How many people still know that song, I wonder. Or the one where Dean Martin sings “Oh, what I’d give for a moment or two, under the bridges of Paris with you … ” The point is that Paris is, and has been for a long time, one of — if not THE — most romantic cities in the world, as we are rediscovering, not having been here for a number of years. It should come as no surprise that Paris is the most visited city in the world; where a city like Prague is equally beautiful, perhaps, Paris offers comparable beauty, but on a much larger scale.
Even if one has been into the Notre Dame Gothic cathedral, entering it again is to be interpellated (justly “interrupted”) all over again by its singular “distribution of the sensible”, to use Ranciere’s expression for the manner in which artworks — in this case a magnificent Gesamtkunstwerk in the shape of architecture — organise or structure the world of the senses along lines of social inclusion and exclusion. In the case of Gothic architecture like the Notre Dame (Our Lady) the way in which the sensible world was (and still is, even if only fleetingly, as one enters that once hallowed space), structured, is visible, almost tangible, in the relation between the vertical and the horizontal lines of the church, the verticals joining high above you in the characteristic shape of the Gothic arch, pointing upwards towards ethereal spaces exceeding even the imposing height of the towering cathedral. What this meant for late medieval society, was that the implied hierarchy of earthly and heavenly spaces was replicated on earth, the corruptible realm, as it is embodied in the figures of saints in rows of adoration, focusing on the Virgin Mary, or on Jesus Christ, all of whom find their stony representation (including that of John the Baptist, carrying his head in his hands) sculpted into the imposing arches of the three main entrances.
In this theocentric world, long gone, the “distribution of the sensible world” was indeed hierarchical, with office bearers of the church — the most powerful institution in Europe at the time — occupying the highest positions in society, although they were themselves arranged hierarchically (literally, according to priesthood) from the highest position of pope (the representative of God on earth, on St Peter’s “throne”) through those of the cardinals and the bishops to the priests, nuns and novices. Even kings and emperors required the backing of the church when engaging in important enterprises, just like today, when the economic sphere dominates (and no longer the religious, or the political), politicians need the backing of banks and corporations. Speaking of which, what strikes one when entering Notre Dame, is the clash between the bygone religious world of the late middle ages and the postmodern, globalised world with its camera-and iPad-wielding tourists, invading every nook and cranny in the once hallowed cathedral. At least, in that theocentric space charity played a pervasive role, so that the poor were assured of a modicum of care, but today, in the heartless world of capitalism, even in Paris, in a country with one of the best social security systems in the world, one notices beggars and homeless people in the streets.
Just down the road from Notre Dame is the jewel in the crown of late medieval architecture, the breathtakingly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle, built in the 13th century during the reign of Louis IX. Its two chapels, a lower and a higher, mark the high point of high Gothic architecture. Compared to the interior of Notre Dame, it is ornate in the extreme with its tall, stained-glass windows (upper chapel) the15 panels of which comprise more than a thousand scenes from various books in the Christian Bible and tell the biblical story of humankind from the creation to Christ’s resurrection. Walking into the upper chapel, one’s immediate reaction is one of breathless astonishment — not even St Peter’s in Rome can match the sheer, concentrated opulence of the overwhelming array of stained glass, gold-leaf ornamentation and statuary comprising this comparatively small space, although it is a quite different kind of opulence, compared to the amount of Baroque one witnesses in St Peter’s. Here, too, one is confronted by the uniquely medieval “distribution of the sensible”, except that Sainte-Chapelle adds all the earthly splendour with which royalty was endowed, which is in this particular embodiment distinctly dedicated to that from which the King derived his earthly power, namely the spiritual realm.
Walking around Paris, where I am to present a paper at an international conference, we notice divergent instances of the “distribution of the sensible”. The famous Arc de Triomphe, built to commemorate Napoleon’s most famous victory at the battle of Austerlitz, for instance, is redolent with the fusion of power representing the ruler of the nation state with mythical iconography employed in the service of someone who wished to be perceived in quasi-mythical (Roman) terms as far as his imperial conquests were concerned. One cannot help noticing the anachronistic juxtaposition of motor cars speeding around the Arc and the huge structure itself, a contrast which is itself an index of the complex postmodern world we inhabit. Such contrasts abound in Paris, nowhere more conspicuously than at the Louvre Art Museum — to my mind the most impressive in the world — where IM Pei’s “glass” pyramid pursues a tense dialogue with the Renaissance style of the colossal building.
One could write more than one book on the art and architecture of Paris, of course, so I won’t pursue this topic further at present. What I would like to say further concerns the people of Paris, who are much friendlier than their apparently undeserved reputation would suggest, and have come to our rescue spontaneously on several occasions when we were scrutinising our Paris map. Moreover, as my partner remarked when we were walking back to our apartment in Montparnasse through the Luxembourg Palace gardens — where hundreds of people were sitting on the lawns in groups, laughing and chatting — they seemed conspicuously happy and relaxed. And many of them were reading. Small wonder that the French are known for being a highly “intellectual” culture. We could learn from them. It was also noticeable how many young people there were among them, preferring the company of their peers in these beautiful surroundings to being couch potatoes in front of television sets, watching soapies or sport. For a moment there I envied them the freedom to use these public spaces in such a carefree manner. We have a long way to go in South Africa before we can do so with impunity.