mon amie de Barthes

Over the course of this semester, I had an internship at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM), conveniently located a block away from the Skidmore Center in the third arrondissement. My role was simple: to speak adult language students of CNAM, leading informal conversations in English. The internship was occasionally quite dull, especially in the beginning. I would pass days without a single student, during which I would hole up with a book and try my best not to fall asleep. However, as the semester progressed, more and more students came regularly and spread good word of mouth about this helpful, unique linguistic opportunity.

I often answered questions about life in the United States, about my opinions/observations of French culture, and about Donald Trump (which I often evaded with a heavy sigh).

There was one woman, Lise, who came nearly every day I was at CNAM (usually about three days per week). She is over seventy years old but is still more active than the majority of my friends. Her little red planner is filled to the brim with volunteer hours, coffee dates, meetings, and other miscellaneous rendez-vous. She is learning English primarily for her son and his family; her son, though French, lives in America with and American woman and Lise feels as though she needs to have stronger English in order to better connect with her American side. It is especially admirable that she is learning a new language so late in her life, as numerous studies affirm that it becomes exponentially more difficult to learn a language even past the age of 25.

Because Lise came nearly every day, we learned a lot about each other. For example, she was an editor of a sociology review for thirty years. She now lives in Bastille in the same building her father bought 60 years ago. Her grandson is named after Swann of Proust’s most famous work. She leads workshops for women who want to “write their lives”, as she specializes in memoir and nonfiction. She always keeps Virginia Woolf on her night stand. And she loves Roland Barthes as much as I do.

My connection with Lise remains, even as I have recently finished my internship at CNAM. We meet for coffee when possible. Just this week, she took me to a local market and then on an admirably long walk on the Promenade Plantée, after which even I was rather tired (I remind you, once more, that this woman is over seventy). She is one of my most cherished connections in Paris, to whom I will always refer as “my Barthes friend,” the lovely name she gave me after we spent an afternoon swooning together over Barthes’ sentences.

We realized this similarity innocently. I said, offhand, that I tended to like fragmented writing, which brought Lise to mention Barthe’s A Lover’s Discourse, a book that I not only brought to Paris with me, but have read and underlined and written about and sighed over, again and again. When Lise invited me over to her house this week for lunch, I spied the same, used edition on her bookshelves and was warmed with a feeling of timelessness. My Barthes friend is ageless; sentences like this live forever:

“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).”

-Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

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Lise, my Barthes friend

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a feeling of a summer Sunday in the Promenade Plantée

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copenhague

During our “winter break” which took place at the end of February, I went with two other friends to Copenhagen, a beautiful city to which I had never been before.

Copenhagen: a city of color, of cold, and of bicycles. Nearly everyone spoke English fluently. I was shocked by the geniality of the general population, having gotten very used to the general distance taken by Parisians. As my two friends and I were walking in circles around the Botanical Gardens, trying and failing to find an entrance, a man simply stopped and asked how he could help (having promptly deduced from our perplexed faces that we were lost). He spoke English easily, fluently, and with a shade of friendliness I have not heard in months.

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when language fails

The new day, a recovering morning: people are still buying flowers.

That is the first sentence I wrote after the attacks. It was the morning after, and I had just walked home after staying the night with my friend and her host family.

I have since written many more sentences, many of which are less coherent and not nearly as optimistic. Nearly a month has elapsed and I’ve yet to package my thoughts in a way that makes sense to me—in a way that I wish made sense.

But I must write about this. Not only because of my role as a student blogger, but my role as a writer. I have received countless messages from friends and family telling me they trust my writing to record these current events adequately and fairly and beautifully.

What can words do when the world appears neither beautiful nor fair? And why should the words be beautiful?

Returning to this keyboard has been difficult, as the formation of neat lines, paragraphs and words seems cruelly inadequate. I remind myself that words matter. Sometimes those words comfort me. But more often they feel laughably small and grossly bourgeois. Not good enough.

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*

My mom sent me a text the night of the attacks, after we had established—firmly and with many heart emojis—that I was safe: “I mourn for your Paris. It’s not just flowers and words anymore.”

She was alluding to my previous blog post, “A Farewell to Arms,” a title now so glib and eerily wrong that it gives my body chills. In that post, I discussed how safe I felt in Europe because of gun control (as compared to the United States, were I fear mass-shooters constantly). I went on to write that “we are warned, upon our arrival in Paris, of pick-pocketers and salacious saluts and men with flowers. But these are soft things. Words and roses will not kill you.”

In that passage, I opted for alliteration and forwent accuracy. I smoothed over the realities of being in Europe, one of the epicenters of contemporary conflict, for the sake of sound. Terrorism should not be described with beautiful words. The complexities of the refugee crisis must not be reduced to consonance.

I romanticized words and roses. 130 people were killed.

