LE CIRCOSTANZE DI PARIGI
by Silvia Soannini
Â«Je me souviens d’un jeune homme – un homme encore jeune – empÃªchÃ© de mourir par la mort mÃªme – et peut-Ãªtre l’erreur de l’injustice”.(1)
veryone was born in Paris, at least once in a lifetime: we would have never wanted to be there, maybe we haven’t been in Paris for a single day because we don’t like French people at all, maybe we passed through this city, by chance or out of boredom, and yet we have all been in Paris, once in our lives.
At least once in our lives we had a stroll through Pigalle, we stopped in front of the Moulin Rouge thinking about the thousands of people that walked past it, the countless cancan dancers with their fluttering skirts and black heels which left everlasting scratches on the stage through the rhythmic foot tapping: anonymous not for everyone, forgotten but not to such an extent that we cannot avoid remembering that a world like that — a place like that in the world – did exist. At least once in a lifetime we walked up the steps in Montmartre to get to the top of the hill where the Sacred Heart Basilica is located, surrounded by markets shops and restaurants, where all is sacred and everything is profane, and suddenly, by simply looking the other way, we got enthralled by the breathtaking view of the entire city stretching out below us: As big as Rome though without its majestic fountains, similar to a large photograph of New York though without Broadway’s Gold rush, as European as Berlin, though without the melting pot of people, lives and stories meeting at Alexander Platz.
Light blue: This is the colour we have in mind when we remember the view of the Paris skyline from the top of the Montmartre Hill, the perception of light blue and white with some shades of grey emanating from this city is still vivid. It’s like a life sentence, just a pleasant one: we are not allowed to forget the colour of Paris, which is uniform and never monotonous, the colour of its houses and streets. It’s the colour telling the story of the city, it hands down memories and life of those who belonged to it and who seem still now to be so glorious and alive, it reminds us of the reason why Paris is a circumstance of our lives, of our biographies spent away from there: accidental though inescapable like all circumstances.
No one has ever died in Paris.
Anyone who passes through those places and walks along those streets has been granted with immortal life. Regardless of the person’s age at the time when this passage occurs, life doesn’t develop between a beginning and an end any more, but rather it goes on with the same impalpable impassivity of crystal: the heart starts pumping and beating at a regular pace and by doing so it stops its run towards the end.
Paris is a symbol, a powerful myth stuck in the imagination of many of us. Paris is certainly all that, but, perhaps, it is something more than just a symbol.
What is a symbol? An image, a place, a person, a song which, for various ‘circumstances’, got stuck in our minds. And yet, when we think about the symbol ‘Paris’, about Andy Warhol Serigraphs and Kurt Cobain’s check shirt, we already have something or someone in our head that has taken a well-defined role, whose importance and value have been ‘officially’ recognized.
Unlike Warhol and Cobain, Paris is not just an ‘already formed’ symbol.
What do circumstances possess that does not immediately belong to symbols and myths?
They live in an embryonic stage, even before they can be narrated: they affect us since childhood. And for this reason they are accidental and not planned or chosen as compared to symbols and to the fact that these must be chosen and adopted. And yet these circumstances are decisive.
Looking back on our lives we often consider circumstances to be some accidental events which could have been different from how they actually were but we would still be ourselves anyway, with our personality, our choices, our virtues and vices. Nonetheless we would have been ourselves, just a bit different, if we had been born to a different mother, in another part of the world, in a foreign land which would have been our fatherland if only we had been born there.
The events in Paris have accompanied us since our birth. From the earliest school years onwards Paris is part of our growth process, of our personal development and self-improvement. We can breathe it in, it’s in the air, it’s on billboards and posters showing its squares and streets, in songs such as ‘La Vie en Rose’, which is engraved in our DNA even before we come to know who Edith Piaf is.
The encounter with the Spanish essayist and philosopher Maria Zambrano left its mark on my life. It represents the ‘circumstance’ that made me realize the importance of circumstances, the coessentiality of circumstances in every biography. Contrary to what is often supposed, the term Bios (the root-word for the word ‘Biography’) in ancient Greece didn’t merely mean the simple biological life as we know it today: being born, dying, breathing, eating, the birth and life of the Earth with its fruits, the life of animals. Ancient Greeks used to call this latter Zoe, the life taking part in the natural cycle of the cosmos without any specific role and glory. In Ancient Greece Bios meant the life worth being transcribed and put in a story: turning back at the end of a journey and finally being able to see one’s own story, like a completed drawing. And so Bios becomes biography when it acknowledges that the ‘accidental’ circumstances are fundamental donors of the meaning of what we are and of our personal story.
