Civil Coping Mechanisms: Harold Jaffe’s Paris 60
by Gary Lain
The title of Harold Jaffe’s latest collection Paris 60 refers to the number of entries in this series of meditations, a term now rarely used, but here accurate in the sense of directed, revelatory thought. Crafted during a two month sabbatical in Paris in the spring of 2008, this docufiction posits Jaffe as self-styled flaneur mining the seams of Paris as post-imperial, multi-ethnic metropolis; locus of an elevated culture that still provisionally tolerates deviance, still endures self-critique; and as a front in the increasingly bitter struggle against globalism: the neo-liberal agenda of the privatization of public property and cultural space, the technological mediation of consciousness, the criminalization of pleasure and by extension, of the body itself.
In an imaginative sense, Jaffe acts as a sort of interface between the reader and the complex, conflicted social realities of Paris. While “personal” in its immediacy and in the refined, ironically humorous, self-effacing tone of these entries, there is a suspended, intensely intellectualized quality to the prose here; it’s as if via Jaffe we experience Paris on mulitple registers simultaineously through quotidian detail, cultural signification, a heightened historical and political awareness. Jaffe’s stated identification with Walter Benjamin here is no affectation: this is cultural criticism in a highly sophisticated yet contemporary form. Paris 60 is perhaps the first truly 21st century travelogue, one that intersects the vitual and the actual, that reifies the class tensions underlying the most banal street hassle, the ideologies interpellating the every social exchange, as red light district sex workers are displaced by the new subterranean malls of Paris, a benighted inversion of Benjamin’s beloved arcades.
Some of the best travel writing attempts to transcend the genre, but the travelogue remains hidebound by its realist conventions, its narrators blinkered by cultural hegemony and privilege. Innovative writer Jaffe, alone in Paris, intersects journal, essay, narrative and verse, turning the travel genre to another purpose. At the Petit Palais, standing before Goya’s Disaster’s Of War, Jaffe is freed of writer’s block, cites Goya: “Fighting tyranny on principle is obligation.” The collection proceeds in this vein, infused with great feeling for the “marginally homeless” North Africans of Paris, this identification becoming so strong that in the text “Homeless” Jaffe writes,
Am I permitted to say here that I am not the American scholar with salt and pepper beard…?
I am that clochard sleeping on his side in the rain on the grand Parisian boulevard.
I am the small mixed-breed dog in the pouring rain reclining next to the homeless old woman in her tiny corner of the broad thoroughfare.
I am the unfed pigeon pecking nervously for crumbs in the fast food restaurant in the Gare d’Austerlitz.
I am the teenaged daughter of the large North African family in the banlieue tenement wondering just what it will take to feed my family.
One is reminded here of Victor Serge’s final, remarkable novel, Unforgiving Years, its opening also set in Paris. The protagonist, operative/activist D, breaking with the Communist party over the excesses of Stalinism, and oppressed by the bourgious indifference of pre-World War II Paris, casts “a dispairing eye over the place de l’Europe. The rain was falling softly,” thinking, “I, a nonentity, refuse my consent.” Serge knew and was friendly with Gramsci, and shared his resolution to proceed with a “pessimissim of the intellect, an optimism of the will” despite the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jaffe also cites Gramsci here in his text “Sea,” embracing the role of the activist writer who, like the Baudelaire of Paris Spleen, seeks to “transform melancholy into a principal of conquest.”
Jaffe finds a similar kinship of the imagination with other transgressive writers, artists, filmmakers through texts involving Goddard, Bresson, Sade, Simone Weil, Man Ray, Bataille, Céline, Van Gogh, painters of the Art Brut “school”, Genet, and Guy Debord, finally concluding the collection with “Anti-Saint Artaud.” Artaud figures here as one who, in his embrace of the irrational, has transcended art in negation of the established order. Paris, geographically and spiritually, lies at the heart of this constellation of dissent--this is the city, this is the tradition Jaffe embraces.
This said, much of Paris 60 operates on a more personal register, and so the collection tends to move laterally, dialectically, driven by its contradictions, its synthesis of social commentary and sharpely rendered, closely observed situations. Some of most affecting passages are intimate, ruminative, such as this finely rendered description of English sparrows on pages 141-142:
I could see by the feathering and their actions that most are recently fledged.
A few are taking dirt baths near my chair.
I wish I had some crumbs for these doughty little comrades, whom I’ve had close to me whenever I’ve traveled: sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Carribean, throughout Europe.
They might have been the first species I saw growing up in a New York City apartment, watching them hop on the window sill…
Passer domesticus wants simply to survive, multiply, (ideally in the flowering chestnut tree a few feet from my table), communicate the best it can, and worship the mild sun of Paris in May.
Because it is such a familiar bird it is overlooked.
Watch it at your feet as you eat at the outdoor café.
Its black throat and gray crown, brown legs and finch-like blue-black bill.
Listen to it chirp and sing its asymmetrical little song.
Admire how alert and clever it is, how fast and powerfully it flies.
Welcome—don’t pity—the poor, formerly colonized North African immigrant.
Jaffe continues in a similar vein in “Deep River” (50): the dinner guest of Parisians Ynez and Guillame Deveraux and their daughters Celeste (who has Down Syndrome) and Maire-Jeanne, Jaffe describes the scene:
I meet Ynez for the first time downstairs by the elevator, 7:30 PM.
Slender, attractive, somewhat tense, she is only now returning from her job; I am the invited guest.
When we arrive in the apartment, Marie-Jeanne runs to greet her mother then stops as she looks up a the large stranger.
I stoop low to greet her and she kisses me on both cheeks.
Ynez then goes to the sofa in front of the bay window where Celeste is sprawled with her head turned to the side and the foot of a rubber doll in her mouth.
Ynez sits and takes Celeste in her arms, whispering tenderly to her.
I sit on the same sofa.
Guillame enters, shakes my hand, kisses Ynez, smooths Celeste’s hair, then picks up the three-year old who is staring at me with a wild surmise.
Guillaume pours the red wine but Ynez is still caressing and whispering to Celeste.
Meanwhile, Marie-Jeanne has carried over her small, red and gold tin box and is making offerings to me.
She places a tiny pink bead in my palm, then an orange ribbon, then a chesnut, a silver bead, a very small bit of jade, another ribbon, a feather.
She delivers them one by one, selecting carefully from her box.
She has created an impressive still life in my wide palm.
After nearly an hour of quiet talking, Celeste, who had not even turned her head to me, suddenly leans all her weight on me, reaches back and takes my hand which she grasps firmly.
Noting this, Marie-Jeanne settles her tiny self onto my knee.
She, the mother, looks lovely and weary.
The late sun slanting through the bay window lights her eyes and forehead.
A passage of emotional precision and subdued empathy, it makes us wonder whether what matters finally, in a degraded culture shaped by forces almost completely beyond our influence, are people in a room, strangers, sharing a moment of sympathy and understanding.