Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Porte Saint-Denis

I don't know if I saw Porte Saint-Denis yesterday, but I did see an arch. It's been on my mind today. I was too tired last night to do more than look at it over the distance, and wonder what it was. Its fleeting image has become one of the defining characteristics of Paris for me. What I mean, is: it was an unexpected sight, powerful and towering when it suddenly appeared, shocking.

It's one thing to ride down Champs-Élysées in a tour bus with a guide and circle the Arc de Triomphe. It's quite another to be tired, lost and frustrated, and glance down a street and see a similar structure rising in the distance. Years ago that happened in Florence, I saw Michelangelo's David from the street, in similar, unexpected circumstances. The impact of seeing the David has stayed with me since 1984, so it's not  surprising that the arch I saw yesterday has bled its power into today.

Porte Saint-Denis was designed on the order of Louis XIV in 1672. It is 76 feet tall, second only to the Arc de Triomphe. (Of course, Napoleon would have his war memorial designed taller). Both are built to celebrate military success, but for centuries Porte Saint-Denis was a ceremonial gateway into Paris used by the Kings of France. Napoleon's troops passed through it. Queen Victoria and her retinue, visiting from England in 1855, passed through it.

Very early in The Appassionata, a scene attempts to capture the three day "July Revolution" of 1830 (fifteen years after Waterloo and the fall of Napoleon). Porte Saint-Denis played an important role in that uprising: one of the first barricades was built up around it—so neither king nor soldier could pass through. It was in the hands of the the republican revolutionaries. The barricade was set afire and was burning when a carriage carrying four-year-old Tori and her mother, Louise arrived on the scene. I've been thinking about that, been wondering how they responded to the sight. Nothing I've written so far contains the feeling that burst inside me yesterday when I saw the arch.  I haven't caught the majesty of it, nor the shock of seeing it on fire. (The arch itself wasn't burning, but the barricade built around it was.)

Something else happened yesterday. Our tour ended at Notre Dame and as we stood in front of it, the attributes of its architecture were pointed out by a soft-spoken Parisian woman. She directed our attention to the headless icon of Saint Denis. I had not thought that much about Saint Denis. I did read briefly about him, but as this woman spoke about his death, I believed it for the first time and that sent a chill through my body. Saint Denis was the first bishop of Paris and he's the patron saint of France. He was martyred in about 250. The pagan priests were threatened by his presence among the Gauls.  He was executed, beheaded on the highest hill in Paris (Montmartre), which may have been a Druidic holy place.

The guide yesterday spoke of his death, how he carried his head and walked the distance to the top of the hill before he collapsed. His name became a war cry, a statement of determination and courage, a symbol of unfathomable strength against all odds. No wonder his ceremonial gateway was chosen by the rebels who sought to oust a king and birth a republic.

Obviously this is the kind of thing I came to Paris to experience.  Was it a coincidence that I got lost and saw this arch, a gift?

The guide who took us on the bus trip was a professional, a British woman who was funny and makes her living leading tours. She'd brought along a friend who was French. When we broke into two groups in front of Notre Dame, I migrated to hear the French woman speak. I was drawn to the fact that she was Parisian.  I cannot repeat her words, I don't remember them, but I know that she believes that the then Bishop Denis did walk some distance holding his head in his hands before he collapsed in death, and as she spoke, I believed it too. Standing looking at his image carved into the front of Notre Dame, it rippled through me, the realization that someone might have accomplished such a feat. For a moment I tried to imagine it.

Now I'm thinking, if Tori was four years old when she first heard that story... imagine the impact, the implication, the meaning.  I'm thinking somehow the power of the symbolism must find its way into the book. I'm imagining that Louise believed in Saint Denis' walk the same way the woman who told us about it, believed. Her belief was an expression of her Catholicism, something I've been trying to capture; here is a way.

I'm also thinking about the walk I took this morning back to Gare du Nord from my apartment. I had to pass through that same eight-star intersection. I was determined to get it right this time, realizing that both times I crossed it yesterday, I got it wrong.  There is no street name on Rue de Dunkerque on the far side, nor the street next to it. This morning I stopped a stranger and made sure I had it right, but that's not my point in bringing it up. My point has to do with the power of that particular intersection, the way my body tensed as I approached. I'm trying to imagine the role Porte Saint-Denis might have played in the daily lives of people, and specifically my characters. Napoleon ordered the Arc de Triomphe designed in 1806, but it had not been completed in 1830; it was a construction site. Porte Saint-Denis was a symbolic point of power, the tallest arch in Paris—the arch Napoleon was referencing—the ceremonial gateway for the royalty.

"There you go, Molly. Bienvenue à Paris."

(Who said that?)

1 comment:

  1. Wish I was there. There are still things I need to see when next in Paris, hopefully next summer. Getting lost is part of the fun and perhaps part of the plan.