Certain Women – The last thing we remembered being good

Certain Women has been my favorite movie of 2016. I have to write about it because I haven’t quite been able to figure out why it moved me so much.

We are in the Midwest, says the daring, drawn-out opening shot: the plains are wide, the skies gray, where the wind itself seems to come alive. A distant horn cuts through it all, and for about half a minute we are watching a freight train come into view and slide through the landscape, setting the tone and the rhythms, sounding the keynote to the aural landscape of what is to come. In Certain Women, so much tension surges from so little, with a pace so slow it aches. (It’s like the opposite of No Country for Old Men.)

Montana, specifically. Maile Meloy’s short stories, set there, in cities and distant hamlets, inspired the three-part screenplay: each grants us an oblique look into a woman’s life.

Laura (Laura Dern) is the lawyer of an obstinate client, who got into an accident at work and is now injured and unemployable. He wants to get back at his old boss, but having unwittingly agreed to an unsatisfying settlement, he has no case to make. He won’t hear it from her though. Only when another lawyer—a man—repeats what Laura has been saying for months does he resign. In a final, desperate effort, he takes a hostage. Laura gets sent in to negotiate. His scheme crumbles when he tries to escape but forgets to take his gun—out of exhaustion, perhaps, or out of sudden sympathy for Laura. The film leaves the question open/unanswered.

Gina (Michelle Williams) is married and the hard-working mother of an adolescent daughter. She and her husband—whom we first encounter the morning after he cheats on her with Laura—have decided to build a house out in the country. The neighbor Albert, a solitary man suffering from memory loss, would have just the right building materials for the house: some old sandstone from the settler days is lying around on his property. But with her husband being no great help, it takes all her willpower and charm to get Albert to part with his rocks. To cope, she goes on runs and smokes secretly in the forest.

Far out of town, an unnamed young woman (the brilliant Lily Gladstone) is living alone on a ranch and takes care of horses. During one of her roamings about town, she finds herself in a night class about school law for local teachers, taught by nomadic young lawyer Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), who endures a four-hour commute in addition to a job back in her hometown in the morning in order to make ends meet. They talk, but only briefly, after the course in the local diner, before Elizabeth has to make her way home again across dark and icy highways. One day, the rancher decides to bring a horse.

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The car moved fast in all that space, past the stumps of corn that blinked by in perfect rhythms. I hit the flat land again. It seemed I was part of some big purpose until the size of what was out there exhausted me. Eventually there were no states, there was only the sky that never got any closer and me moving through places I could not stay.

Throughout the movie runs a metaphorical subplot about the pioneers and colonizers who brutally, lawlessly cut through the lands of Indians—whose presence remains only as a spectacle, in the patterns on the rug in Gina’s tent, as a group dressed up and dancing before some bemused police officers and midday dwellers, later standing in line for a sandwich in full costume. Building your own house with stone from the land, braving the plains to make a living, tending to horses—these women are reclaiming what the Frontier has taken, they’re healing wounds and coping with it, but only in small ways, through things like taking pleasure in conversation, a cigarette, a sunset, even the possibility of love.

Big trucks were coming by bright and fast and disappearing into the flatness. The light at the edge of the sky was orange and thick with twilight. The gusts pulled at my clothes and I could see the men inside, their faces dark while they sat still and drove fast. They found work, driving to some place they didn’t know and then back toward the last thing they remembered being good.

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The last thing we remembered being good, a sweet memory only recalled with stiff-jawed determination—that’s how it feels to watch the interminable present-tense lives of these people take shape. Kelly Reichhardt strips away the bullshit and steers clear of the dramatic turns and climaxes that the genre of the Western might have her led to indulge in, and what remains is barely thrilling, never quite reaching the level of plot or drama or narrative across its taut cuts, but simply what we know and love as life. At the same time, her straining aesthetic also asks us if we would recognize life if we ever came across it. These stories are repetition in a state of grace.

The quotes in italics are from Dylan Nice, Other Kinds, 2012.

The artwork is from Alice Neel (what I’m imagining as the kind of portrait that Reichhardt would end up making if she were a painter) and Milton Avery (whose work inspired the movie’s color schemes).

Epic Failure – Translation of “Tandeloze Tijd”

The highest achievement in literature is glorious failure.

The impossible book, that’s my final goal.

I

In his final year of secondary school, Albert Egberts wants to write his primal book, an ur-book to outshine all others that would propel its young author to everlasting fame. In it, his own elaborate mythology, as developed over the course of the work, would compete with and triumph over the Christian doctrines of his working-class, small-town upbringing in Brabant, a southern province of the Netherlands.

Albert seems to share this megalomaniac project with A.F.Th. van der Heijden (1951), the writer who invented him and his ambitions in Tandeloze Tijd (“Toothless Time”), the semi-autobiographical, cyclical novel in which Van der Heijden traces and expands on Albert’s life, from his provincial youth in the village of Geldrop and his student days in Nijmegen, the neighboring city where he favors bars over lectures and libraries, all the way to his downfall in the drug-addled underworld of Amsterdam.

Ambition of this magnitude is almost necessarily tragic, and as Albert succumbs to alcohol and stimulants, his creator churns out page after page of prose, seemingly to no end: though the author says it’s incomplete, Van der Heijden’s “Toothless Time” now counts seven novels, 3163 pages, 422 characters, and 56.862 adjectives, and it has brought the author no less than five literary awards. It’s the Sagrada Familia of Dutch fiction.

Fragments and snippets of scenes from different times and places are juxtaposed, interfolding and overlapping in unexpected, significant ways, with one memory or scene giving rise to the next in a sort of Proustian flow, memories that reach way back to Albert’s earliest, formative years and that the little boy could not possibly have processed in conscious ways. Like Proust’s Marcel, Albert wants to experience time differently. He wants to make every minute so full of memories and experiences that it expands to infinity:

Because a bewildering sort of existence was possible — not in the “length,” as we’re used to, but in the width, where everything would go faster, would be more mercurial, where no earthly time would be lost: where everything that happened would do so simultaneously, instead of in horribly time-consuming succession.

