Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bonsai, and what Oliver said

The Park Floral, near the Château de Vincennes, instantly very far away from anywhere else, worlds unto itself, is host to a disparate forest. In shallow pots of terra cotta and ceramic, on superimposed shelves, and gracing mounds are bonsai. Dozens and dozens of them. More than you could ever imagine all in one place. The effect, when you didn't expect to see any such thing, is breath-taking. We just all stood there, quiet, awed, I swear, by their presence. "1930," "1925," "1937" read the dates, marking the trees' survival beyond the lifespans of the ones who first stilled them. Slowed them down. Made them into these beautiful, beautiful things that ache, though, when you look at them. Mac got it all started when he spoke of contemporary critiques of bonsai trees, and then I, insufferably, asked if trees suffer. This lively exchange is a close version of what went on between the kids. Trees can't/don't suffer, but it looks like suffering (and terms like "ligature" get used) - but it also looks beautiful.

And so: how can suffering and beauty possibly be combined? (brief excursus into bull fighting and Hemingway). Aren't there ethical problems with the combination of the two? (bull fighting redux). Do we need to think about time and beauty and suffering? Is it the miniaturization that makes it beautiful? Something about being able to grasp an entire banyan tree (if that's what this is) in one glance? One of the main arguments against bonsai being anything other than one of the most beautiful art forms is the effort (and vigilance and concentration, said the wall text) it takes to tend a bonsai. I will be thinking a lot in the coming months about the actions around the word "tend," and what it takes to "tend to," and the work of the bonsai maker is pure dedication, unceasing devotion. There are moments of cutting, others of tying down, the careful attention to be paid to fragile roots that are never allowed to go too deep. Can suffering be conceived other than non-sensorially for the non-human? Can a tree be said to suffer if it is prevented from what it tends towards (to take root, to grow tall, to have its lignin stretch and unfurl)? And yet that, the process and the miniaturization that follows, results in something that is beautiful.

And then Oliver, who had been unusually quiet, said slowly: "But we always think that things that are made when we break the rules are beautiful." That, he went on and here I'm paraphrasing and extrapolating, and I think I get it but I'm still working on it - that beauty is predicated on there being a rule broken rather than obeyed. That beauty emerges amidst broken rules; that norms and beauty aren't actually that exciting of a pair. That for beauty to occur (appear, be recognized, make itself manifest) a rule or a convention needs to be have been broken. Maybe it's the violence behind beauty; Mac said Oliver's idea was approaching the sublime. For Oliver, all of this artifice and vigilance and tending of trees was one big rule break - the rule (of natural law?) that would normally ensure the "natural progression" (a phrase I am looking at more carefully now) of the tree. We find it beautiful, because we broke the rule that said it couldn't be done. There is a triumphalism (over some concept of nature? over that particular tree?) in finding something beautiful.  Here is beauty, wrought by humans. Someone who works on bonsai I think would see things more in concert; indeed, a concerted effort between human and tree. A concerted effort to produce these beautiful hybrids of human attention and arboreal tendency. Every trim, every depravation, every period of ligature, is a rule broken, a tendency thwarted and redirected. And then, this impossible being emerging: guided perfection (and I'm never entirely sure if it's the tree following the artist's lead or the artist following the tree's lead), the desire to see wonders (the specific desire, or longing as Susan Stewart would have it, of the miniature), the marvel of a shift in scale. We stayed a very long time in this space presided over by these wondrous trees, the intimacy and complexity of their years of becoming pushing up at beauty itself. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Scribe Eyes

The city was in a giving mood today. Some days the bus pulls away, the sidewalk trips you, there's poop, one more document for the bank, a long list of grievances even though you know you're lucky. Other days, Paris just decides to smile upon you; smile into you. The bus pulls up as you do, the work of art you want to see is right near an air conditioning vent, the flowers seem especially bright, and you are presented with this sense that everything you're doing is just the best possible thing you could be doing right now. The kids and I finished out Egyptian art at the Louvre: hard to let go of the Old Kingdom (and we didn't entirely) but there was a Tutankhamun room (nothing splendid (would have to go to Cairo) housing a fascinating panel of princes from Libya, Nubia, and Syria offering up their homage to the boy pharaoh). The last of the last Egyptian rooms is devoted to the Ptolomeic pharaohs and Cleopatra VII. Very smartly, in these last rooms, you can start to see the Greek vase collection in the gallery parallel to the Egyptian one: by peeking through doors open between the two sets of galleries.  The assignment for the day was to find an image that best exemplified the end of the galleries, of the Egyptian Empire. Eleanor chose this magnificent gold covering for a mummy because to her, the afterlife had always always always been important in Egyptian culture. "If they kept repeating the idea, it must be important." She favored the continuity argument. Oliver and Iris both chose works of art that bore the presence of Greek artists: rounder forms, more relaxed musculature, a hint of the Archaic smile. By the time you exit the Egyptian galleries, you're back in the Napoleonic Louvre: no more streamlined modernist galleries; instead, grandeur and echo. But I hadn't seen the Old Kingdom scribe - so back in we went (thank you, kids!)

