Miller: The Colossus of Maroussi (1941)

835241602I have one of the most remarkably poor memories of anyone I’ve ever met. Perhaps the very worst. What I can handle, though, is something a lot of people have told me is not only strange, but also difficult: I’m generally reading between 20 and 30 books at a time, and I stretch out reading them sometimes over years. It’s a bit foolish, but I seem very able to compartmentalize many parts of my life that way, so they exist in their own worlds uninterrupted. That’s characterized as a coping device as part of some disorders. How fascinating. So, judging by the book’s price, which was written in British pounds, I’ve been reading this book for two years. It’s a little over 200 pages. From the moment I began it I was enthralled in that way only Henry Miller and Anais Nin have ever done me. It’s essentially a travel book recounting Miller’s year-long vacation in Greece, and a remarkable account in that there’s nothing in vaguely erotic, which is usually Miller’s big draw. The emphasis is on Miller’s own experiences, his own transformation, and he makes clear that he does take some artistic license–and then the book isn’t really about Greece at all; it’s about Miller and his friends. His travels, the people, the sights, all are generally used to illustrate larger points–the sort of explanations that leave me breathless, unable to continue, always visualizing myself lost in space, but floating with determination.

Of course his Greece is much like his Paris, pre-War, and though he speaks in a recognizably modern voice, he lives in a world very much lost to us, I’m quite sure, as we all come to look the same and live electronically. In the book everyone loves Americans and America. They cheer us for saving them, and hope that we will save Europe from the war. I’m thankful that there was a Henry Miller writing during those years that I’m so fascinated by, and I wonder if perhaps he could have existed at any other time, if Henry Miller invented those years or they invented him.

I’ve decided it’s time to begin with Proust, who’s one of those writers everyone seems to throw the name around, whose work everyone has apparently read, though not me. So, it’s time to begin. july 5 07


