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

35 comments:

  1. "Perhaps as we grow older, what culture we have tells us what things we don't really need to know."

    This is a startling insight, with implications I'm reluctant to unfold.

    Thanks for sharing your glimpses of Paris with us. (I was there once, 25 years ago, and was overwhelmed by the layers of history and culture demanding to be read, understood, decoded, appreciated...)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To gain knowledge and culture is to realize how impossible it is to be a widely cultured person. There's already too much to master, though a few people with marvelous memories and good brains stand far above the rest of us.

      That's what I've thought since childhood--that to be truly a cultured person is an impossible ideal.

      Yet we're not really attempting to master all culture. We're like metaphysical caddis flies, who are attempting to build culture into ourselves. To make our own little world, particular to us.

      And much is simply not needed to make that world, though there's a marvelous degree of choice of elements, so that every metaphysical caddis fly is unlike every other.

      Or so I think at the moment!

      Delete
    2. Hmm, think I might have to put a metaphysical caddis fly in my novel....

      Delete
    3. I am looking forward to your write! Such wonderful and intriguing characters along with the magic! A caddis fly could be some sort of messenger...? Alas, to many clues, inner thoughts, and such.

      Delete
    4. Who knows where the caddis fly will go?

      Delete
  2. Your tiny letter notation on being added to the culture venture on Education & Culture sounds like a wonderful way to spend your time! I hope you enjoy it along with your participation. Books, education, and culture are always intriguing to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, it should be interesting... So glad you came by, Josie, now that I'm on a social media fast!

      Delete
    2. Oh, and thanks for signing up for The Rollipoke!

      Delete
  3. "In lieu of a medieval life, I might just like to live in the Louvre."--oh, yes to be in that time bubble--would it not be grand? I would rather travel back, instead of forward in time to experience what I missed and find so intriguing as I read about it. But, could I return to the "NOW" if I did so? Or would I want to? I would probably die in some terrible way while visiting...but would that be worth the trip? So many thoughts on this subject...yes, my one wish has been to visit that place called Louvre before I become ashes in the wind or water.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Louvre lets you travel to many places and times--you would love it!

      Delete
  4. I enjoyed your tiny windows into this trip! Stained glass is a treasure to be admired. Thanks for sharing your experience with the readers on the Web.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You would love Sainte-Chapelle--the lower floor is beautiful, but people gasp when they climb the winding stair and come out in the upper level. Gorgeous vaults and glass.

      Delete
  5. Marly, thank you again for improving my understanding of new and different ideas. And today, because of your beautiful Rolypoke comments on form, I've begun a journey to Rome: http://informalinquiries.blogspot.com/2017/03/all-roads-lead-to-rome.html
    Again, thank you.
    Tim

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, you shared my talk proposal from The Rollipoke! Thanks for sharing, and for putting me in some good company.

      Delete
  6. Marly, it sounds so lovely! I am sure, I would love everything there, and almost everything about that area and the surrounding areas. I hope, I do get to visit it sometime soon. JEC

    ReplyDelete
  7. We diverge. I've been going to Paris since I was 16, nearly sixty years ago. In all that time, in a scattered, wrong-headed way, I've done Notre Dame, the Louvre, the tower, the zoo in the Bois de Boulogne, the back streets of St Germain des Prés and the terrace at Montmartre, the glass ceiling at Printemps, the shop windows in the Rue de Rivoli, les Halles before it moved out to Rungis, the Marais subsequently, etc. The last truly cultural effort I made was soon after Pei's pyramids were installed at the Louvre and I saw them in the company of a couple of French journalists I knew and liked, close to midnight after dinner.

    But never connectedly, with intellectual intent - just as a casual wanderer over the years. I envy you your application.

    You've made me wonder why those visits (latterly mainly for journalistic reasons) have been so misspent, so wasted. I think it's because I see Paris as I see New York, as a machine which has come without an instruction book, that needs to be unpicked. To find out how to use the old Parisian bus system (especially how to pay if you hadn't got a carnet), to ask Parisians for directions to a given address (the French are the best in the world at this), to search for one of the old-style brasseries down in the 14th that Maigret might have eaten at, most of all for fleeting conversations with the natives. None of it photographable. As if I were engaged in long-term research for a novel, yet I've never even mentioned Paris in any of those I've written. Perhaps I was over-faced by The Moveable Feast, and who reads that these days?

