The Canal

September 7, 2011

In southwest France, dans le pays Cathar, lies the Canal du Midi, an engineering marvel of the 17th century built by Pierre Paul Riquet.  It was built in only fifteen years (no machines, of course) when Riquet was in his sixties, and despite the backing of Louis XIV and his minister, Colbert, many thought it would never be done.  The motivation was simple:  connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and cut out the part of the sea route that requires sailing around the entire Iberian peninsula when shipping goods.  It starts near Narbonne on the sea, and moves roughly west to Toulouse, where it meets the Garonne Canal that was built earlier.  Once it was complete, it became a tremendously important link in the commercial network that was retired only with the coming of the railroads.

Canals often have to have locks to allow barges to negotiate the drops in elevation that can’t be avoided on route, and in the 1670s, the design of locks had approached what is used today.  What was unusual about the Canal du Midi was the that is followed a course with a pronounced peak along its course (see below) so that water in the channel would be flowing in two directions at once:  to the Mediterranean; and to the Atlantic.  That meant that there had to be a constant source of water at the summit, not an easy thing to supply in a region that is often parched in the summer.  This is why Riquet’s proposal met with such scepticism.

Riquet solved the problem by capturing the flow from the Montagne Noire, where there were several large streams that became torrents in the winter.  He built a large dam and created a huge reservoir at Naurouze that keeps the water flowing nicely all the year ’round.  If you’re into this sort of thing, you can learn all the details in From Sea to Sea by L.T. C.  Rolt.

Today the canal is just for leisure:  walking, biking, and exploring on boat and barge trips.  Here’s a picture of where we rented bikes, a picturesque spot in la France profonde (deep France).

There are places where it a stream crossed the route of the canal, so a pont canal, a canal bridge, was created to carry the water road over the water!  The images below show the canal from the level of the tow path, and on the right, from the stream.  If you look closely at the second picture, you can just make out a boat crossing the stream at the midpoint of the bridge.

Here’s a better view of a barge crossing the water bridge over the stream.  This one happens to have been built by Vauban, of fortification renown, after Riquet had died.

There are many lovely structures on the canal, including bridges like this one that, more conventionally, carry roads over the water.  When I was there, kids were doing backflips into the water off of it.

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Narbonne: Power and the People

September 6, 2011

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!


Origins of the Modern Thieving State

June 13, 2011

 

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Putin’s brutal tactics against his billionaire political opponents (he throws them in jail and convicts them of trumped-up charges) rang a bell in my head.  The trial of Nicolas Fouquet, Finance Minister to Louis XIV came to mind.  This got me started on the whole notion of what Krugman called today, Rule by Rentiers, and the tremendous and parasitical hold over our society of the financial élite…and whence it came to be.

Fouquet has interested me for a long time, not least because he built one of Europe’s great architectural gems, the estate at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  The gardens were designed by André Le Nôtre, who went on to design the overwhelmingly magnificent landscapes at Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.  Fouquet also came to my attention early in life because in high school, I read some letters by Madame de Sévigné, including a famous one describing the fate of Vatel, formerly cook to Fouquet.  During a grand banquet for the Prince (the Great) Conde, the fish course was threatened – the fish had not been delivered!  Vatel was so humiliated by this failure, that he threw himself on his sword.  His death was treated as a national tragedy.  But Fouquet and his ilk are the story here.

Fouquet is not mentioned much these days – all attention goes to his destroyer, Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV.  But Fouquet was Louis’ faithful servant during a time when the king was young, and just getting a firm grip on power.  (The childhood of Louis was during the civil war called The Fronde.)  He always served the interests of the king and the French state (no difference between the two!), and along the way, he enriched himself.  Well, so did everyone else, and most didn’t do such a good job as he did.  Nor were they as handsome, intelligent, charming, cultured, and imaginative.  Richelieu, Mazarin, and Colbert are not on any historian’s list of fun people.

The job of Nicolas Fouquet was to ensure that the royal treasury was full so it could pursue its endless war against the Spanish Hapsburg Empire.  The state of national finance at the time was so chaotic and desperate that it makes American budget issues look like textbook examples of perfect accounting practice.  Books were duplicated, or secret.  Huge ‘loans’ to government figures were standard.  It was not illegal to rake off a substantial sum from tax collections or financing from the merchant élite, it was how the system worked!  There was no separation of the personal interest from the state interest at the level on which these high ministers worked.  After all, if they did not have the cash to present a good front, what financier would lend to the state they represented?  Opulent show was all part of the process.

