Thursday, January 22, 2015

All Directions in Time

Holbein's Ambassadors, 1533
National Gallery, London
This is a reality check post, a looking at the landscape post, a brief state of the work post. This is my first full year sabbatical and it is entering its second phase. The first was the no-sleep-'till-Brooklyn (or Paris) Paris five-month stay, and the second is the spring semester in my office processing it all. The fall produced a proposal for a collaborative project, two essays, a talk, and a mountain of photographs and exhibition catalogues from multiple multiple on-site and museum visits (The Haul). The spring calls forth four talks that will take me in four quite different directions (from agentic objects in Tolkien, to the materiality of artist inscriptions, to (the limits of) perception in Hans Holbein's Ambassadors in terms of scale, transition, and catastrophe, and back to art is Chaucer's dream visions). Three essays are due in September, also in three different directions (the iconography of narrative, the dream vision talk in essay form, and an exploration of the word "tend" in the context of Veer Ecology). There's a book review to finish and an essay to revise in there. And an on-line course about manuscripts to follow. And a book project is taking shape in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace (but forward, and I'll be writing about it in pieces out here). And then I'd like to read everything and process images - always good for the design and redesign of classes.

Virgo, from this lovely
page at the Met
And so the inner virgo is out and about tidying things up and making calendars and generally feeling lucky and overwhelmed-but-with-the-luxury-of-time-all-is-possible. And most mornings, I feel as though I could take off in any number of directions, even though I have my little study schedule all written out; and most afternoons, I see where I might be going after all. All fall our mantra was "this is the chance of a lifetime" - and it was, never to be repeated, and (Iris counted) of the five months, we were home seven days. I realize that this stretch of time is the chance of a lifetime, too. Summers, inimitably inaugurated by the Kalamazoo conference, are stretches, but I haven't had time like this since I was a graduate student. Right now my response is to run in all directions within the existential freedom. I hope that I get more disciplined, but connecting Viollet-le-Duc to environmental activism, Holbein to early physics, and all the really interesting thinking about time (especially Dinshaw's How Soon is Now? and Moxey's Visual Time and all of the heterochronic questioning of Moxey and Wood and Nagel) makes it feel like the ideas are in charge, taking me from one place to the next. How something as basic and fundamental as time becomes a luxury is a process to trace: the resources that have to be put in place to "afford" the time - both absurd and privileged. (The impossibility of a "Right to Time" movement). Reading the news cycle going back through the lives of the Paris attackers, seeing a German right-wing organization head step down because of a Facebook post from 2012, thinking about the work of art history and medieval studies - time gets less linear all the time. Mostly my time is incredibly linear, lived within the forward march of the academic calendar. So here goes a 7 month experiment in living in non-linear time, really going deeper into work time via reading, thinking, and writing - I know that there will be products at the end, but I hope for some kind of strange effect upon my person as well.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Viollet-le-Duc Wanted to Restore a Mountain

Towards the end of his life, Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) wrote an architectural study of the Mont-Blanc, a high peak of a massive mountain range that rears up to grip the borders of France, Switzerland, and Italy. He gathered the measurements and findings of eight summers of observations, over 500 drawings and sketches, and a lifetime of hiking into this marvelous work, which sings with his precision and conviction. In these days, when everything is symptomatic of my most embroiled feelings about France, I can simultaneously marvel at the hubris of the project, and be moved almost to tears by his simple, poetic admission that "Nous sommes si petits." ("We are so very small.") In these days, when I am thinking about scale on, well, multiple scales, and when I am fully engaged in the Counting Down of Days until the appearance of Jeffrey Cohen's much-anticipated book on Stone; an ecology of the inhuman, a few minutes' foray into Viollet-le-Duc's calls out.

