The Illusion of Paris: A Path to Discovery
It is known that Paris possesses a romantic haze that wraps around the scaffolds of dreams, coloring the intricacies of illusions and bringing them to life. This charmed Parisian spring of life is fed by belief; people believe that Paris is a romantic hotspot with the power to bring meaning and inspiration to life, and so it does. The mind is powerful, and comfort, sought out in the face of hardship, can be readily found in Paris. Baldwin and Hemingway each build a Parisian illusion to cope with different difficulties, be it cruelty or poverty. In Paris, they do indeed gain inspiration, however it is not through the illusions, but rather through reality in the dissipation of these images. For it is upon coming to terms with their disillusionments, that both authors gain insight into their identities and roles in America.
In Paris, James Baldwin convinced himself that man’s cruel nature was a depravity localized to some distant land that he held no ties to, only to realize under the thinning of this illusion that cruelty indeed was fundamental in the shaping of his identity and was what ultimately made him an American. In 1948, a rootless Baldwin left America with fears for his survival if he were to have remained. In The Discovery of What it Means to be an American, Baldwin states his primary reason for leaving was to escape the “fury of the color problem” (Nobody Knows My Name 17). Wanting to “prevent [him]self from becoming merely a Negro” (Nobody Knows My Name 17), Baldwin sought out a place where he wouldn’t be characterized solely by his race or plagued by an unthinkably cruel past; he sought out a place where he could actually feel like a human being. Paris, where legend boasts, “all become drunken on the fine old air of freedom” (Notes of a Native Son 130), was a seemingly fit destination, and it is where young Baldwin found himself upon his flight from America. It was a perfect fit for Baldwin, who sought solace in an illusion that gave him both a hopeful future and a rightful plea to leave his birth land; Paris was a “city which exists only in [one’s] mind” (Notes of a Native Son 130), and this allowed Baldwin to see only what he wanted to see. There is no doubt that Baldwin was truly under the illusion that cruelty was limited to America, for he writes in Equal in Paris, “I had resolved to find a place where I would never hear it anymore” (Notes of a Native Son 161). The “it” that he talks about is this same ‘American-localized’ cruelty laced into the laughter of the people in the courtroom. In the Parisian jail, Baldwin is chillingly jolted from his illusion, realizing that man’s cruelty is “universal and never can be stilled” (Notes of a Native Son 161). With the shedding of this illusion, Baldwin gained insight into reality, noting, “my life, in my own eyes, began during that first year in Paris” (Notes of a Native Son 161). This moment in the Parisian jail established Baldwin’s acceptance of the unavoidable cruelty in life, rendering his excuse to flee his birthplace irrelevant, and liberating him to take action and uncover his identity and role in America.
Baldwin’s time spent in the small Swiss village melted away the last bits of his Parisian illusions and provided Baldwin with further insight into his own identity. Baldwin realizes that even in a town, which has had no previous interaction with a Negro and is free of pre-existing conclusions, tainted history, and stereotypes, people still see him as not human, but rather “a living wonder” (Notes of a Native Son 166). He cannot escape the racial profiling that he experienced in America. What initially presented itself as awe, captured in the playful actions of kids daring to touch his coarse hair, soon enough reshaped itself into animosity and fear, causing Baldwin to note that “there is already in the eyes of some of [the town’s people] that peculiar, intent, paranoiac malevolence which one sometimes surprises in the eyes of American white men” (Notes of a Native Son 172). Baldwin’s conclusions in the Parisian jail are confirmed, and he is reminded of the ubiquity of man’s cruelness, even in small and remote villages.
As the remnants of his grand illusion that prompted him to leave home fade, Baldwin realizes that in Europe he is even more isolated than he was in America. Coming to a powerful conclusion, he notes, “I am a stranger here. But I am not a stranger in America” (Notes of a Native Son 172). Baldwin realizes at this point how deeply the Negro is entwined with the history of America: “he is bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh […] and his blood is in their soil […] he cannot deny them, nor can they ever be divorced” (Notes of a Native Son 125). One of the main focuses of his essays is that America would not be America without the Negro. In this sense, Baldwin provides a voice for the Negro’s claim to his home, America. Although born out of comfort, Baldwin’s Parisian illusion unfortunately limited him, and as it faded away layer by layer, Baldwin in essence was “released from the illusion that [he] hated America” (Nobody Knows My Name 19) and set free to discover his identity.
