Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rue Monsieur le Prince

I am a great admirer of Arthur Koestler, by which I mean the man’s writings rather than the man himself.  I consider him to be one of the major intellects of the last century, as well as one which exemplifies in a striking fashion modernity’s quest to preserve some space for immateriality and even transcendence in a world in which traditional religious belief has for so many intellectuals become impossible.  Several of his books seem to pursue this project, but especially The Roots of Coincidence (1972).  “Hard” scientists have been rather hard on this work; but to those who continue to believe that man does not live by bread alone, it is full of interest.

As for me, I continue to be struck by the number of “coincidences” or Jungian “synchronicities” that I run into in life.  Boethius long ago persuaded me that there is no such thing as chance, if by chance is meant an effect that has no cause.  This week’s essay begins with a confession: I am a lover of ghost stories.  It then moves on to an anecdote.  While my son Luke was visiting recently, we snuck away to one of our “secret” bookstores in south Jersey where I indulged myself in the transgression of a single purchase: an anthology previously unknown to me entitled Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, compiled by Marvin Kaye.  Its table of contents is enough to remind one that the genre has been dear to many great writers, and that Koestler’s obsession with the uncanny had deep Victorian roots.

            There is in the Latin Quarter in Paris a small street, probably a quarter of a mile long, approximately linking the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Boulevard Saint-Michel.  Its charming name is the rue Monsieur le Prince, a reminder of the ancient mansion of the princes of Condé, a cadet branch of the reigning Bourbons, which once rose there in all its magnificence.

 an early Monsieur le Prince himself

For a few frigid weeks in the winter of 1962-1963 my wife and I lived in a cheap hotel in the rue Monsieur le Prince.  This was your grandmother’s Paris.  Cheap hotels were part of its still post-war dowdiness.  Richard Wright, who lived in the street immediately following the war, has written about it somewhere.  I went off each day to the (old) Bibliothèque Nationale where I consulted medieval manuscripts and kept warm.  First impressions being lasting, the “old” rue Monsieur le Prince will always be my “old” Paris.  We have good friends who live just on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens, so I occasionally passed by the street over the years; but my next real visit was in 2010.  My daughter has just collected a prize and delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne.  I was included in the celebrative dinner following the event, the venue for which was a fancy restaurant in the rue Monsieur le Prince.  Everything in the rue Monsieur le Prince was now fancy—including your grandmother if she could afford to live there.  I sat next to the head honcho of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, and we talked about Luis de Camões.

By now it is over sixty years since my first visit to the rue Monsieur le Prince and more than five since my last visit.  Fanatical readers of this blog, should there be a couple, might remember that six weeks ago I wrote a piece about the oddball British architect Bligh Bond, a man who believed that fifteenth-century monks were communicating to him through the automatic writing of a spiritualist intermediary.  I included the information that Bond’s friend, the great American architect Ralph Adams Cram, believed every word of it.  Well, Cram happens to be a person who has had a significant influence on my cultural development.  His works on the Middle Ages—and in particular a beautiful little book called Walled Towns—infused in me a rather romantic and Chestertonian vision of medieval Europe that I eventually came to reject, but only long after it had hooked me on my life’s work.  Cram was a man of parts—architect, art historian, theologian, and upper-crust bon vivant.  I knew that he was also a “creative” writer, though I knew little of his creations.  I was unaware, for example, that in 1895, Cram published in Chicago a half a dozen tales of the supernatural under the title Black Spirits and White.  No less an authority than H. P. Lovecraft, in his influential essay on “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” had high praise for one of his stories.  In ‘The Dead Valley’ the eminent architect and mediaevalist Ralph Adams Cram achieves a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description”.  But the story included in my new anthology is a different one: “No. 252 rue M. Le Prince”!

Despite the fact that a street so short as Monsieur le Prince is most unlikely to have addresses in the two hundreds, Cram’s narrator did spend one night in one of them in 1886.  That turned out to be enough.  Cram’s story is of the sub-genre “Things That Go Bump in the Night”.  One should never give away the whole plot of a supernatural tale, but I feel justified in giving you its flavor.  Suddenly a wet, icy mouth, like that of a dead cuttle-fish, shapeless, jelly-like, fell over mine.  The horror began slowly to draw my life from me, but, as enormous and shuddering folds of palpitating jelly swept sinuously around me, my will came back, my body awoke with the reaction of final fear, and I closed with the nameless death that enfolded me.  You get the picture.  And I got my third visit to the rue Monsieur le Prince.

R. A. Cram at the door of his private Gothic chapel in Sudbury MA