Tuesday, May 11, 2004


On several occasions back home, when people discovered I live in Paris, they would say, "Oh, what a wonderful place to write about!" And I would smile and play along, secretly wondering if I would ever write about Paris. It had never occurred to me during the first three years here to set any of my stories in Paris, or to directly write about my experiences here. Why?

After Nina Simone, another great discovery: Montaigne. I like the personal nature and form of his essays, his expert knowledge of history and its anecdotes, and, most of all, the absence of firm conclusion. He doesn't show you the right path (of truth, beauty, whatever) but an entire landscape. He points out the different terrains, gives you some bearings, then finally leaves you to weave your way however you like. Granted, I'm still in the first book of the Essais; perhaps this openness is merely the openness of beginnings.

Anyway, back to not having written about Paris. In his essay on sadness, Montaigne recounts the story of an Egyptian king who is defeated by the Persians and must watch his daughter humiliated in servants' clothes and his son led to his death. He doesn't show any emotion. It is only when he sees one of his old servants among the captives that he weeps. The Persian king asks why he cried for his servant and not for his own children. And he replies, "It is because only the last displeasure could be expressed by tears, the first two being far beyond expression." Later in the essay, it turns out that great joy too might lie beyond words and expression. Montaigne sums up the Greek philosopher Seneca by saying, "All passions that can be tasted and digested are mediocre."

I really did fall in love with Paris about six months after moving here. The first spring here struck me completely dumb. After such a long and difficult winter, long days of soft sunshine and , alternately, field- and sea-scented breezes made me giddy. For the first time, I could understand where the cliche of spring signifying rebirth and miracles came from. But I never wrote about all that beauty until recently. Perhaps it's the fact that I'm leaving that makes me willing to accept a less-than-perfect representation of what I love about Paris; I don't trust my memory, and a mediocre approximation is better than nothing. Maybe it's like watching a storm of beautiful birds swoop and flash their crazy colors above your head--you don't think, you revel. It's only afterwards, when the birds are gone, that you begin to tell yourself what you just saw.

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