Paris - Sidewalk Cafes
( Originally Published 1910 )
It is the fierce hopelessness of this struggle to retain his own identity that makes an individualist so unhappy in London ; for an individualist must in the midst of everything feel himself detached from the rest of life, and here no detachment is possible. That there should have arisen in the press of this collectivism men capable of guarding their own souls, of living in the crowd but aloof from it, and so framing for themselves a conception of life out of this relentless over-bearing unity, appears to me a miracle; but there have been many, the splendid exceptions which have made England's glory. De Quincey, Dickens, Thackeray, Meredith, — to name only a few,— all of them lived their own lives, and, reflecting in the solitude of their individualism, found, each according to the measure of his genius, a greater or a lesser meaning, a deeper or a more superficial significance, in this chaos that engulfs smaller men.
In France the individual is the unit ; but in England the unit is the whole. London is only England intensified. The individual rights of which the Englishman is so proud are only material rights that affect his bodily comfort ; of genuine personal liberty he has no conception. He may walk the streets in almost complete safety from physical at-tack ; but he has thrust upon him from child-hood the cold formalism of an established religion. The precincts of his property are rigorously protected against aggression ; but socially he himself is born into as iron-clad a system of slavery as has ever existed. Rich or poor, of high rank or 16w, he is classified at birth as a member of a caste in which not the individual but the type is the reality. A certain mode of existence, and even a certain sharply marked-out attitude of mind, are characteristic of each class, and this conventionalism extends to the most minute trivialities ; for nothing is trivial where no-thing is individual but always a symbol of the whole. Suggest to an Englishman an act that would be an infringement, however slight, on a class to which he does not be-long : he will not reply, " I cannot do that because — "; but simply, " That is not done." The system is perfect.
Nor does the Englishman want it changed. I can find no analogy for the willing pride with which he accepts his bondage. Imagine all the negroes of the South rising as one man at the time of the emancipation, crying, " We will not be free," and turning in anger on President Lincoln, and you have but a feeble likeness to the attitude of the English toward their would-be liberators ; for the negroes were only stupid children, while the English are a race of men, en-lightened, " progressive," — whatever that may mean, — almost civilized indeed, one would say, if it were not for their deplorable lack of taste.
A refusal to acknowledge any part of the system would not entail loss of material privileges, — materially, and materially alone, the Englishman is free, — but it would mean social ostracism, misunderstanding, contempt, all the things which, as they are the least material, are the hardest for the genuinely free man to bear. The lives of England's great men,— poets, novelists, philosophers, who even in London raised themselves above the crowd and kept clear of the machine, have not often been easy. For they, standing aside and observing the whole, saw faults and pointed out wrongs. In England " that is not done." These men were strong personalities. They achieved their individualism themselves ; for in England there are no aids to solitude.
But giants are rare, and for humbler individualists a sojourn in London is misery, a period of feeling his ideas effaced, his personality suspended. Formerly I used to force myself to stay on, feeling that I must not go until I had been somehow enabled to get apart from and understand the monster, but my heroism never came to anything. A day always arrived when my longing for France grew too strong, and I would take a boat for Calais or Dieppe. The experience was, I dare say, bad for my character ; for as my virtue never resulted in success, I at last reached the conclusion that it is not the disagreeable but the pleasant things in life which are good for one, so that now I never do anything I do not care to do.
Any one who has traveled much by mountain-railways knows the sensation of ease and relaxation one receives when, after grinding painfully down a long grade, the brakes are at last released and the train glides smoothly on. I can find no other simile to express the relief with which one throws off the yoke of London. I have never crossed from England to France without experiencing this emotion, and I have never arrived in Paris without a sense of exhilaration in which I felt my own personality rise, and assert itself, and seem to me worth while. No other city can ever mean to me what Paris means. As I sit here writing, needing only to lift my eyes to the window to see the gray Seine flowing beneath and the misty blue-gray sky softening the mass of houses beyond the river, I feel a rush of gratitude for all that Paris has given me.
