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The sum of it would be, I suppose, that they had all contrived
to live through the day in that exceedingly unpleasant manner,
and that nothing serious had occurred to prevent them
from passing the following day likewise.—Ruskin
My title here, which means “Paris the dead,” is a variation on Bruges-la-Morte, a novel by Georges Rodenbach from 1892. This short novel was a sort of precursor to and influence upon Death in Venice: an earlier, less evocative, less powerful version of Thomas Mann’s great novel which also took place in a city of canals. Bruges, a famous old city of northern Europe, had fallen into financial decay in the 19th century, and was little more than a large ghost town at the time of Rodenbach’s novel. It was haunted by artists and other depressive types like Rodenbach and his anti-hero Hugues. It has since enjoyed a minor financial rebirth, based on tourism, but in many ways it is still a ghost town.
Paris, however, has never seen a prolonged financial decay of this type, at least not in modern times, and many will be surprised to find me calling it dead. That is a good enough reason for asserting it, by itself, but I happen to have a fullish argument in hand as well. What sparked this essay was a re-reading of Balzac’s Pere Goriot, which begins with a description of an area of Paris near the Pantheon. Now, I am hardly an old man but I was able to recognize the description of squalor in those opening pages: not precisely, of course, but in a general way. I was able to do so, despite the fact that the novel took place 190 years ago, due to the fact that Paris has changed more in the past 25 years than it had in the previous 200.
I first visited Paris in 1983, at age 19. It was near the end of a long cycling trip through Europe, and long before I ever thought of becoming a professional artist, or a countercritic, or an amateur scientist, or any of that. I knew nothing of Paris' history, was not aware of its culture or lack of it, and would have had no opinion about its future, one way or the other, beyond hoping its museums stayed open and it architecture standing (I believe this is the current opinion of most Americans and Europeans, although some of the French might add a hope concerning business).
Twenty-four years ago I first arrived in Paris by train, with no hotel reservations, no map, and no guide book. I believe there was a guide book called “Europe on $15 a Day” at the time, but I didn’t want to waste four dollars buying the book. My routine then, as now, is just to begin walking, trusting to fate. I rather quickly ended up near the Pantheon, where I found a small room for about 60 francs (a bit more than 8 dollars). It was on the fifth floor, with no lift, a hard single bed, and the toilet down the hall. But so what? What am I, a princess? That is the kind of room I still look for, since, although I now have some money, I prefer to spend it on semi-permanent things rather than on wasteful frippery—perfumed pillows and soaps in the shape of clamshells and in-room cable TV and so on.
I returned to Paris many times after that, and although the row of cheap boarding houses and no-star rooms skirting the Pantheon disappeared sometime in the 90’s, I easily found others. I can remember thinking that Paris was nicely mixed, with cheap hotels within walking distance no matter what arrondissement you found yourself in. In this sense, there was no rich part of Paris and no poor part. Poor parts were mixed in, north, south, east and west. If you found yourself trapped in a wealthier area, you simply walked for ten minutes in any direction: soon you were out of it. For example, the Musée Rodin is now and was then in what must be called a high-traffic area. You are near Invalides and the River, near many monuments and soi-disant tourist attractions besides the museum itself, and yet I remember several no-star or 1-star hotels within two blocks of the museum gate. I stayed in them as late as 1996.
Between 1819, the year of the action of Balzac’s novel, and 1996, the last year of my cheap Parisian lodging, Paris underwent any number of revolutions, wars, and major overhauls. And yet, during all that time, Paris was a mixed city: “mixed” in the way I am speaking of here. It was a city of both rich and poor. Even the most central arrondissements were the homes of rich and poor citizens, rich and poor travelers alike.
But no more. Central Paris—the historical Paris and tourist Paris—has been gentrified from end to end. There is no cheap lodging in Paris, not for citizens or for travelers. The no-star and 1-star hotels are gone. The boarding houses are gone. Even near the train stations, the hotels start at $100 a night. If you are looking for a flophouse, you had best get back on a departing train, and plan to stay on it for a while.
