Suppose it is granted that a plongeur’s* work is more or less useless. Then the question follows, why does anyone want him to go on working? I am trying to go beyond the immediate economic cause, and to consider what pleasure it can give anyone to think of men swabbing dishes for life. For there is no doubt that people–comfortably situated people–do find a pleasure in such thoughts. A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good–for slaves, at least. This sentiment still survives, and it has piled up mountains of useless drudgery…

…I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be too dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933

*a plongeur is an employee of a restaurant charged with washing dishes and other tasks; in Orwell’s book it is described as extremely arduous work.

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Le livre est ainsi: une maison où chaque fenêtre est un quartier, chaque porte une ville, chaque page est une rue; c’est une maison d’apparence, un décor de théâtre où on fait la lune avec un drap bleu pendu entre deux fenêtres et une ampoule allumée.

Tahar Ben Jelloun, L’Enfant de sable, 1985

[A book is like that: a house where each window is a quartier, each door a town, each page a street. It is a pretend house, a theatrical set where the moon is achieved with a light bulb and a blue sheet held between two windows.]

“He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occured precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. it had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood. He had seen a t-shirt once said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.”

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin, 2008

Dickensian Paris

The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in  muddy wine lees—BLOOD.

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

It feels like people don’t read Dickens much anymore—at least I can’t remember anyone I know recently having read him. The last I remember was everyone having to read Great Expectations in high school and hating it (since I enrolled in my high school late I somehow avoided reading it). In the mood for some classic literature over the holidays, I decided to remedy this mysterious Dickens absence with A Tale of Two Cities, which I chose due to its relative brevity and its subject matter—London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution. I wasn’t disappointed: because the novel was written in installments for a newspaper, Dickens uses common literary devices such as plot twists and cliffhangers, and the characters are rich and complex despite the short amount of time taken to develop them (though the central young female character is an annoying idiot who faints due to overwhelming happiness/sadness depending on what is happening to the various men in her life. Naturally.) But the best part is how the cities themselves act as characters in the novel—Paris of course being the bloodthirsty unstable force that pulls the characters towards it and forces them to unleash their suppressed guilt/rage/heroism…and that threatens to behead you at any moment. Yeah, pretty awesome.

I adore how Paris is introduced in the novel, with a scene in which a cask of wine is accidentally spilled in the street, and every man, woman, and child in sight struggles to drink the wine directly from the ground lest it be wasted, cupping hands to bring up wine and mud from in between the cobblestones in a hungry frenzy that culminates in the wonderful foreshadowing passage above. Given the overwhelming decadence of today’s Paris, where the satisfaction of every sense is available on every corner, there is always a certain fascination that comes with reading about the periods in Parisian history when the city was under siege or on the verge of revolution, when people were driven to survive by eating rats, or something of that nature. This is more the sort of portrayal that Dickens offers, with everyone so impoverished (though some can still afford wine) and haunted by that other personified force, Hunger:
Continue reading “Dickensian Paris”

“The river is still swollen, muddy, streaked with lights. I don’t know what it is rushes up in me at the sight of this dark, swift-moving current, but a great exultation lifts me up, affirms the deep wish that is in me never to leave this land. I remember passing this way the other morning on my way to the American Express, knowing in advance that there would be no mail for me, no check, no cable, nothing, nothing. A wagon from the Galeries Lafayette was rumbling over the bridge. The rain had stopped and the sun breaking though the soapy clouds touched the glistening rubble of roofs with a cold fire. I recall now how the driver leaned out and looked up the river toward Passy way. Such a healthy, simple, approving glance, as if he were saying to himself: “Ah, spring is coming!” And God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise. But it was not only this–it was the intimacy with which his eye rested upon the scene. It was his Paris. A man does not need to be rich, nor even a citizen, to feel this way about Paris. Paris is filled with poor people–the proudest and filthiest lot of beggars that ever walked the earth, it seems to me. And yet they give the illusion of being at home. It is that which distinguishes the Parisian from all other metropolitan souls.”

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1934