by J J Cohen
We've just returned from a trip to Bordeaux, where over the Thanksgiving holiday we visited the family with whom Alex stayed last year at this time, courtesy of an exchange program at his school. Meeting Nathalie, Salomé, Augustin and Félix -- people we knew only through descriptions (Alex is an unsentimental teenager; he neglected to take photographs) -- was affirming. Their cordiality, and their obvious affection for Alex, inaugurated a tremendously enjoyable visit. I won't pretend that family travel lacks challenges: the meltdowns that jet lag and other fatigues trigger, the work required to keep a group of four united despite their differences, the moments of tedium or homesickness. Yet all in all this trip provided the best Thanksgiving we've had. It helped, of course, to be in a country indifferent to the day, and to eat a meal of galettes bretonnes and crêpes (and for two us, cidre) on a holiday when most of our friends devour a roasted animal without appeal for us four. And, for reasons not to be dwelt upon here, being away from extended family was also welcome.
Just before departure I finished the draft of the first chapter of my book, sixty pages of rumination upon fossils lithic and textual, and the invitation to deep time they extend. Today I am supposed to begin work on chapter two, "Radiance," on the forces stones unceasingly emanate. My heart is not in it. Or maybe I distrust my thesis. My mind is pulled back (by inexorable lithic gravity? an abiding rocky magnetism?) to the stones that intruded into our journeys of the last week, unlooked for but recurrent incursions into what was supposed to be family time. And maybe that repeated inhuman presence that surfaces near the heart of what is intimate, enclosed, and profoundly human has always been the spur to this book I have been writing for six years, or perhaps for more than forty years. Perhaps it is even, quietly, its subject.
Bordeaux is a city of stone, but not a metropolis a medievalist would call old. Its buildings are 18th century in their splendor. Their regal heft rose by pulverizing the preceding cityscapes. Numerous fountains, the swirl of the Garonne, and a recent mirroir d'eau help to counteract their ponderousness, bringing some fluidity to an architecture that can seem overly decorous. The Atlantic crashes not too distantly. Bord’eaux: intimacy to waters is in the city's name. Yet like the precisely crafted wine for which the region is famous, something feels artfully produced about Bordeaux's historic spaces: the balance of water and stone measured and executed for optimal aesthetic effect. A perfection, yes, but perfections are diffident.
The historic center of Bordeaux is not what theorists call an "urban palimpsest," or at least it isn't much of one. An ultramodern tram courses the square in front of the majestic Grand Théâtre (c. 1780), and though some hundreds of years might separate the two they seem comfortable companions, alike in their gleam. You have to walk to the city's edge to find the tower where Eleanor of Aquitaine lived. The ruins of a Roman coliseum are hidden by some apartment buildings and generally unlisted among tourist attractions. The ruins are cordoned from the life of the city, at the terminus of a narrow cul de sac: a nice view for some apartment dwellers, but there is no possibility of nearing the stones.
It surprised me, therefore, to wander the Jardin Public and encounter a Neolithic circle. We'd been searching only for the carousel, yet there it was: ancient rocks, some of them incised, in a classic ring formation. An imitation of a cromlech from Brittany? A model meant to add atmosphere to this park not even a few centuries old? I wasn’t sure. The circle is certainly easy to miss. Mentioned in no guidebook and marked only by a sign that lost its words years ago, the structure inhabits a shady slope not far from a see-saw. On nearby benches the Bordelais eat lunch. Some research later revealed that the circle is authentic – and had in fact been transported from Lesparre-Medoc in 1875, partly as a historical curiosity, partly to add a picturesque element to the gardens.
Does the relocation of this architecture suggest that even though its builders vanished long ago, the stones continue to exert some power? The ring was not, as many cromlechs have been, fragmented so that the site could be used for another purpose. It was carefully measured, moved and restored. It did not suffer the fate of the Roman city that these gardens are built atop. Deracinated, dislocated, the ring is now nearly silent in its park. On an autumn day in 2011 it pulled me into its orbit, made me happy that it had not been consigned to the far side of metal fence on an obscure street like Burdigala's former amphitheater. And yet a cromlech in a city's midst, where trees undermine its solidity and air pollution wears its stones and the oil of human hands stains and children mistake it for a playground is an architecture that will not be offering its invitations to the contemplation of history and lost peoples indefinitely. The Cromlech de Lervaut in the Jardin Public in Bordeaux is a disintegrating time capsule, an archive crumbling into quiet. Yet there I was photographing the ring, feeling the joy of unexpected discovery, wondering about the hands that shaped it and the hands that moved it and the lives that have been and are being lived around its center.
