Soupe à trois sous, a print by James McNeill Whistler, 1859. Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

Dream City

Drifting through the city with Modiano and the Situationists

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, translated by Chris Clarke, NYRB Classics (2016).

A regular at a Paris café undertook a project: for three years he maintained a log book. Every customer who entered the café, the date and time of their arrival and departure, where they came from. Sometimes the customer was unwilling to give their name, and would be identified by their clothes or the color of their eyes. He called them “fixed points.” The city was made of relentless change, a stream of strangers walking through life; they were constantly disappearing into anonymity in the metropolis, but perhaps that could be staved off by holding onto a face, a name, an address; a memory of a strange girl sitting silently at a table, invited to join a group of friends but not entirely noticed.

You need familiarity, he realized—not just among the familiar, but among strangers. You need a sense of routine: not just in your daily life, but on your off-hours, in your leisure. You need fixed points, to see the same people again and again and know what that means, what they mean. You need to know who they are, but not too much. You need to not feel like you’re floating in anonymity. This regular has a name, but mostly he is just known as the Captain, and his frequent spot is the Condé: Paris, 1950s. His friends have been enlisted to undertake the same project in other bars and cafés around the neighborhood; sometimes they sit there around the clock maintaining their records.

Café, by Mortimer Borne Published by WPA, 1935–43. Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

As the Condé darkens, people sit and stare at the candles. They huddle, first alone, and then, as the night progresses, together, moving to each others’ tables as the last of the guests remain. They watch the pouring rain outside, watch people coming in for shelter. The owner of the café lives upstairs; sometimes she locks up but lets the last guests stay, saying goodnight as she climbs the stairs to her flat. Perhaps they will stay there all night.

At some point a mysterious woman joins the regulars, but she is always slightly more unknowable than the others. She tells people she is a student of Oriental Studies. When she was a child her mother worked at a bar around the corner until dawn most nights, and she learned young the feeling of roaming the city alone all night, becoming familiar with the emotional register of the streets.

~

The Condé’s regulars are all characters in Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth, a novel loosely centered around Guy Debord and his Situationist International, a postwar movement that declared that modern life consisted simply of “empty moments”—the forces of capitalism had taken control of the individual’s reality and experience, and one needed to create “situations,” or “moment[s] of life concretely and deliberately constructed,”1Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1956). https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/is1.html in order to reclaim them. Consumer society—and the city planning which circumscribed it—turned everyone into spectators; individual subjectivity, harnessed in solidarity, was needed to revert this structure and reclaim agency within the city and one’s experience of it. Situationists wanted to turn the individual from a passive spectator into an actor, break down the boundary between art and activity, invoke a new kind of urban space that was rooted in the contemporary lived experience. 

Manicure, by Mortimer Borne, Published by WPA, 1935–43. Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

The mysterious woman, Louki, practices a Situationist-like psychogeography in her movement through Paris: she roams around what she calls the “lower slopes,” readings books with titles like Journey into Infinity and Louise, Sister of the Void and Lost Horizon, in which people wander the mountains searching for the meaning of life. I thought back to my nighttime walks. For me, Montmartre was Tibet. The slope of rue Caulaincourt was plenty for me. Louki embodies the Situationists’ need to create a new, more honest map of the city, one that reflects experience and memory rather than a unified plan.

“The construction of situations begins on the ruins of the modern spectacle,” Debord wrote in his essay on the Situationist International. “The very principle of the spectacle—non-intervention—is linked to the alienation of the old world.” Constructing situations meant placing lived experience first: “the situation is thus made to be lived by its constructors.” This is what the Condé’s customers seem intent on doing: finding their way through the city in order to construct personal associations and patterns to live in and through. Perhaps this is what gives the Paris of the story its dream-like quality: sometimes it seems like the streets are shifting as the characters attempt to bring memories into focus. Paris in Modiano’s story is a state of mind, an entire nation, a time rip. It is a site of infinite invisible potential fixed points.

One night the mysterious woman comes into the Condé late, taking shelter from the pouring rain. She is dripping; the owner ascends to her flat and brings down a towel to dry her hair. Another of the regulars stands up and takes it, and proceeds to dry her hair gently, and finally wraps the towel on her head into a little turban; she sits there with them at their table all night, still wearing the turban. 