I was just in Paris this spring (2007), and I walked by the Pantheon, remembering my first time in the city. As I was then, I was looking for a room; but this time fate, or something more tangible, failed me. I am at least as stubborn as I was then, and I didn’t go down without a fight. I walked for hours, then took the Metro to other neighborhoods and continued walking. Nothing. The City was welcoming only to the very wealthy. It wanted no artists, no young people, no one practicing any form of thrift for any reason. I finally found a 2-star hotel near the Moulin Rouge, a district I had avoided on all my other visits. It cost $90 a night, for a double bed I didn’t need and which wasn’t comfortable, and bath I didn’t use, and a toilet I could just as easily have walked down the hall for. And, since this was the cheapest hotel in the area, it was full of lowlife. To lodge with decent people, I suppose I would have had to spend $200 a night or more. The people I had lodged with in 1983, in the old run-down rooms near the Pantheon, may have been poorer, but they were quieter and less sleazy. They weren’t pimps or hookers: pimps and hookers in Paris aren’t poor. They weren’t then, and they especially aren’t now.
You may think that the Moulin Rouge colored all my experiences this time, and that this accounts for the bitterness of this essay. But that is not it. I didn’t spend any time watching cabarets or peepshows: I saw the windmill only from a distance—didn’t even walk by, though it was a block away and within sight. As soon as I cleared the hotel door, I made a beeline for the museums and cathedrals and the River.
I fled my lodging for the street, and fled the street for the past. In the museum or cathedral, or on the edge of the River, I was no longer in the present tense. I could ignore everything real and inhabit only the dream. This was such a strange thing to do in a beautiful and famous city, and such a confusing thing to need to do, that I didn’t analyze it at the time. I didn’t ask myself precisely what was wrong. After my requisite museum and cathedral visits, I just wanted to get out as quickly as possible and not go back. Even the museum was no longer refuge enough; the cathedral no longer felt sacred. It began to feel like a very fancy old movie prop, convincingly lovely but sterile. The City outside beat upon the walls, peered through the windows with a silent scream. In such a predicament, one does not pose questions to the threat; one flees.
Only when I began reading Balzac last week did I begin to understand the threat, and the cause of the threat. Only then did I have the peace of mind, the distance, to consider it. Paris is dead. That is the problem. It is full of business, yes, and full of tourism, but there is no life there. Only les salons et les bistros et les magasins de chaussures and galleries full of non-art. The only culture there is the culture of the past, a residue of culture, the culture of ghosts. The living people created none of it, and could create none of it. They are too small. They are incapable of the art and the architecture and the literature and the poetry. They are incapable of their own history. The Parisians are tourists in their own town. They are no closer to the artifacts on display there than the Chinese tourists are. Paris is now just a relic, an overcleaned, overpolished relic. The patina has been washed away with the dirt, and the spirit was somehow in the patina.
More than that, they have destroyed any possibility of a present culture in Paris, of any rebirth. In “cleaning up” Paris, they have “cleaned out” Paris. No one is left in Paris but high-end shopkeepers and their clients. No one can afford to live there but those who have already sold out. No one but the gilded épicieres. You will say there are writers and artists a-plenty in Paris, but they are writers for the magazines and newspapers that the shopkeepers read, artists for the galleries that decorate the shopkeepers’ expensive flats, artists that cater to les stylistes. There are no independent artists or writers in Paris, worthy of the name, since there is no market for such a thing. Any art worth looking at will be sure to be an antique. Any article worth reading was written before 1910.
This was already true in 1983, for the most part, since Modernism had already been ascendant at that time for many decades. But Paris and other big cities still attracted a few young artists and writers who hoped, naively, to make it in the old ways. They could afford to rot away on some less scenic rues for a few years until their parents cut them off at last and they had to get a real job or commit suicide or something. These people are the ones that still gave the City and world its last bit of charm, its last crusting of soul. You could still meet them in the cafés, could still occasionally talk about something real. People still suffered in small ways then, had to scrape, had to worry, got in fights, got arrested, did interesting things.
Not anymore. Paris is now the most boring place imaginable. Minor political blips—the occasional stupid riot over welfare checks—is the only thing that keeps Paris from being the Brave New World, in toto. Of course, I am not just picking on Paris here, though Paris is the example par excellence. The same is true of London and New York City and Madrid and Rome and Brussels and Berlin and Munich and so on. All these cities are cities of the living dead, and they make the Bruges of 1892 seem like a paradise of emotion and life.