In “A Farewell to Arms,” I wrote about how safe I felt in French movie theatres, as in the United States I had become accustomed to noting my position in relation to the exits in case of a shooting: “When in a movie theatre: is there enough space for me to squeeze between the floor and the seats in case I have to duck? “

The eeriness continues, as the night of the attacks—two of which I was just five minutes away from—I was in a movie theatre with a friend who happens to read my blog. Before the movie began, she leaned over to me and jokingly whispered, “Do you feel safe?”

Without a thought, I said, “Of course. We are in Paris.”

Five minutes later, we got the first call alerting us of the attacks.

*

The weekend of 13 November, I stared at screens. The family television, my laptop, my iPhone. A perpetual white noise throbbing the house.

I wrote down words that lifted me. I will end this post with something I transcribed into my journal. I apologize for ending this post with something other than my own words, but these words are important—the opposite of not enough—and necessary.

Here is an excerpt taken from an interview originally recorded by the French press between a father and his 2 year old son:

[journalist]: “Standing in Paris, his toddler in his arms, one dad answers the question we all ask: How do I talk to my child about terrorism? About ‘bad guys with guns?’ About war and death and tragedy?

[father]: “They might have guns, but we have flowers,” he says.

[son]: “But flowers don’t do anything.”

“Of course they do. Look, everyone is putting flowers,” the father says, gesturing toward the memorials growing on the streets.

“It’s to protect?”

“Exactly.”

KJ Dell’Antonia of the New York Times continues:

“The now-famous ‘look for the helpers’ advice from Fred Rogers is never out of place, whether you’re talking to a toddler or a teenager. We could add, now, a second suggestion: Look for the flowers. Look at the people grieving and reacting, at the displays of solidarity from Egypt and Abu Dhabi to the United States and Canada. Look for the little things people, shocked into awareness by tragedy, are doing for one another in this moment when many of us can feel how alike we all are, in what we love, what we value, and what can be so quickly taken from us.

That’s the rose-colored vision of events. With older children, we may also share the darker responses our fear provokes, like the call to refuse refugees, to close our borders and our hearts. That’s a natural response to tragedy, too: to look for any way to convince ourselves that it cannot, could not, happen to us. If we can find a way to cast blame and push it away with both hands, we can have an angry reaction instead of feeling our grief. We blame the victim or find a scapegoat. Anything to hold the recognition that our own worlds could fall apart in an instant at bay.

Look for the helpers, appreciate the flowers, and don’t let fear stop you from being the person you want to be when the worst happens. Those are the things we tell our children about tragedies. And not, incidentally, the things we can tell ourselves.”

*

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rome

 

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“Rome–the city of visible history, where the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from afar.”

– George Eliot


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one of my favorite pieces inside the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna

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down, down, down the steps inside the Villa Medici apartments, where a Balthus exhibition was held

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detail, Musée du Vatican

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Musée du Vatican

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“patti, je t’aime”

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An evening electric.

22 October. Two days after Arthur Rimbaud’s birthday. Two days after Patti Smith opened her 2015 tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of Horses (her debut album).

Her final night in Paris.

Paris: a city she regards as a love poem and a portal to Rimbaud, the poet for whom she has traveled thousands of miles to write a tribute poem, to visit his grave, his favorite café, his favorite hotel. Patti would first read Illuminations in its original French as a nineteen year old factory girl, only half-understanding the words but divining from its echoes a poetic power singularly held by Rimbaud.

The stage was lined with red and white roses, Rimbaud’s ghost sparkling—spookifying—the air. “It takes a special kind of audience to repeatedly applaud a dead poet,” wrote the Village Voice.

I felt especially—however irrationally—connected to Patti Smith that night, as the previous evening I had just completed her mesmerizing memoir, Just Kids. Passages from her book swirled into the live performance; in the second row, I was just as much violently bounced between two French girls as I was between pages.

My favorite passages were ones in which she expressed her simultaneous appreciation and skepticism towards the role of the artist: “I wondered if I was doing the right work. Was it all frivolity? It was the nagging sense of guilt I experienced performing on the night the Kent State students were shot. I wanted to be an artist but I wanted my work to matter.”

Towards the end of the concert, she addressed the audience about the refugee crisis:

“What I was thinking is, can you imagine—I mean, I’m a mother—can you imagine being a mother, having a kid in each hand and roamin’ from country to country, can you imagine roamin’ for hundreds of miles, and getting’ on some fuckin’ boat or on the back of some truck, hopin’ for somethin’ better, and then comin’ out and still bein’ scurge and still havin’ nowhere to go, and nobody knows what the fuck to do with you. You know, it’s a hard fucking world, and we’re so lucky to be here tonight.”

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from ‘Just Kids’

“lost in translation”

buts

“My memories smell like molasses. But I find the word molasses more delicious than the cookies my grandmother used to make; the alliteration more powerful than the aroma. And so, molasses materializes, into a memory, an artifact. An artifice.”

