Havana Cigars and Gitanes

In today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen has written a lament about technology and modernity, couched in a sentimental comparison between Paris and Havana. It’s a wonderful piece. Having spent several years saying the same things in my fundamentally analytic way, I marvel at the way a real writer can tell a story that jumps out of the page. I am tempted to put the whole piece here to raise the odds that you will actually read it. But, trying to be a good blogger, here are a few snippets.

In Havana, I’d spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing — not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign — distracted me from the city’s sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro’s pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.

Such empty spaces, away from the assault of marketing, beyond every form of message (e-mail, text, twitter), erode in the modern world, to the point that silence provokes a why-am-I-not-in-demand anxiety. Technology induces ever more subtle forms of addiction, to products, but also to agitation itself. The global mall reproduces itself, its bright and air-conditioned sterility extinguishing every distinctive germ.

Cohen never mentions the words, sustainability or flourishing, as I do in my discussions of the impact of technology and modernity, in general, on our lives. Yet, his unspoken message about something missing is wonderfully ironic, especially to a readership that has heard little of Havana, except via the demonization of Cuba. For him, Havana has preserved its nuances and reality, even as it crumbles, while Paris, putting a veneer of modernity over its ancient charm, has lost the magic that technology always hides.

His experience is much like what Albert Borgmann, who writes about the commodification of living under the sway of technology, describes. Borgmann distinguishes the warmth and presence that a fireplace produces from that of a furnace hidden away in the basement. Look at what an old-fashioned match did for Cohen.

At dinner with people I’d known back then, I was grappling with this elusive feeling [of loss] when my friend lit a match. It was a Russian match acquired in Belgrade and so did not conform to current European Union nanny-state standards. The flame jumped. The sulfur whiff was pungent. A real match!

Then it came to me: what Paris had lost to modernity was its pungency. Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d’Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men. . . . Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.

Gone, in short, was Paris in the glory of its squalor, in the time before anyone thought a Frenchman would accept a sandwich for lunch, or decreed that the great unwashed should inhabit the distant suburbs. The city has been sanitized.

But squalor connects. When you clean, when you favor hermetic sealing in the name of safety, you also disconnect people from one another. When on top of that you add layers of solipsistic technology, the isolation intensifies. In its preserved Gallic disguise, Paris is today no less a globalized city than New York.

I have been returning to Paris periodically since I worked there one summer as a graduate student in 1956. I feel the same sense of loss when I return these days.

Each of us grows up in and into a singular world, our own world, shaped by our unique life history. Whatever has meaning to each of us is shaped by that history. When everything we encounter in life begins to look the same and works in the same way, the meaningfulness that enlivens us fades and we lapse into the isolation that Cohen feels. Flourishing is all about the opposite—connectedness and aliveness.

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