An American in Paris | Arts Feature | Indy Week

Arts » Arts Feature

An American in Paris

New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnick's new book dissects the "comedy of cultural differences"


Do the French still love Jerry Lewis? According to Adam Gopnik, they never really did. The author of Paris to the Moon, an engaging chronicle of the day-to-day life of an American in Paris, Gopnik views this alleged passion for Lewis as a myth reflecting cultural currents that are very particularly French.

"It's not that they love Jerry Lewis in particular," said Gopnik, in a recent phone interview from New York. "It's that they're enamored of any American popular artist who has an oeuvre, a considered body of work." Gopnik points out that when Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum died within days of each other, the news made more front pages in France than in America.

What Gopnik sees as most characteristic of French national attitudes is a conception of culture as a variegated whole, not as an aggregate of splintered parts. In France, the categories of "high" and "low" culture just don't operate in the same ways they might in other places. What's more, what Gopnik presents as the French penchant for abstraction thrives on a fetishism of the particular, of the minute. Serious, systematic analysis of the conditions of everyday life seems to be a distinctively French pursuit, and it's never valued more highly than when it discovers hidden connections among local phenomena, or large significance in tiny realms.

"If you found The Geisha Boy funny, or The Nutty Professor," Gopnick says, "then there must be something there, and the French would think you have to take the whole thing seriously--all of Jerry Lewis' films. These days, though, it's Woody Allen who's the real god in France. He's worshiped. They treat him like Picasso."

A long history of mutual, skeptical fascination binds the cultures of France and America--from Henry James' Innocents Abroad to Henry Miller's bawdy expatriates, or Janet Flanner's "Letters from Paris" in The New Yorker. Most of the pieces in Gopnik's book appeared in that same magazine, where he has been a staff writer since 1986. But though the book is not without its criticism of aspects of French culture, Gopnik's contribution to this history, like Flanner's, seems particularly "French" in conception and treatment. What attracts Gopnik to the French mindset, as he sees it, is its attunement to micro-levels of understanding, and Gopnik's own best pieces draw philosophical import from small, diurnal events--ordering a Thanksgiving turkey, searching for the right coffee bean, joining a gym. Reviewing Paris to the Moon in The New York Times, Alain de Botton proclaimed Gopnik a "worthy successor" to Roland Barthes, an earlier French theorist of everyday life.

"The book is not meant to be a journalistic tour of the Paris of today, chronicling social conditions or thriving neighborhoods," Gopnik says. "It's meant to be a series of stories about domestic life that happen to be set in Paris. But the comedy comes from the setting. It's the comedy of discovering cultural differences, but also of finding the same old stuff in a new place."

The world Gopnik stepped into when he moved from New York to Paris in 1995 was a world where high or official culture met popular, common culture on the same ground. Anywhere else, it would seem a real culture clash to watch, say, Sharon Stone being made a Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. In Gopnick's Paris, such happenings are business as usual, and he is very much at home there.

Gopnick's first book, written in collaboration with Kirk Varnedoe, was called High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. "And that's also what my Ph.D. thesis, unfortunately unfinished, was about," Gopnick says. "So that's always been a favorite subject of mine. It wasn't self-conscious in the sense that I thought, 'Oh, that's how I'll do it.' But when the book started coming together it seemed like a natural theme to approach the subject through. The blending of cultural references in the book felt natural to me, and to the extent that I had a subject, that was it."

That was the "intellectual subject," says Gopnick; the "personal theme," he says, "is the sentimental education of the narrator--myself." In the book, accounting for how his five years in Paris changed him, Gopnik writes, "I was, if anything, a slightly too complacent universalist when I arrived in Paris and have become a far too melancholic particularist as we get ready to leave, someone who believes in the spirit of places, although he always expects to be outside them, and can pay them only the compliment of eternal comparison." Noting that this way of putting it sounds somehow "French"--at least in its theoretical cast of mind--I asked Gopnik to expand on the point.

"I meant something quite specific," he says. "Before moving to Paris, I gave a series of talks on the romance of violence in American life. I argued that we use the word 'culture' very freely--as in 'gun culture,' and so on--partly to justify things like that romance of violence. So I was very skeptical of the whole idea of culture as such. But what I learned is that there are very particular differences from place to place that are cultural. It's not the same everywhere. I became aware of how shallow a view of 'culture' I'd had."

The micro-level of daily life in Paris--the ability to contemplate and take pleasure in the mundane--is accompanied by two seemingly contradictory features that Gopnik attributes to French cultural identity--worldliness and abstraction. The first of these Gopnik finds, for instance, in the earthy, matter-of-fact attitudes of the French toward pregnancy: He and his wife had a baby in Paris and were struck by how different the experience was from having one in New York. The second, that "pervasive abstraction," he finds everywhere, and even though it underlies what's most attractive to him in French culture--like the ability to see the world in a grain of sand--it's also what repels Gopnik. It leads to a "complacent certitude" in parts of French intellectual life, Gopnik argues in his new book: "What is maddening is the bland certainty, the lack of vigilant curiosity, the incapacity for critical self-reflection ... ."

But what about the seeming contradictions between these characteristics? "I wouldn't try to bring them under the same tent," Gopnik answers. "The book is about the relation between what I call commonplace civilization and so-called official culture. The official culture in France tends to be extremely abstract and pompous, the commonplace civilization extremely particular. In the end of the book, though, I realized you can't have one without the other. By official culture I meant the big buildings, by commonplace civilization the small shops. But the small shops are always in the shadow of the big buildings."

One chapter where that shadow looms is in Gopnik's treatment of the Nazi collaborationist Maurice Papon's 1998 trial. In that chapter, Gopnik sees collaborationist bureaucracy as an extreme manifestation of a particular kind of French abstraction, and as its "dark underside." The chapter sounds a distinctly different note from the book's dominant tone, and for purposes of contrast, Gopnik placed it at the "dead center" of the book. "The comic center of the book is the Parisian habit of abstraction," he says. "But I wanted to show how that same habit, in the era of collaboration, generated a kind of black hole that's really still there in the culture."

Still, what Paris to the Moon will likely remain noted for is its buoyant, playful, sometimes sardonic but often affectionate treatment of cultural difference as it is found in the margins. Though Gopnik appreciates the comparison to Barthes, he draws sharp distinctions between so-called "French theory" and his own enterprise. In writing his book, he says, he thought of Barthes' Mythologies--a series of spirited, skeptical riffs on cultural minutiae and their meanings--as a point of comparison. But where Barthes wants us to see through and dismantle many of the myths that sustain our daily lives, from advertisements to news reports, Gopnik wants us to celebrate what can be sustaining in them. In that regard, Gopnik ultimately sees his book in contrast to Barthes' classic text: "Barthes is always trying to disenchant," he says, "while I'm trying to re-enchant. He's an enemy of what he would call 'bourgeois sentimentality.' I'm an ally of it." EndBlock

Add a comment