How do I know? I know for several reasons. One, Rodenbach calls Bruges dead because it was in financial reversion, but life does not follow a financial graph. If it did, Paris would now be full of life; if it did, the western world would be at an apex of emotional and creative energy. No, if Bruges circa 1890 was suffering and scraping by and experiencing great tragedy, of whatever kind, then at least it was living. At least it was storing up experience that could generate art and literature. Even at its financial worst, Bruges could evoke a novel like that of Rodenbach. Did Balzac travel to some financial oasis to find a setting for his novel, some Carmel on the sea or Palm Springs? No. He chose a highly patined neighborhood, and not because it was nearby. Who could write a novel about Paris now? Only a shopkeeper could do it, or a shallow politician. A novel of rich and clueless tourists; a novel of cappuccinos and croque monsieurs and committee meetings and buses and grey suits and pollution of all kinds. Of government agencies and paperwork and TV all the time. Of schoolkids in headphones, fashion models with cellphones, people staring dumbly into space everywhere.
I say Bruges was at its "financial" worst in 1892 for a reason, and that reason is that Bruges, like Paris, is now at its cultural worst, its emotional most-dead. I lived there three years and did not meet one native person who was alive. Bruges, like the rest of the “inhabited” world, is now a world of zombies. Architecturally, the city is still mostly intact. It is still beautiful beyond imagining, especially at night when all the zombies are doubly inert in their little IKEA-appointed tombs. The swans and old trees still keep watch, the stones still whisper, the fogs still mystify, the ancient ghosts still drape the city in faded loveliness. But the Flemish people are moving only by rote, doing their business like an ant does. The only person with a personality in the entire city is an Egyptian, and he appears like Atlas, burdened almost beyond his ability by the spiritual nullity around him. Every morning he rises with a smile, every afternoon he remembers where he is, and every evening he droops, like an unwatered flower. He is like an Othello in a city of Iago’s (except that Iago was no zombie, at least).
Salzburg is another prime example of this death. Like Paris, it has suffered an over-cleaning. No one is left but high-end shopkeepers. The town is antiseptic: it smells of vermicide and culturcide and articide and lificide. Everything there is insured and underwritten and guaranteed. The emotional life there is completely flat. A passion meter would register nothing. The greatest real-life event there is now a child finding an apple or a dog running at a squirrel. Anyone over 12 who feels anything deeply goes to the doctor. I hear that the Austrians can now remove an emotion like a bad molar.
And the same for Munich. As recently as 1999, I was able to find a $20/night clean private room by my serendipitous method. Now, due to exponential tourism and the crush of the ignorant rich and semi-rich, that is impossible. It is still cheaper to travel in Europe (in most places) than in the US, but the gap is quickly closing. At least in Europe you can usually find a dorm-bed at some kind of hostel, but even these beds have become pricey. For $20-30 a night you can listen to a dozen disgusting people snore and pétent and grind their teeth. Not exactly a Room with a View; not precisely the sort of travel that Sargent or Ruskin would have experienced in Europe.
And, as in Salzburg and everywhere else, the people of Munich have to get drunk to feel anything, and even then they can’t feel anything but mildly belligerent, or mildly randy. The police won’t allow more, nor the Frauen, nor the superegoen. The city has been cleansed of anything richly evocative or vulgar or elevated or sordid or poetic or poignant or otherwise artistic in any way, and in place of them have come giant neon advertisements (like those posted directly on the Rathaus). The tourists can now buy a dry bratwurst and a warm beer in a fake stein, while admiring a gigantic VISA emblem or Deutschebank insignia as their entertainment, lofted down from the face of city hall. I predict that next time I visit Munich, the little people in the glockenspiel will be wearing Nikes and playing the theme song from McDonalds.
