I have never felt unhappy in Paris. Wandering around – beauty is everywhere – even at night you can see it: happiness moving through the air. As I walk, memory is on alert. I willl the images to go deep. There’s a certain beatitude of being.
There has been sorrow – on the night of Bataclan in November 2015 – ten months after Charlie Hebdo – and the day after Bataclan, that Saturday of grieving Parisians holding one another close, the mounds of flowers covering the sidewalks on boulevard Voltaire…
The Wednesday morning in November 2016 when I wake up to see Trump on CNN, taking the podium, in victory, the winner . . . my shock feels like a heart attack. A sharp pain to the chest. Downstairs in the lobby of my small hotel, a place that is by now a second home I’ve stayed there so many times, P., the concierge, takes my hands in his, not trying to hide the tears on his face; L., one of the managers, weeps. They say they are sorry, they say they are afraid. What will happen? Back upstairs in my room, I hide under the covers. Never in my life have I made such a useless helpless retreat from hateful fact. But there has never been anything like this event. Kennedy’s assassination, a horrible tragedy and shock, didn’t compare to what this day feels like.
Hours later, I buy a paper and wander into the metro. Maybe a bookstore – une librairie – always so full of distractions, will help. A woman I’d sat next to at lunch in Centenaire had pushed her plate away abruptly, put her head in her hands and cried. She was an American from Chicago who lived in Paris; she talks about her fear of the future. As the metro pulls into Les Filles du Calvaire, I think back on browsing in Shakespeare & Company yesterday afternoon. Happy. Looking forward.
Crossing the Ile de la Cite and Pont au Double onto the quay of the Left Bank, I forget in my fog to turn right in the direction of the librairie on rue de la Bucherie. I walk straight ahead. Along Rue du Fouarre and past its great old café La Fourmi Ailee, past rue Galande, into rue Dante: the 12th-century sites of the first University of Paris. In the late l3th century Dante visited these founding streets of “the tradition of French intellectual brilliance, wit, and moral seriousness” (to quote The Streets of Paris). Here’s where Oxford and Cambridge began and many European universities began.
I feel a quick knife of indigestion as I turn back towards the river: the stupidity of my country, the statistics that I read in The Times on the metro have now lodged in my stomach as pain. I turn left, through narrow rue Galande and across rue Saint-Jacques, the ancient road to the South (Orleans) and for medieval pilgrims the route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The rear door of the church of Saint – Severin opens onto this street: a young man walks out, I walk in. You can sit down in a church, take a nap, calm your stomach, read the paper. Women went for Trump. White women. 61% of Catholics. Ordered from the pulpit not to vote for Hillary, under pain of sin, because she is pro-abortion.
I make my way to the small oval-shaped Mansart Chapel (1694) in the southeast corner of Saint-Severin, empty except for one homeless woman asleep with her bags on a chair in front of an ancient stone rectangle that is the altar. I move to the back and take my time looking at the fifteen framed lithographs by Georges Rouault on the rear wall. In stark thick black lines, like the contouring of leaded glass, they depict the passion of Christ, his version of the Stations of the Cross. The series is called “Miserere.” Latin for Have Mercy. Georges Rouault, born and raised poor in Belleville, friend of Manet, Matisse, Gustave Moreau’s star pupil, painted the series after his father died, donating Miserere to this late-Gothic church (the first part was built in the 12th century to accommodate the crowds of students from the Sorbonne just up the hill of rue Saint-Jacques).
Whatever your spiritual instincts, sacred, secular, or a mix, the intensity of these images makes their point on this November afternoon. The cruelty of history. The Holocaust. Joan of Arc burned alive. Selma, Vietnam. Aleppo. Bataclan. And on and on forever. The source of the Miserere is Psalm 50, which is chanted at funerals. So many journalists will write of this day: this is the day America died.
A door off the south aisle, usually locked, is open, showing a cloister garden. I investigate and find I am in the only “charnel house” in Paris. I walk among the vaults and galleries where dead bodies and the rotting bones of many centuries had been deposited long ago. Across the dead garden I see a small statue of a mournful monk said to be Saint Severin himself, a hermit in the 6th century. Sick of the world, disgusted with history. I’m outta here.
Words are Inscribed in the church’s front door. Bonnes gens qui par cy passes, Priez Dieu pour les trespasses (‘Good people who pass through here, pray to God for your sins’). Not a crazy idea, for Americans anyway, given the atrocity we have just delivered to the world.
Walking south, I come to the corner of rue de la Parcheminerie – originally rue des Ecrivains , the street of medieval writers, papermakers, bookbinders, known to both Montaigne and Francois I, the king who imported the Italian Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci himself to France. No. 9, rue de la Parcheminerie has now been home to the Abbey Bookshop since 1989. From the front door I see the owner, Brian Spence, all six-and-a-half feet tall of him, reaching high to shelve a book above the maze of stacks, piles of books new, used, first editions, paperbacks, hardcovers; they cover the floor. Brian somehow knows the whereabouts of whatever book you ask for. A few years ago he’d sold me James Burge’s new biography of the scandalous 12th- century lovers, Heloise and Abelard. They met secretly in the alleys and streets of this quartier – the Latin Quarter, named for the language the scholars spoke and wrote. They met even in the shadowy churches, Abelard the philosopher / theologian lionized by his students for his “humanism”: The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord. I say, Ye are gods! And Heloise the first troubadour, sexual pleasure her refrain. I don’t stop to chat with Brian. Not today. He’s Canadian; I’m an American. Today I’m ashamed.
A few blocks south, after the cobblestones of rue de Harpe and across boulevard St. –Germain, I sit down in Room l3 of The Cluny Museum to lose myself in front of the Unicorn tapestries. Paris is elsewhere. Paris is beauty. It has the power to take you along.
But then five tourists drift in. The photo-shoots get underway, blocking my view of the Lady of the Unicorn. They do not look at her, at the exquisite millefleurs woven of silk and wool, at the iconography on the theme of the body’s senses and of mystery. Their backs to her, they pose for their phones.
Like Severin, monk-hermit of the charnel house garden, I’m outta here.
New York, February 2017