Americans in Paris: The Question of American Identity. 1

Americans in Paris: The Question of American Identity. 1

There is far too much to say about the amorphous American student colony in Paris, France. However, what one really wants to know at bottom, is what THEY came to find. It becomes impossible to predicate the existence of a COMMON denominator or experience among them. It becomes apparent that there is no such thing. It suggests the disturbing possibility that experience may perfectly be meaningless. The student colony‘s common denominator reduces itself to the fact that they have spent some time in uniform. Yet this doesn’t allow one to assume that having surrendered to the anonymity of uniform was enough to occasion this flight from home. Thus the best one can do is to simply accept the fact of their military experience, and further, that they form here a somewhat unexpected minority. They have selected to tarry in the Old World to pursue some end, summed up in the verb TO STUDY.
However, it is very hard to believe that it was only for this reason. He is not studying anything which he couldn’t study at home. If we tentatively use the student painter, we find that his motives for coming to Paris are anything but clear. It was nothing more than the legend of Paris, not infrequently at its most vulgar and superficial level. It was certainly no love for French tradition; since he is himself without a tradition, he is ill equipped to deal with the traditions of any other people. It was no love for their language; nor was it any love for their history, his grasp of French history being yet more feeble than his understanding of his own. It was no love for the monuments, cathedrals, palaces, shrines, for which nothing in his experience prepares him and to which he is totally indifferent, except for the hurried bewilderment of the tourist. It was not even any particular admiration, or sympathy for the French, or, none strong enough to bear the strain of actual contact with the French. This is the difference between what one desires and what the reality insists on. Since the reasons which brought the student here are so romantic and incoherent, he has come, in effect, to a city which exists only in his mind. He cushions himself against the shock of reality,
  by refusing to recognize Paris at all, but clinging instead to its image. This is the reason that Paris fails to make any mark on him; and may also be why, when the tension between the real and the imagined can no longer be supported, so many undergo a species of breakdown, or take the first boat home.

For Paris is, according to this legend, the city where everyone loses his head, and his morals, lives through at least one „histoire d’amour“ and thumbs his nose at the Puritans – the city where all become drunken on the fine old air of freedom. This legend is limited, as legends are limited, by being literally unlivable, and by referring to the past. Therefore, this legend has virtually nothing to do with the life of Paris itself, or with the lives of the natives to whom this city belongs. Finally, it is perfectly possible to be enamored of Paris while remaining totally indifferent, or even hostile to the French. And this is made possible by the Parisian himself who keeps the traveler at an unmistakable arm’s length. Neither does he exhibit the faintest personal interest, or curiosity, concerning the life, or habits, of any stranger; he may stand on his head, for all the Parisian cares. It is this arrogant indifference on the part of the Parisian which defines Paris.
The American student lives here, then, in a kind of social limbo. Since he is American, he is invested with power. Though the students of any nation are allowed irresponsibility in Paris, few seem to need it as desperately as Americans seem to need it. His aura of power sets up among Parisians a perceptible anxiety, and a perceptible resentment. This is the „catch“ for the American in the Paris freedom: he becomes here a kind of revenant to Europe, the future of which continent is in his hands. Yet the American wishes to be liked AS A PERSON, an implied distinction which makes perfect sense to him, and none whatever to the European. The American does not want to be confused with the Marshall Plan, Hollywood, the Yankee dollar, television, or Senator McCarthy. What the European assumes is that the American cannot be divorced from the so diverse phenomena which make up his country, and that he is willing, and able, to clarify the American conundrum. If the American cannot do this, he throws up his hands in despair. When this moment arrives, it punctuates the Paris honeymoon. It is the moment when one leaves the Paris legend and finds oneself in the real Paris of the present. At this point the legend of Paris has done its deadly work, which is, so to stun the traveler with freedom that he begins to long for home, the place where questions are not asked. It is at this point, precisely, that many a student packs his bags for home. They cannot wait to look again on his native land – the virtues of which have become abruptly, SIMPLE, and VITAL. He now tells you that he can scarcely wait to leave this old, dirty, crumbling, and dead city. The people are really decadent, penurious, self-seeking, and false, with no trace of American spontaneity, and lacking gratitude for American favors. Only America is alive, only Americans are doing anything worth mentioning in the arts, or in any other field: to America only, the future belongs. It is impossible not to suspect that his present embrace of things American is no less romantic, and unreal, than his earlier rejection. It is as easy and as meaningless, to embrace uncritically the cultural sterility of main street as to decry it. Both extremes avoid any questions about main street at all. One is doomed to remain inarticulate about anything which one hasn’t, by an act of a consciously explicit comprehension, based on a critically caring inquiry, made one’s own. This so suddenly affirmative student is but changing his innocence, as he insists, to embrace his Responsibilities – the very word, in the face of his monumental aversion to experience, seems to shrink to the dimensions of a new, and rather sinister, frivolity.

