Graveyards, Museums and Collecting / Les cimetières, les musées et la collection

Pallas Athena looking in all her divine glory down at visitors in the Louvre. She stands across the room from the Venus de Milo, which I did not bother photographing as Pallas outshines it, imho, in every possible way.

Why do people go to museums? Furthermore, why do people go to cemeteries to look at the graves of famous dead? Et finalement, the crux of my confusion — why do people go to museums and cemeteries when (it appears) they have no actual feelings about the things they’re going there to see?

The mausoleum of some wealthy but otherwise unknown family (ok, la famille Cail) on a “street” corner in Paris’ extremely prestigious Père Lachaise cemetery, where notable figures (Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Jim Morrison, etc etc) are buried among the graves of the unknown but very rich.

A couple of weeks ago I went first to Père Lachaise cemetery and then, a couple of days later, to the Louvre. I had never been to Père Lachaise — or, for that matter, to see the graves of anyone I didn’t know personally. I went there specifically to find the grave of Marcel Proust, the French Modernist writer of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), to whom I am devoted in my own way and whose work is a subject of my dissertation. I had no interest in seeing any other graves there, in part because I was too tired (I do think it would be cool to see Stein and Toklas’), but mostly because… I had no interest in seeing the other graves. I have a connection to Proust; I love his work; I work in turn on that work.

It took a while because Père Lachaise is huge, I was still jet-lagged and completely out of shape, cobblestones kind of suck to walk on, and the graves are packed so tightly together that it’s hard to find the one you want, but eventually I did find Proust.

Marcel Proust’s gravestone, strikingly minimalist surrounded by all that gothic stonework.

As you can see there were few homages on Proust’s grave, which made me sad. A few faded flowers, one rose that looked a bit more recent, and a fresh pot of little orange flowers in the back. A couple of people had arranged pebbles into hearts (and before leaving I, with my total lack of skill, arranged a few more pebbles into an awkward little teacup). I felt a little silly being sad at the lack of homages. He’s dead; he doesn’t care. I suppose I cared because it reflects how few people actually know his work, or like it, much less love it. (It’s a cliché with a fair bit of truth to it that most educated French feel obliged to read the Recherche at some point, and few actually manage it.)

I was oddly affected, seeing this grave. It’s just a piece of marble over the remains of a corpse which in itself means nothing, but I teared up anyway. I suppose it was a link to a reality, to the past. He had really existed; here was what was left of him, as little as those remains have to do with any once-living subject named Marcel Proust. I teared up (and then got embarrassed and tried to hide it). And as I stood there, teary and embarrassed but moved, several individuals and couples came by, obviously looking for the grave themselves. I stood there at least twenty or thirty minutes before I could tear myself away, and every time someone came by to see him – to see it – I’d move aside or move backwards on the assumption that they might want a little time alone with it, because I did. And perhaps one other person seemed affected – I believe that’s when I walked off briefly – but, for the most part, what I saw was a trickle of bored-looking people who for one reason or another must have thought Proust was notable enough to justify a stop by his stone. Each stood there for a moment in the hot sun, staring down at the marble and the name impassively, no reaction at all, before tromping off to the next monument to be looked at impassively.

A marker of people’s actual boredom at being in Père Lachaise, perhaps: litter was often visible wherever there was a blank plot or a broken tomb.

Once I finally left, the sun too hot and the jet lag creeping up and my feet killing me, I sat down on the nearest bench, luckily/unluckily out of sight of the grave. I was there long enough to overhear a tour guide dismissively telling a passle of undoubtedly mostly-bored people that Proust was a writer who had written “un grand pavé de la littérature française” — “a huge doorstop of French literature.” I grit my teeth. Actually, I grit my teeth every time I encountered that tour on the way back down to the gate, because I don’t get it. I don’t get why you would go on a tour of the graves of people you presumably (if you need a guide) know nothing about. I also don’t really get why a guide would speak about a supposedly revered figure (you’re not supposed to get in to P.L. unless you’re incredibly rich or someone reveres you) in that tone. Later I overheard him telling funny stories about Victor Hugo and that didn’t bother me; at least he wasn’t being dismissive. But what is the purpose of a tour of a graveyard? What’s the point of coming and looking in a bored way at the grave of x writer or y singer because you’ve heard his/her name and they made it to P.L.? I sort of get why people “collect” the witnessing of objects like the Venus de Milo (more on that later) – they’ve seen pictures and such – but the graves of people whose work you don’t know or don’t care about? Why are you collecting the sight of those? Is it boredom? The people tramping by Proust were almost never taking photos, either; I suspect they forgot they’d seen the grave within a few minutes.

After I got off the bench, I made my way down towards the entrance by taking a more direct route through the cemetery, and came across the monument to Allan Kardec, the founder of the 19th century religious philosophy Spiritism. A beautiful young woman was praying, or something that looked like it, with her hand on the top of the bust of Kardec, surrounded by flower offerings.

A young woman in her twenties or early thirties prays and/or collects herself at the grave of Allan Kardec, founder of Spiritisme, while other people gawk at her or look at the pictures they just took of her.

