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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

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December 30, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?

~Robert Burns

Nostalgia, a longing for things past. We all feel it, and it seems to play a larger role in our lives as we get older. Which makes perfect sense because the older we get the more we think about yesterday and eventually there are more days in the past than in the future.

It is late December just after Christmas and the new year is fast approaching. The Holidays are full of nostalgia. Who can forget being a child and…? Traditions. No matter how rotten a childhood had been people prefer to recall "the good old times."

Writing and thinking of  time has made me wish for Doc Brown's Delorian time machine. I’d just love to have one. What nostalgia!

 Happy New Year.

December 4, 2011

Leap of Faith…

. . . a “seasoned” post.

While most "seasoned" posts will feature many best wishes not to mention popping champagne corks, throngs of revelers, and rising plumes of stars cascading across the night skies, Frenchtoast in true contrarian fashion, has chosen a quieter way to pay tribute. These images capture a simple and sparse loveliness that hold a special appeal for me. When I first grossed the countless bridges of Paris as a young boy, I could not have known that it would prove to be symbolic and seminal in ways unimagined.

For one, their histories have always intrigued me, I view them as passageways uniting the old with the new, or the familiar to the unknown, there is something in their majesty and bearing that always softens and soothes.

Perhaps it comes from the nostalgia for the places they evoke, or maybe it’s nothing more than the secret little thrill that terrifies and excites each time you cross over water, canyons, or death-defying precipices. Like taking a leap of faith into the unfamiliar and unknown.

So this year the bridges of Paris have come to mean not only the ending and beginning of things, but the continuum engendered, despite obstacles, failings, and thunderous doubt. Having crossed, I feel what can only be likened to a crush of sentimentality, fellowship, warmth and gratitude over the bonds created, the connections forged, and the ideas shared over incalculable miles with friends from places that beckon in their intrigue and humble in their enormity at what these insignificant little blogs of bits and bytes can elicit.

Our thoughts in creating these blogs, was to do little more than send a bit of grace into a world hell bent on doing its damnedest to diminish and blunt. The idea of establishing a sanctuary, a refuge of words and images, where friends gathered and a genuine love of aesthetics (not to mention an expertly made cocktail or two) thrived, where something as inconspicuous as a bridge, for example, could take on new meaning or, as Mona observed, “lull and lift,” leading from the lamentable misery of what surrounds us day to day to a more
secluded spot untroubled by the woes of the weary. I remember reading some time ago of an idea that has stayed with me: that one is rarely, if ever, catapulted into failure, but instead, quietly and senselessly, nudged into it.

Might that idea be reversed? I can’t pretend to know, but I had a bit of time to try. Our blogs are that effort. To any of you they reached, whether through — a piece of whimsy, a glimpse of art, a story of redemption, a whiff of indescribable beauty, a sampling of impeccable style, a breeding long since lost, and a semblance of a class only vaguely remembered; or a quip, a photo, a sonata, a perfectly turned out phrase, or the constellation of a well-ordered room along with the imperfect plan that created it; an experience shared, a memory revived, a piece well placed, a meal well served and an unnatural aching for a bridge long since traveled — it has all resonated from here and I am the richer for it.

Where will the bridge lead? I do not know; although it is understood that it is more in the traveling than the arrival. As to the destination?

October 20, 2011

That Towering Feeling.

Who doesn’t like the Eiffel Tower ... doesn't feel affection for that gigantic, iron-filigreed symbol of a beloved Paris? For, as the French architect Le Corbusier wrote emotionally, "The tower is an indefatigable pilgrim who has criss-crossed the world. In the cities ... in the desert ... on the estuaries ... everywhere and among the humble as among the others, the tower is in everyone's heart."

Yet Alexandre Gustave Eiffel's tower wasn't always so beloved. When he began building it for the Paris Exposition of 1889, some 300 outraged artists, writers, and intellectuals signed a petition denouncing the project. They included Charles Gounod, composer of Faust; Ernest Meissonier, the painter; Alexandre Dumas and Guy de Maupassant, the writers. The criticism of the planned tower was boundless: "useless and monstrous. "a horror ... dizzily ridiculous like a black and gigantic factory chimney ... barbarous ... odious column of bolted metal." De Maupassant was particularly incensed; he later reportedly lunched often at the tower's second-floor restaurant because that was the only place in Paris where he couldn't see the hideous iron monster. 

But verbal protests didn't dissuade the exposition committee. So Eiffel proceeded to build a structure higher than any other made by man up to that time, including the Great Pyramid of Giza. And he completed it in only 2 years, 2 months, with a small labor force. 

