Chez Jeannette Then and Now

Chez Jeannette Then and Now

Sun 07 Jan

The mixed-race girl behind the bar has the dark eyes of a Yoruba princess and the round head that give her high cheek-bones, just beneath and to the side of which she has dimples when she smiles. I know this because she smiled at me. I told Vanessa that she smiled at me. Vanessa looked at her and then looked at me. ‘That’s because you put her in mind of the grandfather she never knew.’

The sea beneath Goya’s dog swells and plunges fathoms deep. The sky falls and is full of snow – like that of an old black and white cathode-ray television tube; before it fades into an even blankness. Funny how the blacks on the old tellies turn out to be a mid-greenish grey; the greenish grey of a deep and swollen sea. The televisions with old valves warmed up when switched on; and then they cooled down and went cold when turned off.

‘You aren’t that black,’ says Richard Rowntree’s chief in Shaft, holding up a black pen against Shaft’s face. ‘And you aren’t that white,’ says Shaft, holding up a white coffee cup to his senior officer’s face.

‘It's coming from the sorrow in the street

The holy places where the races meet’[1]

 We are living in the tenth arrondissement a block away from Gare du Nord. It’s a lovely, shabby patch, where many races go about their business. A ten-minute walk down the Rue Faubourg-Saint-Denis passes through a largely immigrant area where an old bar, Chez Jeanette, untouched since the war, opens its doors to a crowd of thirsty revellers. It’s a lively youngish clientele but by no means exclusively so. It’s Bohemian in its untidiness and threadbare in its dilapidations; and I am at home here. In my mind’s eye it’s what I think of as Parisian, the city of existentialism and a certain confident intellectualism that the English find difficult. Not so, me. (I am now Irish, having received my Irish passport, for which I applied after the foolish referendum result last year.)

You see, mon petit camarade, [Raymond Aron’s] pet name for [Sartre] since their schooldays – ‘if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it.!"

(…) Now they [Sarte and de Beauvoir] saw its interest: it was a way of doing philosophy that reconnected it with normal, lived experience.[2]

I am trying to write an extended version of a paper written on art and the line to be drawn between our proper response to it and everyday aesthetics.[3] And when it all comes down to dust, I find myself in Paris carousing the bars. Why? And it is this that I want to reflect upon. Why is it that so many of our aesthetic experiences are to be found in bars? They are the homes of much that is beautiful and much that is ugly. I have little doubt the conflict between "leave" and "remain" has been worked out (if not thought out) in bars. (Shouting is a kind of work. Fighting is a kind of work. Bullying and Lying are kinds of work. Thinking is just another kind of work. Thinking is a kind of work that should, at its best, defeat shouting and fighting and bullying and lying.)

One clear thought is that bars are places of social congregation. Outside the bar we are adrift in a world of commerce, with its league tables, goals (despite shifting goal-posts), outcomes and all the other idiotic paraphernalia that has provided us with near impenetrable managerial language and custom – a dreariness of meetings.

Here is a famous William James quotation on the subject:

The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole.

Well there it is, and not without a word of warning. But the mystic consciousness encroaches upon, if it is not congruent with, the religious consciousness. It is in this sense that I often think about bars as if they are chapels. When you step into a bar, you step out of the humdrum world of commerce, of investment and return, of the instrumental values by which we make our way in tedium. The values we seek in chapels and bars are intrinsic values. Chapels and bars lie outside the endless machinery of corporation and government. And outside that endlessness, we find ourselves within the timelessness of the congregation of souls. Perhaps it is because my Catholicism has evaporated in the pursuit of philosophy that I find myself in bars and not in chapels. But there is something in the relationship between the two architectures that convinces me of the aesthetic worth of drunkenness. I leave you with this numbered paragraph from Maggie Nelson:

  1. Duras does not think of alcohol as a false god, but rather as a kind of placeholder, a squatter in the space made by God’s absence. “Alcohol doesn’t console,” she wrote. “All it replaces is the lack of God.” It does not necessarily follow, however, that if and when a substance vacates the spot (renunciation), God rushes in to fill it. For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty. “Lots of space, nothing holy”: one Zen master’s definition of enlightenment (Bodhidharma).[4]

Greetings from Paris

New Year 2018

[1] ‘Democracy,’ Leonard Cohen

[2] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café, London: Chatto & Windus, 2016, p. 3.

[3] Edward Winters, ‘The World Is Not Enough’, in The Monist, vol., 101, no. 1, January 2018.

[4] Maggie Nelson, Bluets, London: Jonathan Cape, 2009

Article by Edward Winters.

Edward Winters taught aesthetics for many years to both architects and artists at University of Westminster, West Dean College and University of Kent. He has published widely on aesthetics and art criticism and is a regular contributor to international conferences on the philosophy of art. His book, Aesthetics and Architecture, is published by Continuum (London, 2007). 

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