How to describe the profound intimacy of such a gesture? Lucy Sante on the Paris Commune: Women wore garments that buttoned at the back, so that even dressing would be a communal enterprise. I read Sante’s history of the Paris underbelly while living in a dense neighborhood in Bombay, a former fishing village surrounded by reclaimed land that was now miles away from the new coastline. Children would come out into the gulleys to brush their teeth; women sat on their front steps braiding each others’ hair. I have always loved the old saying about not airing your dirty laundry in public: causing discomfort by mixing up “private” and “public” affairs. But it makes you wonder what we mean when we talk about dirty laundry. Can there be anything resembling intimacy without it? Especially in what the Captain calls the “anonymity of the big city”… Perhaps such messiness is sometimes the only way to find fixed points, connections amidst the anonymity. There are those places, in the city and in our minds, where there is no such distinction; these third spaces, tiers-lieux, those spaces in between public and private, meant to confuse such distinctions, meant to expose you in an almost obscene way. Those bars and cafés where you can be at your most private, where you can dry your hair or fall asleep or cry. Louki reinvents herself every time she stops frequenting one café and becomes a regular at the next one; she has a different life in each of them, but her companions probably do too. Sometimes you can only really feel at home in strange places; perhaps the irony is that one is most themselves during a dérive, under full influence of the surroundings.

West 10th Street, by Mortimer Borne Published by WPA, 1935–43. Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

In his introduction to situationism, Debord also refers to these “fixed points.” One of the methods for a situationist movement was the dérive, a kind of “playful-constructive behavior” in which people “drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” The word’s Latin root “derivare” means to divert a river, a flow. But this is not simply a random, unthinking action; it’s a construction, an experience. The dérive creates a new kind of knowledge: a collective reached through the individual. “From the dérive point of view cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points, and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.” 

Modiano’s narrators talk of zones, too. His final protagonist, Louki’s lover Roland, is writing a book about Paris’s “neutral zones”: “no-man’s-lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefited from a certain kind of immunity.” It was in these neutral zones where Paris’s “missing” residents lived, citizens who simply disappeared from public life and had not been reported seen or heard from in decades, whom city officials had declared to be “absentees.” There are no apparent physical characteristics of these neutral zones, but Roland describes them as some cross between islands and borders: perhaps more psychological than physical. After their group literary meetings hosted by the charismatic stand-in for Debord, Roland, and Louki spent many hours or days or months roaming around these neutral zones, killing time; perhaps there was something in the current of the city that made it hard, or perhaps pointless, to simply get on the métro and go elsewhere, particularly when you couldn’t even be sure you were getting out of the zone you were in.

L Fulton Street, Mortimer Borne, Published by WPA, 1935–43. Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

There is subtle intention in this drift, about routes taken but also new forms created. Gridded, efficient, machine-like; top-down city planning assembled complete environments of consumption and production around the individual; leaving little ambiguity, room to perceive the city differently, or behave according to the quiet internal impulses of boredom, meandering thought, observation, or shared furtive glances. There is an impoverishment that results in this “spectacle” of modernity, and Debord wrote that their goal must be to combat this, to “extend the non-mediocre part of life.” Fixed points were an essential part of these new kinds of constructions, this new way of living.

Sometimes, Roland aptly observes, you don’t know if a memory is of a dream or of something that really happened. You have to go back to the scene of an interaction fifteen years ago to check whether there really is ivy growing on the walls of the building where you last saw someone you will never forget, even if you can’t be sure if the building is still there, let alone the ivy; even when you can’t be sure “if those streets still exist, or if they haven’t finally been absorbed by the dark matter once and for all.” 

Sometimes the dreams and the memories juxtapose themselves, as cities do. Sometimes you leave Bombay to come visit your hometown, and are sitting on a Bangalore local bus waiting and watching out of the corner of your eye for that one landmark stop where the entire vehicle empties, that central stop at which point the second half of your journey begins, and you’re waiting and waiting and the stop never arrives because you realize you have been waiting for a station on the Bombay local train. Sometimes you leave Bombay and you find yourself in a landlocked city trying to orient yourself towards the sea, or visualize the route from Jayanagar to Dharavi, forgetting that they’re in two different cities; the psychogeographies of my cities merge, turning memory into landscape.

