Monday, June 6, 2011

Paris, Part II: ruminations on The Pantheon, the concept of "Great Men", The State, Arthur Rimbaud, The Paris Commune of 1871, and a Vision among the Bones (in the Catacombs)...

At the end of our first day in Paris, sandwiched between the Louvre in the morning and wandering down to the Champs de Mars in the evening (to hang out, watch the Eiffel tower lights slowly brighten as the sun set), we went to the Pantheon. I think our original reason for going was that we wanted to get a view of Paris from the upper dome. Or maybe we needed to pee. I can’t quite remember now. When we got there it was about forty-five minutes before closing time and the escorted trips up to the dome had ended for the day. 

The building of the Pantheon was initiated by King Louis XV in 1744, after a long illness where he vowed to God that if he was spared he would replace the ruined church of Abbey Geneviève with something truly fitting for the patron saint of Paris.  The original intent of the Pantheon was that it would house the relics of St. Geneviève. There were many delays and so it wasn’t finished until 1791 – just in time for the French Revolution.  During the revolution, the Catholic Church was a major target for street rage, since they, along with the greedy royals, possessed most of the wealth in France. The stone saints lining the portico doors of Notre Dame were all beheaded during this time (the current heads are replicas. The actual heads can be seen, disembodied on shelves, in the Museé national du Moyen Age in the Latin Quarter.). I can probably guarantee that had I been subjected to the same circumstances my entire life – extreme poverty, without hope, without opportunity – while at the same time being surrounded by the opulence of the royal court and church – I would have picked up a sledge hammer and whacked away at those heads, too. It must have been very satisfying work. So, during the revolution the National Constituent Assembly ordered the church dedicated to Ste. Geneviève to be changed into a secular mausoleum to intern the bones of “Great Frenchmen”. 

Inside The Pantheon, there are no rooms. It’s just one vast hall. The building was designed in the neoclassical style, in the shape of a Greek cross. The ground floor has a length of 352 feet, a breadth of 272 feet. There were long stretches of marble flooring, huge paintings on the walls depicting the battles and triumphs of France (Joan of Arc in all her glory, etc.), columns rising up to the high vaulted ceilings, and there in the middle of it all, at the centre of the cross, the vast dome, 272 feet above the floor. 

The human form is dwarfed in such a place. In this way it’s a bit like Notre Dame. But in the Pantheon, instead of the Church creating the illusion of being all powerful, it is the State. It reminded me of Washington DC. How the architecture and layout of buildings around the National Mall are meant to create the feeling of awe, of reverence, and maybe a little fear – holy fear – for the State. It’s not about reverence towards a particular government – governments come and go – but something much more elusive: that invisible, intangible thing that seems to bind a people together in order for them to label themselves “French” or “American” or “British”. Abstractions like freedom, equality, and brotherhood are given form; myths of origin (the American Revolution, the French Revolution) are portrayed pictorially in the same way that Bible stories are depicted in stained glass and sculpture in great cathedrals. 
 In the Pantheon there are massive sculptures of the anonymous men and women who rose up against the monarchy during the revolution. Opposite these anonymous martyrs are sculptures of the men who created the National Convention after the monarchy was overthrown. At the far end of the Pantheon, opposite the front entrance, is a sculpture called “The National Convention”.  Liberty stands on a platform in the middle, holding a sword. On her right stands a group of what look like the middle class men of the age, giving her a frighteningly Heil H-like salute. On her left, a group of soldiers with drums, guns, or riding horses, going to war in Liberty’s name. 

“The flag goes with the foul landscape, and our patois muffles the drum.
            “In all capitols, we feed the most cynical prostitution. We slaughter logical revolts.
            “To the spiced and fevered countries – in service to the most monstrous exploitations, industrial or military.
            “Goodbye to here, no matter where, Conscripts of goodwill, we’ll have the fierce philosophy; ignorant of science, wheels of comfort; the puncture in the rolling world. This is the true path. 
            “Forwaaard, march!”
 (Democracy, A. Rimbaud, my translation)

The entire building is about power. I’ve always been struck by how many courthouses in the United States, built in the late 19th century or early in the 20th, especially in the Midwest, were designed with the same idea in mind. You walk in and are confronted immediately by high vaulted ceilings and a dome of some kind – far, far up there – unattainable – forever out of reach. Sitting in a courtroom in one of those buildings you are meant to be struck, unconsciously, by how big the justice system is, what it can see, do, know. The great rooms and high ceilings are a warning: “ Don’t even mess with us...we are much bigger than you.” And they are. (Now US institutional buildings look more like prisons or office business parks. Smooth blocks of concrete or cheap, anonymous strip mall facades – but it’s a warning just the same: Be careful, or you might disappear into the system , become anonymous, merge with the facelessness of the building, never to be seen again.)

