Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mallarmé and me

A few days before I reached Paris I read that the Petit Trianon had been restored after an arduous year of work and would re-open to the public just as I was making it to Paris. Of course I tried to plan to go but bad weather and the flu prevented me from completing an overdue visit. On my only visit to Versailles, in a year that I prefer not to recall, the Petit Trianon was closed to the public. We could only walk around and watch the stunning architecture all dirty as graffiti covered some of the walls. My young eyes were shocked, from my history book the charming but organized lines had always mesmerized me as the ideal palace.

In truth I suspect the French to have had a difficult relationship with Le Petit Trianon. After all it was the small palace constructed by Louis the XV for his most famous mistress, and then became the private playground of Marie Antoinette. All, of course, at tax payer expense, a symbol of frivolity difficult to stomach for a more austere Republican France.

But years have gone by and culture wars eventually rest under a soothing layer of dust. The restoration of the Galerie des Glaces was hailed and we also forgot or accepted that the German Empire was proclaimed there, at Versailles, in 1870. And now Le Petit Trianon becomes a full member in the hallowed ranks of French cultural masterpieces. French TV did not waste time glossing on the Austrian interloper anymore. In fact her good taste was more likely to be praised. We might not be ready to thank her for starving peasants so as to afford life in the palace, but at least we have learned to look at her in a more consequent way, not the caricature that my school history books still carried.

And thus eventually time reconcile us around a common heritage. Except in Venezuela where Chavez is busy reopening old wounds that we thought long ago sealed. My return was a few days before October 12 which is now the Day of Indigenous Resistance and Columbus a guy that purposely discovered America so its people could be enslaved. Or something to the effect. Now the Colombus monument, destroyed by chavista hordes, will not be restored and the site will be renamed for indigenous tribes. We are told the Colombus statue has been restored but we are not shown the picture to prove it.

If cultural wars occur it is because our past has a meaning. We have a choice between understanding what our past really meant, through understanding the context and free ourself of what stains our heritage. Or we may prefer to look at a context that is no more and make it truer than what has reached us. We can thus chose to embrace Le Petit Trianon without diminishing the pain of an era or destroy the Colombus statue pretending that there was no pain in that era. Such is the final paradox of culture wars when people confuse understanding and knowledge. But being denied a Trianon visit would not deprive me of more musings on this paradox as France is so rich in well digested cultural paradoxes.

Not going to Versailles gave me the chance to go to my most beloved museum: Orsay.

The Musée d'Orsay was built inside the old Orsay railway station, saving this magnificent building from destruction and revealing to us the magnificent temples to travel that were XIX century "gares", the door to the fantastic travels until then reserved to the minority willing to face the hardship of traveling before railways. Today the preserved entrance to the station is also the gateway to a magical trip through XIX century art, with the most magnificent collection of Impressionist paintings you can find anywhere, even though routinely some of the pick choices are on loan somewhere. Impressionism and Railways share in having changed our minds and views of the world.

When I have only one day in Paris, there is one thing I always do, rain or shine: Notre Dame and a walk through the Marais. If luck gives me a second day then it is the Musée d'Orsay, even for only one hour, to go directly to the Impressionists. Besides a few Renaissance painters such as Fra Angelico, the only thrills I get watching paintings are with Impressionists and their near sequels. I got cold sweats when I saw in Chicago the Après Midi à La Grande Jatte of Seurat, I lacked oxygen when I met Renoir's Le Dejeuner des Canotiers at the Phillips Collection and was forced to look for a bench to sit down the first time I was confronted to Mary Cassat's The Boating Party at the National Gallery. She and Lincoln are for me in Washington what Notre Dame and Orsay are in Paris.

The Impressionist collection at Orsay is for me as much a physical experience as a visual one. The power of these paintings reach me in ways that I do not understand, or rather that I understand too well if I start a Jungian archetype self study, not the subject of this blog. But not all, not always. This time Gauguin left me cold. Some of the great Manet were missing and noticing it disturbed me. Thus for once I was able to focus more on what a painting meant than what it did to me. The first one that arrested me was one that I had never paid as much attention before, as so powerfully hidden by the larger Manets. I am talking here of the extraordinary portrait of poet Mallarmé, which adorns any high school literature book in France. Or should anyway.

I have had a difficult relationship with Mallarmé, one of the great poets that I could not study in school as end of year constraints made our French teacher skip over him. Thus if I went deep into Baudelaire and Verlaine, Mallarmé I had to do on my own and I confess with little success and many frustrations. See, Mallarmé is the kind of poet that you do not understand much when you read but somehow you know as your read him that it is really great stuff. A little bit like pornography for a famous Supreme Court Judge who said that he could not define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. Mallarmé was not a pornographer that I know of but then again only him could get away with such a verse to close a sonnet:

Je pense plus longtemps peut-être éperdument
A l'autre, au sein brûlé d'une antique amazone.

Longing for the burnt breast of an ancient Amazon...

His most famous poem is perhaps l'Azur, at times a painful mediation on the curse to have poetry inside, with one of the most famous French verses, if anything for its visual bizarreness.

Je suis hanté. L’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur ! l’Azur !

You can find some translations of Mallarmé verses as some brave souls dared to try, but you also must know that Mallarmé was an English teacher and as such he admired and was influenced by Poe. He translated The Raven. So was Baudelaire by the way whose translations of Poe tales, well, read almost better in Baudelaire's French than Poe's English, a very strange case in world literature where a translation actually brings something. I suppose that in a way, that ability to cross cultures allowed Mallarmé to work through his life towards breaking the ancient molds of French poetry.

Seeing that sobering portrait of Mallarmé brought to me an odd action considering the place I was. Tourists were flocking in front of more famous pictures so, as Orsay allows it, I could take my very own shot while I meditated at Manet's Mallarmé picture. I know, no matter how good my shot might turn out it will never be as good as the exquisite reproductions you can buy at the gift shop at the end. And yet, watching your own shots a few days later bing back that moment and the thoughts you had better than any reproduction. That is, if you shot your picture after your processed your emotions or if you are a compulsive picture taker.

The very relative solitude I enjoyed in front of Mallarmé made wonder how could he possibly be relevant to the immigrant children that the French system is actually raising with lots of problems in its school system. The winner of the Cannes Festival this year, Entre Les Murs, has been a movie about the problems of a "banlieu" classroom and the valiant efforts of teachers to reach the kids, not an alien concept I am sure to the teachers of some inner city areas of the States. A famous scene is the "subjunctive past" lesson, where one child simply said that he would not talk to someone that uses such a tense. I suppose he would not talk to me who rarely uses it but does use it. But is it a generation gap?

If you spit on the French subjunctive, can you reach Mallarmé? Can you also reach Rimbaud and Verlaine through their poetry or will these kids get interested in them for their scandalous liaison when Rimbaud was 16 and Verlaine a married man? It is not that these poets drop past subjunctive in any sonnet. They do not, but the key to understand how the French language works is to understand how its subjunctive works. This verbal mode is the soft form of possibilities and dashed dreams, a complexity so missing in English. Though some would argue that this lack of subjunctive might be a reason of the anglo-saxon energy.

The subjunctive is not the only obstacle to French High Church. Mallarmé remains still a difficult poet even if some managed to put him into music. Brise Marine is quite an example on how difficult Mallarmé can be while still remaining somewhat accessible enough for Serge Lama to sing it.

I would even say that a case can be made that Mallarmé is becoming more difficult for today'snew Frenchmen when the all Mallarmé site,, feels obliged to widget the word "angélus" so people can understand it. The practice of angélus had all but disappeared in France when I was a kid, but yet I knew what the word meant. It seems that today political correctness reserves such knowledge to rarefied elites. An indeed, in the banlieus angelus is as alien as past subjunctive.

I did not think these dangerous thoughts as clearly as I narrate them above today, but they kept coming to me with more precision as I kept my walk through the galleries. In particular how will Muslim children in France learn to appreciate the French cultural heritage, and even more important, can their own cultural and religious heritage allow them to get meaning from Mallarmé or Renoir? Can they also own?

Certainly I do not mean that Muslim children cannot cross the cultural line and appreciate the Orsay Museum, true art speaks to all except for cases like Bamiyan. Then again if the Taliban felt the need to blast Bamiyan's Buddhas it must mean that their ideological construct was perturbed by that art. Though I have yet to visit a Muslim country besides Morroco I know that I can marvel at Islamic art. I know that Isfahan would be marvelous for me. But will it speak to me the way that Mallarmé or a painting by Renoir do? One of my favorite Museums is a small one at the end of the Washington Mall where a treasure of Muslim calligraphy is exhibited, the Freer Gallery. I have been there several times, marveling at the delicate art that pervades all Islamic tradition. It does speak to me, at some level, and I wish I could have one of such hanging on one of my walls to spend at times long minutes of meditation in front. But it is not me. There is something missing for me and it is the physicality of man.

Can the "balançoire" of Renoir not shock a religious Muslim? Is the casualness of the woman, daydreaming as possibly two suitors sweet talk her, accpetable? What about the form fitting dress that follows no proportion giving her impossibly long (and sexy?) legs? No word about the little girl watching all of this ambiguity? True, all are covered enough according to the more modest standards of the time, and current Muslim fundamentalist wishes, but the body language is there for all to see.

France has been wrecked a few years ago about whether to allow Muslim girls to wear the veil at school. The secular French state tradition, from left to right, ruled that the veil was considered a religious symbol and as such had no place in the French public school system, sending a lot or Muslim girls to private establishments. In all fairness the state also forbade yarmulke and crucifix medallions unless totally invisible under shirts. Much talk went around but not that many dared to speak the real truth around the issue: that feminist women in France could not accept that a religion forced submission of women. I do agree about the issue and the measures taken then, but that is not the point I want to make here. I want to come back on how art speaks to us, and to this second Renoir painting at Orsay.

Again here we see a casual couple, the woman painted with exquisite details of near ecstasy while he companion has a more predatory look, a sober, less detailed portrait. He is handsome though, a certain sexy squareness, a sense of dominating strength to which the woman seems to be yielding. He also probably lost his hat in the whirlwind chase, on the right corner, an odd detail to leave as the hat is certain to be trashed as people dance over. But he has no care for it, too concentrated on his prey.

Whether you are straight or gay you cannot escape the sexual power of this painting. But what makes it great is not the erotic allusion, it is the need for human companionship that the people in it reflect, perhaps the animal lust of the man or the longing to be loved of the woman, it does not matter, we are always looking for someone to hold us tight. And yet that need might not be love. This painting has an exhilarating effect on me as it shuts down the workings of the mind, letting instinct surface politely, even in the middle of a crowded museum. Suddenly some tourists do not look as unappealing as they looked earlier.

And there is of course that wonderful ball scene, full of hopeful glances and of people looking at who is not looking at them, where the only people that do touch are two dancers and two women. What can we make of that? Such a scene would still be scandalous in some Western cultures of the Mediterranean, at least not that long ago. Imagine it in Afghanistan! or even Saudi Arabia! But there is also the price to pay for this apparent happiness, on the left side there is a woman that seems to be alone, or lonely, or abandoned, in darker shades. It almost seems that the only dancing couple that is clearly detailed has something to do with that lone woman, they seem to be looking at her. Did the man leave her for another floozie? Or is she sad not because he left her but because she coudl not retain him? Or her? There is a strange message of personal responsibility in that detail.

Perhaps it has been the common thread in the story of humanity but what speaks to me when I see these pieces is of the XX century to come, that from this sort of art came our social, sexual and even moral freedom that today at least some societies enjoy. The works of the Impressionists by freeing themselves form the rules of conformist art helped on our road to civil liberty, Human Rights, and shall dare I say it, better forms of democracy and cross cultural richness. It was after the Impressionists that Western Art really became open to the glories of other cultures, not just a fancy "chinese" room as palaces like the Petit Trianon might have acquired in their day. Perhaps the question I wanted to ask myself is what do we need to do to bring the equivalent of the Impressionist movement to today's Islamism before it is too late and one side tries to erase the other.

The temptation of cultural wars is really big. Even Chavez indulges in it even though Venezuela was, and is still, the Latin American society most open to external cultural influences. Chavistas with money do flock to Mac Donalds, love to go shopping to Miami. But in Chavez case his attitude comes from his ignorance and from the feeling that he has been rejected by Western Culture, an easy way to cope with his own insecurities and possible sense of failure. The consequences of Chavez will be dramatic for Venezuela's future though his manic and silly cultural crusade will eventually be a footnote in the history of the Americas.

