Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Here we are at the point of the little yellow slip, on the Avenue de Suffren as it separates us in the Fifteenth Arondissement from my daughter and her family in the Seventh across the street. As you can see, we are practically in the Champ de Mars park, which runs between the Eiffel Tower on the one end to the École Militaire at the other.
On a proportional basis, at least, there is probably more of revolutionary Philadelphia still intact than there is of revolutionary Paris. Practically all European capitals show the evidence of the drastic and unforgiving progress of the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. There is very little of Balzac's Paris left for the same reason there is so little of Dickens's London. Nobody in particular wanted to keep it, and there were piles of money to be made by changing it. But in Paris the remaking was particularly intentional and drastic. The great urban planner Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris on lines not merely incompatible with the the old unplanned jumbled neighborhoods, but positively hostile to them. He wanted a city that was new, beautiful, and different, and he got all three. But certain things have a better chance of survival than others. Only Xerxes or the Army Corps of Engineers would have the gall to change the course of a river. Only a vandal would turn the Tuileries into office blocks. And the Champ de Mars--well, as its name implies it was a military parade ground of ancient lineage. You might as well try to turn Fort Dix into a theme park. Actually, when you come to think of it....but I digress. This means that right at the moment the Flemings are living directly across the road from, well, history!
At the Musée Carnavalet on the edge of the Marais--another happy escapee from Haussmann's radiating avenues--there is currently an exhibition concerning Paris in the Revolution. There was a kind of tributary mini-expo featuring English satirical prints dealing with the Revolution or Napoleon Buonaparte--to the extent that Gillray and his contemporaries made a distinction between the two. The Carnavalet's mission is Parisian history, and its collection of revolutionary prints, paintings, and knickknacks is unrivalled.
Among the most striking prints on display were several that depicted events on the Champ de Mars. On July 17, 1791 a large crowd gathered there in connection with a circulated petition demanding the abdication of the king. As is usual with "historic" events what actually happened next depends upon what "history" you read. But the upshot (so to speak) was that units of the National Guard, probably under the command of Lafayette, fired into the crowds, killing many people. What was called the "Massacre of the Champ du Mars" was one of a series of radicalizing events that would spell doom for the "liberal" revolution imagined by people like Lafayette. Indeed the damagogue Marat attacked Lafayette violently in the aftermath of the event.
Less violent, though disturbing enough to some in its own way, was the formal institution of a new civil religion, replacing traditional Christianity, but imitating some of its outward forms. The revolutionaries went so far as to install the goddess Reason (in the form of a super-model of the day) on the altar of Notre-Dame cathedral. Someday I intend to write a little essay about this, because I am convinced that the organizers of this quasi-liturgical event took as their iconographic guide in coming up with Reason's costume a medieval manuscript of the Roman de la Rose! The revolutionaries were for the most part a godless bunch. A few were actual atheists; many more were when pressed what I would call low-church Deists. Their "theology", if any, was of the "clock-maker" sort; and though they were democrats the last thing they wanted was to invited that particular artisan back into the Assemblée Nationale. But Robespierre and some of his friends found it convenient to take at least a step in that direction, perhaps rather as Stalin in the middle of the War found it convenient to reanimate, in a limited way,the Orthodox Church. They instituted something called the "Feast of the Supreme Being". Try to imagine a block party presided over by, say, Matthew Arnold, and you'll get the feel of the thing.
In the Carnavalet exhibition one of the more striking images was this one--the celebration of the Fête de 'Être Suprème on the Champ de Mars, 20 Prairial de l'an II (June 8, 1794). That would have been about three hundred yards from where I sit as I write this. Talk about historic!
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
My visit had two parts. The first day was spent mainly at a beautiful independent school, the Hawken School, where I met with some individual classes and addressed a large school assembly on the topic “What Are the Humanities”. I thought that after all these years it was perhaps time I figured it out. There is a very great deal in American primary and secondary education to cause distress and alarm; but if you are inclined to pessimism, as I often am, a visit to a place like Hawken is most salutary. Quite apart from the impressive student body, the place has a visionary head of school, a faculty not merely committed to their students but to the actual subjects they teach to their students, and—quite as important as either of these—an active group of civic-minded parents deeply invested in the school’s success.
The next day was spent mainly with the chair of the art history department at Case Western Reserve University, the distinguished professor Edward Olszewski, my host for two delicious meals, and my guide around the fabulous Cleveland Museum of Art. Even with many of its galleries closed during a dramatic expansion of the facilities, it makes an overwhelming impression. Prof. Olszewski was also the man who introduced my lecture on “The Letter and the Spirit: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis and Pictorial Imagery in Medieval and Renaissance Art.” You undoubtedly know Leonardo’s “Madonna of the Rocks.” Everybody knows the painting. Ah, yes, but do you know what the rocks are, where they come from, and why they are there? If you don’t, you’ll want to hear this lecture.
