Sunday, August 31, 2014

Travelogue 574 – August 31
The Experience Waiting

There are no more signs today than on any other day that autumn is coming, but the premonition washes through me like a wave of gratitude.

When you leave the house early on a Sunday morning, the sky opens up above in silence. The Dutch sky gives few clues to the experience waiting on the bike ride.

As has been true for weeks, you can’t tell by the Dutch sky whether your lot is to be sun or wind or rain, even during the course of a twenty-minute bike ride. Will it be the patch of blue sky to the north, or will it be the clouds gathered in the south, holding their portions of rain?

As it happens, today I will have both. Even as the sun touches me, as I’m pushing the cycle onto the bike path, there is also a drizzle hanging in the air. As I’m passing beside the peaceful Schie River, I see the stippling effect on the glinting surface of the water.

The lights past the bridge are blinking yellow. They only do that on Sunday mornings, when the city can spare only an indifferent glance for the early risers. It has spent itself on the previous night. You watch for bottle glass on the bike paths.

Farther down the road, the police are blocking off a length of street with quiet lights turning on their car tops. The police themselves are standing together and chatting pleasantly. Their job, it seems, has been to figure out why there’s a little black car perched on the street’s meridian, windshield shattered and wheels wrenched off their axles. There seems to be no urgency to solving the puzzle.

One kilometer more and I’m at the central station. There is one man standing alone in the great plaza facing the station. He is turning slowly with his phone in camera mode held high. I only notice then that the drizzle has resolved into an uncertain haze.

I have been underground. I have locked my bike up in the ramps there, in the echoing concrete chamber dedicated only to bicycles. There are thousands of them, lined neatly on two levels. Somewhere there is one other person parking. I hear the chain rattling against the rack.

There were mornings last week with more of an autumnal chill in the air. Summer has made an unassuming return, slipping quietly back into the city, with a breath that is humid and mildly fragrant with grass and with old fruit.

I am crossing behind the man with the camera, safely outside the scope of his present shot. I’m wishing suddenly for more space than the square can offer. I’m wishing for the space of a cold beach.

It is only the hush of a Sunday morning, maybe most grave, maybe most light of days. Maybe the germ of the week. You hear the cry of a season inside it. It awakens proper gratitude. It is like the glimpse of gears inside a terrible machine. It’s a kind of comfort.

There’s a couple who pass at a brisk pace, a red-haired chihuahua frisking at their feet, always underfoot. The man trails a suitcase on wheels behind him. They are excited to be in motion.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Travelogue 573 – August 12
The Smithy Revolution

Revolution! Imagine what the ambitious young Peter Abelard might have thought. As popular as he was, followed around the muddy streets of Paris by hundreds of pupils eager for his words, he could only have been a name among theologians and philosophers, who spread his reputation by word of mouth, or occasionally by lending out a precious, hand-copied manuscript.

What if Abelard, king of words, had known Gutenberg, the goldsmith who, some three hundred years later, changed the intellectual world forever? Even that Abelard speaks to us now, after almost a millennium, is largely thanks to Herr Gutenberg. Together, they would have conspired to all sorts of dangerous ambitions.

After Gutenberg’s revolution, humanity speaks across time. Generations pass their wisdom on, and each generation adds to it. The pool of knowledge grows, as does the percentage of humanity that can access it.

Abelard’s revolution, if he had been given access to a printing press, might have looked a lot like Luther’s. Both men were brilliant in debate, and both were intolerant of opposing opinions. There is some paradox in that. It is probably better that the revolution was a tinker’s revolution and not a philosopher’s. There is something analogous to Abelard’s theory of ethics, separating intent and action. Here we separate the medium from the content. As it was, Gutenberg had no more ambitious agenda than to make more Bibles. We should be thankful for his nobility, or for his lack of imagination.

