Georges Bataille, in his essay “A Perfect Silence of the Will” attributes this quote to the French poet Charles Baudelaire: “As a child I felt in my heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.”
I can think of no better way to introduce Harold Jaffe’s Paris 60, a collection of short texts, or docufictions, based on the author’s two-month stay in Paris during the Spring of 2008. The book was initially published in 2010, and is now available in a new edition from the Journal of Experimental Fiction.
Jaffe explains in the introduction that the book’s 60 entries were recorded daily during his visit, and “are based loosely on Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, 1869, and as in Baudelaire are both factual and fictionalized.”
It’s no wonder Jaffe is attracted to and inspired by Baudelaire’s work. Jaffe has been writing short fiction for many years in a style that’s compact yet lyrical, bordering on the prose poem form that Baudelaire uses in Paris Spleen. Baudelaire himself provides a good description of that form in his book’s dedication: “Who has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch of consciousness?”
And the part about the work being “both factual and fictionalized?” That fits well with Jaffe’s focus on docufictions, a form he has popularized and mastered, if not created, as the author of 21 books, including thirteen docufiction collections such as False Positive (2002), 15 Serial Killers (2003), Terror-Dot-Gov (2005), Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories (2010), OD (2012), and the upcoming Induced Coma. Here’s Jaffe explaining what he means by the term:
Before the techno-cult became omnipotent there was at least a nominal distinction made between the real and the image or mask. Now, the cynicism is such that virtually everything depends on the efficacy of the mask. The notion of sincerity and authenticity …simply has no purchase. Hence, my use of docufiction attempts to ape the mainstream culture while deconstructing it.
In Paris 60, Jaffe mixes the real and the imagined, as he moves about the city in the role of narrator/tour guide, visiting cafes, cathedrals, cinemas, bookshops, bakeries, markets, museums, gardens, cemeteries, train stations, the metro, the Catacombs, and public toilets. The artist as flaneur.
Walter Benjamin, to whom Jaffe dedicates Paris 60, wrote of Baudelaire as both urban chronicler and philosopher. Jaffe, too, observes and reports and reflects, well aware of this Parisian tradition “Myself, aimlessly walking, Baudelaire’s flaneur, post-millennium, sans hashish.”
But this is not a Rick Steves walking tour of Paris. Jaffe sees things most of us might miss or would prefer to ignore. And Jaffe feels things the casual tourist might not, those contradictory feelings Baudelaire described—the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.
Among the horrors:
The banality of evil in the person of then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, “Sarko” as he’s called, who makes several appearances throughout the book. Jaffe describes him as “the current jerk,” “a small hyper-ambitious man,” “a hyperactive small male with high hair and a yen for gorgeous long-legged females,” ordering French troops to Afghanistan, “torqueing the Gauls into workaholic Americans,” steering the country in the direction of George W. Bush’s US and Tony Blair’s UK.
The homeless, the “invisible street people,” the North African families living in banlieue tenements.
The intrusion of technology “into our most intimate frontiers.”
The commodification of revolution in the guise of Woodstock-like nostalgia for Paris’s uprising of May ’68. Jaffe is there in May 2008 as the city celebrates/commemorates the event’s 40th anniversary.
And the ecstasy?
The banality of kindness in the person of a middle-aged man who, through touch, calms and comforts a hyperactive child on a fast train from Marseilles to Paris.
The tenderness of the family that Jaffe visits...