Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tales From a Great Indoorsman

In this third installment, J.S. Bankston spends a $1,000 on books, experiences another bathroom or two and has a life's worth of images, realized.

— Wednesday, March 1: Paris Gets Medieval on my Ass —

By James Scott Bankston

James had planned on getting up early in order to get pictures of sunrise at Notre-Dame. Years ago my friend Rex told me that watching the sunrise over Notre-Dame was one of the most incredible sights he’d experienced. I set my alarm early so I too could see sunrise at Notre-Dame, but by the time I got there the sun was mostly up. I did, however, get a nice shot of the east end of Notre-Dame and the Square du Jean XXIII covered in a light dusting of snow.

As I walked around the back side of the Cathedral I noticed what many old Parisian churches have: a fenced-in yard for the storage and restoration of fallen gargoyles and other stone ornaments. It was here that J&N found me.

J&N didn’t have a cell phone that would work in Paris, and I wouldn’t have a cell phone if my life depended on it, so we arranged several times during the trip to meet in specific locations at set times. If one party didn’t show in 15 or 30 minutes, the other was free to go on to the next site. We didn’t arrange this often during the trip and when we did I was invariably the one who showed up late.

I told J&N that I doubted I’d do any more major shopping during the trip, as I’d found most of what I’d come for the previous day. (These words would soon mock me.)

We arranged to meet between 12 and 12:30 in the Louvre, by the statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, then we went our separate ways.

I went into Notre-Dame for Ash Wednesday Mass. I took a good seat halfway up the nave, near a two-story high carved wooden pulpit, and watched the janitors buff the stone floors. The bells for 8am Mass began to ring and I didn’t see that many people taking seats. I moved up a bit. Then I started noticing people filing in up at the altar, and they didn’t look like they were in the choir.

After a bell rang inside the church I got up, walked up the ambulatory on the right, and realized the people going to the altar were regular worshippers. 8am Mass is never a big draw, not even at Notre-Dame on a Holy Day of Obligation; there were maybe fifty people on hand for Mass, and we were all being seated at the altar, in the old wooden choir stalls. I felt like a medieval monk as I took my seat and kneeled on the stone floors to receive the ashes on my forehead.

Mass was presided over by two African priests and I was seated next to a young professional man who, though impeccably dressed, had problem flatulence throughout the service. And oddly, when the time came for us all to shake hands with one another, my fellow worshippers greeted me by saying, "Thank you." The whole service was incredibly moving and made me feel all the more tied to history.

After that, I grabbed an espresso and plain croissant at an Alsatian café across the street, then crossed over to the Right Bank of the Seine in time to watch all the Parisians head off to work. I melded into the crowd and passed the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), where a crew was working on the ice skating rink, then cut past the closed La Samaritaine department store, went into the church of St. Germain L’Auxerrois (the bells of which announced the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572), and took some pretty decent pictures, then cut along the north side of the Louvre along the Rue Rivoli (a street James enjoyed calling "Rue de Ravioli"), before turning in at the Palais Royal, the childhood home of Louis XIV and now the site of chic shops. I’d seen the Palais Royal in movies before–it’s popular for its huge courtyard, filled with clipped trees and surrounded by lengthy colonnades.

From there I went to check out a few "passages," early 19th century breezeways covered with glass-and-iron roofs that were lined with shops and that served as the prototypes for modern shopping malls. Some passages even included restaurants, hotels, and single rooms that were rented out by prostitutes. The passages in some ways became microcosms of the 19th century city, and a study of the passages of Paris became the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus.

A security guard searched my bag at the Galerie Colbert, but there wasn’t too much to that place–it was mostly being used for college classrooms. The adjoining Galerie Vivienne was much more interesting. I found a Jean-Paul Gautier shop there, and across the way, stairs to Gautier’s atelier. (I accidentally got in the way of a Gautier employee as he was coming to work.)

Rounding a corner I found a group of art students (Paris is swarming with art students) sitting on the floor under a dome, making sketches. Some were actually doing the bit where they held out their pencils at arm’s length, squinted at them, and marked the length of the objects they were looking at with their thumbnails–I only thought such things happened in old movies.

I exited, crossed the street, went through a mini-passage, and was going to go back through the Palais Royal when a young woman told me that way was blocked for a few hours. I tried another way, and was stopped by a young man, but this time I saw a cluster of cameras and lights in the courtyard–somebody was filming a movie.