Not to pick on the Austrians or Germans anymore than the Parisians: this vulgarization and zombification began in the US and flows out from here, like a tsunami. Or, to be more precise, it perfected itself here, reached its fruition here. It can’t be said to have begun here, since nothing began here. The Modern malaise goes back to Werther, back to Christ, back to Lao-Tze, back to Akhnaton. That is, it is a combination of a lot of things, only one of which is money. But the combination is undeniably American. Paris has turned itself into a big suburban mall-town, like one of the rich-flight areas of Baltimore or Detroit. The mall in Paris is spread out over the whole city, and has no weather control, but all they need is a bubble or a dome. Then people can shop and eat and see shows without any inconvenience. I.M. Pei’s plastic pyramid outside the Louvre is just the first step in this direction, and I am not kidding when I tell you to look for the covered city in the near future. Some day they will have it, large enough for the Eiffel Tower to fit right inside. Then modern people can eat their plastic food and breathe their plastic air and spend their plastic money and shine their plastic souls, all without need of an umbrella or mittens. Only then will Paris be able to compete on an equal footing with Las Vegas.
How did it come to this so fast? Did we intend this? Ridding the world of poverty seemed like such a good idea. Cleaning up squalor seemed like such a good idea. But why is Bruges such? Why Salzburg such? Why Paris such? Can wealth alone do this? Must modern people be so sterile?
And why so many zombies? What is causing this modern phenomenon, where anyone with any kind of slightly elevated IQ seems to act like they have been hit on the head by a brick? A large minority of people act like they are traumatized, like they are semi-catatonic. The ones that are no longer fleeing voices in the air by drinking heavily, or doing piles of drugs, or by exercising every waking minute—the ones that are no longer young, that is—are lost in space, look like they are listening to some music channel on Mars. You almost have to shake them to get them to pay attention. This is what you find everywhere, not just in Paris. This is the modern person, in a nutshell. If you took away their cellphones and laptops, asked them a question that did not concern the news yesterday or today, or their narrow routine, they would lock down. Smoke would begin coming out of their ears, like Yul Brynner in FutureWorld.
As I look back with this in mind, I now think that the 80’s film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though a remake, must turn out to be one of the most important films of the century. As a seamless bit of psychology, this film is a masterpiece of horror. But where have the pods come from, in real life? How was it possible to achieve this short-circuiting of human emotion so quickly and so perfectly, beyond even what the religions were able to achieve? How was it possible to turn Paris into FutureWorld in only a decade? How was it possible to achieve the Brave New World without aliens, without guns, without drugs in the water, without a new religion, without any of the old bogeymen?
We do have drugs in the water and lots of guns, and maybe we have aliens, too, but I don’t happen to believe in those explanations. I don’t even think the government has done it to us, for the most part. We have done it to ourselves, with our own choices. But how? What did we do wrong? Is it repressed guilt: are we punishing ourselves for using the third world as a sweatshop for our “democratic” opulence? I would like to think so, but I don’t. Paris hasn’t become a pod-city due to guilt. Europe and the US have been built on the backs of slaves of various sorts from the beginning, as have most civilizations. That is not to excuse it in the least; in fact, I believe people should feel guilty, and more, that people should quit abusing foreign labor. But it does effectively destroy the argument from guilt, since people, for all their faults, weren’t sterile zombies in the 19th century. They were liars and prudes and so on and so forth, but they weren’t zombies.
The same thing destroys the wealth argument, since the courts of Europe in past centuries were plagued by all sorts of moral and psychological problems, but they didn’t exhibit the symptoms we are exhibiting. Louis XIV was a fat disgusting pervert, but he wasn’t a zombie. He didn’t build a city around him of ugly plastic, he didn’t excise his emotional life like a tumor, he didn’t flatten his life into a dull monotony. Just the opposite, in fact. The courts of Europe were places of true Hedonism. Modern people try to be Hedonists, but they are terrible at it. All they can do is spend money, but they can’t seem to buy any enjoyment. Even when they are eating themselves sick or squirming stiffly in a pile of naked bodies, they still act like they are listening to the cataleptic channel. The modern person has found a way to make even an orgy flat and boring, looking to a script to see when to moan.
So what is it? What did we do wrong? We have over-socialized ourselves. We moved into the cities, lived on top of eachother, talked too much, made too many rules, went to school too long. Now we have added TV and the internet to that, and we are over-saturated, like an ant that has eaten too much apple cider. We are permanently buzzed on society, and cannot turn off, or even turn down, the superego. The superego is hypertrophied, constantly flexed like some strange bodybuilder, and the instincts are crushed under its bulk. We hear a constant patter of “I can’t do that” or “I must do that”. That is the cataleptic channel. The orders are so constant and so loud and so contradictory that the body and mind simply shut down at last. If we are not in some brainless routine, we are lost.
