Aug 13, 2019
My parents have been friends with the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova since shortly after my father first started teaching in the United Kingdom. They met her when she was a young single mother living in exile. It was the early 1980s and she was a political dissident who had fled the Communist East for the relative freedom of the West. While she was not a fan of the Marxist-Leninist Stalinist regime in her own country, she was no advocate for Thatcher’s Britain either. She spent most of her time making photographs of working-class people who were on the edge of British society and threatened by neoliberalism.
Her most famous photography from the 1970s and 1980s is her series on the performers, hustlers, street people, and vendors who made up the community of Spitalfields Market. Her photography of them earned her praise from, and friendship with, John Berger. It also provided an important document, an artifact of historical memory, that attested to the diversity of human culture under threat from the neoliberal vision—musicians who made their own eccentric instruments, cobblers who handmade quality shoes in their shops not as luxury goods but as necessities for workers, and people regularly creating, rather than consuming, their own culture around rubbish can fires and wooden crates.
It was fitting, then, that we met Marketa for dinner at St. John Bread and Wine opposite Spitalfields. St. John’s might be my favorite restaurant anywhere. I will write about our meal in my London restaurant round-up. For now, I’ll focus on the conversation. Marketa is always illuminating. She is always thinking, feeling, trying to understand her own aesthetic, considering what it means to be an artist, how her medium enables her to see the world, always seeking the spiritual dimension—which for her always has a deeply political element to it, even if the politics are never explicitly stated. They’re there in her subject matter and her framing.
Marketa brought perhaps a fifty test prints from her ongoing series on a Czech carnival that she’s been shooting for nineteen years. Here was her first insight, there is much to be gained by returning to a subject and community year after year—depth of relationship, sensitivity to change over time, and not a bit of self-discovery. And that’s where she offered a second insight, there’s often an emotional disconnect between when she does her strongest work and how she’s feeling. She confessed that she didn’t particularly enjoy this year’s carnival. Over the last two decades it has grown from perhaps eighty people to over five thousand. Going this year was, for her, kind of a miserable experience—too many people observing, not participating, not wearing masks, making a spectacle of the whole thing. And yet, when she started to review her test prints, she realized that she had taken some of the strongest photographs of the carnival yet. Conversely, she confessed, that when she is feeling euphoric, carried away by the joyous feeling of the crowd, she often takes photographs that are not particularly good. Her own internal euphoria often causes her to misjudge what she’s doing—to think it is better than it is.
I can relate. I usually hate my sermons before I preach them. Often, it is the texts that turn out to be my best work—texts that get anthologized, republished in magazines, or assigned in college courses—that I have most negative reactions to prior to preaching. I suspect that is because that when I do my best work, I am deeply emotionally connected to it and this makes me aware of its flaws rather than its strengths just as I am about to put it out in the world.
I know that I am not alone in this. Not only does Marketa’s experience resonate with mine, but I have had a few conversations with my friend Titonton Duvante over the years on the subject. Titonton has been a techno innovator for almost thirty years. When he is really on, really connected with what he is doing, he is amongst the best electronic musicians out there. I have listened to a few thousand DJ and live sets over the last twenty-five plus years and some of Titonton’s are among the most memorable. But here’s the thing, he’s told me that there’s an exact relation between how nervous he feels, how anxious he is, and how good his performance ends up being. If he’s really nervous, on the verge of losing it nervous, then almost he inevitably offers a masterful performance. If not, then not.
Clearly there’s something about the emotional investment an artist has in their art—and preachers are, amongst other things, artists—that is closely correlated to their artistic production.
Back to Marketa... While we were together, she talked a bit about her recent show at the Tate and her upcoming show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. She and my parents had an extended conversation, which I won’t relate, about the various economic challenges artists face. And she shared that last year she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal from the Czech government. Of course, Marketa had a story about Jan Masaryk.
Her grandmother loved Jan Masaryk, thought he was a humane, sensible, and cultured leader. When the Stalinists seized power, they threw Jan Masaryk out of a window. He died. Marketa was four and she remembers her grandmother being completely distraught, sobbing, over and over again, “They’ve killed Masaryk. They’ve killed Masaryk.”
