Paris Letters #3
“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” ― Oscar Wilde
Why does Paris seem so romantic to the average North American? It’s all in the spiritual geometry. While the grids of American cities reduce and confine the soul, the arcs and wheels of Paris streets open it up to infinite suggestion. On a circle one can begin and end in anyplace, whereas on rectangle one always meets a sharp corner. A grid is just a series of dead ends, whereas a circle has infinite gradations—and Paris is composed of circles, wheels, and arcs.
Old cities like Paris were consciously designed to expand consciousness rather than reduce it, to ennoble a person rather than crush his spirit. They are made for conscious human activity, rather than speed and haphazard transaction.
One enjoys getting lost here, whereas in an American city to be lost is to end up in some dangerous ghetto or wasteland or cul de sac. When I first arrive here in Paris I got lost a lot — I often found myself miles from where I had planned on being. I’ve noticed GPS doesn’t work well here, that it’s better to use your sixth sense to find your way around — at least if you want to discover some hidden treasure. (Just the other day, for instance, I found De Tocqueville’s old apartment by sheer accident).
In general, the American city is a place to do business, whereas a European city like Paris is, or at least was designed to be, a place to live — that is the difference. That is why in Paris the business centre — la Defense — is outside the city. And Paris belongs to a world prior to the automobile: that mechanical beast which makes it impossible to really live in any public space. Actually, Paris will only realize its real potential as a city, when it bans automobiles from its centre. For the automobile is a contradiction to the human scale of life here; the original intention of the city was to provide a space to be both in inside and outside, and to walk under the sky with people in a living environment.
In America, the dream is to take an automobile and drive towards an infinite horizon. That is because the cities are so oppressive and unliveable, no matter how shiny and prosperous they seem to be, and one must head for the hills. One is always trying to escape oneself in an American city; whereas in Paris, there is, at least the possibility or potential, or remnant of a communal world. Not that Paris is immune to the dehumanization, which American culture brings to the entire world, but this is against its nature. The spirit here resists and contradicts, the inevitable encroachment of America.
One wanders in circles here, goes nowhere. And yet paradoxically going nowhere is why Paris really feels like somewhere — Paris streets deepen ones perceptions, rather than exhausts them. While Keroac took flight racing crossing America, Beaudelaire dreamed of walking, or being a ‘flaneur’: somebody who just stolls along in a fantastic stone garden. One is no longer ‘On the Road’ like Keroac, but one has arrived.