This felt like a gift. I've studied and taught this figure for almost 17 years and I've always emphasized his vulnerability (the sagging muscles, the impermanent materials) and his lower status than the pharaohs. But in his presence, now in his own case (and not one among dozens of objects and buried in the back of a display case), I saw something else entirely: a piercing gaze that held me in its grasp and had us all asking questions. The eyes are "rock crystal" (rock crystal, mind you!) with little copper irises (for depth? for light?). It's just brilliant!!! He looked much more as though he were waiting and had all the patience in the universe to keep waiting. I see him as an infinitely more complex figure now. Yes, impermanence and desuetude, but those eyes! They really do seem to shine into eternity. Now, the usual art history questions follow: are these restorations? is the crystal original? has it merely been cleaned? I hope that this image can give you some sense of the beautiful "limpid pools"(yes!) of his eyes. I'm used to eyes being made of shell or painted on, but this, this was something else entirely. More present, more alive, more mischievous. I'll be teaching him entirely differently from how on!

And then to meet a dear friend, and all of a sudden there's a café in the garden of the Palais Royal and the beer (why not?) is very good indeed and this friend of mine, we've been friends for 20 years now and talking with her is the same rush of excitement and shared enthusiasm as it ever was. The kids read their new books from W.H. Smith (yes, English bookshop - land of wonders) and we talked and talked. And then down some stairs, through a passage, and into Bistro Victoires where there's bustling and steak frites (see photo) and the waiter is super sympa and we all feasted and then shared the same crème brulée which made just the right noise when its ever-so-thin sheet of spun sugar was lightly tapped before we reveled properly. Because poetry and arithmetic often work hand in hand, today was my birthday and I am 45 years old and it was 20 years ago exactly that I had my birthday in Paris and Mac and I had just met and still it seems that all things are possible, that there are many days of great thanksgiving, and that the eyes of a scribe of 2,5000 years ago might shine brightly anew.

Château de Vincennes and Parc Floral

If memory serves, it will rain throughout October, November, and December, the time of damp sweaters and warming cafés and layers shifting uncomfortably in crowded metros and museums, and we are thus taking advantage of these sunny days to be outside almost at all times. The market calls on Saturday morning regardless, but to be greeted by such flowers seemed a special gift, a herald almost.

Another photograph by Eleanor
So this post will be mostly images, with brief descriptions and a pause about something that Oliver said that has had me thinking ever since. If you're down at Vincennes and you haven't seen the castle (as I hadn't) then it's high time. You go in and you can climb the castle keep and walk in the footsteps of Charles V (a lot of footsteps of Charles V) and think about Louis IX setting up his hunting lodge here and then sitting under an oak tree and writing out counsels to his children. On a sunny day, you can wonder anew about kings past and all of this being open to us. Like I never get tired of flying in an airplane, I never get tired of All of Us getting to walk in grounds not meant for us. I wouldn't need to walk amongst the dinosaurs - this is enough.

La Sainte Chapelle
The castle ramparts are massive and the moat is truly impressive (no water, but still impressive in girth!). They enclose what must have been at one time a bustling space but has now been cleared out to reveal the gems and masterpieces: the Sainte Chapelle here (begun by Charles V with the Sainte Chapelle in the center of Paris very much in mind, and finished by Henry II who adorned it with some pretty incredible Renaissance stained glass). There are mysterious sculptures within that make the space wriggle a bit.

The Castle Keep
The Castle Keep (le Donjon) is truly grand. The tallest of the Middle Ages and designed with a resolute symmetry and order, it has had many lives. The statues that used to greet one at the entrance were those of Charles V and his wife Jeanne de Bourbon. They now await you at the Louvre. Charles seemed especially fond of this space and fashioned two studies for himself there: one for manuscripts and consultation with counselors, and another with an adjoining treasury (more manuscripts and rare and beautiful objects - now also at the Louvre). In the 18th century, the king's study became the humanists' prison, and Diderot was there for his Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (and wow does that ever look interesting - I picked it up and have started it and now want to rethink Derrida's Memoirs of the Blind exhibit at the Louvre - more to do!).