She told me that when she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal she thought of her grandmother. She imagined her smiling down from heaven on that day, proud of her granddaughter who had resisted the Stalinists and was now being honored with a medal named for a political leader who she had admired.
Spitalfields has changed. The street culture that Marketa photograph is entirely gone—washed away by upmarket shops and good. The cobblers who handmade shoes for the working poor have been replaced by boutique stores that sell fancy shoes, still handmade, to the affluent. Neoliberalism has succeeded in destroying so much of the vibrancy and power of the working-class throughout not just Britain, but the world. And yet, there’s something about Marketa’s story of her grandmother and the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal. It isn’t about anything as quaint as triumph of good over evil or the inevitable collapse of totalitarian regimes or anything else that I might find truly comforting. It has more to do with the power of perseverance and the truth that the future is always unwritten and that resistance, in some for another, continues. And that there is great power to be found in preserving, through stories, through photographs, in all the forms we can. We create records of resistance, memories and stories, so that, even after its defeat—for Jan Masaryk was certainly defeated—our resistance might continue to inspire future resistance to tyranny.
Aug 12, 2019
originally published on http://firstuu.org on August 2, 2019
I am writing my letter this month from the small village of Sers. Sers is located in the southwest of France in the Cognac region. Asa and I are here with my parents and our family friends, the French artists Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. Gilles is an amazing photographer and I highly recommend you check out his web site. Nicole is a writer and the two of them have collaborated on several beautiful books, a few of which are available in English and one of which they even worked on with my father.
Sers is very beautiful. It consists of perhaps a hundred buildings, almost all erected before the twentieth-century. The village’s real gem is its eleventh-century church. Its ancient stones exude a sense a calming quiet, especially when they are blessed by the sun.
Throughout my vacation I have been feeling quite blessed myself. I am deeply appreciative of the work of First Unitarian Universalist’s staff in my absence. I am equally grateful for the congregation’s lay leaders. Together everyone’s support has meant that I have been able to enjoy my vacation knowing that the important work of the congregation is continuing in my absence. As I wrote in my column last month, the vision and work of the congregation happens because of its members, for ministers come and go. Who knows how many priests have come and gone from the village church in Sers over the last thousand years?
Over the course of my vacation I have been using some of my free time to keep an (almost) daily blog. You can read it at www.colinbossen.com. I’ve mainly focused on art and politics. If you’re interested in art you might be interested in my posts on Libuse Jarcovjakova, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the Musee d’Orsay. As for politics, you might like to check out my posts on the French Right, the purpose of the Far Left, and the state of the French Left (which benefited from a conversation I had while visiting First Unitarian Universalist’s own John Ambler in Paris cafe).
Mostly, I have been using my vacation time to prepare myself for our coming year together. The staff and I have planned a year-long series of services designed to move the congregation through the transitional work of casting something of a new vision for yourselves. These services will be interwoven with an effort to develop religious resources for Unitarian Universalists to confront humanity’s interlinked cultural, ecological, economic, political, and, ultimately, spiritual crises.
We will start with these services in September. In August, I will be leading three services at the Museum District. The first of these, on August 11th, will be a Question Box service. It will be an opportunity for you to ask me questions about the life of the congregation, Unitarian Universalism, religion in general, or anything else that’s on your hearts. Board President Carolyn Leap will be asking me the questions as part of a dialogue between the congregation’s lay and ordained leadership. It will be an unusual service and I am really looking forward to it!
On August 18th, again at the Museum District, we will be using the service to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in what is now the United States. It is a date that is as a central to the country’s history as the start of American Revolution and it is important that we observe it as a religious community. The legacy of slavery continues to shape the United States, and challenge our spiritual lives, in so many significant, and disturbing ways.
At the Museum District, on August 25th we will be celebrating our annual Water Communion and Ingathering. It is a lovely way to reconnect after the summer and I am looking forward to this special service.
