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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Lessons in history, beauty, and the point of life"

Moreau's Jason and Medea,
Musée d'Orsay, Wikipedia public domain
It's a bit odd that I made it to Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu before I ever made it to Paris but so it is. Here are a few scattered thoughts about my just-finished trip, which was quite wonderful and not at all like Lent (aside from sore knees and seeing many skulls and bones and rambling in the chilly rain.) What is so alluring about Paris is the beauty and also the plain fact that there is so much worth knowing: it has many satisfying layers of culture.

How we change! At 19 I loved Burne-Jones. Decades later, I hardly give him a glance because he's hung so close to Gustave Moreau at the Musée d'Orsay. That place alone is proof that high culture in the West cannot do without the "dead white male," like him or not.

Mystery is always an element in the most pleasing work, and I thought about this repeatedly in Paris. Probably the most over-familiar example there or anywhere is La Gioconda. But in La Dame à la licorne tapestries at the Musée de Cluny (Musée national du Moyen Âge), I like the way the final motto, À mon seul désir, can be read in so many different ways that it tends up seeming pregnant with meaning but not at all revealing itself.

Climbing the winding stair from the lovely lower level and turning the corner into the upper level of Sainte-Chapelle: surprise linked to intense beauty is as pleasing in architecture as it is in a garden of winding paths with secret sculpture and discovered vistas. I'd like to go back there again. If you're in doubt as to whether high culture is a worthy and beautiful ideal, Sainte-Chapelle will settle your mental hash.

Perhaps as we grow older, what culture we have tells us what things we don't really need to know. While I regretted not being faster here and there (never quite got to the Manet), I found myself a bit cool on royal gaud at the Château de Versailles. I didn't regret missing some of the rooms, though I loved the outrageous chapel, and it was interesting to see works by Bernini, the Clicquot organ, etc. in a "home" interior. I hung around the Morand clock, waiting for the playlet of the laughing dwarf to appear on the hour, but it seems to no longer function. (I love automatons and clockwork--well, who doesn't?) Enjoyed walking the André Le Nôtre gardens and poking around the grounds and seeing the smaller structures, particularly the adorable hamlet of Marie Antoinette, tumbledown though it is. Perhaps what I was cool on was Louis XIV himself, as the degree of narcissism seemed overwhelming and sometimes comical. Or perhaps it was the Baroque? But I like Bernini. And Caravaggio. Maybe Louis, then? Because I enjoyed seeing the broken royal monument of Queen Adelaide of Savoy, wife of Louis VI. Yes, I think the Sun King's affectations must be why--that and the prodigious ostentatiousness of the place, even though I saw many things to like.

À mon seul désir, Musée de Cluny, Wikipedia public domain

An element that is seldom seen in the states but common in Europe and Asia is that interesting sense of one phase of culture taking over another in architecture. It must be wonderful to live with that constantly. It is a rich thing for a writer, too. Living with tradition is to be fed by culture. You have a sense of ongoing culture in Notre Dame and other churches, but it's even stronger elsewhere. I liked seeing Crypte archéologique du Parvis Notre-Dame where the medieval bumps into the Roman--or the Roman frigidarium bumping into the medieval at Cluny--or the constant refurbishing and remaking in churches like St. Severin or St. Pierre. There's also a sense of the place as layered and undermined with the Les Catacombes and sewers and various archaeological underground sites. That must do something to one's mind. And a good thing, too. It's pleasurable for someone from the states and for a writer. I think of all the early writers bemoaning our lack of "thick," built-up civilization, or of Charles Brockden Brown transforming the forests into Gothic structures. We do have some ancient native American sites, but they are not so woven into our cities, and none of them have the presence of the sites in Latin America.

It is possible to walk from rue Meslay up to the Seine and past the Tour Eiffel with lots of side wanderings even if you have a bum knee that makes you sorry you did it later on. What a walkable city! Sidewalks are often a bit narrow, but who cares? I live in a little Yankee village with lots of museums that's quite walkable when we're not in the mad middle of a blizzard, as we are now, but eventually all sidewalks have been thoroughly walked many times....

Did I say that I love the medieval world? I adore medieval carved ivory and stained glass. And bizarre reliquaries and goldsmith work and tapestries. If only I wouldn't drop dead in childbirth (would) or die of illness in childhood (would) or be a miserable peasant (would), I could be a happy medieval traveler.

In lieu of a medieval life, I might just like to live in the Louvre. I managed to stare at the Vermeer show, Egypt, Assyria, the medieval rooms, and a huge amount of European painting, but I think it might take a lifetime to look over the place properly.

Lovely to see the university classes using the Louvre. We live in a time in which American academics kick out the highest achievements of culture in the name of increasing diversity and equality, but we will never achieve a high culture of diversity and equality if artists and writers don't stand on the greats of the past. And in the West, those greats of the past are dominated by those pesky dead white males. But when art goes out from the soul and becomes part of the soul of the world, well, the best of it is beyond considerations of gender or race. And the very finest is what we want to stand on. If we don't stand on tradition and the finest creations of the past, we are but spiders, spinning from our own limited guts.

Food, one must say something about Paris food, no? And I have now eaten ice cream at Berthillon--quite good but not up to the fabulous, weird, magic flavors of Emporio La Rosa in Santiago, Chile. I would hate to admit how many of those flavors I tried in a rather short span of time. Ceviche was better in Peru, but everything else edible in Paris was hard to beat. The food in cafes and restaurants the locals know more than the tourists was wonderfully imaginative. Fun to let them bring whatever they like in many small courses and be surprised. Fun also to visit a market like La Marché des Enfants Rouges and eat in a little rainy tent. Also, I definitely had a weakness for the layered sables and the small cakes at Bontemps in the Marais. (And we met interesting people at restaurants, including a Texan who fell in love with Paris and stayed, and who I now realize was Rick Odums of the Centre International de Danse.)

Paris myths... Perhaps it was the frequent rain and cold at fault, but Paris was not quite as fashionable as I expected it to be, particularly in Paris Fashion Week, though I did enjoy passing by shop windows and staring at clothes (and art and flowers and so on.) We did keep noticing that Asian tourists were wearing pale gray with pale shell pink in beautifully shaped wool coats. Unlike the myth, Parisians are not all mere fashionable sticks for clothes to hang on. They come in all size and shapes. Nor were they rude about a tourist jabbering at them in schoolgirl French, as I was led to expect, but were quite willing to engage, ever helpful and friendly. And now that it is blizzarding outside, I'm ready to return. Already two fresh feet of snow, falling fast, and set to snow into tomorrow...

photo by Chatsam, Cluny, CC via Wikipedia
Roman baths with capitals from the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés


Learning curve: just sent a Rollipoke News out today... And got a bunch of replies. And then replied to one to absolutely everybody enrolled. Sorry out there!

Sunday, March 12, 2017


I'm fresh back from Paris and promise to post soon--hope you have done something wonderful in the past week!