Cool app!
In the first study of Charles V you are handed an iPad and beneath your gaze and within your grasp, Charles V's study appears in resplendent color and furnishing. The Château belongs to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, which has big, big funding. Might I wave at iPad at Carnac and see rituals displayed? This is a very cool idea (I think that there's an app like this for the Roman Forum) - one of those revolutionary ones for archaeological sites. And of course it comes with a million questions about authenticity, access, intimacy to the past, and imagination.

Is that the Grandes Chroniques I see in the bottom left-hand corner? Let me just reach over...

Mac, this time

Of the dozens and dozens of photographs that Mac took of these resplendent gardens, this one signals the lushness and expanse rather well. The Parc Floral is both exuberant and meticulous. A horticultural paradise and pedagogical space, it offers up meditation and information. There's not a weed anywhere, no way. There's a sculpture to the gardening here: plants in full bloom creating volumetric shapes with each other. It's just magnificent. We listened to a concert of music composed by women around WWI by the Calliopé Ensemble - it was difficult music in parts, lyrical in others, it made me love every single person sitting there listening and France itself. I'm going to stop here because it's Monday actually and that's our day to go to the Louvre and so we're off. There's more, I realize, and there'll be time, I hope. Back soon, dear reader.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


By Eleanor!
Eleanor has become interested in photography, and Mac has started talking to her about lighting and composition and so a few of these will be her gems. My sweet brother and his fantastic little family came and went and we miss them and so off we went back to the Marais (where we'd all spent a couple of amazing days together in an apartment - airbnb, you are awesome) and continued our History of Paris curriculum (begun at the Cluny museum on a day I somehow didn't write about - we'll return I'm sure). I'm taking advantage of gorgeous days to go to museums and walk around neighborhoods - there will be plenty of rain in October, November, and December to keep me in libraries. For now, site visits and thinking about the museum course and tiny tiny to-go espresso cups and small beautiful parks.

These guys
Walking down the streets of Paris, France with three incredibly chatty kids aged 8-12 is pretty much a spectacle every time. The sidewalks are most often quite narrow, so there's a lot of single file walking - none of which deters them from carrying on lively conversations. I'll often turn around and see exactly this picture as I stop at an intersection to feel them bump up into me, oblivious to all but the finer points of the conversation, which, these days, is mostly likely to be concerning their favorite TV show, Lapins Cretins or how cool Guardians of the Galaxy were.

Shop signs
And so, to the Musée Carnavalet, a museum devoted entirely to the history of Paris and which is undergoing MAJOR RENOVATIONS! This is one of my all-time favorite museums: locks of Marie Antoinette's hair, 10-hour clocks from the French Revolution (why not go metric with time?), models of medieval Paris, front pages of newspapers from important moments in history. It's a completely eclectic museum, a museum of stuff - objects and things of what was then the every day which have survived to become emblematic. So: two whole rooms of shop signs, most of them from the early 18th-century, but many many based on medieval shop signs. Don't forget, it was Napoleon who came up with the idea of numbering street addresses. Until him (ah, Napoleon), it was "meet me at the giant scissors."

Creepy shop sign
I'd asked each kid to pick a favorite one: all three chose the eyeglasses. Because, creepy. And they are, aren't they? Just looking out at you across the room. It's early advertising (who could forget those eyes?), it's early wit (the restaurant "Au Bon Coin" is represented by a coing, a quince), it's early Orientalism (ask me about "The Persian," an enormous (7' tall) figure for an exotic goods store), it's early riddling ("Le Chat Qui Dort" - the sleeping cat - is revealed as such by the tiny mouse directly under his nose), it's all here. And the way that it's set up, you feel as though you're walking down a busy street. I hope hope hope that they do not change this room - it has a crowdedness that contemporary museums hate, but which I truly hope it doesn't lose. Watching the kids run back and forth and decode the signs was great joy. And then, on to the Revolution! The 10-hour clock! The hair!