I haven’t mentioned the services at Thoreau in my letter because I understand that in July the Board decided that for months of August and September Thoreau will be following its own worship calendar. And so, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be updating everyone on worship plans for that campus in his final letter to the congregation.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon. In the meantime, I close, as always with a bit of poetry. In this case, it’s John Tagliabue’s “With sun hats we meet out in the country”:
In the flying and shaking world
some flowers of Money steady us
so we become monarchs of the skies;
he has mentioned magnificence quietly
and now to the flowering Moment
we send the summer Salutation.
Aug 7, 2019
London is the city that looms largest in my childhood. I spent almost every summer of my youth here and have many memories about time in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Camden Town, and so many other places. I remember going to the theater and seeing Dustin Hoffman in the Merchant of Venice and both Starlight Express and Les Miserables with the original London casts. I remember staying in a flat several summers in a row near Michael Palin’s place on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I never saw the Monty Python member, but I did pass by the Laurel and Hardy statues he had outside his home on numerous occasions. And I remember playing in parks with my brother and enjoying British television—Doctor Who and Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder on the BBC—and, most of all, British comic books.
My brother and I were huge fans of the fortnightly 2000 AD. When we were kids, we could get it at almost any newsstand. My parents bought us copies to keep us happy while they spent time with their friends at the local pubs. Each summer when we would stock up on as many copies as we could before we went back to Michigan. Through 2000 AD we were first introduced to writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. We also became familiar with the comic’s tradition of dystopian political critique and techno skepticism.
I was excited to introduce my son to 2000 AD when we arrived in London. I went to look for a copy in the Gatwick airport only to discover that newsstands don’t carry it anymore. When I was a child it was so ubiquitous that many of the longstanding comic book shops in London refer to it in their store names. Camden Town’s excellent shop Mega City Comics is a direct reference to 2000 AD’s disturbing vision that in the future the vast majority of humanity will crowd into a handful of urban conglomerations. But now Marvel and DC seem to have largely pushed out the independent, and political, 2000 AD. So it was to Mega City Comics that I ultimately had to go to buy a solid set of 2000 ADs. I bought a run of the most recent issues and another run of issues from the early 1990s.
On my way out of the store the clerk told me, “Many Happy Future Shocks to You.” The phrase is a reference to the short vignettes that appear throughout the comics—brief stories with surprise endings. They are creative and often push one to imagine a horrifying, totalitarian, future, as something that might be on the horizon. When I was a child, the comics usually celebrated the plucky bands of misfits and outsiders who struggled against thinly veiled illustrations of futuristic version of Thatcher’s Britain.
The clerk’s invocation of the classic phrase got me to thinking about how much London has changed since I was a kid. In many ways, the future of environmental degradation and rising totalitarianism that some of those 1980s comics warned about appears to have arrived—perhaps partially in the form of a corporate monoculture that won’t stock subversive comics. In other ways, London still feels like a familiar city in a familiar world. Pock marks from German ordnance still line the edge of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tube is still way too hot in the summer. Double decker buses are still a really fun way to travel. A bits of Victorian, or even Roman, Britain keep popping up in unexpected places. I suppose that’s the way cities, and countries, are, the shocking future comes but often it overlays, rather than entirely replaces, whatever existed before.
Aug 6, 2019
I have a great number of memories associated with whiskey, particularly scotch whiskey. My father became a scotch aficionado through the efforts of his late friend the Scottish photographer Murray Johnston. When I was nine or ten years old the two of them took me out one night to pub in Edinburgh that specialized in scotch. I remember staring up at the rows upon rows of hundreds of different kinds of scotchs as the two of them rambled on about photography. I have no idea why I was with them or what I did while they talked. I suspect that they were watching me while Murray’s wife Kate and my mother caught up.
Whatever the case, scotch has always been a deeply gendered drink in my family. My ex-wife hates it and my mother typically only tastes it. During my parents’ dinner parties there usually comes a point in the evening when the gathering divides along gendered lines—the men assemble to drink whiskey and the women, well, I am not actually certain what the women drink, port or armagnac or calvados or something.
Over the decades, Cadenhead’s scotch has been the second most special digestif served at these parties (the prize of most special belonged to a case of pre-Prohibition rye whiskey, now sadly gone, that someone found boarded up in the basement of a New York apartment building). Cadenhead’s is an independent bottler. They basically go around Scotland and buy casks of scotch which they then age further and bottle themselves.
