Media. Cultural Studies. Writing.

I thought about a lot of things in Paris.

Category : memory, reading, teaching, travel, urban studies · by Jul 11th, 2013

The little liberal arts college that I call home has made a name for itself for its extensive study-abroad programs. A significant majority of our students spend at least a semester abroad, and nearly all of them use their passports as part of an academic experience during their undergraduate career. Students are required to fulfill a “Global Connections” requirement before graduation, which is defined as “a sustained cross-cultural experience.” Something that the University calls “ID courses” are one way students can fulfill the Global Connections requirement without spending a full semester abroad.

When I found out that the Office of International Affairs had approved my partner’s proposal for an ID Course called “Americans in Paris,” I was excited for her. She had previously assisted on a Freshman “Spring Preview” course that traveled to Paris, and was keen to design a course of her own that focused on the American expatriates that lived and worked in Paris between the World Wars, creating some of the most influential texts of the western world and, in many ways, helping to define American cultural identity in the 20th Century. I, personally, was happy to sign on to be a co-leader for the course, but more for the course material than for the trip to Paris itself.  I loved learning about French history, I hadn’t been in a literature classroom in years, and as an added bonus my partner is super smart, so I was stoked to learn from her. But whenever I told friends and colleagues about the course, they expressed enthusiasm for the trip—”Wow, Paris! I’m so jealous! You’re going to love it!!!”—that I couldn’t quite match. When my partner asked me what sorts of things I wanted to see, the most that I could muster was that I’d like to get some ice cream.

It’s not that I had anything against Paris, per se. Far from it, actually. One of my very favorite courses as an undergraduate was a seminar on the History of France, 1815-1914. Growing up in Massachusetts I spent a lot of time learning about the American revolution, and felt proud of the American influence on revolutionary France, and thankful for their (self-interested) investment in American independence. To learn about the brutal fallout France dealt with in the ensuing century was one of those wonderful genuine intellectual experiences that make going to university worthwhile. It was Fall 2000, I was 20 years old, and my brain was just exploding reading Germinal and “J’Accuse,” learning about the 18th Brumaire and the Communards. It was awesome.

As a friend put it: “This book put ‘coal mining’ on the short list of things I will never joke about”

Still, I have always bristled at the romanticization of Paris. I hated it when my classmates would hang Eiffel Tower posters in their dorm rooms, or talk about their having a “Parisian soul” or whatever. And it’s not just Paris. I felt (feel!) the same way about London, or Rome, or New York City, as well. I think it’s the Rust Belt in me–the incessant cultural celebration of certain places (which also just-so-happen-to-be hubs of global capital) aids and abets the neglect and elision of working-class cities like Pittsburgh (and the working-class people within them). And having lived in Miami, I know how truly warped a city can get when local officials decide that the desires and interests of visitors trump those of residents. So as much as I think my university’s commitment to study abroad is valuable and important, I also dislike the idea of valorizing essentially tourist experiences over engagement in one’s own community.

for real doe

Nestled deep, deep in the labyrinthine footnotes of “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace addresses why he feels uncomfortable in tourist situations. I teach this essay every year, and this is unquestionably my favorite part (though my students seemingly are convinced that Wallace and I are both weirdo depressives). Here’s Wallace:

“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

– David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006. p 240, fn 6.

I took my copy of Consider the Lobster on the plane with me, and this footnote bounced around my head throughout my stay in Paris. It was hard not to agree with Wallace while in the Musée d’Orsay, where the persistent stream of visitors ensured that one could never actually spend any time reflecting on a particular piece, and instead turned each gallery into a series of slow-moving queues. The crush of visitors was even more intense at Versailles, where tour groups from all over the world struggling to get a good look at…whatever,  seemed to succeed only in ruining everything for each other. I thought about the 18th century Parisians dying of tuberculosis and starving on the Rue Pigalle as tourists slammed into one another trying to be the next to get close to the artifacts of a loathsome royal family.

guides hold stupid little toys up in the air so their tour groups don’t get lost. it was like this, FOR HOURS.