The student, homeward bound, has only chosen, however, to flee down the widest road. Of those remaining here, one category is made up of those whose adaptation to French life seems to have been most perfect in all regards. One assumes that he is living as the French live – which assumption, however, is immediately challenged by the suspicion that no American can live as the French live, even if one could find an American who wanted to. In rare conversations he condescends to have in English, one discovers that he seems to know no more about life in Paris than everybody knew at home. It is in vain that one attempts to discover anything more about them, for their minds are of remarkable limited range. It is matched by their perplexing definition of friendship, a definition which does not seem to include any suggestion of communication, still less of intimacy. The extent of his immersion in French life impresses one as the height of artificiality, and even, of presumption. The passion with which he has embraced the Continent is, it seems, nothing more or less than a means of safeguarding his American simplicity. He has placed himself in a kind of strongbox of custom, and refuses to see anything in Paris which can’t be seen through a golden haze. He is thus protected against reality, or experience, or change, and has succeeded in placing beyond the reach of corruption values he prefers not to examine.

Between these two extremes, the student who embraces Home, and the student who embraces The Continent – both embraces, being singularly devoid of contact, to say nothing of love – there are multiple gradations here. The American in Europe is everywhere confronted with the question of his identity. This is all, really, that they have in common. This prodigious question, at home so little recognized, seems to be vivified in the European air. It confronts everyone, finding everyone unprepared, and the attempt to escape can precipitate disaster. For example, should the strongbox of custom of our perfectly adapted student break, he may find himself hurled into the great majority of this group, having attempted to lose or disguise their antecedents, a majority that is reduced to a kind of rubble of compulsion. Their rejection of the limitation of American society has not set them free to function in any other society, and their illusions, therefore, remain intact: they have yet to be corrupted by the actual reality of society. This little band of bohemians illustrates one of the most American of attributes, the inability to believe that time is real. They thus lose what it was they so bravely set out to find, their own personalities; and they arrive, finally, at a dangerous disrespect for the personalities of others. Their present shapelessness is freedom, one that is unable to endure either silence or privacy, and demands a rootless wandering.
Hidden, however, in the heart of the confusion he encounters here is that which he came so blindly seeking: the terms on which he is related to his country, and the world. This is, in fact, most personal – the American confusion seeming to be based on the very nearly unconscious assumption that it is possible to consider the person apart from all the forces which have produced him This unconscious assumption, however, is itself based on nothing less than on our history, which is the history of the total, and willing, alienation of entire peoples from their forebears. What is overwhelmingly clear to everyone but ourselves is that this history has created an entirely unprecedented people and past. It is the past lived on the American continent which must sustain us in the present. The truth about that past is not that it is too brief, or too superficial, but only that we, having turned our faces so resolutely away from it, have never demanded from it what it has to give. It is this demand which the American student in Paris is forced, at length, to make, for he has otherwise no identity, no reason for being here, nothing to sustain him here. From the vantage point of Europe he discovers his own country. And this is a discovery which not only brings to an end the alienation of the American from himself, but which also makes clear to him, for the first time, the extent of his involvement in the life of Europe.
— James Baldwin. Condensed by me.