Only in this state can we be so blind as to do what we are doing: turning Paris and the world into a strip mall, an ugly, polluted, car-infested and car-encircled and car-determined nightmare where all is false and all is monotonous and all is droning.
We need the car nearby at all times, not because we have anywhere to go but because the car is a perfect shell, even better than the bed. Unlike the bed, it has knobs within reach that supply most all our cut-switches. If our instincts get too noisy or insistent, we can turn up the radio, rev the engine, light a cigarette. But most important, we can fly. Motion gives us the impression that we are leaving something behind—please let it be the cry of my instincts, which I cannot indulge! The bed cannot do this. It is not a magic carpet: there are not enough knobs, not enough lighted dials to bewitch us there fully. And most of us can't sleep anyway, since sleep is the realm of instinct, where our superego loses power. The superego resists this place as a diminished sphere of influence. What if I should have a dream that someone else might be offended by? Also—and this is of paramount importance—the bed is the locus of sex. To the superego, it is a cursed place for this reason alone. Better to sit in the car with the radio and the pretty dashboard—and the engine, in case I need to physically flee.
Music is the other cut-switch, of course. All places are now plugged or batteried, for immediate sounds. When I was traveling in Ireland this winter, a young hosteller asked me how I could travel without my “tunes.” I might as well try to travel without my blanky or my thumb, in his opinion. Everyone else had the ipod glued to their person, of course, just below the cellphone (we will count the cellphone as music, since it serves the same purpose). Both act as a flight from self, a flight from reality, a flight from instinct, an immediate confirmation of the superego, a near-constant stroking. A piped-in hum and blowjob from Big Brother and Big Sister and all our MTV heroes. An instantaneous short-circuiting of any whispers from within. A drowning-out of all the old Muses and nymphs and other natural motions bubbling up from deep.
Shopping is another cut-switch, and it goes a long way to explaining Paris and all the other cities and towns of the world. Shopping and sight-seeing and going to shows and films and museums is just one more blow to the instincts. Like the dashboard in the car and the cigarette lighter and the knobs and the radio and the rev of the engine and the ipod and the cell, the modern city is a distraction from the instincts. The shops are the superego made into rooms and galleries and salons. Filled with other people and things made to please other people, shops glorify and exercise the superego at the same time. Simultaneously, the superego is flexed and the instincts are drowned out. That is why most people don’t want to look at nudes in a museum, and don’t want to buy nudes in a gallery: someone might see them doing it. They don’t want to see them in movies either, except in brief teasing passes that they can claim later they missed or that were only there “as part of the plot.” The dark helps hide things, too, in the theater. In sexy parts, you can pretend the other people aren’t there.
People don’t even want to be seen shopping for many things, and—though you might assume the opposite at first—this is more true of guys than girls. Girls will go into the men’s section without too much trauma, but you should see guys skirting the women’s section, as if it contained male-targeting landmines. The superego has become so overpowering that men, in a time of ubiquitous porn, still cannot pass by a display of ladies underwear or stockings without glancing around furtively to see if anyone caught them. “Did that lady think I was looking at those pictures as I walked quickly by, seeking the men’s room? Do you think she thinks I am hard up? Look at her grabbing her daughter and rushing off in the other direction. I better get out of here before a guard comes!” This is not a joke; this is what actually happens everyday in every mall in the world. Like a brave advance scout, I often have to reconnoiter in the women’s section, looking for clothes for my model closet, so I have experiences that most other guys don’t. I see the other guys passing quickly, looking at me inquisitively, wondering if I am boldly gay or just suicidal. And I see the women looking at me sideways, checking to see if I am with a girl (you really need a female guide if you are going to advance this far into enemy territory). I always say I am looking for a birthday gift for my girlfriend, and this seems to diffuse the bomb better than anything. But it is strange I should need to lie. It is strange I should need to say anything. Girls in the men’s section don’t need to come up with some cover story (everyone knows they are there buying boxers). Guys are happy to have a few girls around, no matter where we are. We are not territorial about the men’s section at all. We don’t ask questions. If you want to park it in our section, come on over, and bring a keg!
