Europe is full of cathedrals. Some people weary of them quickly. After all, you get the basic idea after a couple visits: In front there is an impressive façade, with several magnificent doors; then the inside is composed of a nave and the two aisles that lead to the main altar; and of course you have the choir, the transept, and all the little chapels on the periphery. It is the same layout every time, with only minor exceptions and variations. And, of course, the artistic styles are fairly uniform, too. There are the Romanesque and the Gothic styles, and all of the standard tropes of Christianity: Jesus, Mary, the prophets, the evangelists, and all the various angels and saints.
But there are those, such as myself, who only grow more fascinated the more cathedrals they see. In fact, I think that it is only possible to appreciate a cathedral once you have acquired a certain background. Even if styles are fairly uniform across Europe, the level of execution certainly is not; and it takes some experience to tell the difference. But cathedrals are more than mere exercises in art, of course. They represent the greatest monuments of Europe’s most deeply spiritual age. Each one is suffused with a sensibility that is almost entirely foreign to the modern world: a pervading sense of the nothingness of this life in comparison with the life to come. Unlike the palace of Versailles—a building devoted to earthly power and splendor—a cathedral uses earthly art to evoke something otherworldly. Thus, while I find the effect of most palaces to be rather deadening, I always find a visit to a cathedral uplifting. Nowhere is this more the case than at Chartres.
Chartres is a fair-sized town in the vicinity of Paris. Trains leave several times a day from the the capital’s Montparnasse station, and the ride takes a little over an hour. For whatever reason, I had to struggle with the ticket machine, which did not seem to wish to give me a ticket. My uncle told me that he also needed help buying a ticket to Chartres, but none of the French people could understand him when he said “Chartres.” (I had the exact same situation with my Airbnb host. French people can be very particular when it comes to pronunciation. And “Chartres” is not easy to say correctly.) In any case, all of us ended up getting to the city in time.
Though doubtless once a beautiful medieval town, most of Chartres was sadly destroyed during the Second World War. The cathedral’s survival and preservation is little short of miraculous, considering the circumstances. Even if most of Chartres’s medieval architecture was burned or blown away, the town still has a robust memory of their heritage. When I arrived the people were having their annual medieval festival. There were archery contests, parades of drummers and flag-twirlers, a concert of period music, and even obstacle courses for the children. All the vendors were dressed in the appropriate medieval rags and caps. It was a lovely time.
But unfortunately my train tickets did not leave me with much time to appreciate the life of the town. I wanted to spend as much time in the cathedral as possible. My hope was to get a tour from the great Malcolm Miller, a famous scholar of the cathedral who has been giving tours since the late 50s, but that was not to be. When I walked in the cathedral, I had just missed an assembling tour group (not with him), and I decided to settle on the standard audioguide.
I am getting ahead of myself, however. First I should describe the cathedral’s distinctive profile. Chartres is immediately recognizable for its two non-matching towers. The north tower (on the left, facing the building) is quite notably taller than the south tower; and its style is also quite different. This is because a fire necessitated the rebuilding of the north tower, which was completed in the early 1500s. Stylistically, then, it is more recent, partaking of the flamboyant gothic. While superficially more resplendent, it is actually the less interesting of the two towers, as it is rather like that of many other cathedrals. The right tower, on the other hand, is an architectural marvel in its own right. It features a sloping octagonal stone spire, constructed without any interior framework to hold it up. This is quite an amazing feat, when you consider that it was completed in 1150. Even now, there is not a bigger stone spire anywhere.
The first impression, upon walking into the cathedral, is rather stark. Compared with the great Spanish cathedrals—Toledo, Seville, or Santiago—the cathedral of Chartres can seem, at first glance, disappointingly empty. Toledo’s cathedral, for example, is stuffed to the brim with every sort of artwork. The cathedral also lacks the ostentatious splendor of so many Italian churches—shimmering with color and gold. Chartres’ appeal is quite different. It is the beauty of form, line, and light. It is the architecture of purity. The walls, arches, and vaults are arranged with such exactitude that the final effect is like that of a brilliant mathematical proof: the manifestation of divine logic.
Admittedly, this sensation of purity is partly a result of a thorough cleaning that the cathedral underwent about ten years ago. Centuries of soot had accumulated on its walls, turning them a dusky gray. During the restoration, the walls and even the statues were cleaned, making everything appear an ethereal white. This cleaning was not without its controversy. Part of the romance of visiting old buildings, after all, is the overpowering sensation of age, the palpable weight of time. Making the buildings look as good as new does radically alter the effect. However, the decision was defended as being necessary to the building’s preservation. For my part, the restoration did bring out the extreme lightness of the structure.
The audio guide first asks you to step back outside to examine the front portal. As with so many cathedrals, it consists of three doorways—one large one in the center, flanked by two smaller ones—lushly decorated with biblical figures. Appropriately enough, Christ sits enthroned in the center of the affair, surrounded by representations of the four evangelists. The most charming sculptures are not in the tympanums above the doors, however, but in the jambs separating the doorways. These elongated men and women are some of the sculptural masterpieces of the gothic age: they possess a certain majesty, mixed with a naive charm that I find difficult to describe. Even the decorative carvings between the human figures are varied and beautiful.
It is worth taking a closer look at these sculptures to spot the tiny personifications of the seven liberal arts (the trivium with the quadrivium). This marks the epoch when Chartres was at the forefront of European intellectual life. Before the time of universities, cathedrals were major intellectual centers; and the School of Chartres played a major role in shaping the scholastic thought that would dominate the European mind for centuries. The School of Chartres was distinct for its great emphasis on natural science, which was not always highly valued at the time. Indeed, you can see the scholars’ interest in both science and antiquity in one tiny figure, believed to represent the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. As Lawrence M. Principe said in his history of science, the middle ages are unfairly maligned as benighted.
As soon as you walk inside, you must turn your attention to the windows. The stained-glass windows of Chartres are simply extraordinary. The quality of craftsmanship and art is excellent; and there is just so much of it. Normally, only a few windows receive the lavish treatment of elaborate pictorial representations, the rest being taken up with basic patterns. Not in Chartres: every window is bursting with detail. Describing even a fraction of these windows would be an enormous task. The audio guide had me walk around the entire length of the building, pausing before each set of windows, pointing out the most distinctive features. Each one merited close examination; but there are so many that you must budget your time and energy.
Some windows deserve special mention. The three rose windows—enormous circular panels above the three entrances—are magnificent, if difficult to see in detail from the ground. Indeed, many of the panels contain so many scenes—such as the Life of Christ, or the entire genealogy of Mary—that they overwhelm the viewer with information. One exception to this is the so-called Blue Virgin, a large representation of the Virgin with the Christ child. It is a wonderful piece of work, with Mary enshrouded in a glowing blue robe, while angels fly all about her. Though a difficult and expensive medium, Chartres shows that stained glass is quite the equal of painting or sculpture in its power.
My favorite windows were those around the aisles. These features several different panels, typically with a Biblical story occupying the main panel, with secondary scenes in the periphery. Curiously, many of these windows show craftsmen and laborers of different professions in the lower panel, such as shoemakers or blacksmiths. This is unusual in gothic art, and the guide explained that it was because the local guilds financed the windows. Recent research has thrown doubt upon this explanation, however, since it is unlikely that the guilds had nearly enough money. These scenes were perhaps included more as a gesture on behalf of the church, as a way of symbolizing its universal nature. Either way, it does give the cathedral a curiously democratic aspect.
The windows deserve far more attention than this. But I will let the images do the talking. Let us move on.
Chartres’s main altar would be glorious in another setting, but it seems somewhat out of place in the heavily gothic atmosphere of Chartres. It is an ornate, neoclassical sculpture in white marble of the assumption of Mary. It is clearly the work of a different age: the figures are carefully realistic and engaged in a dramatic action. The choir stall is another product of a later age (having been made in the 16th to 18th century), but it fits the aesthetic of the church rather better. It is beautifully carved with an endless number of details, providing a sculptural counterpoint to the complex windows above.
One of Chartres’s most recognizable features is the labyrinth. This takes the form of a circle, with one single path running from the beginning to the end point. It is meant as a symbol of the Christian’s path from sin to salvation, one long, winding road from the periphery to the center, a kind of miniature pilgrimage. (And the cathedral is, of course, part of the network of pilgrimagepaths that lead to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.) Simply as a design the labyrinth is quite lovely; and the more one examines it, the longer it seems. I wonder how long it would take to walk the entire distance.
The last stops on my visit were the north and south portals. The first is dedicated to the Virgin and the second to Christ’s crucifiction. In another context, virtually all of the sculptures in both doorways would be considered masterful by itself; in Chartres they are further extensions of the cathedral’s majesty. I was particularly taken with a group of Christian martyrs in the south portal, each of them holding a symbol of their identity. (I could not hope to identify the vast majority.) Though rather stiff by the standards of Renaissance sculpture, the bodies have a certain tension and dynamism, as if they are all on the lookout, that I found very appealing.
Thus concluded my audioguide’s visit to Chartres. Aware of the cathedral’s reputation, I was fully prepared to be awed; and I was not disappointed. But there were still a few delights in store for me. Right as I was about to walk out of the cathedral for the last time, a man began to give a lecture on organ music. He was seated high up above, in front of the keyboard, and speaking to an audience via a microphone; his image was projected onto a screen. I could not understand anything he said, since it was French, but it was obvious that he was giving some sort of a lecture on organ music, since every now and then he would demonstrate his point by playing the organ. It sounded fantastic. There are few more powerful feelings than hearing the ancient pipes of an organ resounding through the cavernous cathedral.
As I emerged onto the street, I was treated to another kind of music. Set up right in front of the cathedral, a group of four men were performing medieval songs on period instruments—simple jigs, mostly, with bouncing rhythms. It was quite a contrast to the somber and magnificent sound of the organ from a moment ago; yet it was a charming way to leave the atmosphere of the cathedral. Cathedrals exist to touch us in special moments, when we are able to see our own lives as very small in relation to something enormous that is above and all around us. This feeling engenders a sense of calm and even of detachment. Yet we cannot live our lives this way. We need rhythm, emotion, passion, too, if we want the full range of the human experience. The fullest life of all will contain moments of both passion and calm. And this is just what I experienced during my visit to Chartres
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Europe is full of palaces. There are so many, in fact, that the persistent traveler can grow a little weary of them. After all, each palace tends to offer the same sorts of attractions: fine furniture, richly decorated rooms, expansive architecture. You get the idea. But even if you are quite uninterested in the pomp of power or the fineries of royal life, there is one palace that must be visited: Versailles. Built for Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, it is the prototype of virtually all of the palaces built afterwards. From Spain to Austria, Versailles has been scrupulously imitated. It is, in other words, the palace of palaces.
The palace of Versailles is not within the city of Paris itself, but situated in the suburbs. Like Philip II with El Escorial, Louis XIV wanted to be away from the city, in an environment completely under his control. This decision did make the palace slightly inconvenient for the modern traveler to visit. Fortunately, Versailles is well-connected by all forms of public transportation. The cheapest and easiest way to get to Versailles from Paris is on the RER (Regional Express Trains), which stops quite close to the palace. This was not an option when I visited, however, as there was a train strike that day (hardly a rare occurrence in France). Yet this strike only affected these local trains. Long-distance trains from Montparnasse station also have a stop in Versailles (Versailles – Chantiers). This is the option I used.
Even though the walk from Versailles – Chantiers is slightly longer than from the RER stop, the strike worked to my advantage. There were significantly fewer people in the palace than usual. This is not to say that I had the place to myself. Versailles is typically packed; many visitors complain that the crowds ruin the experience. When I visited there were quite a lot of visitors (aside from the visitors by trains, there are dozens of tour buses lined up in the parking lot outside the palace), but not enough to make the place suffocating or claustrophobic. The palace was just mildly stuffy.
If you spend a few minutes to walk around the town of Versailles, you will notice that it looks rather different from the center of Paris. Partially this is because the streets follow a grid layout—a dead giveaway of the Versailles’ past. Before Louis XIV decided to move his court to this spot, the only thing on the land was a small village and a royal hunting lodge. In other words, it was mainly wilderness. The town took shape quickly around the palace; and like the royal gardens, it has been meticulously planned. This is not unusual for palace towns. The town of Aranjuez in Spain, for example, also follows a grid plan—a striking exception to the normal chaos of Spanish towns.