Moreover, Albert doesn’t just want to amass infinite experience, he also wants to remain innocent:

Oh yes, I wanted to enter the world with passion, to take part in it instead of being a part of it. But at the same time I wanted to remain that little angel, that unblemished little boy, mommy’s dear, whose little face was not to be scratched by character at all… I wanted to enter the world, but I could not be tarnished or eaten away by it. Most of all, I wanted time to pass by me without teeth.

The work as a whole has often been compared to Proust’s A la recherche, Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart, or Balzac’s Comédie humaine: it marries a realist project of kaleidoscopically depicting class and society — provincial and city life in the Netherlands of the 70s — with the more modernist program of the Bildungsroman, plumbing the inner turmoil of a young man with writerly ambitions as he learns to navigate that society, finally chronicling his failure to do so.

At the same time, the force that drives the narrative is both centripetal and centrifugal, holding Albert and his world in a precarious balance, making the work profoundly different from any of those predecessors. Unlike Proust’s Marcel, whose obsession with memories and his mother Albert shares, Van der Heijden’s semi-autobiographical narrator is not just an all-enveloping “I.” Albert’s inward turn is simultaneously an outward one, and consciousness as a narrative center comes to be questioned. He is not even the only narrator, nor the only protagonist: in volume 4, Advocaat van de Hanen, alcoholic lawyer Ernst Quispel fulfills those roles, and in volume 2, De Gevarendriehoek, Van der Heijden shifts to third-person narration to explore the earliest days of his childhood. Unlike Balzac’s pictures of society, Van der Heijden’s novelistic solar system still has one life at its center, with a host of major characters in Albert’s orbit, each turning around at different speeds, each with various minor moons, all lining up and intersecting in various significant constellations.

Because Van der Heijden is ultimately more concerned with the mythological or the cosmological than the modernist or the realist, the best way to classify his work might be to say that he elevates his postmodern reality to a mythological plane, whose system is built up over the course of the whole cycle. Van der Heijden’s mythology is more baroque than classical, however, with plenty of tacky ornaments and grotesque effects. His oeuvre is a baggy monster, a sort of haggis of prose, its narrator the Gargantua that would gladly gobble up the whole world.

Which brings me to another one of Albert’s peculiar philosophies: it’s not just that he wants to make time expand outward to the future, or inward to the past, he also wants to digest and transform it:

That it’s possible to mold and melt anything that’s paltry and putrid, the stuff you can’t avoid, into something beautiful, which at same time — and with more heft to it — bears the memory of the horror inside it. That’s how I see things… I’m not putting a letter of it to paper… It’s my way of trying to wrestle my father’s deeds into just the right form, to make them yield their deeper, secret meaning and save them from utter futility.

Meaning and significance, then, are a matter of style, composition, and arrangement. As an enactment of Albert’s consciousness in its struggle with time and place, the cycle as a whole transcends any of the realist or ‘non-literary’ genres that make it up. The cycle approaches abstraction and transcends any one consciousness, with resonances that go over the author’s head as well. It’s a musical composition gone out of control. Van der Heijden says he always works with music on, and that he’s learned a lot about things like counterpoint and polyphonic melodies while listening to Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Albert’s life becomes a symphony, or an opera, grander than its composer.

II

Coming around halfway through the novel, the passage I chose to translate is a crucial first formulation of Albert’s budding philosophies on time. In terms of plot and character, only little context is needed: Albert is at a local bar in Nijmegen, De

Tempelier, where he usually goes to drink and fantasize about the future with Thjum, his best friend and philosophical sparring partner. Albert is a man of words; Thjum is more practical. In his particular scene, they’re experimenting with one of Thjum’s theories, testing whether form is more important than content — except it’s about drinking, not literary criticism.

Besides a fantastic storyteller and a wildly imaginative creator of characters, Van der Heijden is also a master of voice and dialogue. Reading the scene over and over again, it came to feel more like a play than a novel, and that’s how I tried to approach my translation as well — as a drunken sort of Platonic dialogue between two students, set in a provincial city in the Netherlands of the 70s. So my goals were twofold: first, I had to set the scene visually; second, I had to make the scene unfold aurally.

I’m imagining Thjum and Albert in formal, dishevelled garb and unwashed shoulder length hair, hunched over a small table, sticky with beer stains, in the middle of a tacky, semi-abandoned, smoke-stained bar, with blue and red disco lights swirling around the room, casting a mockingly cheerful light on Monday night’s drinkers. In hoarse voices, the two shout out their theories over tinny American dance tunes, eventually attracting a small crowd, mildly bemused, only interested in Albert and Thjum’s experiment because of its absurdity.

The particular challenge with these voices was not only to create conversational English—always tough for a non-native speaker like me—but also to render Van der Heijden’s idiosyncratic imagination into engaging, understandable dialogue, and ultimately to recreate the way high-flying ideas are explored in working-class-inflected, increasingly alcohol-infused voices, as well-versed in Nietzsche and Heidegger as in 1970s radio and tv programs, where Dutch people soaked up American pop-culture and caught the Cold War bug about space exploration. Moreover, I had to create two distinct voices for the two characters, and I had to take their increasing delirium into account.

Albert is a skilled storyteller, gifted with his author’s wild imagination, always in need of an audience, and his strange voice is a mix of formal and casual registers, strongly steeped in mythology of his own making. Thjum’s voice is more casual, more natural, not artificially adopted from books and highbrow culture. At the same time, he’s also less confident in his speculations and his play with language can be simplistic, his metaphors a little crude. He clearly needs his friend to help him along in his thinking, and he’s not as sarcastic or dismissive of his friend’s theories as Albert is.

One of the key influences on Van der Heijden that I shouldn’t forget to mention here is Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the 20th -century French novelist. We see his influence not only in Albert’s occasionally bitter tirades on the culture around him or his complicated relationship with class, but also in the central place of drinking across his works (both Albert and Van der Heijden’s real fathers were alcoholics), his black comedy, and the strong narratorial voice. Most obviously, however, the influence manifests itself on the level of form: both writers generously sprinkle their texts with ellipses. In Vallende ouders, and in Tandeloze tijd at large, it performs various functions. I chose to keep every instance, and though the result may feel very foreign to anyone who’s not familiar with Céline, the ellipses make a special kind of sense in this passage. To me, they convey Albert’s garbled speech, the way he’s thinking on the spot, as well as the way this thinking gets more and more halting and blurry, stumbling on with hiccups as he feels more influenced by alcohol (Van der Heijden’s brilliance here is, of course, that they don’t actually drink anything, demonstrating the unintended effects of their experiment).

That’s all you’ll need from me. Now kick back, take a sip of genever, and enjoy the read.

III

Later that night Thjum got really upset, maybe because his birthday was coming up. Guilt was written all over his face. The endless binging these past few months… all of a sudden he couldn’t take it anymore. He broke out in a sweat and I noticed how hard he was trying to keep his panic in check.

“Albert, here’s the whole point. We’re addicted to the gesture. The same as with smoking… Look, our bodies come with two arms, and you don’t want to just leave them dangling, the way monkeys do. And yet we’re not free to let them do their thing either. When you get right down to it, we’re shy teenagers for life, never knowing what to do with our hands… probably because these appendages of ours tend to hover toward the private parts, even in public… I have firsthand experience there… You have to distract those coal shovels, give them something to do. [1] A smoke on the left, a drink on the right. Pick it up, put it down… it’s all in the rhythm. It’s about man’s exterior, not his interior. Ordering a drink may make you look good, but the contents of the glass will mess up your insides, am I right? So you should stick to the form. Isn’t it the easiest thing in the world to just get a drink, put it in front of you and… let it sit there? When you actually do a shot of genever it’s a waste of money, too. As well as another kind of waste, which you can’t express in terms of cash: a waste of… the body and the mind… and of time. Alcohol evaporates time.”

He got up and walked over to Floor with our empty glasses, returning with fresh drinks. He sniffed each of them and then slapped down one—”I’m pretty sure this one’s the old-style”—in front of me. When I reached for it, he yelled out: “Hands off, moron. I’m trying to make a point here… We’ll let it sit for the time it normally takes to finish one drink, and then we’ll get another. As usual. The only difference is: we don’t drink them. As long as we satisfy our cravings with the gesture, we’ll turn out ok without the actual alcohol. You just wait.”

By midnight, eleven virginal drinks were lined up opposite each other in a sloppy sort of battle order. It was six ‘new’ genevers versus five ‘old’ ones—to poke fun at Thjum’s experiment a little I’d “skipped a round.” Sparkling beneath the reading lights, with a small pool of liquid around each glass’s stem, they looked rather seductive. I got bad cravings… Whenever my hand thoughtlessly drifted over to the shots, Thjum slapped me on the fingers. I had the impression that we were getting up to order more frequently. “Bring back the empty glasses for once,” Floor kept saying. “I’m starting to run out.”

Whether it was an actual success or not, the experiment didn’t ease Thjum’s anxiety at all. Perhaps it would’ve been better to just keep drinking… It certainly doesn’t help your mood, feeling your throat dry out and the buzz fade without feeling more lucid in return. Thjum’s face turned even gloomier, and he became even more upset about the “evaporation of time.” He told me about his nightmare.

“So Albert, what if, because of a sudden leap in human intelligence—just as an example—or because of a technological trick—what if our human perception of time changed so much that we’d experience the average lifetime of 75 years as a mere blip? I guess I’m just rambling.”

“One day we’re young, the next we’re old.”

“You don’t seem to be taking me seriously at all, but you actually just hit the nail on the head. We’re like mayflies, all because of a change in our sense of time! But then again, with actual mayflies, because they experience time as moving so slowly, they would experience their lives as lasting very long… isn’t the thought of that just totally unbearable?”

Thjum had acquired his nickname, ‘The Prophet’, at the age of eight, when at Passover he drank the wine intended for the prophet Elijah (which was there just in case he actually showed up). Though everyone thought it was adorable, his act was the result of clever logic: whoever took the drink would turn out to be the prophet. Both the wine and his identity as a prophet never really exited his bloodstream.

We both stared silently at the array of untouched drinks on the table in front of us, as if we were brooding over a chess problem. The Prophet’s words reminded me of Egbert Egbert’s funeral. Nothing much had come of that so far…

“Well, Thjum… I used to look at people and see that they were bored, and I thought it was outrageous. All those spilled hours really should belong to others, I thought, to people who actually spent their time well, but were short on it. Of course, I wanted to be part of the select few who had a credit of life-hours outstanding with the deadbeats… But “wishful thinking,” as the Americans would have it, is only a waste of time. [2] You’ve got to stand out from the suckers by hoarding it up… multiplying your available capital… Thjum, there is a way, a trick to win time… to extract and cultivate infinite amounts of time… The kind of time that doesn’t wear you down… that doesn’t age you… Just the opposite! It’s a kind of time that gives you eternal life… or something like it, in any case. Sure, you won’t hear people talking about it at the student union. It’s too obscure. You know what, I’ll tell you my secret. I’m feeling generous today.”

Thjum pricked up his ears. He moved some of the shots of new genever over to the old and rested his arms on the table.

