It’s wonderful when you can build relationships with places that aren’t your home.
Since leaving Bristol, we try to get back to it several times a year, not to see specific people but just to be in Bristol… just really soak in it like a hot tub.
In New Zealand we had Queenstown and Wellington as our hot tub places; locations where we would go simply to eat, get drunk, shop… maybe have a little hotel sex.
Paris is our hot tub place now.
On our last trip which was -what, my twelfth in three years?- we didn’t even see the Eiffel Tower.
In fact, we barely made it out of the third arrondissement.
Why would we?
It has our favourite bakery, our favourite square, the best places for apéro, slightly-dodgy 24-hour cocktail bars with attractive, flirty waitstaff that will serve you “off menu” drinks in test tubes once it hits 2am on a rainy Sunday night while you watch and cheer minor traffic accidents happening mere metres from your table. (Good times!)
Our one trip out of the hot tub hood that wasn’t for shopping reasons was to visit the Musée National du Moyen Age. I had high hopes as it appeared in some travel article or other about “things to do in Paris for people who know Paris”. Unfortunately the subtitle should have been “who aren’t already massive museum nerds”. Because clearly I am.
And it was fine as far as museums go. Definitely worth a stop if you’re
- On a Eurotrip
- You love you some Middle Ages
- Are for some reason missing Berlin, London, York or Rome. (Your travel plans should perhaps be revisited if this is the case.)
Or if, like me, you have wanted to see a particular tapestry for almost twenty years without realising it. Because I hadn’t spent a single second looking into it, I didn’t know La Dame à la licorne was all housed in the one place. But it is!
It’s not only housed, but housed well. The rest of the museum was too fin de siècle for my tastes. Glass cabinets, creaky wooden floors, substandard dusting. Like most of the continental museums I have been to, ideas of how they assume visitors consume information haven’t changed in about a century.
However, The Lady and the Unicorn is housed in a darkened, semicircular room with the five senses around the circumference and À Mon Seul Désir along the diameter. Inside is a French-speaking guide who does her thing every few minutes for groups.
Now, my French is juuuuust not-shit enough to understand this guide. Or at least get the gist of her presentation. Particularly when she says “some of the animals would have been well known to Flemish hunting parties” and “nobody quite knows the real (“vrai”) meaning of the tapestry.”
Well I’ll take a stab at it.
The lion and the unicorn are strength and mercy. À Mon Seul Désir is the gnostic renunciation of the five mortal senses that belong to the world of the Demiurge, which is why she is clearly putting away her precious things. The tapestry is a (word invention alert) kabbalo-gnostic allegory of the spiritual journey. Also… six tapestries, six points on the Star of David. By the way, this was discovered in a completely different castle from the one in which it was made, centuries after the fact. Who’s to say it wasn’t hung in a hexagonal room? Would the sequence make more sense if we thought of it like that?
The whole thing is about balance and spiritual focus and the qualities required to free yourself from the mortal plane. Especially as la Dame is unnamed, which presumably makes her the human soul. (If you want the biggest commission, always name the minor royal you immortalise in tapestry.)
Thing of it is… meanings drift. In the Middle Ages it was believed that only a virgin could tame a unicorn. This is a mythic statement that points at an idea that doesn’t plug in well with our finite expectations. The tapestry guide is looking for the “real” ie singular and true understanding of the tapestry.
But our ancestors weren’t confined by such a binary “is it or isn’t it” meaning. They could layer. In our minds we can go from purity to virginity to mercy to passivity.
(Sidebar: The Danish throne was once made out of “unicorn horns” which were probably narwhal horns. Think about that kabbalistically. Also, do you think the Danes thought they were “real” unicorn horns and do you think it mattered to them?)
But could I say any of this to the assembled crowd of French schoolkids? Obviously I couldn’t say it to them in French, but I mean would I not sound completely insane if I tried to make this case without a context they clearly lack?
Instead I just smile.
And it’s the smile of a wizened, patient old grandmother -which is in every way my polar opposite. The universe is hiding in plain sight. She is dangling the tools of creation before your very eyes. But you must have the eyes to see them.
Part of this is magic’s ongoing reclamation of our “true” place in the narrative of European history. Which is something we really need to put pressure on.
There’s a great series on the BBC at the moment called The Queen’s Palaces. During the first episode, about Buckingham Palace (obviously), the presenter refers to the various objets the Prince Regent took from Carlton House to Buckingham Palace once he had finally pimped it to his liking. The Prince Regent, you see, apparently “loved science” and as evidence of this fact, the presenter shows us a truly stunning, gilded mechanical clock designed to precisely measure astrological times and planetary alignments.
