Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Flattering to deceive

On our recent honeymoon we stayed for a few days in a hotel near the Panthéon, the great Republican mausoleum which celebrates les grands hommes of the French Republic. If you want to stay in the area let me warn you away from booking a spot at the Hotel André Latin on Rue Gay Lussac. They do not provide kettles in their rooms - something you really miss in winter - and they point blank refused to provide us with one when we asked nicely. Kettles are, we were told, a fire hazard. I didn't know this but apparently kettles explode in France all the time.

Well, call me a cynic but it struck me that the point of this deprivation was to chase guests out of their room to spend 12 euros on the hotel's breakfast. Happily, in the vicinity of the hotel we managed to buy a thermoplongeur, two mugs and a box of tea bags, and we smiled broadly as we walked by reception every morning, warmed by the fruits of our illictly-haboured water-heating equipment. But I digress even before I have started ...

The Panthéon has always seemed to me to be one of the more agressive expressions of French secularity. It started life as a church after all; it was in fact the church of St Genevieve on whose mount it stands. It was sequestered for a second or possibly third time by parliamentary diktat in 1885 to house the remains of Victor Hugo when the old scoundrel finally choked. It was thus returned to the purpose it had been put to under the Revolution when a mighty procession of French nobodies got swanky burials and a kind of republican apotheosis. One cannot fail to be amazed by the reproduction of Foucault's pendulum which swings gently from the central dome.

You and I think the point of the pendulum is to show that the world turns on its axis. Léon Foucault probably did too. In republican folklore, however, it is the definitive proof of the errancy of the Bible. A crowd of stone representatives gathers around a Marianne-like figure in the apse whom they all salute with what looks remarkably like a Nazi reflex. Descend into the bowels of the building and you find the burial chambers of Hugo, Emile Zola, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. Are you getting the picture? The Panthéon breathes every form of republican righteousness in the book.

And yet, what struck me on this visit - for I have visited it several times before - was the détournement of French national history. In many ways the Panthéon is rather more subtle than I had given it credit for. Around the walls, for example, are a series of remarkable murals depicting the scenes of French national heroes, including Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Genevieve, the holy King Louis IX, and others. In the very dome above the apse the figure of Christ Himself is depicted, surrounded by Joan, Genevieve, the 'angel of the nation' (' Galliae custodem')

and what appears to be the Virgin Mother.

What could it all mean? Later that day we went up Montmartre to visit the Church of the Sacré Coeur and above the altar there is a mosaic of Christ almost identical to the picture in the Panthéon, but with this small difference: in addition to Joan and Genevieve, there is also the pope kneeling at Christ's feet!

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think it is also the surest sign of envy. The Panthéon in this light is about making French history serve the Republican story. On closer inspection the murals of St Joan and St Genevieve showed them almost all but divested of their religious connotations. Instead they were meant to serve some rather more earthly purpose: salvation by the Republic!

Who was it said that the devil is the very ape of God?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In a profoundly more shallow way, I got the same feeling when I visited the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.--it obviously is attempting a french republican spirit in seeming Church-like but having nothing to do with the Church.