Dispatch from Paris

Only a few days ago I was sitting, drinking a few beers, at the Cafe de l’Avenue at 190 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. A few doors away, at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past in a cork-lined apartment, and at his death in 1922 the Boulevard itself had just been completed, construction on the street having been begun 65 years earlier. Just around the corner, in the Parc Monceau, Proust had played with his friends as a schoolboy, as my daughters played there earlier that 2018 morning.

Street life is different from city to city, even when it comes to sound; the cobblestone street of the Boulevard produced a damper timbre than the sharp, dry hiss of rubber tire on asphalt. Similarly, at the cafe, most of the seats were turned outward, towards the street and passers-by. In New York, most sidewalk cafes align their tables so that diners face each other, not the street. But for the advances in automobile design, it was much the same street that Proust would have seen in his last days, on his rare sojourns from his apartment. It was modernity, Paris-style. As in most European cities, if you really wanted to explore more ancient history, you had to turn deeper and deeper into the center. Paris began at the Île de la Cité, where the original Notre Dame Cathedral was built in the tenth century; as Vienna begins not at the Ringstrasse, a 19th-century project, but at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of Vienna’s Innere Stadt, the ground for which was broken in 1137. And as in Paris, modernity radiated outward from there.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It can’t be far from your mind if you sit in a Parisian or Viennese cafe today. And there are some parallels too striking to be ironic. An international team of rescue divers was just preparing to rescue eleven boys and their coach trapped in a Thai cave in 2018; in 1906, hundreds of miners were trapped in a mine disaster at Courrières. There, too, an international team of rescuers managed to bring thirteen survivors to the surface 20 days after the explosion, an event memorialized in G.W. Pabst’s 1931 film Kameradschaft. In each instance, men and women of various nationalities banded together in an effort to save the lives of people caught in catastrophic difficulty not of their own making. So it was that I lifted a glass of hope to the children in Thailand from the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann and the Rue de Courcelles.

Dates are the bane of every high school student studying history (those who study history at all any more), but they’re important as more than signposts. They’re also the means by which we measure the passing of time and the extent to the world has changed between the two dates. Only 15 years separated the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht and the beginning of World War I; this is a shorter period than that which separates us from the World Trade Center disaster. Such realizations can send us spiralling, in despair, into a dizzying vortex among past and present and future. It is this vortex from which historians like Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash and Timothy Snyder try to save us, to make sense of our present from the perspective of a past, the better to plan for a future.

History also permits us to see our own situation with new, informed eyes. The more we know about the past, interestingly, the brighter the details about the present, and the less alienated from our surroundings and our history we become. At the moment I’m reading Christopher Clark’s fine The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. And wondering, too, if we may not be sleepwalking ourselves. Though Clark’s sleepwalkers are diplomats, government leaders and politicians, novelist Hermann Broch defined many of the ordinary people of Germany and Austria as sleepwalkers in his own trilogy that covered nearly the same period (1888 through 1918). As Vladimir was to wonder 30 years later in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? … At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.”

History may be the means by which we wake. To shake myself from my slumber, perhaps I needed Paris — or, better, Europe. As each year goes by, I feel less and less an American, especially recently; this is not the country, I worry, that I was born and raised in, not any more. My daughters love Paris, and though my own constitution finds Central Europe more to my taste, we’re already making plans to go back, even as I hope that the United States awakens to its own situation soon.