I was 21 and eager to experience the Paris
of my intellectual heroes. In some ways,
I got more than I asked for.
May '69. Hardly a year gone by since the human fireworks, huffle, puffle and fizzle that turned the world’s youthful eyes toward the Seine the previous Spring when it was forbidden to forbid. How could a 21-year-old in sleepy, pointy-headed Ann Arbor, squirming through a course in Byzantine history, resist temptation? For a $200 airline ticket and the offer of a free place to sleep? Maybe there was still a wisp of dialectical chatter in one of those Left Bank cafés where the great icon Jean-Paul Sartre puffed away with his acolytes on their hand rolls, occasionally (it was said) reinforced with a strand or two of hashish.
Ann Arbor was without doubt one of the citadels of rebellious student passion tinctured with genuine intellectual intensity. But it was still Michigan, flat and frosty. It would never be La Sorbonne founded 700 years earlier at the height of medieval inquiry in the Latin Quarter mere steps away from the Notre Dame Cathedral. A summer job awaited me in Washington but it wouldn’t start until June. A couple months of part-time taxi driving would pay for the student fare ticket to Paris and one train ride down to the Côte d’Azur.
If the “revolution” of '68 had faded, temptation still hung in the air. To taste. To hear. To see. To touch. Wasn’t this after all what our frizzy-haired young prof in the Philo department had been teaching us? How is it that we learn to be? In the days before the internet and Wikipedia and virtual being. So the Cliff Notes version put it in, condensing the great minds of personal liberty: Descartes, Spinoza and especially, Sartre. Some years later I would come to know and collaborate with one of Sartre’s major biographers, but that was years ahead. The best a timid student visitor could hope for was to fall into the smoky café ethos where talk of transformation and revolution was as pungent as the bitter black espresso.
There were, I had read, three vital Left Bank sites: La Coupole, in Montparnasse, noted for its handsome young oyster men; Les Deux Magots, one-time redoubt of Hemingway, Joyce, Picasso, and Camus among other luminaries; and two doors down the Boulevard St. Germain was Café de Flore. In their youth, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre held forth with their clans at Deux Magots, but gradually Sartre and his life companion Simon de Beauvoir moved over to the Flore, reflecting political and philosophical fractures among the existential troops. Sartre normally worked inside across from the cashier, at the east wall, Beauvoir several tables away. Each worked alone, mostly.
I tried all three, although eating at La Coupole’s glamorous restaurant would have snatched away a whole semester’s tuition, with or without the favors of the charming oyster man. One day I took a table at the Deux Magots just across from St. Germain de Pres, and ordered an espresso. Never sit at an outdoor café table. Seven francs for a cup of caffeine. Only one Franc if I stood at the bar like the “real” French. A few sunny afternoons later, it was Café de Flore, which occupied two levels. Of course I stood at the bar holding and pretending to read that afternoon’s Le Monde.
A friend in Ann Arbor had winkingly “warned” me that the Café de Flore had accumulated multiple signatures, all consistent with forbidding the forbidden. Perched on a wooden bar stool, it took me a while to get my bearings, but after three espressos and two croissants—the tab moving upward toward 7 francs, a little over a dollar—the subtle but persistent eye action in the café began to awaken me. The correct French locution for this ocular exercise, I would later learn, was draguer, a quiet series of glances cast from a motionless head that in the cruder American practice is called cruising. Here, in one of the oldest, most respected sites for philosophical discourse in the world.
One particular draguer stood up, leaving his paper on his table, looking anywhere but toward me, then eventually wove his way toward the stairs. He seemed much older, maybe almost 30. Fear, curiosity and expectation drove my caffeinated heartbeat faster. Psycho hours passed as seconds pattered. My philo-student brain circled in and around Sartre’s dialectics of being and nothingness: how to recognize in mind and affect the distinction between instants of being and the liberating void of non-temporal existence; or to go with Spinoza, the exuberance of existing however briefly outside of time in a transcendent unity that escapes history, both the forbidden and the promised: all this pounding back in my temples, asking: Who am I?
I mounted the stairs.
Could I claim that with each step I was in sync with those Gauloise-puffing fellows over in the corner palavering, I was sure, with far greater intensity than I could pretend to muster? No, in the proper terms of existential dialectics I was nowhere near their lofty status, rumbling through the turbulent clouds of French philosophy. But then again, yes, I was swirling in a whirlwind of actual being and nothingness. Aside from the minor fun frolics that likely half my Ann Arbor classmates had played at, I had never genuinely searched out a life-defining erotic category; unlike the one or two gay friends I’d met, I still regarded that option as a sure route to nothingness. Opting out of the most material chain of biological being would surely jeopardize all the other concrete ambitions offered to clever kids at great universities.
It could be amusing to say that I paused on the fourth step toward nothingness, hesitating to move onward or upward. But as the exiled pre-existential Spinoza had written long before, there is nothing wrong with desire in itself (and desire plainly tingled from feet to ears) that is or can be evil. Faulty reason can confuse the proper guidance of desire, but desire—for food, for drink, for touch, for sound or movement—is what defines us all as being human. Equally, to be a part of that Cartesian chatter back there in the Gauloise corner, remained an equally elemental desire: to seek, to know and to comprehend.
Only two more steps up the circular stairway, then left through the swinging saloon doors to the double urinals where the frightful Adonis stood pleasing himself. I approached, doing my best to match Adonis’s self-confident cockiness. Standing inches away I glanced to my left. Immediately a large hand gripped my neck and pushed me down past a pink granite soap dish to address his pleasure. Was this “being?” It was certainly something that had never happened to my neck, my face or my tongue. (Earlier this spring curiosity returned me to that upstairs stall. The two urinals might have been changed, but the hand-crafted granite soap dish remains in place fixed to the wall.) Another skinny lad might have resisted or plunged himself down in ecstasy. I did neither. This was a film and I was a foreign participant-visitor watching this new snatch of Paris, not terribly different from how exciting it had felt walking up Fifth Avenue on my high school trip to New York.
Adonis pulled my head back and finished himself. I stood straight, brain spinning, now panicked at who might have seen.
“Ten Francs!” Adonis spat in the manner of a sidewalk fruit-seller. Did he really want to be paid for having been pleasured?
“Dix Francs!” he repeated, extending the same hairy hand that had gripped my neck.
Nothingness. No, less than nothing. Only a mouth. A mouth connected to a creature who had consciously followed a new trail toward an insistent act of being. For both Sartre and Spinoza it is only the leap from perceiving to acting that makes us conscious beings. The act had happened, but who was its author? Certainly there was nothing to be found in any of the great thinkers’ tracts directly addressing this and similar acts that, micro-step by micro-step, would lead me to take the action that would steadily define my own sense of being—however banal and empty those acts might later seem, however much each re-enactment would continue to frame and reframe that “hidden” 10-franc act that had transpired upstairs in the Café de Flore. Ten francs, the price of dinner missed.
Frank Browning © 2018
Frank Browning, a former science correspondent for NPR, is the author of nine books including The Culture of Desire, The Monk and the Skeptic and The Fate of Gender.