The image above is from the fantastic, exhaustive, and beautifully documented exposition up at the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris until March, 2015 (and which we were able to see just before we left). The emblem of the exposition is this cool poster depicting Viollet-le-Duc as a kind of steam punk hero (a brilliant resonance with the futuristic (and very steampunk-y show, Revoir Paris, which is up concurrently at the Cité), and indeed, the show focuses mostly on his urban and architectural projects. In its small room devoted to Viollet-le-Duc's love of nature and hiking and plein-air sketching, it re-opens the wild possibility of an architectural study of a mountain. In the introduction to the study, he has the mountain speak to its human interloper - which reminded me of Cohen's brilliant move in giving the mountain a voice in his postmedieval essay, "Stories of Stone," which considers (and radically shifts) both temporal and physical scale - something Viollet-le-Duc explores and asserts, even as he uses rational, extrapolated measurements to bring the mountain "down" to human scale, or at least to a scale available to human perception. When up in the mountains, Viollet-le-Duc writes of being "au mileu d'un monde qui n'est pas fait pour lui" ("in the middle of a world that was not made for him") - I remember this feeling so vividly as a kid growing up in Switzerland and going on hikes (never up the Mont Blanc - heavens! - but in many of its foothills). That here was complete, breathable alterity or (in my kid brain) that I was on another planet altogether while walking on my own. In Viollet-le-Duc's introduction, the mountain mocks the human (calls him "chétif!" - sickly), and mocks his dams and tunnels especially, these small attempts to get around the vivid, solid truth of the mountain. It ultimately tells the human to be on his way, that there is nothing for him here. And yet, Viollet-le-Duc asserts, we climb. He admires England and its willful, crazy climbers, attaining to heights whence they too often never return. He wishes France had more of them. His final life's work will be to perform a meticulous architectural study of the parts of the Mont Blanc annexed to France (oh the riches of critique here!).

I love the work both for its folly and for its science. It's one that I'll be reading with my geologist friend over the next few weeks, as the text is the meeting of many worlds (and a study, and a new chapter). His statements about perception and scale flashed out at me: "Puis il faut dire que de fréquents séjours sur les hauteurs donnent aux yeux une expérience de l'échelle réelle des objets que ne peut posséder le voyageur visitant pour la première fois les altitudes. C'est en cela que le dessin l'emporte toujours sur la photographie." ("It has to be said that frequent journeys to the mountain heights furnish your perception with an experience of the real scale of the objects, one that a first-time visitor to these heights wouldn't have access to. It's in this that drawing will always carry the day over photography.") Answering the question of an imagined interlocutor as to why an architect would busy himself with a geological structure, he answers: "Analyser curieusement un groupe de montagnes, leur mode de formation, et les causes de leurs ruine... c'est, sur une plus grande échelle, se livrer à un travail méthodique d'analyse analogue à celui auquel s'astreint l'architecte praticien et archéologue qui établit ses déductions d'après l'étude des monuments." ("To turn an analytic curiosity upon a group of mountains, their means of formation, and the causes of their ruin.. is, on a greater scale, to give yourself over to a work of methodical analysis analogous to that which a practicing architect and archeologist strives for in establishing claims after the study of monuments.")

That "les causes de leurs ruins" caught my eye and I looked for why he would claim that as part of his study. I found it in the very final pages of the work, in an impassioned eco-activist speech against the diversion of water flow, the building of tunnels, and the excess of hiking parties. The juxtaposition of the two drawings at the head of this post is not so much a before-and-after as a "what is now" and "what could be." And so here is what could be if the human could understand the mountain. In the end, Viollet-le-Duc reveals, his study exists so that the human can understand the mountain not just to leave it alone, but no, rather to help it do what nature won't do and the human aggravates: "La nature, rigoureusement fidèle à ses lois, ne fait pas remonter la pente au caillou que le pied du voyageur a précipité dans la vallée, ne resème pas la forêt que notre main imprudente a coupée,  lorsque la roche nue apparait et que la terre a été entraînée par les eaux des fontes et des pluies, ne rétablit pas la prairie dont notre imprévoyance a contribué à faire disparaître l'humus." ("Nature, rigorously loyal to her own laws, does not make the pebble roll back up the mountain once it has been kicked in the valley by a traveller, it doesn't resow the forest that our imprudent hand has cut down, when the naked rock appears after the soil has been eroded by water sources and rain, it does not re-establish the prairie which our improvidence has robbed of its fertile ground."). And so all of those calculations and observations and drawings are purposeful and activist science. "Si ces pages peuvent contribuer à éveiller l'attention du public sur ces questions... si elles peuvent provoquer chez les ingénieurs une attitude attentive et pratique de l'aménagement des cours d'eau dans les montagnes, si elles font admettre dans les administrations compétentes que ce n'est pas dans les bureaux, mais sur le terrain, qu'il faut essayer de résoudre ces problèmes, nous nous considérerons comme largement payé de nos fatigues, de nos peines et de nos sacrifices." ("If these pages can contribute to the awakening of the public on these issues... if they can provoke an attentive and practical approach in engineers to the issue of the sustainability of water ways in the mountains, if they make competent administrators realize that it's not in offices, but rather on the ground, that we need to resolve these problems, then I will consider myself largely repaid for my fatigue, my effort, and my sacrifice.") The transposition/transition from care and restoration of architecture to that of mountains appears seamless in the mathematics of Viollet-le-Duc's calculations - the transition of scales is elegant and rational - but his claim to care for and restore a mountain (I can't say "remains unfathomable" because it's anything but after all those calculations) continues to defy expectations. Good for him.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Saint-Cybard at Plassac-Rouffiac,
12th-century (Charente)
I'm getting ready to re-read a book written by my advisor, Linda Seidel that I've taught but haven't read since graduate school. I'll be reading Songs of Glory to think about scale and the movement (that her book negotiates so beautifully and provocatively) between small and large scales. What do we do when we make mountains out of molehills? What is going when he's got the whole world in his hands? Our language dances around this through imagistic phrases but scale (and the ability to shift scale) is one of those human habits/inclinations that we do without quite understanding. Dear us, we lose perspective all the time. And I mean really lose it: not just ignore it for something near or far, but lose our bearings. It's one of the most unnerving and glorious things we do: unfix our viewpoint, dislocate our point of view. The minute you engage in metaphor (that linguistic trick that carries us from one place to another), you're starting to shift scale. Clearly, our nightly screenings of Cosmos (and yes, last night was black holes and the bending of space and time and spacetime) are having their effect.