During my first year in New York City I met few deadlines, but I met the bottle collector who always knows where loose cigarettes are being sold near Union Square and Everett the grumpy used-bookseller from MacDougal Street, who remembers when Lucy Sante lived in Greenwich Village; I meandered aimlessly around Bob Dylan’s old haunts and repeatedly stumbled upon The Bitter End like it was Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement, which appears in different places to travelers in times of dire need, but can never be sought out; I met John, a disheveled, handsome, soft looking early-forties man with a tender anachronism and a vaguely sentimental disorientation about him (“Thank you for including me,” he said when I told him he made a cameo in this essay, “I hope I don’t overstay my in-story welcome.”), who followed Patti Smith to the Village in the eighties, and once spent months looking through archives for all possible mention of Sonia the Cigarette Girl. “It was the late nineteen-tens, the beginning of the Bohemian era in the Village, and this young woman started appearing in the tea rooms, selling hand-rolled cigarettes. And she just became a figure, people knew who she was. She would get letters from artists passing through, addressed simply to ‘Sonia the Cigarette Girl, Greenwich Village’. And there is something so classically Greenwich Village about that, moving here and becoming a new human being. Our dear Hippolyte Havel,” John said, of the waiter-anarchist who lived with Emma Goldman, “was once working at a café when a tourist came up to him with a map and said, ‘Can you tell me, where is Greenwich Village?’ and Hippolyte pushed the map aside and said, ‘Greenwich Village is not on any map.’ The Village is a state of mind,” John said. “It is a nation in itself.” I spent an hour with John one evening and then walked up and down the Bowery for another hour, slightly drunk and looking for CBGB, which shut ten years ago.

Public Building, by Fred Becker, Published by WPA, 1935–43. Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

Beginning in the late 1940s, the sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe created a map of Paris based solely on the daily movements over the course of a year of a student living in the sixteenth arrondissement, insisting that an urban neighborhood is “determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it.” This image is built largely on memories, of course, as is Roland and Louki’s Paris, but it is also defined by a certain “narrowness,” despite the fact that the dérive is largely subject to chance: people remain attached to fixed points. The student’s routine indeed produced a map of tragic narrowness, centering its experience of Paris around three single points: her home, her university, and her piano class. Nevertheless, Debord argues, such data builds up exactly what the Situationists aimed for: “a modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions.” 

But despite its subjectivity, the dérive resists the individualism associated with what Debord called the “society of the spectacle,” in which lived experience was suppressed in favor of the omnipresent image; geographically it restores a sense of the collective destroyed by overarching systems and narratives like those of the cartesian map, creating a city that we live in collectively. As McKenzie Wark writes in her study of the Situationists, The Beach Beneath the Street, “psychogeography made the city subjective and at the same time drew subjectivity out of its individualistic shell. It is a therapy aimed not at the self but at the city.” (A perfect product of Debord’s “spectacle”: a 2020 apocalyptic novel in which a cynical god-like narrator swoops in on scenes happening all over New York City, one of which involves an unnamed woman suffocating in an F train stalled under the Hudson River. There is no F train under the Hudson—but only the unyielding logic of consumerism could render New York City’s image more relevant than its lived reality, forcing us to exist independently of each other, in different New York Citys.)

Routes are a strange thing to parse. I have regular stops along my route home that are at this point almost unconscious; I am still being “drawn by the attractions of the terrain,” but my movements are often not spontaneous. The environment offers the pleasure of submitting to an urge, but the impulsiveness perhaps remains loyal to the fixed points. The café in between the train station and my office; the bar in between the train station and my home; perhaps the nature of the drift comes not from a necessarily wide range of geographical locations, but from the feeling that the fixed points operate at different emotional registers, somewhere outside of space and time completely. The new city is created less by the points themselves and more by the feelings that lead us to them.

In 1653 the novelist Madeleine de Scudéry, along with the other members of her literary salon, created her famous Carte du Tendre, laying out the histories of a potential love affair in the form of a spatial journey (which offers landmarks like the mer d’intimié or the lac d’indifference). Three hundred years later Guy Debord created The Naked City, a map of Paris that might have been defined as what he called “renovated cartography”: nineteen sections cut out of a larger map of Paris, spatially unrelated and not to scale—arranged and linked by arrows, each segment has a different “unity of atmosphere.” 

