Purple Magazine
— F/W 2006 issue 6


 text by JEFF RIAN


I’ve been living in paris for ten years. It took the first two years to get used to kissing everybody and the slowness of doing everything, from sitting for a coffee (instead of getting one to go) to waiting politely for just about anything. Other things took longer to adjust to: the strikes, which I first saw as national get-togethers, the cigars and sidewalk pet droppings, the closed stores on holidays, and even the 39 days of vacation (compared to America’s 12). France is a socialist state run by functionaries, but treats lunch as a two-hour mini-holiday. What I liked right off was the food I could buy, the public transportation, traveling through the Grant Wood countryside by train or rented car, and an acceptance of identity detached from income. Business supports life here rather than rules it, even if the entire country is bureaucratic to a fault.

There’s an inbred (Cartesian?) dualism. The French baby’s head is chopped off at birth, and while the body gets dotted on with four o’clock pain aux raisins and chocolat chaud, the brain is strait-jacketed to learn the logic of Frenchness. The result is a luxuriant, pampered, fondled, complicated, artfully contrived fetishdom that reveres heady abstractions as calculated as a Foucault text or a Gault et Millau rating, while the sense organs are critically programmed to weigh the density and “doneness” of all 400-and-something cheeses, a wine’s bouquet, the tinges, the textures of baguettes and meringues, the latest outfits, a national awareness of a good haircut and the right personal “look.” In France, even the radical punks have table manners and know their wines, which is simply beyond me.

Their language also tends to be abstract. English gets its Latine words from French, which are the seeds of heady abstractions, intellectual distance, and an aesthetic sensibility. But about the senses they can be vague. Sentir, for example, means to taste, to smell, and to feel. “Let’s taste a different track on this CD,” a friend said not long after we’d “smelled” different parfums (flavors) of creamy, succulent, deliriously tasty Bertillon ice cream. Separating the mind enables the most radical or polemical of arguments without causing indigestion between courses, or compromising late-nights trysts. Body communicates to Mind preverbally. Aristotle first said that sight is the highest sense, that the eye is the window to the soul, organ of the will. In France thought is revered while bodies are set free to feast and fornicate. Here, too, things must work in theory before in practice.

French écriture—its written language—is also noticeably different from the one they speak, which elides about half of the written letters. Their nasal speech is among the lowest decibel levels in human speech (Americans and Russians are the loudest, duh). They aspirate phrases, and get away with it among themselves because French is idiomatic—richer in phrases than words (it has about a quarter of English words), making a lot of what is not heard irrelevant, except to a non-French speaker. And unlike, say, Americans, the French tend not to speak to people they don’t know. But this is not snobbism, even in Paris. It’s a cultural habit founded on the formality of introductions and their kissing everyone they’ve been formally introduced to hello and good-bye. Their social reticence with “others” may stymie France’s problems with multiculturalism: you can give an alien a passport, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be friends. I arrived on a horse, so to speak, thanks to this magazine, which served as a formal introduction. I was contextualized.

Like the Japanese—another maniacally aesthetical culture—their sensitivity engenders that social reticence; a fact that creates an enigma for others. Their palatial architecture is frosted in gold. It seems gaudy, girly, and complicated compared to phallic New York. France incorporates brightness the way the Japanese use shadow. (Read Tanizaki for more about the Japanese.) Paris was designed like the city of Troy, on a labyrinth: concentric rings cut into with impossibly illogical streets and alleys. Understanding its layout requires the eye of a shopper, not conqueror, an eye for detail, not an overall perspective. Romans set crosses into cities to control them—America built it’s practical cultural on their model. I still have to use a map.

In French cuisine, spicy refers to salt and herbs, not hot sauce, alas. Their delicate palette, the leggy wine, the refined sauces juxtapose a language that descended from mumbly Latin argot. That’s Lamarkian inheritance—the force of will stylizing street talk. Maintaining equanimity through the entrée, fish, and meat courses—while still being able to sniff that sneaker-smelling cheese before the île flottante—requires the kind of concentration a competition power-crammer might use to hoist that fiftieth pickled egg. And yet they are still thin! All seven courses are whisked away by cultural will and excellent, earthy wine.

Their relationship to art also tells us something about them, and us. They created Jacques Tati, Roland Barthes, and Serge Gainsbourgh, and the cryptic language of “theory” that Anglo-Saxon art academics swoon over. French artists traffic in glossy sensation, which is to say in a style that outsiders might find superficial. Here, oxymora like “deeply superficial,” or “intensely banal” make critical sense when translated across sensory modalities from touch to sight—i.e., when thinking in abstractions while pampering your palate. Thus Marcel Duchamp continues to guide French art. Matisse was a southerner. Picasso an import. Duchamp was an idea man who tested artistic limits by thinking his way through them. That’s very high French art.

Finally, while the most the US can do is to offer varied employment, France offers a national quality of life. France struggles now to maintain that lifestyle within the European Union’s competition with the US and Asia. After ten years I’ve learned to dawdle at a café and to shop at the local markets. I ignore their theorizing, but I now see the strikes as the voice of public activism, and that gives me hope.

[Table of contents]

F/W 2006 issue 6

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