News of the massacres in Paris reached me about fifteen minutes before Nina and I were supposed to see Agnès Varda’s “Jane B par Agnes V.” The showing was at a former mausoleum factory and warehouse in north Philadelphia, a space built to advertise its wares, a white-marbled rectangular tombstone in the middle of brick houses, neon-lit gas stations and chicken joints, and a fortresslike Citizens Bank, down the street from a gun shop. It was all stupidly overdetermined. We went in anyway, not so much on the “mustn’t let the terrorists win” principle, more like “well, we’ve come this far.”
Background music before the film, a mix of French ’60s pop hits, including Jacques Dutronc’s acerbic take on self-satisfaction and self-disgust during a moment when everyone was beginning to know the news everywhere, all the time—typical verse:
Cinquante millions de vietnamiens
Et moi, et moi, et moi
Le dimanche à la chasse au lapin
Avec mon fusil, je suis le roi
J’y pense et puis j’oublie
C’est là, c’est la vie.
Fifty million Viets
And me, and me, and me
On a Sunday, hunting rabbit
With my gun, a king on a spree,
I think about them, then I forget
That’s it, c’est la vie.
Gallic world-weary knowingness, once maybe shocking to Americans, summed up in an expression we all know but don’t want to admit has become more or less how we get through an average day in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. That’s life. I think about it, then I forget. The film starts: a beautiful film, intimate without prying, a documentary, collaborative self-portrait of Jane Birkin, once the sexiest and most beloved English woman in France, on her fortieth birthday. Also done as a loving homage to and feminist critique of French cinema, from Bresson’s Joan of Arc to Godard and Jean-Pierre Léaud, rife with digressions linked only by visual puns and allusions that only make sense if you know French idioms like “Passer du coq à l’ane.” Birkin is a beautiful soul, self-aware, bemused by her life, a celebrity without self-importance. She talks about her three children, being a grandmother at 40. She poses nude as an odalisque, letting the camera track her from toe to head in a long extreme closeup that’s sexy and comic and discomfiting in exactly the way of her faked orgasms when she sings alongside her ex-husband Serge Gainsbourg in “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus.”
“It’s so full of life,” Nina says. I hear it as an almost wistful remark, the way we speak about something now beyond us.
The film also has a scene of Birkin’s live performance of Gainsbourg’s “Le moi et le je,” (please trust me when I tell you this is most succinctly described as a Lacanian love song, and one of the most ingenious French lyrics ever composed, a hothouse product of a moment when French high and popular culture were on intimate terms, frequented the same cafés in the same small capital of everything). Only when the credits roll do we notice that it was filmed at the Bataclan theater. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Everyone important played there. Now, that history has been overwritten by something worse, a desecration like the destruction of the temple of Bel in Palmyra. I forgot about it and now I think about it.
Back home, it’s the Guardian scroll and the Le Monde scroll and the Facebook feed. Of course the best thing would be to go to bed with our own sorrow, but the need to see, to know, to respond is practically automatic now, a habit it would take me years to unlearn. And the responses increasingly feel automatized, rituals of trauma more than rituals of mourning. The volume and pace of these responses have also increased. Mourning is done in seconds, if at all. It’s not even 11:30 PM on the East Coast before I see the first post complaining about all the attention lavished on Paris and the neglect for Beirut, where suicide bombers killed forty-seven people earlier in the day—or perhaps it was the day before—then the posts about the hundreds of civilians killed by US bombing in ISIS-controlled cities in Syria, then the #JeSuisParis tags; then it was “Pray for Paris” and the “to which God” and “Paris doesn’t need Prayers” ripostes, followed by the “Pray for Paris and Beirut,” all this amid the safety updates, the individual postings from actual Parisian friends, and while the sirens were still sounding and the bodies uncounted. Another poster offers a message of solidarity in French, concluding with a wish for “History, God, decency, it’s the same to me, to have pity on us . . . more than we deserve,” placed above a montage of noxious tweets from various right-wing public figures. The post-time is around 9:20 PM. Is it really never too soon for callouts? Does he realize that by thrusting all this evidence of human idiocy in front of me he comes across like a point scorer more than a truly anguished soul? There are people, and I seem to have a lot of them in my circle of online friends, who seem terrified of participating in any collective, symbolic outpouring of grief, in all its forms. They pull back immediately into the perversely more safe online rhetoric of argument and grievance.
