Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kiss Me and Smile For Me

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary died on September 16, 2009, at the age of 72. She was born in 1936 in Louisville, Kentucky, which is also my hometown. Driving home from Louisville today after spending the Thanksgiving holiday with my family, we listened to a Peter, Paul and Mary "greatest hits" tape, and the song "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" brought back some memories. "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" was the first pop song I remember hearing and loving, and wanting to hear over and over, and learning the words so I could sing along. Surely I must have heard other songs on the radio (remember "If you want it, here it is, come and get it" - my brother and I kept asking my mom what "it" was), but 40 years later this one still stands out as my "first."

Peter, Paul and Mary's version of "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" (written by John Denver) became a radio hit in 1969; that was the year my parents divorced. I didn't realize until much later that the song's blend of heartache, remorse, and desire resonated with me because of my own loss.

My parents' divorce was the end of my childhood. I was five years old when they split up, maybe six, I don't remember exactly. I remember my life before the divorce in idealized terms - I know it wasn't a happy time for my parents, but for me it was the happiest time of my life, when I had no problems, no cares. My family was my universe, and when it fell apart, I knew real pain for the first time in my life.

Mary Travers gave a voice to my pain and longing. If the divorce was the end of my childhood, then pop music was the beginning of my adulthood. I'm not sure that was a good thing. Don't get me wrong, I love pop music - it's fun, and it can create beauty out of the banal or even the ugly. At the same time, though, it provides formulas. For me, this formula meant that a romantic relationship (preferably heterosexual, definitely monogamous) defined the ultimate terms of love, desire, and loss. Never mind that it was my parents' divorce that created my tragedy; finding a husband became the prescription to cure it. (Or at least, finding a boyfriend.) To make myself perfectly clear, I don't feel that this is a positive benefit of pop music; it may even be harmful. But I still love "Leavin' on a Jet Plane."

I don't mean to make too much out of this. One song is not going to have that much influence on anyone's life, it's part of a much larger and much more complex culture. It's just funny to me, when I hear that song, to think back on my 6-year-old self (in 1970) and my 4-year-old brother being so moved by it at such a young age that it could almost make us cry. Where did that impulse come from? It had to come from something outside the music -- the emotional devastation of having our family broken apart. When I say pop music was the beginning of adulthood for me, I guess what I mean is the ability to find some hidden meaning to a song.

My four-year-old son still thinks that "Bungle in the Jungle" is just about animals; I hope it stays that way for a long time.

Now the time has come to leave you,
One more time, let me kiss you,
Then close your eyes, I'll be on my way...

Friday, October 23, 2009

University of Missouri Homecoming Weekend

"Great! They have MU Snuggies! Let's get some!"
"Uh, what are Snuggies?"
"Does it matter? They have MU logos on them, that's all that matters!"
Happy Homecoming Weekend, Columbia!
(I will be out of town this weekend, thank goodness!)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More Complaints about "Living in Misery"

I have a bone to pick with the blog entitled “Living in Misery.” For those who don’t live in Columbia, Missouri, the blog’s name refers to that lovely town (technically it’s a city) that I have called home for the past six years. (My husband has lived here for 11 years, so I’ve been acquainted with it for that long myself.) In case you don’t get the joke, “Misery” is a pun on “Missouri.” (Original, no? No.) Columbia is locally referred to as COMO for short.

I’ve written about this before, beginning in March 2008 and with a couple of follow-up posts in May (May 5 and May 9). I received lots of positive comments on those posts (via Facebook and verbally as well as on this blog) from folks in Columbia who are also annoyed by the blog’s persistent negativism. My position is that Columbia is a pretty darn good community in which to live. It’s not perfect, but no place is perfect. (Though if you read the “Living in Misery” blog you’d be told that Columbus, Ohio, IS perfect – it sounds like some sort of utopia, where there are no stupid politicians, no bad drivers, no evil police officers, no stupid people who don't know how to spell. I won’t dare to challenge THOSE sacred beliefs.)

Since I’ve given plenty of reasons in the past why I think COMO is a good place to live, I won’t recapitulate them here. Instead, I will point out the things that annoy me about the "Living in Misery" blog. Chiefly, there is something seriously wrong with his logic, which goes something like this:

A) Columbia, Missouri, sucks because there’s nothing good here.
B) Columbia, Missouri, sucks because there’s something great here but the local people are clueless and unable or unwilling to appreciate it.
C) Columbia, Missouri, sucks because there is something really great here, but I can’t get access to it because it’s so popular and everyone wants it.


A) First, the name of the blog implies “Columbia, Missouri, sucks because there’s nothing good here.” That attitude pervades the blog, even when he’s trying to say something nice about Columbia. Like this sentence from March 2008: “Since moving to COMO, we have struggled to find a place that made it just a little less miserable. The new Ragtag/Uprise/Ninth Street Video complex has done that for us.”

B) In his end-of-the-year post on “Best of 2008: Homegrown in COMO,” he asserts that “most COMO-ians don’t know what they’ve got” (actually the quote comes from a Facebook exchange about the post, but same author). The quote illustrates my pet peeve about the blog, which is the supposition that, really, most of the rest of us are ignoramuses. As if noone knew about the RagTag and Sparky’s before he came to town and enlightened us. His bloggings and rants are a subterfuge, because in fact HE is the one who believes “Walmart owns this town. Literally.” Those of us who thought all along that Columbia is a great place (and who didn't shop at Walmart) were evidently oblivious to Walmart’s dominance. NOW, it turns out, we were oblivious to the great local, non-corporate businesses. But I’m glad to see that the author has finally come around to my point of view.

C) In another "Living in Misery" post, he was complaining about how hard it was to get tickets to the True/False Film Festival screenings, even as a pass-holder. I'm afraid I can't provide a link to that post, I haven't been able to locate it on his blog. (He's a very prolific blogger and there are way too many posts for me to go back through all of them!) But he compared it to his experience in Columbus, Ohio, when a new Trader Joe's opened and very few people knew about it, so shopping there was a pleasant experience. Then the word got out, and in a matter of months it was mobbed (like all the other TJ's in the country!), so shopping there meant battling crowds in the parking lot and in the aisles. He likened the True/False Film Festival to that experience -- it's so popular now that even us longtime supporters can't get tickets to the films we want to see.

Here's my second major point: he does not always know whereof he speaks. In one of our exhanges in May 2008, he complained (on my blog) that "the gay community is rather invisible. We were here for several weeks before we saw any signs of a LGBT community. The only gay bars in town are nowhere near the supposedly progressive downtown." But in June 2009, he posted an essay called "The Gay of COMO," in which he reversed his previous position, writing the following:

"It's hard to believe that R and I moved here nearly four years ago. One of the things we felt was absent was the gay scene. There was (and still is) no gay bar downtown. No stores flew rainbow flags. We couldn't find the gay community anywhere. The place from which we came - Columbus, OH - is a gay mecca of sorts. So, this was a bit of culture shock for us.

"Then, R walked into Main Squeeze and things began to become clearer. I joined the Prism board. New friends came out to us and invited us to SoCo. The world regained its balance.

"There is a strong gay community in this town. Support it."

There's something to be said for being open-minded and willing to admit when you were wrong. But there's also something to be said for reserving judgment, and maybe waiting more than A WEEK to get to know a place before you pass judgment on it and declare yourself an ardent and vocal detractor of it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ian McEwan

I came late to Ian McEwan’s writing, but I finally have to admit that I’m a big fan. I’ve just read my third McEwan novel – I devoured it in about 24 hours – the short, concisely plotted Amsterdam (1998), and have been filled with admiration for McEwan’s ingenuity at creating the perfect blend of satire, surprise, and keen observation of the human psyche. Previously I read Enduring Love (1997) and Atonement (2001), and have found all his novels equally compelling.

It’s also rather breathtaking to consider how many of his novels have been translated into film – Atonement, Enduring Love, The Comfort of Strangers, and The Cement Garden – in addition to his authorship of original screenplays (The Good Son and others). Taken together, his novels and screenplays represent a world that is, to use my friend Amy’s word, unnerving. In some – The Comfort of Strangers comes to mind immediately – “unnerving” is an understatement.

On reading Enduring Love last month I recognized what is not exactly a formula for McEwan’s novel, but may be more accurately described as a trope, or a technique for developing the plot: he throws together a group of people (mostly strangers), subjects them to an intense emotional experience, and then explores what happens to them (as individuals and in relationship to each other) as a result of the traumatic incident. He devotes lavish attention to setting up the situation, the emotional crucible, which is most fully developed in Atonement: the climactic event – the rape of a visiting young cousin – is preceded by the description of one day’s events which takes up practically the first half of this novel. In Enduring Love, the first chapter was described by one critic as the best first chapter of any novel he’d ever read.

The characters McEwan throws together are either complete strangers or a mix of strangers and intimates. In The Comfort of Strangers they are two couples; in Amsterdam they are four men whose connection is that they all loved the same woman (the glamorous Molly, whom we never meet – the story begins with her funeral). Two are best friends, but all four are rivals.

McEwan explores consequences, the effects of events upon individuals’ emotional and psychological states. He’s interested in perceptions: the differences among different people’s perceptions of an event, the subjectivity (and hence unreliability) of perceptions, and the way our perceptions color our responses and reactions. Perception may be unreliable and sometimes completely wrong, but we are trapped within our own perceptual boundaries; perception is all we have for understanding our world, our relationships, our lives.

