Archive for the ‘vitalism’ Category
8 June, 2010, Paris
Paris. This city grabs you by the collar and shakes you off balance, rattling your brain around in your skull, essentially insisting on the development of new neural pathways; new thoughts. No one is immune. Even the dead are remade in this place. It’s no wonder artists, dancers, musicians, writers and other associated creatives have so long been drawn here. For the poseur or the wanna be there’s the endless opportunity to engage in street theater. To be seen and to see.
But like the solid wooden doors that hide an endless array of wondrous courtyards and interiors, there is a depth beyond the twinkle of the Tour Eiffel, the tourists, and the tarts. Every street is coated and soaked in symbolism, history and meaning, around every corner is an unexpected surprise. And, yet, while landmarks persist, there is always something new…
The Parisian energy is a creative one — whether this is a totally innovative moment or mere tweaking matters little. At least the dynamism is always there, even if in almost invisible, infinitely subtle ways. New uses of colour, shape, concept. A melange of cultural contexts yet unconsidered. The shop window designed to gain the slightest competitive edge. There is a miasmatic desire to be Parisian — a bit different. To “pop” out of the crowd. At times this seems the subtlest of subatomic shifts, but that’s just the point. It demands a little more attention and concentration. It changes the mind, perhaps only at an imperceptible quantum level. A slightly new spin. But it’s there, and it’s the essence of vitality. It’s Paris.
7 June, 2010, Paris
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, ultimately 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 seems like such an abomination, an affront to the unyielding, unchained aspect of spirit, human or otherwise?
6 June, 2010, Toulouse
I am ready to leave. Spent far more time here in Toulouse than I really should have. This city, at first charming, is increasingly rough on the system; Feels like you always have to be on your toes. Just has that kind of edge to it. Today I really burned time — popped into a church with a mass in session. Then went to surf the net at a little cybercafé. Had a nice lunch, managing to get out of the rain just in time. If there is one thing people do well here, it’s food.
But frankly, everything is so expensive. Feel as if I’ve burnt money the last week. Could have stayed on a beach in Hawaii and sat under the palm trees for the same amount of dough. But I suppose I will take something away from all this. I wonder.
Sat in a bar this afternoon and watched an unremarkable men’s French Open final. This prompted thoughts of tennis courts and, well, Republicanism. And further of the universalizing impulses of democracy, something that is very much a subtext whenever the globalizing imperatives of the EU are discussed in the media. I wonder about Europe. It’s inherent broadness. A universal that isn’t universal.
It is in a “provincial” city like Toulouse where you really see the flaws with Europe. It’s quite amazing that things function smoothly at all. In essence, they don’t. Europe is resting on it’s laurels. There is an immense amount of cultural capital here. But will it last? What has been, and is being, built here? Like in the rest of Europe, the immigration situation is dire, and there seems no good way to manage the ebbs and flows. Unlike in America, where immigration is purportedly synonymous with nationhood and immigrants have been absorbed since its inception, the histories, traditions and biases here are strong. Colonialism is shaky ground to build columns on.
The tensions between old and new only seem to be mounting, and this schism is at the core of the current continental crisis. The way things are changing demands dynamism and innovation, and Europeans, once at the forefront of change, increasingly don’t really do these things.
I wonder about what I see and understand here as a “tour-ist”. About the delicate balancing act between what one might call particularistic Herderian regionalisms and the broader, more universalizing trends of Kantian idealism. I am reminded of how recently, historically, all these important local elements have been subsumed into the body of the Republic. In his classic treatment of the formation of modern France, Peasants Into Frenchman, the historian Eugen Weber shows how this unity only came about through bureaucratic necessity; in response to the flourishing of the Third Republic after 1870 and in the construction of modernity — of postal and rail systems, of the speed and spread of rational systems and rational thought which completely displaced the folk wisdom and superstitions that still persisted in the quieter, more far-flung regions of France. Ultimately, like in many instances, the French national identity became fully fused in the crucible of war. The “Great” War chewed up an entire generation of the country’s men, forging a modern French-ness in the process. French losses were so significant (nearly 75% of those who fought were killed or wounded) the experience lay the foundations for a potent pacifist movement and shaped the country’s future response to war.
Was it worth it? Alas, much of this pointless destruction has been re-framed in a certain light, and as in many instances, stories of tragedy become tales of triumph.
When, I wonder, will this happen with the Cathars?
3 June, 2010, Albi
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 in the minds of 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. A veritable counter-reformation cabinet of curiosities. 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 before 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. Many were the times Montfort took up the cross and sword against heresy. 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 in feline form.
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 until quite recently. His parents spoke the langue d’oc (hence Languedoc), and his sense of being southern and different was palpable. Dualism abounds in French history. He told me I must go to Cordes, a classic example of a medieval village nearby that is 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 feel less so.
