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For this week’s edition of City Paper Arts Club, arts editor Kayla Randall and multimedia editor Will Warren read and discussed Maggie Paxson’s The Plateau. It centers on a remote plateau in France where people risked their lives to rescue and shelter hundreds in need, mostly Jewish children during World War II, and Paxson was gracious enough to ask and answer questions about her book. The goal of Arts Club chats is to have free-flowing talks, like a conversation between friends—and we want you to join us. Participate in the conversation using the hashtag #CityPaperArtsClub on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, so we can incorporate your thoughts into the discussion. Next, we’ll be watching the very relevant zombie horror film 28 Days Later.
These arts club chat excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity. For the full chat, subscribe to Washington City Podcast.
Will Warren: The woman who wrote [The Plateau] is an anthropologist, and it’s her coming to terms with the fact that a lot of anthropology and a lot of social science in general looks at violence, and her trying to understand what peace is and what peace looks like. I found this book very impactful … especially right now. I was really moved by it. It’s a very beautiful, lyrical book.
Kayla Randall: It’s so thoughtful. There are so many passages where you’re just like, “I have to process this; I have to stew on this.” It happens so early on, from page one, I was really invested in this story. And the author, Maggie, her way of telling it was so beautiful. This is like writing lessons, anthropology lessons, sociology lessons. I found the central conceit, the merits of studying peace, really interesting. It’s something that I had never even really considered before reading this book, just how much easier it is for people to understand, talk about, perceive, and count, numerically, violence and conflict—and how difficult it is perceived to be to do the same for peace. That just blew my mind. Obviously, conflict and violence are eye-catching. People are drawn to those things. I think it would be amazing if we were drawn to peace in the same way, or interested in peace in the same way. As Maggie shows with this book, there are incredible stories to be told.
WW: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s something I think about, not just in the context of the pandemic, but I’m thinking about [how] we’ve covered the rising murder rate in D.C. in City Paper, which is something that absolutely should be covered because these are lost lives. But it’s much harder to cover all of the times that someone didn’t murder someone. It’s easy to talk about the times that someone transmitted a disease to someone; it’s much harder to talk about the fact that you stayed home and all of these potential transmissions didn’t occur. [Peace is] something that is harder to conceive and wrap your mind around in some ways, even though it’s something that I think everyone aspires to and hopes for.
KR: Right. There are some passages that I have marked, and there’s this wonderful, succinct sentence on page four, and it reads: “Peace lacks this analyzable ‘thingness’: It seems like a non-event, a null set.” That is so true. It appears to be the absence of the violence and conflict that we’re all used to, accustomed to, familiar with. I think that’s such an interesting point. The book is about the past, but it’s also about the present, in her current journey to the plateau. It’s such an interesting hunt [for peace]. It’s such a noble search in that way.
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