This essay was originally published in Home Away (Zebra Press, 2010), edited by Louis Greenberg. Sadly, the book is being remaindered, an all too common fate for books in South Africa. “Paris, a kiss” is a companion piece, covering the same period and event.
For two weeks during July 1994, I was one of six aspirant black South African writers on a fiction workshop with Denis Hirson, a South African writer by then established in Paris for more than twenty years. The other writers were Joan Baker, Sipho Mahlobo, Isaac Mogotsi, Roshila Nair and Mango Tshabango. Sponsored in its entirety (travel, accommodation, stipend) by the French Ministry of Culture, the workshop included five or so days in Paris – staying with Parisian families, doing readings at two bookshops. But the main part – the workshop proper – took place at Royaumont Abbey, close to a small village thirty-plus kilometres north of Paris.
Royaumont Abbey (l’Abbaye Royale de Royaumont ) was a Cistercian abbey built during the thirteenth century under the patronage of Louis XIV, who was also a frequent visitor there. Legend has it that the king used to ‘attend’ Mass by sitting at a window that looked in on the church from an adjacent first-floor room sharing a wall with the abbey church, most probably a room that was part of the king’s suite (and the very room in which we conducted our daily workshops). Following the revolution of 1789, however, the monks gradually abandoned the place.
In 1791, according to the Royaumont Foundation’s website, a certain Marquis of Travanet bought the abbey and installed a cotton mill in the refectory. Needing stone for the mill workers’ quarters, and in an era when people did not care much for Gothic architecture any more, Travanet had the abbey church destroyed. The story I heard from one of the officials of the cultural centre then based at Royaumont was that Travanet had it pulled down, literally: the columns were cut and 600 oxen harnessed to pull at them.
By the late 1800s, though, newer owners started restoration work on the remaining complex, removing the machinery from the refectory. In the early-twentieth century, the property was again sold, to the Goüin family, who eventually established the Royaumont Foundation in 1964, France’s first private cultural foundation.
Known since 1990 as the Centre de Poésie et Traduction, cultural work at Royaumont then consisted mainly of translating poetry from all over into French, work the centre saw as enriching French literature. These translation workshops frequently also accommodated the original writer working for extended periods with his or her translators. (I am unsure whether this tradition continues.) During our stay, there was also a group of Seagram’s Canadian managers on a team-building stay with their French counterparts, a privilege of accommodation reserved for the foundation’s corporate sponsors.
Part of the abbey had by then been converted into accommodation for visitors to the centre, a kitchen, dining room, lounge (a long, cavernous, vaulted hall on the ground floor), rooms of various sizes for the guests and so on – a small hotel with a curious but human mix of the ancient and the modern. My room, for instance, was monkish in that the bare, medieval stonewalls had been retained, furnishing was simple (but not uncomfortable), with possibly early-twentieth-century wardrobe, desk, chair and bed. But in the corner, squared off by glass, was a very modern toilet – with a grinder as part of the flushing mechanism – and a luxurious shower. In addition to the bedrooms upstairs, there were also administrative offices and seminar rooms, the one in which we held our workshop (and from which Louis XIV overlooked Mass) being large, with a long, dark table and a piano.
While there was no translation workshop in session while we were there, there was an ensemble of musicians, Sail D’Escola, rehearsing for a tour of France. The director was John Wright, a Briton by then resident in France for more than twenty years and specialising in medieval troubadour music. The story is that Wright, having felt that contemporary replicas of wind and string instruments used by medieval music ensembles were not faithful recreations, had spent years researching medieval visual art – if I remember correctly – and redesigning these instruments. Rethinking them, really. At Royaumont, his ensemble was thus preparing for a tour which would give these new replicas their first public outings.