As photographs show, he did it masterfully. The Eiffel Tower has been associated with various feelings: despair (more than 300 people have leaped to their death from it) ... derring-do (people have bicycled up its steps and climbed its sides) ... fear (thousands of people with fear of heights have run away from it in terror) ... pride (the tower was used to pick up enemy radio signals during two world wars). 

For a while during the early thirties, the Eiffel Tower even served as an electric billboard, advertising Citroen cars. And it has been sold to naive foreigners countless times. The tower has hosted a Mass ... a beauty contest for tall girls (Miss Eiffel Tower), judged by the duke and duchess of Windsor in 1939 ... political rallies ... and all sorts of zany promotional stunts. Rumors persist that the tower will soon collapse, that the tower will be dismantled and sent to a foreign country, and that it's sinking into the River Seine's marshy riverbank.

Behind all the feelings about the tower lie some fascinating details about its construction.
  • Wrought iron was used because steel was too light, flexible, and costly.
  • Construction required 30 draftsmen, who worked 18 months, generating 5,320 mechanical drawings that took 14,352 square feet of paper.
  • The tower was designed to hold up to 10,416 people.
  • Its strength comes from its voids; Eiffel realized that victory over wind could not be achieved by accumulation of strong resisting surfaces, but by reducing the supporting elements of an openwork structure until the wind had virtually nothing to seize.
  • Structural work was completed in only 2 years, 2 months, compared to 36 years required for the Washington Monument.
  • Only one life was lost during building, compared with 20 lives lost during building of the Brooklyn Bridge and 84 lives during building of the Quebec Bridge.
  • The tower housed the world's first elevator in any skyscraper-type building.
A miracle at the time, the Eiffel Tower was to remain the world's tallest building for 41 years, when the Chrysler Building in New York City outreached it. Even today, the tower evokes awe and nostalgia in most people. Guarding the Seine and rising above sprawling Paris, it looks old-fashioned and somewhat awkward. But it makes us feel reassured and proud to think that humans over a century ago could have created such an impressive, durable, intriguing monument to human ingenuity.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel startled the world with his tower, but he had created other miraculous structures during his 30 years' experience before: 

a 525 foot bridge at Oporto, Portugal, 

and a 540-foot-span Garabit viaduct over the Truyere in southern France, for many years the world's highest bridge. 

Contemporaries said he looked serene, completely self-assured; dull company, perhaps, but an engineering genius. 

October 6, 2011

One Foot in the Middle Ages.

One of the greatest things about living in the center of a city as ancient as Paris is that you can go into a historical trance whenever you want to. 

I discovered this the other morning, having hurried to the Rue Saint-Jacques-only to find that my appointment there had been put back half an hour. I could have killed the time in a cafe, watching the Latin Quarter go by, but I did something better.  I went into a trance. 

The Latin Quarter is so called because throughout the Middle Ages the students who came from all over Europe to Paris' great university used Latin to communicate with each other.  Summoning up what I remembered of medieval times and disregarding the occasional fast-food shop, I began to wander 'round the old streets leading off the Rue Saint-Jacques.  Soon, in my mind's eye, I had the narrow lanes streaming with unkempt or pious students-and, among them, the great poets Dante and Petrarch, the great doctors Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, deep in disquisition or intrigued by the fantasies of the manuscript illuminators whose studios opened out onto the street.  

Slipping through the crowd came the shadow of François Villon François Villon François VillonFrançois Villon, poet and twice accused of murder, whose name alone evokes all the harshness of the period. In his wake the dark alleyways grew darker with cloaked figures whose taste for learning was paralleled by such unruliness that even their practical jokes ended in injury or imprisonment, if not death.

But the crudeness and violence were tempered by comparable extremes of spirituality. Religion and learning were indissoluble; and if much of the area was given over to the schools, even more belonged to the church. Built in Roman times, the Rue Saint-Jacques, as the Via Supera, was the main route to the south, and each year it was trodden by hundreds of pilgrims on their way to Saint James of Compostela, in Galicia, Spain. Many of them would have paused, or even spent the night, at the nearby church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre.

Saint-Julien is a dream in itself. No fewer than six centuries before work began on Notre Dame, a stone's throw to the north, an important chapel stood on this venerable site. Norman invaders destroyed it in 885, and it was not rebuilt until the twelfth century.
Since then, Saint-Julien-called "le Pauvre" after a bishop, Julian the Confessor, who gave away all he had-has experienced both fame and neglect. It was saved from the latter when the Greek Catholics known as Melchites took it over in 1889.

