by Gaither Stewart
Nov 21, 2008
Some cities are open to surrounding plains or the open seas and the eternal firmament overhead. Port cities and plains cities in fact place no limits. Such cities are to be seen, possessed and participated in. They don’t need to hold onto secrets. 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 probably 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. Contrary to popular belief, winter is Paris’ real season—fog and mist and rain, 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 dressed in black populate the cafés along 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. On such days the butchers of the Arab Kosher shops close their counters and join the café sitters and Mint Tea drinkers and 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, settled and well-adjusted participants. They seem to know who they are.
Others are forever discontent, uncomfortable everywhere, unsettled, isolated, wishing they were elsewhere. Or to be ubiquitous. They are sur le qui-vive, nose raised toward the winds, eyes pealed for new sights, ears alert for strange perceptions, ready to raise the tent and 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.
In a suggestive recurrent dream I am trying to return from an obscure somewhere to another no less obscure somewhere. On leaden legs I wander over rural roads in a labyrinthine suburbia searching for the safest and shortest road to an indefinite place. In my dream I am aware that I’ve searched for the right road in past dreams but that I always go astray and end up on roads infested with ferocious country dogs. Or I stumble into a neighborhood where strangers are robbed and beaten. There is a high road but it is forbidden. I have to take the low road, the dangerous road. It is a dirt road. I stand at the entrance to the village through which I must pass. The passage is blocked by a lowered barrier. Signs warn to be careful of children and dogs. I pass the barrier and see two beings in front of the first wooden house. I slow but continue. They are not children. They seem to be dogs but have long thin necks and flattened black heads like pythons, with wide white eyes. Their necks or their thin bodies weave menacingly. I’m afraid but I plod ahead. I agitate my arms to beat them off. I’m disgusted and terrified. But I have to break through. I must get to that other place. I wake up in a sweat wondering where I wanted to go. Did I turn back? Or am I standing still? Fully awake, perhaps awake, I prolong the dream and for a moment consider the dilemma and can’t decide whether to turn back or to continue despite the dangers. Was that the mythological place I was striving for? That’s the magic of dreams; everything is permitted; everything is free. You might protest that this or that is not right, that it is impossible, forbidden, but your dream conductor mocks you and reminds you that you can do anything you like in your dreams. You might hold onto safe persons or secure objects, in your dreams, but for the most part you flee. You try to escape … though on leaden legs. Does everyone have leaden-leg dreams? In one moment you are capable of extraordinary feats and in the next you are fearful and cowardly. You want to say certain things, to warn, to complain, to explain, to confess, but you cannot make yourself understood. You speak another language. A language incomprehensible to others. And you hope the dream will end and save you and you hope it will last forever and you will succeed and escape.
This is the familiar quandary of the radical maverick. The doubter. The dissident. Borges wrote in his fable, “El Milagro Segreto, that “dreams belong to God” and recalled that Maimonedes had written, “the words of a dream are divine when they are distinct and clear and you cannot tell who said them.”
The parvis in front of Notre Dame is considered “kilometer zero” of France. It is the point from which distances in the country are measured, underlining both the significance of the cathedral and the predominance of Paris in France. It is the center. France does not have its Venice or Florence or Milan. France does not have one hundred capitals as does Italy. Paris stands for France. I wander around the city and nothing seems changed. It is familiar. I am not a visitor. The boulevards, buildings and hotels seem unchanging. The metro is homey after the might and speed of the New York City Subway.” In comparison to New York, Paris in the smog is quiet, quaint, genteel, refined, elegant. Paris is a compromise between chaotic Rome and “cradle to grave” Holland. Compared to Italy, France is efficient; Napoleonic compared to Holland.
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 Parisians are fascinated by Bushian 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, self-satisfied and fearless. Paris is the bourgeois Parisian concerned about the explosion of violent crime in the strange and 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. Rome is jealous and petulant and stamps her foot like a betrayed mistress if you don’t love her. Paris could care less whether you love her or not. Whether you stay or not. 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.
Paris still believes it is the Center! There is an analogous Italian story: “the bar in Foligno, the center of the world.” This café-bar is in the center of Foligno, Foligno is in the center of Umbria, Umbria in the center of Italy and Italy is at the center of the world. But in reality neither is the Center. Old centers come and go. In Paris however I come to doubt my theories about shifting centers.
My strivings toward the edge, toward the Perimeter, are perhaps only a creation of my imagination.
Yet Paris, oh so much more than Rome, is the symbol, the Capital of the Center. Paris is 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.
For that reason I set myself the project of walking each of those spokes-avenues extending so invitingly from the Center outwards—Champs-Élysées, Marceau, Iéna, Kléber, Victor Hugo, Foch, Grande Armée, Carnot, Mac- Mahon, Wagram, Hoche, Friedland. The amusing, almost pathetic reality is that none of those magnificent avenues extend more than a few kilometers or so before they peter out and vanish into the perimeters of the city.
