Thursday, May 29, 2014

Good Samaritaine ... or bad?

Le tout Paris is flooded with anxiety over the redesign of the venerable department store, La Samaritaine. Or so an article in CityLab, an offshoot of The Atlantic magazine, would have us believe.

Almost anyone who has walked along the quais beside the Seine in the central city has seen La Samaritaine, next to the river on the Right Bank. Most recently it has presented this face -- and backside -- to the world:

No architectural masterpiece, that, but the art deco-influenced facade from 1933 was enjoyably quirky in the modern era when cities are becoming boringly similar. But the store's owner, luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, determined that the old building was dowdy and no longer fit for its purpose. According to The Guardian:
Now the bulldozers are rumbling towards the former department store to destroy the last remaining parts of its historic facade, as campaigners make a last-ditch legal challenge to stop the demolition.
With the majestic timing and baby splitting of the legal profession, the administrative judges ruled that the appeal could go ahead. One problem:
Three of the four facades were knocked down in February, reportedly immediately after judges said they would accept the opposition campaigners' legal case but failed to order a halt to demolitions. The fourth is scheduled for the same fate. LVMH said after Friday's decision: "For the moment, the work continues."
It is hard to imagine what could be done now except continue the demolition. And what will be the new view of La Samaritaine? The Guardian story says, "Under designs drawn up by Japanese architects, the facades will be replaced with 'a set of etched glass waves'. Opponents say the new structure will look like a shower curtain."

The store's appearance has actually undergone several re-thinks since its origin in 1870. Here is an early photo:

Being a 19th century person in architectural as well as other artistic tastes, I wish La Samaritaine still presented this welcome.

Few would deny that buildings must undergo internal renovations to meet the owners' present needs. But exteriors are something else. They affect the look and feel of a neighborhood, and in aggregate, of a city.

 Below is a rendering of the planned complex (no longer just a department store):

Welcome to St. Louis. I mean, Paris.

Of course the "revival" has plenty of cheerleaders. They might make a reasonable point if they claimed the do-over will result in an attractive site, even an architectural achievement. It may turn out to be a pleasure for the eye. But the businesspeople, politicians, and architects backing the scheme go beyond that, believing it will symbolize an avant-garde, cool Paris.
What is striking about the Samaritaine debate is the passionate reaction it has created among people who fear Paris is becoming (or has already become) a historical relic. In a letter to Le Monde, leading architect Christian de Potzamparc said that the only reason for halting the plans is to “declare the absolute authority of the past,” turning Paris into a “sad and dark museum.” Another Le Monde piece titled “Paris in Formaldehyde” compares Paris’ anti development stance wistfully with the development frenzy of London and Berlin. La Samaritaine’s owners, the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, have also chimed in, covering the site with an awning printed with favorable comments such as “Paris is not a museum and needs to be renewed.”
But a city that honors and does its best to retain a certain character that has pleased residents and visitors for generations is not a "museum." True, the Paris we admire today is the product of a vast scheme of the 19th century ordered by Napoleon III and directed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which created the wide boulevards and roundabouts leading to grand buildings and monuments. But Paris was lucky -- it was rebuilt before the age of committees and politicians with construction company interests.
Today, Paris is far better off without the "development frenzy" of London and Berlin. It may or may not be a step forward in Berlin, which underwent urban renewal by British and American bombers in 1943 to 1945 that left it without much to preserve; London has since done to itself through bizarre and ugly construction what the Blitz was unable to.

Even London, as far as I know, hasn't yet come up with anything as grotesque as the blimp-egg Selfridges store in Birmingham:

So the preservationists of Paris have a right to be worried that the ultimate result of undoing the "museum" aspect of their city -- and what is wrong with museums? -- will be an urban fabric like this. Paris is entitled to better. Birmingham has never been especially renowned for its contribution to civilization, although it played a large role in industrialization and commerce. Its nickname is "Brum." Fine, but Paris is Paris, not "Pa" or "Pis." May it keep its special place in our admiration and imagination.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Material witnesses

Here's another post you may consider the height of lunacy. Still, our ordinary life (especially in the political realm) these days is the height of lunacy, and that doesn't stop it being the stuff of media. At least this post will not further mention Buraq Obama, Hillary Clinton, or climate change.

Embedded below is a video titled Visitors from the Other Side. Much of it concerns a spiritualist named Tom Harrison recalling the life and séances of his mother, Minnie Harrison. Mrs. Harrison seems to have been exceptionally gifted in her unusual calling. Over time she developed the abilities of mental mediumship, direct voice mediumship, and -- wait for it -- physical mediumship.