As a child, before I had been out of America, it was always Florence of which I dreamed; and indeed, though, seen, Florence proved quite different from the picture I had made of it, the realization was no dis-appointment. But in Florence one leads only the most perfect of existences. One is con-tent to feel : one has no need of thinking. In any one not born to it the excess of beauty of the Tuscan city causes a kind of intoxication that inhibits achievement. One might become witty if he lived long in Florence, — most people do, I believe: — Marcel Schwob might have written his Mimes" there ;— but for real achievement a state of mental turmoil is necessary, and how is one to arouse a mental turmoil before the warm sun-bathed splendor of these brown old Italian palaces, or at Settignano, where the nightingales sing all night and all day too, and where the cypresses turn blue-black in the moonlight ?
But in Paris one lives, so fully, and richly, and tumultuously, that I wonder sometimes whether one is not living his life too fast, like a mouse under oxygen, and whether one will not die at thirty. One's mind seethes. One is overwhelmed with ideas. Little or great, —what does it matter? What matters is that here whoever comes really to know Paris learns to be himself at his truest, to think the deepest thoughts of which he is capable. All Paris is an inspiration to individualism. The sweeping vastness of the Place de la Concorde is the emblem of it ; the sidewalk cafés are its symbol.
In Paris every man has a favorite café to which he pays allegiance, and in his choice he reveals something of his character; for it is only in the outward material expression, of themselves —busy, white-aproned waiters, cane chairs, and little marble-topped tables, covering half the sidewalk on the boulevards, all of it in narrow streets,—that these thou-sand havens resemble one another; more profoundly each has its own individuality. The youth seeks the maiden who, born to be his mate, languishes somewhere or other in expectation of his coming ; with far more certainty of success he may in Paris go in quest of a café which shall just fit his character. Moreover, the café is always there waiting, whereas maidens have been known to— But that has nothing to do with the subject.
It took me a long time to find my café, a troubled time in which I tried many sorts, feeling in each— though in many I recognized a certain charm -- a kind of uneasiness akin to that of a man in clothes made for some one else. I early saw that it was not among the sleepy little cafés of quiet, secluded streets that I should discover mine; for, as one feels himself most a part of life in the fields where there is no other human in sight, so it is in the very centre of the throng that one is capable of the completest detachment. The habitués of these retired places, who chatted comfortably over their games of dominoes and manille, were pleas-ant, kindly men for whom I felt sympathy, but they were not individualists. They were, for the greater part, petty employés of some bureau, in search of rest after their six hours of dreary mechanical work; and rest is to be found in losing one's identity, in becoming a part of life, not in separating one's self from it. The individualist does not desire rest. What he strives for is the ability to regard unhampered the great pageant of life, as though he himself bore no relation to it; and how should there be rest in the contem plation of this strange spectacle, with its absurdities which he labors to reconcile, and its heterogeneity in which he struggles to find some meaning ?
No, the café of my desire would be one of the many that line the wide, feverish boulevards. That was clear, —far less clear which. The Café de la Paix I knew, to begin with, was out of the question. In that ostentatious resort beloved of foreigners, where one is assaulted by vendors of post-cards, furs, and maps of Paris, and where one hears all about him his native tongue spoken with a high nasal intensity characteristic of it nowhere except in Europe, solitude is as impossible as in London itself. But, the Café de la Paix eliminated, there remained still a discouraging number, among which somewhere was mine.
I spent many afternoons in fruitless search ; then one evening I found it, in the only fashion by which one ever finds anything worth while, — quite by chance. I do not remember where I was going, or why, only that I was being carried on in the crowd that streams along the Boulevard des Italiens at the theatre hour, when suddenly, before one of the numberless displays of little tables (and for what reason this one, I wonder, more than another ?), I turned in a flash of recognition. Why, it 's my café ! " I exclaimed in the tone with which one greets an old friend. It was, without a doubt. Although I had surely never been there before, everything seemed natural and right. Even the faces of the men at the tables appeared familiar. For, as in Paris one chooses the café with the spirit of which he is most in sympathy, so in each the habitués form a circle of men, united, not, as in a salon, by the same habits of life, but by the same habits of thought, which is a closer bond. We rarely converse at my café, but we bow to one another as we arrive, and the absence of one at his accustomed hour is remarked by the rest.