Today is the first day that I am able to look up from Charlie Hebdo covers, to think about other horizons of France. I've always been keenly aware of my distance from events in Paris and how that is shaping my perception of what they might mean or signify. Conversations with friends near and far have added layers (the protests by children of immigrants in the1980s for full inclusion in French society, the betrayal of the political left, the long tradition of caricature in French society, the difference between a caricature and a racist caricature). Those layers in turn are having a double effect of discovery and uncovering. Here, again, I marvel at the English language and its two distinct words (in French, there is only "découvrir" for both). Discovery here, would be the presence of something new in the public sphere (the Isaiah/Jesus/Mohammad image, the Charlie Hebdo images, for examples); uncovering would be the revelation of something that has been there all along but has been hidden from the majority public sphere (the exclusion and racism that, now, generations of immigrants experience in the suburbs of Paris and cities in France; a questioning (at least) of who has the freedom to ridicule whom and on what terms; the impossibility of a racist caricature of a white person in a white-dominant society, racist caricature relying as it does on an exaggeration (a shift in scale) of ethnic traits that are held up for ridicule). Both discovery and uncovering are happening in France and on the global media stage, I would imagine in scales ranging from new security measures at your local Monoprix store to a re-evaluation of the operations of poverty and exclusion to re-affirmations of the very best of French humanist principles.

Plassac-Rouffiac on a different scale
And so today I'm going to give myself over to thinking through professor Seidel's statements and explorations of Romanesque façades throughout the Aquitaine and, in looking at the images first as I always do, I'm enticed to think of the discovery or the uncovering of a small town like Plassac-Rouffiac, a village in the Charente that has seldom boasted more than 500 souls since census-takers started counting in 1793. Positioned on the ancient Roman road, it existed in the constant potential of scale-shift that being part of an empire entails - no matter how small and distant the village, Rome (and whatever it meant to be Roman or a subject of the Romans) was never farther than the invitation of the road to "lead to Rome."  The Roman(esque) arches on the façade of the parish church of Saint-Cybald attest to the pull of the imperial center and its ability to shift the scale of the margin. France is its own center now, with the pull of Paris felt in both Plassac-Rouffiac and Clichy-sous-Bois - it's our ability to understand differences and shifts in scale, and what these uncover, that will matter so much now.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Seeing Through