That last includes moving objects by mind power, summoning objects (known as apports) that appear mysteriously, and the hugely controversial practice of creating simulacra of spirits from "the Other Side" (after death) using a semi-material substance called ectoplasm -- produced or transferred by the medium herself.

Of all psychical phenomena, the appearance of spirits (often parts of them, such as heads or hands) is met with the greatest skepticism. Even today's psychical researchers (who call themselves parapsychologists to sound more academically respectable) tend to be embarrassed by the subject and avoid it. But physical mediumship was practiced fairly widely, roughly in the last half of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. Minnie Harrison was late to the game, after its vogue was past. But some forms of physical mediumship continue to arise occasionally, such as during the Scole sessions.

Understandably the production of semi-physical forms of spirits built of ectoplasm is much derided. During the heyday of séances plenty of fake materializations were revealed. Photographs are not convincing. Many are rather ugly pictures of a medium extruding through her mouth a stream of something resembling cotton or curdled milk. Still, we don't know what ectoplasm, if it exists, actually looks like. So even if we're dubious, we shouldn't be too dogmatic.

The reason I think this video worth watching is that it is eyewitnesses speaking, not recounting hearsay; and Tom Harrison certainly had many occasions to observe the phenomena produced by his mother. This can be considered a historical documentation of something that supposedly occurred in psychic circles in earlier times and has now apparently vanished -- perhaps because no one attempts it. The video is dated 1995, and describes sessions from 1946 to 1954.

I also like the fact that the interviews, by a woman named Pat Hamblin, do not seem to have been made for a TV production. No director working today would have followed such a simple, straightforward format: the now-unacceptable long sessions of "talking heads." Missing were quick cutting, actors "re-creating" scenes, or cheesy background music. It all comes across as natural. Hamblin apologizes for obtrusive sounds in the public places where Harrison lectures, although I didn't find them bothersome.

Incidentally, some Yanks (and Brits, for that matter) may think the accents of the speakers suggest a lack of sophistication. No. The country is remarkable for the persistence of micro-accents; what you hear is the dialect of Middlesborough, Yorkshire. I was once with a woman in Yorkshire (she was a native of the county) who fell into conversation with a bloke. The woman remarked, "You don't sound like you're from around here." "Aye, you're right," he said. "I'm from Middlesborough." That was about 40 miles to the north.

Here is the video. You can click the icon at the lower right of the frame to enlarge the picture to full screen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Gay Inquisition

Don't take this the wrong way.
If you know what's good for you.

This is the first post I have written about professional sports, and will very likely be the last. Well, it's not about sports, except incidentally, but rather the row over a certain tweet by a certain Miami Dolphins player named Don Jones.

Jones tweeted a remark that made him a target of the Gay Inquisition:
On Sunday, the Miami Dolphins fined safety Don Jones and sent him to "educational training" for tweeting negative comments about Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay player to be drafted, immediately after the Rams took Sam with a seventh-round pick.   

Jones tweeted "OMG" and "horrible" immediately after Sam was selected on Saturday and kissed his partner on national television. He then deleted those tweets. 
I will not even try, in a brief blog post, to comment on the complex issues involved in homosexuality or the propriety of televising Sam and his partner kissing. (I didn't watch it, of course, but no doubt the smooch seen 'round the world was repeated ad nauseam.) No, this is about the gay juggernaut that is quickly turning those who practice same-sex relationships into members of yet another sacred Victim Group™, with the usual corollary of criticism being taboo and any dissent flamed as "hate."

It didn't take Jones long to get his comeuppance from the political correctness commissars.
Dolphins Coach Joe Philbin said Jones' tweets "were inappropriate and unacceptable, and we regret the negative impact these comments had on such an important weekend for the NFL."
“We were disappointed to read Don’s tweets during the NFL Draft," he said.  "We met with Don today about respect, discrimination and judgment. These comments are not consistent with the values and standards of our program. We will continue to emphasize and educate our players that these statements will not be tolerated."
As I ascend toward the age of being drafted into the afterlife, I am beginning to feel that I am part of the last American generation that remembers when people could speak their minds bluntly. They might have suffered anger in return, or at worst a punch in the chops, but so long as they were only expressing their views they did not have to worry about losing their jobs or being sent to so-called educational training.

We used to take pride in that. We weren't like Communist countries where a remark that displeased the authorities could land you in the Lubyanka or a Siberian gulag that enjoyed balmy weather two days a year. But in a (so far) milder form, the Soviet system is now our standard operating procedure. Interestingly, it is not the State that retaliates against heresy -- that generates resentment and sometimes revolutions -- but the State's proxies: corporations, organizations, media, academia. Oppression is all the harder to fight when it's everywhere instead of concentrated in a dictator's palace.

