Tuesday, June 19, 2012
NEH Session on The Black Book of Communism:
Just as I expected, our session with Anglo-French historian Nicholas Werth was deeply engaging and I came away learning a great deal about the genesis of the book and the multiple controversies that plagued its publication--including expensive law suits. The book, however--an 800 page tome filled with global stats on the crimes, terror and loss of human life under communist and totalitarian regimes--became an international bestseller. Apparently in France, where usually at Christmastime, members of le Vieux France, exchanged gifts of superior cognac and cigars, they were gifting elderly uncles and grand-peres copies of this book. Question time was equally interesting with many global comparisons drawn between Soviet-style Communism and the kind perused in the name of Nationalism, such as Nehru's Socialism in India. Overall, it was a satisfying and profoundly enlightening lecture-discussion.
My new friend and colleague, Noit (Noo-eet) offered to buy me lunch as she has amassed a bunch of extra meal coupons a the CISP where she has elected to stay--many of my colleagues who are staying there are in the same boat and I saw offers of free lunches being waved around and a bunch of non-residents tucking into the endless salad bar. My own plat--roasted pork in a mustard sauce--was okay at best, but then in which student cafeteria in America would you be able to pick up a bottle of red, white or rose wine with your meal tray?
Off to Hotel des Invalides:
In keeping with my desire to cover the area heading north of the Pont Alexander III, I told Noit of my plans--they included a visit to the Dome Church to see Napoleon's Tomb and to the Musee de L'Armee which is France's Military Museum--and deeply relevant to our study of France between the Wars. Noit was very pleased to accompany me, so off we went on the metro to Tour la Maubourg from where the vast environs of the Hotel des Invalides are only a few steps away.
The Hotel and Church of Les Invalides:
I have to say this about Le Roil Soleil--Louis XIV. While he was busy building himself ostentatious palaces, he did spare a thought for his thousands of soldiers who had returned wounded, disabled or ill from the innumerable wars of his reign. Since there did not exist a place to treat them, he commanded the construction of a vast hospital for the purpose under the supervision of architect Liberal Brunard. The result is a vast complex of courtyards, endless corridors with hospital wards branching off them and a chapel for the inmates--hence, Hotel des Invalides.
The chapel was eventually called the Church of St. Louis. Patients attended services in this church. However, it was important for the monarch to attend services too and a grand church was build right behind it for Louis' private use. It is a gorgeous confection of soaring space, painted dome, towering pillars, mosaic floors--deeply reminiscent of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and probably inspired by it. In like manner, the ornate altar--known as a badalchino in Italy--made with twisted barley stick marble columns was reminiscent, at least to me, of the central altar in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Much architectural 'borrowing' from illustrrious predecessors has created a breathtaking space that was connected to the patients' littler, more modest chapel, by a glass door and gallery.
Napoleon's Tomb in Dome Church:
The space made a perfect last resting place for France's great military hero Napoleon Bonaparte whose wish was to be buried close to the Seine near the people of France whom he had always loved. Hence, a gigantic marble sarcophagus was built for the purpose (again, reminiscent to me of the marble sarcophagi in the Vatican built to house the remains of the status-conscious Renaissance popes--only theirs' were made of purple porphyry which is the rarest marble on earth).
To view Napoleon's Tomb, I descended down a curving stairwell and arrived at another small altar space which took me past a grand entrance flanked on two sides by larger-than-lifesized marble sculptures of bearded men holding a crown and an orb respectively in their hands. Inside, the humongous tomb is surrounded by more sculpture--this time of Greek maidens leaning against pillars, each representing one of Napoleon's many successful military campaigns. I circumnavigated the space to take in its solemnity and its privileged position before I climbed up again. It was at this point that I remembered having seen this monument 27 years ago on my very first visit to Paris. The memory came suddenly at me like a ton of bricks and a felt a sharp jolt of nostalgia for the wide-eyed ingenue I once was!
A walk around the Dome Church--whose beautiful gold-embellished Dome can be seen all over Paris like a landmark compass which points the way and gives you your bearings--revealed other tombs of prominent Frenchmen: Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother; Marshal (I love the French word, Marechal) Foch (Chief commandant of the Allied Operation during World War I); Louis XIV's Chief military architect, Vauban; and in a nondescript corner, that of Jerome, Napoleon's younger brother, King of Westphalia.