Still worse was the Louvre, where visitors pressed up against one another and a semi-circle of velvet rope in order to take shoddy digital photos of the Mona Lisa. The whole scene was utterly depressing, to be honest–tons of people cramming up against a barrier to get a look at a tiny painting, locked behind plexiglass, 15 yards away. Hold on, let me Google that for you—you’ve now had a better Mona Lisa experience than you can likely get in person. The whole “crowd around to take an unremarkable photo of a remarkable artwork” phenomenon has actually become something of a crisis in the museum.

photo: waxwingslain

photo: waxwingslain

Workers at the Louvre had recently gone on strike to advocate for increased security presence and tighter admissions policies, as pickpockets had taken to patrolling the areas around the museum’s marquee pieces (the Mona Lisa, the Nike of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo) knowing that visitors would be so distracted by the famous pieces, and so committed to crowding up to them, that they would be vulnerable to theft. The result is that these spaces become increasingly securitized, spaces for vigilance and surveillance, not quiet reflection upon some of the most celebrated artworks in Western civilization.

We saw one such pickpocket—a kid, really, no more than 16—get viciously tackled going down a flight of stairs on the Eiffel Tower. Have you ever watched a sporting event on TV and seen a collision so violent everybody watching takes a sharp intake of breath and winces? That’s what this was like, except with a child. I can remember the sickening clang of the security officer and the kid hitting the landing. An alert blared over the Tower’s loudspeakers: “WARNING. PICKPOCKETS ARE ACTIVE IN THE SECOND DECK. WARNING. PICKPOCKETS ARE ACTIVE IN THE SECOND DECK” and security officers came streaming out of the woodwork.

Another group of kids, these ones younger, got collared by cops right in front of us for running a petition scam near Cite. These kids, I knew, were in those spaces because of people like me—foreign visitors with more money than sense—and the kid was also getting busted because of people like me. Like us. “Economically significant but existentially loathsome,” Wallace wrote, and it was hard not to identify with that. One of the central questions of “Consider the Lobster,” and really one of the key concerns of all of his writing output, is what are the ethical ramifications of consciously (or unconsciously, I guess?) choosing not to think about things that are unpleasant. But there’s also a danger of thinking so much about those things as to be totally paralyzed and debilitated. Wallace wrote about this throughout his career. I thought a lot about him in Paris.

He wrote much of Infinite Jest in my old neighborhood in Syracuse, and I thought a lot about Syracuse while I was in Paris, as well. Syracuse is not a city that you fall in love with from afar. There aren’t many postcards with the Niagara Mohawk building or Lake Onondaga on them, and on the rare occasions when Syracuse is in a movie (Slap Shot, Tootsie, and not much else) it is used to connote “despair,” “cold,” or “cold + despair.” But I grew to love it there, not through representations but by being present. The pickup games at Barry Park. Earth Crisis milkshakes. Polish food and karaoke. The canal trails and the dive bars on Westcott. All the ordinary neighborhood things that made Syracuse feel like home to Syracuseans.


In Paris were able to experience some of those ordinary neighborhood things that make up so much of the pleasures of living in a city. We stayed just off the Rue Daguerre, the neighborhood where Agnes Varda lived and worked for years. (If you have a chance, definitely check out Daguerreotypes). We went to the movies. We ordered brioche from alleyway patisseries and drinks at sidewalk cafes. We went to a 3rd Division soccer match and cheered as the relegation-bound Paris FC won 5-1 in their last home game of the season, taking the over-packed trolley to train stops where the signs weren’t posted in English. Those things were all nice, and I am glad we did as much of that as we did sightseeing at Versailles.

Ms. Varda’s Neighborhood

Of course, trying to pretend that we were not tourists might be as obnoxious as anything we could have done as tourists. This is something you pretty much can’t ignore when you are standing in the rain at Père-Lachaise, taking a photo of Pierre Bourdieu’s grave (which, it occurs to me, might be a really great story for teaching Pierre Bourdieu). At any rate, I very much appreciated Père-Lachaise, particularly the way that ordinary and anonymous markers shared space with luminaries of Parisian society. The Communards’ Wall was one of the few true ‘destinations’ I wanted to see in Paris (besides the ice cream shop, I mean), and I valued the way that it stood near the memorials for World Wars and political leaders. France, right? It was a cool and quiet day, and Rachel and I enjoyed slowly making our way among the memorials for figures that we admire, like Richard Wright, Alice Toklas, Georges Seurat, Honore de Balzac, and Marcel Proust.

