Chartres Cathedral – The Real Thing

January 16, 2011

A few months ago, I watched Orson Welles’ strange and fascinating movie, F is for Fake, a real Orson tour de force.  He gives a moving speech about art, monuments, and authorship while regarding the gothic cathedral of Chartres (watch it here).  It’s been a very long time since I stood beneath Chartres’ vaults, but I decided to do a bit of studying again since I can’t just pick up and go there.

I happened upon a wonderful book, Universe of Stone:  A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, by Philip Ball.  It’s a popular treatment, but quite thorough, ranging from structural analysis of buildings to Platonic analysis of ideas.  Along the way, he is quite short with historians of architecture who show no interest in or knowledge of how a large building is made to stand up, and he is refreshingly commonsensical discussing knotty intellectual disputes such as just how much are gothic cathedrals reflections of medieval scholastic philosophy, as Erwin Panofsky said they were.

As an art history student with a passionate interest in historical architecture, I was vaguely suspicious of pronouncements on structure and aesthetics that I read – I always wondered if those writers knew whereof they spoke.  Later, after taking a degree in civil engineering, I realized my doubts had been solid.

One of the fascinating points Ball makes, partly by way of debunking the popular myth of the cathedrals as communal achievements erected on the basis of heartfelt contributions by all members of a deeply religious society, is that these amazing buildings were mostly paid for by the Church.  Yes, the kings and nobles gave some money, and local town burghers did too, but not nearly enough to pay the huge costs of building a cathedral.  Chartres, not an especially rich town, did have church institutions that were rich, rich in land.  And almost all wealth of that time was from land.  And so, the churchmen of Chartres built themselves a glorious cathedral to celebrate their faith, and their power we must suppose, and paid for it from rent on their vast holdings of land.  The land that grew the grain to make men’s bread.

Ball points out that baskets of bread are seen in many images throughout the cathedral, in stone and in stained glass.  Insofar as nearly everyone then was laboring on the land, we can say that since the wealth they created was what paid for the monument, it was a product of everyone in the society.

Incidentally, Welles makes much of the fact that Chartres, one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, is unsigned.  It’s true: we don’t know who was its master builder, but for many cathedrals, we do.  The fact that his name has been lost to us may be nothing more than the results of poor records retention.


Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860’s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


Sharp dealing peasants

April 16, 2010

Peasant is often used as an insult, the meaning being that they are a stupid, dull, and foolish lot.  Of course, they managed to survive for centuries under conditions that were far from comfortable, so obviously, they know a thing or two about life.  I happen to have a weak spot for novels, it seems they are all French, that feature sharp dealing by peasants, and I am reading one now, La Terre, by Zola.  The archetypal literary scene of peasant-dealing is for me, however, from The Red and the Black, by Stendhal, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

Julien Sorel is the young son of a successful peasant who runs a lumber business in the hills.  Old Sorel beats his son, and despises him as a useless, arrogant, and snotty layabout, always shirking work, slight of build, addicted to reading useless books of Napoleonic history.  Through the offices of a local priest who notes the boy’s intellect, Monsieur Rênal, a local big bourgeois, decides to hire the boy as a tutor for his children, so Rênal goes to settle terms with the father.  The old man, grasping that his son is valuable to these people, and sensing there is money to be made from him, makes a deal on wages and boarding, but when the time comes to seal the agreement, he stalls Monsieur Rênal (italics original).

“Oh, very well!” said Sorel in a drawling tone, “then there’s only one thing for us still to settle:  the money you are to give him.”

“What!” M. De Rênal indignantly exclaimed, “we agreed upon that yesterday:  I give three hundred francs; I consider that plenty, if not too much.”

“That was your offer, I do not deny it, ” said old Sorel, speaking even more slowly; then, by a stroke of genius which will astonish only those who do not know the Franc-Comtois peasant, he added, looking M. de Rênal steadily in the face:  “We can do better elsewhere.”

I have the original French passage here:

– Eh bien! dit Sorel d’un ton de voix traînard, il ne reste donc plus qu’à nous mettre d’accord sur une seule chose: l’argent que vous lui donnerez.

