Gardens of Glass

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 3.35.59 PMThe astronomers have never been in a cave like this before. Some of their colleagues have: decades ago the anthropologist Félix Regnault explored the depths of Lombrives, a system of caves in the Pyrenees famous for sheltering a group of Albigensians from their bloodthirsty pursuers in the 13th century. The Albigensians had wriggled through tight, twisty passages into a vast womblike void in which, by flickering torchlight, they could see glinting spires of limestone and the still green waters of a lake. The ceiling was out of sight in the gloom. Researchers later confirmed that this chamber, which came to be called “The Cathedral”, is the size of Notre-Dame. Regnault would eventually find a deeper, further system of tunnels that led to a chamber four times that size, a cavern so big it seemed bigger than the world outside it. News of this probably reached the astronomers when they were children, and maybe they dreamed of seeing that green lake some day.

But in those days before boutique tours and climbing gyms, speleology was a discipline for eccentrics. The first time the astronomers saw an interior the size of the galleries in Lombrives it was in the Hall of Machines at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

The Hall of Machines was a long iron-and-glass pavilion, with a vaulted ceiling like a Gothic cathedral’s, except that the trusses that supported those vaults started high up their supporting pillars, which, close to the ground, seemed eerily light and insubstantial. It was therefore impossible to figure out the exact scale and weight of the building. It was the largest enclosed space on Earth at the time, and like Lombrives it seemed bigger and more capacious than the world outside.

The Hall of Machines was a new development in iron construction, but the astronomers have grown up with the technique and are probably familiar, at least in concept, with the vertiginous awe that iron-and-glass buildings provoked in people. In 1851 Lothar Bucher, a future lackey of Otto von Bismarck, visited the Crystal Palace in London and wrote this about the iron lattice that held it up: “We see a delicate network of lines without any clue by means of which we might judge their distance from the eye or their real size…It is sober economy of language if I call the spectacle incomparable and fairylike. It is a Midsummer Night’s Dream seen in the clear light of the day.”

Massive buildings out of all human scale are not new. What is new, in the astronomers’ day, is the lack of any attempt to relate them to the human scale. The transgenerational train of architects who built St. Peter’s Basilica were all very careful to relate its maddening scale to the size of observers’ bodies: the statues built along the nave and around the choir are all slightly larger than life-size, and twin statues located directly above each of them are three times that size. The building slowly massages the viewer’s eye until it’s ready to conceive of the divine. Nothing of the sort in the Hall of Machines, which has stripped away all those statues of saints and allegories and revealed the building’s skeleton, as mute and inhuman as the limestone walls of Lombrives.

Stripping the crinolines and hoopskirts from the building. About the time of the 1889 World’s Fair, the German art critic Max Liebermann wrote about Edgar Degas that “he seems…to see the nascent prostitute in the young dancer”. That’s to say that Degas saw primarily artifice, not beauty, when he went to the ballet: straining cablelike muscles and bright synthetic makeup, and above all a pneumatic pantomime of lust, instead of the grace and elegance that sent other critics into rhapsody. He painted these things as impassively as he could, in a cold, heartless frame that he inherited from photography and Japanese prints. Degas’s point is that the body’s systems do not look at all “human” when you examine them closely. Years later the architecture critic Sigfried Giedion will identify this point of view with the one that created the Hall of Machines.

People had been scared of revealing the flesh of the building for years. The architect Henri Labrouste designed a massive glass-and-iron wall for the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, but in the completed building it is covered with a literal curtain, like a woman in a cartoon throwing clothes up over a dressing screen. All through the history of glass-and-iron construction you can see decoration frothing at the mouth in an attempt to cover it up. Volutes, allegorical statues, frescoes, plush carpets—distractions creep over every surface. But the metallic skeleton is always there.

In its earliest stages, before the department stores and train stations, before the Hall of Machines, large enough to generate its own weather, this metallic skeleton covered greenhouses. In the 1830s, Charles Rohault de Fleury built greenhouses in the Jardin des Plantes, with wrought-iron cages supporting glass roofs so that plants could bloom underneath them year-round in circumvention of the natural order of the seasons. The novelty of this approach was such that they were called the “Gardens of Glass”. Joseph Paxton, the architect of the Crystal Palace, was also a gardener, “more accustomed to work with plants than with iron”.

Pierre Fontaine’s Galerie d’Orleans, a wing of the Palais Royal, was completed in 1831, when anyone over 50—the astronomers’ grandparents—could still tell you about life under Louis XVI. Its severe Doric columns are like ghosts from that world, but above the architrave those columns bloomed into an iron-and-glass roof. Giedion writes that the roof’s diffuse glow created “an impression of freedom and openness, as though one were out-of-doors yet shielded from the elements.”

An impression of freedom and openness.