As you approach the enormous palace, several things come into view. There is Louis XIV heroically mounted on a stallion, sporting appropriately regal headwear. Immediately beyond this image of royal power are the tour buses, which give an even greater image of the power of international tourism. Then there is the line. When I visited, it was several hundred feet long, spanning almost the entire length of the palace’s front. Beyond this impatient mass of humankind there is the ornate fence and the even more ornate façade. Both are bright and gold; Louis XIV did not want to leave any of his wealth to the imagination. On the molded gateway, under a floating crown, there is the sun himself, the French king’s favored symbol. As you can see, he was a flagrantly powerful man. But as I had bought a timed entry ticket—thus allowing me to skip the line—I was feeling flagrantly powerful myself.
Before we go inside, I should give you some of the most basic information about the palace and its maker. Though not always successful in his foreign wars, Louis XIV was arguably the most successful monarch in French history at consolidating power within France itself. At the time, simply being king was not enough by itself. Early in Louis XIV’s long reign, when the monarch was only a boy, the nobles of France attempted a rebellion, called the Fronde. The rebellion was eventually put down; but the threat of unruly aristocrats must have sunk deep within Louis’s consciousness. As soon as he was old enough to take control for himself, Louis set about centralizing the state and making his authority as absolute as possible. Unlike his predecessors, for example, he did not rely on ministers to carry out the real duties of governing, but insisting on acting himself,
The palace of Versailles was part of his scheme. Situating the palace outside of Paris allowed the king to escape many of the conventional pressures of both the populace and the wealthy. Instead, anyone who wished to pay their respects at court had to do so on Louis’s territory. And this meant submitting oneself to a byzantine set of rituals and etiquette that Louis established, which governed everything from what to wear to when to speak to how to eat. Louis’s whole routine was a spectacle. Aristocrats watched as the king dined and dressed, biding their time until, with any luck, they had their chance to access the monarch’s ear. It was a ritual perfectly devised to keep underlings in their place.
Considering this historical background, it is wise to view the palace for what it is: a monumental piece of propaganda. Louis XIV wanted Versailles to send an unambiguous message to every visitor: that he occupies the center of France. Thus, the palace’s architectural scheme irresistibly draws the visitor’s eye to the center of the building, where all of the lines meet. It is here that I began my tour.
The first space which caught my eye was the royal chapel. This is a tall and narrow space; greek columns are supported by a row of arches, leading up to a richly decorated ceiling. Once again, the architecture here is perfectly calculated to convey a message. The narrow width of the space makes the ceiling seem especially tall, seeming to squeeze and dwarf the visitor; and the repeating columns and arches unmistakably communicate a sense of orderliness. We are entering a world where even prayer is subservient to the state, and where even religious worship itself is part of the pomp of power.
Next we enter into the State Apartments. These are sumptuously decorated rooms, used by the king for receiving courtiers and visitors. The walls and ceilings of these rooms are covered with designs and paintings. The most notable of these may be the Meal at the House of Simon the Pharosee, by Veronese—a lovely work of the high Italian renaissance. The color gold is everywhere in these rooms, and the ceilings are full of cherubs, clouds, and crowns. The king himself is ever-present, not least in the magnificent bust by Bernini, which manages to make the king into a truly heroic figure. Next in the visit come the royal apartments, where we can see the luxuriant beds where the king and the queen slept. As usual, no matter the luxury, I did not find envying these places of rest. I would not want to sleep in an enormous, empty room—even if it was on the finest silk.
Then we come to the so-called Grand Gallery, the most opulent rooms in a building full of opulent rooms. In the War Salon we see Louis XIV yet again, in a relief by Antoine Coysevox, looking martial and kingly on his horse. This leads directly to the most famous space of all: the Hall of Mirrors. Nowadays, of course, mirrors are nothing special; but at the time they were extremely expensive, largely because Venice had a monopoly on their production. Louis XIV was committed to using products made in France, but he actually enticed some glass-makers to defect from Venice to France to work for him (whom the Venetians later tried to poison for their betrayal). This hallway served Louis XIV in his endless courtly rituals as a place where he could stroll back and forth, giving underlings a chance to make requests as he passed. Many years later, the Treaty of Versailles—which put an end to WWI, and set the stage for WWII—was signed in this room.
The visit next brings you to a newer part of the palace: the Galerie des Batailles. This was built during the reign of Louis Philip I (1830 – 1848), and it replaced several apartments in the original design. It is modelled on the Grand Gallery of the Louvre (to which it looks remarkably similar), and is full of busts and portraits of famous French military men. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon dominates the scene, as painting after painting represent his martial glories. Unless you are an intensely patriotic Frenchman, this room will likely not excite profound emotions. Yet propaganda is seldom more glorious and more impressive that this display.
This pretty well completes the basic visit to the palace. But the best part of Versailles is still to come: the gardens. Now, gardens come in many varieties; and a major split is between English and French gardens. English gardens are romantic in spirit, seeking to evoke the wildness and grandeur of nature. French gardens are the exact opposite: they represent humanity’s dominance over the natural world. Thus, one finds neat hedge-rows, straight aqueducts, and heroic sculptures. The gardens of Versailles are the most perfect example of this type. Standing at the back of the palace, one sees an entire landscape laid out in perfect symmetry, a harmonious composition that meekly submits to the visitor’s glance. As usual, the environment bespeaks centralized power.
While I normally dislike French gardens (I prefer natural parks to these monuments to neatness), I must admit that walking through the gardens of Versaille is an absolute delight. At every turn there is yet another charming fountain to see, yet another sculpture to please the eye. Most of the imagery used in these gardens comes from ancient Greece and Rome, drawing apparent links between the reign of Louis XIV and these sources of Western culture. Louis XIV seems to invite comparison with Augustus himself. The perfect musical accompaniment to a walk in these gardens is, undoubtedly, the compositions of Jean-Baptise Lully—Louis’s court composer. Like the palace and the gardens, the music conveys pomp and power; it is trim, ornate, and grandiloquent.
Eventually, the walker comes across the Grand Trianon. This is a chateau that served as a kind of getaway for the king, much as the Generalife served as a getaway for the residents of the Alhambra. The idea of having a smaller, secondary palace within a fifteen-minute walk from the central palace may seem a little silly; certainly it does not seem like much of a vacation. However, the Grand Trianon served an important function for the kings of France: as a place to be with their mistress. Famed for being the country with the highest tolerance of infidelity, the kings have France have long enjoyed the privilege of supplementing their marriage. (This tradition has, apparently, continued into modern times; Françoise Hollande—Macron’s predecessor—made little effort to hide his own dalliances.) The Grand Trianon would be a resplendent residence in another context, and yet when compared with the monstrous Versailles it appears positively humble.
Nearby is the Petit Trianon, another supplementary palace. This was built during the reign of Louis XIV’s successor, Louis XV, for his mistress and advisor, Madame Pompadour. Unfortunately, that great woman died before she could move in, and so it was used by her own successor as the head mistress, Madame du Barry. Its most famous resident, however, is undoubtedly Marie Antoinette—not a mistress, but a queen. (Louis XVI was one of the few faithful French monarchs.) Like the kings before her, she came here to escape the demands of court life. As such, the palace was designed for as little interaction as possible between the young queen and the servants. As its name suggests, the building itself is fairly small—though, of course, carefully decorated.
Directly next door is the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet). This is a kind of artificial village, built to give the illusion that the Petit Trianon lay deep in the countryside. Thus, there is a farm, a barn, a dovecote, a watermill, and all the other trappings of country life. The architects succeeded in their design, for the little village is quite beautifully rustic. The gardens surrounding this area are quite distinct from those in the rest of Versailles. The influence of Romanticism is clearly marked here: instead of neat hedgerows, trees are scattered about naturalistically, sheep and cows graze in the grass, and the pond is full of hungry fish. It was quite a visual relief after the relentless parallel lines of Versailles and its gardens.
This brings us to perhaps the most famous scene in the history of the palace. It was in these gardens that, on October 5th, 1789, Marie Antoinette became aware of the crowd approaching the palace. This was the Women’s March, a crowd of Parisians who had walked all the way to Versailles, driven by hunger and scarcity of bread. The king and his ministers ultimately proved unable to pacify the crowd; and a violent confrontation led between the citizens and the guards led to the royal family being led away to Paris, where they spent the remainder of their lives as virtual prisoners. It is a myth, by the way, that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” in response to the demands for bread. (The quotation comes from a passage in Rousseau’s Confessions, which he wrote long before the Revolution.) But she was an unpopular queen in any case, partly because of her taste for extravagant luxury, and partly being a foreigner (she was Austrian by birth).
The revolution proved a major turning-point in the history of Versailles. The monarchy would never return. In the following years, parts of the palace fell into disrepair. Indeed, the cost of maintaining the palace, and supplying the water needed for all of its gardens, is enormous by any standard—a testament to the power wielded by Louis XIV. History has shown, however, that the power was ultimately fragile, since it was not enough to keep the people of France happy.
At present, the palace of Versailles stands as a monument to a dead idea: that one single man should occupy the center of a state. It is an impressive and even a beautiful place. Its beauty, however, is that which can be bought wealth and power; it is the beauty of fine materials, unlimited resources, and exquisite craftsmanship. Lacking anything beyond naked self-aggrandizement to animate it, the palace and its gardens have a certain sterility, as if the glorious exteriors have little of value within. Compare this stone behemoth to the Alhambra, which looks like hardly anything from the outside, but whose interior possesses an otherworldly beauty. Perhaps this is because, instead of having images of a king on its walls, the Alhambra has a line of text: “There is no victor but God.”
My first time in Paris was a whirlwind affair. I took a horribly early Ryanair flight and had barely 48 hours to see the major sites. Every waking moment was spent on my feet—and it was easily one of the most impressive travel experiences of my life. Yet such a breakneck tour naturally left me curious. What had I missed as I marched through the city? Thankfully, my second trip to Paris was far more leisurely.
In this post, I want to talk about a particular interest of mine: burial sites. For me, visiting cemeteries is oddly comforting. It is tragic, of course, that we all must die. But it does help to put things in perspective. Recalling that the greatest artists, scientists, and emperors have all succumbed to the same fate can ease our own existential anxiety. And being reminded of our universal destiny can also help us to savor the experiences that make life really worthwhile. This is how I feel, and this is why I went out to explore some of the most famous graves in Paris.
Père-Lachaise is located somewhat outside the city-center, and that is for a reason. As in many major cities in the 19th century, there was less and less room for more and more bodies. Overcrowding in municipal cemeteries was both unattractive and unhygienic. So in 1804, shortly after Napoleon’s ascent to the throne, several “garden cemeteries” were opened on the outskirts of the city. This same process played out in New York City, leading to the creation of beautiful cemeteries like Woodlawn or Green-Wood, among others. In Paris, the biggest cemetery established was Père-Lachaise—built on a hill outside the city, and named for a royal confessor who used to live on the site.
In appearance, Père-Lachaise is somewhere intermediate between the solid stone cemeteries of Spain and the park-like cemeteries of New York. Tree-shaded walkways lead past rows and rows of gravestones, most of them large and ornate. As soon as I walked inside I felt refreshed. After the bustle and noise of Paris, the dead make welcome company. And there are many of them to choose from. Over one million souls lie interred in Père-Lachaise—half the population of modern-day Paris. The cemetery is still active, though burial is expensive and the waiting-list is long. Because of overcrowding, the cemetery actually engages in space-saving measures, such as burying family members together or digging up bodies whose leases have expired. In Paris, even the departed get evicted.
Even though the cemetery is only two-hundred years old—quite young in a European context—it contains bodies that are far older. The most conspicuous example of this is the iconic couple: Abelard and Heloïse. Abelard was one of the finest intellectuals of the Middle Ages, whose philosophical contributions to theology are still fascinating. But among laypeople, he is most famous for his tumultuous love-affair with Hélöise, documented in a series of passionate letters that have become literary classics. Their bodies—supposed bodies, I should say—were moved to Père-Lachaise as part of a marketing ploy to boost the cemetery’s reputation, and now lay interred in an elaborate psuedo-gothic tomb, where the two lovers—whose religious vows made their love rather difficult—can now enjoy eternal rest together.