The whole trip, though exhausting, was richly rewarding in cultural alimentation (as well as the more conventional mode of gastronomy) and in human fellowship. What I did not fully grasp until very late in my stay was the justification for my having been invited to make the visit in the first place. It was a sensational exemplification of the virtues of casting one’s bread upon the waters, as I shall explain in a moment. But I fear that what with the ravages of secular humanism and all that, there might be one or two of you out there who don’t know what bread-casting is all about.
My grandmother used to listen to a religious program on NBC radio when I was a child. (The idea of a religious broadcasting by one of the major networks would today seem extraordinary, but it was then quite common. I remember hearing President Franklin Roosevelt on the radio leading the entire nation in the Lord’s Prayer.) One evening, while I was trying to do something else, I was hearing rather than listening to the kind of uncontroversial and platitudinous preacher that the format encouraged. It was perhaps the once famous Norman Vincent Peale, whose specialty was the Good News as Good Vibe, lots of uplift. My grandmother’s own religion was definitely of the “No cross, no crown” school. Anyway with this guy, whoever he was, there was not much cross to a whole lot of crown. The gist of his sermon or inspirational talk was this: “Remember—a good deed is always a good investment.” He exemplified the fact that no good deed goes unrewarded with various anecdotes, and with repeated citations of the Bible text (Ecclesiastes 11:1) around which the whole sermon was built. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.”
That was a text with which I was not unfamiliar, though it did puzzle me, as soggy, water-logged bread did not seem to me a highly desirable commodity, and, anyway, why go through the rigmarole of throwing it away so you can find it again? I have since learned from erudite Bible commentaries that what is probably being advocated is grain shipments, from which a good profit was reasonably to be expected—meaning that this Preacher of Plenty was right on!
In any event, there were repeated citations of “Cast your bread upon the waters...” Although different speakers or presenters came on the show each week, there was a permanent MC, whose unctuous attitudes and holy tones might have inspired Eliot’s great line about “the sapient sutlers of the Lord.” This guy introduced the program, and always brought it to an end by summarizing the evening’s message in a pithy phrase or two. On this particular night the announcer made a booboo so egregious that it actually showed up later in a collection of nationally broadcast malapropisms called “Pardon My Blooper”. After thanking the preacher for an inspiring message, he concluded by exhorting his national audience to put it into practice. “...and so, my friends, remember—‘Cast your broad upon the waters...This is the National Breadcasting Corporation’.”
Back to the main plot. I eventually discovered that the real reason I was having such a great time in Cleveland had to do with some long-forgotten bread-casting of my own. I was there, ostensibly, because I am an expert in medieval Christian iconography; but there was a more satisfying reason. Among the more substantial and civic-minded citizens of Cleveland is a family of whom the wife is a former Princeton undergraduate. I don’t mention her name lest even such meager publicity as this cause her embarrassment. This woman is a Hawken alumna and a Hawken parent. She is a busy wife and mother, and she is an outstanding art historian in training. The truth of the matter is that I do not remember teaching her at Princeton, or even the course in which I taught her. Fortunately from my point of view she was not so forgetful of me.
Bishop Berkeley famously asked about the tree falling in the forest, unseen by human eye, unheard by human ear. Wordsworth spoke of
....that best portion of a good man’s life /His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
Berkeley’s answer was that God heard the tree fall. It was God’s unseen glance, indeed, that allowed the tree and every other thing to be. Esse est percipi. To be is to be perceived. And Wordsworth, though he felt forced to cast off the old biblical myths, was still writing within a providential world in which bread cast upon the waters might after many days be found again. One of the greatest joys of having been a teacher is the discovery that it’s all true.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
This may be the first blog posting ever sent from the "business" computer at the Glidden House sign-in desk. I am going to spend most of today the Hawken School, and talking with the students there about the Humanities. (The capital letter is about all the respect they get these days.)
The principal purpose of my visit is to give a lecture sponsored by the Art History department at Case Western in conjunction with the fabulous Cleveland Art Museum itself. That will be tomorrow, and I shall try to add an addendum concerning it.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I am in theory an expert on French literature, and I can document that claim with two published books about the Roman de la Rose, the most important vernacular product of medieval France and numerous periodical essays. I have read pretty widely in French literature. Despite an appalling accent that my interlocutors do little to ignore, I can on a daily basis get by in conversation, especially if the conversation is about Gothic architecture or Abelard’s linguistic theories. Trying to buy an electric fuse in a hardware story is another story.