It was on our way back from the Communards’ Wall that I saw the memorial for Oscar Wilde. I have no particular attachment to Wilde, though in my undergraduate English major days I did enjoy reading the Oscar Wilde hits. Despite that, I was surprised at how disappointed I was with the memorial. Not because the memorial is ugly—it is, as memorials often are, but I knew that before. Rather, I was disappointed by how clean it was, and how cut off from the rest of the cemetary. It had been recently scrubbed, and a clear plexiglass barrier, maybe 5 feet tall, had been erected around the grave like it was a tiny  ice hockey rink. On the back side of the barrier hung a polite little sign, informing visitors that the tomb had been restored through funds allotted by the Irish government, so kindly do not deface the memorial, please and thanks.

Wilde’s “restored” tomb

For anyone that is not aware, Wilde’s grave has been the site of a peculiar ritual since the mid-1990s, when someone decided the best tribute they could leave the author was a big smoocheroo, leaving lipstick kisses on the grave stone. This set off a trend, and by the time my partner visited Paris for the first time in the late 1990s, the grave was covered with literal marks of affection, with messages of thanks and admiration for the long-deceased writer, usually in lipstick. The lipstick itself didn’t hurt the memorial, it should be said, but the process of removing it did, slowly eroding the stone and threatening its structural integrity. So down came the kisses and up went the plexiglass.

crimes of passion – graffiti reads “You are my rainbow.”

Some people still do climb the barrier to make their mark, of course, risking a hefty fine (€9,000, which is like…a lot of dollars) and a nasty fall. Some others scrawled messages or left kisses on the plexiglass, but from what I saw, most had decided not to bother. I have since had the pleasure of reading Ellen Crowell’s smart piece “Oscar Wilde’s Tomb, Silence and the Aesthetics of Queer Memorial” over at Branch, but in the moment I only remember feeling hung up on the word on that plaque: “restored.”

Oscar Wilde was not originally interred at Pere Lechaise. After losing a court case and serving a prison sentence for “gross idecency,” Wilde came to Paris, feeble from his prison stay and bankrupt from his defense costs, in 1897. He died, abandoned by all but a handful of friends, in 1900. Those friends leased a temporary gravesite for Wilde until his literary executor was able to pay his debts (by selling off some of his private writings) and purchase a plot at Père-Lachaise. The memorial was commissioned in 1909, with funds donated by friends wishing to remain anonymous.

It is key to note here that Wilde was imprisoned and exiled specifically because his affections were made public. At his trial, prosecutor Charles Gill asked Wilde to explain, explictly, for the court record and to the jury the meaning of “the love that dare not speak its name.” The scandal surrounding Wilde’s trial was enormous. So great, in fact, that even among his staunchest friends, even a full decade later, even among those who cared enough about him to contribute money toward his tomb, many wished to keep their donations to his memorial fund anonymous.

Now, I’m just some guy thinking about all this 100 years later. But for whatever it is worth, it seems to me that the kisses on Wilde’s grave are a way of making affection for him public, in forms as messy and cliched and touching and ugly as all affection takes. So to “restore” the monument to its original state–unblemished by the love and support of strangers, the messages of identification and thanks–seems to me not at all an improvement. The memorial exists not only to mark the spot of Wilde’s burial, but also as a testament to society’s relationship to him. Maybe it is because we saw so many riot police in the Luxembourg Gardens preparing to handle the angry demonstrations against marriage equality legislation in France while we were there, but the fact that people from all over the world would want to show their love and support for Wilde, and all that he represents, even at the risk of social shame and significant financial penalties—well, to me that seems worth embracing (English/French pun intended!). Memorials aren’t just objects, after all—they’re protocols and behaviors, they’re cultural as much as they are material.

Which brings us back to Wallace, doesn’t it? His primary concern about tourism (both his own and that of the people around him) was that the commercial and cultural impact of mass visitation works to diminish or even destroy the thing you are meant to see. Snickers wrappers at the Grand Canyon, the commercialization of the Louvre or the Barnes Foundation, etc. But it occurs to me that the Wilde memorial suggests that there might be another way to understand the value of mass visitors.