Two more celebrities were dug up and re-buried here as part of the same marketing push: the dramatist Molière and fabulist Jean de la Fontaine, who both died in the 17th century. I was especially happy to find Molière, who is one of my favorite dramatists of any kind. His comedies are uniformly profound and delightful. The two iconic writers lie interred next to one another, in fairly simple stone sarcophagi raised above the ground. I am not sure about the ethics of relocating bodies for reasons of profit; but I was very glad to see Molière.
There are many other famous writers to be found, and not all of them French. Gertrude Stein—who wrote innovative, complex books—lies under a simple, traditional grave. The playwright Oscar Wilde’s tomb is significantly more elaborate. It is an enormous statue carved by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, featuring a kind of winged messenger. To my eyes, however, the sculpture appears a bit stiff and awkward, certainly not suggestive of flight. But it at least catches one’s attention. Somehow, the tradition of kissing the statue with bright red lipstick got underway. Nowadays there is a plexiglass barrier to prevent this. A writer I prefer to either Stein or Wilde has a less-visited tomb: Marcel Proust. After having slogged my way through all of his enormous novel, In Search of Lost Time, I was moved to see the great artist’s modest tombstone. For an artist so obsessed with remembrance, he has an inconspicuous grave.
Père-Lachaise also has its share of musicians. The body of Fréderic Chopin, the great piano composer, is close to the entrance. Further on, one comes across Edith Piaf, that star of French singers. It was impossible to look down on her grave without unconsciously hearing her distinctive voice. Yet the most famous musician buried in Père-Lachaise is not a European, but Jim Morrison, the American singer who died at age 27. His may be the most-visited grave in the entire cemetery. So many people visit and vandalize it, in fact, that the cemetery has taken to placing a barrier around the tombstone, so that nobody can get too close.
Apart from these personal monuments to the illustrious dead, there are several more general monuments in Père-Lachaise. The most general is the monuments aux morts, a sculptural complex unveiled in 1899 commemorating all of the dead in the cemetery (and presumably beyond). Père-Lachaise has more specific commemorations, too, such as the monument to the victims of the Mauthausen concentration camp. For me this is an extremely moving piece. It shows us a gaunt and haggard figure sprawled across impossibly steep steps. This is meant to evoke the “stairs of death,” 186 steps in which inmates were forced to carry granite up to the top of a quarry. Owing to my own background, I was also pleased to find a monument to the Spaniards who fought in World War II and the French who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Largo Caballero, one of the leaders of the Republic during this tragic time in Spanish history, is also interred nearby.
One could go on endlessly listing famous bodies in this cemetery. But since life is short, we must move on to the next one.
Montparnasse is situated in the south of the city. It was established around the same time as Père-Lachaise, and for the same reasons: overcrowding in municipal cemeteries. It is the second-largest cemetery in Paris, with 300,000 bodies. While not quite as beautiful as its more famous cousin, Montparnasse is home to almost as many icons.
Of special interest for me were the two most famous philosophers of 20th-century France: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir is usually remembered nowadays as a feminist, and her book The Second Sex is still widely read. She deserves to be remembered for far more, however, as she was an extremely versatile writer and thinker. During her lifetime she published important works of philosophy, best-selling novels, and many memoirs that have become classics. She spent most of her working life in an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, the patron saint of existentialism. Sartre was just as versatile as de Beauvoir, writing plays, novels, pamphlets, treatises, biographies, and much else. Though controversial, Sartre was extremely popular during his lifetime, and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of mourners. I can think of no writer alive today who could compare with this pair.
There are still more writers to be found. Charles Baudelaire—one of the most important French poets of the 19th century—lies peacefully under a modest tombstone, after having thrown the world of literature into disarray. And Emile Durkheim, who helped to found sociology as a discipline, lies similarly inconspicuous among the tombs. I was surprised to find Julio Cortázar, as well, who was regarded as one of the outstanding Latin American novelists of any time. Finding Susan Sontag, the influential American essayist, only added to my surprise. Finally I must mention Samuel Beckett, the Irish writer who was one of the pioneers of the absurd. I knew that Paris attracted writers, but I did not know its appeal was so everlasting.
You will recognize that Les Invalides looks an awful lot like “the invalids,” and that gives you a clue as to its history. Les Invalides originates as a huge hospital and home for military veterans who had been wounded in war, built under Louis XIV. It is a sprawling complex of long halls separated by ample courtyards, covering an enormous area in central Paris.
The majority of the complex is now given over to its use as a military museum. Thus, as you stroll through the seemingly endless halls, you see knights in armor, crossbows, muskets, cannons, machine guns, and tanks. Not being especially fond of military history, I made my way through this area rather quickly; but I am sure it would hold many delights for aficionados.
I was mainly there to see the tomb of one of the most important men in history: Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon the man was a paradox: power-hungry but idealistic, republical but imperial, egotistical but patriotic, heroic but despotic—the list goes on. This is why he is so fascinating. Indeed, I have heard that Napoleon is the subject of more books than any other historical figure apart from Jesus. It seems only fitting that his tomb be resplendent.
Napoleon lies interred under the central dome of Les Invalides, which originated as a royal chapel for Louis XIV. One wonders whether a church is the most appropriate place for the remains of the dictator—who was not, after all, especially religious—but at least the space is appriopriately grand. A painted dome ceiling hangs far above the space, which opens up to reveal the magnificent sarcophagus of the little emperor. Carved from red quartzite, the sarcophagus emerges from the floor, with its curved lid seeming to break upon the space like a wave. The sarcophagus is surrounded by statues and friezes depicting Napoleon’s glorious reign. Many of them depict the French emperor as the second coming of Alexander the Great—crowned in laurels, sitting as a god among men. It is a bit hard to stomach if you are not an admirer.
As you may know, Napoleon spent his final days on the tiny island of St. Helena, far away from France. It was only during the reign of Louis Philippe (who was trying to curry favor with Napoleon supporters) that the emperor’s bones were brought to France and interred in such grandiose style. As with all funerary displays, the pomp can seem rather empty. Napoleon died a defeated man, after all; and no matter how glorious he was, he is gone for good. But on the other hand, it is humbling to think that somebody born into ordinary circumstances could acquire such a hold over his adopted country (Napoleon was born in Corsica).
Well, the great Bonaparte is not the only one to be buried here. His son, Napoleon II, is also in attendance, though he died quite too young (21) to have anything but a minor role in French history. I was more interested in finding Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who held the title as the King of Spain for a few years before being forced to flee. After abdicating, Joseph spent much of his remaining life in the United States, living off the jewels he took from Spain. This is basically my plan, too.
The last time I visited Paris was in May of 2018—about a year before Notre-Dame burned. Nowadays, I suspect, it is impossible to look at the charred building without feeling a bit melancholy. Yet normally the area around Notre-Dame is one of the prettiest parts of Paris. The cathedral is situated on the Île de la Cité, a small island in the Seine. Crossing the bridge southwards, you could see the cathedral’s monumental form standing above calm waters of the river, and marvel at the elaborate iron spire.
Just across the bridge you will come across Shakespeare and Company, the famous book store frequented by Anglophone expatriots like James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. This is not the original location of the store, however; nor was it ever affiliated with the store’s original owner, Sylvia Beach. This store is more like an homage to Beach’s. Original or not, it has an excellent selection of English-language books, so I decided to walk inside. I emerged with a used copy of Giogio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a book that I had wanted to read for some time.
Moving further south, you come to Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, another of Paris’s beautiful churches. Its façade is a rather strange and cluttered jumble of styles, which nevertheless manages to be quite charming. Unfortunately for me, both times I tried to visit, the church was closed; so I have not seen its interior. From what I have read, it is quite a lovely space.
But I was not there to see cathedrals, churches, or bookstores. I was there was the Panthéon, Paris’s great temple to its illustrious dead. It is an enormous neoclassical building, with a towering dome highly reminiscent of America’s Capitol Building (which is not surprising, since the Panthéon was a direct influence). Originally, however, this grandiose building was not built for France’s secular heros, but as a church to Saint Genevive, the patron saint of Paris. But during the atheistic years of the French Revolution, it was decided to deconsecrate the space and use it to honor heroes of the Enlightenment.
Every inch of the structure is richly decorated. The visitor walks under the peristyle, through the flowering Corinthian columns, and past elaborate friezes of religious scenes. The interior of the building is expansive and just as ornate. Any list of the sculptures and paintings would be tedious, but the interplay between Enlightenment and Church decorations is immediately noticeable. The great battle for Europe’s soul is played out on the walls.
Under the magnificently painted dome, which shows us the apotheosis of Saint Genevieve, there hangs a celebration of human science: Foucault’s pendulum. This is a simple device, consisting of a bob hanging down on a long wire. The back and forth motion of the pendulum undergoes a precession around a circle, directly illustrating earth’s motion. Behind this tribute to the human mind is a celebration of democracy: François-Léon Siccard’s sculptural portrayal of the National Convention. We see a martial female figure (liberty?) surrounded by politicians and soldiers, where underneath it states: “Vivre libre ou mourir” (Live free or die).
As interesting as is the temple itself, the crypt was why I was there. If you have any love for classic books, it is a holy place. After descending a small staircase, you suddenly find yourself standing between two of the most influential writers of any place and time: Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire was the first Enlightenment hero to be interred here. At first denied a Christian burial, his remains were first interred in secret in an Abbey in Champagne. But in 1791, during the heady days of the Revolution, it was decided that Voltaire deserved the secular equivalent to canonization, and his remains were moved here. The procession was enormous: reportedly a million people came out to celebrate the late hero, with music, ritual, and fanfare.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was moved here three years later, in 1794, after it was decided that he too was a hero of the Revolution. For my part, it is rather strange to find these two men sharing the same vault. They are opposed in both thought and temperament. Voltaire was an enemy of tyranny but he was no democrat; his writings stressed the importance of civilization and rationality. Rousseau, on the other hand, was a champion of the “general will” in politics; and he emphasized the importance of nature and feeling. The two writers sparred several times in life, each finding the other brilliant but repugnant. Somehow, the ideals of the Revolution were able to accomodate them both.
Voltaire’s tomb is the more impressive of the two, if only because of the wonderfully lifelike statue of the wry old philosopher standing before it. Rousseau’s coffin celebrates the man’s accomplishments in inscriptions on both sides, and on one end we see a hand reaching out, bearing a torch. I got goosebumps as I stood there.
Moving further into the crypt, one finds many little chambers branching off the central corridor. Many of these are filled with officers and generals, most of whom served under Napoleon. This had little interest for me. Instead, I made my way straight to the chamber containing the mortal remains of three giants of French literature: Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola.
Victor Hugo was the first to be buried here. Few writers have ever been so beloved by their country. His ceremony was even more elaborate than that for Voltaire, with over two million people in attendance. Emile Zola, another liberal writer, was next to enter the Parthéon, although the ceremony was disturbed by an assassination attempt on the life of Alfred Dreyfus. (Dreyfus was a Jewish officer falsely accused of a crime, whom Zola publicly defended. Proust writes much about the case in his enormous novel. Dreyfus is now buried in Montparnasse.) Finally, as recently as 2002, Alexander Dumas was relocated here, in recognition of his enormous popularity.
As usual with the tombs of icons, standing in their presence is both humbling yet exalting. But what I most like about such visits, perhaps, is that it helps to make a historical figure—a person who can seem impossibly distant—seem real and concrete. These people are no longer just names on a page, but just as real as I am.
So ended my visit to Paris’s tombs. If you can believe it, I managed to visit all of these illustrious graves in the span of a single day. It was a modern, secular pilgrimage.
Though I have never visited the catacombs myself, I feel that I cannot end this post without at least making mention of this popular spot. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, by the end of the 18th century Paris was having a problem with making room for its ever-multiplying dead. It is difficult for an American to quite realize the scope of this problem, since our country’s history is so comparatively shallow. Paris has been around a long time: inhabited since at least the Roman times, it has been a major settlement for over 1,000 years. In short, there are an awful lot of bones to bury, and the city’s space is limited.