The sign pointing up, and the black divider blocking entry, say it all. Well, and the kids' faces. Come on, Oliver, tell us how you really feel. Gaaaa! I'll have to look back through old photographs and hope to goodness that I got shots of the Revolutionary rooms (I'm sure I did) - they are truly old and crowded and surely will be changed. From what I can tell (and show you in a second) thus far, there's definitely a "period room" emphasis in the new rooms. I worry about those only because they tend to throw out things that "don't fit" and you lose your eclecticism that way. Fingers crossed. And hope (though dim) that the renovations will be done before we leave - it's a two-year project the guard told me, and everything was still as it ever was in January of 2013 when I was here with students last... Sorry kids, but look!

This is unbelievable! The unspeakably beautiful Art Nouveau façade and much of the interior of the jeweler Fouquet's shop! It's absolutely breath-taking!!! I've been coming to this museum for 25 years and have never seen anything like it - was it somehow in storage all along? a new donation? There are several rooms now (a ball room, a reception room) from multiple different Parisian sites - this is way beyond a period room, this is a re-creation and an environment. All soft, warm wood contrasted with smooth bronze: the flourishing young woman here holds bejeweled necklaces, and the interior (hard to photograph) has a stained glass window of a peacock atop of which is a 3-dimensional bronze peacock! It took our breath away. We've been pointing out the Art Nouveau Metro signs whenever they appear and Oliver put the stylistic pieces together - nice!

After that, there's a return to the period room, or rather a series of period bedrooms of famous people who lived in Paris. How all of Proust's bedroom came to the Carnavalet is surely a tale in and of itself. That's quite a twist, having a portrait of his father, the professor of hygiene and medicine, Adrien Proust, the very man who kept telling Proust to get out of bed already. Mac introduced me to him because he apparently did some work with neurasthenia, this new illness of modernity, this lassitude and fatigue. It's been claimed for Proust (and here I am out of my depth) whether by his father, himself, or posterity I don't know.

By Eleanor!
Mac met us outside the Musée Carnavalet, himself emerging from his library into the crowd. There's a wonderful phrase, "prendre un bain de foule" - literally to take a bath in the crowd, but metaphorically, hmm: to enjoy the crowd? feel yourself surrounded, enter the flow; phenomenologically, to feel yourself energized by the life around you, to let yourself be curious and taken up in something bigger. I don't know which came first, Paris or the phrase, but they meet nicely at the Place des Vosges. Beautiful park square framed by perfectly matching architecture of the haute haute bourgeoisie (Hugo lived here). But times have surely changed: where before, the grass was meticulously weeded by gardeners and vigilantly protected by whistle-wielding park guards, we (the people!) can now sit on the grass. This is no big deal to Eleanor who loved the fountains instead (rightly so), but it does blow my mind that you can now sit on the grass in Paris, France. Still not at Jardin Luxembourg, mind you, but here, and right in the heart of the elite corner of the Marais. Vive la Revolution indeed!

If I could have simultaneously held a camera and the mountainous falafels we were eating, I would have. The Marais's Rue des Rosiers is rich in these and there are multiple ones to try - these were the feasts of my student days and they haven't stopped. 6euros will still get you all the festivities and then off you go down the street to find yet another park that you can sit in (so many!). And then Paris does that thing, where you start walking and you're seeing things, but you're also just so happy to be in the company you're keeping, and so you keep walking and you don't want the evening to end and it doesn't have to, because the streets keep coming, and Oliver has one more thing he wants to tell us about The Hunchback of Notre-Dame which he'd just finished that morning, and all of a sudden, you totally understand the flâneur, but then there's the metro stop in front of the Hotel de Ville (which is lit up like a birthday cake) and you know this one will take you straight home and so, ok, let's go.

And we even scored four seats together, with Mac just on the other side, and I took this picture in stealth because I don't want to forget them ever reading on the metro, books almost automatically rising out of their satchels, still (to me) tiny bodies settling in to the lull of the train, Eleanor's head on my shoulder, all of us heading homeward.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tiki Pop