 Nowadays, the east end of the church is cut across by an iconostasis, the Eastern Orthodox screen that sets off the sanctuary. Other icons adorn the walls. The air is heavy with incense. Soon, black-bearded Greek priests will take up their sonorous chant, wafting one's thoughts eastward to Byzantium. Before this happens the half hour strikes; the trance is over, and the present reclaims its own.

September 9, 2011

Ferocious Forain

Has satire changed? The Parisian artist-satirist Jean-Louis Forain skewered the attitudes and manners of his social-climbing peers. He was not particularly liked for his efforts-but then, he did not care.

"When I begin to age," simpered a Belle Epoque Parisian to artist satirist Jean-Louis Forain, "I will shoot myself."

"Fire!" commanded Forain.

Antisocial, reactionary, and chauvinistic, Forain capitalized on his own foul character by inundating newspapers with caustic cartoons that royally roasted the French nouveau riche. His vitriolic pen ridiculed-and captured-the posturing Belle Epoque (1880-1914) and filled four albums: LA COMEDIE PARISIENNE; NOUS, VOUS, EUX; DOUX PAYS; and LES TEMPS DIFFICILES.

Himself an unimpeachable member of the new middle class, Forain, ironically, seared the manners and mores of the very worlds he inhabited. His cartoons hit home and drew blood from politics, business, religion, justice, the theater. Apparently, it takes one to know one.

Even when baited, Forain knew just how far he could go. Not without considerable charm, the cagey opportunist would smile innocently and win pardons for his poisoned arrows. His sallies were considered part of the game. Parisian hostesses were proud when the candid, sardonic Forain appeared at their dinner parties. Seen in all the right places, Forain had plenty of social engagements, ranging from opening nights to fashionable funerals. At such events, he met Toulouse-Lautrec (whom he later introduced to the pictorial possibilities of Montmartre's nightlife), Marcel Proust, and novelist-politician Maurice Barres.

Steeped in realism by his first teacher, Second Empire sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Forain's first paintings were pleasant enough-anecdotal and very Parisian. For 3 decades, however, he neglected his paint pots for a savage cartoonist pen. When he again picked up a brush, Forain executed sinister-looking paintings from a palette loaded with black, sepia, and white. Many of these latter works are religious and crucifixion scenes, which totally confused his public.

"Don't give a damn" seemed to be Forain's motto. He left many canvases unfinished and allowed completed works to flake away in his studio. He refused to exhibit because he hated agents, and kicked art lovers out of his studio if he didn't like their looks. Such behavior took its toll: when Forain died, there was no one to defend his work-or promote it.

After half a century of obscurity, such a promoter surfaced: Yves Brayer, curator of the Marmottan Museum in Paris. Brayer dreamed and plotted for 2 decades to rescue Forain's body of work from oblivion. He achieved his goal by mounting a comprehensive Forain exhibition at the Marmottan.

Uncompromising observer

A look at Forain's paintings, drawings, engravings, and lithographs firmly establishes him as an uncompromising observer of the Belle Epoque. Deftly caricaturing gestures, expressions, and actions, he communicates the spirit, protocol, and defects of that nouveau riche society.

Forain followed in the great tradition of Honore Daumier, famed for his own satirical lithographs on social issues: he adapted his caricatures to the modern newspaper medium. He aimed for an economical, just-dashed-off look-a "spontaneous" effect achieved only after a dozen or more successive drawings on tracing paper. Forain adopted this process from his friend and supporter, Edgar Degas; it was also useful to Henri Matisse and Edouard Vuillard. In the end, Forain executed a precise, powerful drawing rendered with crisp, sure strokes.

Which came first: Forain's drawings or their captions? Seemingly well-matched extensions of each other, the captions usually sprang from the drawings-with devastating effect on businessmen, politicians, performers and their audiences, snobs, and servants (Forain had four).

Feisty Forain

Forain was born in Reims in 1852 of a family of vineyard owners, but took off for Paris at an early age. On his own there, the feisty little Forain quickly learned the panhandling skills of street urchins. He whiled away some days sketching in the Louvre-and filching tubes of paint from other copyists.

A chance encounter in the Louvre with the sculptor Carpeaux determined Forain's legitimate vocation. Carpeaux offered to critique the 16-year-old's sketches and gave him an important piece of advice: "Go out into the street, look for a blind man standing in the shelter of an archway, make a sketch, and then come back and do your drawing."

Contact with other artists and writers helped launch Forain's career.

