Sunday, July 7, 2013

Big Sites in Short Order

Notre Dame from the flying buttress side

Its familiar face
The celebrated south rose window
     I've already written that Twain spends more time in The Innocents Abroad telling tales about Paris than reporting on sites (Doing the Double-Take: Twain's Split Itinerary, April 23).  And, really, that's generally to the good. Because even if he digresses into odd bits about barbers, billiards, and Billfinger that are unflattering to the French, at least he avoids droning on with descriptions of famous art and architecture spotsThat, I have to think, was deliberate, and I commend him for it.  Honestly, who wants to read other people's accounts of looking at paintings and buildings, no matter how ecstatic their experiences wereUnless you're an art history major (and, okay, I almost was, but I saw the impracticality in becoming a starving art appreciater), it can make you want to brain yourself with a bronze bust.
   So, cheers to Twain for making short order of Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Paris Exposition.  A sa votre!  On the grande dame of cathedrals, for example, he has this to say--and, again, notice how he messes around with who's the superior one:
      We went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We had heard of it before.  It surprises me sometimes to think how much we do know and how intelligent we are.  We recognized the brown old Gothic pile in a moment; it was like the pictures.  We stood at a little distance and changed from one point of observation to another and gazed long at its lofty square towers and its rich front, clustered thick with stony, mutilated saints who had been looking calmly down from their mutilated perches.
     That "brown old Gothic pile" line makes me laugh every time.  People from around the world troop to see a church that's been a symbol of Paris--and of architecture--since 1172.  These days, they can even gaze at it from a huge stand of bleachers set up across from the facade.  I've lingered there myself and heard virtually every language known to humankindSome 14 million people come to see Notre Dame every year, and lately it may be attracting even more visitors because of its new bellsThere's no doubt it's always been a huge draw, though.  But Twain reduces it to word rubble. When he calls it a brown old Gothic pile, he gets to the heart of human hubris through architecture--especially of the religious kind--in just four words.  So much for our lofty notions of ourselvesAnd thank you, Twain.
     In a similar vein, he uses Notre Dame to remind readers of France's bloody history, from the Crusades to the NapoleonsOf the facade's "mutilated saints," he writes:
     These battered and broken-nosed old fellows saw many and many a cavalcade of mail-clad knights come marching home from the Holy Land; they heard the bells above them toll the signal for the St. Bartholomew's Massacre, and they saw the slaughter that followed; later they saw the Reign of Terror, the carnage of the Revolution, the overthrow of a king, the coronation of two Napoleons, the christening of the young prince that lords it over a regiment of servants in the Tuileries today...
     True, La France hasn't always been a peaceable kingdom.  But what country hasYet, while Twain makes the French a case in point, this time his words aren't directed at them in particular but at all of mankind.   Why do I say so? Because he doesn't even use the word "French" or "France" in this bit.  Nor does he veer off into parody or vitriolFor me, this is Twain at his irreverent and poignant best.  Not to mention his most educated.  The sly devil--as he himself might have said--clearly did a lot of reading to come up with that deft history.
     Twain briefly covers the site itself: it sported a pagan temple and two smaller churches before the cathedral went up. Then he goes right back to bloody history, noting that one duke (Burgundy)  built part of Notre Dame because he felt guilty about murdering another (Orleans). "Alas!" he writes"Those good times are gone when a murderer could wipe the stain from his name and soothe his troubles to sleep simply by getting out his bricks and mortar and building an addition to a church."
     I'm not so sure about that, but at least Twain doesn't play national favorites here.  After a quip about the central pillar (carted off for political reasons but returned) and the famous stained-glass windows ("embellished with blue and yellow and crimson saints and martyrs"), he circles right back to his theme: the absurdity of human violence.  In the sacristy--the backroom where priests keep "holy" garments and objects--the Quaker City crew sees the robe the pope wore to crown Napoleon, some gold and silver treasures, and supposed relics from Christ's "true" cross and crown of thorns.  They also see the bloody robe of an archibishop of Paris who was killed when he mounted a baricade for peace during the Revolution of 1848, a workers' rebellion that only led to the rise of Napoleon III and the second French empire.  Twain gets his history right again, this time maybe because it wasn't history for him but adolescence: he was born in 1835.  But my point about his views on man's inhumanity comes from these lines:  "His noble effort cost him his life.  He was shot dead. They showed us a cast of his face taken after death, the bullet that killed him, and the two vertebrae in which it lodged." Although he takes the opportunity to make another comment about the French--"These people have a somewhat singular taste in the matter of relics"--it's the image of the dead peacenik bishop that stays in the mind, and I'm pretty sure that's what stayed with Twain, too.
     He polishes off the International Exposition with equal dispatch.
There, typically, he was more drawn to people-watching than art gazing.
Pierre August's Renoir's The Champs-Elysees During the Paris Fair of 1867
"We went there on our third day and we stayed there nearly two hours," he writes. "That was our first and last visit."  Though he makes the excuse that it would have taken weeks---"yea, even months"--to see all the exhibits, he's clearly more interested in "the moving masses of people of all nations" that made "a still more wonderful show." He concludes, "If I were to stay there a month, I should still find myself looking at the people rather the inanimate objects." And writing about them, no doubt

