Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Opera Garnier indeed

Tragedy Shoes
One could say, certainly Garnier would have said, that only in Paris, France could tragedy be so well shod. And so she is, with her companion Comedy, two caryatids of classical features with dark marble skin, at the Opera Garnier, which we toured today. Missing Mac, Iris and Oliver, we drew closer to them by walking in the footsteps of a Winter Term trip in which Mac and Iris went to the Garnier with students. Where else but here could tragedy be so nonchalant? could fantasy be so monumentalized? could the haute bourgeoisie be so very well ensconced? Here, tragedy sings. Here, red velvet assuages everything. Here, there was ice cream at intermission in the 1860s. I have never known a place be so over-the-top and yet fully in command of its seriousness.

A glimpse of glamor
See what I mean? I'm not sure I do yet (and of course now I have a million questions for Mac). Over-the-top (like make-believe) is another great English turn of phrase. Over-the-top of Versailles (on which the mirrors and chandeliers were based), over-the-top of the Sistine Chapel (on which the ceilings were based). Over-the-top of a new public sphere inhabited by this haute bourgeoisie as it ate iced cream, a luxury that a mere 50 years ago only the mightiest (like Napoléon and Josephine, who actually had some really nice glacière (porcelain ice holders) inexplicably (to me) featuring 17th-century Dutch paintings) could afford). But I digress. How could I not? This place takes you everywhere: to the Vatican and Versailles, over any top that had been known to exist...

... to an unspecified Africa, wrenched into Western fantasy by colonialism, who, windswept, liberally pours coffee while her companions of the world offer tea and pastries and meats in Gobelins Tapestries all around the room. The word consumption comes to mind in so many ways. One of the things I'd want to ask Mac is "Who was here?" Was it the 1% of their day? Was is some 5%? The only other place I've ever seen this much glowing (of gold and gild and glass) are the Soviet metros of the people - those opulent hallways of transit. And now it is open to, shall we say, a much greater percentage (truly, as a student, I heard Debussy's "La Mer" here for the equivalent of $5). Communal luxury is an interesting phenomenon. It is by necessity both momentary and unforgettable.

There are moments here when opulence outstrips pretense and reaches for something (I do wish I had a more critical vocabulary here) totally cool. This antechamber to the smoking room (who smoked here? were they all horrid? does it matter? is the Garnier a monument to some Belle Epoque past or is it just now actually coming into its own as a spectacle - never mind the spectacle it was meant to host?), the antechamber to the smoking room has a ceiling of golden flames heralding its title of Sun Room that only the lyrical salamanders on the ceiling can survive. Pretensions to François Ier and his salamander emblem? Or cool counterparts to the bats (!) on the ceiling at the opposite end of the hall in the Moon Room? Tragedy's shoes, the sun's salamaders - this seems a new iconography of luxury.

Le Fun
And so where else to end our excursion but the Galeries Lafayette where, a quick modernist generation after the Opera Garnier, stained glass and glimmering things could be available to any visitor. You don't even have to buy anything. And so Eleanor and I tried on eight different perfumes (one on each side of our arms) and multiple clip-on earrings and pearl necklaces and played in the make-believe section of another palace of over-the-top. History and commerce vie with each other in the 9th arrondissment, along the Grands Boulevards and up the stairs of the Opera Garnier. Perhaps that is why Tragedy stands in such fashionable contrapposto, alongside Comedy, framed by fantasy.


  1. More excellent Parisian perambulations, please! Such a pleasure to read about the Palais Garnier, where I've never been.

    My thoughts on "over-the-top," which do not seem to jibe with what our close personal friends at google have to say about it. They think it has to do with going over the trench's top in WWI, but I have always thought it's a pretty well dead maritime metaphor. The "top" is a platform on a ship's mast, basically between one set of sails and the next. On most large sailing ships, it's a pretty good-sized thing, with space for a few people to stand. They are tricky to climb up onto: you need to hang upside down as you climb out from the mast and then up and "over" to the top itself. Going "over the top," then, means up to the higher points of the mast where much of the sail-handling work gets done.

    I actually have on my blog an old picture of myself climbing over the top on the Joseph Conrad, one of Mystic's tall ships:

    Not sure if that's really where the phrase comes from, but it's my pick of the etymological alternatives!

  2. ok, first and foremost: ee gads! that _is_ tricky - gets at the exhilaration one must feel for going "over the top"! secondly, I never did understand how the WWI reference could connote anything like exhilaration or opulence. I'm going with your etymological alternative. Thirdly, nice Iris Murdoch reference in the blog post title! :-)