The wrenching dramas that descended on Paris with the German occupation in World War II, the plastic explosives of Algérie Française 20 years later, the uprisings of 1968 and now the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres have elicited extraordinary waves of empathy in this country. Certainly no other country that does not share a common language with the United States seems so close to this nation’s sympathies, and none has been an ally for longer -- as many people observed in the days following the slaughter of Nov. 13.
Both the historic and recent events have resonated especially deeply with American academics of a certain generation (mine, it goes without saying).
Even Americans little exposed to French literature know something about expatriates like the James Baldwins who gravitated to Paris, and the Ezra Pounds and Ernest Hemingways who lived there for years. Doubtless George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (1928) helped enshrine the image (and in reincarnation, one still being celebrated on Broadway) of the American visitor beguiled by the city’s ineffable charms. When good Americans die, dixit Oscar Wilde (way back in 1890), they go to Paris. World War II also took many soldiers to and through Paris, which, thanks to the North American Treaty Organization, remained a major crossroads in the years following.
Paris seemed in that era to be the capital of everything: fashion, cinema, cuisine, literature and art. The war years had helped lift the rising major voices of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others, and it was as if everyone, especially the young, had to visit Paris to find out what it meant to be “existential.” The lofty presence of Charles de Gaulle lent the country an international prominence that belied the humiliations of the wars. The theater rang with Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Gérard Philippe, Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, and the cinema effervesced with avant-garde of many stripes. The seemingly contagious influence of numerous maîtres à penser -- besides Sartre, think of Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan -- extended into many disciplines and around the world.
Whether we were studying literature, philosophy, history, art, sociology or anthropology, it was essential to expose oneself to these writers and then to the place where they were concentrated. For a while French was almost, as it had been two centuries earlier, the lingua franca of the intellectual, and Paris the intellectual center of (it seemed) the world.
So it is little wonder that a particular relationship came to exist between the French capital and many American academics and their students. The junior year abroad was practically invented for Paris. There still are many such programs, dating back to the 1920s with the University of Delaware (later Sweet Briar College) program. It was an incredible adventure to set foot in the awe-inspiring corridors and auditoriums of the Sorbonne (since fragmented into many universities), “Sciences Po” and the École Pratique des Hautes Études. After class one honed one’s mind on the sometimes ponderous columns of Le Monde.
There was so much, it seemed, to see, to hear. And to smell: most of America in those days was accustomed to Wonder Bread and had no idea what a bakery was like.
Nor was it just that particular historical moment -- the postwar decades -- that felt cozily ancient but was, below the surface, anything but immobile. The prewar minimalist auto, Citroën’s Deux Chevaux, by its persistence on French streets and roads a sort of symbol of postwar austerity, was rapidly replaced with the sleek, fast and low-slung DS. The ageless smoke-blackened façades of the city’s most venerable monuments were restored to their gleaming original glory by de Gaulle’s cultural affairs minister, André Malraux. The ungainly exclamation point that is Montparnasse Tower (1969-1973) ushered in a new skyscraper era (which Paris subsequently held to the perimeter). And an entirely different version of the emerging postmodern sprung up, where the old Halles had been, in the extravagant, inside-out box called the Centre Pompidou (1977). A renaissance of the technological image of France came with such highly visible innovations as the Concorde (built with Britain, 1976) and the TGV (1981), which was (and still is) light-years ahead of railway in the United States.
It is hard, of course, to say precisely in what way Paris is more enthralling than any other great city for scholars, as well as so many others. It helps that it kept its physical profile low (four or five stories maximum) and that it is relatively compact -- that is, if you limit yourself to the 20 arrondissements. As a consequence is an eminently walkable city. From the Arch of Triumph to the Place de la Concorde is only a kilometer, and you can go by foot, if you want, to Vincennes or even to Versailles. (Whole crowds did it in 1789.) The Seine, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the domes: so many landmarks are visible from anywhere that orientation is easy.
Ah, what it means to discover, to internalize the verb flâner! The life of a flâneur is all about shop windows, from the great boulevard department stores to sixth- or eighth-arrondissement haute couture to small neighborhood shops everywhere. With time, too, for sitting in the iron chairs of the Luxembourg garden or the wicker chairs at a sidewalk café, watching Parisian life go by, basking in the aromas of pâtisserie, roasting chestnuts or pralines (caramel-coated almonds).
If you look at an 18th-century map of Paris, it is much the same, thanks in large part to that retention of a low skyline. It was much smaller, of course, extending west hardly farther than the Tuileries or east much beyond the Bastille. In fact, its perimeters then are essentially what Baron Haussmann was to turn into the Grands Boulevards during the Second Empire. Ten centuries of buildings sit side by side and, at the same time, assimilate the modern world in ways that no New World city can imitate.
American historians of France have wrangled over the concept but not the experience of what is sometimes rightly or wrongly labeled “Frenchness.” I don’t quite believe in it. (The French are awfully like us.) But then what is it that keeps tugging at -- if you’ll pardon the sentimentality -- the heartstrings?
Philip Stewart is the Benjamin E. Powell Emeritus Professor of Romance Studies at Duke University.