Cadenhead’s has a storefront in Edinburgh. We go to it whenever we are there. They used to let you taste whiskey straight out of the cask, which was an amazing, if somewhat intoxicating experience. My father arranged for a whiskey tasting for me there the summer I turned 21. And last time I was in Scotland with him we went, and they bottled the scotch straight from the cask for us.
Scotland isn’t on the itinerary for this summer’s trip. Fortunately, Cadenhead’s has a London store. My father and I went while my mother and son slept in. Cadenhead’s London location is near the Baker St. station with its Sherlock Holmes statue. It’s on a street of very tony shops—something like the Marais in Paris but with significantly less grit.
The shop consists of three rooms—two rooms displaying wares and a third for storage. Unfortunately, they don’t sell scotch from the cask anymore. Apparently, the same government that is devoted to Brexit is also devoted to heavily regulating the whiskey business. They made it illegal for Cadenhead’s to bottle in the store and so they can’t offer tastes from the cask anymore.
They still give tastes and guidance. They also offer political commentary. One of the staff members referred to the current administration in the United States as the Fourth Reich and complained bitterly about Brexit and Boris Johnson. He told me that US trade policies have resulted in the cost American whiskey skyrocketing. And he showed me a bottle of 8-year-old Wild Turkey that he had on sale for 85 pounds, not because it was any good but because distributors can’t sell it in the UK anymore.
I love peaty scotches—my ex-wife described the scotch I like as tasting like dirt—and his colleague helped me select some. I bought three bottles: a bottle of the Islay that Cadenhead’s distilled themselves, a bottle of Old Ballantruan, and a bottle of 14-year Benrinnes that Cadenhead’s bottled themselves. The last bottle came from a cask of 264 bottles. It was final bottle they had for sale and they assured me it was good. So, I bought it, the last bottle 14-year Benrinne in the country. I am not claiming it super special, but it has a nice story behind it and, because it is Cadenhead’s, I know it will be good quality. I hope, though, when I serve it at a dinner party people won’t decide to self-segregate along gender lines. I suppose if they do, I have some nice cognac.
Aug 5, 2019
My parents and I had dinner in the Exmouth Market with R and S, two of their oldest friends in London—people that they’ve known for forty years. There was quite a bit of storytelling, including one episode that involved R almost being thrown into a canal in Belgium. When they told the story, I thought it was from thirty years ago. Turns out it was from about five years ago—which surprised me since my parents and their friends would have been in their late sixties or early seventies then. The basic gist is that they went out for a meal in Belgium that turned out to be quite mediocre. After the meal, there was some dispute over check. During the course of it, R unwisely told the proprietor, “Your beer is shite.” I was a little unclear on exactly why he felt this was appropriate. The proprietor apparently didn’t think it was and began backing R towards the canal they were all standing near while threatening to deposit R in it. Catastrophe was averted when my Mom and S hustled R off and my father settled up with the proprietor. It is a little hard to imagine the four of them—grizzled and opinionated—getting into a significant enough dispute that someone—presumably a good thirty or forty years younger—would threaten to deposit one of them in the nearby canal.
That story was far from the most interesting one told over the course of the evening. That honor goes to one that R and S recounted about their mutual friend, the journalist and academic Henry Clother. Henry died almost twenty years ago, earning obituaries in the Guardian and elsewhere.
I have vague memories of Henry from my youth. He loved to sail, and I remember going to see the tall ships with him. I hadn’t thought of him in more than twenty years and if it wasn’t for our dinner with R and S I probably wouldn’t have thought of him ever again. He was a notable eccentric. He never married nor had kids. His closest friend was the well known BBC commentator Margaret Howard. The two of them served as each other’s journalist review companions—one accompanying the other to the theater or a restaurant or whatever when one of them had been assigned to write a review.
Henry’s greatest eccentricity might have been connected to the flat in which he lived in London (he also owned a home in Gillingham). Apparently, it was owned by a cat.
