America Vs. Europe

I wonder why I find the notion of living “simply” in a place like Eugene or Taos or whatever unappealing. I thought the isolation was unappealing, and the inability of doing some things I like (traveling, not living in a “subculture” fashion) due to lack of money, the sense of being outside the swim of things and therefore producing things (writing) that betrayed that lack of sophistication.

Then I realized that although those things are important, that was not really it. If I could live in Paris, say, and Be A Poet, at the cost perhaps of money, I might very well do it. Well, why? It’s not just the romance of it, which is a factor. It’s because just like Cowley and Stearns and his crew thought (then later backtracked on), America is a simply terrible place to be a writer. Why? Because if you say, “I am a poet” then Americans will think — even if you truly are pretty good — that what you really said was: “I am a fool, a nobody; I have no real role in society; poet is just another word for someone who lacks the self-awareness to do something with himself.”

The problem is that this is usually right. In France though, and in Spain, and probably other countries, if you say, “I am a poet” what they hear is: “I have dedicated my life to understanding our humanity, God and death, and making beautiful things that improve people’s lives; I will act out of the ordinary — bohemian — because that’s necessary for me to do my job, for me to fulfill my socially-recognized role.” And they nod. Ah, ha. I see, that makes perfect sense. It’s sensible.

That’s not to say that you are the same as an insurance salesman. Far from it. But you are not a bum. Those societies are much more likely to recognize what you’re doing as worthwhile and allow you latitude. Maybe that’s because unlike America you didn’t have to work-or-die, society developed more slowly, letters were part of the sense of self of peoples across Europe. I don’t know. But I know that no matter where I was I would want the capacity to live like a human — buy clothes, food, travel, have savings — but here in America you do not have an identity — well, not one that I would want — without money. Also, as a grown up, I am unsatisfied merely imagining. Still, I would be more satisfied somewhere that imagining and imagination were not so perilously smeared together.

In other words, what I need is significance. It is impossible to gain significance from writing that no one ever sees. It is possible to gain significance in America through your work, your clout and the way you physically manifest your culture. The problem is, significance has two sides, outer and inner. Work in America — well the work I currently do anyway — can only provide the outer significance. When I told S.P., for instance, who is a smart fellow, that the job I interviewed for in Seattle could lead to a permanent job with Microsoft he thought that sounded top drawer. Why? Because it had outer significance. Working at Microsoft was something someone who had their shit together did, not something a loser did. But since I don’t find a reward in the work itself, it is only half the necessary daily requirement of significance. However, as I said, there is not outer significance in writing stuff that no one sees, and after a while the inner significance fades, then fades out. Why? Because although writing is an internal art in its composition, it is external in its use. One writes in order to be read. Now, I write for myself as well. Why? Because it straightens out my thoughts, releases pressure. That’s useful to me. But its not significant. I cannot in good conscience face the wind at sunset and proclaim (in voice over to a swelling Mendelsohn concerto): I am a writer! I am not a writer. I wrote, that’s demonstrable. But I’m not a writer. A writer is a position. I do not have that position.

Well, I could go on and on. My point again, distilled, is, yes, I hear what people are saying about not trading one’s health for money (No Blood For Oil!) and I will watch out. Unfortunately what I really want — a good living or maybe “life, lived well” — is only available in America with proof of purchase. What do I like? Travel, wine, good shoes, conversation, good food, music, nature. In the Europe I imagine it does not cost much to get these things. In America, it costs a great deal. Except for real conversation. That is unavailable for any price.

American Monster IV: The City of Light and the Cités of Darkness

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On the night of the gay pride parade in Paris, S. and crossed the river to meet our friend David for drinks. We walked across the place de la Bastille, which we later discovered contained 600,000 revelers. On the way we saw a man beating on two drag queens. The crowd followed the assault back and forth across the square with the kind of unpredictable ebb and flow of which only a mob is capable. S. plunged into the clot of 600 observers to pull the drag queens away from their victimizer. Panicked, I plunged in to pull S. away from the mob.

This was only the first of four brutal assaults we saw that night. A common element of every fight was the participation of northern African immigrant youth. I am mentioning this not to indict Muslim immigrants as congenitally criminal, but to point out what has become the defining issue for 21st century France, for Paris in particular, and for Europe in general: immigration.

