What If Our Ideal Is Shot With Rust?
A poet wanders cultural Paris before and after a terror attack.
When I moved to Paris, for the first few months I tenanted a tiny, shabby chambre de bonne in the 6th arrondissement that was not officially on the map when you searched for it on Google. My flat became symbolic of something that drew myself, and some of my heroes, to what John Ashbery called “the city.” Paris is a place that allows for the uncharted.
My life in London had become a mechanical monster of corporate pre-packaged lifestyles, systems unwanted, and concerts sponsored by international banks. I moved to Paris because I wanted to work less and write more, to follow my dreams. The move to Paris felt like less a choice and more like giving into an uncontrollable gravitational pull of creativity, adventure, romance, and excitement. Dreaming in Paris is a full-time, respected job. This spirit seemed more appealing to me, so I left England with a few books and an address scribbled into a notepad, an address that never officially existed.
The architecture of Paris encourages you not to follow a routine. This I liked. Everything is compacted, which trains you to see things, to look more closely, to appreciate the majesty of what is right in front of you at every moment. Its mysterious, snail-like coil that is both so easy to get lost in and at the same time so easy to walk around always seemed to me a place that curiously sidestepped the kind of officialdom that tightened up other modern cities into well-functioning, bureaucratic machines. Anyone who gravitates toward the city in search of their own right of passage as an artist, if they follow their nose their story will turn out—despite the berets and the mimes, the cigarettes and the cafes—to be unique.
The fact that my 7 Rue Duguay Trouin never existed on the Google map seemed fitting. So did the fact that the week I moved a friend of mine gave me a copy of A Moveable Feast. While I was reading that book, the sense of living in the heart of artistic and literary history began to flourish, when I discovered that Hemingway once lived at Gertrude Stein’s house just one road across from my studio, on the Rue de Fleurus.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway highlights the importance of escaping the writing medium and replacing it with something you can simply enjoy on its own terms; something that does not besmirch the spirit with a sense of competition. And, as we know from the hilarious portrayal of Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, “writers are competitive.” What reinvigorated Hemingway, what really cleansed the doors of perception and enabled him to see again, was painting, in particular some of the paintings in the Musee de Luxembourg.
Hemingway describes Cézanne’s paintings as an important lesson. “I was learning something from Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.”
Secrets, lessons, truth: key planets in the artist’s cosmic journey for which Paris is the vehicle. You still see the same paintings, in the same museums and the same galleries. The city is perfumed by impressions. In the city’s center, Monet’s impressionist Water Lilies in the Musee d’Orangerie, surround one in a vessel of broad pinks and purples, swirling grays and greens from every angle, hinting at the dense, intoxication of Paris life. At the Musee d’Orsay, just across from the lovers’ bridge, where padlocks had to be removed because of the heaviness of symbolic declarations, post-impressionists like van Gogh burst open the mind’s heart with later, star-emblazoned images so vivid, one feels drunk on a sense of smell and synesthesia. This style of painting, more than any other art form, runs like a river of color through the districts, bringing out the subtle hues, the patterns of narrative in A Moveable Feast that give us never too much, and never too little; perfect fragments of everyday life that open up the gaps in our consciousness. Through the details both given and—just as crucially—left out, it allows us to wonder, to impress our own memories on to them, and become more in tune with what we want, and who we are.
I did the full circuit of the Luxembourg Gardens, following the dust tracks under the poplars, past the white-rose gardens and the chess players, to a monument of Charles Baudelaire. The whitish-gray, stone bust, under the trees’ shade carves out a snarl. It’s the kind of snarl you want from a Baudelaire statue: insulted by the green surroundings, hungry for the city’s seediness, its morbidity entangled in lust; it’s a snarl desperate for modernity. There’s the necktie, the macabre, fully buttoned-up jacket. And there’s the long, unrelenting stare into, “our dignity… which rolls from age to age… into your eternity,” as it is inscribed below in stone. The ‘your eternity’—or God’s eternity—is not something the flâneur, the rebel, wants much of a part in. This is not his eternity, the poet’s, because Baudelaire was looking at something else, something much more promising, much nearer, something many begin to see when they spend time in Paris, so long as they are willing to look close enough. Baudelaire was looking at life today; he knew more than anyone that the only real eternity one should long to be a part of was the one happening now, right in front of you.
