Saturday, November 5, 2016

Paul's Boutique

Thirty-six years ago today, on Wednesday November 5, 1980 at around 6:30 a.m., the train I boarded the night before at Portbou pulled into Paris Austerlitz. My question to the porter outside the window of my compartment was, "Qui a remporté l'élection americaine?" to which he happily replied, "Ronnie le Cowboy!" The middle-aged man who sat across from me for most of my trip, an English professor from a small midwestern university who sometimes with tears in his eyes and a halting voice told me everything I wanted to know about one of my favourite literary portraits ever -- Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" -- cheered.

And so it is today that I am overcome by a similar sensation, where the brightest among us, those who have recognized for some time now that power is no longer brokered through politics but by finance, are fur-balling over the potential for another mediated figure to be president of the United States. Does it matter? I mean, let us not forget that even before the U.S. electorate put step-and-fetch-its like Ronald Reagan in office, de-regulation and other neoliberal-friendly policies were already operative in the preceding Carter administration. Is Hilary Clinton any better (less worse?) than Donald Trump? I don't think that's the point. I think the point is that it is pointless to get caught up in the illusion or the pragmatics of choice when instead we should attempt to chart a life where crap like that doesn't matter, where, like the proverbial unfed fire, we allow illusions such as these to burn out, blow away.

When the walls started to cave in on Paul, he too hopped a train, this time to Newark, New Jersey, where he hired a carriage to take him into the country:

Once well into the country, Paul dismissed the carriage and walked, floundering along the tracks, his mind a medley of irrelevant things. He seemed to hold in his brain an actual picture of everything he had seen that morning. He remembered every feature of both his drivers, of the toothless old woman from whom he had bought the red flowers in his coat, the agent from whom he had got his ticket, and all of his fellow-passengers on the ferry. His mind, unable to cope with vital matters near at hand, worked feverishly and deftly at sorting and grouping these images. They made for him a part of the ugliness of the world, of the ache in his head, and the bitter burning on his tongue. He stooped and put a handful of snow into his mouth as he walked, but that, too, seemed hot. When he reached a little hillside, where the tracks ran through a cut some twenty feet below him, he stopped and sat down.

This is where I like to think that Paul, after further reflection (enough to realize, a la Barthes, that these images and others like them can only stand alone as "figures of the neutral"), stood up and returned to town where, in re-entering it from a back alley, he saw someone on a stoop picking through a bale of old clothes, maybe watching until that person asked if he might like to help in exchange for learning something about what clothes are for, which soon enough turned into supper, then another day's work, and eventually a job that one day resulted in a sign above a space that caught the eye of a group of musicians who took inspiration from it, a space that perhaps only just barely sold enough clothes to pay the rent, but more than that, provided a refuge for those who, like Paul, had no other options.

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