Some Things I've Learned in Paris

(Forgive the mopey, drama-queen tone. I think it's unavoidable with this kind of blog post.)

I’ve learned that the default state of a human being, alone and sober, is profoundly alienating. It’s the whole crux of existentialism, yet again. Gorz devoted a vast amount of effort to understanding and explaining how that works, of how the consciousness can possibly feel alienated from the world it exists in. How can we be born into the world and yet discover it to be a foreign, hostile place? His answer, like Sartre’s, took about 600 pages to work through. I feel very close to him right now, in that weird and kind of creepy way scholars always say they feel close to the people they study intensely. That alienation from one’s self feels incredibly acute when I’m alone.

I’ve learned that Becky and I have grown together, like a grafted tree, in ways that I never noticed when we were together at home in California. We are both profoundly different people than we would have been if we hadn’t been together, and together for this long. I experience her absence as a kind of maiming, a crippling of who I am and what I’m capable of.

I’ve learned that it takes an incredible amount of courage to live in a foreign place. It makes me think of immigrant communities, with people who live somewhere their whole lives but never learn the language, with profound sympathy. It makes me think of Brecht’s poems about exile during WWII, “trapped” near a beach in southern California, longing for Germany.

I think I mentioned the end of David Byrne’s movie True Stories way back when I arrived. He, as the narrator, says “I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don't notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.”

The movie is all an enormous put-on, a tongue-in-cheek take on 80s America saturated with a knowing, false naiveté. So, at first, that quote seems kind of cruel, another stupid thing said by the stupid American he’s playing in the movie. But I now feel like there’s a profoundly human element to that idea, of needing to forget. When you arrive in a new place, you notice everything because everything is threatening. The noticing arises from the kind of vigilance you have to maintain, because you never know what all of these foreign objects could do to you or how you could be injured or humiliated by them. To forget the details is to be comfortable enough somewhere that you no longer feel like you have to do that.

In that sense, enjoying the process of forgetting is nothing more than admitting the fact that almost no one is strong enough to keep up that kind of vigilance indefinitely.


Austin Rich said...

"I’ve learned that the default state of a human being, alone and sober, is profoundly alienating."

This is also why humans pair-bond and drink so often, which is one of the things I've learned this year. But I might have already known that...

kungfuramone said...

Yeah, it's funny how it seems somehow INNOVATIVE to figure that out for me, even though it's all people ever do....