Swedish-born, Paris-based writer Carl-Johan Karlsson has been seeing “dead museums” since the pandemic arrived... and even earlier.
PARIS — In the early days of last spring's strict confinement, I went for a walk with a friend soon after dawn. Keeping six feet apart, we spoke through our face masks and each of us carried a signed French government "permission to exercise" form in our front pocket. It was March, but that early Parisian morning was a little telegram from summer. We reached Pont au Change just as the first crackling light poured over the mansard roofs and set the placid river glistening. The air was calm and quiet except for the sounds of birds singing — and after a moment of silent reflection staring out from the bridge, my friend and I agreed: Paris had never looked worse.
The scene of a deserted, majestic city would of course have made quite the postcard, but all I could think of was William Burroughs' phrase "dead museum." And so it was recently that I thought of that phrase again when reading about two other cities that I once too called home; New York, where the Metropolitan Opera announced that the pandemic had forced it to cancel its entire 2020-21 season; and Buenos Aires, where the city's 200 "milongas' or, tango dance halls, will remain shut indefinitely after closing back in March.
Before I go on, I should pause to say that I understand the risk of talking about tango when people are still dying in hospitals around the world. I should also note that, even though I live in Paris, I'm no particular high-culture maven. I've never been to the Met and I've never tangoed. I got close, back when I lived in Buenos Aires, showing up at milongas to soak up the atmosphere and watch the little tornados of people swirl and marvel at how they (with eyes closed!) managed to never collide. I never dared, having realized early that the Swedish male frame doesn't lend itself to dancing — our asses are too flat. Still, being there as locals tangoed like they had for generations was, without knowing it at the time, why I'd made the Argentine capital my temporary home.
Cities are nothing if not a compacted bale of all of the things that are now a threat to our health: dancing cheek-to-cheek, opera singers belting out arias, sweating shoulder-shoulder on the subway, shooting the shit in crowded bars, filing into a movie theater, sharing a cigarette … a handshake. And as we still don't know whether we're at the end of something terrible or at the beginning of something that won't end, it begs the question: What if some of our physical culture won't be coming back?
Beyond Burroughs, there is of course a whole slew of 20th-century dystopian writers who imagined what a spiritually dead culture might look like — some with an almost spooky prescience (George Orwell's 1984 hit bestseller lists again in 2017). Still, a very different perspective comes from my photographer fiancee who is convinced that the pandemic is a chance to confront a culture that has long been in crisis: "Maybe what we're going through now can remind us of what's been lost."
Culture will always need our collective expression.
That view requires a sunnier disposition than mine, but I understood what she was getting at. Visiting art galleries, I often get the sense of reading a newspaper; it tells you what's going on; or even social media (what's trending...), but it rarely invokes any of the feelings — love, fear, hope, rage — that it typically claims to depict. It lacks what Aristotle called "anagnorisis," that feeling of catching up with a truth that was already there.
I couldn't tell you what allowed artists of the past to compose, write or paint the stuff we still revisit in awe, only that I can't find it today. I also know that no matter how many it takes to tango, culture will always need our collective expression … even if some just sit on our asses and watch.