When I was very young I was taken to France. The idea was to tour the whole country. I sat in the back of a large comfortable English car: a Humber. It had a huge leather seat in the back. That was where I sat and for much of the summer I looked out at France – at something significantly different from the south-of-England sights with which I was familiar.
In what way was France different? Well, in just about every way that my senses could perceive; France, I realised was decidedly unlike England and I especially liked its aesthetics – from steak-and-chips to the beautiful girls. I liked the design of french cars, the pages of ‘Paris Match‘ and the advertisements for Dubonnet that were painted on the walls of houses…
A few days ago I was reminded of my early experience of France when I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 black and white film ‘Vivre sa Vie’. It’s the kind if film that the lucky ones amongst us became familiar with as the 1960s unfolded. Its focus is upon life, sex, style and culture in Paris. The film was (and is) a pleasure to see – in large part because it surfaces a range of pure ideas: Godard’s film takes the intellect seriously; surface and depth intertwine: it’s an aspect of french culture that may still endure …
The film begins with a quote from the liberal humanist Michel de Montaigne:
“Lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself.”
(We pause and think about this.)
It then goes on to profile the life of a young woman (Nana) who is forced to ‘make out’ in the emerging consumerist culture of Paris; Paris provides the stage and backdrop upon which and against which certain episodes of her brief life are portrayed. We see cafes and coffee bars and juke boxes and vinyl records …
We discover that the young woman is familiar with some of the central ideas of existentialism:
“I choose. I am responsible. If I do something it is me who has exercised my freedom so to do. I am responsible. If I think something I am responsible.”
(We pause and think about this too.)
In one remarkable scene the young woman dances alone – and the style of her dancing symbolises the idea of liberation – or, at least, the pleasure of self-expression.
(We think: When the dances change the walls of the city shake …)
And perhaps the most sustained moments of critical reflection take place when, in the very heart of Paris at the Place du Châtelet the young woman strikes up a conversation with a philosopher. The philosopher turns out to be the actual philosophy teacher of Jean-Luc Godard, himself. He is called Brice Parrain.
The encounter between Nana and the philosopher is riveting. (Do encounters like this happen any more?) Brice Parrain, who plays himself, considers, en passant, some of the deepest features of our humanity. He says:
“One learns to talk well only when one has renounced life for a time.”
He considers that the flow of life moves between the ‘everyday’ and ‘detachment.’ We need, he thinks, a detachment from the pressures and problems of ordinary living because:
“From everyday life one rises to a life we call superior: the thinking life. But this life presupposes one has killed the everyday” – a life which, for Brice Parrain, is ‘too elementary.’
This was Paris, 1962.
My original idea of Paris and of its role in advancing french culture, was that it valued the insights yielded by philosophy – it valued the ‘play’ of thought – whilst simultaneously cultivating and enhancing an aesthetic sensibility.
Nowadays, in the Paris of 2017, I’m not so sure. Perhaps only the backdrop remains.