I’m almost afraid of this modern siren. The Center. Sometimes in la ville de lumière I feel forewarnings of a storm brewing—palpitations, sweating and stewing over mundane problems. A few years ago just as I walked into the Jardin de Luxembourg in search of traces of the Tuscany of Queen Marie de Médicis who had her palace there modeled on the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, my old leg weakness hit me like a sledgehammer. Wham! Whop! I staggered a few steps, wondering why, stopped in my tracks and looked around for a bench. Could I make it back home? What if I had an attack? Would people just pass me by, lying on the ground unconscious, my arms and legs twisted crazily in all directions? Maybe foaming at the mouth. Would I die there, alone and a stranger? Would they call an ambulance? Did I even have my address in my pocket? For who walks around with address and phone number conveniently available in case of emergency? Who would know who I was? Like the westerner in the Sahara who when he loses his passport loses also his sense of identity—as Paul Bowles wrote in Under The Sheltering Sky—he doesn’t know who he is. Would I die forgotten and unknown in an emergency clinic? Was that my destiny? While I stood there magnifying my fate, well-integrated Parisian pigeons, ignoring me up there in the stratosphere, waddled around my feet. Brightly colored, resplendent shiny blue yellow green, definitely fatter than pigeons in Central Park or Piazza San Marco in Venice, slicker, more refined, like pampered racehorses. Was it the French cuisine they shared, I wondered illogically, imagining myself mud-splattered, sprawled on the pavement of the opulent Jardin, one hand reposed in fresh dog shit? Alone. However, by one of those comforting but astonishing coincidences that tend to accumulate in life, when I returned safely to my apartment and with a sigh of relief opened the novel I was reading, I found under my eyes, as if written for me alone, the surprising quotation from Stendahl—such coincidences mark our lives even if they don’t turn things upside down (But they stagger you even if many claim coincidences don’t even exist!)—to the effect that “there’s nothing ridiculous about dying on the street if you don’t do it on purpose.”
I had 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, as our 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!
Sometimes you wonder what gives you a sudden sense of lucidity. You see a world reacting to the election of Obama in a way so different from you. You wonder why this dichotomy? Or why millions of Frenchmen voted into office a savage capitalist like Nicolas Sarkozy, ever active against the interest of the people against his electors. Or they cast their votes for Obama who promises more of the same things of the last eight years.
Though life sometimes seems short, it’s nonetheless 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.
During the battle of life we see many images of ourselves. Like the day I went to see the labyrinth in the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Chartres, 95 kilometers from the parvis of Notre-Dame in Paris. In the maze on the mosaic of the great cathedral I pretended I was the Warrior standing at the stonewall of my faith. I’m standing in the center of the labyrinth, my legs spread, knees bent. And I feel that thing surging upwards in me. I am searching for a way out of the labyrinth. It is the full feeling you get in such special moments. You fear that in your search you have become evil. (But logically you know evil was there from the beginning.) The Warrior wields the weapons to strike evil. I feel like the Warrior, there on the mosaic in the cathedral of Chartres. Not that that made me good. It made me neither good nor evil. Who wants to be the arm that uses the weapon. You want to be the pupil of the eye, the part that sees. If you could only see the reflection of yourself, you think. Positioned in the center of the maze, in Paradise, you lift your sword ready to strike in the name of good against evil. In the maze you might dance a step and sing as advised: Ma fin est mon commencement. You wait and do it backwards: commencement mon est fin ma. You dance and sing at the center of the maze, you are Theseus dancing on the floor of Daedalus’s labyrinth. You are the Armed Man. The Warrior. Positioned. My beginning is my end. My end is my beginning. Nothing begins in you alone. Nothing ends in you alone. That is the truth.
This is all fantasy, you know, there in the maze in Chartres. But all so real. You want to change the world even if the world doesn’t want to change.
Therefore our depression, I remind myself, often our most faithful companion. More constant, more stimulating than the hope offered by religions. You know that there where ethics end, religions begin. No wonder man’s 2000 years of war with religion. Yet, we need hope, too. The hope that lies also in our anxiety and our desperation and our depression.
Has civilization perhaps peaked? But what about social evolution? Have we learned anything? Today the major issue should be the definition of power itself. Power in which religion (Religion and Revolution!) is so enmeshed as to be one and the same. Like Dante’s hell that had little to do with religion and everything to do with the church and secular politics.