Another common feature of McEwan’s novels is that they always end up being about something completely different from what the reader initially thinks they’re going to be about. By the end of the novel, the main character is doing something that would have been wholly unthinkable at the beginning of the novel, yet McEwan takes them (and us) there in a convincing manner.

McEwan is interested in the darker sides of the human psyche. Sometimes this takes the form of extreme sexual perversity, but more often it’s an exploration of jealousy, obsession, delusions of grandeur, rationalization, selfishness, malice. He presents moral and ethical dilemmas, and his characters’ failure to act nobly. My, how they rationalize their behavior! Only in Atonement does the main character display remorse over her action and its dire, irreversible consequences.

As it happens, one of my first posts on this blog was a review of Atonement; here I will say a few words about the other two McEwan novels I’ve read recently:

Enduring Love

This novel is about something called “de Clérambault’s syndrome,” or erotomania, and includes as an appendix an article on the syndrome published in the British Review of Psychiatry. It’s very well researched, and in fact is based on the true story described in BRP. Initially I thought it might turn out to be like the film Notes on a Scandal (based on the novel What Was She Thinking? By Zoe Heller), with an unreliable narrator, but it wasn’t at all.

Coincidentally, erotomania is the subject of the French film He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not, starring Audrey Tautou, which is one of my favorite films. (See my review of He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not elsewhere on this blog.)


This is the shortest and funniest of the three McEwan novels I’ve read, and it won the Booker Prize in 1998. It’s a work of biting satire in which McEwan ridicules politicians, journalists, and bohemian artsy types. The rivalry among four men involved with one woman reminded me too of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel about four men, three of whom are involved (successively) with one woman. The Fountainhead is not a work of satire by any means – it’s more like an allegory of capitalism in which each of the men represents a different political ideology. Like Amsterdam, The Fountainhead’s cast of characters includes a publisher and an artist (the architect Howard Roarke). Other than that, Amsterdam and The Fountainhead have nothing in common; Ayn Rand has virtually no sense of humor, but she does write a compelling tale.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Rambling" - a poem by Mescal Hornbeck

(This poem was written by my grandmother, Mescal Hornbeck, who turned 98 last month. Mescal is an active writer of poetry, essays, and letters to the editor of the local papers. She lives in Woodstock, New York. When I asked her if I could publish this poem on my blog, she agreed, and commented on what a funny word "blog" is. Then she said "I'd rather be blogged than flogged!")


If God created the universe
Who created God?
If the world BEGAN with those
Wee microscopic elements
Where did they come from?
Must we know
What and where the things
We see came to be?
Pain and futility
Are what we’ll get
And little joy if
We can’t be content
Just to be, feel, and see.
Aha, I know
Where God came from!!!
Because man has always
Thought that there just has to be
A cause for everything
He believed there had to be
A cause for you and me.
And so man invented God.
In Man’s own image
Invented he Him.
Unable to see that
Some things that be are
Quite inexplicable
For instance, do you really know
What makes the things
We do happen?
Can you possibly explain
What invisible force
Causes a man and woman
To Suddenly feel a strong
Magnetic pulling together?
And this does happen to
Any couple of people.
And none can say they just know
When the two happen to be
The same gender it is
Because they decided it
It should be that way,
As if their minds
Made the decision.
Not believing some things are mysteries.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Don Giovanni at the Komische Oper in Berlin

On Monday night I had the pleasure of attending the most unusual opera production I’ve ever seen: Don Giovanni at Berlin’s Komische Oper. Berlin is famous for experimental opera productions, and this is the first one I’ve been to. I was blown away.

As a disclaimer, let me say that I have never written an opera review before. I’m no expert on opera, but I do enjoy the medium, and Don Giovanni is my favorite opera of all. This was my fourth time to see Don Giovanni, which is one of the few operas I’ve seen more than once (and the only one I’ve seen more than twice). I used to listen to it all the time on CD, back when I lived in Southern California and spent a LOT of time in my car. In other words, I know this opera extremely well, which is why I feel qualified to write about it. At least, that is, I know the version with the Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; I can even sing along with some of the arias. If you are not so familiar with the plot of Don Giovanni, you can go to this Wikipedia link to read a synopsis of the plot.

I realize that saying Don Giovanni is your favorite opera is sort of like saying the Mona Lisa is your favorite painting; noone can really question its excellence, but it’s not a very unique or original preference, either. Mozart is my favorite composer – also not an original preference at all, but by no means universal. My mother’s favorite opera composer is Puccini, but I find his stuff too melodramatic. One thing I like about Mozart’s operas is the humor. But above all, I love the music.

The Berlin Don Giovanni was not like any other production I’ve seen. Even though it used Mozart’s music, it had a different libretto which gave the plot a significantly different nuance – enough to really question the moral implications of the plot as it’s been traditionally understood.

