The Other Paris
(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2010)
The title of Harold Jaffe’s latest collection Paris 60 refers to the number of entries in this series of meditations. Crafted during a two-month sabbatical in Paris in the spring of 2008, this docufiction posits Jaffe as self-styled flâneur mining the seams of Paris as post-imperial, multi-ethnic metropolis; locus of an elevated culture that still provisionally tolerates deviance, and a front in the increasingly bitter struggle against the neoliberal agenda of the privatization of public property and cultural space, the technological mediation of consciousness.
Here, Jaffe acts as a sort of interface between us and the conflicted social realities of Paris. While these entries are immediate in their refined, ironically humorous, self-effacing tone, there is a suspended, intensely intellectualized quality to the prose; it’s as if via Jaffe we experience Paris on multiple registers through quotidian detail, cultural signification, and a heightened historical and political awareness. Paris 60 is perhaps the first truly 21st century travelogue, one that intersects the virtual and the actual, that reifies the class tensions underlying the most banal street hassle, the ideologies interpolating an everyday social exchange.
At the Petit Palais, standing before Goya’s “Disasters Of War,” Jaffe, 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, an identification which becomes 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.
During the course of his stay, Jaffe finds a kinship of the imagination with other transgressive writers, artists, and filmmakers through texts involving Godard, 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.
That 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 sharply rendered, closely observed situations. Some of the works’ most affecting passages are intimate, ruminative, such as this finely rendered description of English sparrows:
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”: 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 sit on the same sofa…
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.
The passage, one 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.