I remember, decades ago, my mother explaining to me her thesis in Canadian History. As now, prevailing wisdom had the early settlers of Quebec being cowed by the Church and crushed under the ponderous réglementation of French common law. My mother argued otherwise. Reading, for example, a law forbidding driving one’s carriage around the church during Mass, followed by another against riding a horse around the church during Mass, then yet another proscribing the riding of a donkey around the church during Mass, she saw instead in the French colonists a feisty people, skilled in finding the loopholes in any rules to which they were subjected….
I’m fairly certain that growing up with my uncles lent her an advantage in this analysis….and sitting here in Montmartre in the wee hours, on the other side of a paper-thin wall from a crowd of Parisians having a very good time is helping me remember it. There’s a recycling bin on the street downstairs that politely asks that bottles not be thrown into it after 10 pm, so the neighbours might not be disturbed….I‘d bet that loud music and raucous laughter at 3 am. fall in the “disturbing the neighbours” category of some regulation of municipal conduct ….Rules and regulations of social congress are felt everywhere here: there is an immense pressure to act, think, dress, speak – you name it – “correctly”. Deviance is clucked at with much frowning and head-shaking; ”N’importe quoi…” (anything at all) is intoned in disapproving judgment of “abnormality”, and “C’est normal” means that this is what any human in their right sense would do in a similar situation. (This includes the custom of greeting the people in the elevator, the store, the restaurant, the bus, etc. when you enter a commonly occupied space – a refreshing acknowledgment of social connection, though temporary, and a change from the typical urban N. American averting of the eyes.)
It’s taken me a while to get to like Paris. At first, exposed mostly to a milieu of material privilege and spiritual famine, it wearied and worried me. After ten days of wandering through the tiny streets of the Marais, inadvertently bumping into the treasures strewn here and there through the city (a Chagall around this corner, a Delacroix in that niche…Oh my – that’s a Henry Moore I just sat on, and – I think I’m going to faint – THIS is where the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are!), resting aching bones in delicious, quirky gardens, absorbing the history of the land and eating far too much haute-couture French food, I have to say my feelings have changed….
This is called The City of Love, and the innumerable young couples one sees kissing passionately in public places have obviously bought the sales pitch. Wandering past a gazillion monuments and plaques commemorating War and Culture, however, I can’t help thinking that this is more a City of Passion – passion that here, as in Quebec, is kept tightly under wraps, exploding now and then from fissures and crevices to create and destroy: a war in Algeria… the work of Utrillo…or stiletto heels…! I can’t swear to this right now, at 3 am with no web access, but I’d bet that it was the French who invented that gender-directed horror. No wonder the best schools of osteopathy are here….(ok – maybe that’s a guess as well….)
The corseting of passion created DSK and millions like him with less notoriety, as well as the attitude that is seen in the pursed lips of the most haughtily “correct” Parisian and emblazoned on the front of Notre Dame Cathedral, in the statues of two women flanking the main entrance. The one to the north is holding a scepter in her left hand and a chalice in the right; a crown sits on her demurely coiffed head. The figure to the south is blindfolded and holds a broken staff in her left hand while the tablets of the commandments slip out of her right; a snake can be seen curled amongst her loosed locks. These ladies are titled respectively Ecclesia and Synagoga, and though I am sure that they indeed do reflect a holier-than-thou attitude towards Judaism, the Jews were not the major battle of the Church. Actually, the very symbol used to decry Judaism is an indication of their #1Enemy – the unbound, lawless Feminine Principle: Eve; Lilith; all pleasure and passion derived from the material world seductive enough to be considered a great and persistent danger.
Do you see how sneaky and brilliant this was? This was before people were paid fortunes on Madison Avenue to think these things up… It’s just slipped by as a given that the loose-haired woman, the snake, the blindfold and the slipping morality are all part of a logical equation. Who blindfolded her? I want to ask. Who broke her staff, usurped her power and humiliated her…?
Creative and destructive, dangerous and seductive, passion flows through the veins and arteries of Paris – it’s her lifeblood. Notre Dame Cathedral is built after all (as are most major cathedrals) on the foundations and energies of ancient temples to the Goddess – to the fecund, dark and juicy matrix of physical existence. The problems start, I believe, when one pretends otherwise.
The French have officially placed their passion and their power in Reason – listen to any Paris radio show for more than 15 minutes and you will hear ample proof of this in the free-for-all “debates” that one gets the feeling have not so much to do with the topic in hand, but rather are showcases for clever turns of phrase and other basic techniques of intellectual one-upmanship. It’s exhilarating for a while, but then I have the sensation of a dense and murky fog being woven around my perception and if I don’t stop to remind myself that the wool is purposely being pulled over my eyes, I get a headache.
One of the experiences that marked me the most during this visit to Paris was in the Cluny Museum…. After sitting in awe before the intricate symbolism and masterful craft(wo)manship of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, representing the chivalric tradition of “taming” the Masculine principle in service and devotion to the Feminine, we continued to the feature exhibit – “The Sword: Uses, Myths and Symbols”.
In one condensed space were gathered the sword of Charlemagne (“La Joyeuse”), of Roland (“Durandel”), of El Cid (“Tizona” and “Colada”), of St.George, of Joan of Ark, what remains of that of Childeric, and many more. These swords were in themselves legendary personalities – all manner of war and treaties, bravery and skullduggery had been committed in their names and in their honour. Symbols of all facets of masculine power, including intellect and judgment, these swords had been the pride of nations (almost the same way as soccer teams are in our day and age); I could barely help myself from falling on my knees before the energy in that room. What was especially clear was the gradual transformation of the focus of Masculine power from pure physical force to intellectual prowess.
Beside me, a French father was explaining the exhibit to his very young son: “This is La Joyeuse, the most beautiful sword in all the world”, he said with pride. And later on, in front of a particularly gory set of drawings depicting people being decapitated: “You see – swords are used to protect good people and to kill the bad ones.”
Part of me simply observed tradition being passed on and a culture preserved – the other part wept for the child and trembled for our future….