Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Paris Journal: Aperçus

Spires of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur
from the north, not far from our apartment

By Moristotle

[Author’s Note: After our trip to Paris for three weeks last year, for our fiftieth wedding anniversary, I was going to blog extensively about the trip. But the only result was one post, and the unfulfilled announcement of a second. However, when we returned to Paris last month, I did a better job taking notes, and I am developing these notes into a series I will call “Paris Journal.” Today’s post is the first installment.]

First I’ll write about apercus (French for sightings – or previews, or insights), simply because one of my numerous sightings on the trip was confirmed most recently – only on Friday, in fact. At Paris’s Gare du Nord one evening, I thought I spotted Senator Joe Lieberman walking past me in the other direction. After figuring out how to use the Yale Alumni Directory to send him an email, I asked him whether that might have been him. For a busy man, he replied almost immediately: “Small world, Morris. That was me on the way to a meeting on….”
    Seeing a college classmate in Paris put me in mind of a couple of other Yale friends I spotted, years ago, in London: I ran into Jim [James H.] Rubin, of the class after mine, at an American Express office, and we quickly established that we were both off to Paris soon, he to continue his studies in the history of art at the Sorbonne, me to flee divinity school in Edinburgh for the riverside town of Blois in the Loire Valley, where I would visit a French family whose daughter had been an exchange student at Tulare Western High School.
    Jim and I traveled across the English Channel by ferry on Christmas day 1965, and for a couple of days before taking a train to Blois I had my first sightings of Paris, which were not to be repeated until April last year, over 50 years later. Jim showed me the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and the door to film director François Truffaut’s office. (I forget how Jim might have said he learned where Truffaut’s office was.) He didn’t show me the Sorbonne, but my wife and I have walked past its plaza, with its statue of Auguste Comte, who is by some regarded the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term.
Place de la Sorbonne, from Boulevard Saint-Michel
    The other London sighting those years ago was of Stephen Greenblatt, in the National Gallery, where I recognized him standing glassy-eyed before a drawing by Botticelli. I suppose a stranger might have thought Steve high on pot, but I knew him well enough (and would come to know him better through his writings, mainly on Shakespeare) to be sure he was simply swept away in profound literary emotion. On the occasion, it took him a few moments to snap out of his reverie and recognize me. Sensing my trespass, I didn’t tarry, either at the Botticelli or in the museum itself – I seemed to be in the mood more that day for action than for contemplation of art.

But this Paris trip was more about art than last year’s trip was. We may have spent a glorious several hours at the Rodin Museum in 2016, but last month we visited the Musée d’Orsay four times. A number of its paintings afforded me sightings, recognitions of significance, associations with people and animals.
Eléphants d’Afrique, by Charles Émile d’Tournemine
    I’ve never been to Africa, never seen elephants in the wild, but that painting, this photo of the painting, puts me in a place that I recognize as preternaturally mine, of me. A crop of the photo adorns the lock screen of my iPad.

Vieil homme devant les tombeaux d’enfants,
by Osman Hamdy Bey
    This to-me-unremarkable painting, of a Muslin parent standing above the caskets of his children(?), took on personal tones immediately I recognized the likeness of a cousin on my mother’s side. I sent the photo to him and his wife, and they agreed, except that “the subject’s beard is a little darker.”
    In Gustave Courbet’s reverent painting of the exposed crotch of a woman lying on her back, “L’origine du monde,” my wife thought she sighted the source or inspiration for Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of a nude female torso that we admired last year. The Courbet is earlier, and Rodin might very well have seen it, but his figure is dynamically in motion. [Forgive my reluctance – is it discretion? – to show you the painting, but here you can see someone else’s photo of it.]
    This drawing for a portrait by Cézanne shocked me with his subject’s resemblance to Charles Manson.
d’Achille Emperaire
The association quite ruined the drawing for me, and still does.

Several times I glimpsed an image of myself in the reflection of a pane of glass, as captured here while photographing a case of Degas’s sculptures.

And one day, walking jauntily down the short street below our apartment, on my way to the post office on Rue Lamarck, I caught self-reflective sight of myself looking over my shoulder at myself walking jauntily down the street, evaluating “how I was doing,” what my state of mind & spirit was. I felt a little embarrassed to observe myself judging that I was doing “pretty well!” Instantly I became aware that I was also looking over my shoulder looking at myself looking over my shoulder. I was investing vastly more consciousness in thinking about myself experiencing than I was investing in experiencing! Could I really be doing that “well” walking down the street? In what sense was I even really walking down the street? (And now, in writing this, I seem to be at a still further remove from the actual experience.)