The crime of Fouquet was simply to do his job far better than anyone else, thus exciting the envy and hostility of Colbert, and to be neglectful or unaware, to a shocking degree, of how his activities might be interpreted by the young king.  Three weeks after hosting the king at a vast banquet in his brand new palace, Vaux-le-Vicomte, he was enlightened:  Louis had him arrested on charges of embezzlement and treason.  The charges were totally trumped-up, and Louis probably did not believe them a bit:  he simply wanted to get rid of a too-independent servant.

The trial was a milestone in the history of political show trials, but Fouquet did not play the docile, self-incriminating defendant that students of the USSR might expect.  He was cool, calm, and collected, and even managed to smuggle out some letters that were the basis of quickly printed pamphlets that generated tremendous popular support for him.  Louis XIV did not have the resources of the total terror-state, but he did his best.  He hanged a few people who helped Fouquet communicate with the outside world from prison, but it is a measure of the not-yet-established nature of his absolutist rule that many elements of the trial were not under his control.  He learned, and acted differently in the future.

Convicted, but not sentenced to death, the verdict of eternal banishment did not please the king.  He did not get his wish, and did not feel strong enough to impose execution, but he did change the verdict to life in prison.   Fouquet languished in a fortress in the remote alpine Piedmont region of France.

The details of the trial are recounted in some of Madame de Sévigné’s letters, which are always very readable.  This popular biographical treatment is also quite good:

A side note:  When Fouquet and his wife lost a very young daughter to disease, they were advised by a cleric “to learn to love death.”  What a tremendous gulf this reveals between our world and theirs!  Death was all around, and the death of one, or many children, was a common occurrence.  To accept and love death was the only salvation.  No “youth culture” for them!


Tolstoy and the Master Race

December 17, 2010

I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino.  The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French.  Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing.  Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army.  Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water.  The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.

Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots.  Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn.  An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames.  Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!

In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in.  The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements.  One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional.  The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend.   He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.

The conquering officer is magnanimous.  He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman.  Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism.  The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him.  He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.

The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis.  This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization.  The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims.  Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.

With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter.  The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.


The Devils – When Church and State are one

December 12, 2010

The Devils is a Ken Russell film from 1971 that I saw a few years after that.  Since I wasn’t eighteen, I don’t know how I was admitted to the theater at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and I certainly don’t know why they were showing it!  The film was incredibly controversial, heavily cut by censors, and still is not available in an official DVD version, which accounts for the poor image quality of the commercial release I have.  It is a loose adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that tells the story of demonic possession of a nunnery in 17th century France.

Louis XIII is king, Cardinal Richelieu is master.  Loudon is a ‘free town’, allowed to maintain its independence and the fortifications that guarantee it.  Within their circuit, despite the carnage of the religious wars, Catholics and Protestants have managed to live and work together in peace.  Richelieu will have none of that:  he wishes to concentrate all power in the king; to destroy the independence of towns; and to drive the Protestants from the land so that Church and State may be one in a new France.

Father Urbain Grandier is a charismatic churchman in Loudon who has his own interpretation of Catholic celibacy and the like.  Women of all sorts adore him, and vie to have time with him in church to ‘confess’ their sins.  Some get to be more intimate, including the daughter of an influential figure who becomes pregnant by him and is then set loose.  His arrogance and strong ideas make lots of enemies, and when he defies the Cardinal’s emissary who wishes to demolish Loudon’s walls, he’s made an enemy who will not give up until he’s dead.  The fevered and twisted imaginations of some sex-starved nuns provide a good pretext for trumped-up charges of sorcery, a convenient way to remove Grandier from his position of power.  Church and State – no separation…

The film is lurid, bizarre, sometimes funny, and horrifying in its focus on the brutality of Church ‘justice’.  The orgy scene with nuns gone wild, ‘raping’ Christ, and the visions of Sister Jeanne drove the censors wild.  Anyone who has delved into Gothic literature, or the art and mysticism of the Counter-Reformation will recognize it as a dramatic, but not all that distorted presentation of historical truths.  (Click to enlarge the images.)

The film opens with a bit of royal theatrical diversion.  The Cardinal offers his ring and support for a new France, and “may the Protestants be driven from the land!”

Oliver Reed is great as Grandier.  Vanessa Redgrave, as Sister Jeanne, the hunchback prioress of the convent presides over a bevy of girls who are dying to get a glimpse of the man as he leads a procession through the town.  Remember, most nuns were forced to be such by families that didn’t have means or marriages for them. (See Jacques Rivette’s wonderful adaption of Diderot’s novel, La religieuse [The Nun], for example).   These are all daughters of well-to-do families, essentially imprisoned for life.  The expressionistic set design is fabulous.

Jeanne is obsessed by this handsome man of God whom she glimpses through the grate that gives the women their only view of the world outside.

She has ‘visions’ of him, and of a not all that pure nature.

In her dreams, she is Mary Magdalen, come to wash Christ’s feet, and dry them with her hair.  She is beautiful, not a cripple.

