In Paris, the collective memory is strong. If you are in a spot where something significant has occurred, you’re sure to know about it. Maybe you’re in a café on the left bank where some great thinker sipped red wine, or maybe you’re in a square on the right bank where some not-so-great leader lost his head. Either way, you’ll know. There will be a sign on the wall somewhere, or five different people will have told you about it.
It’s obvious that the people of Paris take the time and effort to remember the past, but I am not sure exactly why they do it. Politics, nostalgia, pride? Some combination? Two blocks from my university, you can have lunch or coffee at Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore, where Hemingway, Rimbaud, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir spent time. You can get a pretty delicious, very overpriced cappuccino with a custom-made chocolate there. But I see people who just sit in front reading the paper and drinking a six euro bottle of Perrier. They could do the same thing with a two euro bottle of Perrier anywhere else. I wonder why they choose to sit at the famous place. Do they think they might soak up some of Sartre’s wisdom by sitting where he sat? Are they hoping to be seen?
Right now I’m in a class called La Politique de Mémoire. When I signed up for it, I wasn’t quite sure what it would be about. It is a bit strange — we really don’t discuss historical events, only how they are remembered. It’s a relevant course for students living in Paris, because there are so many memorials here.
In the U.S., I never got the sense that the literal spots where events took place were all that important. I lived by D.C for a while. There were lots of memorials and museums, like there are here, but many of them have little to do with D.C.
There is one war memorial in Paris that is not related to events that took place here — the grave of the Unknown Soldier. In La Politique de Mémoire, the professor is engaging, and he’s smart, but I have trouble with is tone. He talks about memorial to war as though it’s nothing more than a game the government plays to manipulate us. According to him, the grave of the Unknown Soldier is a ploy to make Parisians remember the First World War, even though no battles took place here. He laughs while he discusses how they chose which dead men’s names to put on the wall, and who to bury where.
During conversations about war, I’m used to an atmosphere of impassioned reverence. In my high school, there were two teachers who lectured about Armenian Genocide and World War II, among other subjects. Their names were Mr. Thomas and Mr. Hines, and if you had class with one of them during one of these more somber units, going to class was like going to watch Schindler’s list or Hotel Rwanda. Both of them are brilliant lecturers, and every day between calculus and French I prepared myself for another sharp crack in my worldview.
I think about the tone of my high school history classes, and that of La Politique de Mémoire, and about the memorials here and those in D.C., and it makes me wonder about the significance of a location. My Professor lives in Paris, and he studies the way memories form here, yet to hear him lecture, he feels absolutely no emotional link with those memories.
Maybe I’m just too used to American sentimentality. In America, you can go to Disneyland and watch a robot that looks just like Abraham Lincoln recite a combination of actual Lincoln quotes in a deep, Mufasa-esque voice to orchestral music while a fake sunrise plays on the wall behind.
I can see Paris from the perspective of an outsider. No one has forgotten the wars that were fought here or the movies that were shot here, or the beautiful sculptures and paintings, or the poetry. And the monuments made to these memories are often as glorious as the memories themselves. But I wonder if all of these significant events would still have power over the atmosphere of Paris were it not for the constant effort to keep the memories intact. And I wonder what a typical Parisian feels when he sees the Place de la Conchorde or La Bastille. Have they become invisible to him, or does he look at them with a feeling of kinship and pride? Is the Parisian with his paper in Les Deux Magots just frequenting the fine establishment, or is he reminiscing about Rimbaud?