I went around the western exterior of the Palais and took pictures of the equipment trucks and craft services people. Finally some guy walked by and said, "Why don’t you get a picture of me? I’m a typical Frenchman."
What the hell.
You know movies?
Yes. Are they filming one here?
Yes. American movie. You know American movies?
Yes, very well.
Well, this is American movie called "The Sopranos." You heard of?
Indeed I have.
And no, I didn’t see James Gandolfini or anyone famous. I did slip back into the far end of the Palais courtyard and get some nice pictures of people going to work, a woman feeding pigeons, and a little girl on a scooter, but that’s about it.

I passed the Comedie Francaise and a gilded equestrian statue of Joan of Arc that was glinting brilliantly in the morning sun, and headed down the Rue Rivoli to W.H. Smith, a chain bookstore that is the UK equivalent of Barnes & Noble. I’d already had the presence of mind to apply online for a discount card there when I was back in the States.

I passed tacky souvenir stores, as well as the Hotel Meurice, which was the headquarters for German High Command during World War II, and was later part-time home to Salvador Dali, who used to walk through the lobby with his pet ocelot on a leash. But before I got to W.H. Smith I glanced at the windows of Galagnani, the oldest English-language bookstore in Europe, and I got sucked in.

Galignani was on my to-do list, but I had thought it was located closer to the Opera Garnier. I managed to fight the temptation to buy any architectural books, but when I came across the history section, especially the European royalty subsection, I started grabbing. These were either the kind of books I’d never seen in America or had only seen advertised in British magazines, the sort of books I’d design for myself in a perfect world.

Soon a clerk walked over and asked if he could take those books for me. I asked if they did overseas shipping, and when he said they did, my fate was sealed. I wasn’t about to lug a big stack of books on my back around the Louvre all day, but if they’d be willing to ship them ...

I got some more royalty books, then moved over to the entertainment/music/film section. I couldn’t have been in there more than a half-hour, but when I left I had no books on my person, but my bank account was over $1000 lighter.

W.H. Smith was rather a let-down after that. They supposedly had the best selection of English-language magazines in Paris, but I really didn’t see much that I couldn’t get back in Austin.

By this point I was pretty sure I couldn’t get to J&N in time, even if I ran. I strode through the Tuileries Gardens which, since it was still winter, looked rather bleak. I passed a pit full of little trampolines for kids, and an ancient carousel, and thought how delightful it must be to be a child or to have children in Paris. I took pictures of various statues, including one of a naked man in anguish that I dubbed "Credit Card Debt."

Several Gypsy girls approached me asking if I spoke English and carrying handwritten pleas for money, but I found the cure for them was to look straight ahead, and firmly announce, "Non, merci!" (J&N observed that the Parisian Gypsies looked and dressed rather like the grubby, hygenically-challenged Zendik Farm cultists who used to hang out on the Drag in Austin, begging and trying to sell smeared copies of their newsletter.)

The Pyramid of the Louvre was a fascinating place for people-watching. The Japanese tour groups, for instance, were usually headed by a little woman holding a small flag or tiny umbrella over here head like a drum major’s baton, so the group could see where to go.

I wanted to get a week-long Paris museum pass, so the people at the Information Desk directed me down a long hallway. (By some complicated formula J&N had decided that for a Museum Pass to be cost effective for them they would have to see three museums a day. For me, just the trouble saved by getting to bypass lines at the entrances was worth the cost.) But the line to get the Museum Pass was pretty long–there were five or six stations in the ticket office, but since it was noon, only one of them was manned, by a woman who looked like a cross between Coretta Scott King and Nichelle Nichols. Eventually some guy got back from lunch and the line started to move, but I’d been waiting at least 30 minutes by then.

Still, after getting my Pass I was in no great hurry to tackle the Louvre just yet. It was open until 9:45pm that day anyway. So I went to the bathroom and had lunch under the Pyramid–a chicken sandwich and several Cokes. Some school girls on a second level waved at me through a diamond-shaped window, so I waved back.
Starting out with the north or "Richelieu" wing, I looked at 18th and 19th century French sculpture, then headed over to check out the Mesopotamian galleries when I ran into J&N, though I lost them again after I saw the Steele of Hammurabi and the enormous winged Assyrian man-bulls.

