“Hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.” —Wikipedia
It begins the moment you set foot in Paris for the first time: you feel like you’ve been here before. You’ve seen this street corner, that monument, this patisserie, that boulevard.
Of course you have.
You’ve never seen the Eiffel Tower in steel—you have countless times on screen. You’ve never walked the Champs d’ Elysees—you’ve admired its grandeur in print and pixel. You dashed with the the four musketeers through the streets you’re ambling right now. You’ve never eluded the police like Jef Costello but you know Alain Delon’s lines by your hard-boiled heart.
You’ve watched it in movies, most recently in Woody Allen’s warm-hued romance Midnight in Paris perhaps. You’ve read about it in your newspaper’s Sunday Travel section and came across the inevitable photos on travel blogs. You stifled a yawn as your neighbor projected a slideshow on his living room wall, his favorite photos reproducing earlier photographers’ images long-ago dubbed iconic.
Now you walk the city’s streets and dodge mopeds and tour buses, avoid areas filled with tourists like you migrating from sight to sight, and you lose track of what’s real. You find yourself unable to distinguish where your memory of Paris from images (the screen, the printed page, the uncle’s photo collection) ends and where the Paris your feet are feeling, the Paris you are seeing, hearing, smelling, eating, begins.
Have you already passed this triangular place, with its cafes and brasseries and tiny benches under tiny trees casting shadows over a dozen mopeds lining the curb, or is this the very first time? Have you walked the balconies of Notre Dame in the hunchback’s shadow or are you tracing a tour group’s footsteps along the cathedral’s perimeter in a virginal daze? Is your lover going to remember the trinket you bought her on a Quai so long ago or does her hand squeeze yours now as she spots it among the tacky souvenirs? Is Avenue Kleber the location of the apartment where you helped Jason Bourne kill Castel or was that a different street? Is the cruise on the Seine your own or Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn’s prelude to a night of lovemaking? Is the American woman in Montmartre who tells her daughter, “Look at that window, that’s so French!” referring to an image of a French window she carries with her since that trip to Disneyland, to the photograph in Parade magazine, to the actual window above her, or to a mirage her mind made up to protect her from sensory overload?
Is Paris a dream, a deja vu, a memory you’ve never had? Is it real, did you make it up, or are you walking through someone else’s fantasy?
You’ve heard people visiting the U.S. for the first time exclaim, “It’s like in the movies!” as they craned their necks from the yellow cab up at the Empire State Building, as they shielded their eyes from the fog rolling over the Golden Gate Bridge, as you drove them through small towns in the West. You are them right now: you strain to reconcile the image lodged in your mind’s eye with the one in front of your face’s, then to separate the two. But of course you can’t because it’s impossible. The images and the objects they represent become a jumble; the screen and the stone are one. Behind the memories of fictional Paris, the memories of other people’s imagination, you find nothing. Behind the experience of Paris you are living in the present space-time there is even less (yes, Paris has been called “a theme park”).
When the recollection of a moment lived vicariously or in your imagination fails to replace your present experience as a first-time visitor, you are living the real by reliving the unreal and you can’t feel what’s what. What came first and what matters more, the memory or the experience? Which is which? What is your memory? What is your experience? What is your imagination and what someone else’s?
You close your eyes in the blissfully dark and silent hotel room. You wait for it all to pass and hope for a dreamless night.