Take care, we say as casually as we do Bye or See Ya Later -- and then we're off. We've got things to do, places to go, work to do -- and today some new waxen wings to test. There's always something on the to-do list, you know how it is. And then, in the middle of the busy day's routine ... the explosion.
Alarm, horror, shock. Reality, which is so often surreal, erupts. It's news, big news, but it's not new. In the 16th century, one of those astounding Flemish painters, Pieter Bruegel, painted The Fall of Icarus -- as a minor part of a landscape. Everybody else in it was too busy with his own thing to take much notice. W. H. Auden described the scene:
... how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
By now, even a week later, the clippings have started to yellow, as old Clio, muse of history, keeps turning the present continually into the past, like the old grandfather clock in the hall ticking away. Or maybe like a time bomb. One minute it's a day like all other days and then ... TERROR STRIKES IN PARIS ... French search/ for killers/ of 12 in Paris...."
It was among the deadliest attacks in post-war France. The killers escaped, traumatizing the city and sending shock waves through Europe and beyond. ... Je suis Charlie! ... "National television ran constant live coverage of the manhunt." ... The lights were going out all over The City of Light -- the Eiffel Tower was dimmed, the Metro came to a standstill for a moment's silence ... The crowd around Notre Dame fell silent. ... Bouquets of flowers sprang up on the sidewalk outside the building in the 11th Arrondissement that had once housed a satirical weekly. ... Gendarmes and police were everywhere. ... Monster rallies shouted shock and defiance. ... Charlie Hebdo Plans Five Million Copies! ... and Icarus disappeared under the waves.
By now it all seems so long ago, like the old myths.
Oh, yes, there were appeals for unity, and great shows of it, too. The tricolor was raised everywhere. But somehow the leader of the country's right-wing party wasn't invited to the rallies. Which meant disinviting maybe a quarter of the country's political spectrum. Too controversial. French unity has a way of proving not so unified.
But the national myth was rolled out for all to hail. Politicians made speeches. "France has been struck directly in the heart of its capital, in a place where the spirit of liberty -- and thus of resistance -- breathed freely." So proclaimed the president of the republic -- the Fifth French Republic, is it by now?
Ah, yes, the spirit of resistance. When I visited Paris once -- half a century ago, it is now -- I was a teenager en route to spend a summer in Israel with the rest of our little Zionist youth group. In my brief stay, would you believe it, I never met a Frenchman who hadn't been part of the Resistance -- just as veterans of the Wehrmacht I came across in those years all fought on the Eastern front against the Russians, never west of the Rhine. Curious. It's a wonder our boys met any resistance at all when they landed at Normandy.
We all tend to remember, and maybe remodel, our own histories at such times. Yes, Vive la France! But which France -- the France of the Resistance or the France of Vichy? Is anyone even allowed to recall that perfidious France anymore? Laval, Petain, the whole legion of collaborators, including writers and editors and intellectuals ... they're all unpersons now. They never existed. Not now.
But I do have one souvenir of that unremembered France -- a picture of an aunt I would never meet, though my mother spoke of her often. Now she looks at me out of a small, Beaux-Arts frame, 1920s-style. I spotted the little picture in my big sister's pied-a-terre in Shreveport. (She visits there regularly even though she moved to Long Island when she got married many years ago -- but stayed a Southern girl.)
Now my Aunt Temya, always young and fashionable in the picture, looks out at me every morning. She was one of the thousands of Parisian Jews rounded up and corralled at the Velodrome before being turned over to the Germans and loaded onto boxcars for Resettlement in the East, a euphemism for the extermination camps. And she was never heard from again.
Yes, there was a time when the gendarmes weren't scouring Paris for terrorists; they were the terrorists. The Velodrome, now known as the Velodrome d'Hiver, is in the 11th Arrondissement. Every time you turn a corner in Paris, history waits. Often enough in ambush.
What to make of it all? Think of a rusty old Citroen now confined to a scrap heap somewhere off the Place Victor Hugo, its windshield shattered long ago, each sliver refracting an irretrievable past, none of them fitting together.
Is there anything here worth salvaging? Yes. In between the big news stories last week there were glimpses of people caught in history's unceasing maelstrom. Think of a police officer named Ahmed Merabet, who rushed to the bloody scene at Charlie Hebdo as soon as he heard of the massacre, hoping to keep the assassins from slaughtering more. After a brief firefight, he lay there wounded on the sidewalk. After a while one of the killers approached and calmly shot him in the head.
In death as in life, Ahmed Merabet was an ordinary man, just doing his ordinary duty. Which is never ordinary for a cop. He lived with his sister, had worked the 11th Arrondissement for eight years, and was a steward of his policeman's union.
In extraordinary times, it is the ordinary that shines like a beacon. It shows the way. Icarus still falls unnoticed, but it's kind of assuring to see everybody else still going on their way, doing their duty.