Consider the Pont des Arts in Paris, a generally unremarkable pedestrian bridge over the Seine. Sometime in the last ten years, perhaps inspired by an Italian novel, perhaps inspired by traditions in Serbia or Uruguay, couples began inscribing their names on padlocks, locking them to the bridge, and tossing the keys in the Seine. The trend has spread across the globe (the Wikipedia entry on ‘Love Padlocks’ is weirdly fascinating), and has resulted in a brisk business in padlocks for street vendors. It is hokey. It is corny. But crossing the bridge and seeing those locks crowded around the rails, it was hard not to feel touched by people’s stubborn insistence on loving one another, and be thankful for the Pont des Arts for reminding us of that.

the pont des arts

I started thinking of this again while climbing to the top of Notre Dame. There are 387 steps, and there is a lot of time to think. Making your way up the spiral stone staircase, it’s impossible to miss the ways that people make their mark on a city across the generations. The stone is worn with almost a thousand years worth of footsteps, and you can literally feel the indentations beneath your feet.

a chimera (*not* a gargoyle, I’m told) looks out from Notre Dame

To me, Notre Dame was remarkable precisely because as much as one can see the sprawling vistas of Paris, one is also confronted with the sprawling history of Paris, and everything that has happened there—the flowering of secular literature and the walling of the city in the Middle Ages, the Day of the Barricades and the rise of the Bourbons, the Enlightenment and the Revolution, the Commune and Hausmannization, ’68 and the New Wave…it is all there in front of you. And it’s not just Parisians—people have made visits, pilgrimmages, invasions, escapes to and occupations of Paris for a thousand years, and standing at the top of Notre Dame, you can’t help but feel a part of global human civilization, in all its beauty and brutality.

I understand that sounds very much like the ~*~PaRiS Je TaImE~*~ sort of attitude that I dismissed in the opening of this piece, but what I think I mean is that I valued the opportunity to understand my place in a history of people finding something, and leaving something, in the world through their travels, and I don’t think one has to idealize or romanticize the city itself (obscuring or even abetting the inequality of the city in the process) to do so.

What would we, as visitors, miss if Notre Dame’s steps were “restored” to their original conditions?  And what does “restored” mean, really? Certainly we wouldn’t want the original sanitation and odors of medieval Paris “restored.” Does “restored” just mean “altered and sanitized to meet some impossible fantasy of originality?” And isn’t that worse than understanding that when people visit a city, they change it, and it changes them?¹

visitors leave their marks on Notre Dame

We traveled to Paris as part of a course to understand the American Expatriates of the 1920s. They left their homes in the United States not so much to integrate with French culture (some did, more did not), but to find something that they couldn’t get at home. Whether that was relief from the forms of oppression extant in the United States, or belonging in a creative community, or just cutting through the noise of their everyday life and giving them a space to find something new—about their country, about themselves, or about each other—they came to Paris. As an American, I’m used to feeling like my country is the center of the world, but being abroad, even in the context of being a tourist, let me sneak away from that frame of mind, if only briefly.

When I tell people about my university’s commitment to study abroad, one of the things that I always make sure to point out is that having so many students with experience living in different cultures and societies isn’t just good for their personal education. It also changes the dynamics of the classroom when they get back. Students bring those experiences with them, and it changes their approach to the world. For many of our students, the Mid-Atlantic United States is all they’ve ever known. Travel de-naturalizes their previous life experience, and gives them a chance to see that the way we do things here and now is not the only way, or necessarily the best way. You don’t have to go to Paris to find this. You don’t even need to leave your city. But you do need to leave something, and look for something elsewhere. In the process you bring something someplace new, and leave it there. You need to think about things that you previously never thought of before. In that respect, this kind of traveling may encourage the very kind of relentless thoughtfulness that Wallace exemplifies.

I thought about a lot of things in Paris.

¹ – Our Paris guidebooks continually pointed out that Parisians decapitated the statues of kings around the city, but they had thankfully been ‘restored’. Is this not the denial of the revolutionary history of the city, in favor of a despotic past? A whole other post could be written about the pro-monarchic and anti-revolutionary sentiments in American travel guides to Paris. Troubling.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *