XXXVII – To Have Paris

Picasso - FacebookSince Friday, 13 November 2015, when bombs exploded in different parts of the city, the world of cyberspace has been crying for Paris. In these three weeks I too have felt a number of emotions, but none perhaps stronger than wonderment. Why is the suffering of Paris such a source of digital tears, while the world remains nonplussed about the terrorized inhabitants of Baghdad or Beirut, and doesn’t appear to care much, if at all, for the passengers of the Russian plane that broke apart over the Sinai Peninsula? Very few people posted the cedars of Lebanon on Facebook or tweeted about the lost citizens of St. Petersburg, but we made the French flag take over the web as if we were all children of Casablanca who would always have, or want to have, Paris. I confess I too posted my own tragic version of the thing: a weeping woman from the Musée Picasso, photographed by me on a cold rainy afternoon last December, now recast urbi et orbi in glorious digital tricolor courtesy of Mr. Zuckerberg & Co. Then it all felt quite indiscreet and charmless — sentimental jamboree — and I took it down in less than twenty-four hours.

Gué - Dame blanche, 2But now, dear reader, I give you this other image — not that it amounts to much either. In my search for my own Paris to mourn, I remembered a long-dead character in the family tree, Julien-Michel Gué, who was the youngest sibling of my fourth great-grandmother, Anne-Julienne Gué. Like his six older brothers and sisters, Julien-Michel was born in Saint-Domingue (in July 1789, no less) but, after the violent death of his father, the boy, along with the rest of the family, “returned” to France and settled in Bordeaux. He was just a child at the time, so I wonder whether as an adult he ever thought of his native island, or whether, like France generally did through much of the nineteenth century, he consigned the old remote colony to oblivion. Three of his brothers visited Saint-Domingue just a few years after their departure, but we have no evidence to suggest Julien-Michel ever did. An artist, as I wrote year in Paris, he studied with David and was a runner-up for the Prix de Rome in 1815. He also traveled quite a bit through other parts of Europe, it seems, accompanying Victor Hugo on an Alpine journey… But on that Friday three weeks ago when bombs exploded throughout Paris, I kept thinking of the image posted here, which I had found months earlier on the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It’s an engraving of the set for the first act of La Dame blanche, the opéra-comique by François-Adrien Boieldieu, which Julien-Michel designed apparently for its premiere at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris in 1825. Based loosely on several works by Sir Walter Scott, the opera centers on a mysterious Scottish castle and features a spectral figure known, the eponymous White Lady… The work was an enormous success for much of the nineteenth century, and there are a couple of modern recordings, including one conducted by Marc Minkowski — but it wouldn’t be farfetched to dismiss the whole thing as silly Romantic stuff. Yet, for me, three weeks ago, viewing Paris from a distance of several thousand miles, the little engraving was my pleasurable link to the wounded city. As it turns out, the work’s libretto was written by Eugène Scribe, who for me, back in the twentieth century when I spent much time in the city, was merely the address — 11, rue Scribe, near the Opéra — of the bustling American Express office, now gone, where I picked up my mail almost every morning… Whoa, such preternatural convergences between Paris and moi…

Such silly romantic reveries, really, this digital transit of mine across the worldwide web and through my fading memories. Julien-Michel Gué, despite his colonial origins and provincial ties, appears to have settled in Paris for good. It was, after all, the capital of the nineteenth century, and there I imagine he imagined he could have the life he wanted. He died on 13 December 1843 and is buried in the city. In fact, I think I saw an online image of his Parisian gravestone just a few weeks ago, but now that too is gone — or maybe I imagined it. There, dear reader, in the realm of imagination, is a key to why many of us were moved by the events of 13 November. We can’t have anything forever; not even Paris is immortal. When terror reigns in the city, we sense the foretelling of our own deaths. Morbidly, we see ourselves mourning own inevitable dispossession.

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