This was also about the time I began noticing and taking pictures of how the museum-goers were reacting to certain works of art. In the room with the Assyrian bulls were dozens of art students, sitting cross-legged on the floor, their drawing pads on their laps, looking, well, just like the sculptures of seated Mesopotamian scribes in the next room. I realize now that to adequately explore the subject of museum-goers and their reaction to art I would have had to just set my camera up in one gallery for the better part of a day. Maybe in the future ...

I needed to go to the bathroom again, and the one I found was a unisex model–which was very discombobulating for an American. To complicate matters I found myself locked in a stall for a bit, until I could manage to undo the lock. I looked at more French sculpture. There was one of a reclining nude who was pausing in reading her book–the cushion upon which she was reclining was sculpted so delicately it looked to be made of actual fabric. Another sculpture depicted a little boy playing with a turtle, his fingers just inches from the turtle’s snapping beak.

On another floor I toured the lavish private suite of Napoleon III and saw the throne of Napoleon I and Louis XVIII’s bed (which looked too small for the morbidly obese king—I've since read the bed was made for Napoleon and later redecorated for Louis XVIII, and that Louis preferred sleeping on an iron cot at the foot of that bed).

In the Dutch, Flemish, and German paintings I saw Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I of England, and nodded at it as if we were old friends. I saw a self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, the artist I tried to draw like when I was a child, and was overwhelmed by a room of enormous allegorical pictures of Henri IV of France by Peter Paul Rubens. I began zipping through gallery after gallery, until I just happened into a room devoted completely to Rembrandt, and was moved to, if not tears, then at least moist eyes, by a self-portrait of the Master as an old man. For all the Rembrandts in the room, this one seemed to me to have the artist still living inside it.

There were so many sections I had to skip, so many works I just walked by. Doing this made me feel as if I was condemning those works to be thrown into an incinerator, to be henceforth forgotten by history, but I had neither the strength nor the time to see them all. I felt I was being unfaithful, that I was letting History and Culture and Human Civilization down, but while the spirit was willing, the flesh was all too weak.

I went back to the Pyramid and sat watching people and guzzling bottled water for at least an hour. A small family sat down by me and I had to restrain myself from making the provincial comment, "Oh, how cute! You taught your son how to speak French!"

Then I went to the south or "Denon" wing, which as far as familiar masterpieces go, probably has more "bang for your buck" than any other part of the museum. First off was the "Mona Lisa." I was surprised, since the "Mona Lisa" has been reproduced to the point it’s almost banal, but when in the split-second I saw her for the first time I teared up again. It’s odd seeing the genuine article of something that has been reproduced over and over. It was bizarre, for instance, when I met Richard Nixon in 1993, seeing the real-life model for that oft-caricatured face and hearing the rumbling voice that inspired so many comedians and impersonators.

A few months ago a former student of mine wrote about visiting the Louvre, that he had "seen [his] face reflected in the face of the ‘Mona Lisa,’" and I knew I had to do the same thing. And it didn’t take all that long for me to work my way through the crowd to the front of the line. I’d heard it sometimes takes hours to get to the "Mona Lisa." Maybe that's true in the summer, but it wasn't in March.

I saw a Madonna and Child from the Middle Ages. Though the composition was formal, the artist had enough of a grasp of real life to depict the Christ Child suckling on His fingers, just like a normal baby would. And I couldn’t help but wonder where the artist had gotten the robe he used as the model of that of the Virgin Mary–supposedly many portraits of the Madonna show her in robes imported from the Middle East, with Arabic words stitched along the hem announcing, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."

Here were Giottos and Fra Angelicos so close I could breathe on them, Raphaels with colors so fresh they could’ve been painted just weeks ago.

In the Grande Galerie a young Frenchman leaned against his girlfriend and took his shoes off, so he could walk around in his stocking feet. I chuckled at this–they turned, smiled, shrugged, and laughed. We didn’t have to know each other’s language to appreciate that all of us were suffering terribly from unbelievable pain in our feet, legs, and backs from all the walking and standing on marble floors.

There was a group of teenagers with wild hair and clothes that might have been seen as gang members in the US, but they were in the Louvre to look at art.

I started noticing the faces of the people in the paintings and sculptures in the faces of the museum-goers all around me. It was as if they stepped down out of their frames and off their pedestals and put on modern clothes. That classical physiognomy can still be found in Europe.