And here the astronomers are: in a mushroom garden on the moon.


Deeper:

The freedom to kill a big bug

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The Apparition

Haussmannization

The Sun

In the original 1857 edition of Les fleurs du mal, the third poem is “The Sun”, in the second stanza of which Baudelaire compares the titular celestial body to a poet and allows himself some uncharacteristically posi imagery: the sun “awakens in the fields verses like roses” and “replenishes minds and hives with honey”. This solar hymn, so early in the book, might suggest to a reader unfamiliar with Baudelaire that the poet’s mission is the same: to redeem and replenish. That reader would be sucker-punched by the rest of the book. Baudelaire is not trying to redeem anything; he’s happy to get high and go to museums. But he does start us off with a glimpse of this alternate world, a world where the dominant colors are gold and green rather than silver and purple.

Fields of wheat dotted with wild roses. This arcadian vision doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the book, but it suggests that at some point Baudelaire wanted to make the urban-rural contrast in Les fleurs du mal explicit, with the country standing for the natural and pure and the city for the artificial and corrupt.

Why couldn’t he keep it that way? In the final 1868 version of the book “The Sun” has been moved far back, into the “Parisian Landscapes” section, a few poems away from “The Swan”, Baudelaire’s lament for Paris before Baron Von Haussmann’s renovations, in which he describes the sky as “cruelly blue”.

Light, Gold and Gauze

Sometime between 1841 and 1857, Baudelaire was sitting at the back of a cheap theater, a miserable orchestra sawing away in the pit, when an angel with gauzy wings appeared onstage and banished all evil. He was at a féerie play and must have known it was an illusion, but the vision left him weeping and desperate for hours or maybe days.

Féerie was a genre of glitzy effects spectacle that drew mass audiences for decades. It built up to a climax of pure ecstasy, in which angels descended from the catwalks and made everything right. Budgets were often stretched thin, and producers had to make do with very cheap props, whence Baudelaire’s description of the angel as a being of “light, gold and gauze”—that is, muslin, imitation gold dust, and limey footlights out of Degas. This cheapness didn’t affect Baudelaire’s earnest experience of the angel’s divinity. He was living in pure filth somewhere in Paris. See his apartment, strung with icicles in January and crawling with bugs in June. He spent days by himself, always drunk or hungover, and he felt wolves closing in around him. He could see the angel onstage, but the proscenium was a transparent wall between its ideal world and his own shithole of a life.

He dreamed about the angel after that, and in many dreams it seemed to become an alabaster sphinx, its beauty intact but somehow lacking all warmth. Every morning he woke up to workers smashing the flagstones to rubble.

Cinders and Chalk

The French colony of Saint-Pierre was obliterated on May 8, 1902 by a hissing wall of vapor that rushed down from the volcano above the town, scouring everything to its foundations. One of the three survivors described watching people die writhing and wailing “although their garments showed no sign of having been touched by flame”. 28,000 people were essentially burned to death by the air itself. It was one of the first real catastrophes of the young 20th century. Photos of the aftermath show a lunar landscape like the one left behind after the bombing of Dresden.

Morbid fascination spread through the the metropole, but there weren’t enough photos of the eruption to satisfy the public, so with Olympian self-confidence Georges Méliès simply recreated it in his studio. Apparently he’d read some eyewitness accounts—he’s careful to include the burning cloud—but then he throws in some dramatic lava flows that have no basis in fact. And yet people watched it in the understanding that it was real. Seven years before, the same people had run screaming from the Lumieres’ train because they didn’t know it was an illusion.

Years later, twittering at a party, the modernist poet Guillaume Apollinaire asked Méliès how he had created the effects for the movie. Méliès, not apparently a very doctrinaire magician, revealed that he had done it by photographing cinders and chalk, and Apollinaire, turning to a friend, apparently said, “Monsieur and I have the same occupation: we enchant ordinary materials.”

The Moon

Méliès used the cloud effect again, later in 1902, for a rock obelisk that explodes when the astronomers first reach the surface of the moon. That makes it a special effect, developed for use in an artificial recreation of a real event, now being put to use in a fantasy film. Méliès clearly saw these things, reality and fantasy equally, as fuel for his work—just different types of ordinary material awaiting an enchanter.

When he was a child there were covered passages in Paris called “galleries” or “arcades”, floored with cool white marble, with iron-ribbed glass roofs that let in an unearthly, diffuse light. The city was honeycombed with them. Most of them closed, though, after Haussmann broadened the boulevards and vast new department stores moved in to line them, replacing the ragged shops of small tradesmen who couldn’t afford to live in the center of town anymore. Méliès may have realized that the city itself had been arcadified.