“It takes some serious effort. I’m just warning you. It’s not a breeze. But in the end, it’s all worth it. Listen up… Since life marches on lengthwise without mercy, the trick is to make life as wide as possible… to expand its width… If I’m putting it awkwardly, it’s not my fault: we basically lack the language to talk about such areas of thought. That’s why all sorts of eloquent religions managed to set up shop there. Listen, Thjum… You don’t need me to prove to you how fast one minute goes by. But as that minute elapses, if you manage to stretch it out widely enough, it becomes precious. For example—and don’t take this too literally—while you let a Mozart string quintet run through you, you can turn it into an incredibly rich minute… I’m not talking about the actual music, but the condensation of the piece: the luminous image it once left inside you that doesn’t fade out over the course of the piece’s measures. Rifling through the Köchel catalog to find the right score, other compositions unfold all in sync… along with the emotions they once triggered inside you. Simultaneously, you’re processing an erotic fantasy about that girl over there with an incredible clarity… look, she’s smoking a little cigar… Well, maybe that’s not a good example: let’s say it’s about that guy a little further down reading the front page of De Gelderlander. At once, crystal-clear, you perceive the way the line of fluff runs up to his belly button… And, again synchronously—behind that fantasy, as it were—you dive deep into a memory that just came back to you out of nowhere: let’s say one time your aunt tossed you a red baseball, but then it turned out to be an overripe tomato… All this is just metaphorical. Way in the back of your head, you start to feel the sting of tears that you, a little boy, were about to cry, maybe because tomato goo was dripping down your sleeve… and so on and so forth. The mind should never stop exploring relations on earth… On top of that, it can go into outer space without an oxygen mask. And if the ever-expanding universe is not enough, your mind can always roam around in the parallel universe that scientists are speculating about: a cosmos created in the Big Bad Blast, just like ours, moving faster than the speed of light… backward in time… away from us. To capture this inverse world with one look, one thought, in one indivisible second…! Just the dizzying sensation of being yanked back into it by your hair! It doesn’t matter if this kind of world exists outside you. You’ve already been to all the cities in this mirror world… you’ve visited them all… and in your own world not even a second has gone by: a trivial amount of time. Meanwhile, inside another groove of that flaccid, gut-gray walnut of yours, the music is playing along as if nothing happened… but then just as I explained it to you. The human mind is an infinite fold-out book.” [3]

 

[1]: This image of coal shovels is what I meant by crude earlier. Thjum is a man of broad gestures, not of lengthy words—I can picture him waving big hands around, physically demonstrating to Albert the lifting and lowering of drink and cigarette. I really wanted to translate that image literally—as a metaphor for hands it doesn’t make much sense in Dutch either, so keeping the strangeness, as it so wonderfully characterizes Thjum, was key here. He thinks form prevails over content—but it’s not a refined type of form, as Albert would advocate. Albert cares little for practical or physical performance and is instead enthusiastic about abstract philosophical theories and baroque literary language.

[2]: Though it may seem unremarkable in the translation, this phrase is actually in English in the original. Nowadays, with the internet and tv firmly lodged in the common imagination, Dutch people use American phrases all the time. But in the 70s, when Americanization was just starting to pick up, such use of English more closely resembles the way educated Russians would casually throw around French witticisms and quotes to show off their sophistication. Albert is clearly a young student and he’s eager to show how in tune he is with his cooler, more casual peers across the Atlantic. The phrase pithily conveys Albert’s hip pretentiousness. Yet I somehow had to signpost how remarkable the phrase is in the original. I solved it as follows. Usually Dutch people say something like, “as the British put it so nicely,” or, “as the French like to say,” whenever they use other languages this way. I had Albert say, “as the Americans would have it.” This stealth-gloss does the job of signposting the foreignness, but it also reinforces Albert’s pretentiousness and odd formality. These latter characteristics probably resulted from his working class upbringing combined with his own hidden obsession with books: he’s overcompensating for his lack of sophistication in the company of his wealthier friend. He’s the parvenu of philosophy students, as it were.

[3]: Coming at a memorable moment in the middle of the book, this image often shows up in the criticism as the encapsulation of both Albert’s entire philosophy and the work’s formal arrangement: “The human mind is an infinite fold-out book.” In the original, the latter three words read oneindig uitvouwbaar leporelloboek. The former two words mean something like “endlessly unfoldable,” so the author actually doesn’t have to explain what leporelloboek means. This word is obscure in Dutch, and it has a beautiful Italian ring to it that I unfortunately wasn’t able to reproduce in English. (It’s interesting to note here that Van der Heijden published his first works under the pseudo-Italian pseudonym of “Patrizio Canaponi.”) I went with the less poetic or pretentious but more concise and understandable “fold-out book”: it nicely conveys the actual physical makeup of the object, which is so central to the image’s meaning. And as an image that sums up the whole work, it is crucial to grasp this meaning.

 

Poetry Post (2) – The harbor

I just read Baudelaire’s Le Port and I found it so beautiful I wanted to try my hand at a translation. I took some liberties with the precise contents of the prose to bring out the prosody, the poetics of the rhythms—the rocking of sound waves echoing the waters that enraptured him so.

A harbor is a bewitching place for an old soul, worn out by life’s struggles. The sweep of sky, the swerving cloud-structures, the wash of shimmering colors, the blinking of the lighthouses—it’s a wonderful prism, just fit for watching the world without wearying the eyes. Feeding the taste of the soul for rhythm and beauty are the svelte shapes of boats with complex rigging, rocking up and down in harmony with the waves. And above all, for those who have long lost all curiosity or ambition, a mysterious kind of aristocratic relish is to lie in a belvedere or lean on a jetty and ruminate on all the activity of those who are coming and going, still possessing the power to want, to want to travel or grow richer.

