Readers often turn to fiction in order to glimpse at other modes of living, but this need not always be true. In the midst of a global homogeneity that has been growing steadily for over a hundred years, there yet remain those people who do not conform and choose instead to live the old, discarded ways – the “uncivilized” ways. Sometimes, it just takes some observant traveler with a pen to cross over to the other side for that world to be unveiled to ignorant masses. Paris Vagabond (Paris insolite), published in 1952 by Jean-Paul Clébert, profoundly illuminates this other world on the streets of Paris. He did not write his book to cast aspersions on the lives of the Parisian clochards; instead, he seems to hold these mysterious, and perhaps he would say civilized, people in great respect for the freedom that they embody.
After fighting with the French Resistance during the war (even dropping out of school to do so at the age of sixteen), Clébert tramped about the world, but spent a great deal of time living on the streets of Paris. There, he learned how to navigate its obscure underworld and to appreciate the vast array of human experiences this mode of living had to offer. Yet, he was no idealist when it came to this manner of life. In fact, I imagine choosing this vagabond life was, for him, more a vain denunciation of the culture that ultimately led to the atrocities of the war. Clébert was all too aware of the hardships of tramping life to be idealistic:
But, once you have deliberately chosen this kind of existence, this modus vivendi, once you have said screw it once and for all to the future and pooh-poohed your old-age pension (along with work at the conveyor belt. A forty-eight-hour work week, plus the dishes, […]), then, obviously, you have no right to whine about being hungry, for the rules are the rule, so whenever I am tempted to complain I keep my trap shut… (131)
Yet, he chose this life nevertheless. Much of his book recounts the hardships of street life, from finding food and shelter to other trials like finding a way to bathe without attracting the attention of the authorities. These mundane troubles seem offset for these vibrant characters by an attitude that embraces the present moment to the fullest. Today, we work and save our money for retirement and all manner of contingencies, ever looking forward – not so for the Paris clochard. What is made that day, even if it is enough to allow more pleasant living for well over a week, is gone by the come of the next dawn for the sake of good food, cigars, women, and whatever other affordable luxury at the time. Tomorrow is of no concern, and this is the lost freedom of a civilization so concerned with modern comforts and protecting the future. This vagabond notion of freedom is the world that Clébert allows us to intrude upon while in our own warm and well-lit houses resting upon our comfortable sofas. But, Clébert is not one of those “little shits” who “affect to be starving to death” only to return home by taxi to their cozy beds (295), for they do not know the vital desperation (and the freedom) of the true bohemian lifestyle. Clébert’s Paris is a different world from that:
What a mute and vibrant rebirth transforms this city […] once it is no longer covered, as with a skin, as with a crust, by the swarming larvae-like into the great machine of wage-labor – when with night it comes back to life, back to the surface, washing off its filth, straightening its back, scrubbing itself down, singing its silent song, lighting up its darkness. (312)
His underworld tells of a different humanity, a different Paris – one that did not buy the illusory promises of modernism. His world was changing and it seems Clébert and his ilk did not think for the better. The Paris of the night returns the city to what it should be. Business and politics and philosophy are not Paris (in fact Clébert seems to think these are the grime of modernity), but rather, Paris is that nocturnal city whose residents are able to interact as people, full-formed and individual, without resorting to the media of business and culture as filthy social lubricant. Perhaps, then, Clébert’s account is not just an exposé of the Parisian clochard, nor an atavists call to some golden age, but a declaration of hope that society can still learn to interact person to person as individuals, and to throw off the dangerous constructs of government and business for all their empty promises of comfort and security (for these promises did not prevent a world war) – lest Paris, and the world, lose its freedom and humanity forever.
Nevertheless, Clébert is decidedly not preachy in the least and his pen is a tool that transports us to the overlooked streets of Paris – its back alleyways and long-forgotten haunts. There is nothing stuffy in his voice, nor is there any sense of rudimentary bumbling of a writer out of his depth. These are his people and he is distinctly capable of rendering an honest account. In addition, there are a plethora of enchanting photographs that pepper the text and give the reader a visual glimpse of this neglected Paris that Clébert is describing. I typically shun accounts such as these, for they are usually either told from an outsider’s perspective, or as one who is a preachy advocate. But I did not receive either of these impressions from Paris Vagabond; rather, I feel the text suggests that Clébert does not see himself wholly in either world and, from such a viewpoint on this threshold, is able to appreciate all that vagabond life has to offer while simultaneously (and almost wordlessly) discerning the hidden and suffocating dangers of the modern world in which we now live.
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