France, a country of fifty-nine million, nine of whom live in Paris, has an non-native population of six million. Most of this immigration has happened since the Second World War. It is not there was no immigration prior to that, but decrease in European populations due to war, and the need for post-war rebuilding, made it desirable to import workers. Afterward, especially as the European powers gave up their colonies, commonwealth agreements made it possible for the formerly colonized to immigrate to the lands of the colonizers.

Although the Seventies saw a clampdown in the generous immigration rules in Europe, the immigration itself did not slow, especially immigration from non-E.U. countries. Among other things, family members joined immigrants in their adopted countries. For another thing, most countries make exceptions for “asylum seekers,” people fleeing “persecution” in one form or another. It is this asylum exception that may account for the increase in non-E.U. immigration in the last twenty years. Certainly the Europe I first visited in the early eighties was not nearly so ethnically diverse as the one from which I have just returned. The city of Frankfurt, for example, one of Europe’s financial centers and not a traditionally diverse city, now has a foreign-born population of 30%.

For France in particular, two issues have made this latest wave of immigration very difficult to deal with: cultural dissonance and the lack of a technology of assimilation.

Most immigrants to the wealthier European countries, such as the UK, Germany and France, used to be southern Europeans; Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards mainly. There was a shared culture in that all peoples were citizens of Europe. But today’s immigrants, especially to France, come mostly from Islamic countries, from the Maghreb, the Levant, from Mali and so on. So the culture of the immigrants and the culture of France are frequently at variance.

There is one important way in which the European countries differ from a country like the United States, whose national consciousness has been built, however imperfectly, by immigration. The notion of being French, or German, or English, is based on ideas and structures that were created long before today’s immigration became a reality. How can one be a Frenchman when one speaks Berber? When one wears a hijab? In the case of France, the notion of a “minority” is not even legally recognized. Everyone is simply French. The census does not break down citizens using any criteria of ethnicity or national origin.

The French government set up their immigrants with everything they need – subsidized rents, food, utilities, medical care, child care, education – everything except the one thing that can make them real citizens: inclusion. The overwhelming majority of immigrants that settle in the Ile de France are housed not in Paris, but around it, in public housing apartment blocks. In this respect Paris is similar to most other large cities of France, where the suburbs, not the inner cities, are the “ghettos.” Police frequently refuse to go in to these cités, as they are called, as do firemen and ambulance drivers, since all three are routinely attacked by the inhabitants. These suburbs are underserved, sometimes completely unserved, by public transportation. Work, one element of social life that forces people from different backgrounds together, is hard to find for immigrants in a country that is both paternalistic and has a 9.5% unemployment rate.

Considering the difficulty European immigrants face in becoming an integral part of the societies they find themselves in, it is small wonder that they make up a disproportionate population of European prisons. Over 29% of French prisoners are immigrants and over 50% are Muslim. When Muslim clergy exhort their parishioners to outbreed their hosts, when they maintain their host countries are immoral and therefore legitimate targets of violence – one popular imam in Amsterdam issued a fatwah against Dutch homosexuals encouraging his parisioners to throw them down into the streets from the rooftops – we can object, but we cannot credibly pretend to be shocked.

All of my prior knowledge about Paris came from books and most of those books were written fifty to eighty years ago. When I ordered wine I ordered Sancerre, because I had read it. When I ordered an aperitif I ordered a kir, because I had seen it in a book. And the thing is, Paris is every book you’ve ever read. It has an amazing ability to absorb, to contradict and to harmonize. Paris is bigger than anything that happens to it. Standing on the balcony of our little hotel on the rue de l’Abbe de l’Eppe between the church of St.-Jacques and Guy Lessac, I looked out over Paris, first toward the Pantheon, then toward the Luxembourg Garden. To look at Paris, to walk through it, is as the writer Adam Gropnik said, to move constantly from the monumental to the intimate. But it is also to move from time to time, from the death of Danton to the life of Abelard, from the studio of Modigliani to the penthouse of Catherine Deneuve, from the Deux Magots of Hemmingway to the Montmartre of Berthe Morisot. The question for the future of Paris is: will the City of Light be able to absorb the cités of immigration? Perhaps that question is not for Paris alone. Perhaps that is the question for Europe.