The very neutrality of the delivery system worked toward literacy’s benefit, creating access to literature of every stripe, and providing the incentive to literacy that reformed all society. Reading is not genetic. It must be taught, and -- as we are learning in Ethiopia -- there is little incentive to the task without materials to read. Efficient knowledge transfer needs the raw materials. The printers have provided it. Revolution!

Following in Gutenberg’s footsteps, the printers became workmen, technicians, artisans. They formed firms, formed guilds, and thoroughly commercialized the operation. They prospered. They received commissions from kings. They built urban manors.

There may be no better place to see that than at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. The museum was once a house, a house facing the Vrijdag Market in Antwerp, a house for the Plantijn and Moretus families, and for their family business, a business that survived three hundred years. The firm was founded by Christoffel Plantijn in the middle of the sixteenth century. He was not only a printer-publisher of quality but had a canny instinct for survival during turbulent times, when Belgium was embroiled in the Eighty Years War, when Antwerp, the richest city in Europe, became a pawn in the tug of war between the Dutch and the Spanish. Plantijn managed to become printer for a royal Bible project, and leveraged this into status as Philip II’s ‘Architypographus Regii’, printer of royally sanctioned liturgical books. In the next generation, the business was passed to Christoffel‘s son-in-law, Jan Moretus. It remained in the Moretus family until they gifted the house to the city in the mid-nineteenth century.

The first reason to visit the museum is to see the two oldest surviving printing presses, dating back to around 1600. They are placed in the preserved workshop, where the printing took place, where letters were set and pages printed. It would have been a crowded, noisy, and chaotic room in its time, its centuries of time, having the capacity to print something like 2,000 pages per day. Now it has the silence appropriate to a museum, and it’s left to the imagination to sense the overwhelming roar and stink, among more than a dozen workers, that it took to produce a book.

Equally fascinating are the quieter rooms. One worth mentioning is old Christoffel‘s office, small as a modern closet, and almost as dark, preserved in its sixteenth and seventeenth century atmosphere, with wooden beams and walls lined with rare gilded leather. Here, the money was kept and counted. One can also visit the humble room where the proofreaders worked. There is little to see here but their desks, but learning about their work, one realizes how profoundly deep the reservoirs of intellect that were gathered in these printing houses. The houses may have been organized according to profit models, but there is no doubt that they effectively operated as centers of culture and learning, taking the place of the monasteries of Abelard’s day. The editors had to be prepared to apply themselves to works on a variety of academic topics, in any numbers of languages, modern and ancient. I managed to spot some letters cast from the Ge’ez, or historical Ethiopian, alphabet, among the boxes of preserved letters for the presses.

In a room next to Christoffel’s office, one sees portraits of Lipsius, renowned Renaissance humanist, friend to the founder of the house, and star in the firm’s first stable of published authors. In another room, one sees copper plates for illustrations designed by Mr. Rubens, friend to another, later patriarch of the family, one Balthasar Moretus.

Lastly, there is the patrician house itself, an architectural monument to status among the great business families of Antwerp. There is an interior courtyard, and set among the bricks walls are carvings of the family logo and busts of family notables. The two floors of the house are furnished with the self-indulgent complacency of success, commissioned portraits, fine furniture, tapestries, extensive libraries, a map room with man-sized globes, damask coverings. Goldsmiths as the arbiters of academia, goldsmiths bunking in the manor house; here’s the look of the revolution.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Travelogue 572 – August 7
Part Four

It’s another night in front of the TV. The Rocky series continues. Apollo Creed has retired. Rocky has been a model champ, taking on almost all comers. But there’s a fierce new challenger. He has the eye of the tiger.

There’s an ambivalence to the sky outside my window of the little salon, my refuge in loneliness. The humidity seems ready to turn. It might rain. The steady heat may well leak from the sky. Has the time of rains come? That’s always a decent wager in the Netherlands.

When it rains in movies, it is a call from high in the atmosphere for conflict and introspection. There should be some key exchange of dialogue in the street, characters exposed to the weather. Someone walks home, hands in pockets, in melancholy and uncertainty.