     So, even with digressions, Twain has only one long  paragraph about the exposition and a mere four about Notre Dame.  But it's the Louvre that he truly dismisses:
     We visited the Louvre at a time when we had no silk purchases in view, and looked at its miles of paintings by the old masters.  Some of them were beautiful, but at the same time they carried such evidences about them of the cringing spirit of those great men that we found small pleasure in examining them.  Their nauseous adulation of princely matrons was more prominent to me and chained my attention more surely than the charms of color and expression which are claimed to be in the pictures.  Gratitude for kindness is well, but it seems to me that some of those artists carried it so far that it ceased to be gratitude and became woship.  If there is plausible evidence for the worship of men, then by all means let us forgive Rubens and his brethen.
     But I will drop the subject, lest I say something about the old masters that might as well be left unsaid.
       I found it hard to know what to make of this passage at first.  Twain goes to the Louvre and all he can think about is how painters kissed up to their patrons?  Then I realized he's still going after the over-refined and hyper-civilized, as symbolized by France's famous museum.  He's making iconoclastic comments as one of a new breed of museum-goer, the American tourist.  He knows what he doesn't like when he sees it Effeteness in any form.  
     These days, I'm afraid, the tourists have taken over too much at the Louvre, though they're not limited to Americans.  They're an  international crowd bent on proving that they've been there in as many electronic ways as possible.  Instead of looking at a work of art, they stand in front of it and take their picture with it, blocking the view of anyone who might actually want to see it.  I've gone to the Louvre many times since I was a teenager, well before I.M. Pei added his famous pyramid as its main entrance.  It's huge and daunting, and you have to devise a smart strategy if you want to have a good experience these days.  Otherwise you end up getting battered by other people's cameras, smart phones, and now their tablets.  My advice: go as late at night as possible and in bad weather if you can.  That tends to keep out the faint of heart.  Never go on a weekend afternoon in the summer or the first Sunday of the month when admission is free.  And bon courage if you get in the way of a picture-poser.  He'll shove you aside like a mean shopper at the marchee. 
     It was with just such a man at the Louvre, in fact, that I had my only run-in on this stay in France.  The guy started yelling at me after I'd asked the woman with him not to cut in front of me and bang me in the face with her ipad.  I thought I was pretty nice;  "Madam, s'il vous plait" was all I said.  Whereupon he whipped around and screamed at me in English of undetermined provenance, "Oh, fine.  You don't have time to wait for somebody else!  Fuck you!"  Every time I think about it, I start to sputter.  There I was--minding my own business, as my mother used to say--when some woman comes up, shoves her way in front, and hits me with her tablet.  Then, when I ask her to move, the guy with her calls me rude and impatient, and in such rude language himself? 
     But, like Twain, I'm going to drop the subject before I say something that should be left unsaid.  I will say one more thing, though.  Art museums don't always bring out the best in us, whether the Louvre or the Smithsonian.  Some of us react to temples of civilization by becoming, well, uncivilized.  
The crowd heads for the Louvre



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