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.

La terre – Earth Day

April 22, 2010

I finished Zola’s La Terre yesterday, and by happenstance, today is Earth Day.

The epic tale of farting, murderous, avaricious, randy, bestial peasants who live by tending the great Mother Earth ends on a positive note. Images of the Earth receiving her seed bookend the similar opening of the novel. Jean, the townsman turned farmer, who was ejected from the local peasant community as a human body will reject an organ transplant, is signing up to fight the Prussians. Meanwhile, far away in Paris, in another novel, Nana lies dead in palatial bedroom, a suppurating mass of flesh killed by smallpox, while outside, the crowds, in a patriotic frenzy, rally and march to the cry of “To Berlin!” The Debacle will tell what comes next, with Jean at the center of it. After the loosing fight, he will return to the earth, not the town.

In our society, awash in sentimental and falsely nostalgic images of the more “green” days of the past, celebrants of Earth Day would do well to read La Terre (The Earth). Living “in tune” with the natural cycles of the the earth is not all daisies and recycling. It is more like being clasped in a crushing embrace by forces beyond your control, barely understood, that are beautiful and mysterious, but terrifying at times as well.  The peasants adore Mother Earth, and have little use for God, the one the priest talks about, but they curse her too when she destroys their crops with hail or fails to bring forth a good harvest.

Today, we hang calendars on our walls with reproductions of paintings by Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners being ever popular. He intended this as a realistic depicition of the poverty and back-breaking labor of women who scour harvested fields for the leavings with which to feed their families, but we find it beautfiul, bucolic, even romantic. According to The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, even his images are a mild presentation of the reality of peasant life.

Malthus on my mind

September 14, 2009

malthus normanborlaug

It just so happens that I have been reading Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population these days – another one of those famous books that I’d never gotten around to.  And it just so happens that Norman Borlaug died yesterday.  And it just so happens that T. R. Malthus keeps coming up in discussion about consumption, scarcity, the environment, global warming, etc.  Consider this riposte by Paul Krugman regarding feedback on earlier post of his.  It’s all related.

Some would say that Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner, showed Malthus the door when he ushered in the Green Revolution.  (He rejected that term, though.)  Food supply didn’t have to inevitably fall behind the growth of population.  Except that Borlaug remained worried about population growth throughout his life and feared that if the rate of increase wasn’t checked, his work would have done no more than bought a temporary reprieve from famine to the world.  Borlaug, who seems to have been a deeply compassionate and extremely sensible man (see this address) was also criticized by many for a narrow technocratic approach to the problem of feeding the world – Simple, we’ll breed more productive wheat! – understood the wider context within which agriculture sits.  He wasn’t trying to get the developing world hooked on Western fertilizer and seed products – he was trying to feed the world.  He regarded such critics as elitists who didn’t worry about where their next meal, or their family’s meal, was coming from.

Oh dear, so much comes together here, not the least of which is just how great those 18th century thinkers were.  Did Malthus forsee it all?  Now we associate him with Carlyle’s remark about economics being the dismal science:  nothing but famine, war and pestilence bring production and consumption into balance, that’s the future.  Dismal, yes, but that’s not what Carlyle was talking about anyway. And Malthus was just trying to introduce some hard nosed good sense into a discussion too much dominated by optimistic good feeling of people like Condorcet.  In situating ourselves within Nature, the universe, we have not advanced much beyond Rousseau and Voltaire’s argument of more than 200 years ago.

Krugman’s gripe was with people calling him a (neo) Malthusian when he ranted about congressmen being treasonous to the planet and the sky falling and all that climate change stuff.  But he was way off base, as this commenter pointed out:

“[Krugman wrote] We only think Malthus got it wrong because the two centuries he was wrong about were the two centuries that followed the publication of his work.”

Only an economist could say that with a straight face.

Shorter version: “Malthus was wrong because his theory had zero predictive ability”.

Yes, I thought of that too.  If only Malthus had published his work in 1598, he would be looked upon as an undisputed master of analysis and prediction!   On the other hand, just this evening, here at a conference on water resources and climate change, a speaker remarked that maybe bringing the Green Revolution to India wasn’t such a “wise idea” because a significant consequence has been unregulated and unrestricted pumping of groundwater for irrigation, which is bringing the nation to the point of  massive water shortages.  Maybe Malthus should have written about water supply instead of grain supply, although it comes to the same thing in the end.