Most importantly, the singing was fabulous. Carsten Sabrowski as Leporello was magnificent; in fact, all of the cast were fantastic. Dietrich Henschel as Don Giovanni brought an amazing amount of energy to the stage. The women were fantastic too, especially Erika Roos (Donna Anna) and Elisabeth Starzinger (Donna Elvira). I loved every minute of it.
Where do I begin to describe this production? I think a list might be the best approach:

1. The Berlin production was not sung in Italian, much to my initial dismay. It was sung in German, and this was the first occasion on which I really, really wished I could understand German. The German text was written by Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze.

2. This was NOT a period piece. Most opera productions I’ve seen use period costumes (18th century in Mozart’s case) and at least minimal furniture and props to resemble rooms, streets, etc. Here the costumes were all late-20th-century suits and dresses, and there were hardly any sets at all. Most of the characters wore black or varying shades of gray, except for Don Giovanni, who wore all white with a saffron-yellow cape. He was also barefoot. The suits, I guess, were supposed to make the characters resemble mobsters; there were also a lot of guns. The characters all had sunglasses too.

3. There was a giant revolving stage, with two sort of triangular “walls” that moved constantly to obscure and reveal different scenes and characters. Above was an enormous circular contraption with all the lights, which moved; I can’t really describe it, but I took some photos with my cell phone that give you an idea of how big this thing was and how it worked. It reminded me of the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Note on the photos: many of these – the good ones, where you can see the performers close up – are photos from the program; others are from my cell phone, and I’m sure you can tell which ones those are, i.e., the small and poor-quality photos.)

4. There was an interesting and unconventional framing device, in which three actors appeared onstage during the overture. These were NOT part of the opera’s singing cast, and their performance was done completely in pantomime. Their scene was the only part of the opera with period costumes. First there were just two actors: a boy (the young Mozart) seated at the harpsichord and banging silently away on it; and the tyrannical father standing over him at his lesson. Their interaction begins before the overture begins; then the father suddenly turns on the boy very aggressively, and that’s when the overture begins with its super-dramatic opening chords. The boy then throws open the harpsichord case, and a woman in a white sleeping gown, her head wrapped in a white turban, emerges from the instrument as if from a coffin and protectively takes the boy away from his violent father.

Critics have often remarked that the unforgiving character of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, whose role in the opera is to punish the wayward young man, represented Mozart’s father; but this is the first time I’ve actually seen Don Giovanni staged in such a way as to foreground that Freudian reading.

5. The opera’s opening scene is quite dramatic – while Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello is standing guard, Don Giovanni himself (better known by his Spanish name, Don Juan) is seducing Donna Anna.

According to Mozart and Da Ponte, Don Giovanni is pretending to be her fiancé, Don Ottavio, and since it’s a dark room she supposedly can’t tell the difference. When Donna Anna discovers that it’s not Don Ottavio, she shouts (i.e., sings), and her father, the Commendatore, comes to her rescue. As he defends his daughter’s honor in a sword fight with the intruder and would-be rapist, he is killed by Don Giovanni, thus setting in motion the revenge plot in which Donna Anna and Don Ottavio pursue her father’s murderer.

In the Berlin production, however, Donna Anna clearly KNOWS this is not Don Ottavio, yet she is sleeping with the seducer anyway. And the father, rather than trying to kill Don Giovanni, is about to beat his daughter with his cane. Don Giovanni kills him in order to protect Donna Anna. Thus the moral implications of the original plot are turned on their heads – Don Giovanni is not such a cad, Donna Anna is not so pure, and the Commendatore isn’t such a great guy either.

Really, this makes a lot more sense; I’ve always wondered about the strict moral tone of the original opera – its judgmental and moralistic aspects have always seemed incongruous with Mozart’s own personality and his life.

6. There’s a lot of skin in this production of Don Giovanni. And a lot of stripping. In fact, taking clothes off, then putting clothes back on so you can later take them off again, is one of the main onstange activities after singing. Clothes are the primary props in this staging of the opera.

Left: Donna Elvira in a black lace teddy

This version of Don Giovanni is, overall, much more sensual than any traditional opera. The sexuality that is at the core of the Don Juan story is made much more explicit and more believable in this production. In fact, Da Ponte’s “wedding party” is, in the Berlin production, an orgy. There’s even a pole for pole-dancing in the Don’s living room.
Don Giovanni himself, played/sung by Dietrich Henschel, exudes a writhing sexuality and animal magnetism that the women in the story can’t resist. His appeal is necessary for a legendary seducer who has, according to the so-called “Catalogue Aria,” bedded 2065 women (plus a few more by the end of the opera).
Above: At the wedding party / orgy, Masetto (the bridegroom) is being dressed in a black bra by Leporello.
Below: Don Giovanni coming between the bride and groom (Zerlina and Masetto).

