Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,I use Swift's poem--though it describes London rather than Paris--because as far as I can remember there hasn't been a single three-day stretch during the past four months when it hasn't rained. Not the kind that stirs dull roots, either: it starts and stops, ruining walks and making days-old garbage putrefy in the street. Thankfully, though, the hostility of the outside environment has afforded me plenty of time to sit around and think. And what I've thought about most often has been the fact that Paris, far from being a nest of bohemians and scruffy radicals of various sorts, is much more a city of clean-shaven ex-radicals and economically successful former bohemians.
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.
To shops in crowds the daggled females fly,
Pretend to cheapen Goods, but nothing buy.
The Templar spruce, while every spout's a-broach,
Stays till 'tis fair, yet seems to call a coach.
The tucked-up sempstress walks with hasty strides,
While streams run down her oiled umbrella's sides.
Here various kinds by various fortunes led,
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed.
Triumphant Tories, and desponding Whigs,
Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs.
Boxed in a chair the beau impatient sits,
While spouts run clattering o'er the roof by fits;
And ever and anon with frightful din
The leather sounds, he trembles from within.
So when Troy chairmen bore the wooden steed,
Pregnant with Greeks, impatient to be freed,
(Those bully Greeks, who, as the moderns do,
Instead of paying chairmen, run them through.)
Laocoon struck the outside with his spear,
And each imprisoned hero quaked for fear.
- Jonathan Swift, "Description of a City Shower"
Now, it's true that I don't know any members of the species of Frenchmen that is traditionally supposed to smoke effeminately long cigarettes and write bad poetry. But outside looking in, I haven't observed anything radical, any outward hint of interesting or original underground culture. The art galleries are full of institutionalized postmodernism, the protests are as predictable as they are impotent, and the music is mostly the same inoffensive stuff you hear anywhere else except leavened with a dose of half-hearted imitation of Brassens. As far as I'm concerned, the ideal of Paris as the ultimate object of desire for every aspiring intellectual is more or less dead.
New York, of course, is the same way. The loose band I've cast my lot with in Brooklyn is composed of New York Poets or Brooklyn Writers only in the most abstract sense of the term--we have almost nothing in common with the dreary Jonathan Safran Foers who've become the public face of our fair borough, and besides, our membership is usually dispersed throughout the Northeast. I'm a bit more familiar with the bohemia of contemporary New York than with that of Paris, and it's safe to say that said bohemia has not benefited one iota from the rich history and unique heritage of underground City culture. (Were it a conscious rejection, that would be more tolerable, but it's not even that.) It seems not only that Paris and New York and St. Petersburg are dead, but that the entire model of spatialized, personal, local underground intellectual production--which has shaped the Grub Streets and Greenwich Villages of the world--is in the process of disappearing.
Replacing this traditional image is, unsurprisingly, the Internet. It presents, perhaps more than at any time since the eighteenth century, a self-consciously weblike and interconnected network of intellectuals divorced, ideally, from excessive attachments to nation and soil. (This is not to say that it is totally successful in this regard, nor that it doesn't breed a new provincialism akin to that of the self-proclaimed cosmopolite in the O. Henry story.) It makes the sharing of texts easier than ever before, and it allows any newcomer a soapbox (such as this one). But naturally, if you're already reading this, you don't need any more convincing.
What does concern me is that, with the loss of local intellectual communities nourished at the breast of a Paris or a Berlin, we also lose a crucial sense of the space and place of our work. New York, to be sure, has informed my thinking and writing. For someone like Henry Adams, on the other hand, a city was more than just a source of inspiration: it provided an entire intellectual universe, a mass of raw ideas as well as a hermeneutic to apply to them. (Quincy, Boston, London--each, for Adams, stood for an entirely different problematic.) This is not a phenomenon that can really be experienced alone. A city is characterized as much by its milieu, by its "scene," as by its surroundings--and our scenes are becoming irrelevant.
The history of ideas, considered from a bird's eye global point of view, has often been driven by the productive encounters between different cities. It is enough to think of the movement of Dadaism from Zurich to Paris and Berlin. These transformative meetings are the unintended byproduct of the fact that communication between milieus is not seamless, not informationally pure, because it always has to experience various kinds of translation. In that sense, the Internet poses a serious threat--not simply the attendant atrophy of our native abilities, as Conrad once suggested, but the smoothening out of all the barriers that once powered the engines of culture. Maybe I'm too pessimistic, but then it's always easier to warn about the coming dark age than it is to prevent it.