Two little French boys who couldn’t have been more than ten, were arguing over the relative merits of a St. Sebastian painted by Perugino. I felt an almost paternal sense of pride for them that they were so smart. Not far away was the St. Sebastian by Mantegna I’d admired since first grade.

But I think my favorite painting in the whole Louvre may just have been Guido Reni’s picture of David with the severed head of Goliath. In fact, when I first saw it I let out a laugh. David looks like such a punk, such a typical teenager. He’s leaning against a pillar, his feet crossed at his ankles, and Goliath’s huge sword is
on the ground. And he’s holding Goliath’s head at arm’s length as it rests on another pillar.

David is wrapped in a leopard skin, and is wearing a bright red cap with a huge ostrich plume sticking out of it. And he’s smirking, cocksure, as if killing giants is an everyday activity for him. He looks like any other teenaged boy in the world right now, with a sideways baseball cap and silly clothes, who thinks he’s cooler and smarter than he really is. The spirit of the painting is totally contemporary, though the work is actually 401 years old.

The rooms of large-format French paintings were also a revelation, with the colossal historical painting by Ingres, David, and Gericault. If I learned one thing on this trip, it was that Napoleon had the best public relations people in history. Those David paintings of Napoleon make him look so impressive. And it was amazing to see the famous picture of Napoleon crowning Josephine Empress (the Bonaparte family standing in Notre-Dame not far from where I’d been a few hours before). I studied the picture up close–how in character it was for Talleyrand to be painted with his nose in the air.

I finally saw in person another favorite painting from my childhood, Gericault’s picture of the cuirassier, sweeping his sabre over the back of his mount. As I surveyed "The Death of Sardanapalus" by Delacroix, I noticed for the first time, after years of looking at this picture, that the king is sprawling on a bed with huge elephant heads on the corners. And from there I walked a few feet, out to the hallway, and saw the "Winged Victory;" I’d never before noticed she is standing on a base shaped like a ship.

I took a quick look at the Michelangelo and Canova sculptures on a another floor, but totally skipped the ancient Roman and Etruscan works. Then I went back to the Pyramid and headed into the east or "Sully" wing. It was now late afternoon and I was walking as if I was club-footed. I was in serious agony at this point.
I’d hoped to see the "Venus de Milo," but wanted to reach her by the shortest route possible. Then, if I had any strength left, I was going to tackle French painting from the 14th to 19th centuries on an upper floor.
But serious "museum fatigue" had set in. This is a disease with progressive stages. First you start marking off whole schools, countries, and epochs from your "to see" list. Then you begin ignoring most of the labels, then the works themselves, stopping only to see the things you recognize. (This is when you really feel like an uncivilized boor.) Finally you don’t care what they have in the next gallery–you just want to get out of there and sit down.

I would walk through gallery after gallery, and come within a room of where I needed to go, only to find a locked door. I’d take an elevator that would run between only two floors. I’d walk down a flight of stairs, cross one room, go up another flight of stairs, and find myself no closer to my destination than I’d been five minutes before.

I finally got stuck in a labyrinth, the two floors of the Egyptian collection, which I had earlier, sadly, decided to skip. I saw some interesting things, but dear God–I wanted out. The sarcophagi were calling out for fresh blood, but I was determined that it not be mine. Finally, with great resentment that I was having to backtrack, I worked my way back through the excavated moat of the Medieval Louvre Castle, and stumbled back into the Pyramid. I asked directions to the nearest cab stand, and went halfway down the long hall to the Museum Pass office before I woke up and realized I was going the wrong way. I had long since stopped picking my feet up when I walked–I was just sliding them across the floor now. I took the escalators upstairs, and let out an audible "Thank God" when I got outside. (Nyssa’s mother, Tharelyn, later summed this day up as "Louvre 1, Tourist 0."

I’d been over-heated all day, as I had over-dressed, failing to take into account how much walking I would be doing or how warm Parisian interiors are kept in winter. I stumbled through the sally-port under the Richelieu Wing, and after some more wandering found the cab stand at the Place du Palais Royal. I could’ve kissed that cabbie square on the lips when he drove up–he was driving the most beautiful taxicab in all the world. I eased into the back seat and told him the address of my hotel. In our small talk on the way over, I revealed I was from Texas. He didn’t quite grasp this until I mentioned the word "cowboy." "Ah," he said, suddenly getting it. "Le cinema de John Wayne!" I smiled and said, "Yes. John Wayne. Jimmy Stewart. John Ford. That’s where I’m from."