Bayeux was a tragedy from the start. Every day for a week I would wake up early in the morning, trudge down to Gare St Lazare, sitting at the front of the metro with all the old women, and ask where the train to Bayeux is, nobody ever understanding my pronunciation. And each day the train would not get there in time for me to get inside the museum to see the famed tapestry. I would use these days to go shopping and visit all the little things in Paris I otherwise would not have seen, perhaps, although I didn’t want to leave Paris at all. Ligne 14 seems to be the furthest underground, it takes four escalators to reach, I think, and as it approaches its final stop at Olympiades, everyone who’s familiar walks to the front car of the train and then runs out to be first up the escalator. The last of the escalators is very long, and at the top are old women handing out newspapers, they may be communists, I’m not sure, I never took one, and in the evenings a large tent is set up and candy is sold, life-size candy bananas and all the colors and shapes and smells to make me feel like a child. I never bought any, on Celine’s advice, because she says it’s all filthy from chemicals floating around in the streets, and I suspect children touch it all. But when Celine took me to a Christmas market I did buy a macaron flavored with bergamot, how many chances does one have to taste bergamot outside a teacup? And also I bought a dried banana and a dried kiwi. I was in heaven, and it was while I was enthralled by my purchases that Celine and her mother sneakily found out what sort of scarf I was hoping to find, I pointed to a bunch of men, anything with stripes, I want to be French! And they bought it for me for Christmas!
Finally, I left early enough in the morning to make it to Bayeux, and its train station is not inside the town itself, but rather far outside it. I was on a schedule, and I heard the sound of English, so I broke my rules to ask a man if he spoke English, and he was stereotypically Irish. ‘Do you know how to get to the tapestry?’
‘Don’t bother, mate, it’s closed.’
‘What do you mean it’s closed? Are you sure?’
‘Trust me. It’s closed until tomorrow.’
‘Is there…anything else to do here?’
‘There’s a pub across the way.’
I had 20 minutes to eat and then catch the next train to Paris. I left the train station and went to the hotel, a grimy place decorated with American and Canadian and British flags and signs saying ‘we welcome our liberators!’ They didn’t have any food at the bar, so I figured I’d walk to the town and see if maybe this Irish guy was wrong, I mean, it’s Bayeux, it has no reason to exist anymore except the tapestry, there’s nothing else in it, how could they close the tapestry? But they had. Some unimpressive doors held a small paper sign with a messy handwritten note that they’ve decided to close for a few days. I walked into the town, up and down the streets, all their shops marked ‘SOLDES!’ just like in Paris, but already the Paris mindset had poisoned me, nothing was chic enough. They’ve tried to give some history to the city by marking every old building and explaining its construction, how the upper floors extend over the lower floors, for instance, to help prevent rain from getting on the ground floor. The oldest building in town still has a fleur-de-lis carved in it, though you cannot see it, it’s so faded, the building boarded up and for sale, an inn that royalty may have stayed once, maybe, or nobody really knows what the hell happened there, but it’s old, the other buildings have computer classes inside, they look modern and lack character. Water flows through the city, stone restaurants, water-wheels, tunnels and iron grates. I couldn’t find a bank anywhere–somebody directed me inside a smelly food store where I found an ATM, and went up and down the streets determined, now that I’d missed my train and would have to spend the whole afternoon here, to find some food to make me happy.
I wanted a mozzerella sandwich, fuck French food, and I found a tiny place that served them, I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as I walked in the door, but the fat woman who owned the place had already seen me, and I felt like it would break her heart if I left. She had an enourmous menu and almost no food, a few pastries scattered in a glass case, a few sandwiches in the window. I ordered a mozerella sandwich, and a small plastic baggie she’d made up herself of haribo candies. Food prices were about half of what they were in Paris, and I was delighted although a bit nervous–it didn’t seem right, are they okay to eat? It wasn’t mozzerella, it was chevre, which even by this point was beginning to make me gag a little, and I threw it away, this goddam skimpy sandwich, I won’t miss the tapestry and reward myself with a shitty sandwich, and went to a larger bakery and bought one of those, I wish I remembered its name, a common French sandwich that they have two types, one for men and one for women, and it’s a piece of bread with some meat on top of it and some melted cheese, very messy and greasy and not especially enjoyable, but…well, it was enough, and I had my candy, and then, when I’d exhausted the town and its narrow sidewalks covered in old people and hipster teenagers,
I went to a bakerie filled with mirrors, one of these places in which there’s barely enough room to walk, so they put in two doors so you can just be forced through like goats, but I loved that it was filled with mirrors so that I couldn’t figure out where it began or ended, I bought a bag of madeleines and something that looked like a baguette but the woman told me was sweet. Sweet is a meaningless term in France because sweet may mean something that is only sweet in your imagination it’s so subtle, like eating a piece of bread while looking at a sugarcube, or something so sweet that your blood congeals before your tongue even knows what’s going on. I prefer the subtle sweetnesses, they remind me of the taste of love. I was running out of money, I continued back to the train station, stopped at the hotel and spent two hours working on translations and drinking chocolates and coffees because they were so unbelievably cheap, some obnoxious old men came in and sat behind me talking loudly to everyone, they seemed to know the bartender, and an old black man came in and sat and watched everyone with a silly grin on his face that one would never see in America, he kept adding comments here and there and everyone treated him very well, and a young woman, perhaps my age, but with eyes that said she had two or three kids, and a short and fetid old woman who shuffled around chewing on her lips, and when I asked where the toilets were and if I had to pay, I went to them and she followed me in, and I closed the door, turned on the dim orange light and stared out the window, and didn’t even undo my belt, just stood there, knowing this horrible smelly woman was on the other side of the door waiting for me, staring, and I finally opened the door, and there she was, staring at the me as I knew she would be, and I stalked out, still having to piss. I had had a brilliant idea, to take the chocolate they gave me and put it in my coffee and it would turn into a chocolate coffee. It didn’t work, once I’d finished the coffee it looked like someone shat in my cup. I tried to eat the horrible stuff to save me from shame, brought my dishes to the bar, paid my obscenely small bill…
and then I caught my train, after taking my pills I fell asleep and a man woke me up fifteen minutes later to let me know we had to change trains. So I followed him out, and he led me to the parking lot where he got in a car and drove away, so I went back underground and found my way to the station, figured out what train I would need to Paris, and spent a while in convenience store looking at erotic novels and debating what the conditions would be for me to have to buy one–I think I promised myself that if I could find a magazine about weight-loss I would buy some erotica. I couldn’t find the magazine, so I just left when my train arrived. I probably ended the evening by picking up a pizza and sharing it with Nathalie, we would drink tea and listen to Keren Ann, and she told me how wonderful it is that I take trains to nowhere and see nothing, because it gives me something to write about. And then I don’t write about it until today, when she knows I’m miserable, she calls and reminds me of these things that we could sit around and laugh at and our wonderful evenings, and she tells me to write about this.