S took great relish in describing the flat, the sight of many, I can only presume, somewhat wild parties from her and my parents not quite youth (early middle age?). It was an old Victorian flat which she repeatedly labelled “grotty.” It hadn’t been remodeled since sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. The kitchen doubled as the bathroom (in Britain the toilet is where you go do your business while the bathroom is where you bathe). There was an old claw bathtub in the middle of it. When Henry had parties, or presumably when he cooked, he put some boards on top of the tub as a makeshift counter and chopped vegetables, sliced bread, and prepared the meat.
Anyway, Henry wasn’t the owner of the flat. It belonged to a cat. Some years prior one of Henry’s equally eccentric friends had died. She had been a cat lover and organized a Society for the Protection of Cat, not cats in general, cat in particular. Specifically, the purpose of the society was to protect her cat. On the occasion of her death, the Society for the Protection of Cat became the owner of her flat. Henry was allowed to live there—rent free as I understand it—provided he saw to it that the cat was fed and received its daily injection (in addition to being, the owner of a flat, the cat was also diabetic).
It is unclear to me exactly how long Henry lived in that flat as a tenant of the cat. But it sounds like a long time—quite probably much longer than the cat itself lived.
Aug 4, 2019
News of the mass shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven came as we were getting settled in London. I experienced it differently than I would have if I had been in the United States. I felt somehow removed from it and, at the same time, numb. It is clear by now that the ruling political party in the United States has decided that these mass killings are acceptable. And it is also clear that they will continue to happen at a horrifying rate. That is, unless something changes. And I am not certain where the movement to change gun policies would come from or how it would get past what seems to be the great political power of the NRA.
Right now, I am in a country that almost never has mass shootings. In the mid-1990s, after the Dunblane Primary School Shooting, the United Kingdom put in place serious gun control legislation. Since then the country hasn’t had a mass shooting that resembles any of the mass shootings that have taken place in the United States in the last week.
This simple fact is a reminder that the continuing presence of these shootings is a result of policy decisions that political leaders in the United States make. They could choose to regulate guns differently. And they don’t. And so, the shootings continue.
UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s words capture most of the rest of my sentiments on the week’s tragedies:
We open our hearts to the people of Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton and Southhaven in compassion and heartbreak, anger and shock.
From our grief, may we find strength and courage to fight the systems that perpetuate this violence.
To that I’ll add an Amen.
Aug 3, 2019
Our trip from Sers to London involved almost every available mode of transit. Our friends drove us to the train station and we took the train to Bordeaux. We took a bus from the Bordeaux train station to the airport and then flew across the channel. Once we landed in Gatwick we caught a very expensive taxi into the center of London (the train from Gatwick to London is also expensive, it was actually the same cost either way and travelling with my parents it made sense to take the cab). And, then, of course, we walked from the taxi to our hotel. We’re staying at the hotel for one night before moving to a flat we rented for the week.
Here’s the posts I made while we were in Sers:
Aug 1, 2019
Angoulême is the largest city in the region where we’ve been staying. Over the last few days Gilles and Nicole have been showing us around. We’ve explored the Château de La Rochefoucauld and Sers. We’ve also visited a bunch of other places. Here are a few of the most interesting:
Also known as the International Comic Strip Museum, the Musée de la Bande Dessinée is located near the SNCF (high speed rail) train station. We saw a temporary exhibition on the relation between fashion and comic strips. I learned that Yves Saint Laurent made a graphic novel prior to ascending to the height of the fashion world.
The museum’s permanent collection is pretty neat too. It portrays a history of comic books (with a French focus) from the mid-19th century through the present day. As someone who was raised on Tintin comics, I appreciated the large selection of Herge’s work, much of which highlighted his early efforts at using the beloved boy reporter as a propagandist for reactionary politics and brutal colonialism.
The other big museum in town features three floors of art and artifacts that stretch from the Neolithic to the present day. The collection highlights local artists and history. The historical materials are the most intriguing part. They stretch back to perhaps two hundred thousand years before recorded history and include everything from Neanderthal and early homo sapiens skulls to surprisingly complex tools from the Iron Age.
