Paris The City of Undimmed Light
Paris is more vibrant than ever. With a typical Gallic shrug, Parisians have gotten over the terrorist attacks
Most Parisians hate Paris. They complain about the weather, the traffic, the pollution, the dirt, the stress, everything. Mostly the weather. They’re inured to its charms and think people who goggle at Belle Époque buildings and hustle through museums are idiots. Given the chance they’d move to Bel Air or Buenos Aires or Barcelona in a heartbeat.
For the most part they’re right. The Prado in Madrid is a better museum than the Louvre. Chartres is more impressive than Notre Dame. Milan is more stylish. The weather really is cold and damp and gray most of the time. Even the food isn’t as good as it used to be — these days to most Parisians “la gastro” refers to the inevitable yearly outbreak of violent stomach flu and not to anything conventionally gastronomic. But these uncomfortable facts are irrelevant to the Paris that matters to most of us — an imaginary Paris, a Paris of the mind, in which Picasso gambols with Cocteau backstage at a Diaghilev production of a Stravinsky ballet. A Paris that never existed, where art and music and film and literature and fashion and romance commingle in smoke-ringed bliss in dingy basement bars; where wild-eyed poets freeze in garrets, drink absinthe and die a thousand times over for their art. An idea of Paris, rather than a prosaic place.
It’s the idea of Paris that a gang of drugged-up thugs tried to destroy nearly six years ago, on Friday, November 13th, 2015. The story of the attacks is as well-known as it is horrific, and requires no synopsis here. The attacks were coordinated and wide-spread within the city. People died eating, drinking, smoking, living. There were the usual hope-sustaining acts of heroism. There was blood and gore and death. There was fear. There was defiance. There was, and still is, the lasting sadness that’s the byproduct of inexplicable violence.
The attack people remember most clearly is the one that took place at the Bataclan in the 11th arrondissement. You know the story. The Eagles of Death Metal were playing to a packed house — the Bataclan holds about 1500 people — when three men with AKM assault rifles entered, took up positions in the mezzanine, and began shooting. When they were done, and dead, by their own hand or by police bullets, 89 people lay dead on the floor of the Bataclan, with another 350 or so injured. The full horror of the scene is unimaginable to anyone who wasn’t there.
One way of dealing with the unimaginable is to ignore it. A year and three quarters on from the November attacks, it’s hard to find anyone in Paris who brings them up unprompted. Completely understandable: after you’ve processed your grief, you don’t want to talk about tragedy unless you have to. On the first anniversary, the mood in the city was a kind of defiant fatalism, which is scarcely distinguishable from the famous Gallic shrug. If you didn’t know what had happened a year earlier, you wouldn’t know (except for a few hollow official ceremonies held for the benefit of a government whose response to the attacks has ranged from incompetent to Orwellian). It’s not that Parisians are possessed of any special powers of composure. It’s that Parisians are human beings, and human beings, all of us, are built to survive. When I bring up the attacks, particularly at the Bataclan, a hitherto unremarkable rock club where thousands of bands had played to typically boisterous crowds, everyone has a story. Everyone knows someone who was there, or was supposed to be there themself, or prevented someone else from going there by sheer luck. The nature of horror is that, unlike justice, it’s impartial.
I have a tenuous personal connection to the Bataclan. In 1995 a band I was in opened for the Foo Fighters and Beck there. At the time, I was afflicted with panic attacks every time we played, and one of the ways I dealt with my anxiety was to scope the exits before we went on, in case the need to escape overwhelmed the need not to seem like a crazy person during our set. So I know that there is an exit to the street just a few feet past stage right at the Bataclan, and I’m almost certain that that stage right exit is how most of the Eagles of Death Metal (and those fortunate fans and crew that were able to follow them) got out. I’ve played thousands of shows over the years, and I tend not to remember the names or salient characteristics of any of the venues I’ve played. But I remembered that exit at the Bataclan, because it was burned into my brain. And now it’s burned into my brain for a different, terrible, reason.
I was back in Paris almost exactly a year after the November attacks because I’m in another band, and we were playing in Paris, as most bands who tour Europe have done and still do. I’d already played there in February of 2017, and noticed no particular tension, but we were playing a small basement club and not the Bataclan, so I’m sure if the idea had crossed anyone’s mind (it didn’t cross mine, neither at the time nor later), it would have been dismissed: we’re simply too small and insignificant a target. Which didn’t prevent my mother from begging me not to tour Europe this past winter — there had been other incidents, and because she mostly gets her news from American cable networks, her view of Europe — not just Paris, not just France, the whole continent — is that it’s a place where people blow themselves and each other up for sport on holidays. I brushed off her concerns — we were far more likely to face danger on the Autobahn than in any concert venue — but there were small signs (border stops where there didn’t used to be borders, more requests for my passport at hotels) that not everything was the way it used to be.
