Metropolitain.e: Language in Compressed Spaces

Flights of fancy

A few years ago, I described myself finding a livelier sense of self by looking up at the windows of the metro as it clattered past the iron wings above me. A corner of city, I wrote, which I had explored so frequently that my unceasing movement within it founded me more than the State-led rationalities that were reshaping the landscape around me. The blinking eyes of the metro cast a gaze that made me feel particularly me amid the ruination of the textures of life that were being smoothed out and boxed in, all the while this city, to which I had repeatedly returned, underwent a massive phase of renovation. What of me was I tied to in that shuddering moment, and what of the city? What sort of wings was I imagining as the buttress for this affirmation?

Jaurès – Stalingrad – La Chapelle – Barbès.

And between them the above-ground metro line 2. Ligne 2: a cast-iron structure of intersecting girders under a succession of gently curving spans. Des ailes? Wings? The word quickly starts to tremble. It knows no limits for me. Not like the words that define the perimeter of an existence in Écrire la vie (2011) by Annie Ernaux. For Ernaux, writing is anchored in the constitutive intransigence of knowing a place—your place—in the world; in a refusal of the sort of “manières” or “mannerisms” that might give the impression, consciously or not, that you come from elsewhere: “[C]es phrases disent les limites et la couleur du monde où vécut mon père, où j’ai vécu aussi. Et l’on n’y prenait jamais un mot pour un autre.” (Annie Ernaux, Écrire la vie (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), p. 452)

This writing has been important for me, as it has been to many contemporary writers and critics of French. Its attention to everyday speech, its resistance to metaphorisation. Its unswerving poise in the shame of individuation. Ernaux declares that she wants most to write books of words so definite, so binding that it becomes impossible for her subsequently to speak of them (p. 267). Too shameful.

But I’m always taking one word for another, then wondering what I have got myself wound into. Causing possible offence. Or confusion. Crossing wires. Because la métaphore m’arrive; metaphor happens to me. In unexpected lurches, rattling between rails. Do I get wings? Did they get me? I’m not saying that the burn of shame isn’t a factor. But it doesn’t necessarily know what’s provoking it. Speaking from within that moment of writing is to feel strung out. Not anchored in a place.

The metro thunders past the silver girders, the winsome trees. I feel myself in its movement. Stalingrad – La Chapelle – Barbès. And that sensation puckers out in the cautious extension of wings.

But it’s difficult to know now how far that extension carried me, still in the shadow of that metro, uncertain about the pitch of that writing, looking back to consider where it points in relation to bigger stakes, a small flutter in the years of “world-building”, of making a family, making a career, making a home, trying to make some meaning from it all, while the waste piles up and the crowds of displaced people gather on the corners and around the parks, still homeless, often aimless. I am thinking about this. About flights of writing, leading me up and out. And flickering gazes. For Ernaux, driving the motorway with its carousel of exits and junctions becomes a seamless glide in the collective rumour of the world. As she drives, she throws away her youthful desire for a “langage inconnu” (p. 1083). She has reached the realization that she can only write in the language she has always known, the language of her class and her country. I am reading this and thinking that it is a “harmonious remediation” with history, or a headlong relation to the present and its discourses. I find it super exhilarating. She goes really fast, her text on “the years” plummeting along through the landmarks of postwar culture in provincial France, gradually getting closer to the capital, to the centre of intellectual life as the author gets older, finds recognition, always moving through it with that same unswerving poise. Is this emancipation? Sometimes it makes me want to whistle under my breath in admiration. But maybe that is vulgar.

Around here, under Jaurès – Stalingrad – La Chapelle – Barbès, it is hard to

go fast. Too much stuff littering the streets, boxes, bags, scraps of clothes, broken parts of bikes and scooters, abandoned furniture, tossed together in the deep gutters. I wanted to detail this stuff before it got scooped up and dumped in large skips, some destined to be recycled within the network of productive society, some just to be abandoned in landfill. Too toxic to be burnt. It was these remainders that mattered to me. Stuff that couldn’t or wouldn’t be recycled. People too. Different guises of life that had arrived here, from very near and very far, taking root and yet cast outside the networks that course through our world. I didn’t want to lift it into the decorum of my Anglo affiliations. Towards the destinations that are mine, spaces like the one where I am writing now, in the quiet bastion of the University during lockdown, where these soundings from the streets of contemporary precarity in Northern Europe are bound to get distorted – over amplified perhaps, or steadied. But the immersion that is Ernaux’s was not possible either. Not for me that sparse, flat accumulation of the Exteriors of the world: 

« Combien vous avez payé ça ? » ; « Rien que le cul » (2011: 458; 509)

Difficult to get that incontrovertibility. The words on these streets, tipped together into an overwhelming contact zone, don’t have that weight. Not for me. At best I can muster a leaning towards them, a finding myself crushed against, a shuttling along with. Every day I brushed my way through the informal market of knock-off goods displayed on pieces of fabric or held out in that in-between posture that protects and invites: cigarettes, phones, headphones… Marlboro bled, Marlboro bled, cigarette détail, unité, cigarette détail. Shuffling the packets like cards. 5€ – 50 unité, 50 – 4€ – 4 € – Lady, cigarette, lady – Allemagne – deutsch – Bled, Marlboro, bled. Sometimes they whistled too, perched on the barriers between the pavement and the traffic flowing North. And I became in my own writing cette grande Parisienne qui passe et repasse tous les jours and who seems perhaps to provoke a sort of fierté un peu mystifiée – a slightly mystified pride – in the young men living off the streets. A camera was part of this negotiation too. Un appareil – a tool or a piece of equipment in French, much more intended to an investigative end than the English word camera. It came between us and established the positions: the corner boys jostling in apparent good humour and myself in my generally well-cut clothes: lady, lady. Deutsche ? spreche deutsche, cigarette.

