Some books haunt me a little. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s 1956 novel about a young man in Paris, is one of those. I read it when I was very young, probably not yet a teenager, at a time when I was reading just about anything and everything, from Eric Ambler spy novels to Newton on optics to apocalyptic novels like On the Beach to Linus Pauling on the chemical bond to Orwell’s essays to the whole Scandinavian oeuvre: Selma Lagerlof, Sigrid Undset, all those chilly novels set in chilly places.
I loved many of those books. But Giovanni’s Room inhabited me. It is a slender, claustrophobic novel about a young man “struggling with his sexuality,” as it’s usually put. I think what mesmerized me was the simple idea of a “small room in Paris.” When I think of the phrase I’ve been mentioning lately, the International Bohemian Highway, it is probably that room that I’m picturing: not the Louvre, not the Eiffel Tower, not the Seine at night, but that room. Why?
And how, so young, could I have known that I wanted and needed Paris? Not a single Jew or Italian in my old Brooklyn neighborhood talked about Paris. The Honeymooners and The Lone Ranger didn’t go to Paris. I didn’t know cultured people—not one. My high school friends, at the Manhattan math-and-science high school Stuyvesant, talked chess, cyclotrons, and slide rules. And so, how did I know not to go uptown to the East Side, where the money was, or uptown to the West Side, where the culture was, or midtown, where the sleaze was, but “down to the Village”?
Not a single Stuyvesant boy wandered down to Greenwich Village after school—and Stuyvesant in those days was at East 15th Street, a stone’s throw from the Village. But I did. I am guessing that the Jungian idea of archetypes posits the notion that we each have all of those zillion possible archetypes tucked away in our collective unconscious. But what if each of us is born with our own particular and peculiar array of archetypes, some exact and limited number? Maybe some small percentage of the human race is born with the archetype of the International Bohemian Highway and already knows, just out conscious awareness, that he or she is supposed to go down to the Village or off to Paris? We know next to nothing about original personality—and so, might that not be true?
I think there is a shared archetype of the International Bohemian Highway, shared by some. It is activated when one reads a novel like Giovanni’s Room and when one passes a café like the old Café Rienzi in the Village. You are obliged to get a double espresso, whether or not you like espresso. You are obliged to sketch, read a novel, or join in on a folk song. Maybe you will wander into physics, philosophy, or architecture, but even if you have wandered there, you will still be startled by what you feel when hear “Paris” or “The Village.”
Maybe that archetype is deep within you. If so, come join the Eric Maisel Community. Our community could just maybe become a stop on the International Bohemian Highway <smile>. We shall see. Paris was only a barely-inhabited island in the Seine to begin with. The Village was only a hodgepodge of crooked streets that refused to align with Manhattan’s ordered grid. Let’s see what we become. See you there!