Wednesday, June 13, 2012

And now: Le Faouët - Ste. Barbe

The banks of the river Ellé
You arrive here after walking down the many steps to the chapel of Ste. Barbe, after picking your way down an ancient path whose old stones keep the earth from slipping, after finding the (gallo-roman? druidic? no one knows anymore) fountain and its source, after climbing down one last steep hill. You arrive at the source of the rush of noise that has formed your entire experience - and everything comes together and every falls apart. I am not sure what to do with my wonder.  It is naïve and specific and not new.  It has been felt by the countless others who have made this walk and undoubtedly been spoken and written about more poetically, more eloquently.  So what to do with it? Fold it into art history writing? But beware the eco-mimesis I have just exercised which, Tim Morton assures me, aestheticizes nature, creates distance, brackets out this concept and experience of nature as something we can't touch/critique - only feel and marvel at (and is thus at the root of our demise with the/our environment).

Ste. Barbe

I know what to do with the wonder I feel about art. I decode it: I find its sources, assumptions, repercussions, formative ideologies, insistent effects. I have great enthusiasm for making it vivid and present to the reader. A stroke of lightning, and Jean de Tolbodou's survival of its storm, provoked the creation of the chapel of Ste. Barbe - discuss. 

To and from

But to write about the fountain path that leads from the chapel down to the river, stopping at the fountain in between the two, I am finding that much harder. Part of it is a simple problem: integrating what have been established as two separate worlds (art/artifice/culture/civilization and nature/nature/nature/nature).  Part of it is a bigger problem: is integration really the goal here? Would I be slipping towards some kind of Edenic reconciliation between construction and matter , between mimesis and presence? Or do I "let" these two realms exist separately - bodily knowing that they actually occupy the same continuous space (but then once again worrying about creating some Edenic unified whole)? So, ok - let it be said that I find myself between two quite possibly artificial (but they feel real to me) dichotomies. Or, let it be said that the challenge of this piece is to break those down, to reconfigure the opposites so that they are not that, but not dissolve them completely so that they are the same either. Ok.

But then, a really big problem. If we don't put things in opposites that we can then reconcile or deny, we put them in layers we can work through. So I could work my way down the devotional experience of Ste. Barbe from the most delicate artifice of the stained glass down through to the pillars, the walls, the path, even the river - but the undermost layer, the raison d'être, the dynamo, the drive, the goal of hundreds of years of pilgrimage and pardons hosting 2000 people as little as 30 years ago, is this water source - and its fountains, its miracles, and its sheer existence. And here, there is great resistance - nothing works. We have an enormous problem of unrepresentability (Mac knows the long German word - wish I could remember it). The fountain itself is from 1708, replacing countless older frames of the source bubbling up from the small slit you see in its basin. So, ok, erase the fountain. The water itself moves, makes an incredible delicate sound, which you can readily contrast with the rush of the river not too far below. So, ok, I'll speak for the water, describe it, perform eco-mimesis, anything to get you to experience a sense of this, because it was so marvelous. But then, how to convey the movement of the water, the realization that this water, coming forth all on its own is pure presence, is without mimesis? That there is no photograph, no video, no writing, no mimetic representation that can bring it forth. How, working my way back to the devotional context of Ste. Barbe, to not think of the absolute presence of this formless matter and of the absolute presence of Christ brought forth through the ritual of the Eucharist. Or perhaps the question is how to think of them.

Inside the chapel of Ste. Barbe
Because of the lightning that killed her father after he beheaded her in the 3rd century, Ste. Barbe is the patron saint of anyone who works with fire: artificers, firemen. Because canons of ships were named "Ste. Barbes," she has also become the patron saint of sailors, and the ex votos here (the latest from 2000) reflect Breton beholding to the sea. An entire world/realm/space of devotion is here in the stained glass windows and altar and ex votos and that enormous whale rib that was given to the chapel. There is literally an inside and an outside - or maybe it only exists architecturally, maybe it's only constructed.

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