterwards Bach’s “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier” and finally the “Liturgie du sacrament de 1’Alliance,” the exchange of vows and wedding rings, the testimony of the priest, the prayer of the couple spoken aloud, the Our Father said in Latin, the nuptial benediction, the “Ave Maria” by Schubert, the final benediction, the offertory and final exit from the church to Bach’s finale of his fourth sonata and the “Toccata en re mineur et fugue.”

 I look into the sky that is shining down on the street in a cool light haze of sunlight, the endless throngs of tourists brushing past, feeling as though the moment of authenticity my heart yearns after has just passed seconds before, and somewhere exists the celebratory gathering I will never witness; yet in those seconds I realize how remarkably close I am to feeling the spiritual breath of Paris, though no more than a wisp of a cloud arched above the roaring traffic crawling up the Boulevard Saint Michel in a slow whirl of exhaust and dissipation.

Waiting on the edge of the Place de la Concorde for a clear view of the square where 1,343 victims of the guillotine lost their lives during the French Revolution, there is only greyness around its outer perimeters. I can barely make out where it ends beyond the obelisk at its center, clouded in exhaust and light rain as the whole square rises before me at a rising angle so that, although level to the eyes, there is the unusual sensation of having to raise my eyes upward as though to a summit, while on a level plane, giving me the eerie feeling of being forced to make homage to some unknown center of gravity rising at some higher elevation beyond view. For a number of seconds, I try to calibrate my vision in expectation that something will break my line of perspective, but there is only the increasing sense of being overwhelmed by the endless movement of automobiles—a phalanx of dark metal bodies, speeding everywhere as if without direction, and an insistent rise in perspective looming treacherously before me.

An overbearing line of trees, their entire circumferences shaped into what looks like huge, round, green balls without a branch peeking out in disorder, greets my vision, but offers no solace that I will find some break to the square’s center of gravity. All I can think of is blood beneath my feet and the leering crowds of onlookers that must have jostled into this geometric design of a place during the worst of the French Revolution, a place that seems to force everyone in one direction. I sense something underfoot, the very four-sidedness of the place heavily pressing in from all sides as though an invisible force drawing one to an indefinable center and which seems no longer to hold to anything important but the moment— though not the history that was for me so evident in the square’s disjunctive terrain that continued to loom before me so unrelenting in its pressing space. I expected some memorialized point of reference to meet me halfway to the other side and purposefully skirt around the Place de la Concorde’s perimeter, though I am unable to reach its center of gravity anyway with an endless wall of traffic building perpetually around me. The living sense that history is trying to touch me, too near and too far to grasp, is clear, but the paradoxical sense of having arrived too late is an omnipresent reality to my thoughts. Everything in Paris, even history, has been rarified, and we, the curious, self-seeking shadows of ourselves move like somnolents, bearing eternal hopes into the heart of the city like so many cascades of flowers doomed to wither.

I angle my way south towards the Eiffel Tower from the Arc de Triomphe, the penultimate symbol of everything Parisian, cutting up a radiating mélange of intersecting streets with poetic names, flanked by blocks of grand, stalwart buildings with impressive facades. As I move forward, I sense a well-kept secret, that Paris, in fact, does not really exist, that all I have read and imagined is simply the skillful machinations of centuries of wildly inventive minds that came upon the idea of creating a wholly believable non-reality that called for the fervid imaginations of others to give it full-flower. Will the Eiffel Tower yield the city’s ultimate duplicity as the tower has for years become the symbol of everything uniquely Parisian? Maupassant described the structure as a “perpetual nightmare” though it was “not the tower alone that gave me that irresistible longing to live alone for a while,” he claimed, “but all that went on around it, inside and above it, in fact, everything in its vicinity.”

I circumvent the Palais de Chaillot, swinging across the Jardin du Trocadero and stand for a moment at the Pont d’ Lena. The Eiffel rises before me perfectly balanced in all parts, for years having conceived its metal structure no bigger than a Ferris wheel. All the reproductions I had  seen only confirmed this conception, until I stand at one of its great legs, gaze upward and marvel at its intricate form from below. For a moment my gaze is fixed on a meandering text of intersecting metal beams that meld together into a graceful collection of shooting arches that join in one flow to its trademark pinnacle, and it seems then that all points have led here.