Near to the Luxembourg Gardens, Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre” is scrawled across a wall on the Rue Férou. The 100-line poem, written before Rimbaud even looked at an ocean, is quite a thing to stumble across accidentally.
When I came across it, I was still moving things—books, papers, shoes, shirts—from one place to another. The city was unusually quiet, since the terrorist attacks of November 13th, 2015—which threw the city into disarray and fear—less than a week before during my migration from flat-to-flat.
The sense of quietness, of the trauma of the attack having ruptured the city’s flamboyancy, was startling and sad, but also eerie. The boulangerie down the road from my studio, which I used to frequent every day, asking for a baguette and a croissant in broken French, had closed; galleries, restaurants, even the little secret bars in Place de Clichy and Republique, closed with no news on when they might reopen.
The day I saw the poem on the wall, I walked across the city, from the American Library in Paris near the Eiffel Tower, to the Luxembourg Gardens, and then up to Monmartre again, on the other side of the city. I was in a state of despair just like everybody else that day, but also confusion. Some Parisian friends, who had taken me under their wing and looked after me simply because, lost friends in the attack.
In the Luxembourg Gardens, I saw hardly anyone. Paris had closed its eyes, and it was in a state of grief, and I grieved with it, by walking; walking, with no sense of direction, walking amongst the ghosts of the past, in the deranged present. I could not understand why other human beings would choose to attack a city that stood up for freedom, the symbolic heart—to me—of the greatest aspects of human nature; of the wild, the brave, the eccentric, the artistic, and romantic.
In fear for my safety, my family urged me to return to England. When I came across the poem on the wall, hand-painted in black, I was reminded why I was there, and why I couldn’t leave at that moment. “Le Bateau ivre” always seemed to me a poem that urged you, wherever you were, under whatever circumstances, to see life in a new way. Life could be reinvented, even under the most traumatic of circumstances, and even under the gray shadows of national grief, you could see into the eternal of the now, and there you would find the kind of hope the best art in Paris constantly reminds one of living for.
I was reminded also, when passing the Hotel des Deux Continents, of a letter by Ted Hughes, who honeymooned with Sylvia Plath in Paris in 1956. The letter, written to his son in 1985, made a declaration curiously resonant: “The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated.”
By the time I made it home, I felt that the rubble had settled somewhat. The hysteria of living through a disaster like that caused me inadvertently to feel closer to the city, to its dreamers who had passed through it because we shared in something distinctly human—grief. In particular, grief as the result of an event so incomprehensible that it could be seen only as absurd. That night, out of the ashes, I wrote a poem called “Reluctance” that would eventually find itself in my first collection. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a kind of reaction, and also a kind of promise: to rail against every threat to freedom—of which Paris is the symbolic center—and in moments of crisis, to keep in sight the ideals we reach for at every point, even when those ideals, such as liberty, are directly attacked and for a moment seem endangered:
So what if our ideal is shot with rust?
That the spoken breath is but a shake of dust?
Who cares if the piano’s a case of mere bone?
That the guitar pulls its oars like a telephone?
Let the rain laugh in sprints up the wall
light all the gutters and dig out the gold
see the evening dance and never get old:
there’s a woman singing through the leaves of fall.
It was my attempt to put on paper the kind of defiance I felt at that moment, which I shared in solidarity with the community around me. A feeling that the kind of possibility a place like Paris awakens in you is something worth defending. Whether it’s love or art or the promise of a new beginning you are after, so long as you have an open heart, Paris is a place that can give you it, a place that gave me all of those things. I will always feel a kinship with the city, a respect and love for its version of liberty that I and many others chime with, and a constant want to defend the values the city stands up for—even in the face of terror.
Chris Viner is a writer and teacher in Los Angeles. He holds an MST in Writing from Oxford University, where he was a recipient of the F H Pasby Prize. His first book is Lemniscate (Unsolicited Press, 2017), which explores living in Paris during the terror attacks of November 2015. His poetry and criticism appear in Colorado Review, Culture Trip, Ash and Graffiti. Lemniscate was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018.