At some point, it’s not clear when or how—perhaps it collapsed under the exhausting accumulation of atrocities—the internet, which had once seemed to promise the possibility of a global politics of sympathy, became a place where true emotion goes to die. Rather than feeling the kinship, the weight of loss, we process the news of each death as information or rhetoric in an endless series of arguments and position takings. It’s an intellectualized version of a state of shock, which has almost become the norm: Syria, Ukraine, Sinai, Israel. One can, in some posts, feel the anger at the victims: Did they have to die so that Hillary Clinton could vaunt her foreign-policy credentials during the Democratic Party debate? Or so Poland could renege on its agreement to house more Syrian refugees? On-screen, everything is analyzable. All the tags and flags, however well-intentioned, appear like insta-kitsch. How long will they stay up, a day or two at most, the gesture of the moment turns too easily to faded phoniness. I have to remind myself, without also wanting to remind others in a “post” advertising and curating my sensibility—hey, I’m not a phony!—that grief may be selective, may show dumbly, but it cannot be hypocritical.
Overnight, offline, a memory arrives. When I was in my twenties and running around Paris, I contracted a case of extreme history-itis. Every cobble, every house, every neighborhood began to seem haunted with violence, both ancient and modern. Walking down St. Germain I heard footsteps of hunted Huguenots; in Belleville I saw Jews rounded up; near the Pont Mirabeau, I didn’t hear Apollinaire’s sweetly running Seine but the cries of Algerian protesters being beaten and drowned by the police; around the Tuileries the burned bodies of 1792 and the corpses of 1830. In rue de Charonne, the barricades of 1848. At Père Lachaise I ignored Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, even Proust, and went straight to the wall where the communards were executed by firing squad. Everywhere, the city yielded up its dead. It was a hard way to be young in Paris. Jane Birkin probably would not have found me entertaining. I remember this attitude now, at cushioned remove from the latest horror, not to seek comfort in the long perspective, but with the sense that I must have been trying to protect myself. From what? From too much easy beauty, maybe? The good luck of having an apartment on a square across from a medieval church and a market in the square with the calls of the fruit sellers to greet me each morning? From the sense that things were good, full of promise, easy, but only for a happy few?
I wasn’t wrong, entirely. At the time, Paris, like New York and London, was beginning to show the strains of a widening income inequality that has since only grown worse. The neighborhood where the attacks took place, north of the Place de la République, was still, in those days, full of mixed ethnicities, North Africans, Tamils, West Africans, Eastern Europeans, and mixed, mainly lower, incomes, small tailor and fabric shops, hardware stores, groceries. Now, like much of central Paris, left or right bank, it’s been transformed into a tourist or nightlife zone. Paris sells its joy and sustains itself on a fragile myth.
It’s easy for many, especially liberal intellectuals, to love this Paris, “as hospitable, diverse and charming a metropolis as was ever devised,” Ian McEwan wrote following the attacks. And easy, too, to mention, in rebuttal, the hard work, conflict, conquests, and cold-hearted calculations that made it so. There will be much written on both sides in the days to come. Paris is both cities, glistening to outsiders, often cruel to natives trying to get by, and will remain so. Where I went wrong, in my twenties, was in not understanding that the essential Parisian charms, the irony, the mockery, the openness about sex, the devotion to ceremonies of everyday life, the well-made thing, these have formed themselves around the suffering. To be in Paris, to be with Paris, is to become aware of the cruelties of history and the charm that keeps them momentarily at bay. In my mind, I try to hear Jane Birkin singing the unofficial anthem of the Paris Commune, in her naive and slightly broken way—the last verse:
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises.
C’est de ce temps-là que je garde au cœur
Une plaie ouverte,
Et Dame Fortune, en m’étant offerte
Ne pourra jamais fermer ma douleur.
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
Et le souvenir que je garde au cœur.
I’ll always love cherry season.
From that time, I bear in my breast
An open wound.
Dame Fortune, she made it round,
And she can never heal it, or let me rest
I’ll always love cherry season,
and the memory I bear in my heart.