Briefly sheltered by Paul Verlaine and a roommate of Arthur Rimbaud, Forain painted a portrait of the novelist Joris Karl Huysmans. Huysmans adored the portrait: "Monsieur Forain is one of the most penetrating painters of modern life that I know," wrote the author of A REBOURS (AGAINST THE GRAIN). Those 15 words sufficed to make Forain-an outspoken, former street urchin-a star of Paris society.

Forain's satirical cartoons proved even more lucrative than his painting. A prolific artist, Forain sold his drawings to numerous French newspapers, including FIGARO, L'ECHO DE PARIS, and LA REVUE ILLUSTREE. Considered a master of the medium for 3 decades, Forain raked in 300 francs per cartoon-while manual laborers earned 120 francs per month.

When these essentially conservative newspapers failed to absorb his entire controversial output, Forain created his own short-lived publications: FIFRE (1889) and PSST (1898). In the weekly PSST, Forain promoted his rabid anti-Semitism by focusing on the Dreyfus Affair. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the wealthy Alsatian Jew wrongly convicted of treason, became a national cause celebre. Forain was one of the most vocal opponents of Dreyfus, and his cartoon campaigns may have lengthened the years Dreyfus spent imprisoned on Devil's Island. Forain never acknowledged his error.

Visual anecdotes

Though some graphic art lovers may know Forain's etchings and lithographs, few of us today are aware of his paintings. Sponsored by Degas, Forain exhibited with the impressionists from 1879 to 1886. At that time, his style resembled that of Degas. Forain even depicted similar subjects: backstage at the Opera, vaudeville, dances, and society events. Scenes such as LE BUFFET (1884), with its formally dressed guests partaking of a sumptuous spread, were visual anecdotes told by the ever-watchful Forain.

"He's still hanging on to my coattails," said Degas, excusing his continued championship of Forain, "but he'll go far if he lets go."

In the end, Forain wholeheartedly let go. When he returned to painting after the long intermission devoted to satirical sketches, he turned to a genre diametrically opposed to impressionism. Severing all links with his past, Forain singled out Auguste Renoir and the young Paul Cezanne for his harshest attacks.

Forain's late paintings lack the easygoing amiability of his earlier canvases. A reformed churchgoer after his World War I army experiences, the elderly artist gravitated toward religious subjects and adopted a succinct, somber technique that reflected his frame of mind. Today, the pallid lighting effects of these paintings strike some viewers as a source of the expressionism that was to come.

Not surprisingly, compliments made the lampooner uneasy. Forain frequently spoiled or destroyed paintings praised in his presence. Before dying, he burned 17 of the pictures produced in the final months of his life. Only Forain's etchings survive from this period.

When this crusty critic of bourgeois society died in 1931, he was buried with socially prestigious honors; Forain was an officer of the French Legion of Honor, president of the National Fine Arts Society, and a member of the French Institute. At the time of his death, he was admired by the greatest contemporary artists. Guillaume Apollinaire described Forain as "one of the most illustrious of [today's] artists," one who had had the most influence "on artistic youth and who retained the most authority with an elite public."

Vuillard praised Forain's drawing for its happy wedding of style and content. Cezanne-whom Foram called "a peasant with stinking feet"-hung Forain drawings on his own studio walls. Looking back, critics and artists could see that Forain had simplified painting and partially opened the door to 20th-century art.

May 22, 2011

Le Quartier Juif

The ancient Jewish Quarter in Paris has become the Jewish block, rather like many Chinatowns in America. Times change, which is a polite way of saying prices rise, but unlike rising tides rising prices raise only some boats and sink others. Perhaps that is as good definition of history as we'll ever know.

Paris's quartier juif has been in the Le Marais since the thirteenth century, changing shape, dimension, and atmosphere over the years, but always there, more then less then more now barely there at all. It was never an official ghetto in the Eastern European sense, with walls around it and gates that locked from the outside at night to prevent the Jews from doing whatever the miserable superstitions of the era believed they might do once the sun had gone down. France's history of anti-Semitism is unlovely, but the Parisians did not build a defining wall that kept the Jews or their neighborhood from getting out and about.
It's not that good fences make good neighbors-even Robert Frost who gave us the line never believed it himself-and the thought has nothing to do with blood libels or any other version of anti-Semitism. Yet however unlikable a wall may be, it can sometimes slow down, if not derail, the freight train of history. I've seen this myself in Paris, on la Rue Victor Schoelcher in the Fourteenth Arrondissement. And an unlikely wall for Paris it is, being covered with ivy, but for good reason. The ivy was not planted on the outside of the wall, which I have never observed in Paris, but has grown over from the inside, and that makes sense since on the other side of the wall was the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

Among the many famous people buried in Montparnasse is Simone de Beauvoir in front of whose house, according to the marble plaque with gilt letters fastened to the wall, I was standing when I noticed the ivy wall. When she looked out her window every day, she could see her own future, perhaps, but I wonder how she felt about that. Not that I cared because I was on my way to say hello to M. Charles Pigeon, the inventor of a gas-lamp guaranteed not to blow up and the resident of a tomb topped by bronze likenesses of himself and Madame Pigeon in bed, she lying back, he up on his elbow, notebook in hand, ready to invent yet again something useful.

