Thursday, June 12, 2008

A grey day in Paris, with a flash of red

It's been a grey day in Paris, cloud chasing cloud across a sombre sky patched with blue, occasional spatters of rain on the windows. This time of year seems to be generally quite wet. Freakishly powerful thunderstorms strike the city from time to time causing flooding, interspersed with a few hot days here and there, just enough to get the mould spores growing. A couple of weeks ago I was walking home in the evening from the train when it started to rain. A few minutes later, before I made the safety of my home, the lightning was crashing so close to me I put my umbrella down and decided to run for it. By the time I got inside I was drowned like a rat.

Toay, I left my office at La Defense early in order to come home and see my daughter play guitar in her school music concert. I rarely leave the office as early as 3.30 pm, and I don't know what encouraged me to walk a little further down the platform than I usually do, but when I sat down on the train, I suddenly realised that I was sitting opposite an extremely old man.

It is quite rare to see very old people on the RER. Maybe it's the door handles that can be difficult to turn which discourages them. Maybe its the rude character of the seats and the grafitti scratched on the windows. This very old man was shrewd looking and turning his head rapidly from side to side in order to look out of the windows and peer all around him. He was not just sitting, but animatedly observing.

His skin was very pale, almost transparent, patched here and there on his neck with light brown liver spots. He was wearing golden glasses with rather large lenses that gave his face a hawkish appearance, his nose slightly hooked and his head turning as if looking for prey. His hair was completely white, a little tufty in places and forming a halo around his head. There was a plump man sitting next to him, hemming him in, and when this man got off at Nanterre Université, the old man got up, apparently rather relieved, and took off his thick winter coat.

Underneath he was wearing a jacket and tie, the jacket cut in a heavy dark green tweed. On one thick, wide lapel of the jacket, a tiny but bright flash of red had been sown that stood out against the dark green wool. It is the sign that this very old man was a member of France's 'Légion d’Honneur'. Now I was sure. It was Claude Levi-Strauss. This year, on 28th November, he will be 100 years old.

"When the miracle occurs, as it sometimes does; when, on one side and the other of the hidden crack, there are suddenly to be found cheek-by-jowl two green plants of hidden species, each of which has chosen the most favourable soil; and when at the same time two ammonites with unevenly intricate involutions can be glimpsed in the rocks, thus testifying in their own way to a gap of several tens of thousands of years suddenly space and time become one: the living diversity of the moment juxtaposes and perpetuates the ages. Thought and emotion move into a new dimension where every drop of sweat, every muscular movement, every gasp of breath becomes symbolic of a past history, the development of which is reproduced in my body, at the same time as my thought embraces its significance. I feel myself to be steeped in a more dense intelligibility, within which centuries and distances answer each other and speak with one and the same voice." Claude Levi-Strauss 'Tristes Tropiques'

7 comments:

Stuart said...

It is moments like this, for me, that make living in Paris such a delight.

Ivy said...

Wow, that's amazing. :-)

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm really pleased to have been able to share this with you.

Andrew Shields said...

Makes me wish I had seen Albert Hoffman on the tram in Basel sometime before he died earlier this year.

There's something so fascinating about intellectuals who live to be a hundred. Gadamer and Junger have been the two best known ones in Germany since I moved to the German-speaking world in 1991.

And Richard Eberhart and Stanley Kunitz were two recent American poets who hit three digits!

Thanks for the vivid description.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Andrew.

Lucy said...

Oh my! That's impressive...

When I lived in London I lived in hope of seeing Doris Lessing on the bus. She wasn't 100 at the time, and wasn't quite as batty and compromised as she is now, and I knew she did travel on London buses, so I thought it might happen. It never did, though I almost convinced myself a couple of times...

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello Lucy. I have hoped that I might see C L-S while in Paris, perhaps at a seminar or similar. I never imagined that I might see him on the RER.