Later in the week we traveled to Saint-Émilion to visit the église monolithique, a subterranean church carved from a single block of limestone. We arrived just in time to make the only tour of the day, which was in French. "I can't possibly translate for you," the guide stated with annoyance, irked as well at Katherine’s sudden need to use the toilet when the tour was about to begin. Since a guide is the only way to enter the church, we were happy to go with her all the same. Her French was precise and lucid; I had little trouble with it, nor did Alex ... and eventually she even warmed to Katherine, whose pleasure at the church's centaur and dragon transcended language. By the end of the visit the guide was happily speaking in English to her youngest entourage member. It is possible that the église monolithique is a crusades-era inspiration, the idea of a cave-like building brought back to France from Turkey with some itinerant knights. Or possibly its excavation was a convenience: hollow out the hill as you quarry stone for the town's buildings, and use the space for worship. We can’t know, because there are no documents: the church’s history is in the church’s stone alone.
There is a power within this hill become a place of worship. It is difficult not to feel the weight above you as you regard the pillars soaring into darkness. A cathedral promises sky on its other side; this church only more stone. Yet this power has not always been perceived. During the French Revolution the church was sold and its furnishings stripped. A cooper set up shop in a chapel. The soot from his curing of wine barrels accidentally preserved the ornate murals on the walls. The church is now privately owned and little used. Some tourists come to see it as they visit nearby vineyards and stop at Saint-Émilion for lunch. If this sacred space carved from singular stone has any transhistorical assertiveness, it seems a power that waxes and wanes. Most pilgrims to Saint-Émilion would, I think, rather dine at a café with a view of the orderly grape vines than explore such a dim interior.
Another day trip from Bordeaux took us to Arcachon. We were pulled, for reasons I can’t fully explain, by the Atlantic: my family is united in its love of oceans. I was thinking about that gravity a great deal during this trip, especially as I was contemplating how at the age of fourteen Alex is a young man I don’t always know. He has unpredictable moods and desires that come from strange places. He is becoming his own person. And yet the ocean brings out a contemplativeness in him that he shares with his sister, mother, father.
A quotation from Jean Cocteau stenciled on the glass of a café near the beach at Arcahon helped me to understand how waves, stone and imagination form a unity of time, again and again.
And then to Paris. We walked around the places we know, and found others to explore – like the catacombs, l’empire de la mort, that pass beneath much of Montparnasse, and where bones have become a decorative and endless wall. After all, calcium is stone. “How long does it take,” I asked, “for a body to be no longer a person or a life, but material that can be moved, that can be used to construct a place like this?” Not long.
Later we crossed the Pont des Arts and were amused by the rows of love locks that have been affixed there. Steel clasping steel above ceaselessly flowing water, they well capture the passions that we want to make last, the ardor we have to stay bound to this earth and to each other, as well as the anonymity that ultimately swallows such acts that feel to us singular. It was hard not to see a convergence of sorts in the beauty of the locks clasping the bridge and the beauty (why not?) they share with the architectures of bone beneath the streets of Montparnasse.
