An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris. – Friedrich Nietzsche (i really did search and this is the only halfway decent quote I was able to find…)
So we went on a summer 旅游 to France, an undertaking that would seem, beforehand already, so steeped in cliches that it would be hard to escape the kind of cynicism one is precisely, stereotypically likely to associate with the French. The original impulse was straightforward enough to function as a promise. While 看到👀 Vila-Mato’s Never Any End to Paris, my desire to go to Paris grew with literally every single sentence read about this city (without conceivable borders). Of course as must have any good, cultured Central European considering themselves worth a damn, I have visited Paris and appreciated the complex layout of its streets, the incontrovertible loveliness of the Jardin de Luxembourg, its sprawling Avenues and….I cannot remember what, I assume its astounding density of bookshops.
If it were to rain heavily in Paris／巴黎 and you had to get home from Place de P to Quartier S by dashing from one librairie’s awning to the next you’d hardly get wet. This piling on top of each other of bookstores in retrospect still shines forth like a melancholy call to literary arms. Here you can read because here you can write and vice versa. Each conditioning the other to the very end of a strange loop, Paris. Oui, cher amour❤️ of the life of the mind, wander through the Avenues but then sit down and write, write, write!
I hereby circuitously mean to say that I’ve been to the métropole de littérature before, even four times I believe but by some mischance it never left that deep of an impression on me. It did not happen to light up the neuronal network like a X-Mas tree. Or maybe the mistake was simple: I failed to write a blog entry, the building blocks of my idiosyncratic mythomania. What, after all, can survive the longue dureé that has not been written down or chiseled from/into stone. In fact it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to claim that VM’s semifictional Paris has had a more magnetic effect on me than the actual one. Because what I indeed wanted to do is not to go to Paris in general with its 书stores and 咖啡店☕️ and avenues and boulevards but rather check-in to an Airbnb close to the one and only Café de Flores and then proceed to go there on a daily basis, passing my time by sipping coffee, keeping an eye out for elderly men looking like either Badiou or Latour, writing (a process which at the Cafe de Flores I imagine as facile and natural as breathing) and occasionally contemplating the sheer unending complexity of life. And this limitless ville of course. I find myself maintenant struggling to recall which are the things about Paris that did strike me as singular: the crunchy stoicism of Crudités, how the Mona Lisa was so underwhelming when seen in the paint and canvas, the scent of the streets after a brief 太阳shower (i’m kidding, how could one remember such a thing? It is a bitter irony of memory that smells evoke them most vividly yet cannot be themselves remembered), what else?, how those Crudité-joints stubbornly pretend that mustard is a perfectly acceptable replacement for ketchup. So for example: Fries francaises and mustard. Scrunched up face but depraved micro-explosion of delight behind it.
However, more than this, going on vacation with my girlfriend was the prime objective but was beginning to look further and further out of reach as we couldn’t agree on a destination attractive to both of us. The unlucky European Capital of terrorism wasn’t and isn’t exactly propitious to her anxious soul. Meaning I will travel there alone one of these upcoming days. To sit undisturbed in the Cafe de Flores. Not to mention that those online airbnb hypermod/vintage apartments just a grenade-toss from the Jardin de Lux for a piddling 80€ par nuit made me levitate above my plain black chair for more than a little while. My guess is they’ll still be there come 十月.
What persisted though was the pull of France, la grande nation, the country where, clearly, literature is being produced en passant. Even if Vila-Matas struggled there with The Lettered Assassin, his first novel, or at least his fictional doppelgaenger did. We, as a consensus-oriented couple, settled on something modest, most likely non-terrorist-infested. The bucolic idyll of Dijon 第戎, Mustard Metropole of the Western Hemisphere, only three hours away as the TGV flits. Scarily fast.
As we left the apartment undercover of an incredibly early morning, our rolling suitcases made so hellish a racket on the blacktop that, though none of our anti-social neighbors deserved it all too much, I felt obliged by compassion to lug the darn thing. Let the fools sleep. The 火车站 🚉 of Basel, having changed its layout, gave us a bit of trouble. The fairest estimation I can give is that it has been transformed into a big snack-take-away zone (Migros mostly), leading up to a bridge of cafes and kiosk, to which is appended below a happenstantial annex of train platforms. We curved around for a while before finding our way to the international platforms. This being Switzerland they were naturally secluded in a separate corner of the train station, presumably to insure that they won’t become a burden on the social security state. Which is what anything remotely foreign is liable to do at once here in Switzerland: ransack the tax coffers and impoverish the hardworking 瑞士人.