Mohammad preaching, 15th c.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Something happens to an image in a time of crisis. It gets pulled in every different direction; it gets seen right through. The Charlie Hebdo cover remained a racist retrenchment for me, no matter how many self-titled "free speech absolutists" I read, no matter that its 3 million copies sold out in minutes. But I'm here, far away in the U.S. and that's all I can see. Imams in London calling for "patience and tolerance," asking Muslims to remain calm while their religion and Arab ethnicity are insulted; and American news outlets blocking the image (the NBC News guy holding it rolled up like a rolling pin - I thought that was savvy) - they must have seen the image that way, too. But watching a tiny bit of news and seeing the long lines outside of kiosks and the enthusiasm with which people were buying the paper, I caught a glimpse of what else the cover might mean - not the cover, really, but something much more material and immediate: the paper itself, the physical reality of the paper coming out a week after the attacks - some kind of impossible resurgence after horror. And of course people right there in Paris, in France are living this physically, radically differently from my virtual experience of it all. Racist or rallying; divisive or unifying - those are very different directions for the image to go. We're all seeing through the image. I see through its caricature to systemic problems of racism and exclusion that are not causal of the attacks, but symptomatic of the difficulty of surviving them as a unified culture and nation. I imagine now, that purchasers of the paper might see through the image to their own survival, to the possibility of carrying on and being defiant. Or, it's a way of honoring the very specific victims of the attacks. Or, they're buying a piece of history, they're getting a relic of a terrible time, getting a hold of an object that will keep them connected to a host of things they might still not understand. There might be 3 million different reasons to buy that paper. And 2 million more as a reprint gets started for the week-end.

Isaiah, Jesus, and Mohammad, 14th c.
In the midst of all this, is the image of Mohammad. In Charlie Hebdo, it's not just represented, but represented in vicious racist stereotype. Meanwhile, images of Mohammad such as the one above, that are respectful, beautiful even, do exist in Paris - in the national library, in its Arab manuscript collection - but they do exist. And they can make connections, they can open things up. The medieval Morocco show at the Louvre had a 10th-century preaching chair like the one Mohammad is preaching from - it made history, discourse, striving immediate and palpable. The image to the right is pulled from a piece in Newsweek well worth reading, explaining the variations of images of Mohammad, and the recent changes in the perceptions of and practices around his image. It's from a 14th-century Iranian manuscript now in Edinburgh and represents Isaiah's vision of Mohammad on a camel and Jesus on a donkey. I've never seen an image of Isaiah, Jesus, and Mohammad together before, and the newness makes it impossible for me to see through the image to something else right away. I am stopped at the image's surface by its novelty - I am asked to think new thoughts. As it becomes familiar, I will go further into the image, into the possibilities that it holds forth of thinking about the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is not a tired caricature pulled in every direction in a time of crisis, used for multiple means in an emergency. This is an image re-emerging with new realities of old, remembering possibilities.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


The new Charlie Hebdo cover isn't doing anyone any favors. It's right back to the racist caricature of Mohammad. Didn't skip a beat. The Guardian has an excellent series of op-ed pieces debating the cover - some for, some against. Joseph Harker's piece sizes up perfectly how the racist caricature is not a grand moment of freedom of expression, but just more bullying of an already heavily-discriminated against minority in France. "Yes, of course Charlie Hebdo has the right to do this; but why would they want to, given the symbolism of Sunday's gatherings across France? Surely now is the time to move forward, to isolate the extremist murderers and bring the nation together; not to trumpet your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities, losing friends in the process." Everyone's seeing this, now that they've taken a closer look at Charlie Hebdo: sure, they "go after everyone," but they really go after Muslims. (And, depending on how you choose to read the "All is forgiven" line, the degree of "going after" varies.) You don't have to be an extremist to be offended by the images. They're wearisome.

There's a phrase in English that takes apart the absolute quality of satire and considers who is speaking about whom. "Punching up" is when someone with less power satirizes someone with more; "punching down" is when someone with more power satirizes someone with less. When you look at all of the photographs of the white men at the cover-release press conference yesterday, you can start to consider their power - which they have heavily asserted a week after the horrible attacks. When you read their comment in Le Monde that (roughly translated) "We trust people's intelligence, the intelligence of humor, a second degree [not sure how to translate this, but definitely indicating a higher, more subtle degree] intelligence. The attackers lacked a sense of humor and are at the first degree. We have to find/carve out a place for the second degree in the world in which we live." - you see who has the power to be elite about intelligence and humor. You see they're punching down. Is this consideration of the power dynamic between satirist and satirized possible within the discourse of the absolute right of satire? (Is satire a right? Is it seamlessly aligned (the veritable litmus test) of the freedom of the press?).