The existential meaning of the circumstances in a lifetime is the reason why Maria Zambrano writes that we must ‘save circumstances’ from the oblivion to which our mind would want to relegate them as it considers their randomness to be an evidence of minor importance for ourselves, for our personal growth and our adult life.
The circumstance in Maria Zambrano’s life was her exile into which she was forced towards the mid-1930s after the failure of the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of the Franco Regime. The circumstance of her exile continued for 40 years, and during that prolonged period she travelled across Latin America, Cuba, New York, France and Rome and always hung around with many intellectuals of that time. A circumstance in Maria Zambrano’s life was that her mother died in Paris in 1946, soon after the end of World War II, and the philosopher managed to see her only two days after her death, as she was living in Mexico and travelling was quite difficult during those years.
As a matter of fact – at least since 1946 – someone has started to die in Paris, too.
This essay is in memory of the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks that took place last November in Rue de la RÃ©publique but it is also a tribute to the Spanish philosopher, the woman who succeeded in introducing the language of poetry in philosophical works by making use of words that were able to narrate life and existence as they are and by intimately perceiving the uniqueness of each single life and death. Zambrano created a new language for philosophy, far from the rationality of the classic philosophical language, which has often been insensitive to the uniqueness of every life, of every biography, of every single birth and death and anything else is in between. And not because it is virtuous using a poetic language in order to talk about philosophy, but rather because certain events, certain births and deaths can never be narrated by the rationality of the concept.
For this reason and in order to talk about the violent deaths in Paris I wanted to draw inspiration from a different way of doing philosophy that exists and is fundamental in the history of thought: to talk about death philosophy with a capital P would say that ‘all men are mortal, Socrates is mortal too’. But now we need words that enable us to perceive each single life, each single dead body on those streets and the throb of life inside all those deaths. For this reason the image, the icon of Paris and the colour of its streets could tell us about those events.
In the footnote you can find a selection of books by Maria Zambrano (2), dedicated to all those who are interested in knowing the thinking of this extraordinary philosopher who taught us to ‘save circumstances from oblivion’.
The deaths in Paris are accidental circumstances because they were not wanted and nonetheless they were fundamental for our biographies: They are so because they were tragic but at the same time they were so because Paris embodies a circumstance crucial to our stories. The reason why those deaths annihilated us is because they happened in Paris.
With this essay I am asking you to reflect on this. This is the theoretical focal point represented by Paris — even though, on reflection, it could be applied to many other occurrences in our lives: Why some circumstances more than others? Why some specific circumstances and not other ones?
Some may say that this is the very same rhetoric with which we allow ourselves to forget Syria, Nigeria and all the other lands in the world devastated by war, poverty, hatred, terror, oppression. That’s true. But let’s try to go a step further, even beyond our own rhetoric.
Why in Paris and not in one of the countless places in the world where every day tragedies unfold, aggravated by the growing inability of mankind to feel emotions, to be ‘aware’ of our neighbours and their tragedies, aware of their countless shattered lives. A drastic drift away from the banality of evil, our indifference remains without a reason.
After the slaughter in Paris on November 16, we have been accused, we have accused other people, we have accused each other of having woken up too late, without realizing that the world — the one just around the corner of our house – was sinking into an abyss.
All accusations are justified: a massive epidemic of insensitivity, indifference, inurement and banality is spreading around the world, it’s a lack of awareness of what’s happening in the world which doesn’t seem to affect us anymore.
But the deaths in Paris, instead of being used as an accusation towards ‘those people who were more inattentive than others’, can become the circumstance of our awakening, at least to the same extent to which Paris was the circumstance of the development of our adult life.
It’s not just a matter of geographical distances, as many want to put it, ‘Paris is near’.
The essentiality of Paris for all of us makes those circumstances become donors of meaning for all the other deaths, it shows them to us in a clear way so that it will be difficult for us, from now on, to ignore Syria and the countless places of death spread all over the world. It urges us to take a look at those far away countries, at those extremely near boats. And when we look at this we shall not have a compassionate approach but rather one of attentive involvement so that we can finally get in touch with the real situation: boats are not cyborgs created to exist in a virtual world, they are real events, laden with people and lives, that oblige us to decide which side we want to be.
In our opinion this is the lesson Paris has given us and will always give us.
(1) Maurice Blanchot, L’instant de ma mort, Gallimard, Paris 2002
(2) The creative dream (Original title El sueÃ±o creador) by Maria Zambrano; Delirium and Destiny (Original title Delirio y Destino); Bewitched by the wonders of the woods in moonlight (Original title Claros del Bosque); Confession as a Literary Genre (Original title La Confesion: Genero literario); Antigone’s grave (Original title La Tumba de Antigona); The Blessed (Original title Los Bienaventurados).