‘You have your music, and your writing, and I have my photography. You need to write, you need to write, and do it now, because you need to use this powerful energy for something or you will lose it for nothing. You are part of a chain.’
‘I don’t like being this part of the chain.’
‘But it’s what you are. Other people depend on you, because when they hurt, maybe it will be something you wrote that will make them feel better.’
‘I don’t care about how other people feel. I don’t care for them, I only care about me and how I feel.’
‘But just think, so many people will suffer like you, so  many people will be hurting, and most of them do not know how to create music or write beautiful things or take photographs, they just have to suffer in silence, and when they are through suffering, they have nothing to show for it. ‘
‘Then I want you to write me about things we did together.’
‘I don’t understand. Like what?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, like ending up in the Luxembourg garden and the cafe being closed and sitting in those green chairs in the cold eating our desserts for breakfast, or that bitch with the hot chocolate–we had a lot of hot chocolate episodes, or going out on New Years and being unable to find a bar!’
‘Or going out on my birthday and walking for hours trying to find a bar and finally you got annoyed and demanded that I choose any bar!’
‘I didn’t get annoyed, but they were all going to close soon and we Had to get a drink.’
‘And afterwards we spent a whole hour in the fucking cold trying to find a cab!’
‘I need you to write all these stories, all the stories you can think of.’
‘Yes, I will, and I will send you the recipe for flan and you will impress your parents with your cooking.’

Dijon, pt 3: efficiency and prudence

The mindset I mean is that in the US, so far has been instilled in me is that the purpose of life is to assure oneself and one’s ‘clan’ (of sorts) prosperity. That is, you should be wealthy, but you should also bring along with you anyone that you’re prefer in your life, which may be some of your family, and may be some friends, or may be nobody. You live to work, your children are an investment to ensure that someone can continue to work when you cannot, and so that you will be somebody’s child when you have the strength of one again. We drink coffee to wake up and wine to sleep, parties are mostly to find mates or to drown sorrows, our blockbuster films are about checking dreams off a list before death, our bestselling books are about places you must go and things you must do before dying. We demand results, we demand objectives.
‘”Play by Ear.’”
‘Uhm…is it what comedians do?’
‘No. I think improvising is what you do when…well, yes, like on the comedy shows, and when, for instance, you need to make dinner but all you have is a cabinet full of spices.’
‘Like we’ve been doing.’
‘To play by ear, that’s something you say when you want to avoid making plans immediately and would rather just put it off until later. That’s actually part of the American Civil War, that nobody wanted to deal with the Blacks problem until it had already exploded. We also say ‘let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,’ to mean the same thing, as in, we’ll deal with it when we reach the problem. Does that make sense?’
‘Mm, no.’
‘Alright, when you improvise, you know what the outcome will be, but you don’t know how you will reach it. The comedian’s outcome will be a laughing audience, ours is dinner. How we get there, we don’t know. To play by ear, you’re not sure what the outcome will be, but you know what you’re going to do in the meantime.’

On the night of the party, we forgot to eat dinner on time, or we ruined it when it was being cooked, or something like that, and so we didn’t eat. Everyone at the party had a piece of bread in one hand and a drink in the other. One after another of the girls sat down next to me to speak in English and suggest that I help with studying for the upcoming examination and talk fondly about America. Someone made me a strong drink with rum, and someone else had me try anise, and Scott always told me to stick with one drink for an entire evening—except beer, because beer is good anytime—which is probably why I was dizzy when I got home and unhappy the next morning.