I’m wondering how Stallone sees himself in the history of cinema – as his latest oeuvre, Expendables III, hits theatres in Europe. I often wonder how artists describe their careers to themselves. Are there two camps, gathered round two replies to the critics? ‘It’s a job,’ says one. ‘They don’t get it,’ says the other. Maybe there’s a third, those who disavow grand narratives. The artist tries for greatness, gets there once or twice. The rest if fluff. Maybe Stallone just shrugs and says, ‘Hey, I wrote Rocky.’

And so, on a humid European summer evening, I’m reminded of a stretch of Texas desert, dry space broken open, revealing miles and miles of nature’s lazy design in rock. It’s still, and all is quiet, except for a few spare tones from a slide guitar. The notes don’t emanate from an earthly source, so they aren’t subject to the breezes or the vagaries of dimension. They come from the world of the film-maker, and so they seem part of the arch of heaven. There’s a man walking across the desert. We are given a man in a desert. We are given a story.

It’s a tenuous thread of story, a man wandering the desert, a victim of his passion for a woman. But any story is only as good as its telling. This story was picked up by French and German producers, was captured in a screenplay by Sam Shepard, was directed by Wim Wenders, was accompanied by music by Ry Cooder, and was acted out by a fascinating mix of 80s stars, character actors Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell, with model and Polanski protégé, Nastassja Kinski. A young boy named Hunter Carson turns in a great performance as … a young boy.

The film moves slowly, even meditatively. The story is the telling. The story is desert space; it’s an airport in L.A.; it’s downtown Houston. Just like Rocky, the story must succeed in mood as much as in plot. The narrative turns on long, dramatic dialogues between Stanton and Kinski. She’s behind glass and he is shrouded in anonymous darkness.

‘Paris, Texas’ won the Palme d'Or in 1984. In 2014, it’s enjoying an obscure little revival at Le Champo Theatre in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The theatre itself is a small piece of film history, built in 1938 and being a favorite among Parisian students and cinephiles. In its day, it has served for premieres for directors like Marcel Carné and Jacques Tati. Now it is known for its retrospectives.

Stallone has been to France – most recently, riding through Cannes on a Soviet-era tank with his ‘Expendables’ co-stars. So he must know what film means to the French. They have good reason for their affection. Cinema can be said to have been born here, with the invention of the cinematographe by the tinkering Lumiere brothers. The brothers were heirs to a family photography studio in Lyon, freed by their father’s retirement in 1892 to play with moving pictures. In 1895 they presented an exhibition of short films at the Salon Indien in Paris, in an event commonly heralded as the birth of the art form. Ironically, the Lumieres eventually decided there was no future in film and went on to become innovators in color photography.

Until the First World War, France continued to play a leading role in film, led by such characters as Georges Méliès, the Pathé brothers, Léon Gaumont, and Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female film-maker. It was only during the war that American film moved to California, and started picking up the role in production that it would hold through the rest of the century, filling the gap left by the warring Europeans.

After our film, Menna and I stopped at Le Reflet across the street, a humble little bar with some notoriety of its own, an old watering hole for film lovers and film makers. The signs of its history are the film posters on the walls. I’m studying the Bruce Lee above our table. Was he the first Expendable? Would he have ridden a tank into Cannes? Why not?

