Paris Notes, Spring 1997

Bi-millennial diary: Paris and cultural musak

When I saw Star Wars for the first time, I remember that at a key moment, the reel broke and the theatre lights went on. People were furious and a crescendo of hooting filled the hall. Suddenly, the lights went off and musak started; and much to my amazement, everyone, me included, turned around and waited patiently for the movie to resume. My first real demonstration of the power of musak. Humiliated by my silence, I swore not to let this happen to me again.

Paris. French culture was one of the earliest to talk about the year 2000. I remember back in 1979, Le Monde ran a top of the fold headline: 1000 weeks to the year 2000. Later, the Pompidou Center put up a huge digital clock that counted the seconds to the year 2000, in the billions at first. Since france was the soil upon which the “Legend of the Year 1000″ was born, where despite all the best efforts of a professional wet-blanket school of historiography that insists that nothing unusual was going on back then, the tour guides still tell the tale of “the great donations of the terrors of 1000,” this did not surprise me. I have even told the various TV interviewers to go film the count-down clock at Beaubourg for the background to their stories on 2000.

So the first night I can, I wander by Beaubourg. The clock is not there. We ask some police nearby. “Oh, it was stolen.” “By whom?” “We don’t know, we never caught the thieves.” (Now this is strange because the clock was cemented in the ground and was hugely unwieldy, so that stealing it would involve a large truck and lots of time… and for what? “Will they replace it?” “Oh, [mou], vous savez… ˇcha.?” End of conversation. I go the next day and talk with a guard. “Yeah, they took it down when they started the renovations.” “Where is it?” “In storage at the Musˇeae de la Villette.” Do you think they’ll use it again?” “Maybe. They’re redoing the whole building over the next two years so it can open before the year 2000.”

Meantime, having uprooted their billion-second count, the authorities decided that, quand même, a countdown should exist, so pourquoi pas? Therefore, on April 6, 1997, with 1000 days to go before the year 2000, just below the second étage of the Tour Eiffel, a giant, electric-light scoreboard goes up, showing daily the countdown. 954 AVANT L’AN 2000. A piece of Fenway Park on Paris’ great nineteenth century symbol of technological power. The tacky depths of slavish cultural borrowing? The height of sardonic French chic? I’ll let Calvin and Hobbes decide. Behind the lights, though, lies a web site with intentions to address an international audience, a commission, and lots of projects in the making. The French will not miss 2000.

There is an exhibit about the Franks at the Petit Palais. The publicity hawks it’s wares: “The previous 20 years of archeology have overturned (boulversé) our understanding of the Franks, come and see the new image of our precursors.” I go with twice with medievalists. I can’t believe my eyes. The exhibits are beautiful… largely grave goods tastefully displayed on glass surfaces pressed into a fine white sand that surely reminds those who hang there of the Riviera. It is an impressive collection — an assembly of the most recent archeological discoveries largely from Germany, where the exhibit originates. The information, however, is minimal: few dates, few efforts to give the viewer a sense of where and how all this material fits together on the ground, no way for a historian (amateur or professional) who does not already know the material to judge. Cut flowers at an exhibit.

Floating through, looking at one thing after another, I am most surprised at the incredible continuity over five centuries of Frankish burial goods — the swords, helmets, spears, broaches, belts, and jewelry, pocket-knives and earrings. These people basically kept their ways for 500 years, these Frankish warriors who had come across the Rhine first as raiders, then as Roman mercenaries and generals, then as plunderers, finally as invaders, aristocratic settlers, and founders of a new, Catholic royalty that would define French political identity for almost a millennium and a half.

What do these new finds tell us about the careers of these warriors and chiefs, how do they help us understand the process whereby they grafted their culture onto the complex Gallo-Roman world they conquered, how did that effect the fate of the Roman civilization? The exhibit announces that these are just the question it wants to answer, and wastes no time in providing an answer. In the first room, surrounded by nineteenth century paintings of Merovingian scenes (which the exhibit clearly considered passé), at the entrance stands the new consensus:

What will remain of our images of invasions and violence, of Barbarians plunging the Roman Empire and its institutions in the night of decadence? The Franks, were they really these devastators and the Merovingians, rois fenéants?