But my point is that the amount of time spent eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and conversing, by which I mean, all the activities that lead Americans to call the French lazy, is really, so far as I can tell, the only reason to live. They delight in other people, they delight in their senses, and they delight in their bodies, and as far as thought goes, I think it was Abelard’s school in Paris that influenced the direction of Cambridge and Oxford, and in recent years my preferences in the arts tend to be French—and if not, then first widely accepted by the French. When we think of lazy we think of fat people or drunks or dogs sleeping under trees, so that when we call the French lazy we think of them as lazy Americans, when what seems more the truth is that the French swim through pleasure in the same way that girls can swim through love. But they work when they must—and seem much more serious about their work when they do, perhaps because on the other side of work is pleasure again. The customer seems to always come first at stores, everything is always clean and well-ordered in even the shittiest of restaurants, nobody seems to become exasperated at their jobs and things move very quickly. Things are always very clean here—I mean, when I see shit on the sidewalk, it’s always fresh shit, and despite the scarcity of trashcans, there’s almost no litter. Everyone always finishes everything on their plates—I mean everything, every last grain of rice, even every last droplet of salad dressing, even a mound of mustard, if that’s all that is left, it will be eaten. I’ve been told it’s because it’s been paid for and, even if one cannot eat another bite, it must be eaten because otherwise you’re not getting your full value. I think this may be how they treat life: why blush about diarrhea? why refuse an experience? why deny yourself a single thing that is or has the potential to be amazing? and why turn it into an item on a list, like a vaccine, when you can have it again? I don’t mean that I have this mindset, but I do mean that I wish I did. That being said, I’ve also heard that in France I will always be hungry, that their meals are very tiny. It’s not true. I’ve never seen so much food as I have here, and I’ve never seen so many people so consistently eat so much food. Yes, their meals last twice the length of American meals, but they eat four times the amount of Americans, and somehow do so without needing their napkins and still talking twice as much. I ask how it’s possible that the French can all be so thin if they eat more than Americans. “That’s because all you eat is grease. Pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, Coke, nothing but sugar and fat. We may eat more than you, but we have a balanced diet.” I was shopping for clothes recently and the only sizes I could find were smalls and mediums. There were very few mediums.

That evening we met up with friends and went to a bar. We walked down cobblestone streets until reaching a place in the wall that I did not recognize as a door. With effort we pushed the giant metal door open and then pushed it shut again, and once inside the dark, stone room, I felt like I had found my way into a castle’s walls. We crept up a winding stone staircase towards a light and knocked on a wooden door, and then—we were inside a gorgeous modern apartment, unremarkable except in how comfortable it was. C  gave me a number of rules when I got here. One was that our yogurt is on the middle shelf on the left. Another was that it’s very important that I never wash any of the teapots because much of the flavor in tea comes from all that buildup. Another was that I need to wait five minutes after I turn off the water in the shower and then turn it off again. The hot water is only produced twice a day, I’m pretty sure. But, as I learned over the summer, you only rinse yourself off with it, and then wash off the soap, and then rinse out the tub. During a shower, the water doesn’t run for more than a minute or so. I learned this by asking her over the summer. I learned also about how we shouldn’t keep anything electric running except when we’re in the room. None of this has anything to do with saving the earth: it’s about bills. All the windows here have shutters—not for decoration, but for keeping heat in. They are often used as window blinds also. My own windows stretch from the floor to the ceiling and have handles as if there was a porch outside. Sometimes, for what reason, I’m not sure, they open on their own. Now, it’s snowed a few times since I got here, and when I woke up this morning and they were open, I found that I hadn’t even noticed the difference in room temperature. We don’t keep the heat turned on. We wear warm clothes and when we’re stationary, we’re generally wrapped up in blankets and drinking something warm or alcoholic. And furthermore, beginning with kisses on the cheeks, people are much physically closer to each other all the time. [At first I found it unusual, but by the time I left I didn’t mind it at all, in fact, I enjoyed it…while here I’m ashamed to wipe my nose in public, there it became easy when I saw everyone was always doing so…they accept that they have bodies, and two months of being cold became easy, and a wonderful excuse for hot drinks all day long–coming back the cold US I immediately reverted to more wasteful habits when it came to heat, not intentionally, but because I found myself shivering much easier. There’s so much we take for granted.]

