Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Iconic Panopticon

I couldn't resist posting this picture today, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's kickstart of the Reformation with what our very own Archbishop of Canterbury – along with many, many others – has described as an epic series of 95 tweets that went viral.

I took the photograph in the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, situated on the highest point of Paris, the butte Montmartre. You probably know that Luther's main bone of contention with the Catholic Church was the selling of "indulgences", a sort of advance loan against the forgiveness of sins (perhaps a more contemporary parallel would be the offsetting of one's carbon footprint in Britain by investing in trees in Brazil). What the picture shows is a row of coin-op vending machines selling assorted souvenir medals (just 2 euros each!) ranging from Pope Francis to Jesus Christ lui-même arrayed in the hushed heart of the church. Hilarious, no? But I can't help thinking that neither Jesus nor Luther would be much amused.

Motmartre seen from the Pompidou Centre

Sacré-Cœur is symbolic of the contradictions in the Parisian spirit in another way that is perhaps not so obvious to the thousands of tourists making the obligatory ascent of the butte, whether on foot up through the narrow streets of Montmartre, packed with shops, bars, and restaurants, or by riding the funicular (in either case, primarily for the spectacular view). For the basilica is, as it happens, no ancient monument, neither does it sit on some long-hallowed patch of ground. In fact, it was begun only in 1875, finished in 1914, and finally consecrated in 1919. Impressionism, Fauvism, and even Cubism were pretty much over before anyone got to celebrate Mass in there.

You can read about it here, but in essence Sacré-Cœur symbolises the re-assertion of dominance by the conservative Catholic establishment after the turbulent years of French revolutionary fervour, and in particular the ignominious defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune of 1871. The building was quite specifically conceived by those reactionaries as an act of penance to expiate what they perceived as a Gallic fall into moral turpitude, and it was placed like a spiritual panopticon (salut, Michel Foucault!) at the heart of that rebellious city's most rebellious quarter.

Montmartre by night

And yet, you ask, is not La Marseillaise still the French national anthem, and Marianne, in her revolutionary liberty cap, the most prominent national symbol? And isn't laïcité (separation of church and state) a fundamental article of French constitutional faith? All true enough, hypocrite lecteur*: they are nothing if not complicated, conflicted, contradictory people, yer French.

But then, aren't we all? In Luther's terms, we are all irredeemable sinners, redeemed, whether we like it or not, by unearned, unbought, unasked-for divine grace. Which is probably not the way most of us in Europe look at ourselves now. Largely, it has to be said, because of the way the door marked "Reformation" led along a smoky, corpse-strewn corridor to the sunlit plaza named "Enlightenment". But 500 years of heritage counts for a lot, and Europe is still a place where it can make quite a difference whether you are a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist.

Other religious heritages are also available, of course, and – in principle, at least – equally welcome in Enlightenment Square. Just behave yourselves, for goodness' sake.

Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée

* Famous last line of last stanza of Charles Baudelaire's poem "Au Lecteur": 

C'est l'Ennui! L'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
II rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

[Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams 
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother. 
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems — 
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!]
Roy Campbell translation


David Brookes said...


I recognised the line "hypocrite lecteur..." from "The Waste Land", but did not know its origin. I am still not sure if I understand it, in either of its appearances. When I was a teenager, I set myself the task of trying to understand Beethoven's Late Quartets and The Waste Land. Now, well over half a century later, I think I have succeeded with the Beethoven, but, much as I love parts of it, The Waste Land still tends to provoke a "huh?" response!


PS. I read a fair bit of the night, but cannot afford to go south for the winter.

Mike C. said...


"Explain the Waste Land, and in particular the use and relevance of the quotations from and allusions to other literary sources". You have 3 hours. Turn over your papers NOW... Heh.

If you have a iPad (or even an iPhone) I recommend the "Waste Land" app from Touch Press: it's superb. Apart from all the "apparatus" supplied, just to see and hear Fiona Shaw recite the poem is a revelation in itself. Ditto their even more superb app for Shakespeare's Sonnets.

As for the Baudelaire, it became a focus for early post-modern notions of the reflexive relationship between reader, text, and author, and the way the reader shares responsibility for "creating" the literary experience with the writer, whilst [hypocriically] disavowing responsibility (a bit like the classic experience of humorous innuendo, thrown back at the audience by the comic -- what dirty minds you've got!]