This is the question [sic] this exposition on The Franks, Precursors of Europe intends to answer, proposing an ample vision of the Frankish world from the 3-8th centuries.

Archeology, throwing new light on these “barbaric” years, reveals to us today a culture and an art the inscribe themselves as a hinge between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

This passage, far from being brusk, was the result of a long, slow process during which the Franks would confer a common identity, based on Roman structures to a complex geopolitical map: Wisigoths, Burgunds, Alamans, Thuringians [NB: no mention of Gallo-Romans].

And Europe will constitute itself, not from serious ruptures, but from a long mutation, just as Gaul will become later, France under the sign of the continuity, whether it is a question of power and adminstration, of law and language, of society, of economy, of religion.

In a word, it is a process of immigration which became a successful integration that it pleases us to present in these 13 rooms of the Petit Palais.

“Right,” said my friend. “The Franks just stopped at the border, showed their immigration cards, and got them stamped by the local Gallo-roman authorities.”

This is not history; it is junior-high level catechism. It is historical musak which leaves the past, flattened, depleted, tepid. This is period when, slowly or swiftly, a whole civilization collapsed, to be replaced only half a millennium later with another at least as vigorous. Telling it without violence or rupture is like squaring the circle. Nothing dramatic, just business as usual.

I look at all those swords and wonder about all their uses — from self-defense and battle against other weapons bearers, to attack and intimidation of the unarmed (those whom our sources, sometimes sympathetically, most times contemptuously, refer to as pauperes) — about how much blood they shed, and how much they did not have to shed in order to get what their weilders could “peacefully” lay claim to. The essential tool of the Frankish state, it lies dully on that white sand, elegant, menacing, in its current condition, with rusted blades and decomposed handles under glass. Impotent. In the accompanying historical musak, there is no room for violence, for abrupt behavior. Tout se passe dans le calme. One feels oneself lectured by by people who have no imagination for evil, who can mistake a sword for a passport rather than a passe-partout.

Nor does this exhibit constitute an anomaly, either in the world of medieval academicians (who developed the exhibit), or in the world of the political leaders — Chirac and Kohl (who proudly sponsor it). The discours politique that so transparently lies beneath this painless and successful immigration is clearly a big piece of wishful thinking about the coming European Union. Nothing to fear, just neighbors integrating calmly and fruitfully.

That this political musak seeks to scaffold itself with a kind of history that projects backward what it hopes about the future is not surprising; as Gabriel Speigel has pointed out, we’ve been in search of a usable past for a very long time. Nor is it a recent marriage of convenience. On the contrary, for years now, a school of medieval historians in France and Germany have established what one might call the glacial school of history whose basic tenets this exhibition so soothingly articulates. This school attacks any historian so bold as to argue that there are moments of social crisis about which even a documentation produced by one of the most ideologically conservative elements in the population (the clergy) give us glimpses. According to this new school, the Roman Empire, for example, never fell — it was service sans interruption. (The exhibit speaks of the “villes florissantes” of the Merovingian period.) As for the French Revolution, sound and fury signifying little; and the industrial Revolution, not a revolution.

The most obvious realm in which this reinterpretation plays concerns the oeuvre of Georges Duby, whose brilliant career as a medievalist centered on identifying and analyzing a profound rupture and striking cultural mutation that, in his opinion, occurred largely in the two generations around the year 1000. This “paradigm” of a revolutionary period set the standard for the research a generation of social and cultural historians who explored the timing and location of this social transformation. But all the while, a counterwave formed, of historians ready to pick apart everyone’s work, denounce it for seeing only what the paradigm had led one to expect, and paint, again, a picture of slow adjustment, steady changes, nothing spectacular (surtout pas).

The language of the debate reflects less historical reasoning than a tone that seeks to convince by appealing to the reader’s good taste, to his or her eagerness to belong to a community of thinkers who are good philologists and bien avisés (well aware, forewarned). As for the problem of apocalyptic expectations around 1000, which Duby’s work repeatedly addressed, it is a non problem. Some even cite his seminal L’an mil as arguing against the apocalyptic interpretation of the period! “Nothing in 1000, nothing in 2000,” the historians assure le grand publique; nothing to fear. Between les cathos and les intellos, there is not much room for creative thought about the role of religion on society; and with the intense play of politics and personalities in academia, real ideas have a heavy handicap.