On TV, Rocky takes his beating, the blood sacrifice of the hero whom destiny has called to win. The summer sky contains itself, holding in its rains for another day. After the victory, I can turn off the TV. I could take a walk. I could stay lying here and watch the color of dusk change outside my window. It’s summer, the season of idylls and daydreams. Maybe I’ll stay and throw my dreams of boxing and theology onto the wall, pacing ghostly Parisian avenues across the deserts of the Lone Star State. It’s all one, the world title belt on a dancing Abelard, Latin perorations intoned by Burgess Meredith, a taste of wine under the timeless sky of the Contrescarpe, the sound of the adversary’s cheek hitting the mat. We have won, and all is right once again.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Travelogue 571 – August 6
Part Three

And there we were, listening to klezmer. We were having one last coffee for the day, sitting together among the banks of outdoor tables at the café facing the square. We had spent a day wandering among the shadows of centuries past, and we were resting at a café on the Place de la Contrescarpe. We were having a last coffee for the day, as the sun found its place among the western roofs above the Place. We were listening to two musicians who were making the rounds among the hundreds of seats facing the square that is not a square, but the irregular shape described by generations of ancient traffic emerging together from a variety of directions. There were two musicians, dressed with the delicate care of old hobos, one on trumpet and one on clarinet, the cases for the instruments at their feet. The melodies might have played themselves, so well-rehearsed by the long summer days. Occasionally one horn trailed off as the musician behind it made the rounds among the audiences, holding forth his soiled cap for coins. He moved from café to café, among the half dozen or so that encircled the historic square.

And this is what I can daydream about on solitary evenings while my wife is away. The sky in Zuid-Holland is a gentle summer consistency, humid and stirred by mild and cool breezes. I’ve muted the TV while Rocky works up a scene change on a commercial break.

Rocky is muttering in my ear with the sincerity of tireless youth, saying every fight is a good fight. ‘You know, you put up your gloves. Like this. That’s right. You go the distance.’ And I haven‘t even lifted the mute. He is a spirit of fortitude, a companion in solitude.

We have discovered the Place de la Contrescarpe twice. And each time, we have stopped for a coffee at one of the cafes facing the fountain in the square. The first time, we had descended from the Mont-Sainte-Geneviève, having emerged from the law students’ gate at the Sorbonne and passed beneath the sad height of the Panthéon, covered as it is these days by a white trash bag and scaffolding, past the celebrated university library and to the lovely and unique façade of the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, where Saint Geneviève herself lies buried. We had entered and reviewed the beautiful stained glass. We had moved on, among the narrow streets of the district, stopping in front of the residences of ghost Joyce and ghost Hemingway.

It’s the Latin Quarter, named for the language of poets and lecturers. And the writers have remained loyal through the centuries.

Stallone has forgotten his Italian. His cousins have forgotten their Latin. He’s composed his stories in the language of a new place called Philadelphia. The story is a morality tale, how losing is winning. He wins an Oscar for the screenplay.

The second time we arrived at the Place de la Contrescarpe, we have been walking south, returning along the Rue Mouffetard, famous clutter of shops and market stalls. We have stopped in cheese shops to count the types of cheese, and to swim in the scents. The name Mouffetard comes from mouffle, Old French for stink. But it’s not the stink of cheese. Rather it comes from the work of skinners, tanners, and tripe butchers by the river Bièvre at the foot of the hill.

The jumble of tiny shops – Orwell wrote of the Rue Mouffetard, ‘. . . a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching toward one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse’ – has led Menna to remark, ‘Now I feel like I’m in France.’

And the writers have remained loyal. Hugo and Balzac honor the area in books. If you go back far enough, you find Rabelais drinking at the Maison de la Pomme de Pin, among the university students looking for cheap wine. Rewind further, and you will find the poet Villon engaging in remarkably similar activities, when the Place de la Contrescarpe was no place, but a muddy meadow outside the gates of the city, where teamsters gathered for business and for pleasure.

I reach further, and I imagine it in the time of our tender-hearted intellectual, young Peter Abelard, who described himself as peripatetic, lecturing as he strolled among the open spaces that undoubtedly described the landscape on this side of the montagne. That he taught while he walked is probably as much a fiction as the one that had Aristotle teaching while he strolled the groves of the Lyceum. More likely he found some church or abbey to host his ‘school’. But I bet he did walk, and I bet plenty of wide-eyed pupils did follow him down the road. Maybe they bought him his wine at the roadside tavern that would mark the spot of the Maison de la Pomme de Pin, just to hear him dissect the ideas of the respected scholars at Notre Dame, cruelly and capably discrediting them and their thoughts. Some of the students could probably afford the bar tab, being second and third sons of nobility, seeking their fortunes in the powerful medieval church.

