‘It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, Churchill said of Russia in 1939. Paris, on the other hand, seems to me an oxymoron carved out of a paradox, draped in a conundrum….
Duality in its most extreme manifestations assault all but the most jaded tourist – I feel emotions have been ripped out of every corner of my body, hurling me about with the intensity of a Perfect Storm. Apart from the invention and the sheer audacity of it all, the beauty of Paris is at the same time horrifying. At what cost in human life and the earth’s resources were these monumental gilded structures erected? Anything that requires such overstatement has got to be shaky – so much of the legacy of those who have held the reins of power – the Kings Louis, the Napoleons, the Revolution and of course, Hitler’s Reich, reeks of the maniacal gloating of the Little Man, his hands on the wheel….
I can’t help but contrast the indigenous understanding that the measure of a Man is in his capacity to leave no trace of his passing – to leave the Earth exactly as it was when he arrived – and the Civilised Man’s need to leave as huge a mark behind as he possibly can.
I’ve slept very little while here – Paris le long de la Seine is a symphony of sirens. I thought the roar and din would stop sometime during the night, mais non! Paris is a fille de joie – a lady of the night – with all the contradictions this implies…. It’s a city of passion, but not the joyous, life-affirming passion one can feel elsewhere, in places less burdened by history. Here, it feels like either a resigned, despondent and despairing passion – one that propels you forward because there is nothing left behind – or the frenzied flowering of a plant that is not fed enough, not watered enough…a defiant explosion of Life in the face of mortality.
Reminders of death are everywhere – On n’oubliera jamais, we are admonished and assured, the millions assassinated by one dominating force after another, commemorated individually on walls of buildings, in the monuments in Père Lachaise cemetery to the millions murdered in concentration camps, each camp with its own sculpture depicting agony and horror….on the wall where the last of the Paris Commune were lined up and shot…in the monument to The Deported, just behind Notre Dame Cathedral, from where hundreds of thousands sailed to their demise. The lives fed to the machines of domination are also glorified in mammoth proportions everywhere – in obelisks and arches and Les Invalides, where maimed veterans were (and still are) cared for, off the city streets and out of the eyes of the public.
Love here feels tragic…doomed. Singer Catherine Nin, in her inspired tribute performance to Édith Piaf, warns the audience that she is going to ‘take you right there with me’ into the pain of Piaf’s life, and adds that ‘the French are very good at tragedy….’ Along the Quai des Fleurs one finds a plaque on the home of Éloïse and Abélard (from 1118 CE, although none of the variations on their story seem to have them ever openly living together) – two brilliant scholars, passionately attracted to one another, destroyed by social mores, separated and then reconciled to the transmutation/sublimation of their love into paths of spiritual devotion. This is the sort of story that seems to hold special appeal to the French…. Passion that defies rigid social laws is admired, but must always be quelched – submerged beneath the weight of social responsibility, comme du monde.
The Sensuality and Spirituality exhibit at the Musée National Jean-Jacques Henner seemed to encapsulate this penchant for paradox. Henner (1829 – 1905) managed to master the quintessentially Parisian juggling act, rendering the static iconography of the moral/religious status quo with a ruddy-lustred ephemera of sexuality. Eve and the Magdalene, scarlet-tressed recurring motifs, are conveniently naked in every depiction of them, vulnerable in their redeemed innocence – their sexual power, tamed…domesticated. Despite the exhibit’s title, the notes offered to the public deal with painterly technique and anecdotes of provenance – with classic Parisian obtuseness, the “Sensuality” aspect is left to the musings of the viewer. There are some things one shouldn’t talk about….
The Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits is one of those places I was guided to by intuition. Opened quite recently, in 2010, it is a treasury of texts written by some of the most inspired spirits of the last few hundred years – letters and original manuscripts from the hands of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Utrillo, Aragon, Berlioz, Bach…Freud, Einstein, Edison, Napoleon, Sands, Proust…the list goes on and on. The two artifacts that touched me the most had unexpected Quebec connections: a letter from Jack Kerouac to his mother, written from San Luis d’Obispo in 1953, is signed ‘Ti-Jean’ (Did you know he was from a Québecois family?), and an amateur video taken in 1942 (!) on what looks to be Lac des Deux Montagnes (‘a lake near Montreal’) shows Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with his wife Consuela on vacation with Bernard Valiquette, his publisher. In the same exhibit are the original sketches that Saint-Exupéry made for Le Petit Prince!