Max Fischer in Vox performs a meticulous breakdown of a particularly gross Charlie Hebdo cover. He represents the cover, unpacks its critique (which is ultimately a leftist critique of the rightist government) and does a savvy comparison with the infamous July 2008 New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas as radicals. He gets at the "second degree," the critique behind the joke. But he also argues that the subtlety of the second degree doesn't erase or justify the racism of the joke. "Charlie Hebdo's biggest problem isn't racism," reads a sub-heading, "it's punching down."

As everyone writes, and must keep writing, no one and nothing justifies the attacks of last week. That isn't what the critiques of Charlie Hebdo in the English and American press are about. The critiques, to my mind, are about how we live with the attacks now; how we live with the loss of life and security and understanding. Going right back to business as usual seems like a willful ignorance that Paris and France might actually be changed by the horrors of last week. Something to commemorate the dead might have been more, well, peaceful. But. That's not what Charlie Hebdo is about. A piece that came out last week (so, to be clear, not in response to this week's cover) by former Onion editor Joe Randazzo stays in my mind because of his mention of the Middle Ages. "Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter." It's a well-worn rhetorical use of the Middle Ages (of a dark time left behind by modern society, so if "even they" did something, we ought to be ashamed not to - and yes, medievalists critique this false divide). But the court jester worked for the king; he was in his employ. And was the jester's standard the truth? He might mock the king (within limits), but he mostly mocked his enemies. So. Enemy lines have been redrawn. Charlie Hebdo normally published 60,000 copies a week. This week, they're printing 3 million. Will they all sell?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Lutetian Age, then and now and again

In the very living rock
Watching al-Hazen on Cosmos last night felt good. I'd studied him (via David Lindberg (oh my goodness, who just passed away) and his marvelous book, Theories of Vision: from al-Kindi to Kepler) and the kids loved the call for curiosity and questioning. It became another occasion to think about the endless, tumultuous combination of rational process and passionate accident (Tyson takes the time to see the happenstance and the waywardness of scientific inquiry), and the importance of scientific method, which somehow in our conversation became linked to civil discourse and Paris (again? always?). And so this morning, I'm underground, in the pell-mell space of the Catacombs - a space that is both freak show of the macabre in becoming an enormous ossuary in the 18th century and bedrock (yes!) of geoscience and the discovery of the geological period now known as Lutetian. But we'll be at the top of Notre-Dame by the end.

The time of the Catacombs is very queer indeed (she said, finally reading How Soon Is Now?), and loops back through human ambition, need, and curiosity. It was when sinkholes started swallowing buildings whole in Paris that Louis XVIth created the General Inspectorate of Paris Quarries. The year was 1777, and by 1813, the Inspectorate passed a decree forbidding any further quarrying under Paris. It turns out that roughly 1/10th of the city sits atop limestone quarries that had bountifully provided building materials throughout Roman antiquity and the Middle Ages. The amphitheater of Lutèce, as Paris was then known, was built of the stuff. Notre-Dame was built of it, as was the Château de Vincennes. The carving you see above was done in the living rock from 1777 to 1782 by a man named Décure, who was one of the first surveyors of the Inspectorate. He commemorated his imprisonment in the barracks of Port-Mahon by carving it out of the stone. That was one of the first responses to the re-appropriation and the re-discovery of this site, and it's one of the first things you see when you walk through the Catacombs. I wouldn't want to forget it, nor Décure, who died in a cave-in shortly after he completed his oeuvre. He was putting in a ladder to connect the Catacombs, some 28m below ground to the upper reaches.

It was when they reached the bottom of the quarrymen's work that the geologists of the Inspectorate realized they were looking at something new. Seashells, tropical ones, line the quarrymen's marks in the rock. Lamarck came down and collected hundreds of fossils that added to his ideas of evolution (which went well beyond the theory of acquired characteristics for which he has been pushed aside for Darwin - another matter). A solid one hundred years later, the realization that this was a distinct geological period, one in which Paris had been awash in a salty sea, resulted in its naming: the Lutetian age, 48 to 40 million years ago, in the Eocene, that dawn of all eras. The part that resonates because it doesn't fit neatly is that the efforts of discovery and labor were simultaneous with the conversion of the quarries into an enormous ossuary to house the millions of remains which had accumulated in the Innocents and dozens of other urban cemeteries. Paris unearthed one era as it buried another. When the Catacombs were opened to visitors in the mid-19th-century - after all the bones had been arranged in patterns, and after citations about death and the afterlife from Virgil and other noble souls had been carved in plaques throughout - in those early days, geological specimens were on display in "cabinets minéralogiques" and you could marvel at and debate both human death and the geologic time.