But seriously, it is the superego that rules the mall, and the mall is a very strange place, just like Paris. Like Paris, it is ruled by women—since the superego is at least 75% female. In all shopping situations nudity is heavily proscribed, surrounded by layers of restriction and taboo. When it is allowed in a shopping situation, it is aimed at women, and only women can look at it. Think of the underwear section or the window at Victoria’s Secret. Guys can’t stand outside VS and stare, although I am not sure why not. In a natural world, guys would be strolling through VS at all times: “We just came in to look at your beautiful posters. Wow. Maybe we’ll buy something, too. Hey Johnny, do you think Laura would like these? I think I’ll get them for her.” That may happen occasionally, and VS would probably like for it to happen more, but, honestly, most guys are scared of VS. You never see guys in there, unless they are holding close to their ladies, and even then they look very uncomfortable. Does this seem sexually liberated to you? It doesn’t to me. It is a very clear sign, one that is fabulously easy to read.
For the same reason, people do not want nudes in their homes. The home, like everywhere else, has become a public place, ruled by the superego. The neighbors would see the nude painting and what might they say? The kids will see it, the parents will see it, the UPS man will see it, Santa Claus will see it. Oh My God!
Until recently, the Europeans were a little more honest about nudity in the theater and home: they did not limit nudity in mainstream movies to half-second clips, for instance. But as Paris has become like suburban Baltimore with more cupolas, the Parisian or French film has become more like the American film. More action, more camera angles and cuts, less lingering nudity and more split-second teases.
Since the Europeans are not moving in this direction for religious reasons, as might be urged for Americans, we must assume the instincts are being lopped there for other reasons. The reason is simply to satisfy the superego. The superego doesn’t like the instincts, and this has nothing to do with any religion. It is a turf war and nothing else. The more the instincts are cut out, the more powerful the superego is. Any socialization, religious or not, will denigrate the instincts, since the brain is a zero-sum game. If the superego wants a bigger piece of the pie, it must co-opt mental territory from the id. It will do this in any way it can.
This is why the city, the TV, the radio, the internet, and all other social grids look like they do now, why they are looking more and more that way every year: they are constructs of the superego. The superego is not artistic, is not sexy, is not creative, and is not complex. It is jealous and ambitious, in the shallowest possible way. The superego has all the depth and potential depth of a formica countertop. Once it seeds an appreciable part of the mind, it is like kudzu. It takes great effort to tear it out. It either requires a very directed energy, an energy that most people cannot manage themselves, even once they recognize the need for it; or it requires an extended period of starvation and drought. It requires the proverbial trip into the wilderness. Not a weekend vacation with the kids, but several years of being alone, without media of any sort, without any “thou shalts” or cries for charity or goods or bads from anyone for any reason.
I must mention one other factor in the death of Paris, a factor suggested by a passing comment above. There I said that the superego was 75% female. I will now try to expand a bit more on that, letting the expansion stand for—not so much proof as confirmation. I will not have time to prove anything here, since this is a very big can of worms, admittedly. But it does bear suggesting, even if I say no more than that I think it is true: I see a connection between the housecleaning done on Paris and the ascending power of women in western culture. The old Paris was like a man’s studio: dirt piled in the corners, loads of dirty laundry rotting in the basement, dishes everywhere, rubble dotting the mews, but masterpieces in between, shining through. The new Paris is like a woman’s studio, everything in its place, clean and tidy, well organized, scented, and perhaps a bit sterile. In the man’s studio, you might find any number of odd fellows and lasses lounging about, and you would be unclear on the purpose of many of them. Were they models, clients, friends, neighbors, or just bums? In the woman’s studio you won’t see any bums or unsavory lasses—she will have sent them packing. No messes either. Just well-dressed, clean people who all have a clear and present purpose, much of which will be talking about things.
But the man knows there is a use for messes, and for bums and lasses of all sorts, too, although he may not be able to put it into words. These masterpieces don’t arise accidentally out of the dross, they require the dross. Every mountain is surrounded by slag. The old Paris was like Rodin’s studio; the new Paris is like Hillary Clinton’s office.
The housecleaning that has been done on Paris is also like the traditional married couple, where the wife, pushed past her level of patience, invades the husband’s ratty wardrobe and burns the lot; or goes into his shop and composts everything she doesn’t see an immediate use for.