7. Then there are the guns. In the second act, the performance takes a major departure from tradition; five characters get shot, beginning with Masetto (the bridegroom). His bride, Zerlina, sings her love song to his corpse. In traditional stagings of the opera, it always seemed a bit awkward to have Masetto on stage being sung to, not singing anything himself, and serving as a living prop in Zerlina’s performance. In this production, his role is a whole lot easier – lying there dead while she sings to him. It makes sense, in a way; if he’s not actually doing anything or singing anything, he might as well be dead, right?

In another dramatic departure, Don Ottavio is singing his climactic aria when Donna Anna shoots him in the back. (In this production she never really seems to like him very much anyway.) He doesn’t fall down, he just stops singing and launches into a lengthy spoken monologue. Unfortunately it was in German, so I had no idea what he was going on about; I’m sure it shed some light onto the strange interpretation of the opera that we were witnessing. Then he finishes singing the aria.

Need I point out that there are no guns in the Mozart / Da Ponte version of Don Giovanni? Especially not handguns. And these characters – Masetto, Zerlina, Leporello, and Don Ottavio – do NOT get killed in the original opera. (I know there was a fifth one, but now can’t recall which character it was.)

8. And THEN, all those characters who got shot and killed REAPPEAR onstage to perform their roles. But it’s not as if nothing had happened. In fact, when Don Giovanni brings the Commendatore home (somehow not realizing it’s a ghost sent to punish him), the rest of the cast (including the large chorus) reappear onstage wearing light gray suits; instead of Don Giovanni being pulled down into hell, he is dressed in light gray suit by the rest of the cast, who, we can safely assume, are themselves dead and residing in the underworld to which Don Giovanni is being brought.

ALL of the cast are in that underworld of punishment – Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, etc. etc. It’s not just Don Giovanni who is condemned for his crimes, his sins, and punished; it seems that everyone is in for some share of blame. But it also seems more like a party than a punishment. Donna Elvira pulls a camera out of her backpack and takes photos of people posing with Don Giovanni and each other.

It’s all a bit crazy. But then, isn’t opera already a bit crazy? I think Mozart himself would have approved of this production.


Musical Director -- Kimbo Ishii-Eto
Don Giovanni -- Dietrich Henschel
Donna Anna -- Erika Roos
Don Ottavio -- Adrian Strooper
Il Commendatore -- Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Donna Elvira -- Elisabeth Starzinger
Leporello -- Carsten Sabrowski
Masetto -- Ingo Witzke
Zerlina -- Olivia Vermeulen

Left: Don Giovanni in - what? - opera underwear? I didn't know there was such a thing.
Final Note: I attended Don Giovanni with our friend John Evelev who was visiting from Missouri. I have to thank my wonderful husband who made the whole evening possible, because he stayed home with our son because we couldn't get a babysitter. He even paid for my ticket!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Living in a Windmill

During our week in Brittany, we drove numerous times along the coast between Cancale and about halfway to Mont-St.-Michel before heading away from the coast towards our tiny village of Bazouge-la-Perouse, east of Combourg. On this rocky, windy coastline were countless windmills, or I should say former windmills, most of which had been successfully transformed into houses or other useful purposes. According to our guidebook, The Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy, a century ago Brittany had five thousand working windmills. That's right, five thousand. So it's not surprising that some of them have survived into the age of nuclear power in France and have been refunctioned.

It makes complete sense that these buildings should continue to have a useful life. I mean, they are solidly built stone structures that could endure indefinitely. It's nice to see that they haven't been allowed to turn into ruins (though I do like ruins).

Driving past them day after day I began to appreciate the myriad ways in which they had been transformed. Most simply have had a conical roof applied to them, as below:

In this photo notice the miniature windmill standing in front of the house. It's not a mailbox, just a lawn ornament of a sort: [ha ha! as if the French would have anything so tacky as a lawn ornament!]

Other windmills have had rooms added onto them; here you can see the addition in the rear:

This one is my favorite: made to look really grand (for a former windmill), it has symmetrical exterior staircases on either side of the enlarged entryway; an enormous addition on one side; and even a balustrade around the roof so to create another level of usable space:

Now if only I could figure out how to get invited inside one of these fantastic structures...

Roches Sculptées (Sculpted Rocks) in Brittany

Why do people make art? With so many kinds of art having been produced for practically all of human history and prehistory, there clearly have been a variety of reasons to explain the evidently universal human urge towards creative expression. I’m always intrigued by these sort of crackpot artists who work in relative isolation for years or even decades to realize a vision that is neither financially profitable nor tied in with the artistic trends and movements of the day; I think of Simon Rodia with his Watts Towers, or Harvey Fite with his Opus 40. (I use the word “crackpot” as a term of endearment, not in any pejorative sense.) The most recent example I’ve found is the site known as Roches Sculptées (Sculpted Rocks) on the north coast of Brittany.