What struck me was that much of what remains of these inspired people, other than the work they created, is records of their finances – in the case of most of the artists, of their struggles against poverty: the bills, the letters angling for patronage or demanding payment not received, others asking to have this manuscript published or that piece of music performed. On one hand, I felt strangely soothed to learn that the greatest artists and thinkers of modern time were almost always on the edge of society – pushing against the boundaries of “normal” enough to encounter resistance rather than immediate accolades. Work that expanded human understanding has always been too uncomfy to be popular, and indeed, has been more likely to be considered irrational, impossible and off-the-rocker crazy. But my heart hurt with the overwhelming weight of the pages and pages of testimony to the diametrical duality of truth and success. Is it not time for the two to reconcile – to unite and live happily ever after?
I had no idea that the Seine had so much traffic! Barges, tourist boats and the “Batobus” were an incessant flow of sound past the apartment window. Weekends and evenings, party boats glided loudly by on 80s and 90s pop music and alcohol. The coordinated chanting of protest slogans regularly laid a bass line under the cacophony; the last (particularly large and enthusiastic) manif was punctuated by watchful sirens “keeping the peace”.
Trips to the Musée de la Renaissance in Écouens and to Rheims afforded some auditory respite. The mobs of the faithful and somewhat-less-than-faithful milling and ssssh-ing around Notre-Dame-de-Paris and the ancient, holy silence of St-Rémi-de-Rheims are worlds and a short ride on the TGV apart. The details are a bit fuzzy, but it seems that when the young Archbishop Rémi christened Clovis as King of France, setting a tradition of the union of Church and State that persisted until the Revolution, they were so pressed upon by the crowds that a dove flew over to deliver to Rémi a phial containing the anointing oil for the ritual. The monastery adjacent to the cathedral that marks the original location of this ceremony has apparently been charged with the safeguarding and preservation of the miraculous phial – there is definitely a Presence here of some kind…. Another peculiarity of this place is the most animated and startling piece of religious sculpture I have ever seen (photo right). The notes say that the work was found in the Templar commanderie that once stood on the site – a statement that invites all sorts of interesting contemplation. The other attraction of Rheims is of course the champagne that was developed here by enterprising monks who finally decided to cash in on the Brits’ enthusiasm for the bubbly stuff that they themselves considered spoiled…!
In Paris, we stayed just around the corner from the shop of The Croissant Nazi – a baker with the disapproving air of a perfectionist who will not hesitate to refuse service to the impolite or out-of-line and who is reputed to make the best croissants in the world (according to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, I understand). In the food department, the consensus seems to be that Paris’ coffee and croissants are generally not at all what they used to be, and the French simply do not understand vegetarians. Had we not chosen to eat fish, I had the impression we might have been turfed out of several of the lovely restaurants in which we dined for insulting the chefs.
The conflicted culture and society of European Paris, once fomenting with daring and subversive ideas, now floats on a sparkling, multicoloured foundation of African origin – a thin layer of vanilla icing on a towering chocolate layer cake. It has been remarked by many that Paris is the largest African capitol….
The Opéra Garnier was filled to its ornate rafters as the percussion section and a dancer of the Paris Opera Company finished the evening’s program, performing a piece that interpreted the stages of consciousness in meditation. As the dance-scene audience, slightly more staid than that of Montreal, tumbled out of the gilded Cinderella architecture, they picked their way around a tango lesson being given on the exterior landing.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam was performing Dvorak’s New World Symphony, conducted by Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel. The energy in the Salle Pleyel gathered and gathered, propelling the audience to its feet on the final, perfect notes. Tears flowed in a communal baptism…a renewal of faith….
Perhaps this is a phenomenon not unique to Paris, but simply our present urban reality. The grandes dames of the human beehive – Rome, Cairo, Baghdad, Paris, London, New York, Rio – are epicentres of transformation. They’re alchemical cauldrons, where all polarities are magnetically attracted into a fusion kept chilled through the process by prejudices, xenophobia and all the other hues of Tradition, its heels digging deep furrows into the earth as it is dragged out of fear-engendered paralysis and into… our Future.