LYNDON DAVIES: Parismanic: Confessions of a Cultural Pilgrim

After the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo’ offices earlier this year, I found myself thinking of my last trip to Paris, just another pilgrim dreaming of his literary and artistic heroes (and anti-heroes). I remembered that I had written a sort of travel-piece, part ill-mannered lament and part cheerfully overwrought fan-letter to the city, and it occurred to me how much I had left out of the picture and at the same time how much I had left in without suspecting it.

Contemporary events read back into us. Which might, in certain circumstances prompt us to re-examine some worn but still interesting and uncomfortable questions, such as - could the particular kind of psychic constellation which gives birth, say, to a frame-shattering poem or work of art, be in any way comparable to the one that drives another person to a murderous attack on a houseful of unarmed satirists? What follows neither asks nor answers any such resounding questions, or at least it doesn’t obviously set out to do so. It is just a travel piece, a determinedly naive one at that, and I liked that “just” and worried about it, and decided to preserve it.

*

The first time I was in Paris was in 1974. I stepped off the bus and somebody – a young man, as it turned out – whispered “Shit” in my ear, which surprised me, I don’t mind admitting. Dumbstruck, I could only shake my head and shrug, assuming he was in urgent need of a convenience, but he just wandered off and stood under a tree, giving me an unreadable look as he did so. I mention this just to show how innocent I was at the time, although of course one is never wholly innocent of anything.

Now it’s later, much later, and Paris again. Yes Paris. You know how it is: you saunter up Jeanne D’Arc, hang a left along Charcot, shimmy down into Thomas Mann. Ah, the dead. From some angles, Paris resembles nothing so much as an intricately incised memorial to the glorious defunct – a lapidary wreath of clichés; and, of course, in a way every city is a cliché built on clichés, particularly for the pilgrim, that idolater of the idée fixe. But Paris – ‘from some angles’ – is the cliché beyond clichés, Paris is the cliché that eats clichés. Cannibal city, appropriating and devouring, spitting out its funerary trophies for the votary to ogle.

Certainly I ogle. In 1974 I wore my boots out, but never quite got around to visiting the Eiffel Tower. Did one need to see it, I rationalised later, having already consumed it in a thousand moving and still images? But this time lounging against the parapet on the other side of the river, I have a damned good gawp at the Eiffel Tower, and I realise, yes, that you really do need to see it, close up I mean, in the flesh as the saying goes, because the tower in the flesh does strange things to its own image, augments it, exacerbates it to the point of invisibility. In fact, this is the mystery and the wonder of the Eiffel Tower: it stamps the visible so strongly it goes right through it.

On my way there a young girl offered me a gold ring which she said she’d just found on the embankment, under the trees. “It’s too big for my fingers,” she said, showing me. “Its yours. Take it!”. I refused and sloped off, cursing my suspicious nature, thinking – why didn’t I just accept it, it might have been worth a fortune? But then I saw an older man, rather swarthy like a crook out of Rupert Bear, picking another gold ring off the path and offering it to a couple of unsuspecting lovers. Scam. I knew it in my bones and yet I wanted to believe, but couldn’t. I never could believe in the Eiffel Tower, either, the one that was an endlessly reiterated fable, but now I believe in the one it’s impossible to conceive of.

Paris, this time is clean, so clean. It’s as if they have turned a high pressure hose on the place. Last time it was grubby, smoky, there was dogshit everywhere, or so I remember it, but maybe that memory comes from books (except the dogshit). Anyway, now it is very clean indeed, almost white, or shading through various whites into pink, buff, grey-blue, cream. The Sacré Coeur is like one of those mass-produced cakes slabbed with pure white accurately engineered sugar icing. I can’t get over how pristine everything is. It’s as if all the louche crannies, all the smudgy inlets into the netherworld have been filled in and sanded smooth. This is probably an illusion, I think; I think if I walk hard enough and look far enough I will find the inlets, the scars, the embrasures in the immaculately manicured surface. So I walk, relentlessly, as if my life depended on it. Not for me the elegant pleasures of the flaneur, Baudelaire’s relaxed aficionado of crowd life. It’s all far more hectic than that, far sweatier and more compulsive, an overwhelming desire to puncture that elaborate crust and skewer my way through to the essential city; that yes, but at the same time to encompass the thing whole, the entire corporeal and phantasmal shooting-match, to hoover it all up into the portfolio of my own being.

It’s an effort, I can tell you. All the organs of my body are quivering with the strain of this enormous labour of incorporation. But Paris, of course, resists, its pale stones, and the life that goes on around and inside them resists too. Or not resists, but just goes on whistling its own riffs, indifferent to my attempts to synchronize its particularities to the rhythms of some ideal sedimentary cantata. And I recognize this indifference, but it makes no difference. For the pilgrim the task is always more sacramental than topological.