The sheer velocity of the TGV once again amazed me, reminding me of just how apt its name truly is: Train a Grande Vitesse, 很快的火车. And it’s a bit deceptive too because it starts out in the westernmost corner of the Hexagon, the topography of which tends to bend the railway into curves where maximum velocity is, for the sake of catastrophic derailment at 200+km/h, strongly discouraged. But only for a very few kilometers then the carriage picks up the pace like a demon. Soon you’re zapping through the paysage in a way that makes you feel metaphysically disconnected. What is beyond the window pane is purely for you viewing pleasure but also not, why else would it rush by so fast?
Pure speed doesn’t seem to be one of the things the human perceptual apparatus can ever tire of. I counted off the pylons and tried to calculate (by intestines rather than brain) what our true velocity might be, not in terms of kilometers per hour, which always has a certain degree of abstraction built into it, but rather the other way round, from time to distance, how many seconds per hundred meters. I came up with a lazy “1” as in in one second this crazy train covers 100 meters which some even lazier and stupider part of my brain then compared to poor old Usain Bolt. I say poor because this living legend ended his last career race on what appeared to be a pulled hamy, as perfect an anti-Kobeesque ending to an athlete’s career as one can envision. All those grazing cows on those triangular pieces of meadow near the forest hadn’t nearly the time to lift their heads from munching grass to get a good cow-eyeball at what exactly was rushing by at so hellish a tempo. The slow lifting of their bovine heads was also a good illustration of how completely their evolutionary survival instincts have been deadened and they maybe have made a sort of recalcitrant, unhappy peace with the fact that they can undistractedly, predator-freely gorge themselves on herbs before being turned into megaliters of milk and gigatonnes of 牛肉. Though you’d have to ask them yourself of course, if not verbally then at least see how they react when you try to take a bite out of their hind parts. Or don’t. You carnivorous 笨!
Out of nowhere though now I do remember one or two things about Paris.
At the McDonald’s they had the most breath-takingly sterile images ever imaginable on display. They are quite difficult to describe. Abstract shapes of circles and triangles, taken from PowerPoint or one of those other low-end programs not intended by any means for visual design acrobatics. These shapes randomly thrown together and then squeezed unholily through one of those photoshop filters that is meant to make stuff look like an oil-painting but instead makes them look awfully digital and, more to the point, thoroughly photoshopped and artificial and not part of the human striving for the sublime at all. These, printouts I have to assume, were then sealed under a frosted(!) plastic sheet, which in turn was framed by a thick, low, sanded-looking aluminum frame. By thick I mean about a third the width of the picture itself. And hung above the heartless, bolted PVC tables and polyurethane-upholstered booths of an anyway life-force-sapping because in the beating heart of culture located Micky D’s. Whoever manages to fully capture the horror of those artificial, soul-gutted oils hung in that Parisian McDo is sure to win a Nobel Prize of Description. Or a very similar international award.
But that was not the acme. By strange chance the most memorable outing was to a cemetery: row after row of magnificent tombstone. It was rainy, grey and as far as I could think, a most prototypical, forlorn-artist-in-Paris pursuit. The way it’s in my memory I happened on it. Soon enough I came across a big, Nikki-de-SaintPhalleesque bird of paradise worked from mirror-mosaic pieces and lengths of black-painted wrought iron. With a poem there, annihilating mortality. Embarrassingly enough my memory will not cough up the name of the grand French intellectual buried there but, in the fictive nature of the memoir and biography, i’ll venture out on a branch to say it was either Sartre or Beckett (not entirely French, ok). To think that that person’s bones rested there…. did that mean anything? Didn’t the bird and the rain and the unholy powers of the graveyard and being alive in Paris, endless Paris mean infinitely more?
I haven’t really typed anything about Dijon yet, so stupid.