Easter week is not the best time to be in Paris, that is if you want to visit the famous tourist sites without long lines. Every tourist in Europe and in the United States and plenty from everywhere else in the world all seem to be here this week. They are on Spring break or Easter holiday and most want to see the sights just as I do.
Yesterday morning I was planning to go to the Musée d’Orsay. When I got there via the train from Notre Dame there were very long lines in front of the museum. The line for those who already had tickets was about as long as the line for those who did not. At the same time my stomach was quite upset with the duck confit I had eaten the previous night. It had not sat well in my stomach all night.
When I got out my wallet I discovered that the 50 Euro note I was sure I had put in my wallet that morning was not there. Had I lost it somehow? Had I made a mistake? I ran through where I had been. The only place I bought anything was a boulangerie where I got a croissant and an espresso. Had I mistakenly used the 50 Euro note and not gotten the right change? I didn’t think so. (Later I found the 50 Euro note in my room on the table in plain sight. The honest room cleaners at the hotel had not taken it.)
Distracted and a turned a bit upside down I wandered down a near by street looking for a bank machine and there a block or so in I found a major street, Saint-Germain-des-Prés where I spotted a bookstore. I have been looking for the pocket size edition of Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant) since I arrived here. Either the bookstores didn’t have it or they had the original Gallimard paperback edition that costs more than 25 Euros. (I mentioned this book in my earlier blog post on the Arcades of Paris.) After I bought the book I passed by the Musée d’Orsay once again and looked at the lines. I decided then and there to buy a ticket online for the Musée d’Orsay and the l’Orangerie for another day and then I crossed the river on the pedestrian bridge in front of the museum and entered the gardens of the Tuileries.
From now on that day I was going to doing nothing in particular. My day had not started out as planned so now I was just going to relax and take things as they came. In the Tuileries the trees were just about to bloom. I came upon a reflecting pool with chairs arranged all around it and sat down to read a few pages of the French book I had just purchased.
Le Paysan de Paris originally was serialized in the Revue européenne from 1924-25 the in 1924 and published as a book in 1926. It’s neither a novel, a prose poem, nor a work of philosophy, but it has the elements of all three. On the first page of the book (here in English translation) is a paragraph that caught my eye:
So we have the spectacle of the world’s philosophers incapable of tackling the smallest problem without first going through the routine of recapitulating and then refuting everything their predecessors have had to say on the subject. And by that very fact their every thought is inevitably the function of some previous error, based upon it and inheriting some of its features. A curious and strangely contrary method: seemingly afraid of genius, in the one domain where the sole imperative must be genius itself, pure invention, revelation. (Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant. Trans. Simon Watson Taylor (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), 19).
Original thoughts or genius are hard to come by when one is always tied down to what has already been written or thought. I know from my academic work that the main task of academic criticism is to tear arguments or positions apart, that is, to identify the problem or the inconsistencies within a specific argument or positions so as to posit something better that does not then reiterate these same problems. But whatever is come up with invariably is subject to the same criticism.
As I have gotten older I’m more inclined to build up than to tear down. To use what is useful, wherever it may be found; seems more fulfilling to me than endless destructive criticism. Bricolage, French for “tinkering,” is a term that the anthropologist Levi Strauss and other philosophers have used in a variety of ways to describe the creation of something from whatever is available. In most areas of thought folks are always borrowing in one way or another from some thing or another, so why not just glean what appeals, is useful, and speaks to the moment? That in some sense is what lies at the heart of the surrealist vision of Louis Aragon. In other words I find that it is more rewarding to build up and to glean than to criticize and tear down.
After a while I walked toward the Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the Place de la Concorde and then began a leisurely stroll down Champs Elysees. There was no traffic on the Champs Elysées from the Place de la Concorde halfway to the Arc de Triomphe perhaps because of an official Turkish state visit, as I noticed that Turkish and French flags lined the street. As I walked on the cobblestones I thought of all the cyclists I have watched every year on TV finish the Tour de France on that very road on which I now was walking.
Later at lunch I sat in the upstairs window of a sandwich shop on the Champs Elysées and watched the people go by as I ate slowly with nothing to do and nowhere in particular to go. That I think is the essence of sabbatical rest.