Two days later, I am as puzzled by the exhibit Tiki Pop at the Quai Branly as I was when I first stepped out. Poking around a bit has only made the whole enterprise (and I do believe that's the word) stranger, so there is little to do at this point but plunge ahead and make a few notes, hoping that, when I teach this in the Politics of the Museum class, my students and I might make more sense of it. So. What puzzles. The Display. There's an oscillation between glass cases and experiential environments. You'd think a museum goer would welcome this as "variety," but it comes across as confusing. (Let me say right here that I understand that this oscillation/confusion may be "part of the point," but that point, the ultimate goal of the exhibition, never becomes clear/is torn between a love and a critique of Tiki Pop. Examples of this oscillation are most pronounced in the difference between the glass cases, which present hundreds of Tiki Pop artifacts as these "explain" the phenomenon and constructed spaces, such as the room above, that mingle artifacts with museum props. In yet other cases, Tiki Pop objects are themselves mingled with original Polynesia objects (everything from lanterns to sacred works of art). What does this mean? How is this juxtaposition to be understood? I bought the Beaux-Arts magazine of the exhibition for reasons I'll explain in a bit and found this answer (loosely translated): "In the exhibition, we present several pieces of our permanent collection coming from New Zealand, Hawaii or the Marquesas Islands. In no way are they there to speak for the Polynesia people. Rather, they are points of departure for an exhibition that I would qualify as modern art." There is much to unpack here starting with the ease of separating Polynesian art from the people who made it, and the insistence on a rift between Polynesian art and modern art, that leads to the idea of the artifacts both displaying and explaining Tiki Pop. There's a bit of the "Ils sont fous, les Américains" feel to the exhibition, which after all is subtitled "L'Amérique Rêve son Paradis Polynesien" (America Imagines (says the publication, but dreams is ok) its own Polynesian Paradise) and indeed the same Beaux-Arts article presents America in the 1960s as a time when the country could (again, translated) "achieve its craziest (les plus fous) dreams."

The show ostensibly entertains the years 1945-1968, but also presents a series of literary precedents (Melville, Stevenson, Gauguin slips in there quietly, and there is this intense image of Dix with an ancestral statue of his collection - and I'm going to need Mac to explain the image of Hitler in this book opening). It then presents a series of (frankly) pop psychology explanations: the economic prosperity that followed WWII made for a "stressed" (quoting from the wall text) population seeking escape and leisure. Enter (without discussion of American military presence or the annexation of Hawaii or anything geo-political) the Tiki. The case preceding that of dozens of Tiki glassware for cocktails is entirely dedicated to Prohibition, which explains (?) the American enthusiasm for cocktails. Ok. So am I sounding like an American calling foul at another culture's representation of American culture? Sure - high time that happened to Americans and American culture. But I also want to keep the focus on what is happening to Polynesian culture here, on how it is being portrayed as the soothing elixir to another culture without any analysis of the power structures that needed to be in place for that phenomenon to occur. There's an ease and an inevitability, an inexorability and a relentlessness, to the American appropriation of Polynesia culture. There is neither protest nor critique. A tiny bit comes at the end of the show when the "end" of Tiki Pop is explained by the Baby Boomers' generation being better educated and therefore cynical of their parents' enthusiasm for Tiki Pop culture, marijuana replacing the cocktail (!!!), and (and this has to be my favorite quote from the wall text) America losing its naïveté never to regain it. My defensiveness at my perceived misrepresentation of American culture is short-lived compared to my need for some kind of analysis of the conditions of possibility (beyond literary precedent and pop psychology) of what is an extensive period of political and economic exploitation.

The Curator. Ok, so maybe that need comes from being a humorless academic, which I'm not entirely so there's that. But I also don't think that poking gentle fun at wayward Americans is the only response to the American exploitation of Polynesian culture. And I understand that "Tiki Pop" as an exhibition title will draw more people than "American Exploitation of Polynesian Culture." Nonetheless, I felt the lack of analysis pretty insistently throughout the exhibition. This is the part that I would want to work out with students. What would be the mode, the tone, the emphasis, the material of an exhibit that acknowledges the politics of this cultural phenomenon? In some ways the answer is straightforward: go to history, go to geo-politics, go to economics (trace the movement's trajectory from California to Florida and then its spreading in the Midwest (when and how was the Tiki Bar at the University of Chicago, still in full swing when I was a grad student there opened?) and Everywhere Else in the States), involve Polynesian responses, bring in modern-day scars and inheritances. Bring in Sarah Vowell for goodness sake and have her read from Unfamiliar Fishes. In other ways, things get importantly complicated on questions of who speaks for whom, how dialogues can be created, who speaks with whom, how to live with legacies that prized pleasure and hid pain. Ok, so that's how I might start the conversation. It's not the conversation the curator, Sven Kirsten, is having. A self-titled "urban archaeologist," a cinematographer of music videos and Hollywood movies, and avid collector of Tiki Pop artifacts (whose introduction to Polynesia culture came by way of reading Thor Heyerdahl's book Kon-Tikifound on his parents' bookshelf in Germany), Kirsten adds this exhibit (and its hefty catalogue) to two previous publications exploring/celebrating the American appropriation of Polynesian culture for everything from hotels to ketchup dispensers that he has dubbed Tiki Pop (The Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern). Once I learned this, I will tell you that I became more skeptical about the provenance of nearly everything from the show being "collection particulière" (private collection). Whose? And whom does the display of these artifacts benefit (knowing that any object that is part of a museum exhibit increases in value)? So that's the ethics component. But back to the insistent need for analysis (which I wanted) vs. presentation (which is done very, very thoroughly - make no mistake, this is definitely the best collection of Tiki Pop artifacts in the world).

