My last three days in Paris, I went to museums twice; since on Tuesdays most of the museums are closed, I stayed in and worked that day. (Pity, it was another beautiful day–but at least I went out and had some Senegalese food that night. Chicken Yassa is incredibly yummy!)
That Monday I went to the Louvre. Because, as I said last time, you just have to. Since I’ve been sharing my favorite paintings with you, I guess I should include my favorite painting in the Louvre not named La Gioconde (or the Mona Lisa, if you’re feeling vulgar, heh.) It’s by Caravaggio–I just love the voluptuousness of his canvases:
It’s an astonishing work, although I understand why the monks who commissioned it ended up rejecting the painting–there’s absolutely nothing transcendent about it at all, except for the all-too-human transcendence of grief. No halos (well, just a tiny one), no angels, no heavenly light, just a corpse and mourners. Amazing.
Then Wednesday, my last day in Paris…I wrote a post that you may remember, then headed out to the newest museum in the city, the Musée du Quai Branly. This is an ethnography museum. (We call it history if you can beat us in a war, and ethnography when you can’t.) And it’s a stunning place: beautifully designed, with a wonderful garden surrounding a modern building with a pleasantly chunky, open interior. Of course, given that it’s an ethnography museum, everything is done up in shades of brown and ocher, with plenty of shadows and dim lighting; c’est normal.
I don’t want to run the place down too much, because it really has an amazing collection. But there were amusing moments. If you follow the suggested path, you start in Oceania, and right at the start they have a lot of items having to do with the initiation into the various men’s societies that are a rite of adolescence in New Guinea. And I was reading one of the placards about these rites, which mentioned in passing: “women’s societies are known to exist, but very little is known about them.” Which surprised me–not. Because I’m sure the male anthropologists were a) not able to gain access to the rites and b) really didn’t care too much, either.
I get bitey sometimes.
The one part of the museum that truly stunned me, though, was a temporary exhibit on Tarzan. Being of an occasionally pulpy mindset, I thought that might be an interesting thing to see: especially because there’s certainly a lot to be looked at in the Tarzan mythos, and how it relates to Western perceptions of Africa, and African perceptions of those perceptions. And while there does indeed remain a lot to be said, this exhibit sure the fuck wasn’t going to say it.
Oh no, ducks. Instead, it started out comparing Tarzan to the heroes of ancient Greek and Roman myths, and actually went downhill from there. There were plenty of blown up pages from Tarzan comics (continuous salient feature: Africa had a lot of people in it, but almost none of them were black–there were lost Romans, lost Egyptians–drawn as Caucasians, natch–lost explorers, lost elephants, but damn few not-lost-at-all-because-we-live-here Africans.) There were video exhibits of King Kong (uncommented upon: the, uh, racism?) and in general an astonishing avoidance of the fact that the Tarzan myth is about a white English lord who rules over a kingdom of black apes. No metaphors for colonialization there, no sir, just keep on walking!
And of course this is–surprising? Maybe not really?–for a country that once claimed a significant portion of sub-Saharan Africa as its territory. And has remained uncomfortable with that legacy ever since.
That chewed up most of the day. For dinner, I went to a bistro called Boullion Chartier in the 9th. It was recommended by my exchange mate as a very traditional French bistro–so traditional that they actually keep track of your check by writing it on the tablecloth. Since I was alone, they seated me with somebody–the place was empty, but it fills up quickly. He turned out to be a montréalais who spoke excellent English, so I had one last anglophone conversation in Paris over my steak au poivre and profiteroles. Then I went home and watched the last episode of Heroes, Season 1: my exchange mate had a copy, which I was able to switch over to English, except for the subtitles for the Japanese characters; those I had to read, quickly, in French (and French as it’s spoken, at that: but now I know that Je l’ai reussi! means “I did it!” in French.)
So that was my Paris sojourn, my attempt to find out what it would be like to live in the City of Light. And I think I succeeded; it was a good fit, though I recognize to really live there I’d have to truly immerse myself in the language and not spend so much time in self-created anglophone spaces. And of course I found privilege there, expected and unexpected, much that was the same as home, and a few that were quite different.
But you knew that already; heck, it’s really not even fair: I always find privilege.