There is to me something fine in this curious intimacy of men who, never having exchanged banalities, indifferent to one another's names and conditions, by their ignorance of the petty differences among themselves efface them, and annihilate all the barriers — social and moral prejudices, personal foibles— over which in the ordinary course of acquaintance one must struggle, or around which one must circuitously pass, — and arrive at once at the silent sympathy, the tacit recognition of similarity, that is friendship.
The oddest thing about my café, one that has often made me smile, is its title, which implies mirth, revelry, even debauch, whereas in fact no other boulevard café surely is as serious and subdued as this one. It is called, — but, after all, why should I tell you its name ? If it is not your café, to go there would be to waste your time; and if it is yours, you will find it some day of yourself; or perhaps you have found it already, and are one of the unknown friends who nod kindly to me as I slip into my place.
I do not know what your thoughts may be there, if that is true, but my own are strange, and no less strange that other men have been thinking them these thousand years. Conflicting, overwhelming impressions, tumultuous fragments of ideas without beginning or end, confused reflections that I am impotent to classify ; strange thoughts indeed, --pitiful, ironic, gay sometimes, but always at bottom sad ; for although here I am in the tranquil back-waters, there, only a few feet away, all life is flowing past. Verlaine's splendid lines come back to me : —
"Et tu coules toujours, Seine, et tout en rampant,
But this is a greater river than the Seine. It too carries its proud ships and its derelicts --and its corpses ; only it flows into an unknown sea.
At first in the crowd drifting by me it is always individuals that I remark. A man passes close to me, holding a little girl of six by the hand, which for greater safety he keeps so high that she walks chiefly with her left foot, barely touching the ground from time to time with her right. She stumbles along contentedly, looking up at us, wide-eyed but incuriously, interested really only in a fruitless attempt to touch each in the nearest row of tables as she goes by. It occurs to me with a swift glimpse of myself (for in this isolation of the mind one's self seems as separate and objective as the rest of the world), that she is a very fortunate child. She knows what she wants and goes straight for it. That is the great thing, — to know what one wants and try for it. Nothing else matters much,—least of all whether one gets it or not. I hope she may always keep the characteristic, and I think, as I glance up at the face of her father, that she will. He is a big burly man of the class that is not the People, nor yet quite the littlest bourgeoisie: proprietor, I imagine, of some small shop. As he strolls by (he is nearly past now), everything in his manner, from the erect poise of the head to the easy fashion with which he lets others avoid him rather than go out of his way himself, proclaims the man of fixed habits and settled life, accepting unreservedly the world as he finds it, with no desire to change it. Not a man of high aspirations, as aspirations are counted, but sure of the ones he has, — with his troubles, of course : small money matters chiefly, rent that comes due too frequently, clients who will not pay their bills ; blessed material troubles. Himself he never doubts, or the importance of his existence. Oh, the ease and the tranquillity and the content that there must be in never having questioned one's self! Never to have felt rush over one, paralyzing the mind, inhibiting achievement, the sudden doubt of one's ability to do what one is attempting ! Never to have passed through the grim hours when the thought of all the men who have tried similarly and failed catches one like physical fear ! For one who aims at anything creative there are periods of exhilaration, none of content. The exultant moments of swift accomplishment are dearly bought : for every such there are ten of bitter depression. Those who are be-set with lofty aspirations pass through days blacker than the man in the street and his little daughter will ever know.
But they have been gone these ten minutes, and I look out again on the throng that is drifting by. Like the Ancient Mariner, I may not choose my victims. I cannot deliberately select this or that person as a theme to ponder. It is as if some one else chose for me,—some perverse fairy in whose choice there is neither reason nor plausibility. So this time I skip helplessly a man who might be a murderer, and another who is surely a musician, to feel my attention caught, illogically enough, by a couple who saunter past.
They are young, he less than twenty-eight, she barely twenty, and they are newly married. She clings to his arm with a pretty air of combined confidence in him and fear of all the rest of the world; and in the condescending benevolence with which he accepts her attitude there is the unmistakable mark of a husband destined to be happy, adored, and never found out. They are, I fancy, on their wedding-trip ; at any rate they are de province. That is clear from a dozen little things, but most of all from the young man's walk, a kind of loiter, in the course of which he turns indolently now and again to gaze slowly right and left. The Parisian, however leisurely his gait, has always the decisive air of one accustomed to swift judgments; when he looks about him in the streets, it is with a rapid inclusive glance. My eyes meet those of the young woman for an instant; she has pretty eyes set in an agreeable, rather character-less face, —at its best now for the glow of youth and happiness that suffuses it,—but with nothing in them to hold me; moreover, she turns them away almost immediately, and I fix my own on her husband.