I'm in a bind here because (let's just be quick about it) American culture sees professionalism as elitism. So for me, an academic, to decry the lack of academic credentials of the curator of a museum exhibit will be interpreted by many as snobbery on my part. But there is, in fact, a special training that goes into being a curator, one that of course can be stifling and predictable, but also one that, at its best, would have more vocabulary and wherewithal in confronting the complexity of American appropriation of Polynesian culture. In the absence of analysis, this exhibit becomes a loving look with a bit of head-shaking at those wacky Americans and their Tiki Pop. It would be one thing if this benevolent head-shaking occurred in a book or on-line, but in the halls of the Musée du Quai Branly, whose tagline is "where cultures come to dialogue" it is another thing entirely. I'm not seeing the dialogue, as much as I'm seeing a reminiscence, an exposé, an enthusiasm. What I see is immaterial, however, to the thousands of people who have seen the show, and to the hundreds that waited in line to see it as Eleanor and I left it. Tiki Pop sells, as it always has, with an unnerving glee that defies complications.

 The Publications. Very different things get said in different places. The Tiki Pop catalogue is by Sven Kirsten, and published by Taschen (run by Benedikt Taschen, who also emigrated from Germany to California - and lives in the awesomely cool Chemosphere by John Launter no less!). The Beaux-Arts magazine devoted to the exhibition is the only place where I've found French academics and museum professionals doing the writing. Now, the Musée du Quai Branly has a long and complicated history (chronicled in Sally Price's incredible book), but it's within these pages that you'll find analysis of the annexation of Hawaii in 1959, here that you'll see a photograph of Obama growing up in Hawaii (!), here that you'll see more intertwining of the European articulation of "primitivism" with American Polynesian consumerism. There's analysis and a score of images not in the exhibition (and of course fewer images than are in the exhibition - have to go to the catalogue for that). Finally, there's the strangest little publication. At the entrance, or the exit (when I noticed it) is a little blue fold-out paper. I picked it up, my head full of images of Tiki statues, full of questions of how this all (the phenomenon, the exhibition) came to be, full of curiosity about how the show ends, with the definitive end of Tiki Pop - with its revilement by the next generation as kitsch, racist, colonialist (the words of the wall text), with this "loss of naïveté" of American culture. And I look at this little blue fold-out and I see instructions for How to Host Your Very Own Tiki Party...! In English, with links to cocktail recipes and a Deezer playlist (put together by the Musée du Quai Branly) and suggestions for the right décor. And my puzzlement was thus sealed. Until further consideration (in class), as they say.

P.S. And then we went to Café Branly, which is of course very expensive, but the Café Gourmand is reasonably priced and comes with these fantastic little delectables. Fantastic little companion comes separately.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


My awesome little partner
First of all, it's fun to say: "Vitaville!" Second of all, it has something like ten different ways of being understood: "Vite! à ville!" "Vita! Ville!" (ok, two but still - very witty). Third, it was wonderful. A day-long municipal fair, in which all of the "associations" (what I think we would call clubs) are present with booths and sig-up information and demonstrations. The "Association Familiale Catholique" is right next to the "Association des Musulmans de Courbevoie;" sign up for "Kavadenn" to learn Breton dancing or go to the next booth over for Krav Maga. It's all here! Including, bien sûr, a crêpe stand and Orangina and cider for this afternoon duo. The only thing that comes close to resembling this (minus the cider) is the college activities fair where I teach. When all interests come together and you're invited to bring your curiosity and your good will, and there is something utopic in the air, hoping things could always be full of this much possibility.

Mac would know these dances
There's the Fun Bollywood Show club which learns dance routines from Bollywood films (and yes, there's a kids' dance club, and yes Eleanor is interested). They did a full-on demonstration. In her introduction, the club president said something interesting: "If you're an "amateur des films Bollywood" you will surely recognize the dances." As I watched the third one, I wondered if maybe I hadn't seen it in one of the films that Mac shows for the Bollywood section of his Indian Art class. I bet he'd know them all. But also, this means that there's Bollywood film screenings going on, and people who love them enough to learn the dances.