Of course language exists within culture, and when cultural alterity meets linguistic alterity the results can be stressful. I mentioned proudly in my last post that I had already successfully signed up for the local swimming pool. But when I showed up at seven the next morning, my proud achievement in buying the admission ticket was reduced to ashes. The procedure that one has to go through actually to get into a French swimming pool would be worth a post of its own, but this one must be about how I failed to get in at first try. I negotiated the byzantine security system, which involves the acrobatics of changing clothes in a closet designed to hold a midget’s wardrobe, and arrived at poolside, goggles in hand, wearing my quick-dry trunks labeled “Colgate Swimming.” Before I could take the plunge, however, no fewer than three of the civil servants whose job it appears to be to support the civil servants supporting the four lifeguards, joined by at least a half dozen of the swimmers themselves, threw themselves upon me in indignation. They explained in clear if impatient terms, and in several languages including English, that I was under no circumstances to defile the pool wearing “baskets” (i.e., basketball shorts) and, worse yet, without a head covering. I must have proper swimming gear. Such gear was obviously demanded, as should have been clear even to one of my nationality, by l’hygiène. As a matter of fact the hygienic condition of my midget’s closet had approximated that of a minimally hosed out garbage dumpster, but under the circumstances I lacked both the ego and the linguistic resources to point that out. I retreated in confusion, perhaps--to attempt an epic simile--like a man who, at his boss’s funeral, has loudly broken wind midway through a rendition of “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”.
But I recovered during the day. When in Rome do as the Romans do. Get the right swimming accoutrements. The place I could do this most easily, my daughter told me, would be at a mega-sporting goods shop called Decathlon, of which there are two or three branches in Paris, the nearest being across the river on the avenue Wagram. This place, four or five stops up the number 6 Métro line, is a very good address and full of classy people in search of classy (and expensive) sportswear. If I may indulge my appetite for stereotypes, I have noted in the past that when the French bourgeoisie takes to the ski slope or the tennis court, they do it wearing only garments in which athletic function has been accommodated to the requirements of French haute couture. In the past I have sometimes wondered where they even got such stuff, because it wasn’t J. C. Penny’s. Now I know: 26, avenue Wagram.
It’s also the kind of place where you have to have been a debutante in order to join the sales staff. Tall, slim, elegant, aloof females—with the fourth of those adjectives bearing most of the phrase’s stress—stand around the sales stations chatting with each other, expertly avoiding eye contact with the potential customers. I summed the situation up in an instant, and little-red-hen like, set out to do it myself. In fact, I found men’s swimming suits with little difficulty. There were approximately two hundred thousand of them in two slightly different styles (both of which had the feel to the finger of prosthetic devices one might wear, concealed by over garments, to assuage the discomfort of an inguinal hernia). But there were three different prices—the top of the line being 60 Euros. Yes you heard me. Sixty. Euros. I immediately shifted my attention to the bottom rung which, while still pretty costly did not actually involve a second mortgage.
chapeau de piscine, also known as abri de piscine
Mission half accomplished; now for the couverture. But here was a mystery. Though there were rank upon rank of swimming shorts, I could find not a single swimming cap. I must anticipate the end of the story by giving you in advance the perfectly explicable cause of my difficulty. For the swimming caps when I eventually was led to them gave no indication to the naked eye of being swimming caps. They—again, thousands of them--were all tightly packed in little shiny, square cardboard boxes that looked, perhaps, like a rather ambitious week-end’s supply of condoms. That, too, was condign, since wearing one of them makes you feel like you’re practicing safe sex with your head, but I digress.
I knew that it was not possible that Decathlon had no swimming caps but, temporarily stumped, I had to face the terrors of accosting one of the ice maidens. As I approached her I realized that although I knew the rather odd French word for a swimming suit (maillot—after the tight weave, as in chain-mail, believe it or not) I didn’t know the word for the accompanying headgear. I therefore made a logical punt—almost always fatal in matters idiomatic. I was having some difficulty, I told her, in locating the chapeaux de piscine. This at least captured her attention, and she told me that they didn’t sell them, and that I should try Bricolage France--the local version of Lowe's or Home Depot. They only dealt in swimming gear. “Pas de chapeau?” I asked, pointing at my head. She laughed out loud. What I had said was apparently so rich as to deserve to be shared with another ice maiden. “Hey, Marthe, this gentleman wants a chapeau de piscine--for his head.” More laughter. Then she led me to the bonnets de bain in their nice little pharmaceutical boxes.