I've recently returned from a brief visit to Paris, occasioned by a personal family matter that happily gave us a reason to go. The first week back, my wife was asked an unusual question, "Why would anyone go to Paris?" It's a question that could come from a variety of assumptions and motives, and one that normally wouldn't occur to most people, given the overwhelming popularity of Paris as a tourist destination. But it's a question worth thinking about.
One reason we travel is to see spectacular sights. Anyone who's been to the Grande Canyon, or to the mountains, can attest to the unparalleled sense of the sublime occasioned by natural grandeur. Sometimes it's just worth it to see something, and all around the world there are, in addition to natural wonders, human creations that satisfy that longing for the gasp of admiration and awe.
The Basilica of Sacre Coeur, pictured above, is one of those monuments I'd never visited. It obviously has a religious role, and a place in history related to the crushing of the Commune, and some architectural significance (though controversy still rages as to whether it is a "good" building). But standing on the summit of Montmartre it is, aside from those, a monument that evokes a kind of awe. Up close it is impressive. But its location makes it visible from all sides at fairly great distances, and, from a distance, whether from the escalator at the Centre Pompidou, or from a balcony of the Musee d'Orsay south of the Seine (see the final photo of my post of September 6, 2015), it fairly shimmers and hovers over the city like a fairy palace from the Arabian Nights.
HIstorical sites are a draw for some of us. Paris is obviously thick with them, from the occasional plaque informing you that Voltaire died in this house to the more spectacular, such as the Luxembourg Palace, built by Marie de Medici, (which I'd never before seen). Notre Dame has obviously seen its share of history, and unhappily made its way into the news this spring with a terrible fire and a brush with collapse.
|The flying buttresses buttressed|
Not surprisingly crowds thronged the quais along the river to get a glimpse of the various measures taken to stabilize the wounded cathedral. Scaffolding covers much of the exterior, and some sort of translucent cover seems to be protecting most of the stained glass. When I learned, on the day after the fire, that the roof had been destroyed, I remembered that the great flying buttresses were there to counter the outward thrust of the weight of the roof, and I wondered whether, in the absence of that force, they might dangerously push the walls inward. I don't know if that was the reason, but, as can be seen above, the buttresses are now apparently supported from below by wooden supports, fitting precisely under each buttress, and having a kind of beauty of their own.
This being France, there is endless discussion of how to restore (or rebuild, or reconstruct, or renew) the cathedral. (The verb matters.) In America there would be no question of government involvement in the restoration of a damaged cathedral. In France, despite its considerably more radical commitment to a secular state, the collective social responsibility to protect the patrimonie is almost universally shared. I picked up, from a stack at the check-out of the bookstore of the Centre Pompidou, a longish essay called Notre-Dame de l'humanite, written by Adrien Goetz, a member of the Academy of Beaux-Arts and a professor of art history at the Sorbonne. It ranges from his personal observations and feelings witnessing the fire, to the present dire state of many prominent monuments, to reflections on the role of medievalism and romanticism, the effect of seeing the cathedral through the eyes of Viollet-le-Duc and Hugo, and the religious, national and artistic sides of a catastrophe that gripped even those with no such connections or commitments.
Another reason to visit Paris is of course the great art collections, most prominently in the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay. We didn't go to the Louvre, and we only went to the d'Orsay because of a Berthe Morisot show. The d'Orsay was significantly more crowded than even four years ago, and it took us an hour in line just to get in. I would never say that it wasn't worth it; the collection is unmatched in the world. But as a way of seeing art, the giant museum has its down sides.
One reason for avoiding the Louvre was that the Mona Lisa has been moved, in anticipation of a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit this fall. A certain Young Friend complained that moving the Mona Lisa made certain other favorite collections practically unreachable, due to the crowds massing around Leonardo's disproportionately iconic painting.
What we discovered on this trip were a few of the smaller, more overlooked museums. One was the Musee Cognacq-Jay, the former home a nineteenth century couple who collected painting and sculpture from the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.
|The Boucher Room at the Musee Cognacq-Jay|
Another was the Gustav Moreau Museum, the former home and studio of the nineteenth century Symbolist painter, the lower floors his meticulously preserved living quarters, the two upper floors his studio, the walls covered with enormous, often unfinished, and usually rather bizarre paintings.
A probably better-known smaller museum is the Rodin Museum, well-attended but hardly crowded, with bronze castings of much of Rodin's best-known work in the well-kept gardens of the exterior. The interior contained not only Rodin's own work, but work he collected (from classical antiquities to a Van Gogh) as well as work by his increasingly-appreciated apprentice, Camille Claudel.
And I shouldn't leave out the easy-to-overlook reconstruction of Brancusi's studio just across from the Centre Pompidou.