I’m thinking the young scholar Stallone, scribbling away in obscurity in the mid-70s, might have had a ghostly ally in Peter Abelard. In his Ethics, Abelard contends that moral value resided not in the action, but in the intention. This was a novel contention at the time, to judge by the charges of heresy brought against him. How novel is hard to say. What smithies grumble in the taverns often takes centuries to find its way into philosopher’s tracts. Once there, the most prosaic thought become fodder for political battle. Philosophy is a game of contention, and no one knew that better than Abelard, who was a difficult man to live at peace with. He was too sharp, too smart, and much too ready to prove it. He challenged every teacher he had, and often publicly.

Philosophers are fighters. Channel Seven has been airing all the Rocky movies, and then afterward all the Rambo films. I don’t have the stamina for Rocky and Rambo both, but I catch the beginnings of each one of the Rambo stories for nostalgia’s sake. This is the Stallone that we’ve become more familiar with over the years, laconic and sullen. Stallone of the Rocky era was a boy, eager and sentimental and even verbose. He had trusting puppy eyes then, not the staring and judging eyes of the elder prophet.

Both Stallone characters are innocents, and Stallone’s business has been the writing of moral fables. Whether boxing in Philly or shooting bad guys in Burma, the protagonist of any of the fables is an innocent at war with circumstance. The world is intrusive and demanding. It enters into life of the hero in the guise of some relentless antagonist. They aren’t always bad guys. In the older films, they are just people struggling with their petty ambitions, the redneck town sheriff, the vain world champ. The antagonist appears, and the hero responds to the challenge with righteous action: persistence, honest effort, and generosity.

In later movies, the casualties add up. If intention trumps action, I suppose the body count becomes only a detail. That is the story of action films in the 80s. What counts is the moral.

And this is where the hero of ‘Vanilla Sky’ fails. He kills no one, not even himself, as it turns out, but his intentions are muddled. He is weak, and therefore unforgivable. Morality tales require clear decision and resolute action. It’s acceptable to set aside ten minutes in the script for self-doubt, but ultimately the hero’s instincts are sure.

Morality tales are mirrors, and humans love mirrors. Religion serves morality, and religious art depicts angels in human form. The Bible is parable and story. Even the atheist has a strict code, and his clan has heroes. It’s not the after-life that motivates morality. It’s a keen sense of our own fragility. We have always been animals running in groups, measuring our chances at survival by status in the group. Morality is a code for trust. Survival depends on accurate readings of behavior. Behavior is guided by morality. Rambo may be a killer, but we know very well who he’s going to kill.

In any case, killing was on holiday in the Place de la Contrescarpe that day. We felt entirely safe and relaxed in that assembly of hundreds in a Paris square. The code of that group was in service of an idea called ‘summer’. Our behavior conformed to a code called ‘vacation’. It’s perhaps the highest form of civilization yet. God looked down upon us, as He moved His sun into position to set, and He was pleased. We were philosophers. We were free of both intention and action.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Travelogue 570 – August 5
Part Two

It’s been another hot and beautiful day, high summer. Lying back into the couch, I can see the sky through the drapes. I’m guessing by the color creeping through the several high clouds that the sun is just now setting. My days are starting early and ending early. Menna is away, and I have little to do in the evenings.

Inside the TV, it’s night in Philadelphia. I’m looking out the window, and I’m thinking, ‘I may be ready for bed, but in Philadelphia it’s just past noon. The same sun is high in the sky there. Maybe it’s humid. Maybe people are sweating through a long and burning day there, in America’s first capital.’