The three of us spent a week in Brittany in April, but I haven’t had the opportunity until now to blog about our experiences there. So in a way this is sort of a “backblog,” since we were there three months ago, but better late than never.

The Sculpted Rocks are located just inside the eastern end of St.-Malo’s city limits as you’re driving east towards Pointe du Grouin and Cancale. The Breton coast is famously austere, rocky, and forbidding; the views both of the coast and from the coast are breathtakingly sublime. It's not like it needs any human intervention to be of interest; however, the sculpting of the existing landscape could actually be the only kind of artistic intervention that belongs in such an environment.

According to The Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy,

The hermit priest Abbé Fouré spent 25 years, from the 1870s onwards, carving these jumbled boulders into the forms of dragons, giants and assorted sea monsters. Perched on a rocky promontory high above the water line, they’re quite weathered now, and not all compelling in themselves, but with the town well out of sight this makes an appealing spot to stop and admire the coastline.”

Dodo Love

Dodos are making a big comeback. I'm not talking about attempts to clone or to breed an extinct species; but I am noticing that they play a big role in the public imagination. Their images are everywhere. According to Wikipedia, it has been extinct since the mid- to late-17th century. They were also popular in the Victorian period, as suggested by the Dodo being a fictional character in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

I love dodos; I guess that makes me a big dodohead. What other animal is so patently ridiculous-looking, so awkward, so improbable? A close relative of the modern pigeon, the dodo weighed up to 50 pounds! Thank goodness pigeons don't take after them in that respect. However, our image of the dodo as a fat clumsy bird are based on those specimens that became obese in captivity because they were overfed; in the wild, scientists think they were probably not as rolly-polly.

Dodos lived exclusively on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. Their extinction came about as a result of European exploration -- not just from hunting, but from destruction of habitat and the introduction of non-native predatory animals.

Above: Museum of Natural History, Berlin (part of the exhibit on taxidermy)

Above: Eli's drawing of a dodo bird, February 16, 2009

Above: Dodo drawing at the "Dodo Manege" carousel in Paris

Above: Dodo on the "Dodo Manege" carousel of extinct animals in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes (see my blog entry about the carousel)

Above: Drawing of a dodo by Roelandt Savery, 1626

Above: The Dodo in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland
Below: Edward Lear's drawing of the Dodo for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, Paris

As an architectural historian I am, of course, interested in buildings. Additionally, though, I’m intrigued by the representations of buildings in architecture and art, which occur more frequently in medieval times than in other periods. (See my blog entry on the Church of St. Denis in Paris.) One delightful small Gothic church in Paris is the Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, which is in the area of Paris known as Belleville. More on Belleville later – first the church.

According to one architectural historian, “From 1050 to 1350, more stone was quarried and moved in France than at any time in ancient Egypt” (Erlande-Brandenberg, Cathedrals and Castles: Building in the Middle Ages, p. 33). And it’s true – wherever you go in France, including all around the city of Paris, you will see countless versions of the Romanesque and Gothic styles, executed on every imaginable scale from the monumental cathedrals to the small parish churches. (The Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville is quite a bit later than 1350, though I don’t know exactly when it was built.)

What struck me most about Saint Jean-Baptiste is this amazing representation of the church within one of the church’s own tympana. (The tympanum is the semi-circular area above a church door, which is nearly always filled in with architectural sculpture.) Here you can see the saint, John the Baptist, standing in front of the church that bears his name. He’s barefoot, an iconographic indication that it is in fact John the Baptist; to the right are two figures who look to me like a bishop and the Virgin Mary. The church in this image is an exact representation of the building, with its two pointed towers in front. Two angels fill the sky on either side of the church.


This church serves the diocese of Belleville, which is an interesting community in itself. There are many parts of Paris that feel like a village; Montmartre is only the most famous, which many people might know only from the film Amalie. Belleville is also like a village, and the Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste sits on a beautiful little square looking out over the neighborhood pastry shops and restaurants. It’s a nice place to walk around, which I know from the experience of having lived here for 4 months in 1996 and again for about 6 weeks in 1999. (My Parisian friend lives in Belleville.)

A historic marker tells us that “Between 1815 and 1859, this community of 3,000 souls metamorphosed into a city of 70,000 inhabitants, making it the third-largest city in France, before being annexed in 1860 into the capital.” Baron Haussmann, who redesigned Paris under Napoleon III and in the process wreaked havoc on its populace, split Belleville into two parts, so it now constitutes the 19th AND the 20th arrondissements in Paris. This split was a deliberate political move intended to “divide and conquer,” so to speak; Belleville had an enormous population of working-class folks who might have been too powerful had they remained an intact political (voting) unit.