Caste distinctions are not sharply defined in this democratic country, where a family may with equal facility rise a class higher or sink one lower in a single generation; but he surely is of the upper bourgeoisie, probably the bourgeoisie of affairs. The low, smooth forehead, placid with the placidity that comes from the total absence of abstract ideas, the firm mouth and the faint lines about it revealing notions that you would call convictions if you liked the type, prejudices if you did not, all indicate as much. It is a good class, a class of men who do, not of men who think ; and, after all, — as any artist or author will loftily admit,—there must be men to do the things that have to be done. But the man's life is planned; he knows the things he is to do ; and so it is with the woman that I feel the greater sympathy. She has, unless I misjudge her, so pitifully little to interest her in all the years that stretch ahead when her husband will have so much! I hope that she may bear many children, and I think I hope that there may be money-troubles in her husband's affairs, — not deadening, cramping troubles, but just enough so that existence may not be too easy for her, and, especially, enough so that the journey to Paris may not be repeated, though often projected. For so, seen in a mist of youth and love, and looked back at with a wistful tenderness, Paris will take on for her a beauty that, beautiful as it is, neither it nor any other city out of dreams has ever possessed.
Afterwards such thoughts seem to me often, as they seem to you now, perhaps, absurdly arrogant and superior; and so indeed they would be if it were I, the I of little vices, petty virtues, and hampering prejudices, who was thinking them. But it is not that I; for in this strange separation of one's self from the rest of life one seems to cast off for the time being the mortality of his nature and to swell suddenly from the atom, the infinitely small and unimportant part of the whole, to the colossus for whom all things exist. Poor impotent colossus, — colossus for himself alone! That is the bitterest reflection for me, that I can do nothing, cannot change one thing of the many that seem so desperately to need changing ; can only think and think. And yet I know that if all at once the power of a God to reshape these people's lives, to " remould" them " nearer to the heart's desire," were given me, I should not dare so much as lift a finger.
And this haggard brilliant creature who passes now, — not for her?
Civilization is marching onward. Everything serves some noble purpose. " God's in his heaven— all 's right with the world." No doubt. Meanwhile sit in my sidewalk café, look out at the woman-of-the-streets, and say it if you can.
The horror of her is that she is not pitiful. In the hard mouth there is no expression; in the cold eyes that wander restlessly from one to another of the men about her there is no emotion, — only the single dull question ; in the practised raising of the skirts there is no semblance of passion. She is scarcely more than an automaton now. Habits hold her to existence, but there is no life left. Even pain is but dully felt, I am sure, and pleasure scarcely at all. Nothing of the woman remains. Did I not say that this river too carried its corpses?
But suddenly, in the stream pouring by me, individuals seem no longer to exist by them-selves. Bourgeois and prostitute and shop-keeper and the thousand others lose their identity, and I see them only as fragments of the whole swirling around together like dust-specks in a ray of sunlight. The ironic thought strikes me that each of these appears to himself the centre of the confusion, and struggles and jostles his neighbors in the endeavor to defeat the rest and achieve his own purposes. What, I wonder, can be the meaning in this which looks so meaningless? Is there indeed a meaning? What if it is not a plan, not even a plan gone wrong, but just no plan at all ? What if in all the years that we have hunted for the reason of things, there was simply no reason to find ? What if in all the centuries that we have prayed our contradictory prayers, there was No One to hear ? What if some one passing between the tables brushes my sleeve. I start painfully, like one waking from a dream, suddenly conscious that I too am part of life. I am no longer the colossus, — only the atom ; and I am very tired. I glance down. My vermouth stands untouched on the table. I drink it hastily, and leaving beside the glass the few sous that pay for this hour of isolation, I step out into the stream, and become part of it, and am swept away.