By the late 1700s, the situation was getting serious. In the largest municipal cemetery, Saints-Innocents, so many people were buried on top of one another that the ground was piled up to six feet (or two meters) high. In some areas, this proved to be so heavy that it caused the ground to collapse. Also, as you can imagine, having such a huge pile of bodies is not good for the water supply, not to mention for the air quality. Luckily, however, a solution was at hand. Much of the ground in this area of the city—the Left Bank, close to Montparnasse—was riddled with tunnels and holes, widely used in previous years to mine limestone. Thus, beginning in the 1780s, wagons carried these ancient bones into their new resting-place, under the streets of Paris.
I admit that it does make me feel a bit ethically uneasy to imagine disturbing the eternal rest of so many citizens. Then again, I suppose many of the bones belonged to people who had lived centuries ago, and who were buried in mass graves anyway. Now these skulls and femurs compose one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. The skeletal remains are arranged into patterns on the walls, creating a kind of grim aesthetic charm. I suppose I should visit; but the thought does make me slightly queasy.
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I went to Toulouse because the flight was cheap. I had a long weekend in mid-May—thanks to the local fiesta—and nothing planned; so I checked Skyscanner for the cheapest flights available. Toulouse was the clear winner. Off to France I went.
One reason the flight was cheap is because Toulouse is so close to Spain, about two hours by car from the Pyrenees. Perhaps another reason is that the city is the center of Europe’s aerospace industry. Why this should be, I cannot say, but Toulouse hosts the headquarters of several prominent companies and is at the center of the so-called Aerospace Valley in southern France. The fourth-largest city in the country, Toulouse is also an administrative center, being the capital of Occitanie. This region of France has historically been quite linguistically diverse, incorporating French speakers, Catalan speakers, and also Occitan speakers (sometimes called langue d’oc). It is a city with a past and a future.
A metro helpfully connects the airport to the city center, making the journey into town painless and even pleasant. Getting to and from the airport can sometimes be a headache—either expensive, convoluted, or both—so it is a relief when the authorities remove this obstacle. From there I still had quite a walk, however, since in the interest of cheapness—my guiding angel—I booked an Airbnb far outside of the center. Admittedly, I could have taken a bus; but the weather was nice and I felt like seeing the town.
The walk led me up an attractive avenue, under a triumphal arch, and into a little park, where there is a charming fountain featuring the dashing Pèire Godolin, an Occitan poet from the sixteenth century. From here I still had a long ways to go, passing through the city center, over the lovely Garonne River, and then over a little canal. Proceeding on this way, I could see why Toulouse is called “The Pink City” by the French, since so many buildings use distinctive, pinkish bricks.
Upon arrival, I discovered that my host did not speak a word of English. As my French is similarly nonexistent, I expected conversation to be pretty stale. But with the aid of Google translate he invited me to have dinner with him and his sister. I accepted, and spent the meal eating, drinking, and smiling, while the two of them talked. It was surprisingly enjoyable. He even invited me for dinner the next day, which proceeded in a similar fashion. My initial discomfort from being unable to communicate turned into real delight in the food and company, and shame for not being able to properly express my thanks for such generosity.
When I woke up the next day, my host was in the living room watching TV. Emmanuel Macron was taking part in the inauguration ceremonies. To the world’s relief, he had just beaten Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, stemming the tide of right-wing populism. Though ignorant of his politics, I was happy to see the young man stepping up to France’s highest office. My host seemed ambivalent; he did not like Le Pen, but he wasn’t too keen on Macron either.
I first visited the city’s most iconic monument, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. This is a massive hulk of a building; indeed it is the biggest Romanesque building in the world. For many reasons, Romanesque architectural methods are not as conducive to tall buildings as Gothic techniques. The barrel vault and the rounded arch do not distribute weight as efficiently as their Gothic counterparts; and no flying buttresses help to support the weight of the walls. Nevertheless, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin rivals any gothic cathedral in its dimensions. The bell-tower is especially impressive, standing 64 meters (over 200 feet) above the ground, on five levels of arches. Perhaps the church was built on such a large scale is because of the many pilgrims who stopped here on the Camino de Santiago, of which Toulouse was an important stop; indeed its historic connection with that pilgrimage is why the basilica was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Toulouse’s cathedral is a far less majestic structure. Formed from the unification of two incomplete churches, everything about the structure is irregular. The floorplan does not follow the usual cruciform since the two axes are out of alignment. Styles juxtapose, sometimes discordantly, both inside and outside the cathedral; and the visitor is left a little puzzled. Much more pleasing is the Church of the Jacobites. Its influential design uses brick walls and central columns, which branch out like palm trees into the ribbed vaulting, to support the tall roof. Its gaping stained-glass windows provide the space with an ethereal glow. For a price the visitor can visit the peaceful cloisters next door. Though I did not know it at the time, the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the famous theologian, are located here.
One thing I soon noticed—and then cursed—is that food in France is notably more expensive than it is in Spain. This is true in Toulouse, even though it is so close to the border, and even though many of the ingredients in the supermarkets come from Spain. I suppose taxes must be the explanation. Indeed, it was not very far from here, at Le Boulou, where angry French vinters (perhaps inspired after having read A Tale of Two Cities) stopped trucks transporting Spanish wine and spilled it onto the highway. Spain has very low taxes on wine, and fewer restrictions regarding the production of it, which is why it is so much cheaper. The Gallic wine makers considered the competition unfair, and did what all oppressed French people do: make the streets run red. In any case, for those looking for an affordable but elegant French meal, the Restaurant Le May is the best choice that I found in Toulouse.
If you have not eaten too much, you can pass the time by walking through the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s attractive central park. Another pleasant walk is along the city’s Canal de Brienne, attractively shaded with rows of trees.
Perhaps the nicest walking area along the Garonne River, observing the pretty brick buildings and their watery reflections. I spent some time sitting on the park by the water, trying to get through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History; and I am happy to report that the pleasant surroundings helped to offset the boredom induced by the book’s dry tone. From the riverside you can also observe the city’s attractive Pont Neuf, or “new bridge”—which is not very new, considering it was built 500 years ago. One thing from the riverside that particularly sticks out in my memory is a public toilet that completely washed itself after every use. Once the door was shut, it would lock, and swishing and spraying sounds could be heard on the other side. After about three minutes it would unlock, and the visitor could step into a sterilized and slightly wet bathroom. The future is here.
The benefits of visiting a city that is not a major tourist destination is that you see more snatches of daily life. Walking along one day, I stumbled upon a kind of public exercises routine, with a woman on stage guiding a crowd of people through calisthenics. Such things remind me of those silly eighties dancercise videos—either that, or the scene in 1984 when Wilson has to do coordinated exercises with the telescreen. Later that day, as I walked in a park along the river, I noticed that someone had set up loudspeakers and couples were engaged in ballroom dance. Without a partner, I did not join in. At dinner with my host, as he was in the kitchen preparing lasagna, one of his friends started on a passionate declaration of her love of electronic music, and promptly turned on her music to full volume. This was fine with me, since I could barely understand what anyone said anyway.
Though I had plenty of time in Toulouse, I did not exhaust everything there is to see. My major regret is not going to the Hôtel d’Assézat, a beautiful Renaissance palace that houses the Bemberg Foundation. This is an art gallery formed from the private collection of Georges Bemberg, a wealthy so-and-so who had a fine eye in addition to a deep purse. Among the works on display are some by Titian, Tintoretto, Picasso, Braque, and Signac. If I am ever in the neighborhood again I will be sure to visit.
But I did visit one museum that far exceeded my expectations: the Musée des Augustins. Its name comes from the building’s history as an Augustine monastery. The secularizing turmoils of the French Revolution put an end to that; and shortly thereafter, in 1801, it became a museum, displaying a collection that mostly came from confiscated monasteries. While this was undoubtedly unfortunate for the monks, it has benefitted the tourist, since now there is a large museum in a historical building in the heart of the city.
The museum itself is attractive for its gothic architecture and its cloisters wrapping around green gardens. Its extensive collection consists of both sculpture and painting. Personally I found the former to be more impressive, especially the Romanesque works on display. Indeed, I would rank the Musée des Augustins along with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona, for the quality and quantity of Romanesque sculpture. The Occitan and Catalan region is particularly rich in this style, it seems.
My favorite room in the museum is the one exhibiting Romanesque capitals. Each one stands on a pillar, at eye level; and over each a glass light hangs down. I spent about twenty minutes in the room, examining each one, savoring the powerful simplicity of the sculptures. Western art most closely approached Mesopotamian during this time, with stylized figures and symbolic poses, each one a blend of decoration, poetry, and architecture. There are intricate patterns made from vegetable and animal motifs; there are religious figures, like the apostles and the Virgin; and there are scenes from life—people eating, playing instruments, rowing a boat. On these capitals an entire way of life and worldview seems to be inscribed.
There are some fine gothic sculptures on display as well. My favorite is the long row of gargoyle dogs, standing along a hallway, who seem to be howling into infinity. In another room is a collection of surprisingly lifelike figures, who are dressed in typical Medieval European clothes, even though they are supposed to represent Biblical personages. In a wide room, which I believe used to hold a church, there are dozens of works on display—tombs, busts, and bronze casts. Here the Virgin sits with Christ, there St. Michael is smiting Satan, and over here Mercury is delivering a message.
After such an embarrassment of riches, I hardly expected to find such an enormous painting gallery. As in the Louvre, the paintings cover the walls up the ceilings, meaning that many are far above eye-level. This makes for an impressive first-glance, but detracts from the experience of the art. Though the collection is extensive, and includes works from Dutch, Italian, and Spanish painters, what most sticks out in my memory are the many neoclassical French paintings to be found. Typically I find these paintings charming but forgettable; though some rise beyond this, such as Jean-André Rixens’s Death of Cleopatra.
This wraps up my visit to Toulouse. The next day I woke up very early, walked through town—over the canal, through the park, down the lane—back to the metro stop to take me back to the airport. As I watched the French countryside recede from the plane window, feeling happy and satisfied, I decided that Toulouse would still be worth visiting even if the flights weren’t quite so cheap.
On the left back of the Seine, in an old Beaux-Arts train station, is one of Europe’s great museums: the Musée d’Orsay. Its collection mainly focuses on French art from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. This was a fertile time for Paris, as the museum amply demonstrates. Rarely can you find so many masterpieces collected in one place.
The museum is arranged with exquisite taste. In the middle runs a corridor, filled with statues—of human forms, mostly. They dash, reach, dance, strain, twist, lounge, smile, laugh, gasp, grimace.
On either side of this central corridor are the painting galleries, arranged by style and period. There were naturalistic paintings—with a vanishing perspective, careful shadowing, precise brushstrokes, scientifically accurate anatomy, symmetrical compositions. There were the impressionists—a blur of color and light, creamy clouds of paint, glances of everyday life. There was Cézanne, whose precise simplifications of shape and shade lend his painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire a calm, detached beauty. Then there were the pointillists, Seurat and Signac, who attempted to break the world into pieces and then to build it back up using only dabs of color, arranged with a mixture of science and art.
Greatest of all was van Gogh, whose violent, wavy lines, his bright, simple colors, his oil paint smeared in thick daubs onto the canvas, make his paintings slither and dance. It is simply amazing to me that something as static as a painting can be made be so energetic. Van Gogh’s paintings don’t stand still under your gaze, but move, vibrate, even breathe. It is uncanny.
His self portrait is the most emotionally affecting painting I have ever seen. Wearing a blue suit, he sits in a neutral blue space. His presence warps the atmosphere: the air seems to be curling around him, as if in a torrent. The only colors that break the blur of blue are his flaming red beard and his piercing green eyes. He looks directly at the viewer, with an expression impossible to define. At first glance he appears anxious, perhaps shy; but the more you look, the more he appears calm and confident. You get absolutely lost in his eyes, falling into them, as you are absorbed into ever more complicated subtleties of emotion concealed therein. Suddenly you realize that curling waves of air around him are not mere background, but represent his inner turmoil. Yet is it a turmoil? Perhaps it is a serenity too complicated for us to understand?
I looked and looked, and soon the experience became overwhelming. I felt as if he were looking right through me, while I pathetically tried to understand the depths of his mind. But the more I probed, the more lost I felt, the more I felt myself being subsumed into his world. The experience was so overpowering that my knees began to shake.
Consider this reaction of mine. Now imagine if a curious extraterrestrial, studying human behavior, visited an art museum. What would he make of it?
