Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris rising

"What I saw first of all," recalls James Thurber in "The First Time I saw Paris," "was one outflung hand of France as cold and limp as a dead man's." 

This was November 13, 1918, and young Thurber had made a difficult sea journey to serve as a code clerk at the Paris Peace Conference. He continues: "I know now that French towns don't die, that France has the durability of history itself, but I was only twenty-three then, and seasick, and I had never been so far from Ohio before." 

His first sight on land was a line of "desolate men, a detachment of German prisoners being marched along a street, in mechanical step, without expression in their eyes, like men coming from no past and moving toward no future." Soon, though Thurber and his fellow code clerks arrived in Paris, "the veritable capital city of Beginning." The city was coming back to life after the long, bloody slog through the War to End War, and Paris "was costumed like a wide-screen Technicolor operetta, the uniforms of a score of nations forming a king of restless, out-of-step finale." 

All was not revelry and joy, however; Thurber took a tour through battlefields with a friend searching for souvenirs and cemeteries: 
In our trek through the battlefields, with the smell of death still in the air, the ruined and shattered country scarred with ammunition dumps and crashed planes, we came upon the small temporary cemeteries arranged by the Graves Registration Service, each with a small American flag, such as the children of Paris waved at President Wilson, nailed to a post and faded by the rain and wintry weather. In one of these cemeteries my companion, a Tennessee youth, only a little taller than five feet, began singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his hat over his heart, and went on singing it in a sudden downpour of rain, for the anthem, once started, must be finished.
Thurber's visit occurred nearly 100 years ago, when France lay scarred and wounded but still capable of resurrection. A visit that began with a vision of death had been transformed into a celebration of life and hope:

Paris, City of Light and of occasional Darkness, sometimes in the winter rain seeming wrought of monolithic stones, and then, in the early days of its wondrous and special pearly light, appearing to float in mid-air like a mirage city in the Empire of Imagination, fragile and magical, has had many a premature requiem sung for the repose of its soul by nervous writers or gloomy historians who believe it is dying or dead and can never rise again. Paris, nonetheless, goes right on rising out of war, ultimatum, occupation, domestic upheaval, cabinet crises, international tension, and dark prophecy, as it has been in the habit of doing since its residents first saw the menacing glitter of Roman shields many centuries ago.
 Of course, Thurber arrived in Paris at the end of something awful; what would he write today in the midst of a very different kind of conflict? I don't know, but I hold on to his image of a city that goes right on rising--despite the forces that would try in vain to hold it down.

No comments: