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.

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