In many French villages you’ll find a cenotaph that suggests you pause and remember the fallen soldiers among the citizenry. The fallen are, in fact, everywhere. In a country often ravaged by conflict, history is made up as much by the recurrent annihilation of its inhabitants as by the splendors and miseries of its kings and courtesans. And in a country such as France, where the patrimony of former glories is as revered as the uncertain future is feared, you can’t escape the sense that long-ago holds a stronger sway than the unfortunate reality of now.
The memory of a past we never experienced can be more powerful than the present. We live in an age of monuments to the dead and the slaughtered, to the fallen, the half-forgotten – no more so than in Paris, where building plaques remind you of notables who thrived or perished there, of semi-anonymous “morts pour la France,” those victims of conflict or those everyday fatalities of war or of terror, those liberators, those ordinary souls made significant by dying for a cause, their own or others’.
More than memorials – or perhaps more than the statues of former greats standing in squares and on boulevards – the dead accompany you on your walks, they take up residence on the walls where you live. On buildings everywhere you’ll find a notice of illustrious occupants from days gone by, whether in Paris or London or even (though less frequently) New York. But in Paris especially, as much as you’ll see a plaque telling you that a composer or writer or scientist lived in that very building you stroll past on your ordinary day, you’ll be reminded of people who were gunned down there or who were pulled from home on that very spot and sent off to die during war.
I’m as interested as anyone in who lived where I live, who worked where I work, who thrived where I get by. But I’m more likely to recall actual encounters or sightings than to take comfort in knowing that valiant resistance fighters were gunned down by Nazis near where I stay in the 17th arrondissement or that Debussy wrote Pelleás et Mélisande near the little grocery where I sometimes buy butter at a pinch since on a Sunday it’s the only store open. Death is constant but life overtakes death, regardless of how much you wish to remember what others did on your behalf long before you were born.
The building across the street from my apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan has a plaque noting that Rachmaninoff lived there for a while toward the end of his life. But more memorable to me was seeing the actual, living Barbra Streisand leaning out of a window from that same building, while below, between takes, a cheery Jeff Bridges snapped photos of the film crew on the street in front of my apartment house, as Pavarotti’s version of “Nessun Dorma” poured out of speakers, during the filming of one of the final scenes of Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces.
In Paris, I was more taken by recognizing at a sidewalk café a supporting actor from the eerie French series Les Revenants than really appreciating the significance of the building housing that café being the place where, according to a marker affixed to the wall just above the awning, a group of children in the 1940s was sent to internment camps, where they all perished.
But this is normal, this muddling of priorities of what you’re supposed to feel as the world whirls around you. The dead are too much with us, late and soon, and our fleeting encounters with the celebrated living are more remarkable for their rarity amid the humdrum. Still, in Paris, and perhaps France as a whole, a culture of ancestor worship and an upholding of certain traditions hold sway, as in Japan but without the spiritual underpinnings. But it’s there in France, in the culture, in the cuisine, in the architecture, in the tempered cynicism of people who barely deign to accept the way the world is now since everyone knows that before it had held such promise.
I come from a place where violence is glorified but where death is swept aside. Not that Americans don’t remember their dead, but it’s not as if you’re reminded of who has died while you go on about your day. We need to make an effort to accept the inevitable that we’d rather forget until it comes upon us. And not always even then. Not so in France, where a respect for certain ways of life or living comes from acknowledging the weight of finality, the reality of the cemetery in the center of the city or at the edge of town, the family plots, the heritage, the betrayals and the unspoken stories. You keep on doing things as they’ve been done because while you tend to forget the people who did them, you know that you’re at least doing something that had once been done well by someone you’ll never know, but whose memory you keep alive even as you forget why the thing was done in the first place.