Mystical states come to an end – reality does not disappear.

Grandier is just a man, one who loves his neighbor, and his neighbor’s daughter…and many’s the neighbor’s wife who would love to love him…

An eerie black and white sequence depicts Sister Jeanne’s erotic dream of embracing Christ as he comes down off his cross.  She eagerly licks the blood from his wounds, only to awake to reality and find that she has clutched her rosary so hard that her hands are bloodied.  Religious fervor can go too far.

Grandier confronts the Cardinal’s emissary when he starts to demolish the walls.  He has a paper proving that the king granted the city the right to maintain them.  Richelieu tries to get the king to renege on his word, but no dice.  “Leave Loudon alone,” he is told.  The king is impatient.  He’s having fun taking aim

at Hugenots forced to run the gauntlet dressed as black birds.  Ahh…but if Grandier could be disposed of, there would be no opposition and the Cardinal would have a free hand to work on the king.  A plot is hatched.

An interview with Jeanne gets the inquisition going.  A lunatic devil-chaser with John Lennon glasses stages an exorcism while the town’s élite watches from behind a grill.  Yes, such things did go on.  And much has been made of the tinted Lennon glasses:  was Russell taking a swipe at pop culture icons of the day?  I don’t know.

The chasing out of the devils continues in a full-fledged orgy within the local church, the most controversial scene in the film.  Devils?  Within and without.

Grandier is tortured, but will not confess to witchcraft.  He understands the situation perfectly.

Forced to crawl through the streets to his funeral pyre, he is tormented to the end, but refuses to give in.  His enemies, and just about everyone else, turn out to see him burn.  The father of his former lover holds up his son and shouts, “Lucky bastard!  Not every boy gets to watch daddy burn!

With his death, the Cardinal has his way.  The walls come down.  The woman he secretly married wends her way out of the place of desolation while Sister Jeanne and her girls are shut away forever in their convent, despite promises to the contrary.  Sister Jeanne is given a present of Grandier’s charred thigh bone – you can guess what she does with it.


What do French workers want?

October 20, 2010

With all the coverage of the conflict in France between the unions and the government, I have heard little about what the real issues are.  Yes, the unions don’t want their members to be forced to wait until the age of 62 to get full retirement – now they retire at 60.  And yes, that would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe, so, aren’t they just damn lazy?  Surely, they must have a position to counter Sarkozy’s insistence that the state just can’t afford this anymore…

Well, apparently they do.  I found this interesting article about the conflict, and I have excerpted most of it here:

… many workers say they’re prepared to stay the course, in spite of perceptions that they are simply too lazy to accept what would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe.  Two years too many, workers say Jean-Pierre Lesouef, an electronics manager at the transportation giant Thalys, says he has already worked for 37 years and is too tired to work into his 60s.

“I’ve had enough,” he says. “When you’re at my age and you’ve worked as long as I have, you see if you want to work another two years.”

Some experts say complaints like Mr. Lesouef’s go a long way toward explaining why the proposal to add an extra two years to French working life has caused so much upset.  Annual studies for the European Commission looking at attitudes toward work show the French, along with the Italians and the Spanish, are among the unhappiest workers on the continent.

Henri Sterdyniak, an economist at the Paris-based Centre for Economic Research, blames a hierarchical work structure within French companies that rarely allows room for professional development or promotions. Performance reviews are rare and negotiations on working conditions or career paths practically are scarce.

“The French model dictates that if you have a certain diploma you will have a certain career, and if you don’t you will never climb the ladder,” he says. “The worker at the bottom feels like he is constantly squeezed and never consulted. By the end of his career he is exhausted and uninterested, so it’s no wonder he wants to leave.”

Worker satisfaction has also dropped since the 37-hour workweek was introduced, because most people are forced to do the same tasks but in less time, Mr. Sterdyniak says.

Workers like Daniel Quittot, an air conditioning technician, say they’re concerned they will be forced out of their jobs and unable to find new work well before they turn 62. “I’m afraid that if the retirement age goes up, I’ll have two extra years on unemployment and in the end I won’t have worked long enough to collect my full pension,” he says.

Sterdyniak says Mr. Quittot has legitimate fears. Surveys show that unemployment among French workers over 55 rose dramatically when the retirement age was reduced to 60 from 65 in 1983 and is now among the highest in Europe. Although many want to work up to age 60, French employees are on average forced out of their jobs at 58.

“There is a real problem of age discrimination right now in France,” says Sterdyniak. “Unless that changes with the pension reform, we are going to create a whole new problem of unemployment.”


The greatest philosopher who never was!

May 5, 2010

You don’t know who he was?  Read these posts

Et puis, achetez-vous votre T-shirt ici!  Or for you non-francophones,

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