A perhaps less-inviting, but nevertheless worthwhile aspect of Paris is the great University, sprawling across, around, and beyond the left bank Latin Quarter.
The administrative center of the University can't normally be entered by those who are not students, faculty, or employees (and we were unable to talk our way past the polite but persistent guards). I have an earlier post on the University's origins (April 12, 2019), with a photo at the end of the Sorbonne's inner (and inaccessible to me) courtyard. I understand there are limited tours that we simple gawkers can sign up for, and though I would have liked to see Richelieu's tomb, the public Place de la Sorbonne (the "other side" of the afore-referenced photo) is a pleasant venue for people-watching and grabbing an inexpensive, student-priced lunch:
|The public Place de la Sorbonne|
The life of the scholar is a far cry from the life of the tourist. Per Ernest Renan, the great nineteenth century philologist and religious historian, "You Englishmen think of Paris as a great fair, a place of frivolity and amusement. I tell you it is nothing of the sort. It is the hardest working place in the world."
The best I could do was this: I had picked up, at the L'ecume des Pages bookstore, on the Boulevard St. Germain, a slim paperback called Dieu, la mort et le temps, a transcription of the last lectures given by Emmanuel Levinas at the University in 1975. Striking a studious pose under one of the trees I was able to at least begin--"Il s'agit ici, avant tout, d'un cours sur le temps--la duree du temps. Le mot duree du temps est choisi pour plusieurs raisons...."--and could imagine my 1975 self (who admittedly knew not a word of French) listening seriously to these novel ideas with excitement and puzzlement.
|Window shopping at the Sorbonne|
Speaking of reading, we also spent a day around Saint-Germain-du-Pres, the left bank neighborhood best known for the cafes that served as haunts of writers and intellectuals. Today of course they are more the haunts of us tourists (a natural progression). Below is a shot of Les Deux Magots, reputedly a favorite of Hemingway (though I don't think it's mentioned in A Moveable Feast). Next door is the Cafe de Flore, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir held court.
I am not a great fan of Hemingway. I enjoyed A Moveable Feast, but more for the celebrity gossip. And I re-read The Sun Also Rises this year, for that whole Lost Generation vibe, and enjoyed it and maybe had a little more appreciation for its clipped style (especially when juxtaposed with James' The Ambassadors, another part of the "Paris prep").
But over and above those, I had a plan with a French language book I had been creeping through for some time. Back in the eighties I had read Balzac's Lost Illusions, and last year I started to read it in French. Illusions Perdues is in three parts. The first part focuses on two friends in Angouleme, one of whom, the ambitious poet Lucien Chardon, attaches himself to the aristocratic Madame de Bargeton, managing, by the end of the first part, to accompany his would-be mistress to Paris. The second part of the novel takes up a common theme, the hapless provincial in Paris, where, after being thrown over, Lucien (never a particularly admirable character) descends into a foreordained sequence of [spoiler alert] poverty, despair, ruin and betrayal.
I had hoped to coordinate my own arrival in Paris with Lucien's, and came rather close. (Left the book on the plane (!), but easily found another copy). Happily I am even now still in Lucien's "poor-but-honest" phase, and the following, from a letter Lucien writes to his sister, sets out well the dazzling world that the young poet encounters:
"Ce pays est celui des écrivains, des penseurs, des poètes. Là seulement se cultive la gloire, et je connais les belles récoltes qu’elle produit aujourd’hui. Là seulement les écrivains peuvent trouver, dans les musées et dans les collections, les vivantes œuvres des génies du temps passé qui réchauffent les imaginations et les stimulent. Là seulement d’immenses bibliothèques sans cesse ouvertes offrent à l’esprit des renseignements et une pâture. Enfin, à Paris, il y a dans l’air et dans les moindres détails un esprit qui se respire et s’empreint dans les créations littéraires. On apprend plus de choses en conversant au café, au théâtre pendant une demi-heure qu’en province en dix ans. Ici, vraiment, tout est spectacle, comparaison et instruction."
So, those are a few of my own reasons that someone might want to visit Paris. I should add that, on this trip, we did a little more aimless wandering than usual. Paris is a walker's town; I actually lost four pounds. The Metro is cheap, clean, quick and reliable (admittedly, being footloose and fancy free, we could avoid rush hours, and it was August, when many true Parisians were elsewhere). But we had time to explore various neighborhoods and districts--Montmartre, the Marais, San Germain de Pres, l'Ile Saint-Louis, and the Bois de Vincennes and its environs.
|Some street someplace|
France is no utopia, nor is Paris the celestial city. We never saw the Gilets Jaunes, as I think the July heat dimmed some of their enthusiasm. But the country and the city seem to work comparatively well, in contrast to the present discontents of our American Republic.
It's kind of like that old joke: Nobody goes to that restaurant any more; it's always too crowded.
|Le reve et le souvenir|