What I’m trying to get at is that our everyday selves – the one that eats and pees and shits and loves a few specific people and also can be seen leaning down to pick a writhing worm up off the pavement after a hard rain in order to drop it back onto the grass – that person is irrelevant inside a building like the Pantheon.You are meant to be irrelevant. You are meant to merge with the grandeur of the history of the state (whatever state you think you belong to...). 

(Though, in this goofy post-modern world we live in, the French have, in recent decades, used the space beneath the dome as a place for quite interesting art displays. What’s funny is that the art there, because it needs to fill such a vast space, must also be on a gargantuan scale. What would be really interesting and strange is putting in an installation that was on a human scale right beneath the dome – how odd it would look, insignificant – a figure, just birthed from stone, looking back at us with our own vulnerability, frailty - unable to compete with the surroundings...
                                                            but I digress.).

Marie Curie
 But there are always those who have been chosen to rise above that anonymous institutional facelessness. Behind the sculpture of the National Convention is the entrance to the Pantheon’s crypt. You descend a winding stair to a group of low-ceilinged corridors where the “great men” of France have been entombed. The inscription over the entrance to the crypt reads: “Aux Grandes Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante” (To the great men, the grateful homeland). The generals are there, of course, and the politicians, yes...but, amazingly enough, also a few writers! (this really doesn’t happen much in the states – it’s pretty much all about men bedecked with medals, astride muscular horses). There is one woman entombed there – Marie Skłodowska-Curie, researcher into radioactivity, discoverer of the element radium, winner of two Nobel Prizes.

(What’s fascinating about Mme. Curie’s tomb is how many objects and flowers are scattered around it. There’s nothing on that scale for any of the men. While we stood at the entrance to Madame Curie’s crypt, a young woman walked in, laid a long-stemmed rose on top of the tomb.  There were several other young women already standing inside the tiny room, taking photos...) 

O my Good! O my Beautiful! Appalling fanfare where I do not falter! rack of enchantments! Hurrah for the wonderful work and for the marvelous body, for the first time! It began in the midst of children's laughter, with their laughter will it end. This poison will remain in all our veins even when, the fanfare turning, we shall be given back to the old disharmony. O now may we, so worthy of these tortures! fervently take up the superhuman promise made to our created body and soul: that promise, that madness! Elegance, science, violence! They promised to bury in darkness the tree of good and evil, to deport tyrannic respectability so that we might bring hither our very pure love. It began with a certain disgust and it ends, - unable to grasp this eternity, - it ends in a riot of perfumes.

Laughter of children, discretion of slaves, austerity of virgins, loathing of faces and objects here, holy be all of you in memory of this vigil. It began with every sort of boorishness, behold it ends with angels of flame and ice.

Little drunken vigil, holy! if only because of the mask you have bestowed on us. We pronounce you, method! We shall not forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole life every day.

Now is the time of the Assassins.

(Morning of Drunkenness, A. Rimbaud, translated by Louise Varese)

Victor Hugo
Rousseau is entombed down in that crypt. Voltaire, also. Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas. The writers that are there are those that now – long after they’ve died – are meant to fit into the narrative of how the State wants to see itself: Victor Hugo created a narrative of the French Revolution (Les Miserables) and a compelling secular narrative of a hunchback living in Notre Dame Cathedral (along with many works of poetry and fiction that are still, for the most part, unavailable in English); we all know Dumas as the creator of the three musketeers (“All for one, one for all!”); and Rousseau was the intellectual father of the French Revolution. Whether these men were always acceptable to the state during their lifetimes, Time itself has made these men acceptable now. Like everything else, the State has been continually changing (although the fundamental function of the state – to maintain its own power – hasn’t really changed all that much over the centuries).