On a level of even greater generalization and cliché (I fully realize) is the fact that nice hotels were made mainly for women. A lot of guys are like me, and don’t give a rat’s thingamabob what kind of room they stay in while they travel. Very few women are like that. Clamshell soaps and perfumed pillows were not invented to impress guys, in the main. As in every city, 90% of the shopping is done by women, which must mean that guys exist in Paris mainly as a subspecies. I don’t know what men do in big cities, or any cities, except work and drink beer. A large part of Paris is just a wall to stand outside of while waiting for a woman. Numerically I could prove this with any poll or any documentary, of either tourist couples or local couples. I am a people watcher, and I know how statistics work.
So before you write to me in some sort of huff, I know that a lot of guys now shop for frilly froufrou, colognes and pointy shoes and pomades and whatnot. And I know that a lot of women are tough as nails, with big muscles and pigsties for homes and growly cars. They will tell me they prefer to ride their Harleys to work at the prison, sleep in garbage cans, and make art out of roadkill they have dented themselves. But even admitting all that, my point remains, since it was made as a generalization and is true as a generalization. Paris looks like it was planned by the most ambitious and least artistic Junior League lady, and this type of Junior League lady exists, whether you happen to be one or not. Wives and girlfriends do still throw out their husbands’ or boyfriends’ clothes. It is a cliché precisely because it happens so often and is so representative of . . . something. Also representative of the same something is the fact that boyfriends and husbands would not dare to throw out anyone’s clothes. They would never think to do it, in the first place; and then, if they did think of it, they would resist the urge, for any number of reasons which must come immediately to mind.
Paris, is, in fact, full of women just like the ones I am talking about here, and it is no accident that their homes and Paris as a whole look more and more alike. It is no accident that Paris and all of Europe has succumbed to the unsubtle cleaning of this Hausfrau. You, my gentle reader, may be the most advanced sort of woman imaginable, artistic to the nth degree and progressive by every possible standard; but Paris is not being redone by you. It is being redone by plastic ladies in too much makeup and perfume, wearing ridiculous shoes, driving expensive cars and drinking overpriced bottled water. And, yes, perhaps their husbands and lovers are fully complicit, riding with them, drinking the bottled water, wearing the makeup, maybe even wearing the perfume. But it is now the men being like the women, and not the reverse, that is the problem.
Some will say, so what? So what if the wife throws out the ratty pants with holes in them or rustles out the bums or shoos away the slutty lasses? So what if the rubble is cleared and the dishes done and the streets swept? So what if there is a mint on the pillow? We have the money, why not have a shower in the room and clean towels and a TV to watch? Who wants a bunch of obnoxious artists next door anyway, or a lonely old writer, slouching around, depressing everyone, littering the foyers with his books? Do we really need slag around the mountain? Can’t we vacuum it up, if we have a big enough machine?
These I will never convince, since being an artist is not finally a gender issue or a necessary sex trait, it is an instinct, like the other instincts that are being sat upon. Some people can see the loveliness in a patched pair of jeans or a faded t-shirt and some can’t. Some people can appreciate the smell of a slept-in bed or a worn leather shoe; others must reach for the Lysol. To some an old pile of stones is a temple, to others it is rubble that needs to be hauled off. To some, old things are richly evocative of a cherished past; to others they are just junk, outmoded and useless. To some, a few minor dents is a thing to call “antiquing”; to others it is nothing but damage, to be reported to an insurance agent. To some, a life of great pains and joys is not only grist for a novel or a painting, as with Balzac or Tolstoy, it is grist for our own nightly dreams, grist for heaven, a drink for the soul itself; for others such a life is a nuisance, a string to be straightened, a graph to be flattened, a ride to be leveled. These people see nothing provocative or compelling in dirty feet, rumpled and fragrant beds, well-worn tools, riotous vines, long hair, old books, cracked walls, untamed rivers, unkempt paths, unbaubled nudes. For them, all these things need trimming and scrubbing, relining and draping. For them everything should be named and packaged, defined and categorized, wrapped and put away. For them, life is preferable when it is lived in a sort of second-hand way, at a distance, critically, for this is how the superego wants it. When you are living your life as if it belonged to another person—another person far far below you, shiny and simplified and automatic, almost to the point of being inert—then you are living right.