In Paris, Ernest Hemingway, like James Baldwin, also relied on a Parisian illusion to cope with his hardship. For Hemingway, he cloaked his poverty with illusions of a luxurious lifestyle, which nevertheless whittled down to expose the bare reality of hunger, a hunger that ultimately drove his work and defined his value of discipline. Hemingway’s first flat was at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, an address that “could not have been a poorer one” (Hemingway 31). It is near the Café des Amateurs, described by Hemingway as “the cesspool of the rue Moufetard” (15). Disgusted by the “smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness” (Hemingway 15), Hemingway refuses to associate himself with the undisciplined drunkards and rather walks further the “good café […] on the Place St.-Michel” (Hemingway 17). He consciously seeks out this “warm and clean and friendly” (Hemingway 17) environment, relocating himself from the shoddy vicinity around his flat. The physical act of walking past the “sad, evilly run café” (Hemingway 15) is analogous to Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, denying the fact that they live in the midst of poverty; Hemingway recounts, “we did not think ever of ourselves as poor. We did not accept it” (43). However their lack of money is clearly woven into their lifestyle: the location of their apartment on rue Cardinal Lemoine, the lack of “bathtubs and showers and toilets that flushed” (Hemingway 42), and simply having “no money to buy books” (Hemingway 31). At this point in time, Hemingway and Hadley were living under the illusion of Paris, a place where “you could live very well on almost nothing,” a place where “you could save and have luxuries” (Hemingway 83). Their grand illusion is epitomized in their whimsical splurge at Michaud’s. Hemingway’s insatiable hunger that lingered past the gourmet meal at Michaud’s and the moonlit love that followed helps to dissolve this illusion of luxury. This plaguing hunger kept Hemingway up that night thinking, but at that time he was “too stupid” (Hemingway 49) to sort it out. Writing A Moveable Feast in retrospect, Hemingway alludes to this convoluted illusion, calling it the “false spring” (Hemingway 49) that he and Hadley wandered through during that time.
Hemingway eventually reached a point where he could no longer dismiss the sharpness of reality as a merely sleepless night, and was forced to make physical adjustments, such as “give up going racing” and in lieu of lunch go “walking in the Luxembourg gardens” (Hemingway 82). As he emerged from his Parisian illusion, Hemingway began to embrace his hunger. It was clear hunger directly affected his work, for Hemingway notes, “many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites […] and desire for food” (82). Hunger also drives his consumption-like nature of writing, exemplified in his intriguing thought process when he sees the girl in the café, which follows as: “you belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil” (Hemingway 18). Hemingway actively consumes his surroundings and integrates it into his work. Hunger also allows him to become more in touch with his creative side. For example it enhances his perception of art, and he admits, “I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry” (65). He believed that when painting, “Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way” (Hemingway 65). This hunger in a nonfood sense may be alluding to a more artistic concept, such as hunger of the mind or soul. This type of hunger may have inspired Hemingway’s theory of omission, which was based off the concept that the “omitted part [of the story] would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood” (Hemingway 71). By omitting details, Hemingway removes the boundaries, allowing the reader’s mind to paint its own landscape and create a personal interpretation.
In addition to influencing his writing, the fading of Hemingway’s Parisian illusion, ultimately allowed him to come to the conclusion that “hunger is good discipline and you learn from it” (Hemingway 71). Discipline is one of Hemingway’s key, if not most defining, traits, and hunger only helped to strengthen Hemingway’s value of it. His high regard of discipline is clear when he takes great offense to Stein’s “lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels” (Hemingway 62) used to describe him. In A Moveable Feast he ultimately belittles the now, relatively well-known label by focusing on its trivial origin at the mechanic’s. Hemingway took pride in his discipline, for he had honed it along with his writing skills during his time in Paris, and it was not an easy journey for him to endure and embrace poverty and hunger as his Parisian illusion slowly slipped away.
Baldwin and Hemingway each had their own unique experiences in Paris. They faced different issues, lived under various illusions, and came to quite distinctive realizations. Paris bore one as an activist and the other as a writer, however they both traversed the same path to their mysterious discoveries. The roles they played later in America had evolved in Paris. Using the romantic city as a vehicle they built illusions that fell away with time, exposing a reality that they finally embraced and no longer tried to mask. They accepted, learned from, and moved past their hardships. This process, centered around the acceptance of change and the perseverance to continue was the very heart of America that proved at play in Paris.
Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Dell Publishing Co. Inc., 1961.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner, 2009.