New York Landscape, Fred Becker, Published by WPA, 1936. Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

The maps are documenting very different stories, but they both encompass multiple possible experiences: over the course of a love affair in the former, and the course of walking through the city in the latter. The Naked City was a clear reaction to the cartesian bird’s-eye-view map; its disjointedness appropriated a more traditional map, trying to make Paris illegible again, and created an urban experience that was “insubordinate to the usual directives.” (Another memory: walking through the streets of a low-income neighborhood in Bombay, ostensibly doing a study of road safety and footpath use; someone suggests that the footpath be widened so that pedestrians don’t walk on the street. My colleague: If there’s even another square foot of space, there will be another food stall here by morning, and even if there isn’t, people will keep walking on the street.) Louki and Roland, in their walks through Paris, often do not know which direction they’re moving in, which “zone” they’re in or whether they’ve left the lower slopes yet; they’re guided by a different knowledge, a kind of innate insubordination.

~

Much of Louki’s “insubordination” to the traditional map of Paris and the traditional way of moving through the city comes out through her insistence on killing time. “It’s time,” Roland says to her, when it gets dark and he doesn’t know how much longer she can avoid having dinner with her husband. “Time to what?” she asks, and he realizes she’s never going back home again. “We could go to the movies,” she says, clearly not caring whether they do or not.Louki seems less interested in leisure or fun than in simply waiting for something, or not waiting for it. Roland is obsessed with the idea of the eternal return: perhaps in cyclical time especially, hours in the city cannot really be used well or badly.

Henri Lefebvre writes of how capital creates the modern city, and the modern binary between work and leisure; non-productive hours are increasingly spent in mere consumption. According to the Marxist view of time, the worker gets paid to produce for a certain amount of her hours, and pays to consume for the rest of them; the Marxist view of space similarly designates work, leisure, and rest to distinct spaces within the urban layout and urban experience. Debord’s dérive breaks down such distinctions: those undertaking a dérive make use of the space in a way that is neither functional nor restful; their time spent falls somewhere on the spectrum between useful and playful.

Debord once recounted that his first major work was a simple graffiti that declared: “Never work!” This was not to maximize leisure time, but to free his time from both work as well as the opposite of work, to free it to mean something else entirely, outside of this classification. The drifters of Modiano’s novel unveil a Paris that cannot be contained by such delineations: they are concerned only with time that is lived, regardless of whether in rest or play or work. Debord’s—and Modiano’s, and Roland’s—interest lies more in zones, those spaces which one perhaps has to negotiate entry into and exit from, because they are either magnetic or repulsive; those spaces where memories blur into dreams, in which a thing happens once and never again, or perhaps endlessly. “Our entire program,” Debord writes, “is essentially transitory. Our situations will be ephemeral, without a future; passageways.” And perhaps, at the same time, an eternal return.

Portrait, Fred Becker, Published by WPA, 1935–43. Public Domain. Image Courtesy of The Met Open Access.

Zones are illegible, totally outside the realm of official or commercial mapping, but their meaning is immediate, neon, impulsive—you know what it means to stay, and when you absolutely need to leave. Louki and Roland spend their days and nights in their neutral zone after she vanishes from her husband and remains in hiding; just outside is the rue d’Argentine, which, Roland observes grimly, “didn’t correspond to the arrondissement where it was situated. It didn’t correspond to anything; it was completely disconnected. With that layer of snow, it opened onto the void on either side.” Louise, Sister of the Void. Some of that layer in Paris, he realizes, are “not only neutral zones but also black holes…patches of dark matter, which renders everything invisible.” The Situationists were unlike the contemporary progressive movements of their time, like existentialism; they were not interested in reaching a state of consciousness and therefore freedom, but in simply producing new situations as an end in themselves.2The Beach Beneath the Street 57—8. The places no longer mattered in the least, they had all blended together into one. The long goal of our journey was to go to the heart of summer, that place where time stops and the hands of the clock permanently show the same hour: twelve noon.

One night, Roland and Louki walk past the Saint-Paul metro and continue towards Arsenal, a ghost station that has been shut since the beginning of the war. They are in a neutral zone, crossing deserted streets, wondering if anyone lives there. They stop under a building and look up at two lit windows, a red-shaded lamp, a framed mirror on the wall. They wonder if it is a living room or a bedroom; they wait, hoping to see a silhouette. Louki: We should ring the doorbell. I’m sure someone is expecting us.

It’s their flat. They live there. They’ve lost the key, they’ve lost themselves somewhere on the ghost streets, they’ve lost their reference points. They have gone back to old haunts looking for people who have since disappeared; they themselves have disappeared more times than they can count. Their mail piles up in hotels they left long ago. They may or may not have ever gone back searching for lost ivy. Yet even in their dissociation, they are making their way into an experience; they are present in their eternal return; they are constructing situations without a future: passageways through the city, through history. ~

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.