Gah! He didn’t love science, the fat, lazy, arrogant, selfish fuck loved magic, dammit!
Which brings us neatly to the second half of my “unicorn revelation”.
It’s something Jason has been musing on. Given how much the meaning of the term has drifted, is it even worth using the word magic?
During the Regency, the Prince would never have used the word magic to describe his interests. Why would he? The term ‘Natural Philosopher’ was still in common and approved usage -and it means the same damn thing!
Elementary, dear Gordon
It’s on the last day while we’re wandering around buying the last few bits of food before heading off to catch the Eurostar that I find something I want in a comic store just down from our little hotel:
Sherlock Holmes and the vampires of London. This lunatic, drug-addicted, Victorian homosexual, the fictional Richard Dawkins of the early twentieth century had -one hundred plus years later- crossed the channel and become the hero of a French comic book about vampires.
And not just vampires! I also got the Necronomicon one. (So that’s the work of an American horror writer meeting an Edwardian homosexual lunatic in a French comic book set in between Paris, London and Antarctica. Suck it Tintin, you boring, useless, genital-free, closet case catamite!)
It’s impossible to find an English character who more perfectly epitomises all the things the French despise about the English: the class system, the arrogance, believing one is always right, the horrible confidence that yours is the “correct” way of doing things, a mistreatment of the lower classes, dilettantism… tweed.
Honestly, I would sooner expect to see The Doctor in a bande dessinée.
Except, of course, that The Doctor is still in copyright and the BBC has previously been known to crack down on fans who knit copyright shapes from the show.
Sherlock is out of copyright. He is anyone’s, now. Sherlock can drift.
Drift like magic.
So I buy and read the book. Yes, it’s Sherlock, but it’s Sherlock through French eyes. He narrates more, he writes in his diary more, he overuses metaphors about how his emotions compare to the sea more. (Any French lit folk out there will feel me. Fucking camp, man.) It’s still set in London but it’s the Edwardian ideal of pure rationality versus the Gothic notions of the unknown in the head of a French reader.
Here’s the amazing Karen Armstrong on God:
The human idea of God has a history, since it always means something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points in time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context…
Interestingly, in The Bible: The Biography, Armstrong makes the point that Biblical literalism only came into being AFTER the scientific revolution. Amusingly, The globally embarrassing fruit storm that is the Republican party picked up it’s HPV vaccine fear from the great grandparents of the vaccine’s inventors: Biblical literalism is a side effect of the manic scientific need to have a binary understanding of the world: Did this happen or not? Is this real or not?
It wasn’t always thus. Our ancestors knew better. Armstrong again:
Despite its otherworldliness, religion is highly pragmatic. We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed – sometimes for something radically different. This did not disturb most monotheists before our own day because they were quite clear that their ideas about God were not sacrosanct but could only be provisional. They were entirely manmade -they could be nothing else- and quite separate from the indescribable Reality they symbolized. Some developed quite audacious ways of emphasizing this essential distinction. One medieval mystic went so far as to say that this ultimate Reality -mistakenly called “God”- was not even mentioned in the Bible.
So God it out. Unicorns are out. Sherlock Holmes is out.
But ‘magic’? ‘Witchcraft’? We still use these words. Jason hasn’t so far called out the people that use these words for the reasons I think they use them today.
And I won’t either. Not because I’m afraid to share my opinion (“you dress and act like that because of your own issues, not because a Greek god waited 2500 years for you to be born in the outskirts of Toronto, Canada before issuing new sartorial commands to humanity”. See?) but because it fragments into a thousand thousand different opinions depending on each person it touches.
- What are your objectives?
- Do you value personal psychological comfort over worldly success?
- Do you want fans, friends or followers?
- If you want legitimacy, act legitimate. It’s nobody’s business what else you do unless you make it their business.
- What’s the fucking payoff, man? Most of you will freely admit that the vast majority of magics are Jedi Mind Tricks. Why not say that to the muggles who ask with all sincerity and no ulterior motive?
Which… coming back to it… is Jason’s point. Yes, yes, the magical great and the good have important quasi-political goals that dovetail in with other interests but… but….
Why are we using words that have drifted so far as to be almost useless when dealing with the majority of mankind? If you’re in a debate and you are clearly losing because your opponent isn’t grasping the concepts you’re trying to demonstrate wouldn’t you switch up your words?
What it boils down to, in a Dr Phil way, is what you want the most:
- Do you want to be best understood?
- Or are you seeking some attention?
Both are valid goals to be sure, as far as they go. The former will ultimately bring you greater understanding and personal happiness in life.
The latter is why the life jacket under your seat has a whistle.