Un port est un séjour charmant pour une âme fatiguée des luttes de la vie. L’ampleur du ciel, l’architecture mobile des nuages, les colorations changeantes de la mer, le scintillement des phares, sont un prisme merveilleusement propre à amuser les yeux sans jamais les lasser. Les formes élancées des navires, au gréement compliqué, auxquels la houle imprime des oscillations harmonieuses, servent à entretenir dans l’âme le goût du rythme et de la beauté. Et puis, surtout, il y a une sorte de plaisir mystérieux et aristocratique pour celui qui n’a plus ni curiosité ni ambition, à contempler, couché dans le belvédère ou accoudé sur le môle, tous ces mouvements de ceux qui partent et de ceux qui reviennent, de ceux qui ont encore la force de vouloir, le désir de voyager ou de s’enrichir.

SoPi, or how Pigalle became a hipster’s paradise

One Sunday morning I decided to sally out for a stroll, and as I headed out east from my block, I found myself in hipsterland.

Yes, it turns out my host family lives right next to one of the hippest neighborhoods in Paris: SoPi, or South Pigalle. In any case, that’s the name among those in the know, the hipsters whom the French call bobos (bourgeois bohemians).

So just as New York has SoHo and NoHo, Paris has its SoPi and NoPi, mentioned in the same breath as Le Marais, Canal St Martin, and République/Oberkampf.

A slew of new shops specialized in one product or some odd combination (like coffee and jeans), neighboring sleek, minimalist brunch places and organic bakeries, is reviving the village ambiance, especially around rue des Martyrs—the backbone of SoPi—and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

Even the WSJ sang the praises of SoPi, stressing the bourgeois over the bohemian.

Do we blame the hipsters? Is that term even appropriate here? What about bobos, or gentrification?

2.

My interest in all this started with an opinion piece in the NYT by a former Brooklyn hipster who argued that, supposedly, Paris, and specifically Pigalle, had been ruined at the hands of—guess what—hipsters.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/opinion/sunday/how-hipsters-ruined-paris.html

Mr. Thomas Chatterton Williams moved into the Pigalle neighborhood long past its raunchy days of prostitution and absinthe bars, but, as he remarks, it “remained funky in the original sense of the term. In addition to cigarette smoke and baking bread, there was the whiff of dirt and sex in the air.”

But instead of drug dealers hanging around the formerly overgrown and unlit park at Square d’Anvers, mothers and children now crowd the playground, and older residents gather for a chat and some vitamin D on a Sunday afternoon. Others, a younger crowd, sit down for a cigarette after brunch or tear off a piece of freshly baked baguette with a book perched on the knee.

Unfortunately, Mr. Williams is not clear about his own role in this downfall. He does not wonder about what any of those residents think—former, current, or new. He just wants them there to complete his Parisian fantasy, rather than see Pigalle for what it is becoming.

Williams wants only the whiff of dirt and sex, of former grungy glory—because what he seeks in Paris is a place to raise a family and “buy Pouilly-Fumé wine” to drink after putting the kids to bed. Shh, he tells his friends in the living room as he uncorks, pours, and sniffs.

3.

You are a hipster—I am too—therefore we hate them and proclaim their Death, as Mark Greif did in n+1 back in 2009: his symposium at the New School brought 200 hipsters together in order to investigate the question “What was the Hipster?” and inaugurate the post-hipster era. They concluded that, among other things, the hipster was “a straw man in skinny jeans.”

This critique touches on something more fundamental in the way we talk about the hipster. The hipster is a scapegoat—using the term, always with a pejorative tone, the speaker proclaims his distance from the object of his critique.

Moreover, I am also thinking of the term “scapegoat” as it appears in René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. Though there is plenty to critique about it—it seems too general, too neat to really have explanatory value—the mechanism describes what I’m seeing in Pigalle and in the blogosphere with eerie accuracy.

We usually desire something in imitation of other people, who are cooler than us—more hip, perhaps—but eventually this imitation will lead to rivalries with the models, the very people imitated in the first place. Mimetic desire makes every member of the community resemble each other, and this lack of differentiation generates scrutiny, envy, anxiety, chaos. Scrutiny and anxiety of the sort where people like Williams start calling out their fellow hipsters for ruining their hipster dream. To the point where people do not just want to imitate the model, they want to get rid of the model and become a model. To resolve this situation, the model needs to be killed, sacrificed: the hipster is the scapegoat. His ‘death’ is the ritual that founds a new community and restores order and peace.

4.

Williams seems to forget that young creatives and eccentrics have moved to large urban cities for centuries, and they usually earned so little money they had to find the cheapest place they could live. That led them to neighborhoods on the edge, in which immigrants were forced to live or only the poor (working or not) resided.

Chatterton Williams agrees that the golden age of Paris was the 1920s, a time when people from “the well-heeled to the creative to the horizontally employed — collided.” Who was Hemingway if not the prototype of the hipster, expat, and freelance journalist with a coffee and alcohol habit he could hardly afford?

*By the way, Williams names artists from the 9th arrondissement like Hugo, Renoir, and Gustave Moreau, among others, but does not seem to know that most of his examples were all either staunchly bourgeois, living in the inherited family mansion, or disgruntled aristocrat youths.

In any case, this situation of mixité sociale would stem not from fashions, styles, and the identity of a district, but from the realities of economic pressures and policymaking.

Indeed, until the latter half of the 20th century, much of Paris was still affordable to the majority. Rents were controlled, social housing was encouraged, communities were built, unskilled jobs were widespread—all of which meant that residence in the city wasn’t necessarily linked to an individual’s income.

As Anne Clerval pointed out in a recent interview, this situation continued up until the early 1980s. In 1982, 42% of all Parisians were from the lower classes. But by 2008, this figure had dropped to 27%. Today, even the middle classes are struggling to afford to live in the city. Most of this is directly due to key decisions taken at both national and local level. But this phenomenon is larger than just France: significant but formerly more fluid borders like province/city, north/south, center/periphery have become the site of increasing inequality and social tension due to economic factors—what some call globalization, late capitalism—and the policy used to influence those factors—neoliberalism, to put it rather generally.

Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen, at Columbia, draws out even larger stakes, considering complex and catastrophic phenomena—such as the dislocation of the poor from their cities, of migrants from their countries, even of animals from their biospheres—as part of what she calls the economic of Expulsions.

5.

Consider what happened to the neighborhood around the Sorbonne and Saint-Germain, where the existentialists used to hang out among the students, who rented little rooms in attics and former servants quarters. Sure, the university and its students are still there, but Café de Flore now charges 7,20 for a cappuccino and neighbors a Louis Vuitton store. This is not where we write our papers or meet up with friends after a lecture. Indeed, instead of artists, the place is full of art dealers and designers, whose galleries cater to the upper-class crowd that lives there, as well as wealthy tourists in search of a lost Paris.

It largely looks the same, of course, so if you squint and play a 1920s bar crooner through your noise-cancelling headphones, you just might get a sense of what it was like before.

If Williams really wanted to “rub shoulders” with working-class people and be “jolted from [his] anesthetized routines”—if he wanted to “genuinely” engage with urban space as “encountering and making room for an assortment of lifestyles and social realities,” however “appealing,” “provocative,” and “repulsive” they may be, here’s what he should do: move outside of the Périphérique, to the banlieues north of Paris, and endure a daily two-hour commute into the center of town.

Although apparently, that’s where the next wave of gentrification is headed: Welcome to Pantin.

Poetry Post (1) – I found ideas of madness at your door

I found ideas of madness at your door

 

He howled against the stupidity of paper walls.

Letters never swelled with lips or chest,

Like a mind wholly mind, perching

Its gooey wings; yet still its shit

Hit hard ground, hardly a ground

That was mine to understand,

Although inhuman, always of the world.

 

The paper was no persona. No more was he.

The screams and texts were not woven of words

Even if what he penned was what he traced.

Since what he penned had touched face to face.

It may be that in all his lines he graced

The clinging pulp and cutting pen;

But it was him and not these sheets I chased.

 

For he was the actor of the scripts he scrawled.

The ever-ruffled, blank-faced paper

Was merely the place in which he stood to speak.

Whose feather is this? I said, because I felt

It was the pen that he had used and felt

That I would touch it often as he spoke.

 

If only it was the feather of some bird

That wrote, or just alighted the aching hand;

If only it was the inner whisper of wings

And minds, of the charred branches paper-pressed

However light, it would not be black ink,

That Big Sur curl of ink, a moon-tide mass

Awash with moonshine ever canted

Or mere mass alone. It must always be more,

Never less than his voice, and mine, among

The pitiful danglings of paper and the pen,

Foliated distances, white palms dropped

On dumb desks, precarious litterings

Of throb and thrum.

 

It was his hand that pressed

The c keenest in its hollowing.

He sounded to the core its plenitude.

He was the sole believer in the objects

Of which he wrote. And when he wrote, the c,

Whatever character it had, became the character

That was his own, for he was its creator. Then I,

As I caught him howling there in quiet,

Knew that there would be some new knowledge:

Save the ideas he cried and, deaf, composed.

 

Wallace Stevens, tell me, if you please,

Why, as your mind deceased and I flipped

The final page, tell why the realest things,

The things in crude foyers of houses here,

As the walls unfolded, speaking of themselves,

Scaled the walls and sounded past the doors,

Mingling incarnate cantos and mending wings,

Resounding, quivering, vaulting the walls.

 

Oh! Mad quest for echoes, old Wallace,

The poet’s quest to echo the sounds of the real,

Sounds of glued mouths, thickly-scarred,

And of myself and of my own hidings,

In roomier constellations, suppler words.

 

—Written in tribute to The Idea of Order at Key West by Wallace Stevens

 

I wanted to repost this one because I am working on several other poems using the same technique. But then how did I write I found ideas in the first place?

The first thing to know is that the poem replicates the structure of Wallace Stevens’ original, The Idea of Order at Key West, in detail. That is to say, I used the same formal patterns or devices wherever possible. In lines with the same meter and the same length as the originals, I rhymed, used alliteration, and put punctuation in the same places. I was already a fan of Stevens’ work, but I read and reread a lot to get a sense of and draw on what you might call his tone, manner, or style—in short, his way of patterning sounds and images to carry weighty and mysterious thoughts with trademark whimsy and composure. I wanted to see what would happen if, given one initial line, I let the form of the poem guide the content—an experiment or puzzle of sorts in the vein of the OULIPO writers. It was a lot of work, it was exasperating at times, but I felt liberated within the constraints, it got the creative juices flowing, and completing the poem was as satisfying as, say, solving a Saturday crossword without cheating (which I’ve never accomplished so far).

The poems I want to imitate/work with next are Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden and Paris, 7 A.M. by Elizabeth Bishop. In the first, tentatively entitled Musée Rodin, I want to talk about the innumerable hands Rodin made over the course of his career. My idea for the second is less concrete: I feel a certain resonance with the muted hum of panic that in Bishop’s poem inheres in the everyday experience of walking around your own home when you feel the state of the world is about to take a serious turn for the worse. It was written from her experience in Europe between 1935 and 1937. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

 

*The image is of Untitled II by Cy Twombly

It gives you an idea of what I feel like my writing (process) is at this point. Scratches. Copying line after line on a blackboard. Not even letters, but loops and swirls.

Footnotes on the Flâneur

Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks. (Teju Cole, Open City)

Paris is made for walking. It is known by walking.

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe over these first two weeks while doing my best to make Paris my new home. Classes haven’t started yet, and my study abroad program chose to spread out its orientation program over two weeks, which leaves me with a lot of empty time. Already I can see I’m approaching the city in a totally different way than a tourist who has four or five days to ‘do’ Paris.

They’re not here in great numbers at this point—that will come starting April, is my guess—but they are spending their time efficiently.