Le grand classique
On the same stage, within the hour: Breton dancing. In some ways, this afternoon, if not Courbevoie itself, is the dream (with all the simultaneous vividness and distance of a dream) : a complex society with a well-scripted social contract in which one can nurture interests and desires. Courbevoie is, in so many ways, the France I don't see in the museums and other cultural self-presentations of the state. It has less pomp but more circumstance: in habits and structures I don't fully understand yet, it houses dozens of different cultures and languages. There are combinations like I've never seen: not just the Halal-certified sushi, and the free Arabic lessons (from the (equivalent of) Parks and Recreation), but also the president of the chess club (with whom I had a nice long chat) who dreams of retiring to Cincinnati. I love it here, the rhythms of this neighborhood, the individuality of possibility. By the end of the tour of 100+ booths, Eleanor and I had picked up information about the rowing club for Mac, and I'd had a nice talk with the fencing club about Oliver joining ("question de langue" - it moves fast, but what better motivation to learn French quickly!), we'd looked at an art club for kids, and I'd thought about yoga. Our curiosity has only multiplied and somehow our sense of home grew. This happens at some point: this fantasy that wow, wouldn't it be wonderful to live here, really live here? Not always have departure in mind, not keep the critical stance to French culture, but just go in, just enter it and buy into the social contract and the ideals and the contradictions and the problems. Because, Vitaville, because municipal and federal services, because even the contradictions and hypocrisy are provocative of a better society. There isn't the time and the money, and there is the reality of our lives (!), but every once in a while, there is this invitation to think of living here. (It's both not as crazy and just as crazy as it sounds: I was born here and could activate citizenship proceedings, but God, try being a female university professor in France, try starting anything once you're over the age of 40 - no, this is definitely a ridiculous day dream, but it's interesting to me how pressing it gets sometimes). I've had several students accept this invitation and make their lives here. I admire them and wonder about the pleasures and challenges of full engagement in French life, not just scholarship and teaching materials, but life.

In the meantime, here are a few seconds of Breton dance and au revoir from Vitaville!


Friday, September 5, 2014

Off the Beaten Path of the 19th Century

Yes, that's exactly what you think it is: a cast of a hand that's been bronzed, gilded, and turned into an ink well. It's in the first room of the Musée de la Vie Romantique, the one filled with George Sand's prized possessions, and I was immediately drawn to it because at first glance it looks so very much like a medieval reliquary. When I asked Eleanor, completely rhetorically, "Isn't that interesting?" I got the resigned reply, "When interesting comes with gross, yes." Poor Eleanor - she favors her father in loving modern art, sans serif font, and sleek architecture, and is ever-dismayed (lately more resigned, though) at my love of all things "gross" in visual and material culture. But come on! An inkwell? How cool is that?

Dendrite painting
Very cool, it turns out, as were most of the objects in the museum. It's one of fourteen City of Paris Museums, with free admission for all. (Free admission!) There's perceptible difference between these and the national Monuments Historiques museums - less sleek, smaller scale, more run-down (the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Musé Galeria being the exceptions), visited by serious fans of the personages in question. This museum is in a home studio that was owned by the painter Ary Scheffer and frequented by a Veritable Who's Who (love that phrase) of Romantic heroes: George Sand, Frederick Chopin, Franz Liszt, others and others. Yet, for all the 19th-century feel of the place, the presence of the Middle Ages remains palpable throughout your visit. Those medieval connections start to take you down some very strange paths. The painting technique known as "dendrite" is a brief diversion from said path I can't not mention. Very popular in the 19th century, and (yes!) named for the same effect found in stone (which of course is where I associate the term), an effect achieved by spreading gouache on the paper and then mashing it down to reveal shapes that are then modeled and built up with drawing and painting. George Sand was quite good at the technique, and this is one of her landscapes. Dendrite. Who knew I would find a geologic term in a museum devoted to the 19th-century life of the Romantics?

