I never thought I would witness a day when Paris lovers no longer kissed on park benches. Nor had I even conceived of a Paris without its cafés. As for the city of Lights, a curfew has snuffed them out. I don't even know if the Eiffel tower still sparkles on the hour each night. If by the city of Lights we refer rather to "enlightenment", never have I felt such darkness closing in. Still, if I choose now to write, it is only about the light.
I remember this:
"The warm June evening air was humid and heavy as the rain clouds began to encircle us. The café terraces on rue Montmartre were a frenzy like bees around blossoms. We walked slowly over the cobblestones, entirely absorbed in each other’s gaze. I took her hand and stopped our walking. A whiff of hair--that irresistible trigger of desire--slipped beside her eye.
I took my hand to her face to brush back the hair, then with my palm holding her head I moved my lips toward hers, for the very first time. We saw the lightning flicker out of the corner of our eyes, when our hearts were beating outside of ourselves. Much later the cool drops would begin to fall, along with the night. But for the longest time, there on the cobblestone corner of rue Montmartre, we were welded to each other, our tongues searching the recesses of each other’s mouth. We had opened the floodgates of desire and soon there would hardly remain a high place to save ourselves." (*)
This timeless scene could have been set in Paris at any time in history, except the present. Only in this period of mind-boggling paradoxes have we been deprived us such simple things, deemed superfluous, in our quest to save lives at all cost (but only from one particular cause of death). Paris has known more dire times, but never so dumbfounding.
There was a crucial moment in the history of this glorious city when all, absolutely all, was almost entirely destroyed at the hand of an external foe (**). During that darkest hour of Nazi occupation, Parisian cafés went about their normal business. Lover's tongues reveled in each other's germ-rich saliva, stealing brief moments on a park bench. Those were frightening days when each kiss might have been the last. Nobody was admonished to "stay safe". What mattered most was to live fully or die bravely.
Hitler's planned destruction of Paris was its most harrowing hour, but at least it didn't happen. Perhaps a more dreadful period in French history was "la Terreur" instituted after the Revolution by the Committee of Public Safety. Tens of thousands of French men and women were executed, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned, as a necessary safeguard for the new republic. The committee had full executive power to carry out its mission of "public safety". In our current context, a new High Council of Public Health has been appointed. Happily, the guillotine has been put away; censorship has replaced public executions. Some may not think that being fined 135€ for smooching in the park is that big of a deal. After all, it's in the interest of public safety and health, is it not?
I do not wish a return to those days of mass violence, but on this strangest Valentine's Day ever, I do wish for the revival of Romance (with a capital R because the cause is bigger than you might think). That is an easy wish to make, you might say, but I wish for it in a way that requires great risk...for there is no romance without risk as far as I'm concerned.
There is no "stay safe" romance.
There is no romance with a mask.
There is no romance without theater, music, and dance.
There is romance when death is near. The most poignant romantic archetypes (Héloise and Abélard, Tristan and Isolde) walked the razor's edge between love and death.
Lest you think that I value French-kissing in public above all else, I'm only using romance as a seasonal pretext. The real feeling that breaks my heart on this Valentine's day is that of human life itself being stifled under a sinister double-bind.
"Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, at the dying of the light." Dylan Thomas wrote this about death, but I hear it rather as the cry of a romantic hero who resists being tucked away under illusions of comfort and safety.
I also rage because what I believe to be the most important issue raised by this pandemic--that of our innate health and immunity--is entirely ignored by public policy, as are the root causes of the pandemic and its correlated factors.
I have heard it said, again and again, that all these minor and temporary deprivations of liberty, imposed by executive order, are but a small price to pay to save lives. I then wonder: what exactly were those liberties for which previous generations saw fit to sacrifice so many lives in their defense? Was it democracy itself they sought to defend? Or did they die so that a Committee of Public Safety might once again be proclaimed? I also wonder why such honest and legitimate questions face such hostility. Others, more publicly exposed than me and far more knowledgable (Nobel-prize scientists even), have been censored for opinions that I consider entirely legitimate within a democratic society. Maybe it is no longer a democratic society we desire, but rather one in which those who are right can impose their beliefs and common sense upon those of us who are wrong (or just plain ignorant in spite of our ongoing research).
It's been almost a year now that my head has been spinning in stupefaction, desperately trying to find some coherency in the vast web of entangled contradictions. I know I'm not the only one, yet still feel entirely estranged from what seems so obvious to others.
Maybe it's time to set the mind aside, and let the heart begin to dissolve the divisions between us. Beyond the apparent folly of romantic love, there is another love akin to wisdom. It won't be spreading like a pandemic throughout our world, but may feel like a rising tide, slowly engulfing everything, and lifting us to our dream.
I have hope that Romance will be revived in Paris someday, and that those romantic places I used to write about may again come alive. But that day is not tomorrow. In the meantime, my great love affair with Paris (and France), the subject of my book entitled EXQUISITE, must now give way to greater love. If some were motivated by love to help contain the present contagion, perhaps others will pay more attention to those other causes of premature death that continue to outpace Covid by a very long stretch. As for myself, I will make it my mission to create a living environment centered on health and well-being, for myself, and for others to emulate. This, I believe, is how we will survive pandemics to come. I have also come to believe that the changes required to reset our civilization on a sustainable course will require more than rational calculations and technological solutions. They will require a love for all life on earth. As we again learn to restore and nurture what we have ravaged, our species will regain resilience and discover how exquisitely fit it really is to co-evolve with those micro-organisms we so fear. This is the intent of an excerpt, called Earth Erotica, from my book-in-progress called The Light House.
It is my wish that on this one Valentine's day, we consider how the vitality and spontaneity of romantic love can nudge us closer to a love for all life.
* Excerpt from the EXQUISITE: Facets of my France.
** I relate this harrowing true story in the same book, EXQUISITE.