Here’s an excerpt from a short interview about Paris with author Rosecrans Baldwin, whose two books are about the city:
OLM: No doubt also your fair share of Francophiles? People yearn for Paris in a way they don’t yearn for Cleveland.
RB: Paris is its own idea – it’s more than a city, it exists in the universe as a dream, a fantasy. I wanted to show that the city of Paris and the day-to-day people can be of equal – or even much greater – interest than the postcard in everybody’s mind.
That’s really true, at least the first sentence (the second is probably true as well, but I couldn’t say from experience). For a certain kind of person — and I would be that kind of person — the idea of Paris is as important as Paris itself. I wrote about it from Paris last year. Excerpt (this is a quote from Adam Gopnik):
We are happy, above all, when we are absorbed, and we are absorbed when we are serious, and the secret of Paris, in the end, is that the idea of happiness it presents is always mingled, I do not always know how, with a feeling of seriousness.
That sense of serious happiness, of pleasure allied to education … this tincture of seriousness infiltrates our happiness, giving it dignity. In Paris, Americans achieve absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.
That sense of serious happiness, of pleasure allied to education — yes, yes, a thousand times yes! That is Paris to me. That is why I will always go back to Paris. I’m sure Cleveland is not without its charms … but it’s not Paris. No place else is.
Believe it or not, I found myself thinking about that Gopnik passage while sitting at the fishing camp in Cocodrie reading Liebling’s The Earl Of Louisiana. One reads it amazed that it is journalism about an actual part of the United States — and that the events and personalities it recounts existed within living memory. This passage, from Jonathan Yardley’s introduction to the 2008 edition, stands out:
Liebling came to Louisiana because of its politics and stayed because of its people. He was an inveterate reader of newspapers and in 1959 became caught up in the saga of Earl Long. “Dispatches in the New York papers left small doubt that he had gone off his rocker during the May session of the Legislature,” he writes, “and I wanted to see what happens to a state when its chief executive is in that sort of fix. The papers reported that he had cursed and hollered at the legislators, saying things that so embarrassed his wife, Miz Blanche, and his relatives that they had packed him off to Texas in a National Guard plane to get his brains repaired in an asylum.” By the time Liebling got to Louisiana, the governor was back in the state and scheming to succeed himself despite state law forbidding precisely that. He didn’t pull it off, but the story of how he tried and failed is a humdinger, and Liebling pulls out all the stops to do it justice.
He doesn’t seem to have known much about Louisiana before he got there, but he educated himself in a hurry. … Liebling was faintly repelled by the corruption then (as now) endemic in Louisiana politics, but he was more powerfully amused by it. For me it is Liebling’s refusal to turn self-righteous about Louisiana politics, his insistence on seeing it as comedy, that is the book’s greatest strength and that places it so high in the literature of American politics. Heaven knows enough has been written about American politics t0 fill several libraries, but surprisingly little of it is very good, and even less of it has staying power. Too much of it is motivated by partisanship and/or ideology, too much of it fails to rise above its specific time and place, and too much of it is badly written. … Liebling didn’t let people’s political machinations or ideology get in the way of his appreciation of them as human beings. That’s rare enough in politics itself, but it’s even rarer in political journalism, and thus all the more welcome here.
That’s absolutely true. You cannot really see this place if you don’t set aside your preconceived American notions. For example, one of the men on our fishing trip told the story about an elderly Louisiana judge he once knew who died in the care of his lifelong black nurse, who was somewhat younger than he, and who visibly adored him. It turned out that the nurse had been with the judge’s family for most of the judge’s life. It further turned out that she had been his lifelong concubine. When the gavel came down on the old jurist’s life, he left his plantation house to the concubine, much to the outrage and consternation of the judge’s children by his late wife.
Now, what do you do with a story like that? The humanity of it. That doesn’t happen in America these days. It doesn’t even happen in Louisiana. But it happened in Louisiana, within living memory. This is a strange, wicked, magical place, Louisiana. To love it uncritically is inhuman; to hate it at all, I think, is to reject what is most human.
What is the idea of Louisiana to people? To you? What is the idea of Louisiana to me? I’m thinking about that this afternoon as I head to New Orleans for the night.
I found this interview, by the way, via the good offices of Prufrock, Micah Mattix’s daily newsletter of art, literature, culture, and ideas. Subscribe here. It’s free, and I bet you’ll really like it.