A few times when girls meet me, they hesitate and then put out their hand for me to shake. Everyone goes silent, and when, a moment later laughter erupts, the girl looks around and then offers me her cheek. When we ate lunch at somebody’s parents’ house yesterday, when wine and anise were being served the girl’s father ran in and, a little embarrassedly and a little concernedly, asked “would you like a coke? Not cocaine! I mean—I mean that we have found one bottle of coca cola—would you like it?” I asked C, do Americans have such a reputation? And she said we do, that when one thinks of an American one thinks of someone eating a hamburger and drinking a Coke.

So I am always sitting next to people very closely, or walking closely, or speaking closely, it’s very easy to make eye contact with people I don’t know, and everyone has been very friendly. When I went to a restaurant (I didn’t know if it was a restaurant or not…it was mostly a bar) to grab lunch one day when I went to school with C, I went to the bar and asked if I could buy something to eat there. The woman asked me a question I didn’t understand and when I told her so, what would be customary in the US, that is to repeat oneself at the same speed but to speak very loudly and make the person feel like an idiot, she asked me simply if I want something to eat, and I said I did, and she pointed towards a door that connected the place to another building and then said “non, non!” and motioned me to follow her, and ran to the door herself and came back a moment later asking if I’d like a sandwich and I said yes and asked what sort of sandwiches there were, and when she began speaking I didn’t know what she was speaking about and just looked confused until she said poulet, and was on the verge of doing a chicken impression with her arms when I exclaimed “poulet! Oui, oui!” [Knowing the word for chicken is second most important to knowing the word for bathroom, and what I didn’t express here at the time was how pessimistic this experience led me to feel, unsure of whether I should be sitting at the bar or a table, knowing how remarkable it was that I’d gotten myself food, and wondering how the hell I’d ever do it again. People ask me now if my French is good. No, by the time I left my French was not good, but I could travel and thrive easily without speaking a word of English, buying strange things, navigating strange cities and transportation that didn’t make any sense, and doing all these things fearlessly—perhaps I didn’t know the language very well, but by the time I left I knew enough to communicate effectively.]

Dijon, pt. 1

November 25, 8:55pm It’s funny, firstly, to think that there are other places, but it’s even more funny to actually go to these places and have to deal with them up close. The most wonderful part is that I don’t have to deal with them as a tourist, that is, I don’t have any serious connection back to my own world, and I don’t have to deal with them as a backpacker, so that I’m stuck in a certain role, I’m just here. The plane ride was fine, although I’d hoping to get the two seats to myself, because that’s what the computer showed, an old scowling French lady was there when I came to sit down, and made a comment about something, maybe she was making a joke when I took my tranquilizers, but anyway, I couldn’t understand her, and afterwards she did not want to speak with me, except I asked her “est-ce que vous aimez vole?” and she looked at me like I was crazy before answering j’aime! And I thought she was correcting me and I exclaimed j’aime! And she turned away. I was afraid she would die during the flight, though she showed no signs of it, which made me begin wondering if perhaps the French don’t die of old age, or maybe they don’t die at all. But if they do, oh, it would not be good to have her die during this flight. All around me people were speaking, even an American woman in front of me, middle-aged, who reminded me of Martha Stewart, flirting incessantly with a young black French man, very hip. It was a long flight, and took off more than an hour later than it should have. We flew into Paris as the sun rose and I thought it was the largest brightest city I’d ever seen.

