Saturday, 30 October 2010

Goodbye, Barricades

Thought there’d be a restful pause in the world’s bicentennializing, did you? Fat chance. What national pride—egged on by the tourism industry—hath wrought has no end. It’s as intrinsic to the modern world’s metabolism as beauty pageants and UN peace-keeping forces.
1989. It’s France’s turn. And I’ve come back from Paris with a thick dossier of what they plan to perpetuate, at home and abroad. Abroad? Oui. The French believe—not without their raisons—that their 1789 revolution marks the beginning of the modern world.
And they mean much more than French couture, although “Vive La France!” is the name of the seven-week-long sales binge at Bloomingdale’s. It will be like storming the Bastille, where Francois Mitterrand hath decreed there will be a new Opera, and toward which the French architectural community has unleashed a barrage of scorn sufficiently withering to twist the T-square of the Canadian architect who got the commission.
It wasn’t complete enough for me to do anything more than look at the outside. But frankly, I said with the local dissidents, so far.
Not so with another Mitterrand bicen maneuver—the highly controversial glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei as a newer and grander entrance to the Louvre.
As lucky fate would have it, I tried to take a close look at the new gate in the Cour Napoleon the day before Mitterrand was going to dedicate it, so I not only get an hour-long tour but found myself babbling in French at the end of my levitating experience with the dapper-looking minister of state for architecture.
He seemed pleased by my confession that what I had long expected to be a travesty was in fact a miracle. Or he may have been wincing politely at my accent. It’s always hard to distinguish with their cool, elite types.
Anyway, the Pei pyramid is a glory—unquestionably a world masterpiece, a guarantee that the experiment-risking Mitterrand will go down in the building’s history as a great benefactor of la gloire.
The day I left Paris for my flight back to Luxembourg, Le Figaro ran an interesting interview with this generation’s leading historian of the French Revolution, Francois Furet. He noted that when he began his specialty 30 years ago, there were two historiographical traditions in France about their Revolution.
The right construed 1789 as an explosion of modern evil; the left saw in it nothing but a benediction. Today, Furet argues, the consensus of opinion tends toward the more sophisticated view that the Revolution was a tremendous event that took a very bad turn.
He argues as well that rather than this being a moderated view, it is more complete and true than the one which prevailed in his youth. The Revolution forged the modern world you and I live in. It was a case of a country brutally assaulting its past to create democracy.
Three years later, the Terror put democracy on hold. And that was followed by the Empire, in which power was more despotic than in the ancien regime.
Furet sees a crucial watershed in French thinking about their tremendously divisive Revolution: Sometime between 1981 and 1984, the French left abandoned its old penchant for changing society by decree.
As I come out of the Metro, I see signs for Rue Marat and Rue Robespierre. Visiting City Hall to view  an early art exhibition on the Revolution (it’s a bottom-up view by a popular artist who came from the working classes), there’s a monument to the memory of Maurice Thorez, longtime head of the French Communist Party. And my friends live on the Rue Georges Gosnat, for decades Ivry’s deputy in the National Assembly.
All things considered, nonetheless, it appears that sociologist Daniel Bell was prescient in predicting the end of the age of ideology. Everywhere I went in Europe, businessmen were not talking abstractions; they were trying to figure out what the Common Market was going to do to their business prospects.
In Ascona, having a late afternoon tea with a London financier at Monte Verita, I had to agree with Bell: “For centuries Europeans savaged each other over ideas. It’s time to end such foolishness.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 19, 1989

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