Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My professor's a tour guide

Today, for my French literature class at Paris 8 (Paris and French literature - places of memory), we had our first on-site visit to Notre-Dame. Obviously, that church has inspired literature - Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris. We started at the doors. There are three of them: the one in the middle is the door of the last judgment, which depicts the dead rising again, an angel and a devil weighing peoples' souls and choosing which ones would be saved, Jesus returning, and then, he showed us a tiny little engraving at the bottom. It depicted a woman, holding two books (one opened, and one closed) in one hand, and a scepter in the other. There was a ladder in front of her with nine steps, and her head was touching the sky. He told us that, initially, people had thought that she was a symbol of education, that the ladder represented the different stages of education, the books were things to be studied, etc. Then, he said that that interpretation was obviously wrong because, as I had already learned in my ENS class and in my philosophy class, the middle ages education only had seven stages. In fact, the engraving was supposed to depict the ancient art of alchemy, which had seven stages, and there were two parts: one that man could comprehend and one that man couldn't. It made sense that the study of alchemy would be at the center of the base of the church. That's what Frollo studied. Then again, look where it led him. The point of the discussion was to illustrate how parts of history can be lost or misinterpreted. The door on the left was the door of the virgin, and the one to the right depicts the life of Jesus Christ. On the top of the doors are statues of the biblical kings, which were destroyed during the French Revolution and then restored after the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris. You may ask, why did the citizens destroy those statues during the Revolution? Well, they thought they were depicting the kings of France. Oops. I guess that might be what Victor Hugo meant when he said that men were the most destructive thing when it came to landmarks.

Inside the church, we saw the wooden carvings that date back to the twelfth century! They're painted, but the paint is much more recent. The carvings depict scenes of miracles from the Bible - they're supposed to tell the stories because the churchgoers back then couldn't read. Therefore, even if they hadn't studied the stories, they could look at the pictures and be moved. He told us that it's the fundamental difference we're going to discuss in this class: the difference between what one studies and what touches someone. It reminds me of what the priest told Edmond in The Count of Monte Cristo: "To learn is not to know."

The tour wasn't supposed to be a history lesson. Our professor said that, if we wanted the history and architectural points about Notre-Dame, we should check Wikipedia. I just looked at it, and it's very detailed. If he told us to go on Wikipedia, I suppose I should. Right? It's funny - my number theory professor last semester told us that Wikipedia was a good source too.

After we were done in Notre-Dame, we walked around l'Ile St-Louis, which is interesting because everything on it was built at once, during the 17th century. The map of the streets is in the American style, according to the professor. They're in a grid format, like New York City. And, there's a statue of Ste. Genevieve (the saint of Paris) facing east to watch out for invaders. On this island, we saw a salon that was visited by Marcel Proust and other famous authors, Baudelaire's house, in which he wrote parts of Les fleurs du mal, an asymmetrical bridge that was in "An American in Paris", and a pretty house that's privately owned by a friend of Sarkozy that no one can enter even if it is historical. What I like is that all the architecture on the island is incredibly uniform - there doesn't seem to be the slightest exception. Oh, and Berthillon. That's actually the best part of the island. Too bad it's closed right now! But, the professor mentioned it on the tour! The best ice cream in Paris! He didn't say "in the world," but I'm sure he knows it.

Overall, it was interesting to get guided around a Parisian landmark with Parisian students. Apparently, even the French can be tourists here, but it was a very different experience than my tourist experience from last weekend. I like having the tours in French like I did at the Pantheon or like CUPA organized for us from Mouffetard to St. Germain, around l'Institut du Monde Arabe, Montmartre, and Le Marais. It's also better to get the French audio guides at places like Versailles or the Jewish museum. I went there too today, by the way. But it wasn't really interesting enough to go into any detail here. Besides, I'd rather study for my history quiz tomorrow. Lucky me. Why am I taking a history course again? Oh right - because I need to...

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