“On a Monday morning in November 1919, Sylvia Beach hung a small wooden sign above her door and opened the shutters to Shakespeare and Company. The signboard was a painting of the bard… The importance of Shakespeare and Company had nothing to do with money. By the end of the year, it was a place where readers and writers could talk to one another, where older and younger people exchanged ideas.”
–The Most Dangerous Book, 148-149.
In the wake of the recent terror attacks on the streets of Paris, I have watched the responses on social media with the same curiosity and withdrawn study as I did the Boston Bombings, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the race-related riots post-Ferguson, the Occupy Wall Street Movement. There were two typical trends to facebook posts. On the one hand, the facebook team created the French Flag profile picture option, and the “check-in” feature to insure loved ones that you were okay. There were sentiments of grief, of solidarity, even references to the long-standing relationship the U.S has had with the French, from the time of the Revolutionary War. On the other side, there was an undercurrent of frustration, as huge waves of sentiment were poured out for France while attacks in Beirut, in Baghdad, and the continuing civil war in Syria, were left barely noticed. Arguments were being had: who was to blame? How would the attacks be politicized? Why hasn’t Obama escalated the war against ISIS? Is this the fault of the refugee crisis in Europe? One political meme was particularly poignant: a photo of refugees traveling the long walk to Europe, with the words “They didn’t cause this,” and then below, a photo of George W. Bush and Al Gore, with the caption “We Did.”
Regardless of your political opinions or perspective, this is an example of one reason (among many) that we (as Americans) might mourn Paris with so much passion. Imagine a statement of that sort, accusing a former U.S president of creating a global terrorist organization, and causing a war that has led to the deaths of millions of civilians around the world, being made in this country one hundred years ago. Or maybe even sixty, at the height of McCarthyism. The power of our federal government to restrict, censor, and destroy the words that its citizens write, publish, and utter has been reduced dramatically, and largely in part to the literary establishment born on the streets of Paris, and proliferated by the shelves of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, on the Rue de Bucherie.
James Joyce’s book Ulysses, containing some of the most brilliantly written scenes of sexual fantasy and perversion, was very nearly destroyed before publication by the U.S Postal Service, and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV). Accused of containing lewd and lascivious material (which it most certainly did), and by other organizations of containing treasonous content regarding the Queen of England (which it most certainly did) and the long arm of the Roman Catholic Church (which it most certainly did), Ulysses was rejected by nearly every publisher its patriots approached. When it was being published serially, the magazine was shut down in a court of law for containing explicit material that could corrupt young women. A scene in which a woman reveals her undergarments to a man on the beach was considered so vile, the director of the NYSSV missed the language which suggested that the male character was pleasuring himself throughout the scene. And no one had yet read the section a hundred or so pages later in the book, in which the central character’s wildest sexual fantasies play out, including scenes of BDSM, homosexuality, prostitution, and other acts considered by the moral society of the era to be unmentionable.
Then Sylvia Beach, who had never published a book in her life, but had nevertheless shaped the movement of modern English literature, offered Joyce’s poisonous masterpiece a home through her bookshop in Paris. He was not the only one to find support between the shelves of that shop. Ezra Pound, T.S Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, and many others looking for the time and inspiration for their own masterpieces came to Beach’s store and found it. These authors were loosening the grip of moralists and Eurocentric writers on the literary canon, allowing room for the controversial inclusion of Eastern philosophies, racial inclusion, homosexuality, experimental writing, and politically subversive thought. In Eliot’s The Waste Land, the Buddhist notion of “Shantih” gets the last word. In Joyce’s own work, Hindu ritual practices stand side by side with Christian ritual, atheism and blasphemous language describes the Catholic mass, and royal figures are described with the same sort of scorn other writers of the time were using for colonized peoples around the world.
With the help and inspiration of the progressive intellectual culture in Paris, our own literary canon here in the United States was able to develop beyond the constraints of a censorship-oriented political culture. Because of the subversive thoughts published by Beach and Joyce in Ulysses, we can share a meme on facebook accusing a former U.S President of war crimes without the fear of imprisonment (although we may operate under the fear of FBI and CIA surveillance).
