Sunday, 29 January 2012

Time and Timeless

Built on the site of a Roman sanctuary, Strasbourg's Cathedral apparently was the tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874.

Its interior is certainly lofty. Huge tapestries hang alongside the main aisle, like giant curtains. There is a sens de passage meaning you're supposed to walk around in the directon indicated, which one can understand when there are so many people that free roaming tourists would be hazardous to health and circulation but there are few people in the early morning. I take my chance and dodge to the side of the rows of seats, head for the astronomical clock at the rear, to one side of the altar but separated by various pillars and vaulted compartments, as well as a booth selling postcards and other knick knacks.

The clock has its own vaulted roofed area, guarded by a pillar carved with angels. This clock is also vast, consisting of several different parts, the higher ones soaring into obscurity. How it works is clearly the product of immense calculations, none of which are immediately evident. But there is one circle which shows the zodiac signs – hard to see clearly in the dim light, but it is there, just discernible.

Two guardian figures on a circle below the zodiac may represent Apollo, the sun god, daytime deity, and Diana, moon goddess of the night and it is delightful to see them here, represented in this Christian church, built mostly in the 12th to 13th centuries.

This clock is actually the third version. The first was created in the middle of the 14th century. When it stopped working a second one was made and the present one dates from 1838-42. The first one, interestingly, had at its base a painted figure of a zodiacal man showed the relationship between the signs of the zodiac and parts of the human body. You can read more about the clock here.

It might seem surprising to us now, that a church should show so blatantly a relationship between humanity and the zodiac but in those days, astrological depictions of zodiac signs were not considered improper far less heretical. Just think of Chartres cathedral with its stained glass windows of zodiac signs. After all, in the 12th and 13th centuries there were real heresies to be attacked and relentlessly extirpated – such as the Cathars of the Languedoc. A relationship between the human body and zodiac signs was still probably so embedded in people's thinking as really, not to be questioned.

That would come later, much later, when Johannes Kepler's visionary and painstaking research into the nature of the planetary paths around the sun opened the way for a different way of thinking about the celestial spheres, the macro-cosmos, and earth and us, the micro-cosmos. The two had been indissolubly linked together by Hermes Trismegistus

(as above, so below) a long time before the Christian religion, but this idea of the two worlds - the divine and the human - being linked in some way or another if not necessarily direct cause and effect relationship via the planets, had long been part of the human psyche, until Kepler's time – late 16th, early 17th centuries.

What Kepler did – unintentionally – was to draw a hairline thin crack between these two – macro and micro cosmos, for his calculations were stripped bare of divine shapes, solids or packaging – such as nested spheres – and did not rely on divine geometry as a whole. He was not looking for any divine plan, he wanted to see what was actually happening.

He discovered that the planetary revolutions around the sun were not perfect circles, or of a regular speed and this discovery introduced the faintest whiff of suspicion. Could it be that the creations, i.e. the planets, of the Divine Cosmic Spinner were not geometrically perfect? And if the creations were not perfect what did that say about their Creator? The corrosive acid of doubt set in. Perhaps the worlds were not held together by a mighty sustaining force after all? Perhaps relationships between macro and micro were not necessarily divine, enduring, everlasting, perfect?

And so was born our modern, scientific worldview, which tests and calculates, based on what can actually be seen and measured.

But of course, the planetary movements can indeed be seen and measured as Kepler was one of the first to demonstrate. It's the relationships of these movements with humanity's psychology, with our thoughts, feelings and actions, which are more hotly contested. But at least they haven't been scrubbed out, like altered photographs, edited out in an attempt to falsify history. In fact they are surprisingly enduring, these zodiac signs. Perhaps because they depict the timeless constellations. And it is good to see them here – for they too are constructs of human imagination and design, – to see them here in this dazzling architecture, combining ethereal imagination and sublime craftsmanship.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Orange Palette, Waterways

Il fait du vent? asks S, looking out of the kitchen window, into the dark garden. Enough light spills out to see tree branches close to the window, moving a little. P says that yes, it is windy. He, after all, has ventured outside as he came to the train station, to pick me up.

I'd forgotten to make an early reservation for the TGV from Strasbourg to Paris. All seats on TGVs have to be reserved – c'est obligatoire – and I discover that a lot of people are travelling on New Year's Day and clearly prefer the morning trains. The only train which is not complet is one that leaves later in the afternoon. I then have to get from Gare de l'Est to Gare St. Lazare, not a great distance, but I have to change at Chaussee d'Antin la Fayette and because of some strange squiggles on the metro map that resembles zig-zags of lightning, I get off not at St. Lazare but at Havre Caumartin. This is not far away, but it's dark and I don't recognize where I am. As well as a small rucksack, I'm pulling along my case-on-wheels, with shoulder bag tied to it. Also I'm wearing all my winter clothes – thick jumper and padded gilet over my jacket and Paris is ridiculously warm - so I have to stop and take off my jumper and stuff it in my bag. But after asking the way, I discover it is not far to Gare St. Lazare, and I just make the 18.50 train which is a fast intercité to Le Havre, first stop Rouen Rive Droit, arriving just after 19.00.

Huh, I say, that's not wind. That's just some god breathing, maybe giving a little sigh now and again.

Or perhaps a demon, says P, always liking to scatter a handful of darkness into a conversation to throw people out of any possible complacency, to keep them on the qui vive.

But, he concedes, maybe for you Scottish people, that's not wind, but for us sensitive Breton types –

Of course they have winds on the continent, but much more frequently than happens on these islands, there are days of stillness, serenity, pure balm for the soul. And when it rains, even if it's heavy, the rain falls straight down, with an admirable lack of guile, the directness of its attack making you feel that your opponent is worthy of your attention, making the game enjoyable to play.

The next day, for example, I set out to walk to the city centre under a blue sky, bright sunlight. On the way I pass a splendidly arranged épicerie, with displays of mostly orange fruit, dazzling to the eyes. Clearly care has gone into the colour selection, dark

yellow grapefruit with tinges of pink, next to orange with green, then yellow-green apples with blushes of pink.

But by the time I reached the bridge over the Seine, plump and purple clouds had glided towards the river and fired a fusillade of raindrops at it, water to water. I had not brought an umbrella but I sheltered under the bridge, until it passed. No wind, the rain fell directly downwards, no deception, or sleight of hand. And, just as it was leaving, a sheet of mist, illuminated by sunlight, shone across the river, a pearly halo. This weather was a belle-lettre, a love song, clearly, to its sister water, the wide Seine, with its moored cargo of boats.

The second song came when I was sitting outside a café in the Place Jeanne d'Arc. Sheltered by a canopy, the rain leapt and tumbled in the street and when the canvas canopy shifted a little, the gathered rain emptied itself like a sower flinging a handful of seeds, a sheet of water with a fringe of pearls.

And even the roan pipes that conduct water from rooftops into drains, have turned into water creatures, returning water to water, in an ongoing cycle – how lovely, these artistic touches...