But he's frozen in the creative moment—and nothing is going to happen, so I keep walking with an eye, now, on Simone de Beauvoir's house which I was surprised to discover was visible up to the right from where I was standing. Might as well find out what she looked at below her window and there I was opposite her house, maybe 100 metres or a little more from the wall I had seen from the street, on Avenue Thierry, Divisions 29 and 30, according to the cemetery's street signs—and apparently in le quartier juif according to all the Stars of David that began appearing on the vaults. At first, after the endless graves marked Dupont, Durand, Ducros, Dulac, Dumont, and Duval, it seemed that Léopold Cahn (and wife) and the collateral Bollack family next door might simply have moved into the neighborhood because space was available But the parade formed by les familles Wolf, Klein, Zelazko, Lazare, Oppenheimer, and Lévy, not to mention Muthi de Mazeltoub Benhanou née Smadja (1900-2001), suggested something else: a neighborhood where Jews could feel at home and be in peace, presumably forever.

I headed toward the wall, thinking maybe several Jewish families had simply by chance wound up along the main path in this rather large corner on the eastern edge of the cemetery. But between Avenue Thierry and the wall were more Stars of David perched on Samuel, Perez, Loeb, and Haloua. No happenstance, no hasard: this is where the Jews bury their dead, perhaps were allowed to bury their dead. They were only let into Père Lachaise on the Right Bank after the Revolution, so why not here too in Montparnasse on the Left? No matter, this is where the Jews are welcome to bury their dead and welcome one another in life. The mausoleum of the Khan family provides the image. It has a stone door, visually propped open by a painted cast-iron floral arrangement and pot, but look closer: the door could not move anyway. It has no hinges. It was built ajar. We don't close the door on you, it tells me.

And they don't because among all the graves with Stars and Jewish names I find Daniel Petit. Could he have been né Klein and changed his name? But there's a cross on his new grave: did he convert, yet by some weird irony or snafu wind up the Jewish Quarter? Probably not, because a little further on there is the very old vault of the Deshayes family, also with an open door, revealing a Virgin and Child, but this door is hinged and moves, though there are spider webs across the opening.

A few more crosses, a few graves impossible to identify, but will this quartier juif give way to those seeking desirable—that is to say, remaining—real estate who are not Jewish? Le Cimetière du Montparnasse is filling up. The gravestone makers with their stores opposite the cemetery on Boulevard Edgar Quinet have here and there put up "temporary" vaults, metal advertising signs, in fact, that look as if they have been there forever, holding a place for someone, for the marbrier funéraire himself or his heirs to sell off at a profit some day. It's possible: they must be valuable, these temporary sites. No one wants to be buried in the suburbs, and eternity with Simone de Beauvoir, Bartholdi, Brancusi, Beckett, Baudelaire, and Bourdelle would be much chummier and intellectually improving. It's a great neighborhood, a desirable quartier.

And so, what about its future—altered beyond recognition by high prices and gentrification? Cities of the dead always reflect the cities of the living, and there are new Chinese and Vietnamese graves not far from where I have been visiting.

Will the neighborhood of the Keims and the Solomons vanish as did the kosher butcher with the advance of the artisanal ice-cream parlor?

Surely not, I think, and cross my fingers. The French don't like to move graves any more than anyone else.

And besides, le quartier juif funéraire, unlike the living one in Le Marais, is protected on two sides by walls that send ivy out onto the streets of Paris.

May 3, 2011

One very special hare.

I just finished reading The Hare with Amber Eyes (thank you Ms. Edna) and was inspired to follow in the footsteps of Charles Ephrussi, Edmund de Waal’s ancestor (but this will be another post).

Le Quartier Juif
There are men and women who write beautifully tuned to a different frequency. Edmund de Waal is in that group. It is an irony for the author of the most exquisite memoir you are likely to read in a long time is not a writer. He is a potter, said to be one of the best in England, and Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster. You could say the eye that judges a pot is also a writer’s eye and you could say a gifted Brit who studied English at Cambridge really should be able to write a compelling family story.