The result is a deflation of Duby’s eleventh century just as his name achieves the status of an icon. Duby along with Jacques Le Goff, is France’s most famous medievalist: at the pinnacled College de France, his books are instantly translated and sell like petits pains; his name carries such cachet that one book cover left off the author’s name and, alongside the title wrote, Préface de Georges Duby. Now a wonderful collection of some of his most important books (almost 1500 pages of reset text!) has come out in a format every Frenchmen with intellectual pretensions can buy. Across the top of the cover is DUBY in huge red letters; just below the title, in a small black italic: Feodalité.

Uninspiring title for the work of a man capable of such great historical imagination — it would have been stale in 1900. It turns out, the title was supposed to be La révolution féodale, a term Duby coined at the height of his period of serious synthesis. But the editor, invoking the current debate over the subject, came up with this, more neutral title. How many more readers might have found the energy to plumb its considerable depths in order to understand the discarded title’s meaning? How quickly before the series is dismissed from the realms of “serious historical discussion and relegated le grand public, that same audience to which the Frank exhibit directs its lecture. A historian of bold imagination incarcerated in his own iconic neutrality. In the meantime, the discussion limps forward, with the uninformed evenhandedly walking away with little of interest. The musak historians have won.

One could leave it at that — an insignificant historians’ quarrel. But, this historian’s debate, like the exhibit, echoes the political debate of the day. Here are the French, witnessing one of the great gambles of contemporary politics, where France’s conservative president, faced with intractable opposition to the financial cutbacks he needs to implement in order to participate in the Euro currency (and have a financial instrument whereby he can tell the Americans to go to hell), has chosen to go to the polls early, despite his plummeting popularity, so that he can subsequently wield the knife which will have the French screaming bloody murder when it is too late to hurt him at the electoral booths. In the annals of democratic politics, it stands out as a particularly transparent Machiavellian move; no one with an ounce of bon sens (common sense), that entity Descartes once noted sarcastically everyone thinks they have in sufficiency, could miss the writing on the wall.

So one might, in a place of walking and talking heads like France (where the showing of The French Connection on the TV was followed by a two-hour panel discussing its veracity), that so overt a ploy and daring a gamble might elicit some lively discussion. Not at all. On the contrary, this is the most boring, apathetic campaign in living memory. Far from a serious and imaginative discussion of what lies ahead and how to navigate the dangers, about the choices considered and choices not yet considered, it is a debate of platitudes and maneuvers, of evasive silences and winks. The knife of budget cuts lies quietly in the exhibition case, its blade sharp, its strong handle already bearing the fingerprints of he who would wield it… after the vote. It is as if both major parties wanted to close their eyes, prance gingerly through the upcoming barrier and hope that they will emerge victorious. That way they can grab the knife with little responsibility to answer to an electorate that chose them for their looks, not their program. Muddling through with political musak.

The electorate’s response, as if with the kind of collective caution that regularly produces those razor thin majorities in Israel, produces a stale-mate. Percentages are pitifully low; few candidates gain the majority they need to avoid the second round; the projections indicate a stalemated government of cohabitation. Devoid of any serious discussion, the French face the future intellectually crippled. No one here is talking about the Y2K problem (those who say they know about it assure me that it’s being taken care of); indeed, apparently no one has discussed the coming challenge of fixing the computers’ dating capacities and retooling the currencies of Europe all at the approach of 2000. The lateral thinkers are voices in the wilderness; the juggernaut of stale discourse and special interests advances.

A reporter asks a young man with a particularly cushy job at Roland Garros for the French Tennis Open how he got the job. “Eh ben, pistons [connections], like everyone else.” Reminds me of the light bulb joke about the 25 teamsters it takes to screw in a lightbulb… “You got a problem with that?” Apparently the French have no problem right now with their very own fin-de-millénaire cultural musak.

One Response to Paris Notes, Spring 1997

  1. [...] will avoid you.” (William Blake, 1796) Main Home Essays on France Paris Notes, Spring 1997 Paris Notes, Fall, 1999 Paris [...]

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