By Gaither Stewart
(Paris) Some cities are open to surrounding plains or the open seas and the eternal firmament overhead. Port cities like Buenos Aires and plains cities like Moscow in fact place no limits. Such cities are to be seen, possessed and participated in. Other cities are self-sufficient, turned in on themselves and have no need for the outside world. The latter cities hold the most intimate of secrets, shared only between the city and its own. In such great but closed cities like Prague or Paris which curb encroachments from the rest of the world you can feel a justified longing for space.
When I first saw Paris, buses still had open platforms at the rear, Les Halles general markets sprawled over the heart of the city and the Gare de Montparnasse surrounded by restaurants and bars stood in the place of today’s skyscraper. In the winter Paris seems hermetically closed. Winter is Paris’ real season—people bundled in multiple layers of clothes huddled in cafés or waiting on a corner for a bus. Then on early spring days not much warmer than winter days dark men from the Maghreb populate the cafés on Boulevard de Belleville, waiting for the arrival of the first rays of sunshine, weeks after the change of seasons in Tunisia and Algeria and Morocco. The Arab butchers join the café sitters and Mint Tea drinkers while hawkers of jasmine branches from Tunis do a brisk business along the boulevard. The Maghrebians are perfectly at home on the streets of this old quartier of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier near the skyscraper headquarters of the French Communist Party. Some people simply seem to be at home in life, well-adjusted participants. They seem to know who they are.
Others are forever discontent, uncomfortable everywhere, unsettled, isolated, wishing they were elsewhere. They are sur le qui-vive, nose raised toward the winds, eyes pealed for new sights, ears alert for strange perceptions, ready to strike out again for new territories. Such people travel with a sharp awareness; one eye that of a nomad, the other of a pioneer looking for a place to build a permanent home.
It has been said that nostalgia is a weapon used by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Maybe that is true. But I am infected by it. Yet despite its youth striving toward the modern, nostalgia infects Paris. Nostalgia for a past the city doesn’t let go. And at times nostalgia for the outside world. Perhaps that is why some Parisians are fascinated by Bush’s Texas and by the Barack Obama phenomenon in America.
Paris is both old and new, reminiscent of when it was the center of the world. It is glittery new and luxurious and aimed at the future. Paris is pure luxury, rich and self-satisfied. Paris is the bourgeois Parisian concerned about the explosion of violent crime in the isolated banlieues, which for most people exist only in images seen in television. Paris is the ignorance of its frustrated suburban youth and its vocabulary of six hundred words and its resulting dependence on violence to express itself.
Nonetheless, despite social indicators of the demise of modern society, growing unemployment, the widening gulf between rich and poor, Paris emanates a sense of eternity. Yet you are not forced to feel that you are part of its eternity as in Rome. While Rome embraces you, Paris shrugs indifferently. Paris does nothing to hold you and sometimes everything to alienate you. Yet, like an irresistible mysterious woman, Paris spins and glitters and sings her hypnotic songs of enchantment that have attracted men for over a millennium.
Yet Paris, much more than Rome, is the symbol, the Capital of the Center, the symbol of the safe, secure, closed and limited Center. Rome is the disconcerting and dangerous Perimeter. From nowhere else in Europe can you feel more at the Center than from the top of the Champs-Élysées from where the twelve spokes of the Etoile, its twelve great avenues, reach outwards toward the provinces beyond Paris and—albeit futilely—toward Europe, an expression of its old-new desire to shine majestically over all its parts. Over failed empires.
I just read of a former Prime Minister of France who after forty years of efforts to reach that office, no sooner had he arrived than he lost his mind and was confined to an institution for the insane. And again, a decade ago, as Western bombers took off from Italy to bomb Serbian Yugoslavia accused of genocide against its Albanian minority in Kosovo, I recalled a note for my newspaper story about the Serbian terrorist who shot Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the remote Balkans: at the time it had seemed like an obscure political assassination by a small group of nationalists—and look what happened to the world!
You see a world reacting to the election of Obama in a way so different from you. You wonder why this dichotomy? You wonder why Frenchmen voted into office a savage capitalist like Nicolas Sarkozy, ever active against the interests of his electors. Or why millions cast their votes for Obama who promises more of the same things of the last eight years.
Though life seems short, it’s a long affair. Many things happen. Many people pass across the screen of your life. And, if you are fortunate, many changes, too. Changes of direction, changes of place, time and circumstances, changes of your perceptions and your own points of view. Yes, we should welcome such changes. Today, we wonder: is change really about to happen? I wonder.
Centrism is a dangerous and slippery devil. In your lifetime you can hold onto the center—mainstream life, I mean—desperately, getting to know everything there is to know about it. You become a specialist and come to feel no need for imagination. Or on the other hand you can search for the edge, maybe futilely, for out there on the perimeter you never really know anything except that the real center is there.
As Borges relates in his tale “The Wall and the Books”, Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Chinese empire, was so convinced of being the center that he burned the books of all culture prior to himself and built history’s most formidable wall to protect that center both from the barbarous perimeter and from the past. But the center, America’s center, has turned out to be more elusive than Shih Huang Ti imagined, a point in time and place which modern man can no longer pinpoint.
Is nationality obligatory? Does one have to be of somewhere? Nationality? Racism? Exceptionalism? Or should we not want to step around our protective walls and elude them? In a limited sense some of us believe we belong to many places.
So what about the Center?
Each of us asks, Who am I? We also wonder where we belong. Somewhere, nowhere, everywhere? Some people understand this perplexity. Everyone at one time or another asks similar questions. To get answers you have to extend your feelers in all directions. There are places from which you can see the world better and also get a better view of yourself. It is like a search for Lost Paradise. Maybe for Eden, or for a Shangri La.
The great anarchist Michael Bakunin wrote, “the spirit of revolt is the source of all moral and material emancipation.” We can agree that automatic and blind discipline, mutual trust and unity are disastrous when abused. Blind instinct translated into conscious will, into clear ideas, is a reliable guide to action. Yet, instinct (for revolt) alone is not enough. The wage earner in revolt cannot attain the consciousness for change: he needs the help of the intelligentsia to explain that the “republic” and “bourgeois democracy” cannot be equated with social justice. Lenin too wrote that Anglo-American imperialism had mastered the art of using for its purposes the form of the (bourgeois) democratic republic.
Bakunin preached that the entire structure of society must be demolished before a new and better one could be built. He appealed to the instinct of the people, their anger, their thirst for revenge against bourgeois power. Lenin’s answer to the banner of “freedom” waved defiantly at revolutionaries was: … “every freedom is a fraud if it contradicts the interests of the emancipation of labour from the oppression of capital.” Just after WWI, Lenin wrote: “America is strong, everybody is now in debt to her … (yet) she is more and more hated, she is robbing everybody, and she is robbing them in a very original way.… America cannot come to terms with Europe—that is a fact proved by history” Friedrich Engels wrote that the state, including the democratic republic, is armed bands for the defense of property; everything else serves only to embellish or mask this fact.
“Order”, here in France, in Italy, in bourgeois Europe and USA, signifies the domination of the bourgeoisie in all its guises over the proletariat and today’s newest social strata, the crossovers from the middle classes.
As if aimed at the America emerging after the election of Barack Obama (if he survives!), Marx wrote: The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.” For Marx the bourgeoisie’s support for liberals is a mask, the great mystification to confuse the working people in revolt, the reason for proletarian mistrust of bien-pensant liberals. Yesterday, as today. The more liberals turn to the Right, as in new America, the happier the bourgeoisie and the greater its support for innocuous and minimum “liberal” causes such as medical care for children and gay marriage. Such is the marriage of bourgeois liberal democracy and market capitalism.
Therefore we don’t trust the slogans, the flag, and the American way of life! We don’t trust calls for defense of the democratic republic. We can’t trust them! Don’t trust the liberals! They too are the banks and the insurance conglomerates and gigantic cartels of multinationals for globalization and world domination raking in the people’s money.
I have in mind here the effect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq upon the American people. In vain millions of Americans have marched against the wars. Superpowers cannot be confused with democracies.
Revolution is not the immediate explosion. It is a long period of drastic social change. Of the reversal of everything that once was into the new. More on this later!
Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy, now on a three-month stay in Paris. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com).