Like Rome’s Appian Way, there is ultimately nowhere to go in Paris except to the Eiffel Tower, galvanizing all the disparate forces of the city, human and spiritual, material and economic, social and philosophical. Even from the top of the tower, it is clear the uneven mélange of geographic segmentations of arrondissements that make up Paris, divided by the Seine, track out into miniscule avenues and cul-de-sacs, over which the Eiffel Tower in all its obvious uselessness casts the essential eye over the city; that the tower is to all effects, as Maupassant rightly pointed, the city’s true geographic center; and that no movement, human or otherwise, is possible without the tower’s keen, constant monitoring, no, idealism with its pure inescapable views from any rampart, midway or from the tower’s very top. No one can truly live without calibrating their pulse to the measurement of its soaring presence over everything possible in the human realm below. All seems part of an inexorable flow toward something indefinable, yet representative of some promise left to the world.

But this does not stop the dispersal of African street vendors selling their silver and gold reproductions of the tower along the Quai Branly by the police who suddenly fall on the scene. Wailing sirens loom closer and closer. All scatter, shirts billowing in the wind, hands clutching their Eiffel Tower miniatures. They are the city’s eternal safeguard from itself, and their dispersal is only temporary like the cutting of waves.

An afternoon mist has settled over the Seine that washes itself continually under an overcast sky, and the Avenue de la Bourdonnais and Avenue de Suffren press in like a vise on the Pare du Champ-de-Mars where I espy not a single person moving in any direction. If for no more than an instant does Paris come to exist, it is in this momentary miasma of shifting views from the Eiffel Tower that placates my disillusion. I wait for the mythic soul of Paris to seduce me with its theatrical stagings and deserted streets off the beaten path, a city said to contain such pure creative substance there is no satisfaction in any other world. What I find instead is the perfect metaphor for a deluded world, a break in the traffic racing about the Arc de Triomphe, a car pulling in front of me manned by an Italian who claims he is stuck in Paris and needs to get home to Italy. He asks if I would like to buy a brand new leather coat in the front seat of his car. This harried Italian’s eager quest for home is thrown at me in the midst of a blurred mass of moving autos. He tries to convince me how impoverished he is, how he needs to sell the fine leather coat to get back to his poor wife and children who are destitute without his support, that he has been in Paris too long and is sick of France. That I am chosen out of all others on the street to haggle over hot merchandise, that I am collared to hear his story merely to unload a stolen leather coat because I look apparently so naive makes me laugh. As he waits for my response, all I can do is shrug at the incongruity of his expression. He quickly disappears into a whirlpool of traffic that rises up to engulf him in one swallow.

 So too is Paris, a city of sudden appearances. All silent, all vacant, but for one or two lone individuals I espy on a street off the beaten path, smoking cigarettes, delivery men, perhaps, taking a break from their jobs, looking at their feet, then disappearing through a doorway. The city’s static quality of life, even when it pretends to sincerity, is a duplicitous aphrodisiac, sometimes barely detectable, but persistent, a kind of irreconcilability with history, a plasticine exterior that one minute overcomes the eyes with light, all glimmering, whitewashed and luminescent, the next purveying a bad case of ennui. It did not take me long to realize there is, in fact, no Paris, only an impersonal fantasy, for in truth Paris exists elsewhere. In the end, the city invariably nods off into a kind of inert torpor, deviating from the main thoroughfares away from the gawking tourists, a sudden tranquil street, but without the restive presence of residents or open windows to humanize the endless blocks of majestic apartment buildings that let out no sound.

Along the rue d’ Arcole near Notre Dame, milling crowds, the Seine rolling in its shadow as though standing still. The contents of the Louvre dwarfed by what seems a deliberate creation of a larger-than-life setting. The museum’s glittering gilt halls that overwhelm, an intriguing, though frustrating sense of irrelevance. This staged quality to the city is no better illustrated than in the picturesque, though somnolent Jardin du Luxembourg, a public park of such dreamlike atmosphere, I feel as if revisiting memories, images and feelings from my past. A small jazz band plays under a gazebo. I slip into melancholy as I listen, faces gazing in arched surprise and dull stupor, hoping something will yield the final secret and all points between. All the memories that pour into my head have finally allowed me to disperse into the languor of Paris, enveloping me in all its seductive grace and of which I have become no more than a living appendage of its simulation that will never allow me escape from illusion.

*Quote of Guy de Maupassant. Fr. La Vie Errante or In Vagabondia. Vol. VII. A Selection from the Writings of Guy De Maupassant (The Review of Reviews co. NY 1903) p. 157.

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