As a writer, I like to stretch language, to bend and break meaning, to make sound matter just as much as definition. The above quotation serves as an example of this, as it is taken from an essay I wrote over the summer. This demonstrates my belief that the music of words matters just as much as their meaning.

This is not a radical notion: Gertrude Stein is famous for bruising language. She wrote an entire book, Tender Buttons, filled with schizophrenic wordplay:

“A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

GLAZED GLITTER.

Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no    search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.”

Though Stein lived in Paris for most of her life and is famous for her involvement in the French intellectual realm of the 1920s, I am convinced that her ability to write such a text was irrevocably influenced by her being a native English speaker. This kind of flexibility of language is much more an American trait than French–there are thousands more acceptable words in English.

Though one may easily argue that the French language is richer—more saturated, more pure—for this reason, I hesitate to make that grounds for superiority (this is no contest, but certainly many of the French find English sloppier for its linguistic flexibility). One of the books used for my course on French civilization is Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. In their chapter entitled “Strong Language,” they write:

“The French are always surprised to hear that there are from five to ten more accepted words in the English language than in French (they will typically talk about how much richer the French language is than English and assume by deduction that French has more words). In French, the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not are clearly defined and enforced by the Académie and the government. In English, there is no body that rules out words.

…Language purism is part of the fabric of France. The old idea of bon usage remains very strong, and linguistic innovations of any type are carefully considered before being accepted.”


I have asked questions geared toward this linguistic difference to several friends who are fluent in French—native speakers and non-native speakers alike—and both circles can attest that in French, certain adjectives go with certain nouns. Thanks to the Académie Française, specific verbs make sense with specific nouns.

In French, there is little room to wiggle words (how would this sentence be translated into French? would the translator choose to use a more standard verb than wiggle, since words cannot, literally, be wiggled?).

Last week, there was an example of this one of my classes taught by a French professor.  The professor was proving a point (I forget which point, though whichever point it was is irrelevant here) and in order to strengthen her example, she said—I am paraphrasing here, of course—“For example, one would not call a masterpiece ‘monstrous’…you would never say ‘monstrous masterpiece.’ Those words just would not be put together.” Instead of clearing up the lesson, her statement left me troubled.

I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand. Monstrous. Masterpiece.

Monstrous masterpiece.

I think that the rigidity and unquestioned finality with which she said that sentence was due merely to the fact that she is, despite her total fluency in English, still French. French was the first language on her tongue, and one never forgets their original melody. Just as I cannot shake my English tune, my English-speaking tendency—to opt for alliteration or parallelism or onomatopoeia or just a pretty-sounding word (“the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour,” to invoke Joan Didion’s beautiful phrase, once again… just because I can).

My native rhythm moves me to call a masterpiece monstrous because the masterpiece may be overwhelming and violent and moving and haunting… or just because the two words hum together.

tender

 

“a farewell to arms”

I sent my mom a text this week: “I feel safer in Paris at midnight than I do at noon in a midwestern diner.”

What I meant was: in Paris, I do not have to worry if the next person I pass on a street or the next person that walks into a restaurant will shoot me.

What I really meant was: Mom, I worry for your life every day that you remain a schoolteacher.


Fast forward two days, pan to the United States, zoom into Oregon: another shooter, another mass murder, another university; more victims, more guns–always more guns.

The morning after the shooting: I am riding the métro and glance at the French newspaper the man next to me is reading. The headline reads, “Encore un carnage dans une université américaine.” Technically, I know this would most likely be translated as “Further carnage in American university.” But I reject this translation. I interpret “encore” in its simplest meaning: again, again, again. The man shakes his head as he reads. My U.S.A. identification papers become a little heavier in my backpack.

I come from a country killing itself, from a collective people killing one another.

When someone from the United States asks me if I can feel safe at night in Paris–such a big city!, they’ll say–I want to ask: How can you feel safe in a supermarket?


We are warned, upon our arrival in Paris, of pick-pocketers and salacious saluts and men with flowers.

But these are soft things. Words and roses will not kill you.


Over the past year I have developed a particular (and rather pathological) pattern of thought. Wherever I am in the United States—whether it is a café or auditorium or classroom—I take note of my position in relation to the door. I prefer to keep my back to the wall. I notice if anyone is in front of me. I especially notice if anyone is behind me. It unnerves me to know that there could be things–dangerous things–going on behind me that I cannot see.

For example—

When in a movie theatre: is there enough space for me to squeeze between the floor and the seats in case I have to duck?                                                                                                                            When at a concert: if a shooter enters through that door, is it more likely that I or the person in front of me would be shot?                                                                                                                               When driving: if I honk at this car, how likely is it that the driver has a gun and will shoot me?

Crazier things have happened.

Let me put this more plainly: in this year alone, 295 crazier things have happened.

Encore et encore et encore.