Down in the Catacombs, you're not allowed to touch the bones (thank goodness), but you can touch the walls in certain places. When the Romans were here, these were above-ground quarries. As Paris built itself up from its own limestone (and increasingly that of nearby quarries at Yvelines), the quarries went underground, taking light and their fossils with them. I'm uncertain as to what their state was when Notre-Dame was built - probably a combination of contact points. I do know that the quarry tunnels that we walked during the Catacombs visits were probably carved out in the 15th century. And there are miles and miles of them. And so to touch that stone became to think on Paris under the sea, and Romans quarrying and Notre-Dame being built, and geologists looking closely, and sites of science and commemoration co-existing. And it made me wonder very much about whether or not Viollet-le-Duc went down there. And it made me wonder even more about his building materials for the restoration of Notre-Dame. He knew about the gorgeous, white Pierre de Saint-Leu limestone that comes from the Paris-area quarries (still found in the Catacombs and as far out as Yvelines) - he wrote about it in his Dictionaire. In his tenacious pursuit of authenticity, did he use the same limestone (I would think from another quarry, such as Yvelines) that the medieval builders he so loved used? I really had to ask myself these questions when I was up close with his restored gargoyles. I had started climbing the steps in homage to my advisor Michael Camille, who had a memorable picture of himself taken with one of Viollet-le-Duc's gargoyles. I wondered, too, then, what Michael must have thought of all of the little shells and crustaceans stuck in the bodies of the gargoyles. Is that a Lutetian close-up we're seeing in the image here? The temporal looping gets heady here: Viollet-le-Duc using the same stone for restoration as for the original building. Notre-Dame has then never been medieval as much as it has never been modern; even in its modernity/restoration it is made of stuff as ancient for us moderns as it was for the medievals. Our commonality with the Middle Ages is instantly created in the realization of the enormity of time that separates us both from the Lutetian period whence we have all carved and recarved our monuments.

And so Paris, folding time through its constructions and reconstructions. Because this isn't just the juxtaposition of the old and the new, of Notre-Dame's gleaming Pierre de Saint-Leu limestone and the Pompidou's bright blue and red externalized tubing. It's the restoration of both buildings now; homages to materials that have long sustained the city, and which now/always need attention, need care. Viollet-le-Duc was on to something when he made his gargoyle contemplative.

Little could he have known that the gargoyle's gaze would today be turned to La Défense - the designated space for skyscrapers; where nary a wicker chair nor an accordion player, let alone Esmerelda and Quasimodo, are to be found; our neighborhood when we lived there. There's some kind of vector to be drawn between the gargoyle's ancient materiality and the projection of its gaze into Paris's image of its future self now. A complex geometry of curiosity and the desire to know in multiple times and dimensions.

Monday, January 12, 2015

To Sceaux

The scene at Sceaux
Or not. Because maybe all the hand-wringing and the tabulation of sins and blaming this or that is beside the point, because there are so many active points now (freedoms, security, integration, unity). I keep coming back to what I admire most: that France has made a go of a secular humanist society; that it has (initially very violently, then insistently through all its means) made religion a private matter with no say in the public sphere. Of the many things last week's attacks have done, it's reaffirm the importance of civil discourse, of treating difference rationally, of making religion so private as to not be a difference in the public sphere (my understanding is that the French census makes no mention of religious affiliation, for starters). Living in a country, as I do, in which the public sphere - its politics, its morality, increasingly, its science - is being invaded/eroded by a religious discourse to spurns rational thinking and civil discourse, I can continue to admire France's commitment to keeping religion out of public discourse, and making religion a private, spiritual matter. Mysticism and religion have their place (although this will be debated), but it is private. And I write all this well aware of the contemporary critique of rationality (basically: how's that rationality working out for you? how is it actually relieving human suffering? how are WWI and WWII the "logical" conclusions of rational, pragmatic thinking?). And I also write this well aware of the opinion that the attacks had nothing to do with religion, that they are about economics and disenfranchisement and global politics. Nonetheless, for now, a brief embrace of the hope for a civil society in every sense of the term.

