Thursday, April 05, 2007

Restless Scarf Day

Today I had lunch with my brother upstairs in a good hole-in-the wall mom-n-pop restaurant in the Galerie Vero Dodat, just off the Palais Royal which was looking mighty good in early spring as we walked through. We talked about about all sorts of things, particularly the upcoming presidential elections here in France, which as Americans we feels we've already lived through. Sarkozy the candidate of security, patriotism, immigration controls, and the deregulation of business; Royale, getting called inexperienced and indecisive and going down in the poles. Sarko is the culture of force brought to France, and of cronyism already here, and of Blairite privatization which means giving businesses slices of government activity thus driving up costs, allowing business to declare government inefficient and taking even more of the action. Maybe Sarkozy can bring HMOs to French healthcare so the French can pay three times what they do now, making them "efficient" like us. Naturally, Brad says, much of the middle class supports Sarkozy.

But what the hell. Things feel less urgent in Paris, which has survived centuries of lying and stealing leaders. The Palais Royal was the original fusion of government and retail, built for Richlieu in the 1630s and combining over time royal apartments and every variety of snobbery and trade. After lunch we walked down rue de Rivoli, the heart of middle-brow commerce, and then I continued on across the amazing Seine on an early spring day that combined an unsteady, chilly north wind with lots of unbroken sun. I passed la Conciergerie with its famous round towers, the heart of the old monarchy and of royal imprisonment and then past le palais de justice, the heart of the law, and on to Notre Dame de Paris. As ye olde Catholic atheist, I visit cathedrals every chance I get, including ones I've visited dozens of times before, like this one, a destination of one of my traditional Paris walks. If you asked me "what is European civilization's single greatest achievement," I would immediately reply, "Notre Dame."

I looked at it today and thought of what Avery says about the ruins at Jumieges. It used to be powerful and evil. Now its power is gone, and it is peaceful. And beautiful, beautiful, beautiful The beauty does mean something. It always gives me hope. The structure, the ornament, the entire world of humanity represented in the figures - all speak of the authority of god, which leads to fixed, rigid, absolute hierarchies on the facade. I like watching the unstoppable mobs of tourists in the parvis in front. They are amazed by it, and excited, at least temporarily harmless and at peace themselves, taking pictures and pointing and deciphering and perhaps they wonder what I always wonder - how did those European barbarians, those superstitious fanatics, those ignorant pretechnological killers, make something as beautiful, as overwhelming as this? How did they do something this right?

They knew many things that we have forgotten. They had labor and craft, and art was central to the ways they honored the universe. They were doing much better at that than we are.

I stared at the central portal as I always do. There are the saints standing on the backs of the servants who twist their necks to look up at them. There are the rows of heads ascending and descending. There are the fake kings looking down, the substitute statues after their forebears were pulled to the ground during the revolution. The destruction of the kings was the beginning of the ruin, and the romanticism, and Hugo's novel that brought people back to the building to look up at it. The end of the kings was the start of the peace.

The revolution left the central portal intact. There is Christ on his throne. Below him an angel conducts the weighing of souls. The saved are directed to heaven. The damned are directed below.

The saved and the damned - this dichotomy is the central mistake of Christianity. This is not Jesus, the great anti-imperial thinker of community-based higher things. This is Christ, whose status as himself divine supposedly ratified church power and what better way to show his power than by damning souls to hell? Really, what worse way? The reflex of damnation - it's nearly been the end of us all.

After weighing the weighing of souls yet again, I walked around to the back, past the pink and the green flowering trees, and the smiling grandfathers having their picture taken, and the boys happily strangling each other on the pavilion. From the heart of the church I walked to the Jardin des Plantes, the heart of old French science, fully repaired, spreading out flat and wide and endlessly in the distance, with the Galerie de zoologie majestic and undisturbable in the distance, wide and high and forming its own horizon. Manet-like tableau sur l'herbe occurred at regular intervals - a teenage girl helping an 8-year-old with her homework under the pink petals, a 4 year old girl in a red coat amiably kicking her way across the crushed granite earth, clumps of shouting schoolkids, businessmen blinking in the sun as they talked on the their phones. I went out the front and walked by the great Mosque, the old heart of Islamic France. I couldn't go home without stopping in at the 5 a Sec on Saint Marcel to see if my regular laundress was there, and thankfully she was. Something else to look forward to.

My scarf took off in the wind about 50 times during the walk. Happy to come back, but equally happy to go.

1 comment:

jkl said...

I wish my scarf and your scarf could dance together in the Parisian wind. I spent Easter weekend in NY, where I went to St. Luke's in the Fields in the Village on Saturday evening, breathing in incense for 2 1/2 hours and singing plainsong with trannies and gay men. Oh, and a conference too. Love to A!