Belleville still retains much of its working-class character, despite pastry shops selling some of the gorgeous 5 € confections for which Paris is famous. (Personally I find them too beautiful to eat – and usually not as tasty as they are wonderful to look at. I prefer the simple 2 € chocolate éclair.) Belleville is still home to a lot of immigrants, chiefly Arabs and Chinese. Since my previous visit 10 years ago, though, Belleville is starting to get a bit gentrified; my friend calls it “bobo” – bourgeois bohemian – which is apt. On top of all those identities – working-class, immigrant, bobo – coming to Belleville feels almost like being in the country, because of the vast Parc de Butte-Chaumont. Belleville does not have the enormous crowds of tourists one finds in the Marais or the Latin Quarter; there’s more peace and quiet here. (The drawback to that is the long commute to the center of the city if you have to visit libraries and archives.) Still, I love Belleville, and couldn’t imagine a trip to Paris without spending time here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Church of St. Denis, Paris

One Saturday morning in Paris I finally made my way to the Church of St. Denis, THE VERY FIRST GOTHIC CHURCH IN THE WORLD. I have been teaching this building in my architectural history classes for the past six years, so it was about time I actually saw it in person. I was fortunate to visit on a very sunny morning, allowing me to appreciate the beautiful stained glass and to see the interior filled with light. (If you visit a Gothic church on a cloudy or rainy day it is not quite as impressive.)

For the story of the birth of Gothic architecture I can recommend a book called The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral by Robert A. Scott. This book makes clear the religious, philosophical, military, political, diplomatic, and other ideological factors that motivated the creation of the Gothic style of architecture by Abbot Suger – head of the monastery at Saint Denis – in the 12th century. This was a very important church, as the kings and queens of France were buried here for centuries.

I knew all about the architecture, having taught it for so long, but one new thing I discovered was an icon painting of the saint, which intrigued me because it included representations of architecture in the two upper corners.

Saint Denis – the patron saint of Paris – was a bishop of Paris in the third century who was martyred around 250 A.D. on the hill of Montmartre, the highest point in the city. The Wikipedia entry provides a succinct narrative of his story:

Denis, having menaced the pagan priests by his many conversions, was executed by beheading on the highest hill in Paris (now Montmartre), which was likely to have been a druidic holy place. The martyrdom of Denis and his companions gave it its current name, which in Old French means ‘mountain of martyrs.’ According to the Golden Legend, after his head was chopped off, Denis picked it up and walked two miles, preaching a sermon the entire way. The site where he stopped preaching and actually died was made into a small shrine that developed into the Saint Denis Basilica, which became the burial place for the kings of France. Another account has his corpse being thrown in the Seine, but recovered and buried later that night by his converts.”

The Saint Denis legend, then, connects him with two points in Paris: Montmartre, where now stands the 19th-century Church of Sacre-Coeur, and the town of Saint Denis (now a Parisian suburb), where stands the church that bears his name. In this icon painting of the saint, notice two buildings in the two upper corners: Sacre-Couer and Saint-Denis. This panel intrigued me because it points out the significance of medieval church architecture not just as a gathering place for religious worship, but as an actual symbol of the person to whom it is dedicated. The depiction of these two structures is a shorthand way of communicating to worshippers the story of the saint’s martyrdom – and I have to admit I find it more tasteful than the usual iconographic representations of the saint carrying his own head!

One of the three tympana on the West Portal shows Denis and his three companions being led to their execution; behind the three chained prisoners you can see the city of Paris represented by a fortified city wall. Notice the non-naturalistic scale that allows buildings to be shown in contexts like these; I really admire the creativity of medieval sculptors.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Le Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust Memorial), Paris

Last Saturday my French friend’s mother – my hostess for lunch – asked me directly, “Are you Jew?” – sending her children and her granddaughter into a fluster of embarrassment. (Their excuse: she’s 85 years old.) Madame Cohen’s English is quite good, though of course “Are you Jewish?” might be the preferred idiomatic phrasing. When I answered “no,” she seemed a little disappointed and turned back silently to the photos she’d been looking at. After a minute or two I piped up, “but my husband is Jewish!” as if to redeem myself in her eyes, and received a smile and a cluck of approval. [She was already a bit suspicious that an American might be carrying the swine flu virus into her home; my assurances that I’d been in Europe for the past five months didn’t seem to dissuade her.]

Madame Cohen and her late husband both were Egyptian Jews; they left Egypt in 1950 when, according to my friend / her daughter, “it was clear there was no future for Jews in Egypt.” Soon afterwards the Jews remaining in Egypt were expelled. The plight of European Jews during World War II was not their personal story, but like Jews everywhere, the long history of persecution, eviction, and marginalization suffered in so many countries is one they share.