Naturally, Jones followed the prescribed script for someone in his position, making the standard speech of regret and submission. Jones said in a statement that he wanted to "apologize to Michael Sam for the inappropriate comments that I made last night on social media."
I take full responsibility for them and I regret that these tweets took away from his draft moment. ... I sincerely apologize to Mr. Ross, my teammates, coaches, staff and fans [hey, Don, don't forget your mother] for these tweets. I am committed to represent the values of the Miami Dolphins organization and appreciate the opportunity I have been given to do so going forward. [Michael and your Friend, please step over here so I can kiss you.]
History has never quite forgotten the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, who spent three days in the snow (supposedly kneeling) at Canossa in 1077 begging the Pope to withdraw Henry's excommunication. Or the heretics who confessed to the Inquisition following a few games of torture. Or the Soviet officials who stopped off at Stalin's "show trials" on their way to the firing squad to apologize for their counter-Revolutionary errors.

Those things we remember. Freedom of speech, even about gays, not so much.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

An instance of magic

This is the best contemporary novel I've read. If I wasn't so leery of sweeping statements, I'd be tempted to say the best, period.

Iain Pears began his writing career with a number of high-class mystery novels set in the art world. Presumably he got tired of being a semi-obscure penny-a-liner and decided he would plant his flag in the land of Serious Literature. In 1999 he opened the bidding with An Instance of the Fingerpost, also a kind of mystery but a very different kind, set in 17th century Oxford with an occult tinge.

Fingerpost was impressive, with a splendidly amazing surprise toward the end, but I thought it only partially satisfying. It suffered from the look-at-me-I'm-a-genius syndrome: told from too many points of view, a surfeit of characters (practically every famous name at the time and place shoe-horned in), too long. But it worked for his authorial career, making him famous among the dwindling ranks of recreational readers.

The Dream of Scipio is the follow-up, and while it doesn't seem to have made as much of a splash as Fingerpost, it's a better novel -- a great one. Pears apparently felt he no longer had anything to prove, and that was all to the good. Scipio is leaner, the historical details all relevant, the characters vivid, and the philosophical undertones engaging.

The main personae inhabit southern France, Avignon and nearby -- but widely separated in time, albeit each in a grim, threatening era. Narration switches back and forth among the eras. Devices like this can be pretentious if carried out unskillfully, but Pears creates a metaphysical thread running through the novel but doesn't slap you around with parallels. Thankfully, while each character and period is precisely drawn, there's enough ambiguity that the reader is invited, nay, required to ponder the connections and their deeper meanings. 

The first story takes place in the 5th century, when the power and laws of Rome are vestigial but pagan customs and philosophy retain influence. Manlius, a rich landowner, reluctantly agrees to become a Christian bishop because he recognizes that the Church has become the de facto authority holding together what tenuous civilization remains and the only bulwark against the tribes moving in from beyond the frontier.

Next is the 14th century when Avignon houses the Pope ... and the Plague delivers a more horrifying invasion than any army could. Olivier de Noyen, a poor scholar who manages to obtain the Pope's favor and becomes a member of his entourage, discovers a neo-Platonic manuscript titled The Dream of Scipio, written nearly a millennium earlier by Manlius.

The final episodes are set in the 1930s, centering on Julien Barneuve, an art historian with access to the archives of the Pope, who has long been restored to the Vatican. Barneuve, too, rediscovers the Dream as Europe stumbles toward another slaughterfest.

Each of the men has a woman counterpart who is influential, inspiring, frustrating, and an object of love. For Manlius, it is Sophia (yes, Wisdom), who if I recall right absorbed Greek philosophy at Alexandria where it long remained culturally significant and an irritant to the Church. Olivier finds his desire focused on Rebecca, who had been rescued from destitution by, and became the willing servant of, an aged and scholarly man, also a Jew. Julien has a long and complex relationship with Julia, a Jewish artist and wanderer who -- like all the other characters, come to think of it -- cannot quite find her place in the world. Needless to say, the 14th century and the '30s were especially dangerous for the Jewish women.

I fear I have given a clumsy summation of the story, and am at a loss trying to describe the spirit and style of The Dream of Scipio. Its events are described realistically, sometimes uncomfortably so; but Pears keeps the action from cascading over the rim into lurid drama.

Still, the book is much more, a meditation on the aspects of life whose essence goes beyond history: beauty, the relationship of this world to the invisible one, the nature of truth, good and evil. Regardless of their individual beliefs, intelligent readers should find the questions raised and the answers sometimes proposed fascinating.

Recommended unreservedly. Scipio is tough and magical. Even the American paperback edition's cover art (see above) beautifully, faithfully captures the novel's mood.