Nov 26 8pm Once off the plane I waited for my luggage and getting through customs was very simple, and I could not be bored waiting just to hear the language and see how everyone acted and dressed—perhaps it is just selective blindness, but everyone seems much more fashionable here, even the people who I was on the plane with. I received my luggage surrounded by hasidim and young couples with babies, and customs took less than ten seconds, unlike in the US where it will take no less than a prison-sentence to make it home. Céline and her family met me at the gate, standing right in front, and things began feeling so surreal now as I said my bonjours and shook hands with her father and was taken by surprise, C. noticed, when her mother offered me her cheek and I slowly remembered that this is the equivalent of shaking hands, but I did not know I would be doing it so very often, later her sister and her roommates. I remember very little about walking through the airport, a reunion and also being a bit overwhelmed by hearing and seeing French everywhere. To the car, still before 9am, and most of the cars on the road were by companies I’d never seen before, all French, including the one we were in, and we listened to that music still popular in France that sounds 20-years dated in the US, they gave me a bag of croissants from McDonalds marked Le Petite Dej’ and spent a long time driving slowly down highways in traffic jams in the rain. But meantime, the houses and buildings were, even the modern ones, like nothing I’ve seen before, even when boring, there was something about them un-American, like I’ve seen in photographs but thought I never really paid attention to. Celine lives in a neighborhood of old houses, chestnut trees, which I’ve never seen before, spread out in flat layers, iron gates and children with pompoms on their hats, a neighborhood in which she says the houses begin at 500k euros. Her family lives in what used to be a farmhouse, and they point out that the upstairs they think held hay and the downstairs held cows, and it is part of a long building in a complex that her father is in charge of, as a mechanic, so when we drive up a gate opens. And behind another gate is her house, very pretty, a little dog named Awen jumps up and down at the window and she pokes at it before we go inside. She plays with her dog by dragging it by her legs and throwing a tennis ball and doing all the things I’d be afraid would damage a little dog, but he loves this, and when he runs and jumps at me, he jumps into me and bounces off like rubber and does it again.

I just received a message from Celine’s sister, and it says I am invited to dinner with their family, followed by “I hope you are not boring,” the whole sentence being “I hope you are not boring in Dijon.” Céline and I discussed this word only this morning, the difference between being bored and being boring. Celine says that once I asked what Solene was doing and she replied ‘she’s being boring,’ and when I looked shocked, that’s when we figured out what she meant.

The streets in her neighborhood are only wide enough for a row of parked cars and a row of driving cars, and so, if two cars meet as they’re driving, the one driving in the direction of the parked cars has to park. Every two weeks the cars switch which side they’re parked on. We went to the train station to get me a 12-25 pass so I can get discounts on train tickets for being under 26. And then back to her house for lunch, which is an extravagant event, beginning with fish-stuffed olives and a salad of cucumber and tomato on which we chopped up shallots and put on a mixture of mustard and oil, I think, and delicious bread with yellow raisins in it and all their butter comes in large molds with under a plastic cover and is sweet and, well, completely unlike butter I’ve had before. And then lamb, and potatoes, and butterbeans. And then, for dessert, many different cheeses. And then coffee. And then we sat and talked, and a few people have been surprised that I’ve learned as much French as I have in five months, perhaps because it’s quick, perhaps because it’s quick for an American? And, by now, I was very tired, so I slept for a while, and when I woke up Céline’s parents drove us to the train station where we met Celine’s sister, Nathalie, and then caught a small train to Paris. In Paris everyone is stylish and a bit brusque, which would have offended and surprised me had I not been with Céline to follow around and provide commentary. As we were standing there a woman came up to us and begged—actually, on the small train a gypsy woman boarded and I thought she was speaking with her daughter until I noticed how often she kept repeating s’il vous plait, and realized she was begging, so I looked away like everyone else. At the train station a woman asked me for money and I said je ne comprend pas and she began speaking to Celine who turned her away, and the woman said to her ‘you are mean, pretending to be Americans.’ And we caught the train, where we had reserved seats and for a few hours we were on our way to Dijon, and I thought I might be sick from the motion of the thing, so I was very sad, but we arrived in the cold wet night and, since there were no more busses for nearly an hour, we dragged our luggage down the dark streets, where I could not see how beautiful the city truly was, and to her apartment, where her friends and dinner awaited us. Sometime very early I suddenly became very tired and had to go to bed, where I slept until late. Dinner also was extravagant also—I love how much emphasis is placed on enjoying food and drink. Oh! And as for her family, they were not how I expected, I expected her father to be a little cold, and her mother to be silent, but not at all, I think the words Celine used to describe them lost the true meanings of what she meant, because they were both very funny, and very warm, and I felt quite at home visiting with them.