I was astounded. I was astounded by a certain crazy bohemian aspect to it – the ensemble gathered musicians from many parts of Europe, musicians who, in the glimpses I caught of them when our breaks coincided, appeared carefree, laughing, smoking over coffees, sharing a bonhomie which had as its source a common interest in an obscure art. Medieval music, surely, existed on a plane at remarkable tangent to ‘the real world’, more so than contemporary art, and more so for an aspirant South African writer coming of age in the crucible of those one-dimensional ‘form versus content’ wars of the late 1980s. But I was more astounded by the absolute dedication that must lie behind such a project, the sense of dedication made more acute by virtue of the apparently obscure art. To my mind, that dedication made the project transcendent.
I had had other, prior encounters with the transcendent in Paris. Because our time in the city was limited, I decided against the more obvious tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre; the latter in any case requires more time than a day’s visit, and I wasn’t keen on traipsing around a crowded art museum grabbing only glimpses of paintings over the heads of other tourists. Getting lost in Paris on the first day, I had already stumbled upon Notre Dame Cathedral, the one thing I wanted to see because I was captivated by the idea of Gothic cathedral architecture – the marriage of grand theory, in this case theology, and architecture. It was enough to just circle that behemoth.
Gauging my interests quickly and sharply, Camille, my host for the few days I was in the city, suggested I visit the Paris Catacombs and Sainte-Chapelle. The Catacombs were originally underground limestone and plaster quarries, of which an extensive network runs underneath Paris. This particular section was converted into a municipal ossuary during the late-eighteenth century as Paris expanded and conventional cemeteries became overcrowded. Initially intended for the remains from the Cemetery of the Innocents, of which pre-modern burial practices, together with overcrowding, then had been linked to disease in the Les Halles district, skeletal remains from all over Paris were eventually deposited there up until the nineteenth century. Lining the tunnels are mainly major appendicular bones, packed neatly on top of each other – as one would make a wood pile – and in some places forming a wall of bones more than a metre, or several femurs, thick, and running for some distance along the tunnels. In some places there might be a messy heap of skulls and bones; in other places skulls and femurs are set in the walls among other bones as the well-known skull-and-crossbones icon. It is a macabre, disorientating attraction. You descend twenty metres into a chilly environment (fourteen degrees Celsius) and walk for almost two kilometres along these tunnels endlessly lined with bones, to ascend and emerge streets away from where you entered, the sunlight in summer in sharp contrast to the literal and figurative gloom of the catacombs. Emerging is like being reborn. But being reborn into an enthralling estrangement: negotiating a small purchase with ten words of French in an Arab-owned shop. But hearing also Arabic in the street outside – familiar to me because of childhood madressa in South Africa. Or, because of my lack of French, but using a few words with a street vendor at another time, being mistakenly thought of as Italian. For a few moments I felt suspended outside of history, even as it was history itself that caused this suspension via its conjoining of the disparate: an out-of-body experience because the body was somewhere else.
But it was Sainte-Chapelle that enthralled me most. Also on l’île de la Cité – the island in the Seine that is the centre of Paris – Saint-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) is a short walk from Notre Dame Cathedral. It was commissioned by Saint Louis (Louis IX) during the thirteenth century to serve as chapel and reliquary to the royal palace complex (now the Palace of Justice) on the west side of the island. Among the many relics that Louis IX hoped to house at Sainte-Chapelle were Jesus Christ’s Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the ‘True Cross’. Much smaller than Notre Dame Cathedral, which took 182 years to construct, Sainte-Chapelle was completed in only six years: 1242 to 1248. Being both royal chapel and reliquary for some of the most revered Christian relics, Louis IX and his architect, Pierre de Montereau, spared no cost in building it.