Looking at the menhirs and (virtual) dolmen on display was something of a spiritual experience. There’s a kind of emotional resonance, maybe I should call it awe, that I feel when I think about the ancient human urge to create systems of meaning. These giant stones were used for ritual purposes. I suspect that these rituals served much the same purpose that rituals in a contemporary Unitarian Universalist (or any other faith tradition) congregation serve—to enable people to feel part of something larger than themselves.
The middle floor of the museum is basically a tribute to French colonialism. It has a selection of beautiful pieces from North Africa, Central Africa, and Oceania that I can only assume were acquired under dubious circumstances. The top floor is dedicated to local artists from the fifteenth-century to the present. The work is almost entirely banal.
Far more impressive is the view of the roof of the Angoulême Cathedral that the upper floors afford. Standing on the inner stairwell, looking through the clear glass windows, I got an excellent view of the various gargoyles that line the roof. They were exquisite and almost certainly worth a trip to the museum on their own.
This space for art and ecology is run by Gilles and Nicole’s friend Catherine Mallet. Les Modillons is located in a beautifully renovated early nineteenth-century farm about 20 minutes outside of town and regularly features exhibitions by both local and national artists. Gilles exhibited there a few years ago. The gallery space is hands down one of the most beautiful gallery spaces I’ve ever been in. It’s in a converted barn, built in 1818. The rafters and original stone have been preserved throughout. For those looking for an excuse to visit to France, Les Modillons offers residencies for artists and environmental activists.
These are two local cognac distillers. We visited Les Freres Moine our first full day in Sers. We visited Le Maine Castay on our last. Le Maine Castay is managed by a close friend of Gilles and Nicole’s. They get much of their produce from his garden and most of their meat from his farm as well. He gave us a tour of the cognac facilities. It was on a different scale than Les Freres Moine and principally provides cognac to the big cognac brands that they blend, bottle, and sell. I saw massive wooden cognac barrels and learned that a single one contains about $360,000 worth of liquor. I also learned that making cognac is dangerous work. Every year a couple of people succumb to the alchol fumes and fall into a big vat or barrel and drown. We learned that this happened to one of Gilles and Nicole’s friend’s neighbors last year.
After our tour we were invited back to his house for dinner. It was a beautiful stone building. My son played with his cats and I got to drink his homemade pineau alongside some of Le Maine Castay’s champagne. We were introduced, in French, to some of his friends and family as “the Americans who don’t speak French.” I can understand enough French that I was able to more-or-less follow the French conversation. Everyone was incredibly friendly. It was a great last evening in France after a wonderful three weeks. Tomorrow we’re off to London. I plan to write at least one more post on France as we travel from Sers to Angoulême (by car) to Bordeaux (by train) to London (by plane).
Jul 30, 2019
We spent an afternoon at about 20 minutes outside of the center of Angoulême. It has a long history. The family who built it first occupied the site in the late 10th century and have resided in it continuously since then. They claim to be one of the oldest families in France and the family archives certainly suggest that.
The château is privately owned and operated. We arrived late in the afternoon. There were perhaps a dozen other people on the property. A sole employee, the cashier, was to be seen. Classical music was blaring in the courtyard. The cashier informed us that the mother of the current Duke lived in half of the château, that she liked classical music to be played at all times, and that a large portion of the building was off limits.
We wandered out into the courtyard which overlooks the town below—hundreds of red clay roofs and lichen covered stone walls lining a river bank and dominated by an ancient Catholic church. We then made our way into the family chapel, which features a prominent display of the family tree and the crypt of a male heir who had died at the age of five. The chapel is two stories and includes a choir loft on the second floor. It could be described as modest in reference to Versailles.
Overall, the contrast between Versailles and Château de La Rochefoucauld was informative. Versailles is no longer occupied by the Bourbon family. The Rochefoucaulds wanted visitors to know that they are still around, still wealthy, and still important. Each room we went into after the chapel featured some series of portraits of influential family members or recently deceased ones (the recently deceased ones seemed much less impressive than their ancestors) and information about the family’s history. I learned that some of its members had been executed during the French Revolution despite their, in the family’s account, liberal sympathies. I also learned that the Duke La Rochefoucauld had been Louis XVI’s Master of Wardrobe. The, probably apocryphal, story is that when Louis XVI learned of the storming of the Bastille, he said to the Duke La Rochefoucauld, “It’s a revolt.” The Duke is alleged to have responded, “No, sire, it’s a revolution.”