If not the camera, I would turn to the metro. Stalingrad – La Chapelle. And modernist literature. They were not so different, maybe. The metro is inseparable from modernist fascination with visual and temporal condensation. With a compacting of experience into one tight, resistant image. Metro modernism can be said to begin with Ezra Pound and his 1913 poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, two unequal verses produced after eighteen months of compression during which a more traditional 30-line poem was compacted into these two lines:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The inspiration was the haiku form, and the image of the outlined petals on the black bough calls to mind the frequent appearance of petals and boughs in Japanese art. Pound referred to it as his ‘direct treatment’, emphasizing the absence of the observing or poetic ‘I’, or of any verbal structures in favour of the contrasting rhythm of the long iambic first verse followed by the strongly accented second verse. This was a form of super-position, ‘one idea set on top of another’ to record the precise instant when the external world meets and transforms itself on contact with the inner world of the poet. As Marianne DeKoven has argued, the luminosity and fragility of nature’s cycles is figured along with the mechanical churn of the crowded metro, the uneven black line of bough/rails running horizontally under the pale faces of the voyageurs. Or voyageuses. Because the fragility of these petals tells us that the ‘metro emotion’ that prompted the poem was provoked by the sight of women, first a ‘beautiful face,’ then a ‘child’s face’, then ‘another beautiful woman’. The gendered facelessness of the petals balances in opposition to the nameless metro station, though the latter is nonetheless squarely positioned within the modern city by its definite article, ‘the metro’: the poem’s title affirms its place in the banality of contemporary history while its central image pushes the people – specifically the women – in the metro into ‘apparitions’ which then become flora. The poem is a process of mastery, in which Japanese art and the everydayness of Parisiennes riding the city’s newly mass transportation system are integrated into modernist metaphor. 

Jaurès – Stalingrad – La ChapelleCigarettes bled. Are the wings of my ‘metro emotion’ petals or boughs? Fragile or rugged? Does the re-composition of self, rendered in a metaphor, also function through a similar sort of mastery, compressing the crowd into an abstracted gaze that flickers at me through the trees? Pound inaugurated the metro poem as space for experimentation with impersonal forms. His modernist exile had brio enough to absorb the particulars of the world into the delicacy of petals. I’m not surprised I threw myself a line in that direction; that I envisaged roping myself provisionally into that tradition of psychic dislocation. I’m a literary scholar, after all, trained in the tradition of comparative literature with a strong anchoring in modernist aesthetics. I have been drawn to literature and moved by it all my life and I want whatever writing I might do to perpetuate the possibility that literary form has some articulation with emancipation. Along that stretch between planche à repasser – sacs de couchage – gyrophare – ironing board – papiers – vigile – sleeping bags – papers – there was an exhilaration to be had in swinging upwards from debris of unprepossessing nouns to hover on those uncertain wings in the glancing eye of the metro, caught in a gaze that sustained me. In that I was more mystified than when I took my camera with me. Then the idea of a tool to bring between myself and the world was quite self-conscious, and self-conscious too the decision to leave it behind. In contrast the attachment to a writerly posture is hardwired. No easy detaching from it, and my breezy claim that a livelier sense of self would be my due from a reworking of the tropes of metro modernism now seems naïve. Perhaps more: for it is also trapped in the sort of fastidiousness that Steven Kellman has noted as the mark of the ‘consummate technician’ that the translingual writer may be. I hummed and haa-ed as I pass-ed and repass-ed with what to do about the elision of the preposition before the ‘eyes’, fearing a sort of archaism, relying on dictionary reassurance to arrive at: ‘clignant comme autant d’yeux.’ I could write it; I struggle to say it, because when it comes to my lips it brings with it a whole host of gods, or dieux, that I never anticipated in this place. But does writing ever offer an escape from the uncontrollable affect of voice? 

I turn. Wait: did I just call myself out? Heckler to my own self-as-Parisienne striding by? What sort of mental acrobatics does an academic considering her own writing need? And really, in a nod forward to another poet coming down the line a few trains after Pound, I need to get these wings out of my hair. 

For Ernaux the body is the touchstone for idiom; she draws a firm line between the way Proust attributes picturesque patois or dialectical expressions to his ‘maid’ and the way they rise unchecked to her lips. If she charges Proust with fetishizing popular idiomatic expressions, it is because she feels her own writing to be anchored in a specific and stable subject position a ‘nous’ or ‘us’ that speaks the same way (2011: 458). With the same voice. But what sort of ‘us’ can I imagine in the disorientation of Stalingrad – La Chapelle – Barbès, and what sort of act is it to write from within this disorientation in the French learnt largely from reading in a university library? These are my guiding questions today, but they have little to do with my personal subjectivity. I am not my language, not in the way Ernaux is her idiom, which she describes as ‘originelle’, as being of her origins. I have to try and say something else about language and place, something that is strung between the embodied attachments of place and the elevations of non-place from where I imagined I might feel myself more fully, suspended on literary wings before the unseeing eyes of the metro.

The full version in The Australian Journal of French Studies 58.2 2021 DOI:10.3828/AJFS.2021.16