Some thoughts about Paris

Living in Botswana or being a Bonesman does not intrinsically grant anyone insight into the world, but both seem somehow more substantive than watching the world unfold on Twitter from a coffee shop in Columbia, MO. Then again, there is a case that the Lost Generation, watching the world unfold from a cafe in Paris created an artificial sense of nostalgia and culture that is replicable elsewhere. After all, their reputation was created only after their success, and A Moveable Feast is a retrospective. Given an artful commentator, a comparable situation could be created anywhere.

Yet, Paris is exotic. It has a rich history, amazing art, and a sense of gravitas that even Hitler could not pass up. Columbia is not Paris. But, then, in very real ways, Paris is not Paris. Parts of it are. Parts of it can be. But in Midnight in Paris, the background people are meticulously crafted to fit the type, and in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway simply leaves out those people who do not fit. So does Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. The invisible majority are the non-conformists, ironically. Merely by conforming to another paradigm they are condemned to obscurity as authors and filmmakers glorify and normalize the artificial construct that suits the Paris of the Lost Generation. That Emerald City brimming with culture.

How often does Hemingway go to the Louvre? How often to the Opera? How often to the tourist sites? The answer is rarely, if ever. Orwell’s account of Paris is even more deficient in that respect–he mostly accounts for poor neighborhoods and restaurants. Now, partly this is due to living there. Having lived in Boston, there is something in an atmosphere of a city and you need not do all those cultural events to take advantage of it. Columbia, where, in some ways, I have been coming of age, has its own vibe, but also too much thoughtless drunkenness and trashed streets. At the same time, Hemingway’s two major activities seem to be going to cafes and going to the races. Life is more mundane than the stories, even in Paris.

For a person who often daydreams about far-off places, this has been something I have struggled to reconcile, sometimes. Ultimately, everything is normalized based on what you are used to. One of my favorite memories of Greece was sitting a town square in the countryside watching children entertaining themselves, some on bicycles, some on foot. I know that there were some other tourists in the town (a French couple I had met and walked around with earlier that day made this clear), but there were not hordes of tourists the way there were in Delphi or Istanbul. And yet the town was set beneath the soaring rock spires of Meteora, which was rather exotic. The same way that to urban and suburban people the forests of Vermont are exotic. Perhaps the advantage that Paris holds for the creation of nostalgia and some sort of cultural movement is that it is a location that lends itself to this type of memorialization and thereby eases the job of a commentator (at this point in time, I would also venture that the Lost Generation aids and abets in this mystique), but though it might be more difficult elsewhere, it is not impossible.

Just as there is with the Lost Generation in Paris, there is an allure about those people who were members of Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key at Yale (starting with the fact that they went to Yale), or those people who attend any number of other prestigious universities, or who worked with the Peace Corps, or went on their own to remote corners of the world. The obvious idea of the allure is the experience they had while participating in that activity. A better way of putting it, I think, is that they are the type of people who merited joining a secret society or a great university, or would travel the world for the sake of traveling, or would donate their time. The experience helps, but it is not the experience alone that marks that person, just as it is not the fact that they lived in Paris alone that marks the Lost Generation. Too often the mystique of these organizations or activities causes people to overlook the actual individual, in much the same way that the negative aura of certain activities, experiences, or professions can cause people to overlook those individuals as well.

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