It’s difficult to emerge in glory from such ruminations. Yet it’s necessary to recognize how difficult it is even to think the truth. Just the attempt to think the truth is a consolation. The truth is so elusive, impartial, refractory to subterfuges and difficult to pinpoint that you cannot recognize it clearly and evidently as such. Like reality, it is contradictory, the borderline between light and dark. Unfortunately the truth is often a mere gauge, a register of our inconsistencies, of our fears and strengths. Impressions usually count more than truth. Yet I believe that in the long run the attempt at truth is regenerative, rejuvenating, and redemptive. With enough time and encouragement one can open up avenues toward some limited truth. And that is not insignificant. Before it’s too late we must create some order.
Centrism is a dangerous and slippery devil, which in my mind follows from the above. 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, hopelessly, maybe futilely, for out there on the perimeter you never really know anything except that the real center is there and you must find it.
Still, while the wild and mysterious unknown beyond the edge entices you, the magnetic center-center reassures you and comforts your rebellious spirit. Yes, the center of planetary society keeps shifting and changing so that I wonder if … no, I’m convinced—at least sometimes I’m convinced—that there is no center. The point is important. Maybe there was once a fixed center, let’s say back at the beginning of human time in Africa. But then, surprise, that center didn’t last. Ultimately a new center arrived, China. Then there was the center Egypt, then Greece and Rome and Europe. Until, at last arrived the Americas. Each culture believed it was the center. 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.
For who are we, each of us, in this universe of shifting mainstream centers? Who am I, drifting out here on the rim, as compared to Man of the uncertain establishment center of Paris, who is in reality my Doppelgänger? I could never get used to life in his world, in the center, nor he to mine. I am awkward there, clumsy. I touch it and begin to itch and feel I am falling, falling back into 60,000 years of centers.
Is nationality obligatory? Does one have to be of somewhere? America First? Racism? Exceptionalism? Or should we not want to step around our protective walls, elude them? In a limited sense some of us believe we belong to many places. I myself miss all the places I have known, even places I have never been. Just as with the disappearance of a loved person when a relationship with a place ends incomplete the sensation of the loss is powerful. For all my places I feel both sadness at their loss and melancholy at their absence, and hope they will return.
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.
It is often said, “if everyone is guilty then no one is guilty. A paradox! True or false? Too philosophical for man in our age? Do I agree?
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 proletariat in revolt cannot attain revolutionary consciousness: it needs the help of the radical intelligentsia to explain that the “republic” and “bourgeois democracy” cannot be equated with social justice. Lenin too wrote that Anglo-American imperialism has mastered the art of using for its purposes the form of the (bourgeois) democratic republic.
Bakunin lead the revolt of the people against the social order. He 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.” Lenin wrote after WWI: “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.
Marx wrote as if precisely for the America emerging after the election of Barack Obama (if he survives!): The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.”
Marx said that the bourgeoisie’s support for liberals is a mask, the great mystification to confuse the revolutionary forces, the reason for proletarian mistrust of bien-pensant liberals. That applied 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 “liberal” causes such as medical care for children and gay marriage. Such is the marriage of bourgeois liberal democracy and market capitalism.
Therefore we can’t trust the slogans, the flag, and the American way of life! We can’t trust calls for defense of the democratic republic. We can’t trust them! Don’t trust the liberals! Don’t trust the victory of the Democratic Party. They too are the avid, greedy bourgeoisie. 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.
The real subject of this essay is of course Rebellion. Rebellion against this state of affairs. It is about rebellion’s transformation into revolution.
We have in mind the effect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq upon the American people. Millions of Americans have marched against the wars. In vain. Superpowers cannot be confused with democracies.
In his 2001 memoir, “Fugitive Days,” Weatherman Bill Ayers writes:
I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough. This is something very few Americans can accept, and I wouldn’t even make the attempt to persuade them. But I personally didn’t blame the Weathermen then, and I don’t blame them now. The Vietnam War was in its eighth year of barbarity. I and the rest of the army of the powerless needed a few points up there on the scoreboard against the lords of the national-security corporate state. A bombing, with a suitably war-criminal target – like the State Department or the Pentagon – and taking care to prevent any casualties, told the bastards that we were still out there, that their impunity was not total, that this is how it feels to be bombed…. It told the public that there was something more serious going on than a town-hall difference of opinion that could be reasonably resolved by reasonable people discussing things in a reasonable manner. And like an unhappy child having a temper tantrum, we needed some instant gratification. We were struggling against the most powerful force in the world.
Revolution is not only the immediate explosion. It is a long period of drastic social change. Of the reversal of everything that once was into the new. Revolution is the new. More on this later!
Gaither Stewart, a Senior Contributing Editor and European Correspondent for Cyrano’s Journal, is a veteran reporter, raconteur, and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. His collections of fiction, Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger and Once In Berlin are published by Wind River Press. (www.windriverpress.com). His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com). He resides in Rome, with his wife Milena.