When the attacks happened, like many people I immediately texted or emailed my friends in Paris to find out if they were safe. Everyone I knew and everyone they knew was safe, but their responses varied in tone from scared shitless to defiant. My friend the cinematographer Renato Berta emailed the next day that he spent a “terrifying night,” but worried that the days following would be similarly terrifying, but for a different reason — “all this,” he said, “is good news for Marine Le Pen” (Leader of the Front National, the far-right nativist French party that had been gaining steady support over the past few years in the face of growing fears over immigration and ‘what it means to be French.’ See: every other country in the world.) A photographer friend wrote that it had been difficult to sleep the night of the attacks and that she was very sad and shocked, which was more typical of the responses I got. A lot of these people were responding to dozens of texts and emails from friends both in Paris and around the world, so their responses were brief but emotional.
Some of those same friends told more expansive stories about what happened that night: “I saved four people’s lives that night, because I was lazy,” my friend Eglantine tells me, with offhand candor. “They wanted to meet me at Le Carillon,” where attackers shot into the crowd, killing fifteen. “But I said, no, if you go there it’s too far from my apartment, come somewhere closer instead, and they did. If not, they’d probably be dead. But we were in the restaurant talking, we didn’t know anything had happened, and all of a sudden everyone started getting texts from lots of people, friends and family, some from overseas, asking if we were okay, and I said ‘We should probably check the news, guys, I think something happened.’”
“I was asleep,” says another friend, Constance, flatly. For her the attacks were more personal, because she grew up two doors down from the Bataclan. The neighborhood is thus a part of her, and it’s a part she now has no wish to re-visit. About a month before I arrived in Paris, it was announced that the renovated Bataclan would re-open with a concert by Sting (as if these people haven’t suffered enough!). Most Parisians seemed to think the reopening was a good idea, part of a healing process, and that if the Bataclan had simply closed its doors for good “the terrorists would win,” ignoring the fact that terrorists never win. But for Constance the Bataclan was “a house of death,” and she couldn’t understand how anyone could go there ever again.
“Especially to see Sting,” I offer.
“Especially to see Sting. But I wouldn’t go there to see anyone. I wouldn’t. Not to a place haunted by so much suffering and death and blood.”
I take her point. I’m agnostic on the subject of the Bataclan. For me, it’s just another concert venue, and if offered the chance to play there again, I probably would, without a second thought. I don’t believe that in doing so I’d be striking a blow against terrorism, but I’m also not about to let a bunch of drug-addicted maniacs dictate where my band can play. If I wanted that I’d sign with a record label again.
The problem with most acts of terror is the same as with most attempts to eradicate acts of terror. It’s too fucking easy, and it doesn’t work. You can kill people like snapping twigs, and you can bomb the hell out of a desert enclave until it looks like the moon, but these things never accomplish their intended goals (however fuzzy and ill-conceived those goals might be) and the consequences are usually worse and more unpredictable than anyone could have imagined. People should just stop treating each other like inanimate objects and just be kind to everyone, but that would require an act of imagination that is currently beyond humankind’s abilities, or at least its will.
We are capable of great things. We are capable of creating a vision of Paris that inspires writers, artists, filmmakers, and Woody Allen. There’s no reason we can’t create a vision of the world that’s inclusive, open, loving, and inspiring. But we haven’t done it yet, and the way things are going lately you’d be forgiven for indulging in a little recreational despair.
The counterbalance — and there’s always a counterbalance — is to look at Paris without the Proust-tinted glasses, to see it as it is, as a modern city beset with all the problems of a modern city, and dealing just as poorly with them as every other modern city does, a place where the weather is always damp and gray and cold, and the food isn’t really that good, and the museums are graveyards and the graveyards museums, and the modern and the post-modern abut the Gothic and the Romanesque in a way that doesn’t really work and never will, and Haussmann’s famous boulevards are monuments to pre-fascism, and anti-Semitism is still and probably always will be as rampant as it was in the days of Dreyfuss; all of that, and much, much worse. And yet… after suffering one of the most devastating attacks in recent memory, the city — that city, the hugely imperfect one, not the City of Light but the city of lighters (everyone in Paris still smokes, it’s disgusting) — continues to pulse, to thrive, to attract starry-eyed tourists from everywhere in the world who believe that putting a padlock on the railings of a bridge over the Seine is a lasting sign of true love (even after the padlocks have been removed and sold off and melted down); to bloom in the imagination of writers and artists and filmmakers and Woody Allen as an idealized example of what the human imagination can achieve when it is unrestricted and volitional. And to see that nothing, no matter how inhumane or horrifying, can reduce or impair that vision, as long as it remains clear-eyed and free of nostalgia. It is an attractive but dangerous fallacy to look at the past and say, “That was better.” It wasn’t. It never was. You are, right now, at the apex of creation, and neither you nor I nor any preacher or philosopher or poet knows what will happen next. No bomb can destroy the future, and guns can only kill. If Paris holds any lesson for us, it’s that change is the most powerful weapon in the world.