On its face, the practice of visiting art museums is absurd. We pay good money to gain entrance to a big building, so we can spend time crowding around brightly colored squares that are not obviously more interesting than any other object in the room. Indeed, I suspect an alien would find almost anything on earth—our plant and animal life, our minerals, our technology—more interesting than a painting.
In this essay I want to try to answer this question: Why do humans make and appreciate art? For this is the question that so irresistibly posed itself to me after I stared into van Gogh’s portrait. The rest of my time walking around the Musée d’Orsay, feeling lost among so many masterpieces, I pondered how a colorful canvas could so radically alter my mental state. By the end of my visit, the beginnings of an answer had occurred to me—an answer hardly original, being deeply indebted to Walter Pater, Marcel Proust, and Robert Hughes, among others—and it is this answer that I attempt to develop here.
My answer, in short, is that the alien would be confused because human art caters to a human need—specifically, an adult human need. This is the need to cure ennui.
Boredom hangs over human life like a specter, so pernicious because it cannot be grasped or seen.
The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss knew this very well. As a young man he ejoyed mountain scenes, because “instead of submitting passively to my gaze” the mountains “invited me into a conversation, as it were, in which we both had to give our best.” But as he got older, his pleasure in mountain scenery left him:
And yet I have to admit that, although I do not feel that I myself have changed, my love for the mountains is draining away from me like a wave running backward down the sand. My thoughts are unchanged, but the mountains have taken leave of me. Their unchanging joys mean less and less to me, so long and so intently have I sought them out. Surprise itself has become familiar to me as I follow my oft-trodden routes. When I climb, it is not among bracken and rock-face, but among the phantoms of my memories.
Dostoyevsky put the phenomenon more succintly: “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”
These two literary snippets have stuck with me because they encapsulate the same thing: the ceaseless struggle against the deadening weight of routine. Nothing is new twice. Walk through a park you found charming at first, the second time around it will be simply nice, and the third time just normal.
The problem is human adaptability. Unlike most animals, we humans are generalists, able to adapt our behavior to many different environments. Instead of being guided by rigid instincts, we form habits.
By “habits” I do not only refer to things like biting your nails or eating pancakes for breakfast. Rather, I mean all of the routine actions performed by every person in a society. Culture itself can, at least in part, be thought of as a collection of shared habits. These routines and customs are what allow us to live in harmony with our environments and one another. Our habits form a second nature, a learned instinct, that allows us to focus our attention on more pressing matters. If, for whatever reason, we were incapable of forming habits, we would be in a sorry state indeed, as William James pointed out in his book on psychology:
There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volutional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.
Habits are, thus, necessary to human life. And up to a certain point, they are desirable and good. But there is also a danger in habitual response.
Making the same commute, passing the same streets and alleys, spending time with the same friends, watching the same shows, doing the same work, living in the same house, day after day after day, can ingrain a routine in us so deeply that we become dehumanized.
A habit is supposed to free our mind for more interesting matters. But we can also form habits of seeing, feeling, tasting, even of thinking, that are stultifying rather than freeing. The creeping power of routine, pervading our lives, can be difficult to detect, precisely because its essence is familiarity.
One of the most pernicious effects of routine is to dissociate us from our senses. Let me give a concrete example. A walk through New York City will inevitably present you with a chaos of sensory data. You can overhear conversations, many of them fantastically strange; you can see an entire zoo of people, from every corner of the globe, dressed in every fashion; you can look at the ways that the sunlight moves across the skyscrapers, the play of light and shadow; you can hear dog barks, car horns, construction, alarms, sirens, kids crying, adults arguing; you can smell bread baking, chicken frying, hot garbage, stale urine, and other scents too that are more safely left uninvestigated.
And yet, after working in NYC for a few months, making the same commute every day, I was able to block it out completely. I walked through the city without noticing or savoring anything. My lunch went unappreciated; my coffee was drunk unenjoyed; the changing seasons went unremarked; the fashion choices of my fellow commuters went unnoticed.
It isn’t that I stopped seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, but that my attitude to this information had changed. I was paying attention to my senses only insofar as they provided me with useful information: the location of a pedestrian, an oncoming car, an unsanitary area. In other words, my attitude to my sensations had become purely instrumental: attending to their qualities only insofar as they were relevant to my immediate goals.
This exemplifies what I mean by ennui. It is not boredom of the temporary sort, such as when waiting on a long line. It is boredom as a spiritual malady. When beset by ennui we are not bored by a particular situation, but by any situation. And this condition is caused, I think, by a certain attitude toward our senses. When afflicted by ennui, we stop treating our sensations are things in themselves, worthy of attention and appreciation, but merely as signs and symbols of other things.
To a certain extent, we all do this, often for good reason. When you are reading this, for example, you are probably not paying attention to the details of the font, but are simply glancing at the words to understand their meaning. Theoretically, I could use any font or formatting, and it wouldn’t really affect my message, since you are treating the words as signs and not as things in themselves.
This is our normal, day-to-day attitude towards language, and it is necessary for us to read efficiently. But this can also blind us to what is right in front of us. For example, an English teacher I knew once expressed surprise when I pointed out that ‘deodorant’ consists of the word ‘odor’ with the prefix ‘de-’. She had never paused long enough to consider it, even though she had used the word thousands of times.
I think this attitude of ennui can extend even to our senses. We see the subtle shades of green and red on an apple’s surface, and only think “I’m seeing an apple.” We feel the waxy skin, and only think “I’m touching an apple.” We take a bite, munching on the crunchy fruit, tasting the tart juices, and only think “I’m tasting an apple.” In short, the whole quality of the experience is ignored or at least underappreciated. The apple has become part of our routine and has thus been moved to the background of our consciousness.
Now, imagine treating everything this way. Imagine if all the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells were treated as routine. This is an adequate description of my mentality when I was working in New York, and perhaps of many people all over the world. The final effect is a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. Nothing fulfills or satisfies because nothing is really being experienced.
This is where art comes in. Good art has the power to, quite literally, bring us back to our senses. Art encourages us not only to glance, but to see; not only to hear, but to listen. It reconnects us with what is right in front of us, but is so often ignored. To quote the art critic Robert Hughes, the purpose of art is “to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you.”
Last summer, while I was still working at my job in NYC, I experienced the power of art during a visit to the Metropolitan. By then, I had already visited the Met dozens of times in my life. My dad used to take me there as a kid, to see the medieval arms and armor; and ever since I have visited at least once a year. The samurai swords, the Egyptian sarcophagi, the Greek statues—it has tantalized my imagination for decades.
In my most recent visits, however, the museum had lost much of its power. It had become routine for me. I had seen everything so many times that, like Levi-Strauss, I was visiting my memories rather than the museum itself.
But this changed during my last visit. It was the summer right before I came to Spain. I had just completed my visa application and was about to leave my job. This would be my last visit to the Met for at least a year, possibly longer. I was saying goodbye to something intimately familiar in order to embrace the unknown. My visit became no longer routine, but unique and fleeting, and this made me experience the museum in an entirely new way.
Somehow, the patina of familiarity had been peeled away, leaving every artwork fresh and exciting. Whereas on previous visits I viewed the Greco-Roman and Egyptian statues are mere artifacts, revealing information about former civilizations, this time I began to become acutely sensitive to previously invisible subtleties: fine textures, subtle hues, elegant forms. In short, I had stopped treating the artwork as icons—as mere symbols of a lost age—but as genuine works of art.
This experience was so intense that for several days I felt rejuvenated. I stopped feeling so deeply dissociated from my workaday world and began to take pleasure again in little things.
While waiting for the elevator, for example, I looked at a nearby wall; and I realized, to my astonishment, that it wasn’t merely a flat plain surface, as I had thought, but was covered in little bumps and shapes. It was stucco. I grew entranced by the shifting patterns of forms on the surface. I leaned closer, and began to see tiny cracks and little places where the paint had chipped off. The slight variations on the surface, a stain here, a splotch there, the way the shapes seemed to melt into one another, made it seem as though I were looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock or the surface of the moon.
I had glanced at this wall a hundred times before, but it took a visit to an art museum to let me really see it. Routine had severed me from the world, and art had brought me back to it.
Reality is always experienced through a medium—the medium of senses, concepts, language, and thought. Sensory information is detected, broken down, analyzed, and then reconfigured in the brain.
We are not passive sensors. While a microphone might simply detect tones, rhythms, and volume, we hear cars, birds, and speech; and while a camera might detect shapes, colors, and movement, we see houses and street signs. The data we collect is, thus, not experienced directly, but is analyzed into intelligible objects. And this is for the obvious reason that, unlike cameras and microphones, we need to use this information to survive.
In order to deal efficiently with the large amount of information we encounter every day, we develop habits of perceiving and thinking. These habits are partly expectations of the kinds of things we will meet (people, cars, language), as well as the ways we have learned to analyze and respond to these things. These habits thus lay at the crossroads between the external world of our senses and the internal world of our experience, forming another medium through which we experience (or don’t experience) reality.
Good art forces us to break these habits, at least temporarily. It does so by breaking down reality and then reconstructing it with a different principle—or perhaps I should say a different taste—than the one we habitually use.
The material of art—what artists deconstruct and re-imagine—can be taken from either the natural or the cultural world. By ‘natural world’ I mean the world as we experience it through our senses; and by ‘cultural world’ I mean the world of ideas, customs, values, religion, language, tradition. No art is wholly emancipated from tradition, just as no tradition is wholly unmoored from the reality of our senses. But very often one is greatly emphasized at the expense of the other.
A good example of an artform concerned with the natural world is landscape painting. A landscape artist breaks down what she sees into shapes and colors, and puts it together on her canvass, making whatever tasteful alteration she sees fit.
Her view of the landscape, and how she chooses to reconstruct it on her canvass, is of course not merely a matter between her and nature. Inevitably our painter is familiar with a tradition of landscape paintings; and thus while engaged with the natural landscape she is simultaneously engaged in a dialogue with contemporary and former artists. She is, therefore, simultaneously breaking down the landscape and her tradition of landscape painting, deciding what to change, discard, or keep. The final product emerges as the an artifact of an exchange between the artist, the landscape, and the tradition.
The fact remains, however, that the final product can be effectively judged by how it transforms its subject—the landscape itself. Thus I would say that landscape paintings are primarily oriented towards the natural world.
By contrast, many religious paintings are much more oriented towards a tradition. It is clear, even from a glance, that the artists of the Middle Ages were not concerned with the accurate portrayal of individual humans, but with the evoking of religious figures through idealizations. The paintings thus cannot be evaluated by their fidelity to the sensory reality, but by their fidelity to a religious aesthetic.
It is worth noting that artworks oriented towards the natural world tend to be individualistic, while artworks oriented towards the cultural world tend to be communal. The reason is clear: art oriented towards the natural world reconnect us with our senses, and our senses are necessarily personal. By contrast, culture is necessarily impersonal and shared. The rise of perspective, realistic anatomy, individualized portraits, and landscape painting at the time of the Italian Renaissance can, I think, persuasively be interpreted as a break from the communalism of the medieval period and an embrace of individualism.
Music is an excellent demonstration of this tendency. To begin with, the medium of sound is naturally more social than that of sight or language, since sound pervades its environment. What is more, music is a wholly abstract art, and thus totally disconnected from the natural world.
This is because sound is just too difficult to record. With only a pencil and some paper, most people could make a rough sketch of an everyday object. But without some kind of notational system—and even then, maybe not—most people could not transcribe an everyday sound, like a bird’s chirping.
Thus, musicians (at least western musicians) take their material from culture rather than nature, from the world of tradition rather than the world of our senses.
(In an oral tradition, where music does not need to be transcribed, it is possible that music can strive to reproduce natural sounds; but this has not historically been the case in the west.)
To deal with the problem of transcribing sound, rigorous and formal ways of classifying sounds were developed. An organizational system developed, with its own laws and rules; and it is these laws and rules that the composer or songwriter manipulates.
And just as your knowledge of the natural world helps to make sense of visual art, so our cultural training helps us to make sense of music. Just as you’ve seen many trees and human faces, and thus can appreciate how painters re-imagine their appearances, so have you heard hours and hours of music in your life, most of it following the same or similar conventions.