The first line of the Paris Métro had a stop just south of the theater where he showed his movies. The entrance to each metro station was a grove of metal trees, ungrowing parodies of ones you might find in the Île-de-France countryside. Down in the stations it was always too dark, and if it was a clear day the sun blinded you coming back up. Even if it was a clear day everyone wore black and swung umbrellas. It was fashionable to buy vases shaped like tulips.


Deeper

From day to night

The Rage of Professor Barbenfouillis

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The rules of the world are suspended here. The cavern roars off into the distance, and even as they descend the astronomers can see crags and spires, glittering stalactites, green rivers rushing over cliffs to vanish in the hissing darkness. Their leader, Professor Barbenfouillis, plants his umbrella in the ground and finds it transformed into a huge toadstool. His delight is Edenic. A whole unspoiled world awaits, a labyrinth of untold size and detail.

The astronomers have been making noise, though, and they’ve disturbed something. From the gloom of a grove of mushrooms scuttles a Selenite, a fearsome lunar crustacean. Its menace is overwhelming; Barbenfouillis rushes back to his panicked friends. Seizing another umbrella, he turns to face the Selenite and shrinks back in fear as it rushes him, but it stops short, like a bull that’s just trying to keep strangers away from its herd, and now Barbenfouillis lunges. Startled, it falls onto its back; he brings down the umbrella, and it bursts like a sporocarp.

Is Professor Barbenfouillis a killer? The obvious answer is no. This is a learned professor, passing his life in solitary contemplation of the stars, sometimes attending a conference. He is quiet and solitary, maybe not a people person. But he’s not a murderer. He was scared. His friends were egging him on.

Think about this historically, though. How old is Professor Barbenfouillis? Let’s assume he’s a lifelong Parisian, like his interpreter Georges Méliès. If he’s 70 years old in 1902, he’s seen things you people wouldn’t believe. When he was 1 or 2, soldiers walked into a tenement just northeast of the Louvre, kicked down the doors of the rooms, surprised the inhabitants (supposed rioters) in their pajamas, and slaughtered them. If baby Barbenfouillis was ever taken to the shops in the Véro-Dodat arcade (entrance surmounted by statues of Hermes and a Satyr, commerce and frenzy), he may have seen Honoré Daumier’s lithograph in a window: a man in a bloody nightgown, propped up on the flank of a bed, with his son, still alive, crushed beneath him.

It’s unlikely that he remembers that, or that he remembers how the soldiers were egged on by people like his family. But things happened at an accelerating tempo through the rest of the century. When Barbenfouillis was 16, he might have heard gunshots from across the Seine as guards outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs killed 52 people. When he was 20 he might have watched columns of people led by soldiers past his window, to be herded onto cattle cars and shipped to Algeria. For most of his 20s and 30s French soldiers died shivering with tropical diseases on gunships from the Orinoco to the Mekong. When he was 39 he would have spent months trying to get the taste of cat meat out of his mouth as the Prussians closed in on Paris. And in the Commune, who knows? Did he flee the city? Did he huddle in his flat and wait for Thiers and the Versailles Army to save him? What was he doing at the end, with the blood of 25,000 people gurgling into the gutters, when every street hissed with maggots?

That was 30 years ago. The city still smells like shit and death. Sometimes on Sunday mornings he sees the frozen corpse of a Gascon or a Breton huddled on a quay. The streets he used to know have been paved under canyonlike boulevards, and there’s nothing to hear anywhere but screaming locomotives and clanging iron wheels. He keeps waiting for it to stop and relax but it never does, it just keeps going, creeping out like a myxogastrid, swallowing Vietnam and Algeria. It is tunneling into itself now, filigreeing iron rails beneath its own skin, digging out the labyrinthine new frontier, spiraling raggedly down, faster and faster.

Now he’s on the moon. All of that is far below, and things here are silent and peaceful. But Barbenfouillis is carrying it around inside of him.

It is possible that the first labyrinth, built on Minoan Crete in the late Bronze Age, was a dance floor. Book 18 of the Iliad seems to mention it, in a long description of the new shield Hephaestus makes for Achilles. Homer doesn’t actually mention a maze, but some English translators carry it in from later traditions. Here’s Chapman, who goes all the way: “…a dancing place / all full of turnings, that was like the admirable maze / for hair-hair’d Ariadne made, by cunning Daedalus / And in it youths and virgins dance’d, all young and beauteous.”

Other translators let the choreography of the dance suggest the maze. But even if the dancing place and not just the dance was truly full of turnings, those turnings were just paint. In the Iliad, the youths and virgins get about three times as much attention as the dance floor. Their dance may have involved jumping over a bull, which would be another celebration of the young and the beauteous. But Minoan civilization collapsed, and 500 years later the Greeks, like horror fans craving gore, had buried this dancing floor deep in the earth, built walls for it, turned the youths and virgins into sacrificial victims, and transformed the bull into a Minotaur. This folkloric defamation turned a fertility rite, permanently, into a form of ritual combat. 700 years after that, the Flavians built what came to be known as the Colosseum, a venue for ritual combat built on top of a maze. 

