Paris: an evening near the Canal St. Martin

Bits and bobs, Canal St. Martin, Paris
Bits and bobs, Canal St. Martin, Paris

The Soup kitchen is handing out food parcels, sandwiches and cups of soup to a throng of people who have gathered next to an old convent near the Canal St. Martin. It’s around 9 p.m. The September sun has set but it’s still very warm. Most of the people are poor; some are desperately poor; some are beyond hope. This is the city; this time it happens to be Paris.

A kind of restrained camaraderie characterises this particular moment in the culture of poverty: some people exchange pleasantries; some share bits and bobs of information; some express opinions – but overall there is a kind of candle-lit calm. (Perhaps it’s a calm before the storm…)

As I take in the scene I’m reminded of the remarkable anthropological study conducted by Oscar Lewis in which he explored the life of the poor in Mexico city. Lewis taught us that if the poor have no power, ironically, they have more than their share of experience. In contrast to the rich, they have direct, first-hand, visceral experience rather than the indulgent balm of mediated experience.

To underline his point Oscar Lewis selects a striking remark made by the Danish novelist Martin Anderson Nexo. Nexo, in his autobiography about his early life in a Copenhagen slum, recalls that when he was about three years old he asked his mother whether his brother, who had recently died, was now an angel. His mother replied: ‘Poor people don’t belong in heaven, they have to be thankful if they can get into earth.’ Oscar Lewis then goes on to show how a death in the Sanchez family (the family he studied in the poorest part of Mexico city) presents itself as a testing social and economic problem – a hardship so great that it is, indeed, a struggle to get a poor relation ‘into earth.’ (It is in this sense that I understand the remark about how the poor have more of their share of experience than the rich.)

And here, too, in Paris, the sensible magazines tell us how costly a funeral will be – a cost impossible for the poorest to bear. Meanwhile, not so far away from the Canal St. Martin, the rich young things of Paris (and the world) stream into the designer spaces of Galleries Lafayette … and, through their iPhones and luxury accoutrements, live out their mediated lives …

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