I stopped because the woman was striking, making as flamboyant a show of praying (collecting her thoughts? communing? maybe showing off a little?) as she was, and because of how incongruous it seemed to have a twenty- or thirty-something woman praying over the founder of a now little-known 19th century philosophy (apparently it’s still got more adherents than I thought) — but also because I was intrigued/disgusted by the cluster of people who were gawking not at the mausoleum/statue but at her. There was a show happening! This was no time to give her any privacy! (It was impossible to tell whether she would’ve wanted it, but still.) And anyway, she was really pretty! Was she collecting the grave? My impulse is that no, she had some kind of relationship with it in the same general sense that I had a relationship with Proust’s grave. But what were the others doing? Collecting the grave? Maybe, but I doubt most of those people knew who Kardec was. Collecting the woman? Collecting any kind of unusual/living experience in that place of old stones and morbid ostentation?

And really, do I have the right to question my fellow tourists’ reasons for being at Père Lachaise? For all I know they were all fascinated and moved by everything they saw, and just hiding it very well behind their deadened looks and their camcorders and their throwing of trash in the gravesites. …But I really, really doubt it. Meanwhile, I still don’t see why you would go to Père Lachaise and visit the graves of x and y simply because you’ve heard their names. I like Edith Piaf’s music; I admire her career; I didn’t go see her grave, and I probably won’t, because I feel no particular connection to her beyond really loving “La Foule.”

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A few days later I went to the Louvre – I won’t repost the picture of Pallas, for the sake of space. Pallas wasn’t the reason I went – I wanted to see the Samothrace Victory again, the most striking work of static visual art I had – maybe still have – ever seen. (I’m not very gifted as a viewer of non-moving visual art, and for some reason it’s statuary that I “get” the most.)

La Victoire de Samo-Thrace (the Winged a.k.a. Samothrace Victory / Nike), Louvre. The first time I turned this corner, age 16, I stood at the bottom of this staircase in shock at seeing it above me, huge and splendid.

The Victory, in terms of my crotchety judgmental appraisal of people’s reception of art, gets the attention it deserves. It’s not plastered all over every Louvre product like the Mona Lisa (which is so overplayed that I was barely able to appreciate its brilliance when I last saw it), but post cards and posters abound. I could post more pictures of it, but you very probably already know what it looks like close up. To be fair, you’d probably seen pictures of Pallas as well – that face is one of the most-reproduced statue-faces I think I’ve ever seen – but for some reason the name of that statue of Pallas is not well known. It’s not well-known in itself.

Oh alright, one more picture of her, just for reference:

Pallas Athena at the Louvre. The statue is huge; the first picture, at the head of the post, was taken by me at my full height of nearly six feet, standing under it.

The Pallas was so striking that I still think about it periodically two weeks later. How powerful it looks, in person – how god-like, how serene and powerful and attentive and intelligent and all sorts of other adjectives as well. How impressive it must have been especially to her Athenian worshipers, two-three thousand years ago. And there it stands (stolen from the Greeks) in the Louvre, in the same room as the Venus de Milo… with far fewer people around it. Pallas certainly had her visitors, but there were about one for ever ten people clustering around the Venus trying to get a photograph. Why? Again, I’m the first to admit that I don’t really “get” static visual art unless it’s in comic strip form. And ok, I can tell the Venus is well-proportioned, and of course in particularly good shape. But nothing else about that statue, from what I can tell, justifies its getting so much more attention than that striking rendition of Athena – except, of course, that it’s more famous. The experience of it, even behind a lens, is a collectible. Dude! I went to Paris! I went to the Louvre! I saw the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo! Well, what else did you see? Who cares!

I probably sound bitter, and I probably sound like a snob. So be it. I don’t actually object to museums, despite how problematic they are on a lot of levels, or to cemeteries full of famous dead which are equally problematic. Well, ok, I do object to those things on certain levels – I shall now repress a rant about the irony of “preserving” something only to stamp or carve the museum/archive’s possessive mark on it – but I do enjoy going to them to some extent, obviously. I don’t enjoy the other tourists. I don’t enjoy the feeling that instead of pondering and then walking off when they don’t get why something is important (and I would like to think that, as in the case of the Venus, I generally just walk off without photographing), most people take a photograph of it anyway, just to prove they were there. I may just be writing this because I’m tired, but it smacks very slightly of graffiti-tagging just for the sake of stating that you’ve been somewhere (why would that analogy seem logical to me, even tired? How are photograph-happy tourists doing any harm to the things they photograph, now that most digital photos don’t involve flash?).

I don’t know; I’m not sure. Something annoys me, something makes me sad, about seeing people looking at monuments, looking at art, and getting the feeling that they’re there because that’s what tourists are supposed to do, because that’s what’s expected of you, because it’s a stop on the circuit, because somehow if you’ve seen the Mona Lisa and the Venus and the Louvre itself you’ve seen part of Paris and part of France, parts that are somehow important to representing this country and therefore this culture (ha!).

I suppose the whole thing makes me feel, like various other things do, that to most people (I am tempted to say Americans are particularly guilty of this but that’s probably unfair), visiting other countries is like going to Disneyland – the Epcot Center, I guess. It’s not real, it’s fake-real, it’s a simulacrum, it’s a series of empty signifiers, but you “get” to go home and feel satisfied anyway, you get to think you went somewhere for real… as if there was such a thing as “going somewhere for real.” Or maybe there is? Ah, now I’m degenerating into circles of self-questioning — probably an indication that I should wrap this up.

Next museum: Musée d’Orsay! Where I can get baffled and annoyed by the other tourists some more, as if I weren’t one myself. So many people have already said what I just said, I think… but hey, I might as well say it again.

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