We went food shopping on the next morning, which was an adventure too, as they have so many more delicious looking foods than we do, partially because everything we see in storybooks as children, food as it is supposed to look, this is how the food looks here, it all just looks appetizing. So, we bought many foods, came home, and I spent the whole day sleeping. Dinner. And more sleep. And then this morning, waking up late. And spending the day with Celine, as we did on weekends, helping each other study, having breakfast and lunch and then she took me out to see the city—it looks like something from a storybook, just as Whitney’s little town at Oktoberfest did, so does this one, cobblestone streets and medieval churches and bread and pastry and meat shops and stands on the streets selling gingerbread and mustards, and many, many streets without cars, and everyone dresses in black, so stylish, the shoes I’ve been looking everywhere for, are sold in every clothing store window.

Jeanne d’Arc, part 1.


I’ve always been highly conscious of lingering energy, though part of it may be my imagination, I’ve been to where Martin Luther King was shot, and it made me shiver a little, even at age 8, not because of what had occurred there, but because I knew without a doubt that he had been there himself. When I walked up the Statue of Liberty, despite the terror at the way it swayed in the storm, with every step I thought of all the great footsteps that were beneath mine. At Versailles, it was not the princes I identified with anymore, it was the poor running through the palace seeking the king and queen. For ten years I dreamed of the Hall of Mirrors, I pictured the gardens outside, it was a feat of unmatched la gloire! and at this age when very little surprises me anymore, I found that the Hall had been greatly enhanced by my imagination, I almost vomited in a London bathroom that looked similar.
What caught my eye was something behind the mirrors: my face. Would it only take one change of clothes, perhaps a haircut, to let me see what these mirrors must still remember? I think of young men and ladies looking at themselves in these mirrors, and I think of the revolutionaries running, always running in my imagination, through that hall, did they stop and stare? Did they know what to expect? Did it infuriate them to see the excesses, or were they awed by its magnificence? When I step inside any cathedral I have the same argument with myself–how many people could this cathedral have fed if it had never been built? Will Durant suggests that over-control of the population, leaving the failures in charge of procreation, is the downfall of some civilizations. If they stalled, is that what gave Marie Antoinette enough time to escape? And when they found the rooms empty, did they walk or did they run back out? Did they touch
anything? They tore down weather-cocks from the houses of the wealthy. The chambers below the Hall of Mirrors are pathetic, whitewashed, dark, low-ceilinged, even depressing when the windows are open, the library of men destined to never be great, to be filled with knowledge but fail to outlive the king. The bed where the queen would insist the entire court watch her give birth, how does a queen spread her legs? how does she scream? does somebody consume the afterbirth of the sun-king’s descendants? I can’t even clip my fingernails without thinking of Sir James Fraiser’s list of peoples who consume fingernail clippings and earwax in the endless battle against bad magic. I take a particular pleasure when in large cities of clipping my nails out the window, here’s something that won’t kill anyone it lands on, isn’t as immediately disgusting as spit, and gives the recipient the opportunity to retaliate. I suppose the only thing better than that would be to just slit your wrists out the window. I’ve heard that defenestration isn’t nearly as funny as it sometimes seems.
When I stand at the windows, I don’t care for what I see, but I care for what has been seen, and by whom. I care that this view once meant something. I care about the ways that stone steps are so weathered by footsteps in the Louvre as I trot to the top floor with one hand prepared to cover my teeth if I fall. I send out little prayers to the dead, even the dead who don’t deserve it, for what we’ve taken from them. And that’s the point I’m trying to reach, which is that I feel like going someplace allows us to take a little bit of it away with us, we don’t need to take photographs because we’re taking something of the essence in our hearts.