Le Giaour, by Scheffer
No surprise that I would find the intersection of neo-medievalism with Orientalism - there's pretty much an entire room devoted to paintings by Scheffer of themes by Sir Walter Scott and Gottfield-August Bürger and, here featured, Lord Byron. I knew about Byron's Sardanapalus play from 1821 because I teach it every year to introduce the concept of Orientalism. But no, wow no, I did not know about "The Giaour" -  a fragmentary poem by Byron published in 1813 whose Orientalism (specifically along the lines of fascination and detailed descriptions of an ascribed violence and despotism) seems even more extreme, if that's possible. I haven't read the 700+ line poem yet, but I will, as this painting and this tale intersect so many of the themes that I want to explore in this politics of the museum course, and so many of the themes of the Middle Ages, medievalism, ethnicity and identity that I'm being pushed to think through by the brilliant writing going on at In the Middle. For now, suffice it to say that there is a young woman, there is a man named Hassan, and there is the Giaour (a derogatory Turkish word for Christians), and that there is love, combat, and death - and this painting by Scheffer which presents the Giaour as a Crusader (to my eye) and (I hope you can see this in the image) Hassan emerging from the shadows to the left. Romancing this violence for as long and as fervently as the 19th century did has laid down some very dangerous ground being trod pretty freely today by Game of Thrones, other fictions, and a great deal of geo-political reality. The thought I keep coming back to, the obvious and insistent but still highly debated one, is that France is not as "French" as the Front National argues, that the very concept of France deeply intertwines ethnicities and histories and fantasies, maybe never comfortably but always and always intensely.

Café romantique
Which gave us much to talk about during our café romantique in the Jardin de Thé (and café, thank goodness) adjoining the museum. The air was cool, the ivy was growing, and the low murmur of French people having intimate café conversations surrounded us. Two people next to us were quizzing each other on Spanish and Arabic vocabulary words (yes, wow!), the doting grandfather two tables over helped his grand-daughter out of her school smock and gave her an Orangina, Eleanor played with her Playmobils, my mom and I talked, the espresso hit the spot. It was here that I received a phone call from the bank heralding yet another delay in the opening of our bank account (now they want a marriage certificate (original, of course) because we have two different last names - Love. Of. God.).

So with the momentum of annoyance and the need to shake things off, we plunged back into the city - well, took a nearby bus down to nearby Opera - and decided to engage in some serious flânerie. After all, it's free to look, and until these money troubles are over (we lose so much money not having this French account - rant to come another day), that is a lovely thing indeed. Like a beacon, the Lindt shop called to our Swiss hearts and in we went, to be greeted by a lovely person offering us truffles. Why yes, thank you, Paris - you take and you give.

Frieze of La Maison Dorée
The wild forest hunting scenes of the frieze of La Maison Dorée on le Boulevard des Italiens, for example - since 1974 the corporate headquarters of BNP Paribas, precisely the bank that is making us nuts (of course, America made them nuts, too, so I guess it's all love and war and banking or whatever). You walk down the Boulevard des Italiens and you see this incredible building and its golden gilded balconies and its hunting scenes, and then you come to an intersection and there's Sacré Coeur shimmering in the distance. So yes, flânerie, meandering is a gift here.

Regarde! Un hôtel!

Nowhere more wonderfully than when you happen upon a "passage" in Paris. Passage Jouffroy was one I'd heard about but never chanced upon and it is especially magical. The Musée Grévin (which, granted, looks pretty awful but which we're going to go to anyway at some point I just know it) is off of it, and then the rest are antique book dealers and toy shops (lots and lots of those) and this one enormous place called the "Palais Oriental" - a bazaar indeed. There was one little shop entirely devoted to doll house furniture (patisserie displays in miniature! the smallest tables and chairs!) that Eleanor particularly liked. And then, this little hotel at the end of the Passage. If ever I'm in Paris in the winter, I'd definitely stay here, because what would be cozier than coming home down the Passage? I've had fun reading the reviews on various websites - its two stars are definitely eccentric...

... and around the corner from Chartier. Inimitable Chartier, wonderful Chartier, loud boisterous Chartier, the perfect place to end our walking tour of 19th-century Paris. The place where a dear friend of mine was absolutely forbidden from ordering spaghetti by the waiter ("C'est pour les enfants!" he protested - she had the roasted chicken and he was mollified (and it was delicious)). Eleanor ate almost an entire pavé rumsteak (with its herb butter) and my mom and I highly recommend the perch in a leek sauce. The things that look like card catalogues against the walls are "casiers" in which workers would leave their napkins after they'd eaten the restorative (thus our word "restaurant") broth, le bouillon, that Chartier was famous for starting in 1896. It's famous in my heart for feeding me time and again as a student, still being amazingly affordable today, and plunging us into a noise and bustle that perseveres, and will persevere one feels, unabated, nourishing all human complexity.