As for me, even eating becomes a kind of quest for the sacred. I spend hours searching for the illuminative morsel. I sit on a bench at the foot of the butte Montmartre munching my way through a miscellany of accumulated snacks, but none of them is quite the right bread or the right pastry or the right chicken teriyaki or whatever the hell that thing on a stick was. At night in my hotel room I gorge on insipid emmenthal and a tin of mackerel fillets in tomato sauce. The room stinks and I’m no further along, but this doesn’t make me unhappy – quite the contrary. I’m learning to be here, it’s an art like everything else. One starts with an alienated fumble, and then, perhaps… It’s a question of waiting, of keeping your nerve, but above all it’s a question of keeping yourself available.

Available. Ok, so I walk, I gawp, becoming less and less available as the hours pass, down along the boulevardes, under the plane trees and the sycamore trees, coasting the grand immeubles, which remind me, for some reason, of containers piled up on a giant cargo ship. Wrought-iron balconies girdle them like ornate barrel-hoops stretched taut against some immense outwardly bulging inner pressure; or like lines of text, of scripture perhaps, calligraphic: a sinuous language of stems, flowers and fruits. Somebody has been writing across the city, a text impossible to decipher but also very easy: that’s to say it says nothing but is just simply writing, just simply eloquence, but the eloquence of elegance, the eloquence of restraint. It’s written all over the metropolis in wrought iron: elegance and restraint, (wit, hierarchy, it implies that too, in parenthesis). The Academy. The mansardes peeping over the tops of the plane trees. Scrolls, flowers, fruit. Nothing here for the wild boys.

Into Montparnasse, where the hell are they all anyway? Soirées de Paris, 278 Boulevard de Raspail… The names, names everywhere, everywhere you look, twittering through your head like a cageful of budgies. Les Deux Magots, looking for Camus (etcetera), but they’re not here, in fact none of the people who should be here are here. This matters: of course it shouldn’t do but it does. After all, you’ve already lived a succession of imaginary histories in this place; you come with baggage and it’s a shock to see all that baggage suddenly turn to water and that water running off the surface of the city like water off a duck’s back. All the intensities of a fictive universe teeming down through the streets into the twiddly wastelands of the Tuileries and the Place de la Concorde and curling away into the drains with a stifled gurgle. Or is it rain? Is it just raining? Yes, it’s only rain, I think, but all the same it’s a shock not to hear the voices. They would have left a smear, at the very least a kind of smudge on the wall at head height, Verlaine chanting, Desnos sleepwalking his ribbon of saliva. Except that there’s nothing, or at least no more than there ever was.

Never mind, here I am on the trail of the famous bad, sniffing them out, harrying them down the shadow clefts of the night alleys. The strangers, the limit-warriors, the self-damned – Paris dreamt them and woke up shuddering. And yet it needs them now, more than ever it seems to me: the particular kind of dislocations they effect, the warping of those ravishingly monotonous perspectives, the poop in the parterre, the fistula in the hyperthyroidal avenue. Paris dreamt them and drove them to it, the grand reprobates – the impermeable superficiality of its intricately articulated and restrained gorgeousness. Filigree and shell, jeu d’esprit, the king’s lever. Villon, Sade, Lautréamont, Artaud, D’Aurevilly, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Céline, Genet: their names roll like a cloud of ordure-vapours through the night streets; you can hear the weird grinding music of their mutilated songs. Rich dense floating offal and vegetable cumulus, the sad sick fug shot through with procreative lightning.

And then in the morning the streets are washed and the bins empty. I’m trying to slow down, to give some space to the details. I’m standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe, doing my best to rouse the thing into existence, not just as a decorated lump of stone – a monument – but as a living ganglion, a complex of time-saturated involutions raveling out into this most bafflingly unambiguous of all possible moments. To open the book of the image and to dream through it, into it and beyond it, this is the thing I’m experimenting with. So here comes Adolf preening up the Champs Élysée, and various Napoleons vertical and horizontal, and Victor Hugo overnighting on his elaborate catafalque, and the Prussians after the siege and the French humping back from the great wars, shocked and bristling. And here’s Godefroy’s biplane easing miraculously through, millimeter perfect – it’s not possible but it is. It just is. Big histories, big, vicious, daft (excruciatingly male) histories, and one keeps trying, but finally the object itself defeats you, insists on itself, its unimaginably depthless present. And Paris keeps doing this. It seems to me that it’s something to do with the way it manipulates space, with the way it strands its epiphanies, separating them out so distinctly from one another, as in those mad barren geometrically OCD French gardens: nothing merging or casting its shadow on anything else, the spaces between so big and so dishearteningly vacant. There is the virulent, chaotic Paris of the imagination, the one every cultural pilgrim carries around inside them, and there is the Paris which has wiped the slate clean, has wiped the slate so clean it’s hard to connect with it except at the very tip of the present where no fantasy can take hold, or barely; the slate which is itself the past fossilized into geologically rigid meta-time. Heritage-time.