But there are some poets and writers who may never quite fit into that state narrative, no matter what that narrative is. I don’t think Arthur Rimbaud would ever make it into the crypt of The Pantheon (and if his bones ever did make it, there might be some severe, angry haunting as a result). Rimbaud wrote all of his poetry in the space of five years, between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Then, after writing some of the most brilliant poems of the 19th century, he gave it all up. He wandered quite a bit in his early twenties – Germany, Switzerland, Java, Norway – then went off to Africa to seek his fortune. He tried gun-running, and it’s rumoured that he may have even traded in slaves, but, for most of his time in Africa, he was a low-level merchant for a coffee company. What remained from his poetry days was his disgust and fear of what he saw as the boredom and horror of mundane, workaday life.  

Sketch of Rimbaud by Paul Verlaine
He was a temperamental, impudent, sneering boy who saw poetry as a means of arriving at a new way of seeing the world: the vehicle for the transformation of everyday life. Seeing the world differently, through visions and prophecy – induced by what he called “a complete derangement of the senses” (through alcohol, drugs, living in the filth and consequent starvation of extreme poverty, etc.) – would, in turn, create a new world. The young Rimbaud believed in imagination as the driving force of all things. What made him stand out as a poet in his own time (and even now) was that he would try anything – prose poetry, verse, a mixture of the two, his subject matter ranging from the classically beautiful to schoolboy scatology. What first attracted (and sometimes repelled) me about Rimbaud was that his poems were always written on the edge of delirium – ecstasy, agony, it was all the same to him. 

There has been an orgy of followers since his death at 37 in 1891 – the Symbolists, the Surrealists, including Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. Basically he can be seen – and has been, time and again – as the original punk rocker. Rimbaud’s story has been told and retold so many times that it’s safe to say there now exists a Rimbaud industry in the publishing world, all based on the trajectory/myth of genius, debauchery, and then a sudden and shocking silence. The 1995 film, Total Eclipse, with Leonardo DiCaprio (a crap film), was about the tortured and sometimes violent love relationship between Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine. 

Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.
            One evening I took Beauty in my arms - and I thought her bitter - and I insulted her.
            I steeled myself against justice.
            I fled. O witches, O misery, O hate, my treasure was left in your care!
            I have withered within me all human hope. With the silent leap of a sullen beast, I have downed and strangled every joy.
            I have called for executioners; I want to perish chewing on their gun butts. I have called for plagues, to suffocate in sand and blood. Unhappiness has been my god. I have lain down in the mud, and dried myself off in the crime-infested air. I have played the fool to the point of madness.
            And springtime brought me the frightful laugh of an idiot.
            Now recently, when I found myself ready to croak! I thought to seek the key to the banquet of old, where I might find an appetite again.
            That key is Charity. - This idea proves I was dreaming!

 (beginning of A Season in Hell, A. Rimbaud, translated by Paul Schmidt)

Standing in a darkened corridor of the Pantheon’s crypt, I thought of Rimbaud’s arrival in Paris, as a boy of sixteen, during the brief revolution now known as “The Commune” in 1871. The Commune came about during the chaos that ensued after Prussian troops occupied Paris for a brief period at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. To put it very simply (maybe too simply), the workers rose up and took over the running of the city for three months (March-May, 1871), before being brutally massacred by the National Army. To me, what is most interesting about the time of The Commune is that, even though there was a freely elected central council (The council members were paid an average wage and could be instantly recalled by electors if they did not carry out mandates), Paris was basically run by workers councils that popped up in every district of the city. Political decision making was no longer secret, but open and accessible, resulting in a situation in which “citizens were no longer informed of their history after the fact but were actually occupying the moment of its realization.” (The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross, pg. 42) Sadly, to their shame, they did not include women in the vote, despite the fact that it was a group of women who first challenged the National Guard and started the entire process. 

 Workplaces were reopened as co-operatives. The Engineers Union, voting at a meeting on the 23rd of April, 1871, echoing councils and unions all over the city, stated that the aim of the Commune should be “economic emancipation” and to “organise labour through associations in which there would be joint responsibility” in order "to suppress the exploitation of man by man.” (The Paris Commune 1871, Steward Edwards, pgs 263-4) What they were looking for was social equality: No more employers, no more proletarians, no more classes. The ultimate goal was to gain more control over their own lives, not be subjected to the whims of greedy employers who were pawns of the ever-changing, boom-and-bust winds of capital.