The fame of Sainte-Chapelle comes from its beautiful stained-glass windows, a marvel of light and colour and astoundingly delicate, especially when one considers, from our vantage point in the twenty-first century, its construction and decoration in an era of severe technological limitation. Beyond the hypothetical transcendence its Christian theology promised to its builders and churchgoers, beyond its architectural inspiration lying in the idea that the chapel/building should be emblematic of the light of God, should embody the notion of the Christian God as a source of light and thereby lead the visitor to the transcendence offered by that God, beyond all this I found the transcendent more in the human habit of overcoming the limitations of history. How human ingenuity can transcend both physical and aesthetic limits. The maker of the first shell necklace or the first arrow – what went through their minds when they happened upon the idea to drill a hole in a small shell and string several shells together, or to shape a shaft and give it flight? How is it possible, for instance, in an era that didn’t know the steam engine or an engine-driven winch, that didn’t know digital laser etching, to have produced an artefact that, 800 years of immense technological advancement later, can still astound?
So, Sainte-Chapelle represented transcendence on several levels: its own theological theory of Christian transcendence, the artefact’s transcendence beyond its own historical and religious context, and the secular but aesthetic transmutation of labour into a thing of beauty. Finally, it represents the possibility of transcendence, the possibility that despite the limits of a historical condition, those conditions can be transcended.
And yet, there is the cost of the labour – the masons and peasant labourers who must have suffered great deprivation for the sake of their royalty’s glory and for the glory of their royalty’s God. What does one do with this kind of transcendence that cannot escape history?
* * *
I cannot recall whether it was a dress rehearsal open to the public, or whether it was the actual, official premier of Wright’s instruments, but on the morning of 10 July, our cohort of writers was offered complimentary tickets to the concert. I know next to nothing about medieval chanson, nor can I remember all the detail, but the ensemble was made up of probably fifteen to twenty people; it was in what used to be the refectory, now a sunlit hall. Some of the songs were definitely in Latin, some perhaps in medieval French. For me the best remembered was a Spanish song, addressing a companero, and in tone shifting from playful teasing to romantic comedy, despair, anger and heartbreaking lament. Even though I did not understand Spanish, the shifts in tone, together with the singer’s facial expressions and body language indicated a song that recalled a lost lover through the stages of a romance. And, becoming something of an objective correlative for me (where, as TS Eliot would have it, an image is invested with some intensity of emotion) was the image of the singer: a dark-haired woman, dressed in a full red dress, and illuminated by a shaft of sunlight against a backdrop of earth-coloured stone, lamenting a lost love and companion.
The concert seemed to have been a success. Sometime after ten that evening – perhaps later; dinner was served late in France – as we were having our after-dinner drinks and coffees in the large hall serving as lounge, a large faction of the musicians noisily bounded in past us and colonised the seating at the far end of the hall, where there was also a carambole billiard table. Loud and boisterous, the musicians were in a good mood. Some had their ‘medieval’ instruments with them. Sooner or later, they started jamming, playing contemporary folk music on these instruments.
Our serious literary conversation was at an end; we couldn’t compete with the jovial noise from the other end and kept on glancing – jealously? – at the musicians. Perhaps on his way to or from the tuckshop, whereby he had to pass us seated close to the entrance, one of musicians exchanged a few words in French with Denis, and then invited us all to come and join them. With the better part of dinner’s Bourdeaux in me and perhaps suffering from national claustrophobia, from the familiar, I grabbed at the invitation. I can’t remember exactly, but only a few of my compatriots joined: Denis for a short while, maybe some others, but Sipho Mahlobo and I stayed on.
Conversation was impossible. The musicians spoke French, German or Spanish, some of them only one of the three languages so that some of the musicians couldn’t communicate with each other. And neither Sipho nor I spoke any French, German or Spanish. But there was music, sometimes free jamming, on these invaluable instruments. Folk music from different parts of Europe, and at one point I was convinced that I heard even an Arabic melodic curlicue in a song. Someone passed us a large tambourine, an instrument with apparent roots in Persia (from the etymology of ‘tambourine’) and historically common to many places through the ages. My rhythm had escaped me and Sipho did better with the instrument.
