Monday, January 31, 2011



The intellectual movement everyone seems to love to hate.

Never mind your own feelings about postmodernism, it's real, and one of the most important ideas that comes from it is the idea of "nobrow" culture. Intellectual history has long liked to separate highbrow culture from the low. We tend to think that Mozart is - and should remain - totally separate and distinct from Mos Def. The problem with this kind of cultural divisions is that (a) there are lots of works and genres that don't neatly fit into the elite/popular paradigm (jazz music? Krzysztof Kieślowski films?) and (b) the standards for what qualifies as "elite" and "popular" seem, with close examination, more than a little arbitrary.

So postmodernism steps in to declare the end of hard-and-fast highbrow and lowbrow categories. Lots of postmodern works aim to be "nobrow," meaning they purposely mingle the cultural divisions we've taken at face value for so long. Think of the first track on Alicia Keys' Songs in A Minor, "Piano & I," which adds a kick and snare to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with Paris?

Well, friends, today was my first day of real library research at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, a major stronghold of highbrow culture. That place is chalk full of elite academics and texts written by the dead white guys who have defined Culture (not to mention Politics, Economics, History, Maths, Science...) for the last 2,000 years. From 10h30 to 18h00 I pored over texts about a woman who threw cultural categories into question. Loie Fuller, the dancer I'm writing my thesis on, began her career in burlesques and music halls in Chicago and New York - definitely lowbrow culture. However, when she moved to Paris at 30, the plump and aging Loie enchanted big names in her contemporary highbrow culture: Auguste Rodin, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Anatole France, to name just a few.
In my thesis I am trying to read Loie Fuller's this cultural ambiguity, as well as her gender and sexual ambiguity (Fuller was openly lesbian) and her national ambiguity (an American living permanently in Paris), in the style of dance she created. La Loie's innovative style made use of yards upon yards of fabric and colored lighting to create swirling "incandescent statues," as poet and critic Camille Mauclair described them. One recent critic, Rhonda Garelick, has argued that her style is a mise-en-scène of the transition from ballet to modern dance. I'm aiming to say that Fuller's style can also be read as a mise-en-scène of her resistance to easy categorization: Is she a high or low culture figure? How is she so successfully deviant from prescribed social norms for her gender? Is she American? French? neither?

Oh, and here's a visual.

Sorry to bore you with all those details.

In any case, I spent my day in the Temple of High Culture, at one of these little tables: trying to make sense of this woman's life.

But here's a secret. After a day in such a highbrow place, I came home, put on my Ugg boots, ate Tagada, and tried really hard to think lowbrow thoughts. I even contemplated watching Gossip Girl, but then I found myself making this blogpost.
Don't worry, I ate the whole bag.

Friday, January 28, 2011

ça se bouscule aux portillons

Today was lovely. I got to spend time with my dearest Amandine who I hadn't seen since last summer. We ate phô and macarons from Ladurée, shopped, talked and laughed and (forgive me) gossiped - almost entirely in French.

Now, my language skills have gotten better and better as time has gone on, but sometimes my brain works faster than my mouth and I end up stammering and stuttering and sounding like a fool. The words tend to "se bousculer aux portillons" - bump into each other on the way out the gate, making for often highly entertaining linguistic mishaps, like these:

On the new film The King's Speech (an admittedly ironic subject for a slip of the tongue), I explained that Albert was the "chef de la natation" instead of the "chef de la nation" - the head of swimming instead of the head of the country.

Talking about an exotic gelato I tasted in Hong Kong, I claimed that I had "la glace à la viande" instead of "la glace à la lavande" - meat ice cream instead of lavender.

As we were going through the box of mini-macarons, I picked up an acid green one and said it was "à la pomme de terre" instead of "à la pomme verte" - potato instead of Granny Smith apple.

Isn't language fun?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Quand on habite Paris

If you have ever studied another language, you have found that a turn of phrase can turn your understanding of an action or a custom or a worldview on its head. Other languages sometimes have different ways of thinking about the world built into them. One of my favorites from French is "habiter + [ville]": to live a city. Urban Anglophones passively live in Chicago, in Boston, in San Francisco. While the French can "habiter à Marseille" ("live in Marseille") or "habiter dans une belle maison" ("live in a beautiful home") the preposition is actually optional when it comes to cities, making them the direct recipient of that Urbanite's habitation: "J'habite Paris." This is one of those lovely spots where translation breaks down, though, because to "inhabit Paris" sounds too clinical, anthropological, when in fact its sense is markedly informal, but to "live Paris" sounds like a raucous party (which, in all fairness, it sometimes may be).

In any case, I can now say, "J'habite Paris." I arrived on Wednesday after a lovely stay in Oxford (sadly undocumented: If two friends spend four days together in city infinitely older than they are, but take no photos, did it really happen?). I thought I'd share a couple anecdotes since my arrival.

When I live Paris, I take public transportation, meaning that I read an almost inordinate amount. I devour books. I finished a truly wonderful book on books given me by my dear friend Jourdan, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman. I highly recommend it to all bibliophiles, and further that you read the essays "Never Do That to a Book" and "Words on a Flyleaf" in conjunction with one of my favorite Billy Collins poems, "Marginalia". Don't hurry through them, either. Fadiman's essays are like the deserts at the pastry bar at Ladurée; they should be taken one at a time to savor their unique sweetness, though you should certainly try them all.

When I live in Paris, I read in French. I polished off Annie Ernaux's Une femme within 24 hours of buying it at the Gibert Jeune on Place St-Michel. I read extracts from Marie-Antoinette's favorite portraitist Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, highly entertaining, on my iPod when I ran out of paper to ingest. I bought a copy of George Sand's Indiana this evening. We'll see how long that lasts.

When I live Paris, I read so much that I start writing like I'm walking on literary stilts - academic and literary language, poorly crafted mind you, starts pouring out my fingertips and I end up sounding enormously pretentious.

When I live Paris, I take public transportation, meaning that I catch cold. I am open to any and all home remedies.

When I live Paris, take public transportation, and catch cold, I take great pleasure in leaving soiled tissues in my open pockets in the hopes that some sticky fingers will find their way to exactly what they deserve for putting their hands in my pants.

When I live Paris, I like wandering through Gibert Joseph, another bookseller in the Latin Quarter and coveting the books in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade but simultaneously wishing I saw more female authors on the wall.

When I live Paris, I still forget to sleep sometimes.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It's been awhile

I was trying to blog more regularly, but my last post was two weeks ago. Oops.

Wanna know why? Because over Christmas break I started sleeping full nights. I was tucked safely in bed with visions of sugar plum fairies dancing through my head (or maybe marrying Will non-romantically or maybe my 115 lb sister pulling my 200 lb brother from the angry sea... I've been having really strange, really vivid dreams of late).

Apparently my brain is most active in the middle of the night, so that energy either gets channeled into blogging, writing research papers, or crafting really bizzarre dreams, and the last two weeks, it's been the last.

Don't worry, I promise to stop sleeping immediately for the sake of my little blog (as well as for the sake of my grades, teaching, travel, and thesis-ing).

Which reminds me:

9 more days in America.