But…can it run out? I think so. But isn’t there more to it that I feel? Yes–it’s that I only take away what I’m seeking, or what I feel or know is there. I never take away ghosts I do not know. Which is why I feel nothing of kings and queens–for Marie Antoinette’s toilet, I only wonder what that second little hole is for? Céline says tampons and smiles. I wonder about the revolutionaries, not as revolutionaries but as people, because I identify with them as people, I identify with standing in the houses of the wealthy and poking my head around and gasping. I take a little bit of the revolution away with me, god knows there’s none of it left at the place de la bastille. Between the revolution and napoleon, the messiah comes and history gives way to modernity somehow, it’s not the Champs-Élysées of Joni Mitchell (or David Geffin, if you’re going to get picky) I walk down, no, because on one hand I’m trying to figure out where I can possibly throw a clementine peel since there’s no goddamn trashcans, and on the other I’m trying to figure out how
long I have before that quiche and its burnt chevre explode from my ass and how many years I’ll be put away for manslaughter afterwards, sorry Paris, is this still Paris? no public toilets or trashcans? That’s just fine. Because I’m crying softly for the Champs-Élysées of Watteau, and if forced, of Degas, and all I can feel are the goose-steps of Nazis, I can’t even feel Napoleon. Modern, modern is when you order all your soldiers confirmed infected with plague to be shot in the name of mobility. Do you remember what happened to your car-phone? Some would call that cruel, and some would call it merciful. I’m not afraid of death, so I call it kind. I can’t bear to walk all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, mostly because of the diarrhea, but also, let’s be serious, why do I care to see a testament to ultimate failure? It breaks my heart that Napoleon broke up with Josephine, and that’s why I hate him. That’s the only reason I hate him. Because I’ve read his love letters to her. Monogamy, the one thing princes cannot overcome, even Leonard Bernstein had to marry against his sexuality to assure himself a job conducting the NY Philharmonic. Life is rough. I don’t have enough money to see Blake’s illuminated manuscripts at the
British Library, and I don’t have enough to see the uncensored copy of Nin’s Winter of Artifice at the Biblioteque Nationale. Life is rough. Four different people have told me in the past 24 hours that they’re the only person who truly understands me. Life is rough! I nod weakly. The whole family is worried that I’m drinking too much and not eating enough. My first reaction to returning to Ameriker was to lose fifteen pounds. My mother says my belt isn’t tight enough, and to think these pants made my package look huge just last November!
Unlikely as it may seem, Jeanne d’Arc has always been one of my heroes. I remember where I was sitting precisely when I first saw Bill and Ted’s something-something Adventure, and two characters jumped out at me: Billy the Kid and Joan of Arc. I was better situated to pursue Billy the Kid’s footsteps, so I’ve trekked through deserts, cemeteries, ghost towns, I’ve stood on cliffs, been in the dirt houses of those people we still called Indians, I’ve seen the bullet holes in the walls, my skin has cracked in the dry heat, I’ve been blinded by the dust, I’ve been thirsty, I’ve been tired, I’ve held guns, I’ve felt my skin burnt by trucks on fire, I’ve been cold at night. And always that one foggy image of Billy the Kid, the idea of him hiding in bedrooms, his youthfulness and sharpness, his inherent greatness. One night at a bar Scott and I decided a new rule was in effect: wedding rings meant nothing, we would chase married women if they dared to look us in the eyes. In a way, murder is okay when it comes to legends. Daedalus is an object of pity, but I become uncomfortable to think of him as the murderer of his nephew. But Jeanne d’Arc…what has she meant to me that has lasted for so long, what does she mean to me now? How is it that I continue to feel attached to her? It has something to
do with all three of the things that have obsessed my aching mind since first my eyes were opened and I was ashamed, many years before I could even spell my own name: death, sexuality, and god. Since then it’s been Dreyer’s portrayal of her, and Shakespeare’s, and it’s been the way she’s haunted my memories of my future, the way I’ve always felt like a sacrifice, the way I’ve presented myself as the goat destined for Azazel, the way they tested me for scoliosis twice every year until I was 16 because they couldn’t understand that every time a butterfly died the muscles in my back would grow a little bit weaker. I haven’t quite learned to lift with my legs yet, though I’ve seen the signs a thousand times, I just never paid attention.