It’s possible that, in the cave, Barbenfouillis recognizes the mirror image of the Métro, the new world beneath Paris. (The excavations at Knossos, which uncovered fair-hair’d Ariadne’s dancing floor, coincided with the excavations in Paris that created the first Métro line.) The difference is that on the moon there are no timetables, no roaring iron and hissing steam. There is perfect freedom. There’s nothing to stop Barbenfouillis from carrying out the urge that’s been boiling up inside him for his entire life.


Deeper:

Beneath the surface of the moon

Come sta, la luna?

Phoebe

What is Phoebe doing on the moon?

I know the association is obvious. It makes sense for the goddess of the moon, the grandmother of Artemis, to be here. Try to move past associational thinking for a second, though: the first people to worship her thought that she was the moon. She floated through the sky on a slowly changing course every month, shedding silvery light on the rabbits and werewolves. But for the movie to work, the moon needs to be a place, not a person. In only 67 years, people will go there and find desolation. What is a goddess doing there?

The astronomers are dreaming, of course, stretched out in their scratchy frock coats like country tourists after a long lunch, and dreaming means thinking by analogy. But Phoebe is not a projection of their dream. In a second she’ll create a blizzard that will drive the astronomers underground, into the grasp of the crablike Selenites. We have to assume that she really is there, along with Saturn and the mysterious nymphs the film program calls the “Twin Stars.” She has appeared, like the gods in the Iliad, to comment on the action below and nudge it towards completion.

The world was still lousy with goddesses and nymphs in 1902. They had actually proliferated since the end of the Middle Ages: the sculptors and architects of the early Florentine Renaissance valued spare geometry to an extent that was almost Islamic, but by the late nineteenth century there was divine froth all over everything. The Grand Palais, a steel-and-glass basilica on the Champs-Elysées, was completed only 2 years before Méliès made A Trip to the Moon; it hosted strenuously modern events, like airplane exhibitions, a World’s Fair, and a hospital for men wounded on the Western Front, but the north and south ends of the building are each topped by a bronze quadriga, a four-horse chariot that, according to the Bronze Age herders who first worshipped Phoebe, the sun drove across the sky each day. Picasso painted with the deified king Saint Louis rising up behind him on Sacré Coeur, and Nietzche had his famous run-in with the horse, at the south corner of Piazza Carlo Alberto in Turin, in sight of the allegories of (no bullshit!) Independence and Martyrdom.

In some cases, they were there to conceal, because leaving the deities off of a piece of art would have meant exposing its flesh. The flesh of a building or a painting, like the flesh of a person, doesn’t have the articulate, sinuous beauty that the fin-de-siècle artists prized; its salient characteristic is rather its sheer uniform expanse and, depending on material, its pastiness. This terrified people, even when they insisted it did not—Swinburne, for example, was ostensibly a devotee of pagan desire, but his poetry doesn’t leave the house without a paisley shawl-lapel waistcoat. Whence a desire for goddesses, like underwear, to cloak our abjection.

Phoebe is not like that, though, not a lacy petticoat on the movie. Her inclusion might be de rigueur, but the tableau around her is very clear and very detailed. This is possibly because Méliès had neither the resources nor the technical ability for things to get out of control; if so, it’s lucky for us. The gods depicted are absolutely consistent: all are celestial deities; the two that we have names for are Titans, not Olympians. Each entity represents a celestial object the Greeks would have been familiar with: a pair of fixed stars, a wandering planet, and the inconstant moon. There’s a division of the frame between human (bottom third) and celestial (top two thirds) so clear that El Greco would admire it. And there’s the lordly sweep of Phoebe’s arm as she calls Saturn’s eyes to the men below.

Intelligent viewers in the 15th century would look at this gesture and understand it immediately: the gods, looking down on the poor humans and their dented tin rocket, remark gently on the futility of human endeavor. In the composition of the divine figures—discrete groups laid out in a line—they might also see an inversion of Botticelli’s Primavera: instead of a right-to-left movement transforming earthly into divine love, we have a left-to-right movement transforming youth (the Twin Stars) into old age (Saturn), with maturity taking a commanding central position. The Primavera announced a civilizational spring; in A Trip to the Moon Phoebe sends a blizzard. A large wheel has revolved three quarters of the way.

Who knows if Méliès intended it to be that kind of rebus; he had both the cleverness and the deep pessimism to come up with it, but if he did, nobody noticed. Whatever he wanted, he managed to create an image—the moon on the moon—that fits two worlds into one frame.


Deeper:

The link between human flesh and iron architecture