The Pulse: Paris

The Academic

Kenneth was, once again, waiting for Martine. He hoped she wouldn't be late, since he was scheduled to give a lecture in an hour at the Collège de France, which had generously kept him on for another year. He was expected back at All Souls in September, with or without Martine.

His lecture was on Essentialism and Probability. He thought to himself jokingly that the probability of Martine coming back with him to England was exactly equal to the probability of her arriving on time to their rendez-vous at La Maison de Verlaine. It was completely indeterminable. X = X. The namesake of the café-restaurant, Paul Verlaine, perhaps knew a woman like her:

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Martine was the best thing — and the most confusing thing — that had happened to him in his two-year stint at the College. On the surface, she and the College were opposites: she was volatile and emotional; the College was solid and rational. And yet she was brilliant and creative, like so many of the professors he'd met, whose studies in everything from bosons to cuneiform boggled his mind. The deeper he got into her thinking, or into the thoughts of his colleagues, the more perplexing life became.

Everything started off making sense, as if in a polite line of conversation — Comment vas-tu? Très bien, merci — yet everything ended up in circles, wide loops, or tight knots. Mais, je croyais que vous étiez… Like a glass menagerie, the structure splintered under the pressure. It started with the clarity of poetry — a unicorn of rare device — and ended up with accusations and broken horns.

It didn’t matter if it was poetry or particle physics, all the lecturers started their lectures with the promise that their words would get at the meaning of things. Yet thirty minutes into their explanations they were (as Byron said of Coleridge) obliged to explain their explanations. It was as if every subject was itself subject to Verlaine's warning: Je vous dis ce n'est pas ce que l'on pense / I tell you it's not what one thinks. It was as if the will to explain anything was doomed from the start. Yet there they were, in books and on podiums, explaining it anyway.

Sitting, waiting, Kenneth thought about Martine. And because he wanted her to be there and she wasn't, he thought about Antoine.

How he hated the man! It irritated him to see Antoine ride up to the curb in front of the Sorbonne on his metrosexual mobylette. Antoine always wore tight black leather pants — so thin you could see his penis pointing more or less upward. Kenneth called it The Leaning Tower of Penis. Antoine also wore the same tattered collection of Serge Gainsbourg t-shirts every day — as if he were a poor student instead of a professeur agrégé at five-thousand euros a month. He strutted in front of his students like an incandescent peacock. He spouted ridiculous theories about the relevance of Japanese cartoons and the music of Lady Gaga — anything to ingratiate himself to the latest fads and the slimmest legs. It would have made Victor Hugo vomit. 

Kenneth also hated the way he wore his beret tilted across his head of rich, dark hair. Could he be a bigger stereotype? A bigger show-off? The beret was cocked to one side, as if he were about to paint a lily pond in Giverny.  Antoine — that caricature of a French bohemian. A baby bobo, wrapped in tight leather!

And why was Kenneth forced to wait for Martine — and to think of Antoine — in this cursed Maison de Verlaine? With its dark corners hidden from street view? With its pretentious table-cloths that draped onto your knees — so that you couldn’t say where a leg stretched accidentally or where a hand probed the folds beneath. With its white cloth napkins Antoine might catch mid-air a splatter of whipped cream flying from Martine's fork, distracted as she was at having to pretend to be interested in his Japanese comics. The same pink and blue comics that he gave her as little presents. The same ones that ended up beneath her books on literature, psychology, and sociology, which were themselves beneath her nearly-finished Ph.D. thesis, titled Drama for Drama's Sake.

In it she argued that art wasn't Alexander Pope’s what oft was thought yet ne'er so well expressed, nor was it le mot juste, the sculpture of rhyme, Gautier’s art for art's sake, or Baudelaire’s poetry that has no other aim than itself. The definitions of Gautier and Baudelaire promised immense freedom, yet mostly delivered freedom from doing all sorts of other things. Instead, Martine argued that art was drama for drama's sake: its motives and its intentions were to play out our internal conflicts. What Hamlet said of drama could be said for art itself: it’s nothing more, and nothing less, than a mirror up to nature.

Nor was art merely the spirit of the age — the fin de siècle, the Renaissance, postmodernism, or whatever. In her chapter, Fin du Fin de Siècle, she argued that if the times determined art, then the definition of art would constantly change, which was as bad as no definition at all. Instead, art was a constant: it was the desire to express our inner conflicts and resolutions. To play out the drama of our lives. This desire was as old as our struggle to accommodate ourselves to the world around us. Even when the artist reached to the stars — peopling them with dramas that showed us who we were in mythic terms — that same artist hoped we'd draw these dramas down into our daily lives. On earth as it is in heaven. 

From plate 54 of William Blake's Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons)

From plate 54 of William Blake's Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons)

Martine argued that consuming and creating art were fundamentally different, and illustrated this with the lives of her own mother and father. Their suicides, she argued, were the result of them living other people's versions of art, instead of creating their own. They failed in their art because they failed to become artists. That is, they failed to dramatize their own inner torments in ways that worked them through, providing catharsis to alleviate the stagnation of tragedy, and providing a runway of laughter to fly over the head of absurdity. They lost themselves in the dramas — and in the aesthetic theories — of other people, instead of creating their own patterns that allowed their inner selves to adapt to the world around them. In brief, they failed because they didn’t follow Blake’s credo: I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's.

From plate 51 of Blake's Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons)

From plate 51 of Blake's Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons)

Martine hadn't told Kenneth yet about her final chapter, Drama Queen. It brought everything into the present. In it, she argued that most of what we do is imitation, but much of what we might do is art — from imagining your fate in a thesis that was as much conjecture as argument, to exposing the blue tints of kyanite to an intellectual who couldn’t say what was really on his mind.

Kenneth was sure that Martine could become an intellectual star — if only she would stop wasting time on comic books and afternoons with Antoine at La Maison de Verlaine. He admired her immensely, and yet she drove him crazy. Literally crazy, to the point where he clenched the tablecloth as if it were Antoine's throat. Beneath the cool English façade he displayed to the amusement of his French colleagues, Kenneth yelled at her imaginary image: Why did it take so long to tell me that you were once engaged? 


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