Who were the Cathars? This, after all, is the deeper question behind all this wandering and random rambling. Well, for one, they are whatever anybody wants them to be. Especially in the last couple of days, I have encountered a myriad of interpretations regarding their legacy and meaning. Some of it is interesting. Some of it is kitsch. Having lived so long ago, it seems impossible to imagine that their place in history is anything but completely malleable. I still think, however, you gain insight by virtue of space. These rugged hills, where you can just set off and hide. Maybe that’s a key. Perhaps some were disgruntled and disillusioned crusaders, some Templars with money, others just oddballs who saw too much or learned too much in their crusading, and thus came to these mountains and helped lay the foundations for unusual spiritualisms and the so-called heresy. Then there was the fierce notion of the local and the communal that you can still sense in this region. The logistical explanation — that this was one of the last places in Western Europe where the French crown and the Roman church didn’t have a powerful influence, must be considered. The Cathar region was also then a crossroads, a point to cross the Pyrenees from France to Spain, and a place between “Europe” proper and the old influences of the Muslims and Jews in Spain. Some of the symbols employed by the sect and their brethren remind of this conspiratorial — or perhaps more properly interconnected and intertwined — vision of Christianity.
Twelve-pointed “Occitan” or “Cathar” cross (Astronomical/astrological significance?)
The Gnostic cross. A cross…Or a crossroads?
1 June, 2010, Montségur
Well, I did it. I went ahead and got rid of a few random items — was junk mostly. Cathartic, you might say. Then I managed to get a boost to Roquefixade (the idea of a major grind up a hill right out of Foix seemed folly) and set off under mixed skies mid-morning. It was the best choice of the trip. Roquefixade was pretty enough, and I left it noting a simple, sombre monument to the French Resistance.
The trail then wound its way past a small farm and through patches of lovely, lush woodland. After a few squishy switchbacks (so much mud!) I came out of the forest to a point where I had my first view of Montségur. It seemed so menacing and far.
But I persevered, and some wonderful spots were sighted. As I reached the little town of Montferrier I took a wrong turn and ended up hiking about an hour up a random hill. Lost, I asked a few farmers for directions, and they kindly helped to the point of total confusion.
A bit demoralized, I came back down to Montferrier and, luckily, happened upon a fellow traveler who helped me regain the way. I was then faced with a long, grinding climb all the way up to Montségur, which seemed to sit in the clouds as the afternoon started to fade.
The final stretch was tantalizing torture, fording across little streams and through dense woods. I even startled a fawn. All along the trail today there were so many idyllic natural scenes; farm animals (donkeys, sheep, cows, ducks and ducklings) and some wilder brethren (so many slugs!). Montségur itself was too daunting when I finally arrived, and was enveloped in mist, mystery and the gathering dusk. I think I will perhaps rest a day and explore here tomorrow.
What a day!
31 May 2010, Toulouse to Foix
Seem to have stepped off the map. Train doesn’t go to Foix anymore. It’s a bus. Trying not to let this dissuade me. Skies are grey as I set off — matching an off-colour mood. Still not sure how much I’ll actually hike, although I’m not sure there is much else to do down here. Countryside around Toulouse to the south is fairly tame, but I expect a change getting into the mountains.
Almost missed the connection this morning. Nothing is explained in regards to the whole “autocar” system, it’s assumed if you are traveling here you must know the area. Local knowledge is always a precious commodity. I’m hoping to absorb some as I go…
It took only a few moments in the town of Foix to understand a key characteristic of the Cathars. They were mountain people, uninterested in the larger power struggles of church and state that swept them up. The stunningly gorgeous medieval town of Foix hugs the river Ariége, and is nestled in a valley between two steep hills. The valley itself is a vein into the heart of the Pyrenees, and beautiful beyond description.
Upon arrival, I wander the narrow twisting streets, happening upon one of the town churches, an abbey actually, devoted to St. Volusian. He’s the patron saint of Foix. Volusianus of Tours was the Bishop of Tours in the late 5th century before being forced from his see by the Visigoths. He might also have been martyred. Bummer. The church had a quiet, stoic, peaceful air, quite different from the more lugubrious cathedrals of Paris.
After a light lunch, I march up the hill to the Foix castle. It’s remarkably well-preserved and sits proudly atop a steep promontory. Some of the castle is clearly restored and “like new”. There is a bed in one prominent room that, it is said, was once used by Henri IV. I discover here at the castle’s historical markers that his noble lineage can be traced back to the aristocracy in Foix. I wonder if perhaps this is an insight into what were mercurial religious beliefs.
At the top of the castle taking in the stunning panorama I ran across two couples from Yorkshire, and fell into an impromptu history lesson as I am prone to. They didn’t seem to mind.
Today I also realized, sadly, that I probably won’t be able to do much hiking. My knee is still quite weak, the load is too heavy, and the terrain is a bit more rugged than I imagined. But I think I will nonetheless make the trip to Montségur tomorrow. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity I’d be foolish to pass up.
The realization came as I climbed a nearby hill — St. Sauveur — this afternoon. The terrain around here is very rugged. Phenomenal, even. The view and experience at the top of St. Sauveur, however, was really beyond description. The whole of the Ariége vale lay before me. I was surrounded by a scintillating incarnation of the Pleroma. Shards of spirit seemed to shine through the valley. I thought, for a moment, that nothing could compare.
So many thoughts have come and gone today, but I am also very tired. The way of travel and adventure, I think.