Paris, the city of popular imagination

The sun also rises: Île de la Cité as seen from the Pont des Arts

The sun also rises: Île de la Cité as seen from the Pont des Arts

One of the themes to emerge from the Nov. 13 Paris bombings has been why the world – and particularly journalists – has paid more attention to the terrorist acts in Paris than it has to the double suicide bombing in Beirut a day earlier.

There are any number of reasons for this:  Bombings in the Middle East, sadly, seem commonplace; the Paris attack is more of an anomaly; more people were killed in Paris (129 to Beirut’s 43), although you can’t really quantify death, of course, each death being a tragedy to someone; the West and particularly the United States have close ties to France, etc.

But that doesn’t explain videos like this one. Those aren’t just Westerners lighting candles for Paris, placing flowers outside French embassies and consulates or lighting up monuments in Le Tricolore. They are Koreans, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians. Another sign that the West dominates world culture? Possibly. But I think the real reason we have paid more attention to the attacks in Paris is the place that city occupies in world imagination. It stands at the nexus of East and West. Everyone wants to go to Paris – a city founded by the Celtic tribe the Parisi in the third century B.C. that has since the Middle Ages stood at the pinnacle of civilization. The arts. The architecture. The fashion. The food. The nightlife. The romance. Ah, yes, the romance, celebrated in song and film, often by foreigners for whom the city has always been a long-cherished dream.

It is a touchstone in “Casablanca” (1941), one of the great films and great wartime propaganda films, the place where the lovers, Rick and Ilsa, were happy – “were” being the operative word. But when he relinquishes her in the end to the larger, nobler cause of the war effort, Rick relocates Paris in that sacrifice. They will never be together again. But the spirit of the City of Light remains. “We’ll always have Paris,” he tells her.

We’ll always have Paris. And that’s why it hurts so much to see someone try to take it away from us.