About six weeks ago, I screwed up my courage and talked my wife into making reservations for 10 days in Pairs, which we have visited more than once every two years since 2001. Blessed with perfect weather, we spent ten days there before returning yesterday, staying in a hotel in the heart of the Left Bank, just a few hundred yards from the Sorbonne. (I watched a little of the movie Before Sunset on the plane coming home yesterday and the two main characters walk through the neighborhood in the first 15 minutes of the film or so.) It was a remarkable experience as always and a reminder of the growing differences in our two civilizations.
Some years ago, after another such trip that took me well beyond Paris as well, I wrote here about some of the advantages the French enjoyed over us. Their public transportation systems are superior in every way to ours, and when you take one of their TGV high speed trains, signs on the platform tell you exactly where to wait for your own car. Their educational system is far superior, especially in the humanities. They take food and drink much more seriously without posing dangers to their health. They have a much stronger tradition of state authority dating back at least to Louis XIV, and a much stronger and more respected public sector. This time, however, I was struck by the intellectual difference between the two countries, which has widened enormously in the last half century or so.
I spent the happiest decade of my life in the 1970s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, partly for personal and educational reasons, but also because the town was built around my own interests. It had at least twenty remarkable new and used bookstores in those days, including one specializing in foreign books, all continually fed by new generations of students. I built my own library in those bookstores. The vinyl records section of the Harvard Coop occupied a whole floor of that building. And by the mid-1970s there were four movie theaters with seven screens within walking distance of Harvard Square, most of them specializing in older films and foreign films. They provided another critical part of my education. Meanwhile, although the cuisine was rather limited in scope, Cambridge was full of cheap restaurants catering to a student population drawn largely from the middle class.
There are now only two significant bookstores in Harvard Square, the Harvard Book Store and the Coop. The latter just underwent a major renovation during the pandemic, and it has cut way back on its collection of serious non-fiction, filling many prime spaces instead with t-shirts and sweatshirts marketing the Harvard logo at outrageous prices. The Harvard Square theater died in 2012 the month that I moved back into town, and only the Brattle now survives with a mixed repertoire of old classics and new independents. The last two generations have very little exposure to classic films. It is easy to chalk all these changes up to technological changes (video tapes, DVDs, and streaming) and to amazon--until one visits the 5th Arondissement in Paris, where the mid-century Cambridge world is still very much alive.
The French, to begin with, have managed to prevent Amazon from taking over their book trade. Paris has hundreds if not thousands of small bookstores, many of them specializing in second hand books. Meanwhile, the French still view their classic literature the way the Germans view their classical music, and Balzac, Zola, Camus and the rest are featured in their stores in ways that Hemingway and Faulkner nad Melville no longer are. I also saw a lot of used copies of major historical works from the 1960s-80s there, books I read in grad school and after, that American academia no longer pays any attention to. The French take all their history very seriously in ways that we no longer do.
Meanwhile, the 5th also features at least ten differnet small cinemas, each with two or three scenes, running a mix of new independent movies and repertory series built around great directors. Even with the help of a new web site, it's not easy to figure out exactly what movies are available on any given day, but it is still possible. And so it was that during a visit of nine full days, I saw different movies. They included new French films Les Hommes (which I saw on the plane coming over) and Slalom, the new musical Annette (which I detested, by the way), Roberto Rosselini's Paisa about the war in Italy from 1943 to 1945, and the older American films Basic Instinct, Charade, Shampoo, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and a 1956 B picture called The Killer's Kiss directed by Stanley Kubrick. They also included an excellent British Cold War thriller, The Courier, based on the real-life story of the Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky, who told his handlers that the Soviets had no real nuclear deterrent in the early 1960s before he was caught and executed. That movie, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch, would have earned a major release in the US even 20 or 30 years ago, but it grossed a mere $6 million in the US and Canada after being released into a COVID-dominated world this past March--1/3 of its gross worldwide. Yet it is playing in several major Paris theaters. I have seen at least half a dozen excellent English-language films in Paris over the last twenty years that got little or no American release at all.
The intellectual and cultural paradise of my youth, in short, still lives in Paris--even though the audiences in the French repertory cinemas now tend to be quite old. The influence of our business schools meanwhile has wrecked American film and American publishing. After a week in Paris I was wondering how I might arrange to spend a much longer period of time there sometime in the next few years. In the middle decades of the twentieth century American intellectual and cultural life was every bit as exciting as European. Now, it seems, others will have to keep the best of those traditions alive, at least for some time.