Thus you can tell (most often unconsciously) when a tune does something unusual. Relatively few people, for example, can define a plagal cadence (an unusual final cadence from the IV to the I chord), but almost everyone responds to it in Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
As a result of its cultural grounding, music an inherently communal art form. This is true, not only aesthetically, but anthropologically. Music is an integral part of many social rituals—political, religious, or otherwise. Whether we are graduating from high school, winning an Oscar, or getting married, music will certainly be heard. As much as alcohol, music can lower inhibitions by creating a sense of shared community, which is why we play it at every party. Music thus plays a different social role than visual art, connecting us to our social environment rather than to the often neglected sights and sounds of everyday life.
The above descriptions are offered only as illustrations of my more general point: Art occupies the same space as our habits, the gap between the external and the internal world. Painters, composers, and writers begin by breaking down something familiar from our daily reality. This material can be shapes, colors, ceramic vases, window panes, the play of shadow across a crumpled robe in the case of painting. It can be melodies, harmonies, timbre, volume, chord progressions, stylistic tropes in the case of music. And it can be adjectives, verbs, nouns, situations, gestures, personality traits in the case of literature
Whatever the starting material, it is the artist’s job to recombine it into something different, something that thwarts our habits. Van Gogh’s thick daubs of paint thwart our expectation of neat brushstrokes; McCartney’s plagal cadence thwarts our expectation of a perfect cadence; and Proust’s long, gnarly sentences and philosophic ideas thwart our expectations of how a novelist will write. And once we stop seeing, listening, feeling, sensing, thinking, expecting, reacting, behaving out of habit, and once more turn our fill attention to the world, naked of any preconceptions, we are in the right mood to appreciate art.
Yet it is not enough for art to be simply challenging. If this were true, art would be anything that was simply strange, confusing, or difficult. Good art can, of course, be all of those things; but it need not be.
Many artists nowadays, however, seem to disagree on this point. I have listened to works by contemporary composers which simply made no sense for my ears, and have seen many works of modern art which had no visual interest. We are living in the age of “challenging” art; and beauty is too often reduced to confusion.
But good art must not only challenge our everyday ways of seeing, listening, and being. It must reconstitute those habits along new lines. Art interrogates the space between the world and our habits of seeing the world. It breaks down the familiar—sights, harmonies, language—and then builds it back up again into the unfamiliar, using new principles and new taste. Yet for the product to be a work of art, and not mere strangeness, the unfamiliar must be rendered beautiful. That is the task of art.
Thus, Picasso does not only break down the perspectives and shapes of daily life, but builds them back up into new forms—fantastically strange, but sublime nonetheless. Debussy disintegrates the normal harmonic conventions—keys, cadences, chords—and then puts them all back together into a new form, uniquely his, and also unquestionably lovely. Great art not only shows you a different way of seeing and understanding the world, but makes this new vista attractive.
Pretentious art, art that merely wants to challenge, confuse, or frustrate you, is quite a different story. It can be most accurately compared to the relationship between an arrogant schoolmaster and a pupil. The artist is talking down to you from a position of heightened knowledge. The implication is that your perspective, your assumptions, your way of looking at the world are flawed and wrong, and the artist must help you to get out of your lowly state. Multiple perspectives are discouraged; only the artist’s is valid.
And then we come to simple entertainment.
Entertainment is something that superficially resembles art, but it’s function is entirely different. For entertainment does not reconnect us with the world, but lures us into a fantasy.
Perhaps the most emblematic form of pure entertainment is advertizing. However well made an advertisement is, it can never be art; for its goal is not to reconnect with the world, but to seduce us. Advertisements tell us we are incomplete. Instead of showing us how we can be happy now, they tell what we still need.
When you see an ad in a magazine, for example, you are not meant to scan it carefully, paying attention to the purely visual qualities. Rather, you are forced to view it as an image. By ‘image’ I mean a picture that serves to represent something else. Images are not meant to be looked at, but glanced at; images are not meant to be analyzed, but instantly understood. Ads use images because they are not trying to bring you back to your senses, but lure you into a fantasy.
Don’t misunderstand me: There is nothing inherently wrong with fantasy. Indeed, I think fantasy is almost indispensable to a healthy life. The fantasies of advertisements are, however, somewhat nefarious, since ads are never pure escapism. Rather, the ad forces you to negatively compare your actual life with the fantasy, conclude that you are lacking something, and then of course seek to remedy the situation by buying their product.
Most entertainment is, however, quite innocent, or at least it seems to me. For example, I treat almost all blockbusters as pure entertainment. I will gladly go see the new Marvel movie, not in order to have an artistic experience, but because it’s fun. The movie provides two hours of relief from the normal laws of physics, of probability, from the dreary regularities of reality as I know it. Superhero movies are escapism at its most innocent. The movies make no pretenses of being realistic, and thus you can hardly feel the envy caused by advertisements. You are free to participate vicariously and then to come back to reality, refreshed from the diversion, but otherwise unchanged.
The prime indication of entertainment is that it is meant to be effortless. The viewer is not there to be challenged, but to be diverted. Thus most bestselling novels are written with short words, simple sentences, stereotypical plotlines stuffed full of clichés—because this is easy to understand. Likewise, popular music uses common chord progressions and trite lyrics to make hits—music to dance to, to play in the background, to sing along to, but not to think about. This is entertainment: it does not reconnect us with our senses, our language, our ideas, but draw us into fantasy worlds, worlds with spies, pirates, vampires, worlds where everyone is attractive and cool, where you can be anything you want, for at least a few hours.
Some thinkers, most notably Theodor Adorno, have considered this quality of popular culture to be destructive. They abhor the way that people lull their intellects the sleep, tranquilized with popular garbage that deactivates their minds rather than challenges them. And this point cannot be wholly dismissed. But I tend to see escapism in a more positive light; people are tired, people are stressed, people are bored—they need some release. As long as fantasy does not get out of hand, becoming an goal in itself instead of only a diversion, I see no problem with it.
This, in my opinion, is the essential different between art and entertainment. There is also an essential different, I think, between art and craft.
Craft is a dedication to the techniques of art, rather than its goals. Of course, there is hardly such a thing as a pure craft or a pure art; no artist completely lacks a technique, and no craftsman totally lacks aesthetic originality. But there are certainly cases of artists whose technique stands at a bare minimum, as well as craftsmen who are almost exclusively concerned with the perfection of technique.
Here I must clarify that, by technique, I do not mean simply manual things like brush strokes or breath control. This includes more generally the mastery of a convention.
Artistic conventions consists of fossilized aesthetics. All living aesthetics represent the individual visions of artists—original, fresh, and personal. All artistic conventions are the visions of successful artists, usually dead, which have ceased to be refreshing and now have become charmingly familiar. Put another way, conventional aesthetics are the exceptions that have been made the rule. Not only that, but conventions often fossilize only the most obvious and graspable elements of brilliant artists of the past, leaving behind much of its living fibre.
This can be exemplified if we go and examine the paintings of William-Adolfe Bourgeureau in the Musée d’Orsay. Even from a glance, we can tell that he was a masterful painter. Every detail is perfect. The arrangement of the figures, the depiction of light and shadow, the musculature, the perspective—everything has been performed with exquisite mastery. My favorite painting of his is Dante and Virgil in Hell, a dramatic rendering of a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Dante and his guide stand to one side, looking on in horror as one naked man attacks another one, biting him in his throat. In the distance, a flying demon smiles, while a mound of tormented bodies writhes behind. The sky is a fiery red and the landscape is bleak.
I think it is a wonderful painting. Even so, Dante and Virgil seems to exist more as a demonstration than as art. For the main thing that makes painting art, and the main thing this painting lacks, is an original vision. The content has been adopted straightforwardly from Dante. The technique, although perfectly executed, shows no innovations of Bourgeureau’s own. All the tools he used had been used before; he merely learned them. Thus the painting, however impressive, ultimately seems like a technical exercise. And this is the essence of craft.
I fear I have said more about what art isn’t than what it is. That’s because it is admittedly much easier to define art negatively than positively. Just as mystics convey the incomprehensibility of God by listing all the things He is not, maybe we can do the same with art?
Here is my list so far. Art is not entertainment, meant to distract with fantasy. Art is not craft, meant to display technique and obey rules. Art is not simply an intellectual challenge, meant to shock and frustrate your habitual ways of being. I should say art is not necessarily any of these things, though it can and often is all of them. Indeed, I would contend that the greatest art entertains, challenges, and displays technical mastery, and yet cannot be reduced to any or all of these things.
Here I wish to take an idea from the literary critic Harold Bloom, and divide up artworks into periodpieces and great works. Period pieces are works that are highly effective in their day, but quickly become dated. These works are too specifically targeted at one specific cultural atmosphere to last. In other words, they may be totally preoccupied with the habits prevalent at one place and time, and become irrelevant when time passes.
To pick just one example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which I sincerely loved, may be too engrossed in the foibles of 20th century American culture to be still relevant in 500 years. Its power comes from its total evisceration of American ways; and, luckily for Lewis, those ways have changed surprisingly little in its essentials since his day. The book’s continuing appeal therefore depends largely on how much the culture does or does not change. (That being said, that novel has a strong existentialist theme that may allow it to persist.)
Thus period pieces largely concern themselves with getting us to question particular habits or assumptions—in Lewis’s case, the vanities and superficialities of American life.
The greatest works of art, by contrast, are great precisely because they reconnect us with the mystery of the world. They don’t just get us to question certain assumptions, but all assumptions. They bring us face to face with the incomprehensibility of life, the great and frightening chasm that we try to bridge over with habit and convention.
No matter how many times we watch Hamlet, we can never totally understand Hamlet’s motives, the mysterious inner workings of his mind. No matter how long we stare into van Gogh’s eyes, we can never penetrate the machinations of that elusive mind. No matter how many times we listen to Bach’s Art of Fugue, we can entirely never wrap our minds around the dancing, weaving melodies, the baffling mixture of mathematical elegance and artistic sensitivity.
Why are these works so continually fresh? Why do they never seem to grow old? I cannot say. It is as if they are infinitely subtle, allowing you to discover new shades of meaning every time they are experienced anew. You can fall into them, just as I felt myself falling into van Gogh’s eyes as he stared at me across space and time.
When I listen to the greatest works of art, I feel like I do when I stare into the starry sky: absolutely small in the presence of something immense and immensely beautiful. Listening to Bach is like listening to the universe itself, and reading Shakespeare is like reading the script of the human soul. These works do not merely reconnect me to my senses, helping me to rid myself of boredom. They do not merely remind me that the world is an interesting place. Rather, these works remind me that I myself am a small part of an enormous whole, and should be thankful for every second of life, for it is a privilege to be alive somewhere so lovely and mysterious.
A Spanish woman was saying this to her friend as we passed by.
GF and I both laughed.
“I guess Paris has the same reputation everywhere,” GF said.
Indeed it does. It is amazing to me how many Spaniards have recited the same line to me: “The only problem with Paris is the Parisians.”
I would expect this kind of stereotype to be prevalent among tourists; but two Spaniards who lived in Paris for a long time, and who spoke French fluently, told me the same thing. Why is this image so persistent? Even now we see this stereotype reenacted in movies, television shows, and books. Bill Bryson, in his jejune travelogue of Europe, dwells on this image of the Parisians at length: the snobby, miserable, rude, pretentious Parisian.
Perhaps the person who explained it most memorably was a Blablacar driver from Barcelona who spent three years living there. He said:
“People from Madrid are cocky. But they’re at least happy. People from Paris think they’re better than everyone else, and they’re still miserable.”
In short, the Parisians have an image problem.
Paris, however, does not. Every person I’ve spoken to has praised Paris to the skies. What a strange reputation for a city to have: beautiful and full of assholes. Needless to say I was curious to see for myself.
Not that I needed any additional encouragement to visit Paris. The city’s history speaks for itself. Voltaire, the French Revolution, World War II; the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles; the impressionists, the modernists, the existentialists; Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein; the art of French cooking, the art of French life—the city has been the center of so much activity that, whatever interest you may have, whether it be painting, cooking, writing, history, philosophy, or just eating, odds are you will be led to Paris.
And I was finally going.
Unfortunately I wouldn’t be there for long. I had to squeeze my trip into a weekend. We would arrive early Friday morning, have all of Saturday to explore, and leave early Sunday.
