An Idea into Which I Could Have Bitten

Luka Novak on the Surprisingly Sexy Experience of Riding the Paris Metro

/ by Noah Charney

Luka Novak is a Renaissance man at a time when being good at too many things is looked upon with suspicion. The Slovenian’s resume is dizzying in its depth and breadth: a writer (see the novel, The Golden Shower) and translator (of many titles into Slovene), philosopher (with a degree from University of Tubingen), polyglot (he is perfectly fluent in German, French, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, English, and surely Italian, if I’ve not lost track of other languages along the way), publisher (he was director of Vale Novak and now of Totaliteta, both in Slovenia), occasionally servant of the state (he served in governmental administrative capacities related to culture and even ran for mayor of Ljubljana), and television personality, a household name in Slovenia for his popular cookbooks and cooking TV series, which he hosts with his similarly multi-talented wife, Valentina Smej Novak. His latest success is a slender book-length essay published in French by Leo Scheer, called Le métro: Inconscient urbain

 

Noah Charney: What is your earliest memory of the Paris Metro?

Luka Novak: It concerns waiting, even for hours at times, for the new trains that were introduced on some lines in the early 70s (I lived in Paris, as my father was a foreign correspondent for a major Slovenian newspaper there). They were blue and yellow, in comparison to the Art Nouveau green and red compositions that used to circulate until then. Some of these new trains even ran on rubber wheels and, with their orange plastic seating, shed a fresh, pop light on the historic city. I was a fanatic, and observing the development of this unique structure of public transport elevated me into an urban psychoanalysis, where the mere observing of a hidden slot of a remote tunnel in the Paris north could represent a kind of infrastructural "masturbation," to paraphrase Freud, who states that focusing on a distinct part of the body represents perverse behavior, as opposed to the eroticism of contemplating the whole anatomy.


How do you differentiate the atmosphere and feeling surrounding the Paris Metro from other subway systems in other cities?

This psychological attitude of the subway enables the system to unconsciously develop the basic sociological traits of modern metropolises. Depending on the character of a nation, the Metro acts either as a closed totality, a web with a distinct and logistically fluent transfer system, and a “clear" unconscious, mirroring the grammatical specifics of the language it reflects (French, English, Japanese), and only allowing for the controlled in- and out-flux of the working classes (Paris, London), or as an open structure with only basic and often hard-to-grasp transfer options that mostly serve limited geographical areas and often “transcend” whole boroughs as a superstructure that acts as an urban superego (New York).


 

What about the Paris Metro versus New York’s less-romanticized Subway?

If Paris’ unconscious is a sentence, New York’s is a scream. If Paris’ unconscious is shaped as a Flaubert novel, where the story (trajectory) is strictly subject to the rules of classical narrative, or a Proustian stream of thought, always reflecting the neuralgic points of memory, New York’s unconscious is modelled on the vast and straight lines of propulsive caravans, as in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, where the disowned farmers are heading west in a straight and desperate line, or mirroring the dubious grandness of characters like Jay Gatsby.


Tell me one or two peculiarities or historical oddities related to the metro that you mention in your book.

Definitely the smell. Even if, for most of the passengers, it is, at best, tolerable, the smell of the Metro drove me directly into the urban unconscious. It was rubber perfume mixed with the scent of old soil excavated a century earlier. It was especially intense in the tunnels that hosted trains on rubber wheels, and I used the precious minutes when a train stood still at a terminus station, usually Étoile on Line Six, to inhale this cavernous and almost tangible, plastic and vertiginous odor, incarnating the pleasure of contemporary public structures, the pleasure of the Other, an idea into which I could have bitten. The smell of the Metro was anything but bad: It was Proust’s madeleine and Kafka’s labyrinths combined. It was the contact of the trivial and the sublime, Baudelaire’s artificial paradise personified.

 

Do you have a favorite Paris Metro station?

It should be Passy, my “home” station at the time. Passy, an archetypal station, carries something profoundly attractive, latently erotic even, in its essence. It is located on a section of Line Six where the Metro comes out into the light, like a Phoenix. The emerging of the train from the wet tunnel into the brightness and the sight of the erected Eiffel Tower reflect a powerful charge that seduced many film directors, including Christopher Nolan in Inception, where Leo Di Caprio performs under the Passy (Bir-Hakeim) bridge, or even Bernardo Bertolucci, who located Brando and Schneider in The Last Tango in Paris precisely in the rotonde apartment above the station.

Do you have a recommended travel route that somehow it echoes best your feelings about the Metro?

Travel in style! The central thesis of my book-as-essay revolves around the idea that the Metro, just like the human unconscious, is structured as a language. Thus the subway system can be perceived as the logically-structured underground reflection of the real world, the Freudian ego on the surface. The Metro can thus be viewed as urban thought, expressed through a symbolic language, articulated in basic Wittgensteinian entities, sentences (itineraries), composed of words (the signifiers: the Metro stations), mirroring the signified milestones (monuments, squares, hubs) upstairs, that grammatically compose itineraries with the help of a syntax (transfers). This way you can move from, say, the Paris Opera to the Eiffel Tower by using various types of stations (words) and using different types of sentences (transfers) to execute the voyage, thus constructing certain types of “style."

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Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.


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