The Hare with Amber Eyes has, as they say in show biz, everything. The highest echelons of Society in pre-World War I Paris. Nazi thugs and Austrian collaborators. A gay heir who takes refuge in Japan. Style. Seduction. Wealth. Two centuries of anti-Semitism. And 264 pieces of netsuke.

It is on these netsuke that de Waal hangs his tale or, rather, searches for it. Decades after he apprenticed as a potter in Japan, he has returned to research his mentor. In the afternoons, he makes pots. And, one afternoon a week, he visits his great-uncle Iggie. Iggie owns a large vitrine, in which he displays his netsuke collection. He has stories about that collection, but then he has so many tales about his family that de Waal delightedly spoons them up glorious anecdotes of hunting parties in Czechoslovakia, gypsies with dancing bears, his grandmother bringing special cakes from Vienna on the Orient Express. And Emmy pulling him from the window at breakfast to show him an autumnal tree outside the dining room window covered in goldfinches. And how when he knocked on the window and they flew, the tree was still blazing golden. I shivered when I read that last sentence you do not often read a description of real-world magic expressed so magically.

All week long, I open books, hoping for a line like that. Mostly, I get well-intentioned banality the world viewed through eyes dulled by experience. But de Waal is a visual artist; he lives to look and look hard. And, like a detective, he will keep looking until he has put the objects of his interest into a kind of order.

His interest is the collection of netsuke bought in 1870 in Paris by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great-grandfather. Because his family has the means, Charles is able to exercise his considerable taste. No holding back with this collectorin the best story about Charles, he buys a still life of asparagus from Manet at a price so over-the-top that the artist sends a unique thank-you. A painting of a single stalk of asparagus, with a note, "This seems to have slipped from the bundle."

Charles in Paris a city of salons, exquisite clothes, complicated relationships. The world of Proust. It is no surprise that Charles and Marcel were friends or that the novelist based a character on him.

“I have fallen for Charles,” de Waal writes. Yes, he has, and it shows; there’s more here about Charles than most readers will want. Feel free to skim. Skip, if you must. But do not, for the sake of your immortal soul, put the book down, for in 1899, Charles sends his first cousin in Vienna the netsuke as a wedding present and the book goes into a different gear.

In Vienna, de Waal writes, there were 145,000 Jews in 1899, 71 per cent of the city’s financiers, 65 per cent of the lawyers, 59 per cent of the doctors, half the journalists. Why does he begin this chapter by telling us about the Jews when, as he notes, they were so assimilated? Oh, you know why; it just takes three-and-a-half decades for the anti-Semitism he chronicles to reach a boil. How did a book about a collection of objects take such a radical turn? And how, amid the horror, did 264 pieces of netsuke survive intact? It is up to the reader to take what meaning he or she can from this story of objects gained, lost, found.

What are objects to us? Do they change when we hold them, display them, give them value? Do they “retain the pulse of their makeup?” If we did not collect anything, how would we remember who we were?

My ancestors are dust. At most, there are a few photographs. So for me, the moral of this book is that everything matters but nothing lasts. Cherish beauty, but keep it private. And, if you are a Jew, always be prepared.

Your take will be just as personal. And you might as well accept that when you start reading. This is not a book about Japanese art objects.

April 27, 2011

I wish to celebrate…

The economic and financial market turmoil has prompted me to post this. It is relevant and enlightening as it deals with the irrationality of the human mind, especially related to our economic choices. In fact, in reality, we are anything but rational beings.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to give the Noble Prize in Economic Sciences, in 2002 to be shared between Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University, USA and Vernon L. Smith, George Mason University, USA.

For having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty” and having established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis, especially in the study of alternative market mechanisms.

Traditionally, much of economic research has relied on the assumption of a “homo œconomicus” motivated by self-interest and capable of rational decision-making. Economics has also been widely considered a non-experimental science, relying on observation of real-world economies rather than controlled laboratory experiments. Nowadays, however, a growing body of research is devoted to modifying and testing basic economic assumptions; moreover, economic research relies increasingly on data collected in the lab rather than in the field. This research has its roots in two distinct, but currently converging, areas: the analysis of human judgment and decision-making by cognitive psychologists, and the empirical testing of predictions from economic theory by experimental economists.

Here is Vernon L. Smith speech:

I wish to celebrate

The Royal Family for their grace and charm in this magnificent affirmation of the dignity of humankind.

• Daniel Kahneman for his ingenuity in the study and understanding of human decision and its associated cognitive processes demonstrating that the logic of choice and the ecology of choice can be divergent.