Hadn't I once a youth that was lovely, heroic, fabulous, something to write down on pages of gold? - I was too lucky! Through what crime, by what fault did I deserve my present weakness? You who imagine that animals sob with sorrow, that the sick despair, that the dead have bad dreams, try now to relate my fall and my sleep. I can explain myself no better than the beggar wth his endless Aves and Pater Nosters. I no longer know how to talk!
And yet, today, I think I have finished this account of my Hell. And it was Hell; the old one, whose gates were opened by the Son of Man.
From the same desert, toward the same dark sky, my tired eyes forever open on the silver star, forever; but the three wise men never stir, the Kings of life, the heart, the soul, the mind. When will we go, over mountains and shores, to hail the birth of new labor, new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, - to be the first to adore! - Christmas on earth!
The song of the heavens, the marching of nations! We are slaves, let us not curse life!

(‘Morning’ section from A Season in Hell, translated by Paul Schmidt)

It’s debatable whether Rimbaud engaged in any fighting during the battle for Paris between the Communards and the army, but it’s clear that The Commune heavily influenced his poetry. Not with a particular ideology, I don’t think, but by example: Imagining a new world is the first step to creating that new world. What the young Rimbaud learned from them was that the transformation of everyday life was possible. Within The Commune, there were challenges to the boundaries between work and leisure, producer and consumer, worker and bourgeois, worker and intellectual.

In my novel A Fish Trapped inside the Wind the townsfolk of a Belgian cement factory town wake to find dead fish scattered everywhere. The fish might have fallen from the sky. There is a point in the book where an altar boy appears at the local priest’s refectory door holding two huge dead cods an hour before Mass. He asks the priest, innocently, honestly: “Will there be Mass?” It’s a legitimate question, isn’t it? All the laws of nature the boy has been taught seem to have disappeared. Why continue the same routine as if nothing has happened? The boy feels he’s entered a new world. But the priest responds with a tired “Yes, of course there will be Mass.” This complacency in the face of something so completely astonishing is what Rimbaud’s poetry was struggling against.

  As soon as the idea of the Flood receded,
             A hare froze in the high grass and ringing flowers, and said his prayer to a rainbow through a spider’s web.
            Oh! The precious stones who hid, - the flowers who’d seen.
            On the dirty boulevard stalls emerged, boats were hauled into the sea, layered on the waves like a postcard.
            Blood flowed, at Blue Beard’s, - in slaughterhouses, - at the circus, where God’s seal drained the windows white.  Blood and milk flowed.
            Beavers built.  Samovars in cafés steamed.
            In an ancient house of glass panes, still dripping, children in mourning watched the marvelous scenes.
            A door slammed, and, in the town square, a child whirled his arms, in league with the weathervanes and belfry cocks everywhere, under a thunderous rain.
            Madame *** installed a piano in the Alps.  Mass and First Communion were celebrated at the hundred thousand altars of the cathedral.
            Caravans departed. And the Splendide-Hotel was built in a chaos of ice, in the polar night.
            Since then, the Moon has heard jackals snickering among deserts of thyme, - and the eclogues in wood shoes groaning in orchards. Then, in a forest budding violet, Eucharis told me it was spring.                      
            Rise, pond, - foam, roll over the bridge , into the woods; - black shrouds and organs, - flash and thunder, - rise and flow; - water and sadness, lifts and lets fly the flood.
            Since they’ve receded, - oh the jewels buried, and the open flowers! – it’s pure boredom! And the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire in an earthen vat, will never tell us what she knows, and what we don’t.        
(After The Flood, A. Rimbaud, my translation)

Communards in coffins
Within The Commune, there did not seem to be any desire to set up an alternative state-oriented bureaucracy. After The Commune was suppressed, Karl Marx complained that they had not taken full advantage of the situation, had not seized control over the means of power, specifically pointing out that they had never bothered to take over the national bank (which could possibly have bankrolled weapons and food to fight the army). Taking back the city of Paris from The Commune was relatively easy for the national army, who ended up massacring up to 50,000 people. There is a plaque on the wall of Pere Lachaise cemetery that commemorates the men, women and children who were lined up against the wall in the cemetery and shot.

 Two days after our visit to The Pantheon we were descending stairs into the catacombs of Paris.  The catacombs were created at the end of the 18th century when a cemetery near Saint-Eustace, used for nearly 10 centuries, was cited as the cause of contagion. On November 9, 1785, the State Council approved the removal and evacuation of the cemetery’s bones to old limestone quarries across the river. The catacombs were then used until 1814 to collect the bones from all the overflowing cemeteries of Paris. It’s said that the bones of six million people are buried down there.

