Paris is the World: The Sacred and Not So Sacred

August 22, 2013

Paris giveth and Paris taketh away. It dazzles and disillusions, pleases and disgusts. Beauty and filth. Not, of course, a tension unique to Paris, one found in all great cities, but Paris is where the world and I rub shoulders.


I’d arranged to meet my daughter at the Sainte Chapelle, King Louis IX’s private chapel, where one finds some of the finest medieval stained glass still extant in Europe. There would be a concert in the evening, classical music to please the spirit, to lighten the soul.


I’d explained a bit about Louis IX. A bit of a lunatic, I told my daughter, a man who thought he was the direct descendant of the biblical King David, who compulsively bought “relics” of the crucifixion, bits of the true cross, for instance. Wags, of a later generation, said he had enough of the true cross to make three. A crown of thorns, that Louis believed to be the Crown of Thorns, is in the treasury of the cathedral of Notre Dame. I’ve not heard of any recent claims about it authenticity. Louis wore scratchy hair shirts under the velvet and ermine and liked being whipped for his sins. I’ve heard that he invited a poor and homeless person to dine with him daily. As a devout Catholic he expanded the powers of the Inquisition, legislated against the Jews, and funded and participated in two crusades, acts that, from my modern and non-catholic perspective, look like little more than church sanctioned plundering. He was canonized in 1296; St. Louis, Missouri, is named for him.  My daughter says that I am not being balanced. She points out that  he cared for the poor and homeless, and that he built the Sainte-Chapelle and commissioned its beautiful windows, a gift to the future. I acknowledge my cynicism and conclude. Returning from the crusade, in 1290, he died, according to modern scholarship, of dysentery. As ignoble a death as I can imagine, the life of this exemplary Christian, this king of France, when France  was at its peak of medieval influence, draining out of him from the back end. Without modern medicine’s ability to restore fluids, he simply shriveled up. The official version was that he died of plague, an affliction that could be considered punishment for one’s sins. In the 13th century the devout believed  that one sinned almost by breathing.


I cross the bridge over the Seine and am on the Ile de la Cite. It is full daylight, summer still, and the street is crowded. Up ahead, perhaps 100 feet, I see something that, at first, my eye simply registers as anomalous, something that shouldn’t be there. A homeless woman – I immediately conclude “homeless” from the shopping cart piled with bedding and shopping bags, a woman in her sixties with a shock of gray hair, is seated, perched actually on the seat edge, on a park bench that is two hundred feet from the entrance to the Sainte-Chapelle and one hundred yards from the Paris Police central headquarters. The anomaly is that the flesh, by tone and color, of her upper thigh is visible, while her lower leg is covered. In seconds I realize what I am seeing. She has pulled down her pants and in the process of defecating on the sidewalk. Against my will I witness it happen. A man also sitting on the bench rises, with a look of horror, and moves rapidly away. The smell is palpable. I look away and hurry on.



And as I do, I discover that I have quite an interesting range of responses to this event. Anger, first, and the hope that a police officer will appear and take this spoiler of the public space away. A thought about what an unpleasant job urban policing must be follows close behind. Revulsion next, followed by a range of mitigating ideas, all conditioned by my liberal politics, principally that this woman, in order to have done such a disgusting thing, making no effort to even hide behind a garbage tip or a parked truck, must be mentally ill. Or that she is a symptom of a societal illness, the responsibility for which must in some way be shared. I returned, however, to my original cluster of responses. Disgust, revulsion, anger. And there it stayed. I understood “obscene” in a new way, noting that I would have found some overt sexual act publicly performed on the same bench as being less shocking and less offensive. This woman, mentally ill or not, had deliberately fouled the feast, like the harpies of Greek myth.


I join my daughter, lovely, 19 years old, and her best friend at Sainte-Chappelle. We listen to a Bach oboe concerto and watch the evening light filter through the 13th century windows. I say nothing to her about what I have seen. I preserve for some of us, at least, a purity, an innocence. Only by reading this will she know it happened. I wondered if the King would have invited this woman to dine with him. My daughter liked the Mozart on the program best, “A Little Night Music.” It was my favorite too.


Saint Louis’s body, interned in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, disappeared during the 16th century Wars of Religion. Only a finger was saved and it is still there.

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