And my wife had a remarkable recognition, too, in this painting.
Portrait of Madame Gaudibert
(not my photo)
She felt herself continually drawn to it on each of our successive trips to the Musée d’Orsay, finally becoming convinced that it had been on a history of art exam in college, in which her professor had asked his students to try to identify who painted it, and when. She had not guessed Monet, 1868!

One particularly striking sighting at the Musée d’Orsay was of someone who for a moment was one of my wife’s nephews in California whom both of us enjoy immensely. It was a tall man (the nephew is not tall) standing in a crowded corridor who had overheard us wondering whether there was an elevator and volunteered where we might find one. His voice, his face, his manner (blunt, matter of fact, but friendly) were uncannily like those of her nephew. I felt I needed to explain my excitement, so I told the man of the resemblance, which my wife confirmed. At this, he said something so memorable that I failed to quote it in my notes. It was something like, “He would probably rather be in Paris.”

And looking through a window from the fifth level of the museum – or better yet, from its terrace outside – we sighted the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, or Sacré-Cœur Basilica). It sits atop the Butte Montmartre, only a few hundred meters from the apartment we occupied, which, from the perspective shown in the photograph, is situated a bit to the left just beyond the Basilica, on the other side of the Butte. Seeing it from the museum was like viewing home.

    I haven’t counted how many photos I took of Sacré-Cœur Basilica, usually from much closer:

And sightings worked in the other direction – from Sacré-Coeur. There’s an observatory in front of the Basilica from which, throughout the day, scores of people look out over Paris, checking the legend provided to identify this building or that.

And, of course, there were some observations of (and about) birds. If you’ve read July 4’s post, “By way of apology to the wild birds in our neighborhood,” you’ll understand some of my sentiments about the pigeons of the streets of Paris, whose life has to be hard, dodging the feet of pedestrians and dogs, and the wheels of cars, motorcycles, and bicycles, eking out crumbs from the crevices of cobblestones. Fortunately, I never saw a pigeon stepped on or run over the whole month we were in Paris, but you know it had to have been happening somewhere.

    The first night we were in the apartment this time, I heard what sounded like the hoots of owls, as I said in a message to our daughter, who immediately suggested that it must have been pigeons. And of course it was! We could even see them out the apartment windows, resting on rooftops, on chimneys, on railings. We could almost see them cooing – cooing, not hooting.
    The pigeons around the outdoor restaurants of Le Jardin des Tuileries (the Tuileries Garden) were having it relatively easy:

And finally, a “sighting” right here at home, the last day of working on this post:

    When we saw Van Gogh’s original painting, my wife reminded me that we had a print of it at home. But I wasn’t sure which wall it hung on. This morning, in the dining room, I looked up from Siegfried’s serving bowl, and there it was!

Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle


  1. I enjoyed the trip through Paris with my coffee this morning. Both were very good.

  2. Love the post, Morris! We share a passion for the Musee D'Orsay (where this particular sculpture took my breath away-- as well as Sacre Coeur. -Michael Hanson

    1. Your comment made me stop and think about the Musée d’Orsay’s sculpture (versus its framed art). I’m not sure sculpture is well shown there, although the glass-cased Degas’s come off well. Maybe too much light or distraction? But I am sure I was much, much more affected by the paintings (and by the decorative furnishings, which also had their own rooms and lighting). I will need to think about this more, on my next visit!
          Now, Rodin’s sculptures in HIS museum...!

  3. Really enjoyed this post Uncle Morris. Reading your Travel adventures in Paris is rekindling my desire to visit that city. We started making plans to go about 10 years ago, even bought several travel guides, but had to postpone our plans due to unforseen events. But i know we'll make it there eventually. I'm reminded of a book I read that I think you would enjoy reading. Its titled The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Its about American artists, writers, and doctors who travelled to Paris in the 19th century and came back and changed America through what they learned. I know you'd enjoy the book.

    1. Ray, I am delighted that you enjoyed this entry (and I hope subsequent entries) of my Paris Journal. I just saw an email that Carolyn sent you with information to help you prepare for your & Stephanie's trip to France, and the information that she has read the McCullough book, which I myself have not read. As I told the friend this morning who owns the Montmartre apartment: "I did almost zero reading in June, and, frankly, I don't do much here at home anymore. I don't seem to have either the time or visual (or mental?) patience for it."