I have Sceaux up because it is an image of rationality, even though its history is anything but. Colbert (Louis XIV's finance minister, not the other one) bought the property in 1670 and brought the grandest architectural and painterly talent (notably the royal painter Charles LeBrun) to the project. I love that architecture can be deemed rational (classicism) or irrational (medieval). If it stands, it's rational, no? No. Straight line good, curved line bad (decadent, ornamented, exotic). Sceaux abounds in straight lines that cut through even the thickest fog and assure you that you'll find your way. Colbert's son made grand park avenues that liken the property to a walk-able Versailles. Then the domain was given to Louis XIV's illegitimate son, the Duke of Maine, whose wife a) legitimated him by being of royal blood and b) ran famously fabulous musical salons: it wasn't just the age of Enlightenment, it was the age of Sparkle. An unsustainable age, and after the Revolution and its confiscation, the domain becomes the property of one of the sons of one of Napoleon's military marshals. It's demolished and rebuilt (another twist, another turn) in the 17th-century style of Louis XIII. Willful nostalgia also proved unsustainable and by 1925, Sceaux had become the romantic ruin every photographer dreams of.

At least Atget dreamed of. He was there a good deal in 1925 and took dozens of photographs. This image is from a National Gallery of Art show of Atget's parks and gardens, and one thinks, on a different scale, of the photographer and his equipment going from place to place in the strange time after WWI. All of those parks and gardens built before an irreversible turning point, all of those statues silently witnessing change through the creep of vines within their stone. It was shortly after these images were taken that the state took over the domain of Sceaux and restored things to order. It's within Atget's images that rationality starts to look quixotic: rationality will always be overtaken, if it's ever even rational at all - all the more reason to treasure it, to hope for civility in the midst of the mess.

You can visit Sceaux now, unless the personnel is on strike, which it was the day we were there. The guard behind the sign very nicely let us in for 20 minutes so that Mac could at least get a look at the show of WWI drawings inside (drawings very rarely on display, an exceptional moment, much earnest pleading on our part). "Tout s'arrange" (everything works out) is a phrase we heard over and over again during our stay when a sticky situation was resolved by bending the rules or talking it through. That can't be the feeling in France this week, save that the country has been weathering its own irrationalities, very great and (like Sceaux) quite small, for centuries. Religion does not have exclusive rights to irrationality; irrationality seems quite pervasive to the human condition. Maybe it's how imaginatively we can strive to be rational in the midst of ourselves and our differences that I admire.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Gather Again

Today, there are huge gatherings in Paris and throughout France - "rassemblement" (a strong word: a re-assembly, a re-gathering) to stand together, to re-affirm the core values of the Republic: yes, liberté, égalité, fraternité. Out to dinner with a friend and colleague last night, the conversation turned around the core value of a free press no matter what. The bottom line, my friend said: "If you don't like it, if it's gross or racist or awful, just don't look at it, walk away." Point: true, we don't have to consume and approve every image we see, we can turn the channel, click off the website, not buy the newspaper. Other point: once an image exists, it exists - it's in your mind, it does its work. At the bottom of all of this is the conceptualization of images: are they or are they not material to the events around them? I think that images can be put out of one's mind more easily for some than others. My friend's point also was: censor the images you don't like yourself, lest the government do it for you. Ah.  I stopped looking at Charlie Hebdo images because, well, they're gross and racist, but also because they were starting to cloud the issue, starting to obscure the human beings in the greater tragedy of what was happening. Are the events of the past few days about images? about assimilation? about economics? Every field will have an answer, and it would actually be good if we all worked together to keep figuring it out. To keep using all of those rational powers of deduction so prized by the Enlightenment and the Republic which claims it.

In Brittany, people are gathering as well - they've been gathering, my friend there tells me. 500 people in a small town yesterday, and a long silence, and then la Marseillaise is sung and no one said to. A song of being embattled, a song now layered by its own history of having been sung at embattled moments in France's history. I think that this is one. I hope for the safety of everyone marching today, for the rassemblements to reaffirm human dignity, for a bit of peace. I keep listening to the statement made by Ahmed Merabet's brother - his beautiful remembrance gathers family to Republic, and Republic to ideals, and I want to follow that courage.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