My days are long and too solitary. Menna is far away, just about as far south as Philadelphia is west. She has returned to the capital of Ethiopia, where the strong sun is captive to the year’s rainy season. Without her here, my days are long work sessions, and my nights are long sessions with the TV. Guiding the work are a set of strong fall deadlines. They wake me early in the morning. Guiding my evenings, after my eyes are smoked past any more use at the computer, are the movie agendas of my local channels. As it happens, it’s Rocky week on Channel Seven. They are airing all the Rockies. I’m watching the second one tonight.

Tonight, in old Philadelphia, Rocky just can’t catch a break. Last night, in movie number one, he had the big break, of course, the biggest break there is, a shot at the title. It came to him out of the blue, bestowed upon him in his innocence. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t ask. In fact, there’s no more behind it than the ring of his name; and the lure of the old capital. It’s the country’s bicentennial, so for the extravagant Apollo Creed, it’s the lure of the town itself, grown so ugly by 1976. The champ wants a contest in the birthplace of freedom. Et cetera.

But Rocky’s successes only create more puzzles for him. He’s famous, but he can’t land a job. He doesn’t read so well, so his attempts to escape the docks and the meat factory end in failure.

Rocky has only one thing going for him. Rocky has heart. The world responds to his heart with the warmth of instinct. Even Creed, famous but embittered champ, cannot forget Rocky. The one, inconclusive fight won’t do. He steps into Rocky’s story a second time and Rocky responds with heart. That’s what he does. As a consequence of heart, Rocky II concludes with triumph.

I’m flipping channels. I’m not afraid I’ll lose the thread of Rocky’s story. On Channel Ten is ‘Vanilla Sky’, a movie I had all but forgotten. Hapless Tom Cruise, the actor everyone loves to hate, steps in where other stars fear to tread, once again. He volunteers to portray ugliness. His character makes ugly decisions, and he himself becomes disfigured. Where Rocky’s way is always to respond with heart, David Aames from ‘Vanilla Sky’ has an unerring instinct for selfishness and self-pity. While charmed circumstance follows Rocky through the bleak streets of his 70s slum, with something like the energy of a besotted Tinker Bell, life is never more for Aames than his own creation, something rarely to his benefit. Where Rocky’s heart is the perfect compass, Aames’ instincts point south. He pouts in his high-rent Manhattan flat, his high-walled brick stage set for 90s malaise, and he contemplates the wasteland of Self.

Philosophy is a game for the idle, so idly I ask, ‘what is the TV teaching me tonight?’ Is the lesson that morality is a contest won by the innocent, a sort of Christian formula that apportions blessings for the child-like? Or is it teaching me that choice is best exercised as reaction? I certainly have experienced the sort of Aamesian haplessness that follows upon free choice. The more self-determined, the more miserable. Left to our own devices, we will always spoil circumstance. We will be our own worst enemy. Et cetera.

I’m daydreaming. I’m watching the sky again, through the crack in the drapes. The field of blue is noticeably changing, becoming richer in tone. There are a few wisps of high cloud curling across the color of dusk. I am happy to project my idle thoughts there, to no purpose, to no gain.

I’ve begun to think of Paris. Am I missing Paris or am I missing Menna? We had such a nice time there. I see us strolling the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter on a hot July evening. We are slowly climbing the Mont-Sainte-Geneviève, district of philosophers. It’s this tradition that names the quartier ‘Latin’. Latin is the language of church and academia for more than a thousand years.

This side of the hill, facing the Seine, has always been settled, but once upon a time, the hill and the other side are the outskirts of the town, particularly in the early Middle Ages. There is King Clovis’s church for Sainte-Geneviève on the summit. It has a school for young church scholars, though the premier school would have been at Notre Dame on the Île.