    You are the first person I've ever read who has described Paris as walkable (and with a bum knee!). Yes it is - just! - provided you stop every 40 minutes and know how to order a pression. Then sit back - outdoors, whatever the weather - and watch one of the best free shows on the planet: the traffic and the pedestrians.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You have had the great luck of being able to waft over the channel, whereas I had quite a number of very specific desires to fulfill in a mere seven and a half days. Not that I didn't play the flâneur, wandering without a destination, inspecting the people and windows in the Passage du Grand Cerf, talking to Parisians and the occasional expatriate (stumbled across one who left Texas at 17 and founded a jazz dance studio many decades ago--that was especially interesting), peeping in a shop window at a late-night photo shoot (the model looked like a goth librarian), strolling through the Boulevard Beaumarchais Saturday flea market, etc. Your experiences are like washes building up a pearl; mine were necessarily more determined and a bit hard-working and footsore. But there were plenty of stops, and on those cold and rainy early days, lots of chocolate chaud while on walks.

      Delete
  8. When we went to Paris two years ago, we took the Metro some, but mostly we walked and walked and walked for two weeks. We ate everything in our path but actually lost weight because we were constantly on our feet. It really is a walkable city, at least as far as the Peripherique (we walked from the Bois de Boulogne back to the center of town one afternoon).

    Paris is the most beautiful city I've ever seen. I hope we go back soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When we talked to the man who ran a jazz dance studio--he was taught by Patrick Swayze's mother as a teen in Texas--he told us about going to New York at 17 and then Paris, and just falling in love with the most beautiful city in the world and never leaving. I do hope they don't ruin it with all the new high architecture!

      Yes, walking and eating is great fun in Paris.... I would like to go back as well.

      Delete
  9. On our first visit to Italy, years ago, I noticed the secondary-school classes out to look at art. I saw one at the Uffizi, but what really caught my attention was a group crowded into the sacristy of the Frari in Venice. I realize now that I don't know where they came from, and that they might have had a two-hour train ride to get to Venice, but at the time I imagined them as having walked there from a local school.

    The Louvre is remarkable, though, isn't it? I think of the National Gallery as a pretty fair museum, but the Louvre seems to have everything that the National Gallery does, only multiplied ten times. It was odd to see people doing a forced march through a corridor full of astonishing Botticellis and Bellinis to look at the Mona Lisa from ten paces back. But I suppose that a five-century head start on art collecting ought to count for something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The corridor also has some more da Vinci, but everybody's too busy gawking at the Mona Lisa.... The Louvre is wondrous, yes. I do love the National Gallery and the Met, and I always mean to make it to the Cloisters but never have time. But now maybe I need to see some more tapestry unicorns!

      As for school, I think the most relieving thing I saw was young people sketching what they saw in front of their noses. It made me hope that the current generation might have its tools in place.

      Walking from school to the Uffizi: that's a dream.

      I still think the most pleasant day at a museum I've had was Museo Larco in Lima--beauty and strangeness and gardens and art and dinner in a green room of hanging plants. But probably the most overpowering experience ever was walking into the Assyrian Hall at the British Museum at 19. It shocked tears out of my eyes. Oh, the world is full of the most marvelous museums! And we won't see them all, but I'm glad they're there. So many beauties, so many oddities. Some fabulous funerary carts I saw in Bangkok still pop into my mind from time to time. It's too bad we can't call all the wondrous things we see into memory. I cannot, anyway. Alas.

      Delete
    2. Oh, I think you'd love the Cloisters. It's a creative work in its own right: a mishmash of actual medieval spolia that feels like the Middle Ages but represents no particular kingdom or age. From spring to fall, the walk from the subway stop to the museum takes you through a charming, flower-festooned park, and you scarcely believe you're still in Manhattan. The whole experience would really beguile you.

      Delete
    3. I always mean to go, and especially last time I was at the Met when I just focused on the Medieval portion. And I'm sure I will love it when I do... It's just that I always have some event to do and never quite find the time.

