The Pulse: Paris
Madame Dupont came an hour early to the lecture room in the Collège de France. She wanted to see the room again. Breath it in. An emeritus professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, she'd recently bought an apartment several blocks away, out of nostalgia for the old days in the Latin Quarter.
One afternoon back in 1960 she attended a lecture on Epistemology at the Collège. She was a graduate student and had by chance sat down next to a visiting scholar from England. Here, in this very room. This very seat. They were married within a month, and their marriage lasted 59 years.
Conrad died fourteen months ago, in a different room, one with tubes and visiting hours. She was adrift without him. She spent her days walking the old blocks, from the Pantheon down to the river, in search of her old self. The one she left behind: the proud queen of la bohême who had no intention of dying of TB or any other disease which might make her feel faint.
Madame Dupont was looking forward to the speech by the visiting professor from Oxford. It made her think back to her year there, where she read Lewis Carroll while Conrad looked after his dying father. She wrote several articles comparing Carroll to her philosophical mentor, Blaise Pascal. She still believed in what she wrote, about how both men escaped a meaningless world by using ruthless logic — and then by overwhelming this logic with an even more ruthless use of metaphor.
Her mentor and nemesis, Blaise Pascal. She loved his mathematical mind, but couldn’t accept how everything ended with God. God and the Catholic Church answered all the questions that couldn't be answered.
It depressed her that Pascal started off with random numbers and ended up with God. And it depressed her even more that no matter how she worked the equation, all she could end up with were numbers. Perhaps Pascal's philosophy worked back in 1660, when there was no equation yet for the energy that could be derived from a mass of uranium.
Above all, Pascal's God didn't make sense to a Jewish girl brought up in the wake of Auschwitz. A French Jewish girl with curly black hair and incandescent eyes.
Her eyes were watery now (there were tiny rings around the tiny rings of her light brown irises), yet Pascal still made her blood pressure climb. How could he be so rational, and yet so irrational at the same time? She thought that when she got older, she'd learn to accept this, as if the proximity of death would make some paradoxical logic appear somehow. It never did.
It would’ve been a relief to believe that she'd see Conrad again, in some otherworldly Paris, deep in the clouds. A City of God with croissants and seven-story buildings. But even at the age of 86 she couldn't see it. Alone on her walks, the lovers on the quay filled her with indescribable pain.
The winding river, the luminescent limestone buildings hacked from the nearby quarries of the Oise, the cafés jammed with poets and artists — these were the things that remained constant for her. The patrons may change, the Samaritaine might get a makeover, but the city of men remained.
Yet the men in the city came and went. And one man never came back.
These were the hard truths upon which she constructed the scaffolding of the world. She stepped into Notre Dame, but she stepped out again. Once back on the pavement, the gargoyles blocked the angels above.
She had tried to face all things as they were, unvarnished with what she might want them to be. At 86, she was still sane enough to see that anything else could only be categorized as la belle espérance. And now, after her careful, creative, ruthless construction, she lamented that she couldn't climb to the skies.
As a philosopher, Madame Dupont had always been preoccupied by definitions. And this is where she parted with Pascal, who argued (in De l'esprit géométrique et de l'art de persuader) that since reality could only be quantified (geometrically and mathematically) by using axioms, then reality must find its ultimate axiom, its ultimate definition, in God. Despite what seemed to her Pascal's existential leanings, he insisted that the meaning of axioms — those things we know to be true, but can't say why — must reside in the mysteries of God. Everything that’s relative — so beautiful in mathematics and geometry, and yet so untrustworthy in human thinking — must find its deeper coordinates in The Eternal. And by The Eternal he meant the sacred mysteries of the Catholic Church.
Conrad and she used to laugh whenever they heard this kind of reasoning. Sitting opposite each other in their shared study overlooking Boulevard Montparnasse, they would cry out in unison, Siècle des Lumieres! in much the same way the French used to exclaim Sacré bleu! or the Québécois still cried out Tabarnac!
Pascal's thinking reminded her of the Medieval take on Aristotle: if you can’t find ultimate causes in this world, find them in another world. In Creation, the First Cause, Alpha. Then loop this Alpha to the End of Time, the Final Effect, Omega, and abbracaddabbra, you close the Circle of Meaning.
In her book, Point De Départ, Madame Dupont started off with the simple observation that there were more than two letters in the Greek alphabet. The scientific uses of these letters couldn't have been imagined by the Greek writers of the gospels.
This lead Madame Dupont into a wider discussion: the idea of letters, and the older idea of numbers, descended from the Babylonians, not the Hebrews or Greeks. The Babylonians — scathingly derided by the Jews and the Christians — derived them from the Akkadians, who got them from the Sumerians, who it seems, begat almost everything.
Instead of pointing to a Prime Mover of numbers that transcended numbers themselves, the study of Mesopotamia pointed to the practical origin of numbers — trade, vats of wine, and bushels of barley. These they counted in base ten and base sixty: 10 X 60 + 6 X 10 + 6. In the eyes of the Chosen People — and the people who then chose themselves — the numbers of business became strumpet numbers. The Whore of Babylonian! 666! Passing through the mystery cults of the Classical world, these demonic digits danced into the bonfires of the Medieval mind.
But of course Pascal couldn't have known back in the 1650s about the secrets hidden in the cuneiform script of the Mesopotamians. These secrets remained buried until the mid-19th century. And despite Pascal's claims about revelations, axioms, and intuition, he couldn't have intuited it either. He couldn't have known that letters (even the Word, sacred as it may be) and numbers (from the demons of 666 to Plato's ladder of mathematical Truth) were simply historical constructions. Endless sequences of markings in clay. Digits on screens. Circling around us, with no diameter and no intrinsic pattern.
These were the hard facts that as a French woman she'd known since high school. The years with Conrad, from the barricades to their apartment in the fifteenth arrondissement, didn't change them. The facts were fixed, solid, almost as comfortable as their lives together in their second-floor apartment above the cafés of Boulevard Montparnasse.
Until, that is, he died. Until she came back to the Latin Quarter to try to remember who she once was.
Next: On Becoming Human