Or does it?  The same speaker said we should never underestimate our ability to adapt, an intellectual mistake that neo-Malthusians make a lot.

Silent Sea, Salton Sea

March 27, 2009

salton_seasized salton_sea_tilapia-791657

When I was in school, I picked off the shelf a copy of Oriental Despotism:  A Comparative Study of Total Power by Karl Wittfogel and learned of his thesis, not widely shared today, that this sort of government has its foundation in something he called hydraualic civilization. These are societies that depend for their existence on huge, government directed irrigation works.  My imagination was set on fire by the notion of what I later termed “Hydrologic Radicalism.”

Today, this sort of radical engineering is not in favor, not after the disasters of the Aswan Dam, the killing and disappearing of the Aral Sea, and the use, re-use, and use-again of the Colorado River until the unfortunate Mexicans are left with only a salty, meagre trickle into the Gulf of Baja California where once a life-giving torrent flowed.  Treaty be damned!

My interest in Big Water, most familiar to the general public via Roman Polanski’s film “Chinatown,” led me to the Salton Sea.


This enormous inland lake lies east of San Diego on the other side of some mountains the make that entire region a desert.  The Salton Sea submerged the Salton Sink, which was the lowest point in North America before that, a place of honor now held by Death Valley.  When I was a boy, the Sea was still a resort destination in the winter, a place for the Rat Pack glitterati to boat and fish and drink when they tired of nearby Palm Springs.  My interest in it was piqued recently when I read about Albert Frey, an architect who designed in the Desert Modern Style, and built the Salton Sea Yacht Club.

salton_sea_yachtThis modernist paradise has seen better days.  You can see a very nice val_kilmer_deborah_kara_unger_salton_sea_001assortment of ghost town photos of the area on flickr, here.  The decay of the area, precipitous since the 1970s, made it a good setting for the neo-noir film, “Salton Sea,” with Val Kilmer in the lead.  Vincent D’Onfronio plays a meth lab monster who lost his nose to drug snorting and earned the nickname, Pooh Bear.  He’s pretty creepy.


caljsiol_sio1ca175_113_017So how did this dead sea come to be?  The satellite image at the top tells the story.  The dense patchwork of rectangles at the north and south end of the Sea are irrigated agricultural fields.  The southern area is known as the Imperial Valley, one of the most productive industrial agricultural sites in the world.   Desert soil is often very rich growing material – to make it bloom, just add water.  Some real estate types had been eyeing the locale for decades when a successful canal building venture was finally launched, and settlers were drawn from across the world to settle and farm the valley.   In the course of building this Garden of Eden, there was a slight miscalculation regarding the construction of the hydraulic gates and barriers.

There was unusually high water in one of the tributaries, and the works failed.  Water will seek a low point, and the entire flow of the mighty Colorado River rushed in with a torrential vengeance.  The cascade created some low waterfalls which were washing away the soil “like powdered sugar,” and they began backcutting the stream bed at nearly a 4000 feet each day, i.e. , the falls were moving upstream at that rate.  Crowds turned out to watch this “cosmical plunge of a great river.”  Parallels to the Biblical Flood and the results of man’s hubris were on everyone’s lips.  The Sink was filling up at a rate of  a half-foot a day.  More than four times the volume of soil removed for the Panama Canal was washed away.  Radical, man!  You can read all about it in this paper I wrote for a master’s level class in geography.

When it was filled, everyone thought the Salton Sea would just evaporate away on its own, but it didn’t.  The drainage from the vast irrigated fields surrounding it, and from some springs to the north of it, kept it filled.  Someone had the bright idea in the 40s to turn it into a desert resort after WWII, and it flourished for a while.  Like the Dead Sea in Israel, however, it has no outlet, and stuff just accumulates in it over time.  This includes salt, fertilizer, pesticide, and other chemcials that feed algae and make life for fish unpleasant.  The large population of fish that grew from some initial stocks began to die off, and the Sea became the stinking stagnant mess it is today.  Plans are floated now and then to clean it up, but prospects are dim as it would be a very big and expensive job, with uncertain results.

Stop by sometime when you’re cruising through So. Cal. and you want to see and smell something different!




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers