Paris is the World: Suffering

August 11, 2013

Paris, 10 August 2011

The day dawned fair, first good day in weeks. The white lines left by airplanes , like chalk marks, crisscrossed the perfect blue of Parisian sky. I would go, in the afternoon, after some writing done, to the great western forest, the Bois de Boulogne. Climbing out of the metro at Porte Dauphin, I encounter three ladybugs at the top step. Are they coming or going? I invite them to come with me. I stop at a little café at the forest edge. Four old men sit on blue plastic chairs with a Nestle’s decal on the back and play cards. It is a zone of mottled shade (or is it mottled sun?) . The table too is blue. One man smokes a cigar and the sun catches wraiths of smoke, making little ghosts that twist and dodge against the dark shadows of the woods behind.

I plunge into the network of horse paths and trails that crisscross the bois. There are no trail signs. This is not a Garden, like the Luxembourg, but an untended forest. It is dark and shaded, the ground covered with ivy. I meet no one for a half an hour. I think I could easily be mugged and murdered and no one would know until someone’s dog caught scent. But these thoughts are strays, not enough destroy pleasures of a walk in the cool woods. Still, I think I will certainly come across an encampment of the homeless, or one of the legendary sirens of the Bois, a Brazilian Transsexual with a panther on a leash. But no, nothing, until I see through the woods a children’s playground. I find my way to it. It is as incongruous and unlikely as Gilligan’s Island, but deserted. A sign, referring to the playground structures that are of varying degrees of difficulty, says A chaque age son jeu. “To each age its play.” I wander on, finally finding the main road through the Bois. I walk toward a distant metro stop.

Seated on bench is a crone. She is very old, wearing a red knit cap, large hoop earrings, and bright clothes. She calls out to me. I think that some charity is being asked or that she is going to tell my fortune, so I approach. She beckons to me to sit beside her. I notice that she is heavily made up, cheeks rouged, like the face of doll. I decline, saying that, like the White Rabbit in Alice, I am late for an appointment. She then makes a gesture with her mouth that is unmistakable in intent. It only occurred to me later that I could have offered a coin without requiring the service. I often give a coin to a street musician, even if I’ve only caught the last bars of the piece. So much for presence of mind, so much for compassion.

In the metro, as the train moves through the Argentine metro stop, I see a tragic sight: a young woman, probably in her early twenties, identifiable as a Muslim because of the head scarf, whose spine is so deformed that she can only move on all fours, as a human quadruped, but a broken one at that, because her back is grotesquely swayed, bent backwards, that she propels herself forward on her toes, her hands, each holding a cloth, sliding along the platform. I’ve never seen a more terribly deformed human being. She is alone on the platform, going to catch a train! I am overwhelmed with emotions. The courage, the sense of innate dignity, the resolve that she must muster in herself to venture into the world like this is more than I can imagine. She is clean and well dressed: undeniable evidence of a loving family, a family that treasures her, and enables her, that encourages her independence. What quiet heroism! The thought that this is someone’s daughter takes on a significance it had not had for me before. I have two daughters. As the train pulls out, she glances toward the train. She is pretty. I see tragedy in all this. But in her face I see no bitterness, no anguish.

I remember a passage in Andre Gide’s journals. He and a friend have been watching a street performer on one of the bridges at Ile de la Cite. The performer, a young woman, has been bound and suspended over the Seine; the performance has been to free herself, and when she has at last done so, worked her way out of the ropes and knots (if I am remembering right), Gide turns to his friend and says “We can leave now. She has ceased suffering.” The young woman on the platform will not escape her binding, those terrible knots. But perhaps she has. I sometimes think I know nothing. I know only that I have never been deeply tested.

{ 1 comment }

salty August 18, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Serious stuff Harvey. Good writing and photo-art on your site. Thanks.


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