“Be not inhospitable to strangers/Lest they be angels in disguise.”
Someone gifted me a book about the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, “one of the most influential books in history.” Poignantly, the second verse* is about “Living the Paradoxical Unity”…where opposites are simply judgments…the ying-yang, the positive-negative, the good-bad and of course, the life-death.
*Living the Paradoxical Unity (verse 2)
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty, only because there is ugliness.
All can no good as good only because there is evil. Being and non-being produce each other.
The difficult is born in the easy. Long is defined by short, the high by the low.
Before and after go along with each other.
So the sage lives openly with apparent duality and paradoxical unity.
The sage can act without effort and teach without words.
Nurturing things without possessing them, he works, but not for rewards; he competes, but not for results.
When the work is done, it is forgotten.
That is why it lasts forever.
Last Thursday as I was dressing to leave for the airport to go to Nice, France 24, the national news channel, announced the death of George Whitman — the man who was renowned for his little bookshop on rue de la Bûcherie, Shakespeare and Company.
George had just turned 98 years old – an eccentric, free-spirited strong-willed and powerful character who made an enormous impact on the Franco-Anglo scene in Paris by carrying on the dream of Sylvia Beach – a legacy and a tradition — by running a bookshop by the same name as hers (originally on rue de l’Odéon) long after the original had closed its doors, but in the same spirit.
A little less than 10 years ago, George’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman (appropriately named after the original proprietor), moved to Paris from London to take over the running of the shop from George, who at almost 90 needed a bit of help. I met Sylvia when she was the ripe old age of 22 — a beautiful sparkling pale blond with bright blue eyes and the biggest smile I have every seen. My first words to her were: “You can’t be George Whitman’s daughter! You’re far too young!” But she is, and I knew then that George had a spirit that would be tough to harness.
Everyone who has ever met George has George stories to tell and everyone who has ever spent any time at Shakespeare and Company has Shakespeare and Company stories to tell. One might say that it’s just a few dilapidated 17th-century walls with bookshelves filled with old and new books alike…and physically speaking it is…but spiritually speaking it is a heaven/haven for literary creatures of all kinds to share in their creative intentions. Writers, readers and aspiring wordsmiths from all over the world have shopped here, read their works here, slept here, discussed here, shared here, and lord only knows what else here…but one thing for sure, it’s not just a bookshop, George was not just any old George and Sylvia is not just another daughter.
Upon hearing the news about George, I didn’t cry for him. He had a long and fruitful life – one which we should all celebrate and honor. The verse reminds us that “The sage can act without effort and teach without words. Nurturing things without possessing them, he works, but not for rewards; he competes, but not for results. When the work is done, it is forgotten. That is why it lasts forever.” And so his work will last forever.
But the week was not to be without weeping. Someone young and close to us, a part of our family, just a mere 30 years old, took her life in her own hands and left us with just our memories. The weeping comes with every recurring vision. “Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty, only because there is ugliness. All can no good as good only because there is evil. Being and non-being produce each other.”
Yesterday in the cold, but sunny Sunday Paris morning, I trekked over to the bookshop to see what was going on there since George’s passing. Articles written about him and the shop were posted on the windows, the walls and out on the tables for others to read them. A large poster was staged under a tent so that anyone could add his thoughts. Candles were being lit in memoriam. Flowers were posed as if on a grave and there were people…lots of people…in the shop, outside the shop, in every nook and cranny, reading, talking, dreaming and yes… even one person playing a piano. It was a beehive of activity as it always is.
How many times have I crossed its threshold? Enough times to know that the front door handle is relatively new, the staircase to the first floor had once been a rickety ladder we were all frightened of and that Sylvia had a hard time convincing George to improve the once dim lighting. I’ve sat on the tiny stools in the reading room dozens of times to hear my favorite authors and poets read from their works, come at all hours of the late night to peruse the books old and new, and asked Sylvia to pose for the camera every time that’s possible, always trying to catch both the inner and outer beauty that the camera can’t capture as well as the eye.
For those of you who wish to pay tribute to George and his legacy, his funeral will be held this coming Thursday, December 22nd at 3 p.m. at the Crematorium at Père Lachaise (71, rue des Rondeaux, 20th, Métro Gambetta). This will be followed by champagne at Shakespeare and Company at 6 p.m. in celebration of George’s life “where everyone is welcome to share their stories.”
I will be sure to be there, where I will mourn the passing of George, but also my daughter’s cousin, whom I loved dearly like my own.
*”Be not inhospitable to strangers/Lest they be angels in disguise” is a quote by Yeats written at the top of the bookshop stairs. In a quote by George Whitman:
“I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions – just a few old socks and love letters, and my windows overlooking Notre-Dame for all of you to enjoy, and my little rag and bone shop of the heart whose motto is ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.’ I may disappear leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.” – George Whitman
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
with Sylvia Beach Whitman
P.S. If you haven’t booked for New Year’s Eve in Paris yet, you might want to take advantage of a special offer on the luxurious artist-designed and decorated La Paris Plage (with a large terrace) and Le Parisol (if you need another bedroom for a total three or four people)…over 40% off the usual high-season rate by booking NOW for 4 nights or more at the lowest rate of the year! Visit La Paris Plage and Le Parisol or email [email protected]