The continuing ownership of the château by the Rochefoucaulds made me question how much of revolution it actually was. I mean, the mere fact that at least this branch of the French nobility has maintained control of a castle for over a thousand years suggests a certain continuity over time. I don’t know how the Rochefoucaulds are faring financially, but I suspect that they’re not poor. It’s true that they’ve had to monetize the family estate but the mere fact that such an asset has remained in the family is significant. As is the fact that they’ve recently been thinking of adding to it. In one of the rooms we saw an architectural model that included a proposed new wing designed by I. M. Pei (it looked to me like it would have been an aesthetic disaster).
The proposed Pei wing, however, was in keeping with the château’s most interesting feature. It has been consistently added to over the centuries. The original keep was built in the 11th century. The most recent additions are from the 18th. The real gem is the château’s grand staircase. It was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci and traversed the height of the building as a continuous piece. It is beautiful white stone and when the light hits it glows. At the very top of the staircase is a drawing of the castle attributed to da Vinci (it was unsigned).
Near the close of our visit the cashier let us into the family library and archives. They are incredible. The library contains around 18,000 volumes, most from the 18th and 19th centuries. It focuses on law and theology. We were able to find other things, including a beautifully illustrated edition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost that we were allowed to page through. One of the real treasurers was an original edition of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the work that invented the genre. I’d never seen an original copy before. It was a little awe inspiring to stand in front of the first European attempt to systematize human knowledge and realize that when it was written it was the project of only a handful of polymaths.
Undoubtedly, the family archives are of greatest interest to historians. I imagine all of the volumes in the library exist elsewhere. The archives, however, stretch back to the 13th century and contain records of all the kinds of wealth and power the French nobility attained for itself—mostly, I imagine, through theft and violence—over the years. The cashier had closed the front gate so she could accompany us into the library and archives. She showed us a couple of thirteenth-century documents. And then she showed us what must be one of the family’s prized possessions, the Duke La Rochefoucauld’s inventory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s jewelry. It was in an archival box. The cashier showed us the handwritten original and according to her the total value of the jewelry was 3 million pounds. At the time, she said, the Rochefoucaulds could have sold their château for 60,000 pounds.
The inventory and the cashier’s statement were, like Versailles, a good summary of reasons why the French Revolution ultimately happened—vast income inequality. Prior to the Revolution France was ruled by a hereditary elite who cared little for the vast majority of people in the country. Their wealth insulated them from everyone else’s reality. It meant that a few people had extravagant and sumptuous lives while most people eked out an existence. As year-by-year countries like the United States become more economically unequal and the dire threat of climate change increases I can’t help but think that such a situation is returning (or less romantically has returned). The world can only be different if we organize mass movements to make it so.
Jul 29, 2019
This week we are staying at our friends’ country house in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. It’s a very relaxing week. I am catching up on some reading—I’ve read two books by James Baldwin, a bit of John Rawls’s “On Justice,” and some elementary school readers in French—and my sleep. There’s not a lot to do other than walk and explore the countryside. Yesterday my son and I took a walk through the village and came across the town’s church (built in the 11th century, remodeled sometime between the 12th and 15th, and then remodeled again in the 19th), its cemetery, a field full of sunflowers and a sign pointing to a 5th century monastery, which I hope to explore before we leave.
We also went to the market in Angoulême where Nicole and my mother planned a menu for the next few days. Lunch and dinner were both heavy on shellfish—oysters and langoustines—served with a simple salad or radishes and local white wine.
About the only other things we’ve done since we’ve been here is eat at La Cigogne and visit a cognac distillery. It’s called Les Frères Moine. The owner was kind enough to give us a tour. It is a small distillery where they make their own cognac barrels and host art exhibitions and gatherings. I bought some cognac and a bottle of pineau, a local aperitif that’s a mixture of cognac and wine. It is quite good which is kind of unfortunate since it is difficult to find back in the States.