On Wednesday I arrived in Paris with my family after setting out for Los Angeles alone that morning. I realise that this sentence comes across as both pretentious and preposterous but I hope to redeem myself by steering this in the direction of the heartland of French psychogeography.
We were in Paris to visit some my wife’s friends who live in Canberra (true and yet another dimension to what could also be a missive on ‘time-space compression – but isn’t). Los Angeles – well that’s better left unsaid.
After some of the usual family-friendly fun at the Natural History Museum perusing their collection of dusty old bones laid out like a Damien Hirst installation (that sentence would work in reverse if I were writing about Hirst – of course the museum was there long before BritArt) we allowed ourselves to drift through the frozen streets. Children are natural psychogeographers and flaneurs. They live for the moment, are completely guided by their senses and desires, and are inherently iconoclastic and anarchic prepared to challenge conventional norms with virtually every step. And we had four of them of various ages between us.
So I reckon it was the kids rather than the Paris-born Mathew who led us to Rue Mouffetard. It rang a bell, I think from the Will Self vs Iain Sinclair event at St. Lukes in 2004. As Mathew sat us down in the traditional café of Le Mouffetard, I asked him whether there was any link to Debord. He confirmed that it was in fact an area with Situationist associations, as later confirmed by this passage from The Situationist City by Simon Sadler:
“Situationsists regarded the best urban activity as human, unmechanised, and nonalienating, and their texts, films, and maps indicated some possibilities, variously idealising the marketplaces, like Les Halles or the Rue Mouffetard, the traditional cafes, notably those around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and the places of student congregation, such as those around the Pantheon” (p.92).
He led me up the street to Place De La Contrescarpe where Debord frequented the cafes – possibly whilst plotting dérives that he got too soaked to carry out. I would have a cheesy photo to mark the occasion had I not by now have been carrying my youngest child.
Indeed Debord mentions the location in the Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography: “Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?”
I was going to note how strange it was that a family outing should find its way to this exact location with such psychogeographical resonance, but this would be to ignore the articulations at work in the urban realm – particularly when guided by children.
The photo at the top is of the Memorial de le Deportation