– Comment! s’écria M. de Rênal indigné, nous sommes d’accord depuis hier: je donne trois cents francs; je crois que c’est beaucoup, et peut-être trop.

– C’était votre offre, je ne le nie point, dit le vieux Sorel, parlant encore plus lentement; et, par un effort de génie qui n’étonnera que ceux qui ne connaissent pas les paysans francs-comtois, il ajouta, en regardant fixement M. de Rênal: Nous trouvons mieux ailleurs .

Truly, a memorable moment in literary representations of the peasantry!  They survive against Nature, not always nurturing, and in a social realm that relegates them to the bottom of the heap.  Sentimentality is a luxury, and even family feeling often gives way to calculation.  Relations between father and son are often disrupted by lunges for the economic jugular.

In La Terre, the old farmer, Fouan, decides he can’t keep up his land anymore, love it as he does.  He and his wife decide to make a legal gift of it to their children on agreement that the children will pay the old couple an annual stipend on which they can live.  The two sons comprise a scheming rascal and an utterly dissolute drunkard, known locally as Jesus Christ because of his resemblance to images of the Saviour.  The daughter is an intelligent woman married to a hard working farmer, and she fears being diddled out of her share by her brothers.  The sons resent not getting the land outright:  they suspect that Old Fouan has a stash of money he can live on easily without their payments, and that he is just plain stingy.  At any rate, the two sons are constantly delinquent with their payments, especially Jesus Christ.

And then there is La Grande, the old crone, Fouan’s sister, eighty years old, tough as hickory, single, independent, who regards Fouan as a complete idiot for doing the gift.  She knows what children are like when money’s involved.  She sits in on a confrontation between Fouan and his sons, watching with utter, but silent disgust as Fouan demands the money owed him from one, only to forgive the payment owed by Jesus Christ, and in fact, letting him walk off with some of his brother’s money.  That one is the favorite of the mother!  La Grande declares, “You asked for it!  Don’t ever come asking me for even a penny!!”  She screeches like a harpie or an ingnored prophetess in a Greek myth.

Finally, there are the two later novels, by Pagnol, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, better known here through their film adaptations.  These tell the story of the Soubeyran clan in southern France, where land is valuable, but water is the final arbiter of wealth, for without a well, land is worthless.  In this story, the battle for water, takes on a mythic cast, followed through several generations, with a hidden cache of gold as the final prize.  This is not social realism, but it is brutal enough.  In the end, the peasants’ grasping after water and wealth is frustrated by ironic twists of fate, complete with a local crippled prophet out of Oedipus, who declares the truth of the curse that floats over a town stricken by a dried up spring.


Our Past, Their Present…

January 21, 2006

There have been many articles in the NYTimes recently about the simmering rural unrest in China, and the trepidation it causes the nation’s leaders. With many Chinese cities seeing unprecedented economic boom times, the land in and around them has become very valuable as developers scramble to make millions with new real estate. Last week, the Times had a piece about a rural city, formerly more of a village before the intense economic growth in the region, and the protests brought on by the locals’ sense that they had been cheated out of their land. They protested, and were put down violently.The police, the state, the economic establishment, all seem to be arrayed against simple and uneducated farmers who, for some strange reason, are reluctant to give up the land that they own or have had rights to for many years. This in the land where urban intellectuals, in a past epoch, were ‘sent down’ to work in the mud of the rural farms to learn true Chinese communist values. Now that those rural denizens have notions of their own about rights and values, they have become inconvenient.

It all seems very reminiscent of the European enclosure movement, about which I have written before. [Who Is this Man?] People with resources and power screw the workers of the land to get the real estate to turn it into fungible wealth – flocks of wool bearing sheep, or apartment houses and factory buildings. A hundred years from now, the descendents of these shysters and ruthless operators will look back on them and talk of how they reached their pinnacles of success through hard work and superior virtue. Well, hard work, yes, but of a particular kind, and with a lot of theft mixed in. Same story, different century. It’s like seeing history in replay mode, if you’re paying attention.


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