Montmartre, October 2012

Montmartre, October 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates just arrived in Paris with his family, doing what I did with mine last fall, even living in the same part of the city. I’m looking forward to reading his dispatches, and seeing the city that I love through his eyes. He writes:

And we are here now, and all around me is the incredible music of French. I walk into stores and bumble my way through. I take my family for le boeuf et frites and bumble through. I inhale a bottle of red wine with my wife, and stumble out. I walk into pharmacies with my son mishandling verbs, fumbling pronouns, wrecking whole grammars. And I care not. It is not for them. It is for me.  I know how we got here. I do not know when we may be called back.

That haunting last line refers to the life he used to have on the mean streets of Baltimore, and his own acute awareness of his own privilege in coming from that life to being able to go with his wife and son to Paris, writing for a major magazine. More:

But the game is rigged. Let me tell you how I came here. I write for a major magazine and this is a privilege. I would say that it is earned, except that many people earn many things which they never receive. So I shall say that it was earned and I was lucky. I shall also say that my whole aim when I write is to blow a hole in that great forever, to make you feel the particular fire that burns in me. Someone who felt that fire wrote me. He lived in Paris. We struck up a friendship. Now he is in New York with his family, and I am here in Paris with mine. Privilege multiplied many times over.

I appreciate the moral tension, bordering on anguish, in the way TNC writes about Paris. I suspect this is why he could write earlier this year about walking across the Luxembourg Gardens alone and feeling anxious about it, while I made the same walk and felt unambiguous joy. It’s not that I was born wealthy, or from people who traveled (except my great-great aunts, who died when I was small). I did not, and my sister, to her dying day, resented me for becoming the sort of person who liked to go to France. TNC and I grew up in different circumstances, it hardly needs saying, but neither one of us could have been expected to turn into people who go to France with their families and write about it.

I don’t know what, if any, religious beliefs he holds, but I would have described myself as “blessed,” not, as he does, “lucky,” but the sentiment is more or less the same. Neither one of us deserve what we have, though neither of us got it through trickery or other immoral means. Fortune — or God — favored us; plus, we worked for it. But as TNC says in this blog entry, lots of people work hard and never receive anything like the payoff he’s received. It’s certainly true for me too. One difference between TNC’s reaction to this privilege and the reaction to similar blessings coming to me is that I was raised to believe that if you got good grades and worked hard and did the right things, you would receive your reward. That is not universally true, as anybody with a lick of sense knows, but when it happens, as it did to me, it is less of a shock than it was to someone like TNC, who grew up in harsher circumstances. I acknowledge that.

But my response to the privilege that Paris represents comes from a deeper place than the material and social circumstances of my raising. I found out after my sister’s death that she held my writing success against me to a certain degree, because it didn’t make sense to her that anybody could make real money writing. She thought, as TNC does, that “the game is rigged.”

I can’t account for Ruthie’s views, which she never shared with me (but did share with others), but I believe it comes from her instinctive resentment of anything to do with wealth and privilege. Wanting to go to Paris is something only rich people do, in her worldview. That I wanted this, and repeatedly satisfied that desire, offended her, I learned after her death. It did not matter that I always stayed in modest hotels (sometimes very modest hotels), or traveled on cut-rate fares, sometimes in the dead of winter, to make it affordable. The desire itself was a moral offense, a betrayal of my class. After she died, I learned that she had complained to friends about my taking her daughter Hannah to a fancy French restaurant in Philadelphia, at Hannah’s request; Ruthie considered this “extravagant” (a word of abuse in her vocabulary). As I write in Little Way, it really was extravagant — possibly the most expensive restaurant meal I’d ever had, and the only really nice restaurant to which Julie and I ever went during our two years in Philadelphia. But we wanted to do something special for our niece, and to celebrate her visit. Occasions like that call for extravagance, in my way of seeing the world. Ruthie wouldn’t have gone to Babette’s feast, and if she had, she would have been offended by it. That’s just the way she was. To put a fine point on it: it’s not that she was a cold moralist opposed to pleasure, only that she would only accept certain pleasures as legitimate. I used to find that merely alien to me, but having discovered the depth of my late sister’s contempt for that sort of thing, and contemplating how much her banked resentment wrecked our relationship without my really knowing it, I have come to think of these things in a defiant key.

We carry with us our pasts. I can remember so many times, walking alone last fall through Paris, silently thanking God for giving that beautiful city to me and my family for the month. It was the most extravagant thing I have ever done, and likely ever will do. But I had the money, and thinking about how suddenly my sister’s death overtook her, chose not to put off doing something I’d long dreamed of doing. I enjoyed every second of it, and enjoyed it with constant gratitude, not guilt. For me, learning to appreciate rare pleasures like October in Paris, or the summer trip to Cambridge, England, four years ago, or the $250 bottle of Champagne Julie and I drank to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary — TNC’s post makes me think that at some level, it’s about defying certain ways of thinking with which I was raised, moral attitudes toward pleasure and intellection that took deep and poisonous root within my sister. It’s why when I read these words Adam Gopnik wrote about why certain Americans love Paris, they resonated with me profoundly:

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.

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It is joy, it is grace. To me, anyway. That image I took above? I saw it last fall, with my children Nora and Lucas standing at my side, in Montmartre. I was able to walk with my son Matthew into Shakespeare & Co., and buy him his first Hemingway, and talk to him about the Lost Generation, and why they meant so much to me. If I never go back to Paris, I have those memories, and I have given to my children a glimpse of a world beyond the imaginative confines of their daily lives — a world to which they might aspire, if they discover one day that the fire is burning in them too. To walk across the Luxembourg Gardens feeling nothing but exhilaration and gratitude is to be aware of how far God has brought me, and to affirm that the fire that burned within me that made me a writer, and made me a lover of Paris, and food, and wine, and museums, and cobblestone streets, and beauty, is good and morally worthy, no matter what.

No matter what.

I don’t deserve Paris, I don’t deserve my writing career, I don’t deserve my wife and children — and that is reason to rejoice and be glad for having been given all these things by God. And not only given these things, as a divine favor, but given the wherewithal — morally, spiritually, materially — to help make our dreams come true. To believe that the game is entirely rigged, that the only reason anybody ever does well is because of pure chance or cheating, is to deny the active role we play in the creation of our lives, though of course some have more room to act than others. But to believe that we deserve all of it, that everything comes to us as the result of natural justice, is to be prideful, and to risk serious spiritual corruption.

Anyway, writers and artists refract the light of their experiences through the prism of their particular history. I am eager to see how Paris appears through the words of TNC.