All the same, things happen in the proverbial corner of the eye, just there precisely in the direction you’re not looking, although that’s precisely the one place you’ve been keeping available – for the inadvertent – without ever really thinking about it. For instance, I’m passing the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, when I catch a slight movement across the street and I turn and half-see a small bald man, yes a small bald man in baggy brown corduroy trousers, cross the street to the door and go in – to the Bateau Lavoir! - shutting the door behind him as if it was the most normal thing in the world to be doing. It happens so quickly, it’s like a dream, and it is a dream, one which I deliberately make no effort to comprehend, which I just luxuriously permit to mean whatever it does or doesn’t. It’s real, absolutely, but it’s also a kind of dream. A cliché, yes, like all the others I arrived here with, all the texts and diagrams of my elated transit, but, like them, a cliché which seems to quiver on the edge of a space of infinitely immediate potentiality.

Alright, but eventually it starts to dawn on me that, at bottom, this is not a particularly viable way of going about things, all this skittling about like a hyperactive mystic, squinting and straining and communing and double-guessing. Let’s face it, I’m knackered, it’s time to abandon the chase, if it is a chase, or whatever it is if it’s not that, or whatever it is I’m insisting on, if I am, or whatever the hell it is that’s insisting through me. But first, it seems, I have to make some kind of an offering; to pour a libation, as it were. This is how it happens:

I’m in a large city-centre bookshop, standing in a queue for the cashout. In my hand is a book by Henri Michaux, Plume, and, beside the book, I’m carrying a baguette, a bottle of water, an umbrella and a rucksack. At some point I decide I’d like a drink of water, so I carefully unscrew the cap from the bottle, and as I do so I drop the book and as I bend to retrieve the book I drop the umbrella. As I bend to retrieve the umbrella, the water – of course it does – pours out of the bottle in slow motion, all over the shoe of the woman just ahead of me in the queue. Her shoe, which is one of those delicate slipper-like affairs, drinks it up, sudden sodden sovereign of its own little puddle. I look at it, but I can’t quite believe my eyes. I understand that there is some form of causal relation between this pool of water and my own idiotic manoeuvres, but it seems to me there is a lack of fit, a disproportion growing ever larger as the moments pass. The woman leaps back, squeals furiously and turns to remonstrate: no doubt she would like to me flanquer un marron. Quite naturally. In a way, I’m just waiting for the blow. But in the meantime I’m seriously stumped, as astonished as if I’d just fallen out of the sky onto a new planet.

In the crisis of this arrival I’m as a naked as a flayed baby. She looks at me, this woman with a soggy foot, and as she does so I see a flush of confusion sweep over her tense battle-ready features. She wasn’t expecting me – that’s clear. Not me. Or rather I should say that whatever it was she was expecting it wasn’t this apparition without history or co-ordinates, without hinterland, without attitude and without alibi. In other words, this entirely given human individual. It makes her laugh, she laughs! and in that moment it seems to me that she is also given, in the sense that there is nothing in the situation to refuse her, to drive her back into some familiar oppositional position.

I’m speaking of half a millisecond, but it jolts us. She giggles again, partly out of embarrassment, I think, and I can’t help joining in, although I know it’s chancy. Of course I apologize, profusely, but at the same time I have the feeling that I’ve taken some kind of a step in a new direction:a wall opens and I find myself stumbling through, lunging through into somewhere intoxicatingly unrelated to the programme, unincorporable, for this fraction of an instant anyway, and somehow that changes everything, just barely, hardly even at all really, and yet ‘completely’. Stepping out from the bookshop, the streets feel different, more intimate, more adhesive, as if the light had thickened. It’s as if, humiliated and distracted as I am, I’d forgotten – temporarily, no doubt, but all the same, forgotten – how to be the imaginary being who looks on; forgotten that there is even such a thing as looking, that there could ever be anything to look at that did not include me.

I carry Plume to Montmartre, to a scruffy bar I’ve been eyeing up since my first day in the city. It’s narrow with rickety wooden tables and I sit inside by the window and order a Pastis, first one then another, adding water as I see fit. My own little jug of water, my own little cloud in a glass. The barman is disinterested, the waiter slightly scornful, which is how it should be, exactly and ridiculously how it should be. The Pastis goes down, the alchemical reaction commences. My own little goblet of belonging. I open the book.

 

Lyndon Davies is a poet, reviewer and essayist living in Powys. He has published three collections of poetry, Hyphasis (Parthian Press 2006), Shield (Parthian Press 2010) and A Colomber in the House of Poesy (Aquifer 2014). He co-runs the Glasfryn Seminars, a series of discussion groups on aspects of literature and art, and was a co-organiser of The Poetry Jamboree, a yearly festival of innovative poetry at Hay on Wye.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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