The game has changed: Nobody walks around with guidebooks or maps anymore. It’s still easy to tell who they are. Individual travelers or small groups stand on street corners and stare down at a screen, rotating and moving to and fro in order to get the little Google Maps-arrow to point the right way—as if you couldn’t just look at the street names or any nearby landmarks. Or, God forbid, ask someone in a shop or a café. Outside of rush hour, even a Parisian passerby might help you.

The second type of tourist is on a guided tour; but gone is the funny little old man, no doubt a volunteer, with his metonymical umbrella pointing the way. Now tourists strut along speedily with ear buds rattling off the various historical facts and events that float somewhere in the sky above their heads or surround them in the streets and walls—of Haussmannian boulevards and apartment buildings, constructed in the late 19th century for Napoleon III, following the 1848 June Days uprising, for example.

What do you want? I wonder. I’m the opposite of the harried tourist in an endless quest for the expected, the already discovered world of pictures and postcards. I am waiting for the unknown, bored-that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire (Adam Phillips, “On Being Bored”).

I’m hoping to waste time and to do it well. With Paris enchanted by a spell of cold, dry, sun-drenched weather—like the best winter days in New England—I set out for the streets.

Turns out that amount of research on Yelp or Tripadvisor—nor the hippest guidebook or private tour—will beat aimless, solitary walks through an arrondissement for the moments of wonder and pleasant surprise that come with making a personal acquaintance with Paris.

An arrondissement is the thing for the day—each arrondissement has several quartiers, each which in turn has its own bookstore, hip coffee shops, a Sunday market, little municipal libraries tucked away in side streets, a small, cozy museum about a forgotten artist, and a boisterous bistro, where people buy lottery tickets and cigarettes, read the paper, and slam down an espresso (usually just 1 euro if you’re standing at the bar).

Of course, I am only the last to join a long line of flâneurs—there’s Baudelaire, Flaubert, Balzac, shadowed by their various fictional characters, and on the American side, we have Henry Miller, Walt Whitman, and, in a sense, good old Thoreau.

Historically male, this figure turned up in nineteenth century literature as a keen observer of the bustle of modern life—with his nose up high, his top hat on, and his arms clasped behind his back, the flâneur would stride up and down Hausmann’s broad boulevards, stopping and turning frequently to peer into shops or exchange a witticism in a café, only to move on to the next interesting little spectacle. Detached from the humdrum of working days, with money and time to spare, he is open to all impressions, and his city becomes layered with meaning. The flâneur appears at a time where rapid changes in technology and development have created an estrangement between individuals and their environment—so viscerally expressed in Kirchner’s “Street in Dresden”—but this very estrangement allows him to rise above the myopic vision of the masses and grasp all the fragments of modern life to form an interpretation of the whole.

kirchner-dresden

He is “a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye”, writes Virginia Woolf in her 1927 essay Street Haunting.

Henry Miller’s Paris, as he writes it in Tropic of Cancer, for example, is really just a study of Miller—to the flâneur, the gleam and glass of the arcades, the vitrines, and the department stores are nothing but mirrors in which he can study himself with a Narcissus-like gaze.

Whitman was different: a romantic in the heart of Manhattan, he found solace and joy in the “democratic vistas” of city parks and Broadway’s ever-present streams of humanity. For Whitman, this chaos is a plentitude, a blurring of the hard boundaries of the self. Through it, he defines and creates himself, in the interdependence of You and I. He not only actively absorbs his surroundings but also expects whatever You he makes contact with to do the same. In this way, he is far from the aloof, cool, and keenly observant flâneurs in Paris that Walter Benjamin wrote about.

I’m at the café de la Mairie, place Saint-Sulpice. Years ago, Georges Perec was there too and wanted to try something new: to describe everything that happens in this one particular place. From October 18 to 20 1974 he took notes for his Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (Attempt at a Description of a Place in Paris). Here’s a fragment:

In a magnificent ensemble, the pigeons fly around the Place [St. Sulpice] and return to roost on the gutters of the town hall.

There are five cabs at the taxi stand.

An 87 [bus] goes by. A 63 goes by.

The bells of St. Sulpice begin to ring (for the hour, no doubt).

Three children being taken to school. Another apple-green deux-chevaux.

The pigeons fly around the place again.

A 96 goes by, stops at the bus stop; Geneviève gets off and goes down the rue des Canettes; I call to her, rapping on the café window and she comes over to say hello to me.

A 70 goes by.

[And so on.]

We look at what we care about and what we want to act on. When we move and walk around, we gaze into the vanishing point of our goals, seeing nothing but obstacles in the faces of people we find on the same cramped sidewalk.

But Perec is capturing life, and nothing more, before it flutters away like a bird. The environment only consists of these unimportant things: what we see, hear, and smell—which we pay no attention to but what makes up our daily lives all the same. Perec gives us the plenitude of nothingness. The richness of the ordinary. He draws it from the bottomless well of boredom.

saint-sulpice

Moving to Paris: Footnotes on a Trainride

January 8

I stand on the platform waiting for the train to Paris today and I am surprised by the way my twenty or so fellow travelers are so spread out over the slabs of concrete beside the tracks beneath the station’s steel ribcage that I can barely make out the faces of my immediate neighbors. I see gray across the solar panels on the glass roof. Mist blocks the view of the city. The mist presses on my face like a wet hand. No wind. Calvinist gloom.

There are times when I really love the generic familiarity of international airports and train stations.

Starbucks and Subway fuel you wherever you go. Like schools of mackerel, sleek and shiny, always on the move, businesspeople blend in with the scenery of steel and glass. Sprightly older couples, students in baggy sweatshirts, crying babies and their big families, with the larger children lugging jerry-rigged structures of suitcases—all make their way to security.

The international everyman and everywoman and everyperson like this populate what Marc Augé likes to call “non-places.” Airports, train stations, and their various international chain stores and hotels.