What Eliot was able to do, what Joyce contributed to, was revolutionary: by placing the traditions of canonical European texts next to the canonical Eastern texts, they reveal their own similarities and relevance. These Paris writers opened, even just a little, the Westerner’s notion of community, of familiarity. Now, social media and alternative news sites are bemoaning how Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, are not given the same reaction that Paris has evoked. I recognize the frustration with Eurocentric coverage of global conflicts and violence, and recognize the need for fair and balanced political attention. But this is a misguided complaint. I mourn the loss of my own grandfather with more grief than I do my friend’s grandfather. It is ignorant to ignore the deep, familial relationship many Americans feel with European ancestral countries. Many have French blood, French backgrounds. Anne Sexton writes to her deceased grandmother
Come, old woman,/we will be sisters!/We will price the menus in the small cafes, count francs,/observe the tower where Marie Antoinette awaited her beheading,/kneel by the rose window of Notre Dame,/and let cloudy /weather bear us home early/to huddle by the weak stove in Madame’s /kitchen.
How many of us share this rich, perhaps romantic, notion of our cultural past? How many of us see France and see a sibling nation, the way Sexton sees her own time in Paris mirroring her grandmother’s?
Imagine this sort of attack happening one hundred years ago, prior to World War One. Would Beirut have even been mentioned by the New York Times, or the BBC? Would Baghdad? It is because of the rupturing of our closed border ideology by French thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucalt that we now take notice. It is not yet enough–I look forward to a time where my knowledge of the great intellectual progress of thinkers from Beirut, from Syria, from Iraq, is as great as my knowledge of those in France–but we are part of a timeline greater than our own lives. We should not reject right-minded sympathies for the victims of the attacks in Paris in favor of an emotional connection we do not yet feel for other equally important nations. We can take comfort, and continue in self-education, knowing we are on track towards a cultural basis where our sentiments are equally heartfelt for those all around the world.
One of the most significant impacts all the above-named writers had on modern culture was their emphasis on empathy. They believed in radical understanding of the inmost desires and motivations of others. Unprecedented, never-before-uttered thoughts were published, read, and discussed; a deconstructed-then-reconstructed amalgamation of cultural production from around the world was distilled daily in the cozy reading room of Shakespeare and Co. It is this radical empathy which we must so fervently feel in the wake of the Paris attacks. It is easy enough to feel empathy for the victims and survivors, the city left devastated in the wake of horror, what with the imprint of the World Trade Center still fresh in our minds. The harder act of empathy, the act which writers like Joyce and Eliot demand of us, is understanding those individuals who perpetrated the attacks. John Oliver calls them “fucking assholes,” and then evokes the great intellectuals of French culture. But these very intellectuals would ask us to imagine the circumstances from which these attackers come. What sort of violence have they seen in their own homes? What tragedies have they faced? What terrible crises have they traveled through in order to come to this deadly conclusion? It is a scary train of thought, and one made difficult by the freshness of the spilt blood in Paris. But it is precisely this empathy which our own American community failed to feel following the tragedy of 9/11, which lead to the devastational war in Iraq. In defending Ulysses in trial over its obscenity in 1933, Judge John Woolsey writes “Joyce has attempted to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions.” In plain speech, Ulysses examines how three different characters perceive the world about them, endeavoring to shape that perception as fully, and in as rich detail, as possible. Can we endeavor to do the same? As we endure the burden of grief, anger, confusion, frustration, and knee-jerk reactions of aggression, can we dare look through the kaleidoscopic perceptions of those terrorists, and see not just their violent acts, but their whole residua of past impressions?
Empathy is not pity, or mercy, or weakness, or forsaking action. Empathy is merely understanding. These artists and revolutionaries throughout Paris’s history worked hard to offer us the gift of empathy, a privilege too many of us too often squander.