Documenting the story of the French Jews during World War II, the Shoah Memorial in Paris’ Marais district is a tribute to the 76,000 French Jews who were deported from France between 1942 and 1944. It was opened to the public in January 2005; this was my first time to see it. (Prior to 2005 it existed as a Holocaust documentation center, but was not open to the public.) In the same vein as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Shoah Memorial has a wall (actually walls) engraved with the names of the 76,000 French Jewish deportees, as well as a detailed exhibition of the history of the Holocaust. (To quote the literature: the word “Holocaust” is commonly used in Anglo-Saxon countries, whereas the Hebrew word “Shoah,” which means “catastrophe,” is used in France.) There is also a crypt – a symbolic tomb – containing ashes of victims collected from the extermination camps, with an eternal flame in the center. It’s a very somber, meditative space.

The Wall of Names lists the year of birth of each deportee; what’s especially poignant is the fact that so many of them were children, many quite young children at that. As the mother of a child who is more than one-quarter Jewish (my husband being five-eighths Jewish), I am quite conscious that their fates could have been ours had we been born in a different time and place. One room in the memorial displays 2,700 photographs of French Jewish children who were deported.

France (or Paris, at any rate) has been quite active in remembering and commemorating its victims of Nazi persecution. Also new in Paris since I lived there ten years ago are memorial plaques posted around the town, particularly in the Marais district, where most of the Jews lived. Here are three I found:

A la memoire des 112 habitants de cette maison dont 40 petits enfants déportés et morts dans les camps allemands en 1942.” (“To the memory of the 112 inhabitants of this building, among them 40 small children, who were deported and died in the German camps in 1942.”)

A la mémoire des élèves de cette ancienne école primaire supérieure de jeunes filles deportees de 1942 à 1944 parce qe’elles étaient nées juives, victimes innocentes de la barbarie nazie avec la complicité active du gouvernement de Vichy. Elles furent exterminées dans les camps de la mort. (4 juin 2005 – NE LES OUBLIONS JAMAIS)” (“To the memory of the students of this old primary school for young girls, deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi barbarism with the complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Erected June 4, 2005 – never forget them.”)

Arrètés par la police du gouvernement de Vichy, complice de l’occupant nazi, plus de 11000 enfants furent déportés de France de 1942 à 1944 et assassins à Auschwitz parce qu’ils étaient nés juifs. Plus de 500 enfants vivaient dans le 4ème arrondissement, parmi eux les élèves de cette école. (Le 15 décembre 2001 – NE LES OUBLIONS JAMAIS)” (“Arrested by the police of the Vichy government, the accomplice of the Nazi occupiers, more than 11,000 children were deported from France from 1942 to 1944 and assassinated at Auschwitz because they were born Jewish. More than 500 children lived in the 4th arrondissement, among them the students of this school. Erected December 15, 2001 – never forget them.”) (The 4th arrondissement, of course, comprises the Marais.)

I’m not sure these memorial plaques are directly connected with the Shoah Memorial, but both the plaques and the Shoah Memorial reflect an even greater consciousness about the persecution of French Jews than I noticed when I lived in Paris ten years ago. This is a level of consciousness – and of consciousness-raising – that is not so much in evidence in Germany, where I’ve spent the past five months. Of course Berlin does have major memorials and museums, but t not so many minor ones that one encounters them in one’s daily life. In the former East Germany / East Berlin, most of the memorials I’ve seen from that era commemorate the persecution of Communists by the Nazis.

Anti-Semitism, like bigotry and racism, do exist in the United States, but it’s hard (for me at any rate) to imagine the complete sense of marginality and “otherness” with which non-Jews in Europe regarded Jews prior to World War II. Even after World War II, some countries denied citizenship to Jews born within their borders. In my own experience, I am not Jewish but I have a first cousin who is Jewish (through her mother); my grandmother has a first cousin whose children are Jewish (through their father). Noone in my Gentile family has ever felt themselves different from the Jewish members of the family. Because I grew up in a provincial and very segregated place, though, I grew up with little exposure to Judaism, and I thought of it as just as another religion that a person might choose to follow, like Catholicism or any of the Protestant sects. It was not until I went to college, at Northwestern University, that I made a number of Jewish friends and became more aware of Judaism as an identity that went much deeper than simply religious persuasion.

One further feature of the Shoah Memorial is the Wall of the Righteous (inaugurated June 2006) on the exterior of the building, along the so-called Allée des Justes. It is engraved with the names of the non-Jewish men and women who risked their lives in France to rescue persecuted Jews. According to the website, “Each year the award of the Righteous among the Nations is granted by the Memorial Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 21,310 Righteous among the Nations have been recognized thus far worldwide, including 2,693 in France.” One can’t help hoping that in their situation, we would have risen to that level of heroism – and hoping as well we never find ourselves in such a situation.