It’s at Notre Dame that Peter Abelard studied as a young man, though only for a short time before alienating his famed teacher, William of Champeaux. It was a pattern for young Abelard. He was always contentious, and always victorious. By the time he set up a school on the Mont-Sainte-Geneviève in 1108, they say he was drawing crowds of hundreds of eager students. These were the exciting days that determined the future of the Latin Quarter, when small schools of theology were proliferating, probably to some degree drawing on the star power of young Abelard.

A century later, this constellation of small schools required some structure. Paris was becoming a center of scholarship, and the French royal family derived no small benefit from the reflected glory and the talent pool. So, early in the 13th century, King Philippe Auguste set up the universitas as an overarching community of schools, or colleges, governed by statutes, provided with living quarters for scholars, and offering diplomas to guarantee quality of education. In 1257, a new college was founded by one Robert de Sorbon. His college would set such a high standard in theology that the university would come to be known by its name.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Travelogue 569 – August 3
Part One

The sun is strong. We love this place in July. The sun is tonic.

We are standing below the grimy walls of the modern, ugly entrance to the beautiful campus. It was added on in the 1970s. We are scanning the political posters plastered everywhere. I am surprised to see so many National Front posters, photos of Marine smiling beside the local candidate in the recent European Parliament election.

An alumni of the Sorbonne is shaking her head. ‘Paris has really changed,’ she affirms. In her day – fifteen years ago at most – she says these posters would never have lasted. She says that French teens – with plenty of options for free university -- chose the Sorbonne because of its tradition of political activism. And that never, never meant activism for the far right. She is struck with horror. She relates stories from 1968, as though she had been there, when the students and workers had allied to shut down the city and country.

Maybe Parisian intellectuals have yet to realize how seductive the reactionary cause can be nowadays. It’s the seductiveness of radicalism. Young people hunger for radicalism, and maybe the left doesn’t provide it. Young people delight in the outrageous. Maybe there is little outrage left in championing the poor and the oppressed. To scorn is now outrageous. To be indelicate is an adventure.

Politics is in the blood of the Parisians. It’s built into the very geography of the place, the contrast between the island and the bank. For so long, the divide of the river was the divide between privilege and the people, perhaps since the Parisii set up command and temple on the island, overseeing the overflow of humanity onto the Left Bank. Certainly that is how it has developed since the Merovingians.

The Romans themselves centered the city in the Latin Quarter, specifically on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. But the Romans never designated the town a capital of any sort. In fact, during its first thousand years after the Romans, Paris was capital of empire or kingdom only occasionally. Its first stint was notably under King Clovis I, convert to Christianity, and his immediate heirs, founders of the historic churches of Germain and Geneviève.

But capitals were creations of caprice and exigency in the Middle Ages. In ancient times, the polis was origin and anchor of civilization. In early-medieval Europe, the city was only convenience. Empire was ruled by families on horseback.

I’m reminded of Ethiopian history. After the ancient era of Axum, the thousand-year stability of the city of Axum, the capital(s) of empire moved according to the whims of rulers and ruling families. Addis Ababa was only the last in a long line of dynastic sites, this one chosen purely for strategic reasons by the great king Menelik. It survived the transition into modernity, into the age of the nation-state and the need once again for rooted governance.

There is little of the ancient that survives in Paris. What inherit is largely a creation of the later Middle Ages. Even the good King Clovis left us little to remember him by, other than a few, rare bits of masonry in the first churches. It remained for later dynasties, in more stable times, to build a city we could recognize, a city of devotion, a city of intellect, and a city of art.

That brings us back again to the dichotomy, the stand-off between the Île and the Montagne, back to where we stand, on the venerable Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, underneath the summer sun, examining the posters of Marine in curiosity and wonder, trying to imagine Parisian students shaking their fists the European Union and heaping calumny on immigrants.

Walking through the doors of the great institute, on this side so humble and ugly, we find, only some several dozen meters farther, the grand gateway historically reserved for the students of law, and we emerge on the summit of the montagne, where stands the Pantheon and the old church of Geneviève.