I’ve been thinking about Paris lately, ever since the attacks. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the immortal city four times and like every other man before me who has ever been there, it made an indelible impression.
The first time I was so young, perhaps four or five, that all I really remember is Notre Dame, which had a profound effect on me: the rose window, the truncated towers, the statues and gargoyles, the smell of incense, the dim interior that emphasized the stained glass windows; all of it was etched into my memory so strongly that it is difficult now for me to separate Notre Dame from other famous cathedrals I was blessed to see while we lived in Europe. I still have, more than sixty years later, a small, inexpensive crucifix, a tacky little tourist item I fell in love with and that my parents bought for me there.
The third time I went to Paris I was in my twenties (“Paris twenties,” as Hawley Truax wrote in his spectacular poem, Fistfuls of Balloons—see the blog of the same name on my website—though since he too put in quotes, the phrase may come from some other source) and it should have been the highlight of my life, to be young and footloose in the city of light and love and laughter. Unfortunately, that trip was made with someone I choose now not even to remember, and in any case I became so seriously ill that I spent most of that visit either unconscious or alternating between praying I wouldn’t die and praying I would. So I will dismiss that occasion as something that never happened.
My last visit was in my late thirties and was for work, so my memories of all that is iconic about Paris are more limited: glorious and indelible, particularly the food, but limited by time and responsibility.
But it was the second trip that lingers. I was only thirteen or fourteen and my parents took us, my sister and me. My family was never poor, but we were never rich, either, and in an effort to save money and give us as much time there as possible, my father made arrangements for us to stay in the vacant apartment of some friend of his. The only other apartment on that floor was occupied by a professional model who was American, drop-dead gorgeous, and very sweet to a loathsome adolescent boy whose body was raging with hormones and barely under his control. My feet were much too big for the rest of me, and I had a pronounced tendency to trip and fall down while standing still. None of my clothes fit properly. My voice seemed to have developed a malicious sense of humor and betrayed me at every most inopportune and embarrassing moment. But there she was in the apartment next door, beautiful and good-humored, joyous and compelling, very much like the city itself.
Apart from falling in love with both lady and city, my salient memories are of the breathtaking beauty that is Paris. Perfectly ordinary streets and buildings that Parisians probably take for granted and never even glance at twice, those same mundane sights filled me with…well, with love, for what else should one succumb to in Paris? Beyond that, it was the Louvre that completely consumed me. We went to other museums, of course, to many historic buildings and sites, but the Louvre captured me in almost inexplicable ways.
I was overwhelmed by the staggering size of the place and by the staggering size of the Jacques-Louis David’s. I was then equally overwhelmed by the smallness of the Mona Lisa. I remember standing in front of her and later in front of the Venus de Milo and even as I admired them thinking that an American model in a modest apartment building in an unfashionable arrondissement was more beautiful than either. I was only fourteen, for God’s sake. But I also remember thinking—or perhaps just feeling intuitively—how life-affirming and restorative that art was, how reflective of all that is best in mankind, all that we hope will endure forever, a glass of fine French wine for even an obnoxious adolescent boy’s soul.
In the wake of the ISIS attacks, these memories and a thousand more came back and I’ve been trying to make sense of it all.
To be honest, Islam (traditional Islam, as opposed to radical Islam) makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever, but to be fair, perhaps Christianity is as foreign to Muslims as Islam is to me. But when it comes to radical Islam, I am really left gaping in astonishment. It’s as if the Westboro Baptist Church, or some other equally evil perversion of Christ’s teaching, were suddenly taken seriously by large numbers of people. Out of billions of Muslims across the globe and on every continent, only a miniscule handful have made their personal evil the dominant theme of their religion, but it is still amazing and out of all proportion to their numbers. If I were Muslim, I would be outraged to have my religion hijacked and perverted.
Apart from the evil perversion of their own religion, what stuns me about ISIS is their myopic and medieval approach to the stated goal of world domination this tiny bunch of perverts wants to achieve. Islam, I’m talking about mainstream Islam, has tried repeatedly to expand their realm of domination and create a united world-caliphate, just as for many centuries armies of conquerors followed the cross. Mohamed himself took much of the Arabian peninsula; after his death, what was then Persia, and the area then known as Mesopotamia were conquered; the next areas to come under Islamic rule were the northern mountain regions that are now known as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan; the conquest of India began only thirty years after the death of Mohamed, and within half a century most of that great subcontinent was taken and a thousand years of beauty and culture were irrevocably destroyed; the Iberian peninsula and part of what is now southern France fell next; further incursions into France were attempted, but stopped by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, but the attempt was made; Islamic expansion was also halted farther east, temporarily, by the Byzantine Empire and Bulgarian kings; a century later, Islam took much of southern Italy and set up an Emirate in Sicily; Crete, Cyprus, northern Africa, eventually the mighty Byzantine Empire and large chunks of eastern Europe, all came under Islamic domination. Most, though not all, of these conquests were accompanied by wholesale slaughter and destruction of everything and anything that wasn’t Islamic, which is to say everything the Muslims saw. (To be fair, much has also been destroyed and lost to Christian armies too, particularly in Byzantium; the difference is that Christian armies—for the most part—stole instead of destroyed.) Today, that kind of destruction, like the destruction of the Goths and the Vandals and other primitive and warlike tribes, is rightly called barbaric.
Good old ISIS, like the Taliban before them, is resurrecting that moronic medieval mayhem. Reports of their destruction of priceless antiquities range from ancient books and manuscripts to Assyrian artifacts. And it was thinking about that evil in their own backyard that made me think about Paris.
Imagine for a moment that ISIS succeeds and that Europe falls to this pathetic evil masquerading as religion. (Given the spineless arrogance, ignorance and incompetence that characterize Washington’s current administration, it could happen, unless Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia all come together and recognize that a sheep cannot reason with a wolf. Unfortunately, only Russia seems to grasp that, though ISIS does seem to have awakened a martial spirit in France that once was world-renowned.) Imagine a world without the Paris that we know, without the life-affirming art and architecture, literature and music that all the world—saving the despicable and barbaric morons of ISIS—recognizes as the best of humanity. That is what would happen if ISIS has its way. Forget for a moment (as if one could!) the blood-soaked streets of the city that is all things to all men; forget the pain and sorrow; forget the fear and the loss. Now imagine a world where you don’t even have the solace of art and beauty and all the best of man to give you comfort. That’s the world ISIS wants. I’d say it’s worth fighting and dying to prevent that world from ever becoming a reality. I hope Europe agrees with me.