I have been asked how I have avoided this zombification. How have I avoided the Modern good life? One, I haven’t avoided it, fully. I spend many hours catatonic (though possibly for other reasons). Two, I was never very well socialized. Large parts of my youth were spent in a mental wilderness, after school, alone, staring at the ceiling instead of “partying.” Three, I have directed great energy at the kudzu. I recognized it early on as dangerous, and I still attack it daily, sort of like my daily attacks on plaque with my toothbrush. Four, my adult life has contained long spells in the wilderness, alone and seeking various superego starvations on purpose. The kudzu doesn’t find very fertile ground in my mind.
But why do I mention myself here? Not only as the nearest specific example I could offer, but as an analogue. As with the mind, so with the city. Paris must be analyzed much like I have analyzed the mind here, and my own mind. That is to say, it is not so much that Paris has lost its squalor that is important. I am very far from arguing for squalor qua squalor—Balzac didn’t choose Maison Vauquer just to throw a fistful of dirt in our eyes. If I were arguing for that, I might as well argue for Lucian Freud’s manufactured squalor, created specifically to damage the retina. No, what is important is that Paris has lost its richness and complexity. The instincts cannot live there; the id is not welcome. The superego has hosed down all the sidewalks and rebuilt all the walls and repainted every crack and removed every natural thing. Yes, a sort of sex-like thing exists there, as at the Moulin Rouge and in the bordellos surrounding, but it is squashed by the superego that rules the city. It is a depressive and unnatural and sickening sex, rustling like the last rats in the sewers. It is not an instinct that has been allowed its course, it is an instinct that has been redirected through various backwaters of the soul. No, it is not even that. The superego has constructed a sex-substitute, a vulgar mannequin, a look-alike, a painted rubber doll, a putain plastique. Like the poor lab monkey, we have been given a small piece of pile carpet instead of a mother, and we cling to “her” pathetically. The superego has nailed together a wooden dummy and hung a “sex” sign around her neck, but the instincts are nowhere and in noway represented or satisfied.
As with sex, so with all other richnesses and complexities and subtleties and emotions and passions. In its housecleaning, the modern brain and city has swept the greater part of the mind and soul out the door. It has done this in the name of health and wealth, fraternité et égalité, but it had oversimplified the problem, and thereby come to the wrong solution. For instance, it may be that the city does not need less dirt, but more. It may be that the city does not need less sex, but more. It may be that the city does not need more people, but less. It may be that the city does not need more business, but less. It may be that the city does not need more traffic, but less. And less media, and fewer laws, and fewer taxes, and fewer shops, and fewer rights, and less talk, and more sleep.
In this sense, it may be that people know that they need to tune out, turn off, but they are doing so in pathological ways. Not in the way of Tim Leary, with drugs, but with unconscious catatonic and cataleptic states. They cannot figure out how to solve this problem in a rational way, since, what are you going to do, outlaw more laws? How do you rebuild, or un-build, society without talking to other people? You would appear to need media to downsize media. You would appear to need media to educate people on the need for less media.
At this point, the brain simply shuts down. The problem has entered a loop. In addition, no one has time to go into the wilderness, so instead they create little spaces of wilderness in each day, going into a zombie-state in between each task, like a computer idling. Eventually the system will crash, they think, and then they can turn back on and rebuild from the ashes. You cannot turn a Juggernaut; best let it sink and then build another ship from new timbers.
Possibly this is the best way, and probably this is the way it will pass, but I am not convinced of the logic of it, or the necessity. It would be much easier to turn Paris a few degrees than rebuild her from the ashes, to downsize rather than upsize and upsize until the balloon pops. What is wrong with letting a little air out? I am too in love with Paris and Bruges and all the rest to desire their utter destruction, especially when this desire would appear to come from the lazy refusal to face facts. It is like saying, “I haven’t got time or expertise to hit the brakes, since my feet hurt and the kids are screaming. Besides, the radio is broken in this stupid car. Best let it crash and then I will see about fixing it tomorrow.” If you are driving a 1973 Gremlin, and you are assured of surviving the wreck, with your kids, then yes, maybe you have made the right decision. But if you are driving a vintage Corvette, loaded with options, and if two of your three kids aren’t even wearing seatbelts, I should think you would find a way to tap on those brakes, no matter how tricky they are.
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