Soon, people grew thirsty, but the kitchen and bar were closed. Someone would urge night reception to open the now-closed but notoriously expensive tuckshop for beers double their normal price. A collection brought forth four bottles of beers’ worth of francs. While we waited for the beers, the music kept on. One musician rooted around in his jacket pockets looking for a cigarette. A few minutes later I caught a glimpse of him crumbling something small and dark brown onto a piece of foil, holding his lighter flame underneath it, and then pouring drops of dark liquid over fine shag in a cigarette paper.
I had never had hashish before; or I had never had the opportunity to try it, while I had had fair experience with marijuana. As drugs go, hashish, like marijuana, doesn’t register much on the scale of social approbation. In fact, sitting in a medieval abbey, with a bohemian bunch of musicians jamming on medieval instruments, and the joint-roller not doing much to hide his activity, all normalised the hashish. Or perhaps the imminent hashish – the fact that a hash joint would soon be making the rounds – added to an already euphoric atmosphere: the music, the happy musicians, the few beers being shared among many, the failed but human attempts at verbal communication.
But I was still in a foreign place and I didn’t know the supplier, the one rolling the joint. When it was passed to me, I asked, part innocently, part jokingly, but also partly suspicious: What is it? The person passing it smiled and shrugged, as if to say: I don’t know, or who knows? Who cares?
So I took a few curious tokes, keeping to the etiquette of smoking marijuana, avoiding the slightest suggestion of Bogarting and passing it on quickly. Then I lit a cigarette and sat back, listening to the music. Soon, the hashish washed over me, increasing the euphoria, heightening the senses. The few sips of beer in my glass cool and refreshing, the music suddenly like a time machine into the Middle Ages, and the tambourine again in my hand strangely now finding an appropriate and approved rhythm. Or did some smiling musicians nod at my tambourine because they too were stoned? And could not gauge my rhythm? Or they could, but in the name of bonhomie smiled and approved?
What do I look for in this moment of happenstance euphoria, where, once over my paranoia, I felt as if I were surfing a wave both literal and mystical?
The warmth of romance. And a realisation of what it could mean to be fully human. Suddenly, the distance from apartheid-ridden South Africa was more than literal. My Romantic self could be forgiven for forgetting that the enclosed space of the abbey was far from the very racial antagonisms internal to France and the rest of Europe itself, and of which Denis was compelled to remind me. But in this enclosed space, in both the disjuncture – between the pre-modern and the modern – and the conjuncture of same, and the conjuncture also of geography and cultures, and the high and the low, the sober and the stoned, I felt a moment of transcendence. Perhaps it was my own romance with a one-sided image of France at once pre-empting and, once there in the cocoon of Royaumont, an ideal space, an ideal France, confirming itself; or a romance that none of my limited experience there could disappoint. Perhaps it was a romance I didn’t want disappointed. Perhaps it was simply drug-induced, but beyond hashish – in a workshop exercise I had experienced an instance of imaginative transportation in the act of writing and thought of it as stronger than LSD. Perhaps I was making a fetish of transcendence, but, having come of age during states of emergency, when the effective militarisation of day-to-day life created an atmosphere of oppressive fear and paranoia, perhaps transcendence – the escape from a particular history – was bound to be a fetish for me.
But, then again, why should a moment’s re-humanisation matter to my memory? Why should my memory turn these distant moments into fetishes of transcendence? What pathology embraces the past as fetish? ‘Somewhere in our past / we believed in the future’ states the speaker in the opening lines of Kelwyn Sole’s poem ‘Housing targets’. That future has mutated into our present loveless present, where hope or the possibility of transcendence – even the idea of transcendence – is lost, as if we have leapt forward to somewhere in our past, somewhere before we believed in a future, when the future was still lost. It is a pathology of the homeless, the un-humanised, trying to arrest time before the storm from Paradise and ‘progress’ blows us face-down into the debris of the past. Where Walter Benjamin would thus have his Angel of History – facing the wreckage of the past, with its back turned to progress blowing in from Paradise – we have the Demon of History.