On our last day in Paris in December we went to the Parc Floral's mini-golf, whose website promised a fun time cruising a little ball through 18 of the city's most famous monuments. Despite the website's invitation and all other research, the mini-golf was of course closed (until April) and so we stood outside the gate and the kids named off all of the monuments that they knew and we took pictures of the tiny renditions of the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, etc.: all of the icons that had anchored the glorious fabric of the city for us for five months. That was the first thing one of my daughters put together about yesterday's attacks in Paris: "Wait, isn't Porte de Vincennes near the mini-golf?" It is: the Parc Floral is behind the Château which is itself a couple of metro stops down from the Porte. I imagine that millions are performing quick, relational geographies as they try to follow and begin to understand what is happening in Paris. Getting a bearing since the attacks started on Wednesday has not been easy. Being far away makes the city both more vulnerable and more formidable - all of it a grand, permeable theater in which the horrors of the shootings unfolded. Lives and principles are being mourned simultaneously: Charlie Hebdo holds the names of the political cartoonists killed on Wednesday and becomes the rallying cry of a free press and what it takes for a society to have and keep one; #JeSuisAhmed memorializes the police officer shot defending, as so many have pointed out, the press's right to carry out the critique and mockery of everything, including his own religion of Islam; signs of "Je suis juif" are up at the kosher grocery, site of yesterday's attacks, this morning.

Disparity becomes the measure. The poverty and exclusion of the attackers' childhoods in France; the promise of prosperity within a society that treasures and legislates for human dignity. The material presence of cartoons as pen on paper and fleeting though infinitely reproducible images; the brutality of weaponry and methodical killing. There are more; so many as to rend that fabric we were just beginning to think we understood when we lived there. The fabric of secular humanism, that prizes rational thought and seeks to mock mystical, magical thought into oblivion. The American press is doing a lot more hand-wringing about the political cartoons than the French press is. Within our endlessly elastic language, I have read prescient phrasings of the limits of the freedom of the press: just because we have the right [to make vicious, racist political cartoons] does that mean that it's right to do so? just because we can [draw incendiary, provocative political cartoons], must we? The American press has said no (well, no, think about whom you're offending and why and is it worth it?), and very often blurred out images of the covers of Charlie Hebdo; the French press has answered yes (yes, yes, absolutely yes, freedom is a principle to defend not a condition to be occasionally enjoyed).

I think very much about the slow but resolute fall from grace that the virtue of Prudence had between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Enlightenment: its pragmatism and appreciation of condition made it one of the four cardinal virtues of the Middle Ages with applications to political theory, and then eventually made it reprehensible to an age of absolute principles. The old middle school social studies adage of "your freedom ends where others' begins" gets hazy. It's too early yet to find French press critiques of the freedom of the press, but there are many American press pieces doing just that ("what's the line between satire and racism?" is the big, pertinent question being asked - for example in this Slate piece, and, with queries about uses of the word "freedom," in this New Yorker piece. (And I keep asking myself about the line between the freedom of the press, and the privilege of the press - who has the freedom/privilege to satirize others - a question historically elaborated in this piece). And no, no one should be gunned down, even for the most virulent racism. This German piece claims: the second you add the conditional "but" to a condemnation of the killings, you condone them. Freedom of the press: conditions may or may not apply. And here's the thing: of the many things I've read and scoured the past three days looking for news, mourning what happened to all those lives and loved ones, realizing that Paris will be changed, thinking about things to share out here, I'm not going to link to a particular French satirical show's take on the attacks because part of it is really offensive. (And, like the relational geography being performed by millions, I think of all the decisions people and institutions are making on varying scales to commemorate the dead and protest the violence). At the same time, this particular French satirical show is one of the few shows that's mentioned the Boko Haram massacre (and done so with a compassionate commemoration of its victims), a massacre which has barely made the mainstream news because of events in Paris.  More damn disparity.

I will link to an American medievalist whose excellent piece has had me thinking a great deal, in particular a quote and a statement about the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Oblivion and erasure are dangerous fantasies of any order that seeks to create a new world, be it jihad or secular humanism. I don't know how jihad (or any earnest struggle) co-exists with satire, nor how secular humanism (and its principled demands) co-exists with mysticism (you can hear the responses: "they can't!" "they must!"). All those little monuments at the mini-golf keep popping into my head: tiny, whitewashed markers of an imagined city in a dormant park. At the end of these very long days the images (and there are so many images - proliferating, emerging, seizing, saying a great many things) - the images of human beings afraid, dead, alone continue to raise a call for comfort and protection. May these be found.