Sunday, August 26, 2007

Walking Beats Blogging

And look where I was walking! That's la Cure, a river dans le Morvan, a big region of rivers, lakes and forests between Burgundy and the Loire, just below Avallon if you have your map out. Avery and I walked for a few hours most days, and took a few long car trips to places that are easier to get to from le Morvan than from Paris. We were staying in our very nice friends Susan and Claude's very nice place in Montarin, near Quarre-les-Tombes - yes, tombs from the Merovingians lie around outside the town church, oddly empty, about 230 km southeast of the capital.

Sleeping beats blogging too. The village was silent, and the big bedroom is upstairs in the old stone house, where the double window faces south west toward the forest, and the breeze came from the forest across the tops of the summer corn and into the window, and then carried on out the others side through the apple trees and the huge spruce and across the white Charolais cows grazing just over Susan and Claude's fence on the north side. The same breeze blew at night, and when the clouds had gone somewhere else I stared out at the black hills and the Milky Way, amazed that I couldn't see a single light. Clearly things exist for themselves. They don't need any of our constant activity. And with that thought I went to sleep, and slept and slept. I slept under the phosphorous stars that Susan had stuck on the ceiling and that glowed half the night over our heads.

One day we drove au haut Morvan, due south, and visited Bibracte, the ruins of an old Gaullish city where Cesar wrote his memoir of the Gaullic wars after his victory at Alesia in 52 BC. It was at the top of a beautiful hill, and we walked up through the forest into a clearing that had once had avenues and fountains as part of a city at the crossroads between northern and southern Europe, and between east and west. Right around there Vercingetorix had been proclaimed the head of the Gaullish coalition that didn't hold together long or well enough to keep the Romans out. We ate lunch looking out over the valley, wandered down the hill into an old leper colony on the way back, and headed east to the city that replaced Bibracte on Mont Bevray, Autun.

We've been to Autun before, and I had to go back because, well, it's a Roman city on the plain and feels southern and Mediterranean to me even though it's not. And also because it has the Saint Lazare cathedral with it's amazing tympanum, done by Giselbertus between 1120 and 1135. Christ is surrounded by the zodiac, but more relevantly the lintel divided humanity into the saved and the damned, and Christ presides over the weighing of souls (which the devil tries to skew), sending much of humanity straight to hell. This is an evil turn in Christian thought. It helps to scare everyone into temporarily good behavior but turn savior into the judge that issues eternal damnation. This is the power of blood, the power of death over life that made Burgundy an intersection between northern Europe and the East, brought back knowledge and progress through the education Byzantium and Araby and other heathens gave the crusaders, and guaranteed death and destruction and centuries of tyranny and darkness. These Middle Ages have of course not yet ended. We had a drink in the courtyard next to the church, and the headed back north through the old Roman gate.

Human nature, you say? Well actually around the same time the maker of the tympanum at Vezelay, the great pilgrimage town just northwest of le Morvan, was telling a whole different story. I really love this place, and we drove there another day from Montarin across the D 36 through luminous forests - so green the air was water you could drink - then across the river and up the hill and we arrived at this. Click on the image so you can see the details. There is no division between good and evil, saved and damned. All of humanity is there, the hunters, archers and fishermen, the artisans, the horsemen, and the Men with Big Ears. To the right and left of Christ sit various apostles, and arching over his head are the Signs but also the saved of every miscellaneous nation East and West - the outcomes of miracles that belong to the overall order represented by the collection of figures themselves. No one is going to Hell here. In the End, All Will Rise.

We took other great day trips - to the Puisaye near the Loire, to le Maconnais in the far south of Burgundy where we saw the remains of Cluny and then drove east to see unbelievable Renaissance perfection of Brou, outside of of Bourg-en-Bresse. I took dozen of pictures there and will post them eventually. It's hard to feel visiting all this medievalism that we have actually progressed. In medicine and transport, yes, but in intellectual and artistic ambition? I don't think so. We have shrunk. As artists and dreamers we are smaller than our ancestors. We go backwards as much as forward. Until our arts catch up, Bruno La Tour will still be right: we never never been modern.

Le Morvan was amazingly empty, and I had the same feeling I mentioned flying over Vienna. France has not cannibalized its land and country. It is not run by real estate promoters. It has preserved the landscape, the ranches and forests, the urban boundaries, the sociability of public life that is separated from nature as such. It has not sprawled. It has standards for itself that we Americans do not, thinking of progress as the sacrifice of our existing quality of life.


(See Bill Maher's version if you haven't already.)

And then it was great to be back in Paris. France has had crap weather all summer - if you like sun and warmth - and today was the second day of light in about a month. I went out to get balsamic vinegar and ice cream for dinner, and decided to make a trip out of it by going up rue Mouffetard to the Italian products place, where this young shop guy acted like my vinegar purchase was as important as buying a new car. He explained the strengths and weaknesses of each brand, and offering his opinion of the quality-price ratio for all. I really love this about many French retail people - the sheer intellectual effort of their analysis of details possibly relevant to the user's experience. I asked whether I could take the sprayer out of brand number 3, bought it, and left amidst a chorus of "have a good Sunday" while bumping into a gang of smiling tan people back from somewhere like Nice.

Paris is pretty happy today, and if you're in the core areas the government hasn't let go to hell, Satan style, France has a scale designed for interaction of people on foot that has to be created artificially in a monstrously oversized country, prisoner of its gigantism, like the United States. I feel at home here.

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