What is more of a concern, and Chavez does sense that at some level as he wants to use it, is the clash of civilizations that so many want to avoid and that Chavez foolishly fosters at his own risks. I am talking about how to reconcile a Western World open to new experiences and to a world of risk taking and personal responsibility with a clearly more obscurantists world who stayed in the XVII century where ideas left it as they went ahead with the West. Today the far East and even India espouse many of Western values and Japan is the perfect example on how to retain your culture while burnishing some angles with interesting foreign values. Chavez is playing with fire by thinking he can manipulate the barbarians of today to his own profit, but what he does not realize is that when all is said and done the one that will be on the losing end of the stick is him.

And why will Chavez lose? Because when I was at Orsay Mallarmé talked to me, and Renoir did touch me. And if I go to the Freer gallery something will charm me, and if I go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the Japanese weapon collection will make me daydream of my world of Kurozawa. What Chavez is trying to do is to erase as many cultural references as he can from us, an easy task as we are not blessed with a long cultural history and a lot of our history was very destructive anyway. Even from the few treasures that make us Venezuelans, that speak to us, even to me, the son of French immigrants, he wants to pick and chose what might serve him and discard most. There might not be a Venezuelan Mallarmé but there is Andres Eloy Blanco and all through my childhood I heard this.
Si queda un pintor de santos,
si queda un pintor de cielos,
que haga el cielo de mi tierra,
con los tonos de mi pueblo,
con su ángel de perla fina,
con su ángel de medio pelo,
con sus ángeles catires,
con sus ángeles morenos,
con sus angelitos blancos,
con sus angelitos indios,
con sus angelitos negros,
que vayan comiendo mango
por las barriadas del cielo.
And these verses speak to me with the same strength than anything that I might have seen in Paris two weeks ago. "que vayan comiendo mango ---- por las barriadas del cielo" nothing more Venezuelan has ever been written.....

And yet, even though the whole poem is one of the finest examples of anti racist literature to be found in any culture, chavismo has never embraced it. Because Andres Eloy Blanco was Adeco and that cannot be forgiven , as the accidental discovery of America by Columbus cannot be forgiven. Columbus must be charged with all the abuses committed after him. And thus Andres Eloy Blanco must be guilty, at some obscure level, if anything because chavismo has proven itself unable to write anything as inspiring and effective as that simple poem, and even if Andres Eloy Blanco died one year after Chavez was born and could not be held responsible for what the Adecos did later.

So Chavez is trying to gut our cultural heritage, without having some coherent system to replace it except his speeches and what are called his thoughts and his personal myths. Will Chavez speeches stir great emotions besides hatred? They will not because culture and art do not happen in a vacuum. If Muslims cannot feel what I feel in front of Mallarmé portrait it is because I cannot feel what they would feel at the Kairouan Mosque, it is because our emotions are constructed on our own cultural past and how it makes us relate to our environment and how they create a place for us.

But then again when Chavez makes Venezuelans stop caring about their real past they will also stop caring about him.

La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.

I think I am not afraid of Mallarmé anymore. He came to me when I needed him most.

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---

La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books.

Si queda un pintor de santos,
If a Saints painter remains,
si queda un pintor de cielos,
If a heavens painter remains,
que haga el cielo de mi tierra,
that he may do heavens of my land,
con los tonos de mi pueblo,
with the hues of my people,
con su ángel de perla fina,
with a mother of pearl angel,
con su ángel de medio pelo,
with a curly hair angel,
con sus ángeles catires,
with light haired angels,
con sus ángeles morenos,
with brown angels,
con sus angelitos blancos,
with white angels,
con sus angelitos indios,
with indian angels
con sus angelitos negros,
with black angels
que vayan comiendo mango
that they walk eating mangoes
por las barriadas del cielo.
in heavens neighborhoods.

And GP offers us this version

If there's a painter of saints left,
if there's a painter of skies left,
let him create my land's sky,
with the tones of my town,
with his fine pearl angel,
with his mediocre angel,
with his blond angels,
with his brown angels,
with his little white angels,
with his little Indian angels,
with his little black angels,
may they go on eating mangoes
through the neighborhoods of the sky.

-The end-

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