Go to Roger Cohen's op ed piece, Paris vs Havana, in today's New York Times. Paris, his Paris of the seventies, is no longer. His Paris is gone. What should we make of this? Is he on to something real, or is his lament one more lament of a man, now in his middle age, for his golden youth?
Cohen writes: "Yet, for all its enduring seductiveness, Paris has ceased to be the city that I knew. The modern world has sucked out some essence, leaving a film-set perfection hollowed out behind the five-story facades. The past has been anesthetized. It has been packaged. It now seems less a part of the city’s fabric than it is a kitschy gimmick as easily reproduced as a Lautrec poster."
Cohen ought to have known that the city that he knew in his youth, any city, would be gone in his middle age, no matter what the time and circumstances. Things that we once knew and once loved will always be gone in time. If they disappear while we are still alive that's probably a good thing, because it means we have lived a long time.
The "briny oysters, the glistening mackerel on their bed of ice at the Rue Mouffetard, the drowsy emptied city in August, the unctuousness of a Beef Bourguignon…" Cohen says that these things can be experienced for the first time only once.
Perhaps for him, but they still can be experienced. These things in particular are still there for others to experience for the first time, which indeed is what is happening. Go to Paris today if you want to see it.
For me the greatest change to Paris during my lifetime was the dismantling and removal of the central Paris market, Les Halles, and its relocation to Rungis in the southern suburbs. And in fact this was happening while Cohen in the seventies was experiencing his Paris, I assume, for the first time. The disappearance of Les Halles was, and is, for me a real loss, probably greater than anything Cohen writes about.
Evidently Cohen never knew Les Halles. He could get a glimpse of them if he were to watch the 1963 comedy, Irma La Douce, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. The Forum des Halles, which stands in their place does, by itself, summarize the changes that have come to Paris, as to all cities. And yes, one can regret the loss, but for even more visitors whose first experience of Paris is now, there is no lament for the past.
In regard to what Cohen says about "the glistening mackerel on their bed of ice at the Rue Mouffetard, the
drowsy emptied city in August…," that such "things can be experienced for the first time only once," I would say in response, what about Proust, and the story of the Madeleine? Wouldn't Proust's experience be a second first time, one probably that we have all known? These experiences, second first times if you will, are still mine whenever I go to Paris.
In fact, I have been returning to Paris every year, often more than once, for some 30 years or more. When, for example, I enter the Brasserie, Le Terminus Nord, for the nth time, knowing that escargots, gratinées, steak-frites and other such, are awaiting me, each time does seem like a first time, and in some respects these later experiences are even more completely satisfying than the earlier ones.
Isn't it true that many of the things that we do over and over again, running, swimming, writing an op ed piece, and many more, lose nothing of their original, first time delight? In that sense we don't lose Paris.
Hitler's general, who made sure that Paris survived the German departure from the city, was on to something. If Cohen were right and the German had agreed with Cohen's reasoning, he might have let Paris be destroyed, for in that case gone probably for him also would have been the city's pungency, perhaps known from his, the German's, youth.
But the German general knew otherwise, and the city was left standing, there for me in the sixties, and for Cohen ten years later, and for countless others. Paris "in its loss" is still the world's city most visited, and for most for the first time.
Sure, I too have felt many times, and in particular since the smoking bans of this year, the absence of the sharp Gauloises odor in the cafés, but is this really any different from the London visitor, returning to the city some time after the era of open cesspools and their sharp, deeply unpleasant odor, and wondering what had happened to his London?
And more important is this sort of thing a loss, or is it a gain? Is the city any less for the loss of the odor of Gauloises, or that of open sewers? Cohen might have better asked is the city any less for having lost, since the seventies half or more of its cafés.
When Cohen says that the city was glorious in its squalor, and that the glory has been lost in the now sanitized city, is he implying that the absence of heavy smoking, open sewers, sidewalks laden with dog poop, myriads of prostitutes standing in doorways, and innumerable other such vignettes of his Paris of the seventies, that all this represents the loss of something important and vital? Rather don't we simply have a healthier city than we did then?
So, isn't his lament the lament of the Romantic, the lament for the loss of our pasts? For it is true, and always was and always will be true, that "memories are like the sound of hunters’ horns fading in the wind." Is there any city in the world the memories of which one might not say the same thing?
Havana, perhaps? Only because I and Cohen didn't know Havana before Castro. In spite of the absence of modernity in that city does that mean that there is still something left of its glorious past? No, not necessarily. What we have there is exactly what Cohen says we have, "a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.
Finally, when Cohen says that "squalor connects," is he implying that order and cleanliness don't, or at least don't connect as much? Again isn't this the cry of the incorrigible romantic? One smiles, for yes there are those among us who do hold on to the past as if it were indeed, in all its squalor, a golden age never to be equaled. The realists among us know, alas, that reality, our reality is something else entirely.
Yes, Roger, your Paris is gone, as you saw by the flare of a Russian match. Mine is gone also. But so are so many dear people and things of my youth and middle age. That, Roger, is life, and rather than regret what we no longer have we need always to look for the beauty that is always there with us in the present, to all that we do have and value, and not lament what we have lost.