• The pioneering influence of Sidney Siegel, Amos Tversky, Martin Shubik, and Charles Plott on the intellectual movement that culminated in the economics award for 2002.

• Humanity’s most significant emergent creation: Markets.

• Mandeville who said: “The worst of all the multitude did something for the common good.”

• The ancient Judeo Commandments: Thou shalt not steal or covet the possessions of thy neighbor, which provide the property right foundations for markets, and warned that petty distributional jealousy must not be allowed to destroy them. Neither shalt thou commit murder, adultery or bear false witness, which provide the foundations for cohesive social exchange.

• David Hume who declared the three laws of human nature: The right of possession, its transference by consent, and the performance of promises, and taught that the rules of morality are not the conclusions of reason.

• F.A. Hayek for teaching us that an economist who is only an economist cannot be a good economist; that fruitful social science must be very largely a study of what is not; that reason properly used recognizes its own limitations; that civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge that we do not possess (as individuals).

• Benjamin Franklin who said “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

• And to Kahlil Gibran who reminds us that, “work is love made visible”.

Nicely said.

April 1, 2011

Has It Really Been 800 Years?

Cambridge University, believed to have been formed in 1209 by scholars who had left Oxford after a dispute with local townspeople, developed into one of the most respected universities in the world (it’s also one of the most extensive, with a campus of 31 colleges). Through the decades, it has produced more than 80 Nobel Prize winners and nurtured some of history’s great thinkers: the list includes John Milton, Isaac Newton, Jawaharlal Nehru, Hans Blix, Ludvig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Francis Crick and James Watson (discoverers of the structure of DNA), Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Stephen Hawking and… Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse. Doubtless, you are burning to find out who Cuthbert was, and always wondered what Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse looked like - well, he looked like this.

The object he is holding is the last ever of the original Wooden Spoons, in the sense of a mocking award for finishing last. It began as a tradition amongst the Mathematics faculty at Cambridge University, from at least 1803 until 1909, of awarding a wooden spoon to the student who graduated with the lowest passing mark. The spoons got bigger and more elaborate over time, culminating in this one, converted from a rowing blade. It was Cuthbert's devotion to the college boat that cost him greater academic success. (Were you surprised a maths student named Cuthbert turned out to be such a jock? Me too. Shame on us for our lazy preconceptions.)

The tradition ended in 1909 because 'the system was changed so that the results were announced in alphabetical order rather than by exam mark.'

Now really, if that little manoeuvre rendered an entire graduating class of Cambridge mathematicians unable to work out who had come bottom I can’t help but think wooden spoons were due all round.

March 22, 2011

A Winter’s tale...

 ...in a French province.

What is a French country scene in winter? Typically, it is something the tourist would rarely see . . . a study in dull greys, sepia, brilliant hues of sunset refracted on an icebound earth.

To find out more about this special isolated life, which might only be compared to parts of the snowbound Midwest in winter, Charles and I went down to the Rouergue region, 100 miles north of Montpellier (and the Mediterranean), east of Albi and just south of the Auvergne.

It can be almost terrifying. We stopped the car in a nearly-lunar landscape, amidst endless agglomerations of calcareous rocks, tufted with scrubby evergreens veiled by snow.

This, we were told was the region of the causses, the high plateaux that emerged after the Jurassic period, and for a few minutes, we felt as if we had taken an H.G. Wells trip millions of years back, as the car settled into a whirlpool of whistling wind, knife-cold and eerie. Our concern was only momentary, and we were reassured when the car was puttering along again on to a no-man's-land of jutting rock formations known as Montpellier-le-Vieux, so named by peasants centuries ago who thought the formations looked like the city of Montpellier. The whole Rouergue region, in fact, is dotted with prehistoric dolmens and tumuli.

There also, the cold was too bitter for a long exploration around the rocky grounds, though we were able to spot a "camel," a "bear" and a few other curiosities among the strange rock formations.

We were happy to rush back to Millau for a cup of tea in one of the warm cafes in the picturesque Place du Marechal Foch, arcaded with sculpted columns, and frequented by locals of all ages.

Charles of course could not get enough of the viaduct bridge.

Millau was built by the Romans in 122 B.C. and became a big pottery exporter all over the Roman empire. The surrounding land is rich in smooth clay, and is fine for grazing; the other activities that keep local people at least halfway occupied are sheep herding, and making Roquefort cheese in the nearby farms and Combalou Mountains. MiIlau, in the southern part of Rouergue, and Rodez to the north, are the two poles of the rural region, rich in monuments, chateaux, churches, old fortified towns, and there is a friendly rivalry between them.