We’d never stayed in Montparnasse before, and enjoyed the way its busy streets yield quickly to everyday neighborhoods. One of these is a community of the dead, the crowded and stony and weirdly lively Cimetière du Montparnasse. Alex and I went there together, and remarked how some graves stood in what seemed to be eternal splendor, while others had already been obliterated. We were moved when we came upon a cenotaph, its occupant “disappeared to Auschwitz.” We left a pebble upon it, observing how strange it was to find a Jewish memorial among so many crosses. Yet the more we wandered the more familiar the Magen David became. We placed a pebble upon each grave, until the number of them grew so overwhelming that we knew we could never accomplish this task we’d assumed. The dead profoundly outnumber the living. Memorialization brings despair. I asked Alex how long he thought the lifespan of grief might be. When do the daily visits to the cemetery cease? At what point does one say, I’ll go weekly. I’ll go once a month. I’ll go for the anniversary. I used to go …
Our final morning in Paris was spent walking to the Arènes de Lutèce, the remnants of a Roman amphitheatre uncovered in the nineteenth century. A few summers ago we’d lived not far from the ruins on the Rue Claude Bernard. I’d enjoyed going to the Arènes, especially in the morning. In the semi-circle where people died to amuse an audience, young men now practice soccer and older men play bocce. I’d never photographed the place. This is where Alex and Katherine’s patience gave out. They were tired of living in my documentary about stones and the human lives that unfold beside and within them. They were weary of being human content for my lithic ruminations. They did not want their pictures taken around the Arènes. So they walked off together, and I wandered with Wendy or by myself and took photographs that make the place seem emptier than it is.
I like that the Arènes de Lutèce are nothing like the coliseum in Bordeaux. They are part of the city’s life, a lived space. They are also, like many stone monuments that survive into the present day, restored to the point of being almost a recreation – but nothing lasts as long as we desire, not even the stone in which we encase our yearnings for an eternity.
On the plane back to DC I watched the Lars von Trier film Melancholia. Had I seen it anywhere else I might have been annoyed by its heavy-handed allegories. A blue planet called Melancholia is headed towards an earth inhabited by melancholiacs and those whom they suck into their orbits. You might think that you can escape the sadness (at first it seems that the Weighty Symbolic Planet is going to miss earth), but you cannot (Melancholia swerves back and crushes our world). The final scene features a feeble “cave” made not of stone but of several sticks inside which three of the protagonists huddle. One of them is a child who is told that he will be safe. He is incinerated like his mother and aunt. The End.
Blunt, perhaps, but maybe that is the frank lesson of stone. It is possible that the moon was created when a planet called Theia smashed us long ago, causing the liquefied earth to reform. We don’t know. We can’t know. It is possible that the makers of the Cromlech de Lervaut thought that what they built would always endure, that no one would forget what their stone ring means and dismantle it to bring to a park. It is possible that those who cheered in Latin in the stone theaters of Bordeaux and Paris assumed that Rome would never fall, that the language of their shouts would be the language of that space for all time. It may well be that those who affix love locks to Parisian bridges believe their passion will not abate, that their inscribed names will signify their ardor endlessly. The builders of Saint-Émilion could not have known that the church would become a barrel maker’s workspace, or that the effigies upon its stone tombs would lose their faces. The particular is always rendered anonymous, like bones taken from graves to fashion whimsical arches in an Empire of the Dead. Those still in graves or those exhumed from them have no message to bear other than that time erodes memory, time unhooks substance. The continents we cross on airplanes are plunging slowly into sea. In the cemetery at Montparnasse someone’s grave had a baby in a shroud atop a mother in a shroud. Could anything speak loss – of memory, of love, of history, of everything that matters – more eloquently?
And yet someone else, nearby, had commissioned for their funereal sculpture an angel that is probably arriving to take a soul to heaven, but accidentally resembles an incubus embracing his human lover. I left a pebble here, too. I don’t think this statue will be around in a millennium. It isn’t the Cromlech de Lervaut. Someone will clear the cemetery for an apartment complex when no one remembers who is buried beneath the stones. But there is something defiant in that incubus or angel love (carnal or spiritual, I can’t in the end tell which), a love that also speaks of some artist’s passionate collaboration with stone.
I do not believe that anything, lithic or otherwise, will still speak ten thousand years hence. I do have some hope that a few messages might endure for centuries, and that sometimes, but only sometimes, stone forms an alliance with quick paced humans and that alliance holds force for millennia. That, in the end, must suffice. To live long enough is to disbelieve the power we once thought we possessed to keep the things we love. This is sad knowledge, melancholic knowledge, but it does not end the world. No Blue Planet or second Theia is in the telescope. Yet. We inhabit an ephemeral landscape.
Stone intrudes and intrudes not because it is so different from we who build families of whatever kind against the cataclysms of the world, but because of its deep affinity, its desire for a permanence that no thing can hold, its strangely inhuman (I don’t know what else to call it) love.