No. 4 El Catrin (The Dandy)

You hear about it all the time; two naive young Americans leave the country for a few weeks of adventure only to be taken hostage by vile foreigners with less than honorable intentions. We had relaxed, Cassandra and I. I had even begun wearing my backpack on my back instead of strapping it to my chest like an explosive device. Then, like some vengeful, chatty pigeon Fantine had swept down upon us. The peaceful walkways, frequented by tourists torn between the solemnity of the setting and glee at the unlikelihood of finding themselves there, hung heavy with useless trivia.

I wanted only two things from Paris, the city of love and art: to eat a French croissant and to pay homage to Oscar Wilde’s tomb. The combination of flaky buttered pastry and acidic Irish wit suited me just fine, three weeks of vomiting a trail across the coast of North Africa notwithstanding. And when the croissant turned out to be ordinary, and a little bit stale, truth be told, I still had the exquisitely attired man leaning forward out of a photograph and looking at me as if he would like to say something rather cutting.

“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without any civilization in between,” he would comment, looking at my prized Keds, plastered with yellow ducks.

Fantine interrupted what would likely have turned into a diatribe about my companion’s sweatpants, herding us along Avenue Circulaire, much against our will. We had not signed up for a tour, but she was the English speaking tour guide and we were Americans, making us her rightful property.

“Marcel Proust is one of our more popular residents at Pere Lachaise,” she narrated in the calm, practiced tone of a flight attendant, while moving us in the exact opposite direction of the x labeled Oscar Wilde’s grave on my map. We couldn’t have fled, encumbered as we were, and I wouldn’t have fought, not with my long-held suspicion that French women were extremely proficient in everything they did.

We paid our respects to Frédéric Chopin, bid farewell to Honoré de Balzac (born in 1799 and allergic to walnuts), were chastised for attempting to pour whiskey on Jim Morrison’s grave, and examined Maria Callas’ empty urn. Artistic genius had always existed as musical notes dancing along a score that hovered somewhere above and beyond us. But now, briefly, we were at the center of it, whether we fully understood it or not. We walked on hallowed ground.

Fantine signaled that we were now, finally, approaching the most sacred of monuments by shifting the direction of her monologue.

“George Bernard Shaw was known to have said that Oscar Wilde was the most elegant beast in all London. But Wilde, with uncharacteristic humility, acknowledged that he had been bested in this field and came in a very distant second. His longtime companion Sebastian had him beat in all arenas of hygiene and vestment.”

An angel with the face and headpiece of a pharaoh loomed into view, permanently freckled from thousands of red lipstick kisses, now faded to brown. Fantine pointed out a particular message, promoting “sodomy 4eva” and sternly explained that Oscar Wilde—like most men who engaged in same-sex relations during the Victorian era—probably hadn’t actually been involved in all that much sodomy. Her duty done, she returned to her original topic of conversation.

“As a staunch supporter of the Aesthetic movement, Wilde lectured frequently on the importance of incorporating beauty in all aspects of life, particularly dress. He was known to strike languid poses, and his detractors branded him a fop. He was also known for having said, ‘A really well-made buttonhole is the only link between art and nature.’”

“I believe he also said that biography lends to death a new terror,” my companion muttered, just loud enough for most of our tour group to hear. Fantine probably wouldn’t have believed that someone clad in sweatpants could quote Oscar Wilde. Come to that, Oscar Wilde probably wouldn’t have believed it either. And I doubted that he would approve.

“The companion that he spoke of, Sebastian, was one of the few creatures that Wilde never criticized. He was selfish and beautiful and utterly ignorant of his reliance on others for resources and companionship, and for all of these qualities Wilde admired him.

“His final unfinished work was an opus dedicated to Sebastian.” At last we were paying attention. “He praised his polychromatic stockings, his self-contented air, and the gravity of his grooming sessions, which often lasted hours.”

Even the slutty girls near the back of the monument had ceased kissing the tomb. Lipstick blocks were sheathed. Temporarily at least. We were learning the details of an Oscar Wilde love affair never before related to us.

“He dedicated chapters to a precise account of Sebastian’s grooming techniques, how he delivered long, thorough licks to the pads of his feet before tucking his paw behind his ear and brushing forward, sometimes a half dozen strokes for a single ear, his eyes squeezed shut in concentration.”

Though Fantine’s English had hitherto been flawless we couldn’t help but hope that she had somehow mistaken one word for another. Paw for hand. Feet for washcloth. But the corners of her lips were curved in a wry half-smile she wanted us to see. The French woman had had her revenge.

“I’m sorry, but are you saying that Sebastian was a cat?” A confused tourist called from the middle of our pack.

“I’m saying that, by Wilde’s own admission, Sebastian superseded him as the greatest dandy in all London.”

Maria Callas’ empty urn, Gertrude Stein, Abelard and Eloise,

-condolences, honoring, dancing on the grave, pouting booze on the grave

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

Biography lends to death a new terror.

-two girls on a tour of Peree Lachaise Cemetery interacting with a tour guide who is talking about what a dandy Oscar Wilde was. George Bernard Shaw was known to have said, “Oscar Wilde was the most elegant beast in all London. But Wilde, with uncharacteristic humility, acknowledged that he had been bested in this arena and came in a very distant second. His companion Russell/Sebastian had him beat in all arenas of hygiene and vestment.

-Avenue Transversale, Avenue Aguado, Chemin du Quinconce, Chemin des Anglais

Oscar Wilde dismissed George Meredith with the judgment that “as a writer, he has mastered everything except language; as a novelist, he can do everything except tell a story; as an artist, he is everything except articulate.”

-below Avenue Circulaire, that wraps around the entire xxxxxxxx, and aboce Avenue Transversale 3, Avenue Carette on the right, Avenue Aguado on the left. Gertrude Stein a little further up the street.

 

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