At 12:25 PM, Blogger SportyChick said...

I like it. Another good installment.

You asked for feedback, right? Well, the parts I enjoy reading most are the parts where you link the experience back to who you are. Rather than just reporting back on what you saw, the "and then I went here, and then I went there" kind of thing, I enjoy the parts where you filter the experience through your own unique perspective. This was your first trip to Paris (heck, out of the country), and your writing helps those of us who may be a bit jaded to feel the excitement all over again. I wish I had paid as much attention to the details (let alone remembered them or wrote them down) on my first trip to Paris. At that point, I was mostly interested in boys and remember seeing plenty of those. Thank goodness I went back...

Thanks for sharing it all.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Well, Sporty, as it is, I'm on the second draft and I'm already doing just what you suggested, taking the account away from just a laundry list and explaining more of the personal connections to things.

I had just sent this paragraph to Triple J, but I'll show it to you too. It was designed to explain why I went so early to the Mesopotamian wing in the Louvre:

For much of my childhood, up to the age of nine, I lived in Katy, Texas. Katy is now a bedroom community west of Houston, but in those days it was a village of rice farmers. My parents and grandparents seemed to do a lot of driving back then along the straight, identical roads that bordered the rice patties outside of town. But every so often a huge cylindrical or rectangular bulk would rise from the flat prairies—a cluster of rice or grain elevators—but to my precocious eyes the resembled the stark, geometric forms of the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, and I would point and call out, “NINEVAH! NIVEVAH!,” while the adults looked over their shoulders, puzzled.

Thanks for the feedback.

At 7:47 PM, Blogger SportyChick said...

That's EXACTLY it. Rock on.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger sasefina said...

bankston, i agree with sportychick. it's funny, i was reading an article today about creativity, and there was a great quote from raymond chandler about how in order to be a great writer you had to learn to "kill your darlings." apt here, i think.

At 12:05 AM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Sorry for the typos in the above passage. It was done before sunrise, right before bed.

Still, Sas, I'm not sure I follow what Big Ray meant by "kill your darlings." But then again,I just got back from another 6-hour text examination session with James that turned into something like a police interrogation.

At 7:29 AM, Blogger TripleJ said...

Bankston - Chandler 'darlings' are his words. Flannery O'Connor added to the point, by saying 'you have to put there to take away.'

The idea of a draft is to purge and get it all down. The real talent comes in knowing what to take away.

All said - it seems the direction from Sporty and others should help with the process.

At 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

william goldman also talks about killing his children in writing and there's that famous story about flaubert or proust or voltaire or some other french guy -- maybe balzac -- who wrote a letter to a friend and apologized for not having the time to make it shorter. and of course there's the well known dictum from strunk and white -- rule 17 "omit needless words".

all that said, you've got the main ingredient -- solid writing -- seems like you just need a paring knife. or, to mix metaphors, you've got a nice slab of marble, you just need to remove all the excess stone from the sculpture.

At 3:08 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Well, this thing started life as a mere blog, but I'm thinking of it now strictly as a potential book. This one has been unusual in that the more I edit it, the longer it gets, when the reverse has always been the case in the past.

At 5:25 PM, Blogger SportyChick said...

I'll send a self-addressed envelope for the autographed copy. We all get a free one for egging you on, no?

At 5:58 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Not to mention a shout-out in the acknowledgements.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger SportyChick said...

Hey jsbankston, how do I get in touch with you directly?... do they allow that sort of thing here?

At 4:16 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Close your eyes tight and say, "I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks!" over and over again.

Or, as long as you promise not to cook a pet bunny rabbit in my kitchen, you can get that info from Triple J.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger TripleJ said...

SportyChick, email me at

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

who knows -- maybe romance blooms on njk....

At 9:56 PM, Blogger TripleJ said...

Just to be clear ... I am happy to manage all of Bankston's fan mail. Any effort to move his writing forward can be directed to me. I'll pass it on.

At 11:20 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

I'm taken, anon.

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*sigh* -- a man can dream, can't he...?

At 7:21 PM, Blogger jsbankston said...

Well, stay tuned, anon, for the homo-erotic material.

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad Mommy found out!


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