Archive for June, 2010

On the Edge of the Temple

June 27, 2010

7 June, 2010, Paris, France

And so, what became of my peripatetic attempt to understand the Cathars? Well, fairly little. But perhaps I have come, as much as it’s possible, to understand all outsiders a bit better. So much of the human character tends towards the social — people want to succeed, in the sense they understand that word, within a given relational paradigm. To excel in the eyes of their peers, to be loved, admired, etc., etc…To, in essence, “fit in”.

But not everybody’s built that way. Some challenge the assumptions of their world as if by instinct. They are oft labeled “anarchists” but in truth they’re just outsiders. These were the Gnostics, who insisted on ideas outside the developing doctrine of the Roman church; a permutation of this view was witnessed with the Cathars, who wanted to live in peace in their mountain realm, inured to church and emerging state, more interested in eros and the ideals of romantic love, suspicious of the perfect deification of a clearly corrupt and flawed creation.

These were also the Knights Templar, who because of their battles with the French crown were forced to wall themselves up in Paris proper, before being scattered to the four winds by greedy nobles. I write this as I sit with my back to the old wall of the Templar enclosure, looking over the Templar Square (Carreau du Temple), now an old abandoned warehouse of sorts. The city seems so disinterested in doing anything here. Is it because all states know that clear and rigorous limits must be placed on any anarchic, independent, nominally organic form of social and cultural life? Lest it get out of hand? Is this why the managed, mechanized and controlled creation of “synthetic” life forms is such an abomination, an affront to the unyielding, unchained aspect of spirit, human or otherwise?

Probably.

Rue Bayard

June 22, 2010

4 June, 2010, Toulouse, France

It’s synchronicity that I decided to pick up Junky by William Burroughs today. He observes that junk actually exists both in the psychological and physical margins of society. As he puts it:

“Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts: East Fourteenth near Third in New York; Poydras and St. Charles in New Orleans; San Juan Létran in Mexico City. Stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfumes, pomades, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches skid row.”

In Toulouse this modern liminal space can be found near the train station (“La Gare”), perhaps even more specifically on Rue Bayard. The equivalent to Burroughs’ junky district: A place marked by marginal cafés, kebab joints, weird restaurants (one called, without a trace of irony, “Chicken Food”), telephone box and internet outlets, sketchy clothing shops and off-brand supermarkets. Even sitting outside a fairly stylish kebab resto, one can witness a deal going down: cars and lorries double-parked — boxes being moved around and suspicious looking plastic packages passed back and forth. The cops circle by in their heavy vans like sharks, but don’t dare stop to feed.

Of course, one other feature of these transitional spaces are small, independently run fly-by-night hotels, one of which I am currently staying in. This one’s not bad, all things considered, and surprisingly quieter than the hotel I happened upon a week ago on Rue Taur near the Capitole and the cathedral of Saint-Sernin. Rue Bayard, I think, is not where the party happens. But it’s certainly where folks come to pick up supplies…

Across the Tarn

June 18, 2010

Of Albi

June 18, 2010

2 June, 2010, Albi, France

No longer on the Cathar Trail but still on the trail of the Cathars. Arrived this afternoon, in the hot sun, in Albi. Found suitable lodging and went off towards the cathedral, Sainte-Cécile, which is beyond imposing. It screams out in brick and mortar the spiritual anxiety which once existed for the organized church and French crown in this area. Overcompensation doesn’t begin to describe it. Its functional, almost military exterior is sharply contrasted by a gaudy, even somewhat tacky, interior. It’s dripping with Baroque bluster. A treasure room houses lugubrious holy relics, raunchy a la Rococo. The largest brick church in the world, it looks every bit the fortress.

Albi itself is everything one imagines in a medieval farm town, with lovely winding streets and staircases. After a rest, I went out for a pre-dinner stroll. Sun was just setting, casting beautiful light on the town. Found myself overlooking the river Tarn and the old bridge at the Place du Château, which marks the sight of a long-gone castle once held by the murderous crusader Simon de Montfort. Cathar history is everywhere here. There was a cat sitting by the square, with devilish and mean-slitted eyes, watching me warily; almost felt the gaze of a dark and daemonic incarnation — the inquisitor’s strongman.

At dinner, I happened to strike up a conversation about the region with a local theater owner, a true homme de la Midi. He too seemed fascinated with Cathar history, and reminded me of how different the south was from the north, even quite recently. His parents spoke the langue d’oc (hence Languedoc), and his sense of being southern and different was palpable. He told me I must go to Cordes, a classic medieval village nearby soaked in Albigensian and Cathar history. Suppose I will hang out a couple of days here and explore. Tired with a week left in France, but tonight I feel less so.

Montségur

June 15, 2010

In the distance…

And in the mist…

Would You Like Pleroma With That?

June 15, 2010

Of Toulouse, the Cathars and “McDo”.

30 May, 2010, Toulouse, France

Sitting on a prominent corner of the Capitole in Toulouse is McDonald’s, that universal guilty pleasure of the French. After the US, France is the largest consumer of Big Macs, fries and McNuggets. And let us not forget “un coca”. In my lengthy travels in Paris, I’ve often wondered why Ray Kroc‘s hellspawn is so popular with the French. Struggling to find an explanation, I’d go through a routinized list — it’s cheap, a “burger” and “frite” is a popular Parisian café option, you can bring the kids, and, in Paris at least, you can access wireless (“wi-fi”) for free without hassles.

But none of this captures the essence of the love affair between the French and their mistress — McDo. Today, as spitting rain came down on the twisting ancient streets of Toulouse, it came to me. It’s about complexity.

It’s simple. Or rather the “formule” at McDonald’s is simple. No matter if you are in the Marais or the Midi, you always know what you’re going to get. This in contrast to all the local knowledge required to navigate a meal at a café or bistro. Meals in France are a complex process — an arcane ritual. McDonald’s reduces all this to a few simple motions. Dinner becomes a “degustation” devoid of deep doctrine. A to-go theology.

It’s this universal nature, this crispy, deep-fried Catholicity, that parallels the actual fact of the country’s religious history. Thus Toulouse, as a centralizing, crusading, inquisitional force, adopts McDonald’s into its very heart. C’est comme ils faut.

I suspect there will be few signs of McDo in the wilds of Cathar country. The bizarre and obscure heretical traditions of the Cathars would seem immune to universalizing charms. Besides, the towns and hamlets are tiny — there’s no market for it. I wonder what the Perfect would have thought of McDonald’s. Not much. For one, many of them were vegetarians. And the fries at rotten Ronnies were never that good.

McDonald’s, in its deep corrupting influence on the physical world (nutritionally and naturally) seems an ideal confirmation of a dodgy demiurge. And like the Inquisitioners of old, seeks to eliminate or destroy all competitors. There can be only one.

Espousing a dualism that doesn’t go beyond diet or regular, McDonald’s is a gnostic nightmare. The basest of existence and pleasure wrapped in ready-made garbage. But until they start serving McNuggets at the top of Montségur, it’s safe to say that pockets of resistance, sparks of the One — the Pleroma, still inspire this country so passionate about its “pour emporter”.

And for this we can thank not the flawed French, but God himself.

Whatever that means…

Capitole

June 13, 2010

Gargoyles!

June 12, 2010

From the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse.


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