The church was full of French school kids on field trips or American high school students on a Travel Abroad Study Tour. It is my understanding that there are no longer services held in this church which is now, strictly a museum (I paid 8 euros to see both: the church and the Museum and my Met ID card did not work this time round!) Fortunately for me, although we had reached the venue at about 3. 45 pm, the place had late-night closing and we were free to enjoy it all until 9.00 pm. This allowed me to take spurts of rest in-between my exploration.
Exploring The Musee De L'Armee:
The Musee de L'Armee which was my next port of call, is part of the Hotel Des Invalides. Apparently, it is still a hospital today, but only a small part of it is used for this purpose. The bulk of the complex is devoted to a preservation of military history and it is all beautifully organized--each epoch of French war history devoted to a different section of the quadrangular building. I started with World War I and II as that is most immediately related to the topic of my current inquiry. It is simply the most detailed museum devoted to this subject. Loads and loads of objects, documents, flags, banners, uniforms, apparatus and military equipment (including rifles and canons) weigh this space down. It is simply impossible to see and read everything and I soon realized I had to be choosy--although I did pause to watch the many rivetting film clips.I particularly devoured the segment on the tench warfare of World War I--having visited the trenches recently on the Somme. My emphasis then lay on the Allied colonial effort, i.e. the use of Tamilians (in Pondicherry, known as Sepoys), Senegalese, Northern African (known as Spahis) and Madagascan troops by the French and the use of Sikh and Gurkha infantry and cavalrymen by the British. All these troops were based in France during the year 1914-18. Sadly, pictures are the only things that remain of their valiant war effort. The section which is spread out over three storeys was simply exhaustive and exhausting and by the time we arrived at World War II, Vichy France and the role of General Petain, I was knackered and badly in need of a cup of tea in the cafeteria which (get this!) cost 4 euros! That is about $6.00 for a cup of hot water!!! Astounding. Noit, who had spent most of her time in the Algerian War exhibit, joined me for tea (and was equally flabbergasted by the price).
After giving my feet a break of about 45 minutes, I set out again--this time to see the special section devoted to General Charles de Gaulle which is entirely audio-visual. Noit left to keep a late-evening appointment while I continued on my voyage of discovery.
Historial Charles de Gaulle:
This section of the Musee de L'Armee is unique because there are absolutely no objects on display. What you are handed is an audioguide which is automatic. As you move from one part of the exhibition to the next, it senses your position and automatically provides spurts of commentary in the language of your choice. My audioguide was a mess. Most of the time it was unable to translate the text into English and all I kept hearing were apologies. When I drew the attention of the museum staff to this, she apologized and said that all their guides are equally bad--they are "Chinese guides", she said, by way of explantion. Her sub-text said, So, what can you expect?
At 7. 15 pm, I walked into the large auditorium to watch a film on the biography of Charles de Gaulle which gave a capsule idea of his rich and eventful life. It was really interesting. On a tryptych screen, we got to see a number of visuals that threw light in his life and his passionate desire to do something significant for his country. Indeed, he had his wish granted. I found the film segment on France's reaction to the Armistice in 1945 deeply moving and felt a tear roll down my cheek. Fortunately, in this space, my audioguide did work and I was able to follow every word--which made a huge difference to my enjoyment of the exhibit.
Following the movie, I skimmed around the rest of the section and could easily have spent an hour or two longer perusing all the material on display which is a very rich archive indeed. But by then I felt knackered and simply needed to get home. I asked for directions to the nearest bus stop, but on discovering that the metro would take me to the last stop (Balard) from where I could take a tram right to my doorstep, that's what I decided to do. The tram ride was a revelation as I skimmed through the outer periphery of the city taking in the mutli-cultural life that is now so distinctly a part of the Parisian scene. Through Porte de Versailles and Porte de Vanves I went and arrived finally at Porte d'Orleans and then my stop at Cite-Universitaire. It is amazing how I am taken on sight seeing tours even when I least expect them.
It was all I could do to heat up my dinner: a frozen Chevre Quiche (goat's cheese, which turned out to be simply delicious!) with a salad and then off I went straight to bed, completely cream-crackered by my eventful day.