When I say early, I mean early in the most brutal and cruel sense. In order to book the cheapest flights, GF and I fly when other people don’t. When you’re booking a flight several months in advance, it may sound reasonable to fly at 7 in the morning. But when the date of departure nears, and you realize to make it to the airport, get through security, and be on time for boarding, you have to wake up at 4, this decision may feel somewhat less sensible than it appeared at first. This decision may be especially regretted if, like me, you spend most of the week without sleeping enough, because you teach classes both in the early morning and late at night. And if you’re built like me—tall, leggy, and delicate—you will not be able to catch a wink of sleep when sitting in a cramped seat several thousand feet in the air.
Thus I arrived in Paris with red eyes, a sore neck, and that mixture of panic and mental inactivity that comes with sleep-deprivation. It was in this state that I shuffled down the line to get through customs. (I thought that people coming from Madrid didn’t have to go through customs, since it’s in the Schengen zone, but with the terrorist activity I understand border control has been tightened.)
In my best accent, I said Bonjour to the woman behind the class, as I handed her my passport. She flipped through the passport to the page with my photo and personal information. Then, she flipped to the page before that.
Immediately I felt nervous. Several years ago, on a flight to Kenya, I managed to get toothpaste on my passport (the tube exploded). Unfortunately, the stains are still visible; but fortunately, only the irrelevant first page was affected. Sure, it doesn’t look great, but it’s hardly worth the hassle and expense to get a new one.
These considerations were apparently lost on the customs official who, after turning to the afflicted page, looked up to give me the most unforgettable look. She jerked her neck back, pursed her lips into a duck-billed sneer, and raised her eyebrows with alarm. Then she stamped my passport and rolled her eyes and she handed it back to me. This hasn’t happened to me anywhere else.
I was in France.
More specifically, I was in the Beauvais-Tillé Airport. This is a small and shabby airport, handling only about 4,000,000 people annually. (For comparison, the Charles de Gaulle Airport handles about 66 million people annually.) It is marketed by Ryanair as the Beauvais-Paris airport, but this is simply a lie. The airport is 85 km away from Paris. The only way to get to Paris is by bus; the bus costs 17€ per trip, and the ride takes over an hour. Bear this in mind the next time you want to fly Ryanair to Paris.
A long line had already formed in front of the ticket machines for the bus. Apparently, the only way to get a ticket was to use one of these machines; and since everybody needed a ticket, everyone was waiting. The line moved slowly. We waited, shuffled a feet steps forward, and waited.
“I’m gonna go look at what’s going on,” GF said.
She left her bag and went to the front.
“There’s only one working machine,” she said as she returned.
There must have been at least fifty people in line. So here’s another tip: if you plan on saving money by taking an early flight on Ryanair to Paris, and justify this decision with the thought that it gives you extra time in Paris, consider that you will have to wait in line to buy tickets for a bus, and then take a bus ride that lasts 70 minutes and costs 17€. But I was too tired to be feeling regrets.
Finally an employee came out and began working on the broken machines. He pulled them apart, tinkering with the inside, and then rebooted them. As one of them started up, I noticed the operating system: Windows 97. No wonder they weren’t working.
But when the machines sprung back to life, we were able to buy our tickets and go out to the buses. And what do you know? Outside was a ticket booth with real people selling tickets, and a pretty reasonable line. Keep all this in mind for your next trip to Paris.
GF slept the whole busride. I listened to an audiobook and looked out the window. The ride from the Beauvais-Tillé Airport to Paris is at least quite nice. It was a lovely, sunny day, and the French countryside rolled past—fields of green farmland with hardly a house in sight. The ride was so different from any I’d seen in Spain. For one, the landscape was flat, while Spain is persistently mountainous. What is more, the lush, glowing green of everything contrasted sharply with the dry, sandy soil near Madrid. And I didn’t even see one castle!
I was just about to drift off when we entered the city. Suddenly, I was filled with excitement. Out the window I could see several skyscrapers. And then, in the distance, I saw that famous form, so iconic and unmistakable—the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Now only was I in France, but in Paris.
The first thing you will notice about Paris is that it looks like Paris.
Nothing is out of place. You can stroll along the Seine, its dirty, dark green waters flowing merrily while ferry after ferry go by. Along the river, people are selling used books, Japanese prints, and pornographic posters from shabby wooden shacks. Cafés are inescapable and immaculate. There are no gaudy plastic signs, there is no tasteless decoration. The menus are displayed in glass cases; the color scheme is a subdued mix of blacks, greys, and dark reds. The waiters are well dressed; the tables and chairs are of finished wood; the silverware, the plates, the glasses are polished and stylish. Tree-shaded boulevards lead to roundabouts with monuments in the middle. Everything looks antique and lovingly preserved. The city is elegance itself.
Our first stop was the Sainte-Chapelle. I wanted to go there, because I still have a vivid memory of seeing pictures of the Sainte-Chapelle in my art history course. We were covering the gothic, and the professor was explaining how the gothic architects managed to make buildings with ever-large windows—a very difficult feat in a stone building. The apotheosis of this tendency was the Sainte-Chapelle, a building made completely of stained glass—or at least it seems.
The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) was completed in 1248, under the auspices of Louis IX. He had acquired some important relics from the Venetians (including the Crown of Thorns) and wanted a place to put them. Damaged during the Revolution and restored afterwards, nowadays the building is primarily a tourist attraction.
Except for the tall, gothic spire, you cannot see the building from the street. It is now entirely surrounded by another edifice, that wraps around the outside. This building serves as a security checkpoint, through which you must pass in order to reach the inside. This means standing on a line as person by person shuffles through a metal detector. The French are not taking any risks nowadays. Once you get through security, you’ll see burly men with assault riffles strolling around the complex, looking tough and serious. They walk by, looking both reassuring or menacing, depending on your mood, as you wait in the next line to actually purchase your ticket. You can enjoy the exterior of the building as you wait; but unfortunately you cannot see the facade very well, since the restricted area prevents you from getting far enough away.
When we finally bought our tickets, went inside, and then ascended the stairs to the upper chapel, we gasped in unison. The place is stunning. The room seems to be suspended through sorcery; how can such delicate mullions support a stone roof? This illusion is created, as in many gothic structures, by moving the main support outside and out of view, in the form of flying buttresses. But the illusion is perfect.
Light pours in from every direction, turned into a rainbow of colors by the stained glass. The more you examine the glass, the more entranced you become, for the glass is covered with scenes from the Bible. On one side is the Old Testament, and on the other side the New. The ceiling has been painted to look like the night sky; wooden sculptures of saints adorn the interior; and on the wall above the doorway, below the magnificent rose window, is a fresco of Christ enthroned, surrounded by angels. For me, the only thing that the Sainte-Chapelle lacked was the sense of spiritual power and religious awe that I often get from gothic buildings. The final effect is rather purely aesthetic—a sweet, delicious prettiness.
Our next stop was the Louvre. By now we were tired and hungry. We had been awake for a long time, hadn’t slept or ate much, and had been on our feet for much of the day. But I was determined to go. Even before I had any interest in history, art, or Paris, I had heard of the Louvre. Everyone has. It is one of the few art museums with a world-wide reputation, a name respected by connoisseurs and philistines. I knew I had to go.
Originally, the Louvre was a fortress, built under Philip II in the 12th century, right in the center of Paris on the right bank of the Seine. (You can still see the castle foundations in the Louvre basement.) Many years later, in the 16th century, the building was transformed into a Renaissance palace by Francis I; the Louvre thus bears no trace of the French Gothic style, and is instead a classical construction of straight lines and clean forms. Monarchs stayed in the palace for a while, until Louis XIV decided that he preferred to live in Versailles. Then the building was given to various academies. Finally, during the French Revolution, people had the truly revolutionary idea of transforming it into a public museum to display the Royal Collection. It opened in 1793.
The Louvre is large. It contains multitudes. Its collection spans from the beginnings of Egypt to the present day. You would need several days of persistent, diligent walking to see everything, and perhaps a lifetime to properly appreciate and understand the many thousands of paintings and artifacts. We didn’t have a lifetime or several days; we had a few hours before the museum closed. Thus I only experienced a taste of the collection, and I can only offer you an echo of a taste.
Of course, there’s the Mona Lisa. The painting hangs in the center of the Louvre’s vast collection of Renaissance art. A museum employee stands on either side; a barrier prevents anyone from getting too close; and a thick plate of glass ensures that the painting would survive even if the museum went up in flames. Probably at any time of the day, there is a big crowd around the painting. When GF and I went, it was around dinner time (the Louvre is open late on Fridays), so the crowd was not terrible.
We slowly elbowed our way through the crowd, as the elusive image came into view. It is a very strange experience, seeing a famous painting with your own eyes. The Mono Lisa is perhaps the most iconic image in the world (maybe second to McDonald’s golden arches) so you’d think seeing the original would be akin to a religious experience. But many have told me that they found the painting disappointing.
The most common complaint I hear is that the painting is small. At first glance, this is an odd thing to complain about; the Mona Lisa is a portrait, and has the usual dimensions of that genre. But upon further reflection, this complaint is revealing of the way we experience art in the modern world.
Unlike people living as recently as the 19th century, you have already seen high quality images of the Mona Lisa a thousand times—on television, in movies, on billboards, advertisements, and commercials. This reproduction of the image has turned it into an icon. What makes something iconic is that it stands for more than itself. Originally, the word icon meant a devotional image, of a saint, Jesus, or the Virgin, used in prayer and religious ritual. In theory, the icon is not meant to be the object of religious worship, but merely an aid; the image allows the worshipper to focus his feelings and thoughts on the next world. Thus an icon is not meant to draw attention to itself, but help you think of something else.
The Mona Lisa performs a similar function in our own world, serving as a visual cue for all sorts of diverse associations—Leonardo, the Renaissance, Italy, the Louvre, culture, sophistication, mystery, even painting itself. This use of the image has gradually ruined our ability to really see it; we stop paying attention to the details, just as we stop paying attention to a font when we begin to read a story. Like a word in a book, we glance at the image instead of carefully scanning it. The Mona Lisa has ceased to be a thing in itself, and has become a symbol for other things. And when this is the case, the only difference between seeing a copy and seeing the original can be superficial things, like size.
It would take much patient work to be able to see the painting as it would appear to you for the first time, as a fresh work of art. And when you are standing in a crowd of people, crushed on all sides, surrounded by cameras and iPhones, separating by at least ten feet from the painting itself, it is all but impossible to give the painting justice. I stood there and did my very best; but it wasn’t long before somebody nearby asked me to take a photo of him standing in front of the painting.
“Alright,” I said, as he handed me his camera.
He smiled and then unfurled a sign that read:
“YOU SHOULD BE HERE!”
It would take a library of books to do justice to the Louvre’s collection, so I will only mention a few more famous works. A floor below the Mona Lisa is a sculpture by Michelangelo, the Dying Slave. Originally sculpted for the uncompleted tomb of Pope Julius II, the work depicts the moment of death of a supine and nearly naked man. This seems potentially spiritual and tragic, but to me the sculpture looks inescapably sexual; the figure’s pose and even his face strike me as strangely feminine. Am I alone in this?
The Louvre boasts two Greek sculptures of high repute, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. Both of these works, made before the common era, were discovered in the 19th century. The first is an image of the goddess of victory, Nike, perhaps built to commemorate a naval victory. She seems to be standing on the brow of a ship, her silky garments flowing in the breeze. Unfortunately, the statue’s head and arms have been lost to time; she is now a winged torso on two strong legs. Despite this, the work manages to be supremely expressive, perhaps the most convincing image of triumph I know. The Venus de Milo is a sculpture of Venus, her arms missing, her chest bare, her legs wrapped in a loose robe, leaning on one leg with an arched torso.
The last work I’ll mention is the Seated Scribe. This is a small sculpture of painted limestone, depicting a man sitting cross legged, writing on a piece of papyrus that rests on his lap. Compared to a Greek sculpture, there is nothing remarkable about this work. But when you consider that it was made around 2,500 BCE in Ancient Egypt, you will be able to appreciate just how special it is. The Seated Scribe is unlike any other piece of Egyptian art I’ve seen. First, the very fact that the work depicts a scribe is significant, for Egyptian art typically portrays gods, pharaohs, or perhaps servants and soldiers. What is more, while most art from this period is highly idealized, this sculpture is quite realistic; the scribe has an individualized face and even a paunch. Instead of seeing an image of power, we are seeing a single man, imperfect, frail, and hard at work.
By the time we left, we were both utterly exhausted. We hadn’t slept more than four hours, we hadn’t eaten in about eight hours, and we had been on our feet for about ten hours. My body was a patchwork of pains: my legs were aching, my feet were blistered, my clothes were soaked with sweat, my stomach was grumbling, my eyes were bloodshot, and my head was pounding. GF wasn’t doing much better. And in that state, we dragged ourselves to eat some cheap Chinese food and go to bed. We had another long day ahead.
We awoke early, threw on our clothes, and skipped breakfast. We wanted to get to Notre-Dame right as it was opening, to avoid the extremely long line we had seen the previous day.
This was only partly successful. A line had already formed, though it was only about half as long as the line from yesterday. We dutifully got on and waited. This at least gave me a chance to observe the cathedral’s wonderful façade.
The demeanor of the great building is immediately recognizable and familiar, even to people who do not consider themselves interested in this sort of thing. To me, the cathedral, although undeniably gothic, has a certain classical elegance not found in, say, Toledo. Everything is perfectly symmetrical and harmonious. There is no jumbling of styles or mixture of motifs you so often find in other cathedrals. Although the building took almost 200 years to build, it seems to bear a unified design. (I suspect, however, that a more knowledgeable eye would detect significant differences in style that escaped me.)
Perhaps because the cathedral was recently given a cleaning, nowadays it looks fresh and even youthful. This freshness was accentuated by the beautiful sunny day, to the extent that the spiritual power I normally feel in the presence of gothic cathedrals was somehow lacking. Notre-Dame looked rather cheerful and even inviting. This might be because the building is not so angular as other cathedrals; instead of spires, such as are found in Burgos and Chartres, the towers of Notre-Dame have flat tops.
The line was moving quickly. As I approached, I was able to better see the friezes that adorned the front portals. These are perhaps the most impressive part of the cathedral; for gothic sculptures, they are remarkably naturalistic, while remaining powerfully religious. My favorite was of a man calmly holding his own decapitated head in his hands. This is St. Denis of Paris. Back in Roman times, in the third century, he was the Bishop Paris, and had the good fortune to be decapitated during a persecution of the Christians. Unperturbed by this, the good bishop calmly picked up his head and walked ten kilometers, preaching all the way. People had more pluck back then.
Finally we got inside; and to our surprise, it was free. The place was absolutely swarming with tourists. This is why I don’t enjoy visiting the cathedrals in Madrid and in Lisbon. I enjoy cathedrals not only for the art, but because they are big, quiet places that put me in a meditative mood. But in a dense crowd, watching out for pickpockets, I didn’t feel that I could properly enjoy the ambience. This is a shame, because it’s really a lovely cathedral; the stained glass is almost as marvelous as that in the Sainte-Chapelle.
We were outside in about half an hour, both of us starving by now. We sat down to an overpriced, but quite good, breakfast in a café nearby and then began walking towards our next destination: the Musée d’Orsay.
The Musée d’Orsay is one of the world’s finest art museums. Opened as recently as 1986, the museum is housed in an erstwhile railroad station, Gare d’Orsay, completed right in time for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The place still looks like a train station, with a cavernous, rounded glass ceiling. Wisely, the architects of the museum decided to leave much of the upper space open; and this, combined with the plentiful natural light, makes you feel almost as if you are outside. The layout of the museum is equally tasteful. The galleries for paintings are situated symmetrically on each side, along a central corridor; and this corridor, as well as two walkways up above, has been filled with sculptures, big and tiny.
Unlike the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay concentrates on a very specific place and time—namely, art produced in France (Paris, mostly) in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. This may sound a bit narrow, but this was actually one of the most fertile periods in the history of art; and if you want to properly know this epoch, you’ve got to come here. The museum has paintings by Delecroix, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Signac, Seurat, as well as sculptures by Gaugin and Rodin, among innumerable others. The collection has been chosen with exquisite taste. Every other painting is a masterpiece. Nothing is disappointing or out of place. And best of all, unlike the Louvre, you can see everything in three to four hours.
Walking through the Musée d’Orsay was nearly overwhelming. I have never been more entranced by a museum, nor more affected by visual art. In fact, the experience made such a deep impression on me that I will have to devote an entire post to it. Here I offer only a brief sketch.
I saw everything, drinking up each painting with desperate relish. I watched as the styles changed and evolved. First I admired the academic style of William Bourguereau, who painted mythological subjects—Greek Gods, ancient heroes, scenes from Dante—with technical mastery: carefully arranged compositions, scientific anatomy, photographic shadowing; every shape is molded, every line is deliberate, every brushstroke is concealed. The paintings are masterpieces of technique, and yet stale, because they seem to bear no relationship between the artist and the world; rather, they are monuments to a dying tradition.
In reaction to this academic style, which held sway for so long, came the impressionists. Instead of mythological scenes, the impressionists turned their eye to everyday subjects—picnics, soirées, views of the street from apartment windows. Their compositions are typically off-center and messy. Their brushstrokes are not concealed; colors and lines blur into one another. In terms of technique, it seems a step backwards from Bourguereau, but in reality the achievement is more stunning, for they had to develop their technique from scratch. The final effect is a perfect representation of that moment when, after turning your head, a new scene comes into view, all the colors still buzzing, the light playing tricks with your eyes, the forms indistinct as you try to focus. The rise of the impressionists represents a step away from the Platonic conception of knowledge—namely, a View from Nowhere, a perfect perspective that can grasp the world in its entirety—to the our more Nietzschean view of knowledge—namely, inherently subjective, bound up within a specific point of view.
But the impressionists were only the first step. After investigating the way our eyes detect light, later artists started to probe into the ways that our brains put together the data from our eyes into the world as we know it. With this came the following question: What if the way we tend reconstructed the world is completely arbitrary? Could we make sense of our sense data using a different principle, with equal legitimacy? Thus artists began tearing the world apart, sewing it back together in new or interesting ways. Some artists, like Cezánne, tried to simplify the world into more elemental shapes and colors; others, like Signac, tried using atoms of pure color; and van Gogh used curling waves, as if the world we see were only reflection in an swirling ocean of paint.
By the time I walked through the museum, I was absolutely exhausted. But we still had one more museum to see: the Musée de Rodin. This museum, opened in 1919, devoted almost solely to the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who was considered by none other than Kenneth Clark as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. The museum is situated in the former Hôtel Biron, where Rodin liked to work. When he died, he donated his sculptures and his collection of art to the French government, on the condition that they make the hotel into a museum. It was done, and is now one of the many charming places to visit in Paris.
The museum consists of an extensive garden and the old building, with Rodin’s sculptures scattered generously throughout. The garden might be the nicest part. There, you can find The Thinker thinking away, surrounded by hedges, as well as copies of almost every one of his major works.
Now, I must admit that my ability to appreciate sculpture lags far behind my ability to appreciate paintings. Even so, it is clear that Rodin was a brilliant artist. While still depicting human figures, largely with realistic anatomy, he manages to break completely from the Greco-Roman tradition. Far from representing idealized forms, Rodin’s figures are human, imperfect, and often ugly. Far from achieving a classical, timeless grace, Rodin’s figures are twisted, contorted, tortured. The Thinker is a case in point: far from a wise philosopher, calm and contemplative, the man is troubled, anguished, and brooding.
One of my favorite works was Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Originally intended to be the doorway for a Museum of Decorative Arts, until the museum was abandoned, the sculpture is now considered one of Rodin’s masterworks, perhaps his magnus opus. It is meant to be an elaborate representation of Dante’s Inferno. Many of his most famous sculptures originated as pieces of this composition, with The Thinker presiding over the entrance. Everything around the pensive man is a stew of sin and suffering, with figures emerging, half-formed, from the background, tortured, broken, their faces wracked with pain. It is a powerful and terrifying work.
But the sculpture I like best is Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. It is really an absurd statue. The writer stands, his body entirely enveloped in a robe, with his mustachioed face held high, as if snubbing the viewer. At first glance, the figure’s pose might seem totally unnatural; but the longer you look, the more you can see how the body of a paunchy man might easily look like this under a thick robe. I love the sculpture because it manages to make something so apparently unheroic into the symbol of human genius. Balzac is totally uncouth. He is ugly, fat, unshaven; his hair is messy, his robe is shabby. And yet, his inner brilliance allows him to stand completely above the world, unconcerned with conventional success, totally devoted to his personal vision. The sculpture is a monument to the outcast, eccentric, and ultimately triumphant artist.
After walking through the garden and the old hotel, enjoying not only samples of Rodin’s finished work but preparatory studies he left behind, I was done with museums. I couldn’t possibly absorb any more art. By now the day was waning; in a couple hours, the sun would set. Luckily, there was only one more thing I absolutely needed to see: the Eiffel Tower.
Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find. Standing at 1,063 ft (324 m) tall, the Eiffel Tower remains the tallest structure in Paris. Built for the World’s Fair 1889, it was criticized quite severely in its time, especially by the intelligentsia. This is amazing to me, for it is difficult to imagine how the tower could be more perfect.
For me, and perhaps many others, the Eiffel Tower represents Paris’s Golden Age. It was a time when the future could be embraced without scorning the past, when aesthetic values could be questioned without beauty being abandoned. Made of wrought iron, the structure was so daring that people thought it would be blown over by the wind. I can understand why. Even now, there seems to be so little metal per square inch that it looks like it’s made of matchsticks glued together, ready to come apart at the merest breeze.
There is something human about its shape. Looking at the tower dead on, with only two of its legs visible, the tower seems like a Colossus standing over the world. The tower is also, like Paris, elegance itself. The way that the legs gently curve together until they meet at the top has all the classic grace of the Parthenon. Or perhaps the Eiffel Tower can be better compared with the pyramids, as its creator did. This is the modern pyramid, equally useless, equally monolithic, equally iconic. For whatever reason, I find it tremendously inspiring that people built something so big and so ambitious for no practical benefit whatsoever. To me, this is the essence of being human.
We sat in the grass nearby for a few minutes, just taking in the sight. Men were walking around, trying to sell bottles of wine. I was really in the mood for some wine, but I didn’t feel confident about buying wine from these guys and drinking it in the park. Isn’t it illegal? After shooing away five of them, I decided to go. You can’t really enjoy a view when you’re constantly refusing a drink.
We had only one final stop, and not much time to see it: Montmartre. Montmartre is a famous neighborhood in Paris, with a similar reputation to the West Village in New York. Situated on a hill, in the past Montmartre was a haven for artists, where eccentric bohemians could live with cheap rents. Nowadays, it is mainly a tourist attraction, most notable for the gigantic Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Near Montmartre is the famous Moulin-Rouge, nestled amid countless sex shops. By the way, I wonder how so many sex shops manage to stay in business; you’d think they would all sell basically similar products, and so having so many would be unsustainable. But they manage to stay in business, apparently. I suppose enough horny tourists come to Paris to keep an entire town of sex shops above water.
We took our obligatory photo of the Moulin-Rouge, and then began to walk up the hill. On the way, we passed Les Deux Moulins, the café where the film Amélie was shot. (Great movie, by the way.) Soon we arrived at the top. The white cupola of Sacré-Cœur, lit up by spotlights, shone like a beacon amid the darkness. Gathered round where hundreds of people, tourists speaking dozens of languages, and immigrants speaking dozens more trying to sell stuff to the tourists. Inside the basilica, a mass was being held. Outside, people smoke and drank and laughed with one another. It was a wonderful night.
We walked down the stairs in front to the street below. Then suddenly I saw a flash of light.
“What was that?” I asked GF.
“Dunno,” she said. “Go look.”
I walked over to where some other people where standing.
In the distance, I could see the Eiffel Tower, its form lit up with yellow lights. On the top, a searchlight was slowly spinning, sending a powerful beam in all directions. Seconds later, the light turned towards us again, flashing like the sun itself as it passed. I looked on in wonder. And as I looked, I couldn’t help thinking that this image could represent all of Paris: elegant, mysterious, brilliant, illuminating all the world around.