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:

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant / I often have this dream, strange and penetrating
D'une femme inconnue, et que j'aime, et qui m'aime, / Of an unknown woman, who I love and who loves me,
Et qui n'est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même, / And who is never the same, not exactly,
Ni tout à fait une autre, et m'aime et me comprend. / But not completely another, and is loving and understanding.

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. Like Tennessee William's glass menagerie, the quartz structure splintered under the pressure. It started with the clarity of poetry — a unicorn of rare device — and ended up with accusations and fractured 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 obliged to explain their explanations, as Byron once put it. It was as if every subject was itself subject to Verlaine's warning in "Explication": 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 were 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 Jean-Marc.

How he hated the man! It irritated him to see Jean-Marc ride up to the curb in front of the Sorbonne on his metrosexual mobylette. Jean-Marc always wore tight black leather — so thin you could see his penis pointing more or less upward. Kenneth called it The Leaning Tower of Penis. Jean-Marc 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 in heat. 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.  Jean-Marc — that caricature of a French bohemian. That baby bobo, wrapped in tight leather!

And why was Kenneth forced to wait for Martine — and think of Jean-Marc — in this cursed Maison de Verlaine? With its dark corners hidden from street view? With its pretentious table-cloths that draped onto the knees — so that no one could say where a leg stretched accidentally or where a lascivious hand probed the folds beneath. With its white cloth napkins Jean-Marc caught mid-air a splatter of whipped cream that flew from Martine's fork, distracted as she was at having to pretend to be interested in his stupid 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.

Kenneth suspected that Martine was a genius. Not just in her personal life, where she could act her way out of — or into — any situation, but also in her academic life. In her thesis, titled Drama for Drama's Sake, she argued that art wasn't what oft was thought yet ne'er so well expressed. Nor was it a double godhead of Beauty and Truth, le mot juste, or the sculpture of rhyme. Even more deceptive than the sociological definition it reacted against was Gautier’s notion of art for art's sake, or what Baudelaire later called poetry that has no other aim than itself. Gautier's definition suggested immense freedom, yet in fact delivered only freedom from doing all sorts of other things.

On the contrary, art was drama for drama's sake. Both its motives and its intentions were to play out our internal conflicts. This is why, Martine asserted, drama was the most inclusive and enduring of art forms. Drama could include poetry, music, narrative, speech, and human action on all their scales. As Hamlet put it, drama was simply — and in all its complexity — a mirror up to nature.

Kenneth couldn't tell if Martine was applauding or deriding Jean-Marc when she exemplified her theory with reference to comics, jumping from the sublime of Shakespeare to what she called the playground of the adolescent mind. She argued that even in the most colourful and stylish comic book the aim wasn't aesthetic purity, certainly not art for the sake of art. Rather, comic book writers aimed to explore inner adolescent frustrations, which derived from the inability to fulfill desires in a world that constantly kept desire in check. If they couldn't take the clothes off a girl, then they created a villain who could. And a hero who could put them back on.

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. This desire was as old as our struggle to accommodate ourselves to the world around us. If 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)

Throughout her thesis Martine exemplified her ideas with the lives of her 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 create patterns that allowed them to adapt to the world around them. They lost themselves in the dramas — and in the aesthetic theories — of other people. They failed to 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 a man who could never make up 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 Jean-Marc 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 Jean-Marc'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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