A place is a kind of space in which you can be rooted, where a sense of self has grown or has the potential to. Places, in this way, like a village or a college or even a nation, are where we can build identities. They’re where we might feel at home. This also makes a place highly historical, and though places obviously change immensely over time, they do give you the feeling that they have a past, still present and important to whoever lives there, as well as a future that these people imagine for themselves. Thus, places are coherent not just because humans happen to be there: a place holds together because people hold a self together there, because they help others do so, and because in a place people feel a continuity with the others who live there as well.

Non-places, then, do none of this. Perhaps they even actively undermine the feeling of continuous identity and history.

Marc Augé cares about such non-places not just because so many places are replaced by non-places in our contemporary lives. He writes about a non-place as the space where we most strongly sense the odd ironies of contemporary globalized life. One of which is that just when, given the state of technology, a truly global society is within reach—at least for a certain privileged class, which I belong to—most people seem to retreat from public life and want to return to the local, the authentic, the homey—a harmless cry for help, it may seem, but one that easily morphs into an earsplitting scream for the self and the nation in the face of those without any home whatsoever.

Where are all these people on the platform going? Assuming that they have somewhere to go, they might be going home, to work, to visit friends, on vacation, etc. Places where people know who they are and where they know other people. No one really wants to stay here.

Can I speak for these people; can I even imagine what their lives are like? Or can I only speak about myself, to myself, in their presence?

This is narcissism, but it is only by necessity that I become so closed off. Not the kind of narcissism of staring into a pool and falling in love with yourself. More like being inside a train or a bus and looking out through a window at a darkening sky, and because of the lights in there, where it’s warm, you can’t help but stare at yourself in the double-paned windows as you resolutely keep your head turned away from the person in the seat facing you. This narcissism is not comfortable or pleasurable; it is simply less uncomfortable than looking someone in the eye.

At the same time, how does this non-place, the airport, the train station, make me feel at least a little bit at home? What do I like about being there? Because this place cannot be owned, bought. I cannot live there. I only spend a few hours there and I don’t know anyone there. I can’t invest in it and build a self there. The sense of satisfaction and of freedom I get when I clear security would only last a few hours, I imagine.

But it does make me feel important, somehow, like the way buying something makes you feel good and important. Inflating the bubble of self; transparent and iridescent, it floats and protects you. It’ll burst over time, or when it meets another.

Or, all it takes to feel at home is the blue light of a screen in my hand.

I don’t feel far away from home or alone because the brands and stores and ads that I know surround me on all sides and because I could buy almost anything I ordinarily want here—Dutch cheese, Italian espresso, a beer, books, movies, clothes, and so on and so forth.

These ads want me to be a citizen of the world and so I become one for the moment. It feels great, I feel powerful.

Schiphol’s shopping section is called “See Buy Fly” if I recall correctly.

But what would it mean to live there? What is the experience of non-places really like? We lack basic vocabulary to talk about non-places, but it is important to start to thinking about how to think about them. Marc Augé seems to think non-places signal the advent of another stage of late capitalism, but I am not necessarily convinced, nor do I want to lay out his arguments here. Still, I am convinced that it’s important to recognize the rise of non-places, because so many people actually do live in them: les sans-papiers, the refugees, the home- and stateless. Because Camp Calais, close to the tunnel, Eurostar trains zipping by, represented another kind of non-place, one Augé doesn’t talk about. And thousands were stranded at Budapest’s Keleti station, for example, when the authorities suspended all traffic last year.

Bird People is a great movie about all this-about how ordinary people in France are affected by non-places and about how they manage to build a life in them, in spite of them. Audrey, a maid in an airport hotel, realizes she spends 40 hours a month commuting on the metro. Gary, an engineer, spends his working life away from home, hopping from meeting to meeting. The movie is about the night they happen to be in the same hotel outside of Paris. The first half of the movie is quiet, contemplative: the drawn-out shots focus on people in public transportation, accompanied by the intimate sounds of the music on their ear buds, their phone conversations, their thoughts—but its thoughts never quite rise to the surface. It’s like the more recent film Certain Women that way. We’re never quite given access to these characters and their lives but we realize they’re unsustainable. Because they resemble our lives a lot, too. At the same time, despite the movie’s subdued concern about alienation and digital technology—yes, at times the movie slips into cliché—what makes it compelling is not its message, nor its characters or its cinematography, but simply the stillness that it shows is still there to be found in our lives, if only we knew where to look.

I wanted to end by posting some fragments of a collection of poems by Cole Swensen. These are from Landscapes on a Train, not necessarily in order. She shows us some places where we might look for stillness (I might write about stillness later and I might write more about these poems, but I need to reread them and let them sink in.) She recounts a train journey through France. This was perfect reading on the Thalys, by the way.

Gray is more morning more quiet of empty. Paths. Field empty except for its green.

Will more inside green. Inside it is green and inside the green is another

Slight mist moving upward. A road moves upward quieting the fog and the other

Fog moving off down a river the low way all clouds low across the line of sky

Making the sky a straight line running low along its own.

 

Landscape is always also a painting. Again a small thing broken that is

Breaking from hand to hand. Each one. Passes to another the growing,

That then gone is one more. And then one more station on a station of roads.

And is crossing a road, a sequence of goings. The road in its offing, along

Which belongs, a church made of far distance severs. And one more station

Standing on the platform. And so we say no other we. Are the line of poplars.

Smoke rising quiet in its flight which is a slow loss across gray from a field of gray

The windmill farm bright in its flock of sudden large gray birds toward the sea

Of a sea of them, longer than their own. Own their time. Which is a private thing

Held up and far in the line of trees like far away another rain.

  

There once was a church. There once was a steeple. These things fall into landscape.

And then there were none. Canal across one. One white bird. Go on. And so it goes.

All my pieces thusly single. Horse beside a river. They lovers they onward and so

Next is a field. You could have guessed it. You could have painted it. You are painting

A long line of horses end to end are something farther on.