 We wandered past enclave after enclave of stacked bones – femur, tibia, humerus, radius, ulna, vertebrae. Skulls. Other than the bones, there was an occasional plaque with a grim poem about mortality engraved on it, or an occasional sign that indicated which cemetery the bones were from. But there was no way not to see it – it was as heavy as a sledgehammer between the eyes: the shocking juxtaposition between the grand tombs in The Pantheon and all those anonymous bones stacked along dimly lit corridors beneath the city. It wasn’t a hard connection to make. The information is always right in front of us, on the street, in every city on earth. 

I thought about the time we spent hanging out on the Champ de Mars (the garden between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire) two nights before. There were men roaming those grounds with bags full of cheap bottles of wine, water, beer, and cigarettes, trying to sell some off to the tourists – buy cheap, sell a bit higher. They looked predominantly Southeast Asian. What the hell were their stories? Was it actually possible to pay rent doing something like that?  (There was a point where a Jack Russell terrier started barking viciously at one of the men hawking wine, stopping him in his tracks. Every time he tried to move around the dog, it would growl, then bark. A woman lying on a blanket nearby casually looked up, wearing shades at twilight, and called the dog’s name:  “Yoko…Yoko…”  She didn’t yell very loudly so the dog paid no attention. “Yoko…Yoko…” The dog only backed off when the woman’s boyfriend returned from peeing in the bushes and vigorously shouted at the dog to back off. What was her story? Who were all those people sitting out on the grass while the full moon rose behind the Ecole Militaire?)

 Down in the catacombs it occurred to me that all those people lazing on blankets, or standing in line to ride the elevator cars up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or hawking wine, or skateboarding down the pavement, or picking someone’s pocket, or complaining about the light display (actual overheard conversation after the Tower’s flashing light display: “I mean that was cool and everything but they could definitely have gone over the top – like fireworks – like at Disneyland…”), those writhing inside the thumping discotheque bus rolling past the Tower, all of us, everyone on the Champs de Mars, everyone in the city at that moment, we were all destined for the catacombs.

And I thought how each bone down there could be a word, a word in a poem, a terrifying, labyrinthine poem that winds like a skeletal worm through the underbelly of Paris, winding its way across continents, under every city; billions of words, stripped of flesh, the word finally made bone, creating a poem that sounded like the slow-grinding together of tectonic plates beneath the sea, a prolonged muffled groan, leaving levels of dust miles deep. And I now suspect, in that moment, that if I had put my ear to one of those skulls I would have been able to hear it.

Am I comforted by the fact that, at some point in time, not really that long from now, even the names of the ‘grandes hommes’ will dissolve from stone? Maybe. Okay, yes. Then it will be the stone’s turn to dissolve away.

I don’t need to see the gates of
famous men
but I do try to see the kingdom every 
now and then

and if you ask me where it is it's on a
humble map
so when you enter in the doorway
show your handicap

and time is burning, burning, burning
til it burns away

(Tombstone, Suzanne Vega)

If you’re interested in reading more poetry by Rimbaud or more about Rimbaud, there is a good site that has quite a bit of up-to-date information and a list of translations online here .

My first encounter with the life of Rimbaud was Enid Starkie’s Rimbaud. The first translations I read, and they are still pretty good, were Louise Varese’s translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations.

There is also a wonderful book-length essay on Rimbaud by Henry Miller called In the Time of the Assassins. It’s mostly about Henry Miller, but what the hell, he’s almost as interesting as Rimbaud...

Less than a month ago, the poet John Ashbery released a new translation of The Illuminations. I figure it will probably be the new standard...


Wow, that was a long, if you got this far...

I will be giving a reading at The Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, on June 30th, 2011 at 7:30 pm.  Poems from On the Side of the Crow, fiction from A Fish Trapped inside the Wind, and some new work...


  1. That was really enjoyable and thanks for taking the time to share it! I walked through the Pantheon on my first visit to Paris in 2009 and your post reminds me and also explains to me what a strange place the Pantheon is, as well as ties it together with the things that were happening then, the Commune, the revolution...are you sure it was Louis XV or would it still have been Louis XIV? Also loved hearing and hand about the catacombs. Will forward your blog to "mon fils, David, ou a habite a Paris en 2005-2006" as an undergrad and spent many afternoons around le tour Eiffel. Wish my French was better! But I love to use what little I have.

  2. Yeah I had my Louies mixed up....I have CRS!

  3. I'm catching up on your blogs and it's so delicious. You're rocking my world!