Monday, May 30, 2011

Paris, Part I: Through the Lens

We were in Paris in mid-May, staying at a one star hotel on Rue Monsieur le Prince, just around the corner from the Jardin Luxembourg.  One of those places where you basically check in and they leave you alone until you check out.  The woman who runs the place was nice, a bit haggard (since she and her husband are the only ones running the place).  When we walked through the reception room door on the first floor, she gave me a look alternating between mercy (for the naïve foreigner) and suspicion, those dark eyes used to the routine –watching so many people walk through that door, day in and day out, while the city endlessly swirls and churns on the streets outside.

The curtains in the room were layered with one hundred years of dust – quite possibly containing the skin flakes of Rimbaud when he passed through Paris in 1871 – and the woman who owned the hotel was not going to give us a new roll of toilet paper when it started to run low – unless we asked.  But why not?  That’s how it works.  How else could the hotel afford to charge so little for such a large room with two huge windows?  Late at night we could see the Eiffel Tower’s searchlight beam sweep the sky just over the chimneypots lining the roofs on Rue Racine, and, leaning out over the ledge we could also catch the night café people wandering home, down on Rue Monsieur le Prince, words and shoes echoing off shutters and stone.  Why stay anywhere else? 
We were in France in the first place because Michaela was reading a paper at an ecocriticism conference in Toulouse, but my focus had always been on our days in Paris afterwards.  When I was a kid, my family lived in a small cement factory town in Southern Belgium because my father, a navy man, had been posted to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the military wing of NATO, situated near Mons, Belgium, on the French border).   Usually we ended up in Paris on the rare occasions when family or friends visited from the states. It was only two hours away by train.  Closer by car.  The last time I’d been to Paris was in the late Eighties, to pick up mail at American Express, after having walked across Southern France.

(There was a point during my eighth grade year when my family was going on a weekend trip to Paris and I begged to be allowed to stay behind, spend the night at a friend’s house, just so I wouldn’t miss a baseball game.  At the time I was attending an International School – Belgian curriculum, French spoken in the classroom – but during the spring and summer I played in an American organized baseball league. Playing baseball was pretty much my only contact with the Americans who attended ‘that other school’ at SHAPE: the mysterious American school.  I don’t know how many times during those years playing baseball some kid would wander up to me, usually at the beginning of baseball season, and ask:  “Are you Belgium?”  Every year:  “Are you Belgium?”  “”  My sisters sometimes got the same question, always phrased the same way.  Of course, it became a private joke among us:  "Are you Belgium?"
Needless to say, I long ago forgave that twelve year old kid who preferred baseball over Paris...)

Our first morning we went to the Louvre.  How can you go to Paris and not go to the Louvre?  We thought about not going for a few seconds, but then remembered the moron who had parked a massive RV camper beside our little tent at the campground near Wupatki National Monument just outside Flagstaff, Arizona, who ran his generator right up until the ten o’clock noise curfew so that he and his wife could watch TV for the rest of the night.  When he found out we were from Colorado, he told us all about his recent visit to Durango.  We nodded and nodded, but apparently we weren’t giving him enough attention (mostly because we wanted him to disappear back into his RV) so he surmised we knew nothing about Durango.  Had we ever been?  We shook our heads.  He was dumbstruck, incredulous.  “You’re from Colorado and you’ve never been to Durango?”  This from the man who had detached a huge SUV off a hitch at the back of his RV right after he’d pulled into the campsite at twilight and rushed off with his wife to see the Grand Canyon (about an hour’s drive to the North).  Before he started talking about Durango he gave us a play-by-play about the IMAX theatre at the Canyon ("It was like being in a helicopter!").  Now whenever we are about to forego the pleasures of some place that is a MUST SEE on everyone’s list, one of us usually has to say it: “You’ve never been to Durango?”   

So we moved with the crowds toward the main attractions – the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, and Canova’s Eros and Psyche.  Like everyone else, I’ve seen so many reproduced images of the Mona Lisa that I simply can’t see it anymore.  If you dip into the official Louvre Museum site online, they freely admit that this is the case, saying “We now no longer know how to look at the Mona Lisa, except as a popular image...”

They go on to explain that knowing the ‘secrets’ of the painting (technique, how the back panel was made, who Mona Lisa actually was, etc.) will help clear away all that clutter in your head so that you can actually look at it with, well, virgin eyes.  The information did not set me free.  It rarely does.

