|". . . like the first morning . . ."|
John Locke started it, with his Second Treatise on Government. “In the beginning,” he wrote, “all the world was America.” He wasn’t talking about a particular continent or set of continents but about human social life before the establishment of “civil society,” before established cultural traditions and legal concepts.
What would human life conducted in a pure “state of nature” look like? Where Thomas Hobbes imagined the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” the constant warfare of “all against all,” and Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned “noble savages,” unspoiled rather than deformed by civilization, Locke (neither as pessimistic as Hobbes nor as idealistic as Rousseau) took a middle ground. Acknowledging and welcoming the advantages and protections conferred by civil society, he nevertheless saw their beginnings in the family, nature’s “first society,” with responsible adults working together to improve property and nurture children, long before there were laws or cultural traditions in place.
Locke’s idea of “all the world as America” fired the European imagination, as did the American frontier itself. Long into the 20th century, Hollywood Western adventure stories were as popular overseas as in the United States, Western movies even at times copied and filmed in European countries (“spaghetti Westerns”), and that fascination is not over yet. Epic literary tales like Jim Harrison’s Revenge find huge audiences abroad. “Jim Harrison?” exclaimed a bookseller I asked in Paris about French translations of our friend’s books. “J’adore Jim Harrison!”
What do most European tourists want to see when they visit the United States? New York, the Grand Canyon, Disney World, and Hollywood. A few may fly over Chicago and get an idea of Lake Michigan, but it is the open, empty expanses of land, the young mountain ranges, the soaring skyscrapers, and the Disney fantasy that best answer European preconceptions of our land.
I was reminded of the myth of America when I picked up Paris la Grande, by Philippe Meyer. Ah, Paris! Surely the antithesis of Chicago, wouldn’t you imagine? But immediately in the opening section the author astounds me by writing of Paris as “cette espèce d’Amerique où chacun peut espérer donner à sa vie un nouveau départ.” Paris, he is saying, is a kind of America -- because (and here comes the myth) one can come to Paris to start a new life on a blank slate! Coming either to Paris or to America, he believes, you can leave small town traditional life and escape your neighbors’ eyes and judgment!
When I was in graduate school, a friend from Ethiopia who had had a very French education up to that point was astonished to find that large numbers of Americans, like “country people” anywhere in the world, maintained attachments to specific regions and landscapes and to life in far-flung towns and villages. My love of Michigan amazed her. Why would I, an educated person, identify so strongly with a particular section of the country? Wasn’t “America” a more universal concept and therefore a more appropriate object for my devotion? She was also surprised to find intense religious feeling among so many Americans. Before coming here, she had imagined America as a land where inhabitants looked only to the future, relying on nothing but science and law, feeling no inhibitions and respecting no traditions.
But that’s just it. Even America is not “America” in that sense – it is not, that is, the mythic “America” -- and it never was. Before Europeans “discovered” the continent, different peoples called different regions of the land home, and while some of them moved from one place to another with the seasons, it rarely occurred to any of them to leave the familiar entirely, without any reason, and strike out for parts unknown. Tradition is part of human life. Our first attachments can only be local.
Paris has its own traditions, and, like Chicago or Cincinnati, many of its neighborhoods are small towns in themselves, peopled by inhabitants who immigrated to the capital from an outlying province or a foreign country, bringing with them their food and customs. Like New York, Paris can be provincial, too, and much of its charm lies in that fact. Meyer recognizes as much, I learn as I read on, but it is still the possibility of anonymity in the metropolis that attracts him and, he believes, attracts most people who come to make their home there.
Isn’t the possibility of freedom in anonymity the attraction of most cities as opposed to small towns? I don’t see it as particular to Paris, much though I love Paris. Meyer’s migration from Versailles to Paris has much in common with Alfred Kazin’s escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and I found the delightful feeling of freedom myself in Cincinnati, where I could roam the streets and neighborhoods like a tourist no one knew (like Chiang Yee’s “silent traveler”) and then go home alone to my little student apartment to read and write.
Paris as “America”! Leave it to a Frenchman to come up with such a startling and controversial concept!
Can you imagine a French family coming to live in Northport with the expectation of escaping neighbors’ eyes? In our little village? And yet, ain’t we America, too?
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Another local note: En cherchant le vert du commencement du printemps ce matin, je l’ai trouvé! Not yet visible from the road, the first wild leeks are up an inch or two in the woods.
|Spring is beginning to spring|