      But some time I am going to swap houses for a week with a friend in Brooklyn, and then I will have more chances to idle and ramble. (This will occur after the mythical time when I redo a bathroom.)

      Delete
    4. I totally understand; I suspect your bathroom remodeling and Brooklyn sojourn must fall during the same hazy period during which I've long imagined I would spend a glorious month perfecting my German along the shores of the Bodensee. But then we do have to plan more adventures than we can ever undertake, don't you think? Makes the ones we do complete that much more satisfying.

      Delete
    5. Languages, yes, always in the offing for Americans who weren't taught as children... But I do have some hazy plans that I hope will cohere this season!

      Delete
    6. I second Jeff's recommendation for the Cloisters. I've had some very fine moments there. A really remarkable space. The view of the Hudson River from the park is pretty great, too.

      Delete
    7. I've always meant to go. Maybe having seen the lady and unicorn tapestries will inspire me to make more time when I'm in NYC.

      Delete
  10. Loving the Medieval. Ah, that we might go back in time with a camera crew for a few vox. pop. interviews. Checking whether the serfs agree.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, well, our medieval is filtered through the pre-Raphaelites, isn't it? Hard to see the real thing in "the distant mirror." And few of us would have held land or any security or freedom from strange accidents. But I still love the image of a more enchanted sort of world. I like the more transcendental realm of Christendom, even with all its earthly and often terrible medieval issues. To look and see meaning everywhere...To never have the least conception of things being just "relative." To be able to see the glory of Sainte-Chapelle as they saw it. For that matter, to see a gorgeous dawn or sunset or snow or the northern lights or the first flowers of spring that way. Those things were free to all. They were not like us.

      Delete
    2. And though I know all the arguments against thinking that way, I find myself as irrational and as free to pick and choose among the relics of the past as anyone.

      Delete
    3. I'm sorry I pushed you into apologising for being irrational which, as the pre-Rs demonstrate, is often no more than letting the mind wander productively. I regretted my banally provocative comment then re-read your response and decided something worthwhile had emerged from something that was less than worthwhile. I even found myself agreeing, pro. tem., with your allusion to Christendom; perhaps it was a comfort to the serfs since there was precious little comfort elsewhere. But were serfs allowed into churches?

      One comforting link with the past is via music. Think of Sumer is Icumen In (mid 13th). Consider the complexity, the subtlety, the passion and the way it still generates intellectual satisfaction. Intelligence and an instinct for creativity are fixed qualities, unvarying with time. As well as viewing Sainte-Chapelle humble souls may also have gone about their business singing:

      Groweþ sed
      and bloweþ med
      and springþ þe wde nu
      Sing cuccu


      If Medieval Person had been very lucky he/she might have even seen the score (copied contemporaneously) and reflected on the ingenuity needed to transform sound into readable symbols. A sense of brotherhood must include the long dead.

      Delete
    4. Hah, no apology needed--and I love Sumer is Icumen In and wish it would do so here in the snow heaps! I expect serfs didn't see Sainte-Chapelle. But they did see the Notre Dame, Chartre, Salisbury, etc.

      Perhaps it's odd, but I do think about the dead a lot--my own and others. And do find myself as a little link in a long chain going backward and forward.

      I'm going to be deprived of wifi for a bit, so: talk later!

      Delete
  11. I love the way you write about Paris, because it is exactly the way I feel about Milan and Rome and all the little towns in between in Italy. All those centuries of art, architecture, food, and custom, like the exposed layers of sendimentary rock. Never was that truer than in Milan which was partially demolished by bombs in WWII -- so that right next door to the 17th century building I lived in, refitted in the 1880s with a gorgeous art nouveau facade was a totalitarian 1950's apartment building with a sleek but vacant personality. I went often to visit the incorruptable dead, especially my neighbor, 4th century St. Ambrogio, dressed in his finery at the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, a stones throw from the 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II where fashion models paraded every spring and fall. Bliss.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds wonderful--yes, I like the sense of outpouring life from many eras. So rich and satisfying. I shall never catch up with my husband's worldwide gallivanting, but I would like to go to Italy. And I want to see Barcelona's Gaudi!

      Delete

Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.