Millau people are considered hotheads and Mediterranean in temperament by Rodez people, and Rodez people project a cold and aloof image among southerners.

Winter in all the towns, in the burgs and isolated farmhouses, is a time to withdraw, to sit by the fire and reflect; occasionally to forge out to the local cafe (when the weather turns up a warm Mediterranean breeze) for lots of gossip, red wine and card games.

The shepherds' life in winter has hardly changed from what it was centuries ago. Charles and I braved the road and went for lunch at a shepherd's house perched just over the spectacular Gorges du Tarn ... France's equivalent of the Grand Canyon.

The ice was dripping off the cliff side, and fortunately the car was able to negotiate a rutty, steeply climbing slope with hairpin turns and dizzy views down into the canyon. As we reached the barren, flat causse (plateau) at the top, a postal van passed, going in the opposite direction. "The first time we've had mail for over twelve days!" said the shepherd who greeted us Gabriel, a thick-set, leathery-skinned man who looked like my idea of what a French peasant should be. He and his wife Jeannette had turned their back on a picturesque stone farmhouse at the end of the road and built a concrete box that had a definite resemblance to a wartime blockhouse. "It's more comfortable," explained Jeannette, though this was hardly obvious.

Gabriel's sheep were warmly ensconced in a stone shed. "I haven't much to do in winter," he said, "and pass my time whittling wooden ash-trays. I can't stand television. We won't have it here." We enjoyed a hearty lunch, with lamb chops. Plenty of 12° red wine was drunk, and Gabriel reminisced about the adventures of being a shepherd, which mainly involved getting lost on the rocky plateaux, where everything looks alike.

Going to town is a rare pleasure for farmers and shepherds like Gabriel and Jeannette, and another highlight for anyone who has a pig is the great day after New Year's when the itinerant pig-slaughterer stops by. This is an occasion for merrymaking, as the animal in one day is literally turned into sausages, bacon, ham, tripe, blood sausage, pork roasts and meat for pates. This one pig will last as saucisson at least all winter, and probably through the summer too.

Rodez, the other main Rouergat city further north, gives the impression of a small city rather than a small town. There are many cafes, cinemas and concerts in the town theatre, a couple of museums, the curious cathedral in ruddy stone. There's enough to do in and around Rodez to keep a visitor occupied at least a couple of days.

No visitor is allowed to get away without seeing Conques, a beautifully-proportioned Romanesque basilica an hour's drive from Rodez. The site was named Conques by St. Louis because of its shell shape, and in winter a walk through the medieval streets transports you right out of this century ....

Every native has a different version of the story of the "treasure" of St. Foy, a symbolic figure in wood and gold leaf, glittering with jewels. The gist of the story is that during the 9th century, abbeys were sprouting all over the country, and each one wanted to possess important relics of saints. The monks at Conques owned only second-class relics, whereas the nearby town of Agen owned the body of St. Foy, a twelve-year-old girl who had been a martyr in the 4th century under Diocletian's persecution. After being saved from martyrdom once (she was tied down to a bed with a fire under it, when a white dove arrived in the nick of time to spray a dew all over that put out the fire), she was beheaded in 303 A.D.

Recovered and hidden by Christians, the body was placed in a special basilica in Agen, and the jealous monks of Conques formed a rather unchristian plot to spirit it off to their own territory. A monk from Conques called Aronisde disguised himself as a pilgrim, and with irreproachable conduct, he insinuated himself into the monks' community at Agen, where he got himself appointed as guardian of the treasure and other relics. After ten years, he finally had his chance to steal the saint's body when the other monks were invited to a banquet for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Apparently St. Foy approved of her own kidnapping, since she appeared to Aronisde in a dream and told him she would make a spring gush forth at the place he was sleeping; sure enough, the spring appeared, and a chapel built there is still standing today. Miracles went on apace as St. Foy arrived in Conques, and a new basilica was built, which was consecrated in the middle of the 10th century, and became a main stopping place on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Today, the inhabitants of Conques are still proud of "their" saint, and of her miraculous cures for rheumatism and gout.

"But you should come back later in the year," said a local shopkeeper. "We've got special summer courses all over Rodez for people who want original holidays you can study icon painting with a Russian in one town, sculpture in another; they've got basket-weaving, tapestry, metalworking ...You can even camp out on a farmer's property. If you're a fisherman, we've got the best trout streams in France; and by the way, how do you like our food?"   In all honesty, we'll give Rouergue top marks for gastronomy.

(illustration Christian Voltz)