The invitation to the first symposium came from my old alma mater, the Free University of Brussels, founded by liberals, freemasons, and socialists, all united in their opposition to the Catholic Church, embodied by the 15th-century University of Louvain. Nostalgia drove me to the once well-known quartiers, or rather what remains of them now that Brussels has ceased being the cozy, petit-bourgeois capital of a small country but has instead become Europe’s bureaucratic capital, with high-rise office buildings among the many still remaining one- or two-story houses. My host was the sociological/political Center of Studies, a part of the Free University, itself now split between Flemings and Francophones.
The topic of the symposium was intriguing: “the end of politics,” brilliantly introduced by Prof. Maurice Weyembergh. The day before the conference began, Weyembergh explained his theory to me over a cup of coffee in one of the 14th-century inns of the still beautiful Grand Place. Politics is the conflict between us and them, its essence mutual exclusion of the other class, nation, empire, or interests. With the emergence of technology and the planetary state, the coalesced mankind cannot be far in the future, and the technocrats are working on the “exclusion of exclusion”—a leveled state of affairs where, since all interests will first be reduced to the basic and then satisfied, the concept of “others” will be eliminated.
Now in the United States, where technology and the various techniques it encourages are at home, we are not worried about this alleged closing of the political (and with it, the cultural) horizon. But Europeans are obsessed with it, fearing that their multiform politics and cultures will meld in an impersonal magma—Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Aldous Huxley, and Jacques Ellul to whom Weyembergh owes an admitted debt, all warned of this peril. The participants in the symposium represented various approaches to this central concern, and were divided about half and half between hope and alarm, Weyembergh playing the Socratic role by provoking both agreement and dissent. Pierre Birnbaum from France spoke of the “cultural code” of every nation that protects it from too deep a penetration by foreign influence—thus the us and them would remain constants. Another speaker referred to my critique of utopianism linked to heresies, and drew the conclusion that religions represent the nuclei of inimitable affirmations, and that therefore they opt for “ecumenism” in periods of decline only. (At which time other religions and churches—intolerant and exclusive—emerge.) Weyembergh’s pregnant proposition about the “end of politics” was, in the end, refuted. But the justified fear of technology, a new and dangerous ideology, remained. Its monsters are now darkening the skyline of old Brussels.
Belgium prepared me for the other symposium where I was now heading; Belgium, where the linguistic and ethnic conflict is so serious that the Walloons refuse to learn Netherlandish in school, and the Flemings set up institutions of their own where French is banned. Brussels can no longer arbitrate, as was the case in my student days; the sole mediator remains the institution of monarchy and the present king, Baudouin, to whom all pay respectful tribute. Respect for the monarchy was awaiting me in Nice also, where the symposium was devoted to the “art patronage of the Capetian kings.” You may remember that when Louis XVI was beheaded in 1793, he was first stripped of his royal titles and sentenced as the simple citizen “Louis Capet.” In 1987 France was celebrating the coronation of the first king by that name, Hugh Capet (987), and the whole calendar was studded with commemorative events. The matter is the more piquant as this year (1989) the bicentennial of the French Revolution will be the focus of national attention.
It is hard to imagine in America that a substantial segment of the French—young and old, poor and rich. Communist and reactionary—have remained devoted to the monarchy and its historic role of arbitration. They have had enough of the party system, and their attachment to democracy is less to the institutions than to the desire to run their own affairs locally. It is, then, no surprise that the provinces throughout France organized their own festivities in honor of the “40 kings who made France,” and that the French Academy devoted a special session of commemoration. Not only the Academic Francaise (founded by Richelieu under Louis XIV) but also the French National Assembly celebrated the crowning of Hugh Capet—socialists and Communists present and respectful of the event.
The symposium in Nice was one of the year’s last celebrations. Professors, art historians, curators and directors of museums, and academicians (Michael Deon, the novelist) were invited to speak in the amphitheater of the Mediterranean University. Princess Bourbon-Lobkowitz presided, linking in one name east and west Europe, and the Benedictine Dom Guillou spoke admirably of Versailles. I thought that with the bad weather and Christmas approaching, only a few curious would show up. Yet there were at least 300 of us, greeted by the mayor of Nice, Jacques Medicin, an outspoken enfant terrible of French politics.
I sat through the lectures with fascination. They were all precise, professional essays and studies on what the kings created and inspired in architecture, painting, music, dance, sculpture, landscaping (parks), even in porcelain and the miniature arts. From the exquisite Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (St. Louis) to the ballet performances at the court of Versailles, the kings were the patrons, hosts to artists, protectors of science and literature, and above all men of taste who discussed matters of concept and design with artists, artisans, builders, and composers, exactly like the Renaissance princes and popes of Italy. One lecturer introduced us to Louis XIV’s dances and music, and to psalms composed by his father, Louis XIII. With contemporary rock as a contrast, the royal music from the 17th century flowed over us, soothingly reassuring us that 20th-century “culture” is but a nightmarish interlude. The music and the architecture together expressed the harmony of an age, suggesting that what was once achieved may be again repeated.
Fittingly, the crowning achievement came at the end. The Benedictine monk presented an hour-long documentary on Versailles, prepared by M. Barba-Negra, a Romanian refugee directing films about France’s architectural and urbanistic treasures. Barba-Negra’s Versailles is one of the most stupendous spectacles I ever saw on the screen; it hauntingly goes over the rooms, the halls, the statues, the parks, the fountains and lakes, insisting, ceaselessly, on the ever-present symbols willed by the king and his fellow planners. The film’s musical pieces are from the same period, creating together the impression of a dance, a symphonic piece, a choreography of stone and water, light and shadow, perspective and majesty. For an hour we were overwhelmed by beauty, by meaning, so tragically lacking in our symbolless age.
The following morning was Sunday, and I went to Mass at one of the town’s delightful baroque churches. (It was of course the traditional Latin Mass, the Tridentine.) It was a beautiful morning, the sun evoking the previous evening’s documentary about the sunking. The church was fully packed, and the Mass lasted for an hour and a half I suddenly realized that I was witnessing the continuation of the film on Versailles. Looking at both, the word “ballet” came irresistibly to mind. I understood then and there a connection so obvious that it had never occurred to me before; the majesty of the ceremonial occasion, the perfect choreography of the Mass and of the Palace, the quality of a sacred dance. The archbishop was assisted by nine priests (no concelebration!), all engaged in precise movements, reenacting the supreme sacrifice—the way Versailles reenacted the course through which a man, Louis Capet, becomes king. What better way of penetrating the essence of culture? We all belong to the same mankind—but through acts of culture distinctions are made, beauty elevating some, creating a magic field within which the others—the faithful, the admirers, the participants, even the spectators—are transformed: more, transported to another realm. Thus they become actors on a stage. They become, even for a short hour, different men and women.
Leave a Reply