But all was not lost.  Instead of focusing on the painting, I focused on the crowd shifting and swirling in front of the painting:  a great creature that had no head, no tail, but one million eyes, constantly snapping, trying to drink the image in, never sated.  And as we stood there at the edge of the crowd it occurred to me that either the painting had somehow entranced this massive creature into being for her own pleasure – which is what the smile was all about – or that all of us standing there, along with all the tourists that had ever stood there, had somehow retroactively conjured Da Vinci into being, in order to give us a reason to be there, right then, crammed together, worshipping with our cameras – as if we were part of some epic desire for a communal spectacle that stretched back into the past and long into the future...

What’s fascinating is that most of us were not looking at the painting with our eyes, but through a camera lens.  Which is exactly how we’ve seen it most of our lives.  I thought maybe that putting it into that particular frame made it more familiar, almost comforting, allowing us to take part in that stream of images we brought with us to the museum. 

The painting is brilliant, yes.  And, yes, there is that smile.  But what has made her so famous in the last half-century is not the beauty and mystery of the painting itself, but the ease of her reproducibility. There are a few other Leonardo paintings in the Louvre that I think are on an equal level – the Virgin of the Rocks comes to mind. It hangs in the long gallery just outside the Mona Lisa room. Another one that comes to mind is Bacchus – a painting that used to be in the same room as the Mona Lisa the first time I was there as an adult, but I couldn’t find it this time (some say it’s probably not a Leonardo anyway, so there’s that).  But these two paintings are not reproducible in the same way as the Mona Lisa. Stylistically they just aren’t simple enough. They don’t work on a T-shirt. Or a pair of socks.  

Meanwhile, on the floor below, not very far from the Venus de Milo, there’s the Etruscan room.  There was no one in the Etruscan room.  I know next to nothing about the Etruscans.  I’ve seen very little reproduced images of Etruscan art.  D.H. Lawrence said about them:  “The Etruscans, as everyone knows, were the people who occupied the middle of Italy in early Roman days, and whom the Romans, in their usual neighbourly fashion, wiped out entirely in order to make room for Rome with a very big R.”  Not sure if this is completely accurate.  But that’s about all the information I brought into the room with me. 

In the middle of the room there was a terracotta sarcophagus inside a Plexiglas box, called ‘The Sarcophagus of the Spouses’.  Two figures, lying stretched out on a banquet couch.  From the display caption we were told they are offering perfume and sharing wine as part of a funeral ceremony.  On the wall to the right of the sarcophagus there was a shelf of terracotta heads behind glass.  How strange it was to stand in front of those heads with nothing inside mine about ritual function, technique, the when and where of how it was made.  I felt like someone one thousand years in the future, sifting through a midden heap, finding one of Giacometti’s busts of his brother Diego.  The intense eyes of the bust would stare back at me.  And in those first few moments there would be only the naked encounter.  Of course, after the shock of that initial gaze, I’d end up pouring any-and-everything into the face: desires, speculations, fears.  Basically, creating my own myth.  So there we were, standing in front of a shelf of Etruscan heads, voices from the other galleries distant, falling away, and in those first few seconds I swear I heard one of the heads whisper something.  In the same way you can hear books whisper in the middle of the night; in the same way trees whisper to each other just before dawn.  It could be that the whispers were part of my instant myth of that moment.  It could have been that the less I knew about what I was looking at, the more mystery I infused into the object.  Maybe.  But something was said in that moment...I just have no idea what.

 After the Louvre we walked over to Notre Dame.  We’d been there the night before at sunset, wandering along the Seine among the drinking students, teens from the outlying suburbs not quite sure what they were looking for, couples eating in the boat restaurants moored quayside, those looking to sell cheap bottles of wine to tourists, and the scattering of homeless men waiting for everyone to leave so they could curl up on their cardboard beds and sleep.  Because it was early afternoon there were now throngs of people slow-shuffling up and down the north and south aisles, crowding into the north or south transepts to get a good shot of the rose windows.  One man, just ahead of me as we entered the cathedral, held a digital camera in front of him, and wandered among the crowd while staring at the screen.  Maybe he was making a video for someone who had been left back home?  He never stopped, looked around, took his eyes off the screen.  Was he actually in Notre Dame?  

It sounds ridiculous to say it - naïve, even - but I feel in this age of tech-mediated experience, it needs to be said:  being there involves being in the body – all the senses.  There is a powerful smell of dust in the cathedral – almost one thousand years thick, the smell of dust against stone – that cannot be separated from the vision of one of the rose windows or of any number of stone saints looking down at you.  Soon, you’ll probably be able to punch up Notre Dame on Google, raise a hologram of the cathedral off your screen, and when you place your face into the projection it will trigger sections of the brain so that you can see, hear, feel the cathedral as you walk through it...not with the usual gaming will feel like the actual cathedral (a similar device is in my second novel, Among the Angels’ Hierarchies).  You will be able to walk through it completely alone, if you so choose. Or maybe you will choose to experience it with only your partner, or a complete stranger (with angel wings, if you like), even a crowd of thousands all worshipping you, you, you.  You will be able to control the entire experience (there’s probably the technology for this device right now – cooked up in some Pentagon lab somewhere).  But still, if we went on that particular holographic trip, can we say we were really there?  What’s clear is that our ideas of being there are changing.  And we are increasingly living in a space that is not really anywhere at all (cyberspace...the place you are right now...). 

All this brought to mind a story a cousin told me about camping at Devils Tower National Monument.  Devils Tower is an ancient volcanic neck rising from the Black Hills in northeastern Wyoming.  The tower is sacred to several Plains tribes, including the Lakota, Cheyenne and Kiowa, and, in recent years, has become a popular mountain climbing site (angering the tribes), but most everyone knows the image of the monolith from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.   
In the 1977 movie, Devils Tower is the place the aliens have chosen to make first contact with humanity.  The night my cousins were camping at the National Monument campground the park service had set up a huge white screen and played the movie for resident campers.  There it was – Devils Tower, onscreen, with an instant, ready-made story – all the while the actual Devils Tower was right behind them, a looming silhouette against a starry sky.

For me, before getting mired in the question of what is reality, there’s the sad realization that those who want to – or have become conditioned to – experience the world without being in the actual world are not capable of noticing (or caring) when huge swathes of the world are destroyed (mountain-top removal, strip-mining, endless housing developments, clear-cut forests, oil spills, etc. ).  When you don’t particularly live anywhere it makes it that much easier to watch it all go with a "oh well, what can you do?" (which reminds me of a line from a Firesign Theatre sketch:  “How can you be two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?”)

In the cathedral there’s a line of chapels dedicated to different saints running up the aisles on both sides of the nave.  Despite the crowds and cameras, there were people sitting in front of each chapel, praying.  What deep concentration from a man I saw kneeling before a row of burning candles, hands clasped over the back of the chair in front of him, while right beside him a young man took shots of his girlfriend among the candles.  Echoes of voices, shoes, the whirr of cameras, pigeon wings flapping across the vaults high above, piped in polyphony.  A great voyeur-moment was when I spotted a young Japanese woman taking a picture of something behind the closed gate of the chapel of St. Georges.  I stood behind her, saw she was lining up a shot of a robed priest who’d fallen asleep behind a pillar.  He was only visible from that particular angle – but there he was, naked before her lens, slumped on a wood bench, chin to chest.  She spent two minutes setting up the shot and I spent those two minutes watching her set up the shot...

The next morning, we got up early, went down to Notre Dame right when the doors opened, so we could wander in the cathedral without the crowds.  There were probably about twenty people total in the place for a good half hour.  One of them was a man who kept nervously walking up and down a side aisle of the nave, stopping at each pillar, arching his back, face raised to the vaults above, and spreading his arms out like he was stretched out on a cross.  No one took his picture. What’s fascinating about wandering around in the silent cathedral nothing but the sound of sparrow banter coming through the open transept doors is that Notre Dame was meant to accommodate up to 6000 people.  A nearly empty cathedral is an anomaly.  It’s meant to be filled – with pilgrims, penitents, tourists, pick-pockets, the lost, the lonely, the self-righteous, the pious, even the self-proclaimed damned.  Why not?  It’s a big space. 

Later that night Michaela wondered how many photos of Paris we had wandered into that day. There were so many strange faces in our shots, how many had we been in?  Hundreds.  Maybe a thousand?  I looked out the hotel window, the revolving beam of the Eiffel Tower scraping the sky above the rooftops, and imagined every tourist in the city whose image had found its way into a stranger’s photo-slideshow as now having an alternate existence, in some kind of photographic Dreamtime, forever in Paris, wandering through crowds around the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the lit-up bateau mouche ploughing the waters below Notre Dame...all while we slept... 


Meanwhile, a sign on one of the closed boxes belonging to a secondhand book vendor along the Seine (a bouquiniste):  

Bouquiniste en...reve.  

(Bookseller off....dreaming)


I will be reading, along with Niall Griffiths and Cynan Jones, at the Hay Festival on June 2nd, 2011, at 6:45 at the Elmley Foundation Theatre. 

Niall Griffiths will be reading from a memoir, Ten Pound Poms; Cynan Jones from his new novel, Everything I Found on the Beach; and I will be reading from my new novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind; along with questions from Susie Wild.  

Be there.  Or be square.