Floating on Surreal Parisian Vibes
Just for a minute, I could almost see or imagine Napoleon’s carriage going past, complete with his guards and outriders. But in the blink of an eye, the noise of the incessant traffic, around the Place de la Concorde brought me back to the chaos of the twentieth century. That was my first impression of Paris.
In fact, I realized, it’s easy enough to just look at the tops of the monuments, cancel out the modern noises, and imagine Champollion studying the obelisk Place de la Concorde from all possible angles. Doesn’t matter if Champollion got to do that or not, but wouldn’t it be fun to look over his shoulder, and to peer into his notes.
But that was before I’d seen the film on Adele Blanc-Sec. Somehow, I didn’t feel like hanging around the obelisk at midnight, just to see if any mummies would escape from the Louvre to go for a walk there.
Sitting by the circular pool in the Grand Carré in the Tuileries Garden on an autumn afternoon, where the sun seemed to be peeking out through a frosted pane of glass, I couldn’t help taking a peek at my messages. Though I’d been checking for the latest travelling rules post-lockdown, another message jumped out at me. One of my poems entitled Dirge for Hector, excerpted from my manuscript on the Trojan women had just gone online in a journal in the United States.
I sort of remembered there was a statue of Cassandra somewhere there. So I looked around me, and it was quite eerie to spot the statue of Cassandra behind me, along with other statues from antiquity. Somehow, that moment sent shivers down my spine, and got gelled in my memory, as if myth was talking back to me in its own obtuse way. It seemed appropriate to have this kind of coincidence in a city with a name that was similar to Cassandra’s brother. I immediately sent a message to the editor, who was thrilled by this coincidence too.
In my poem, Cassandra is not the helpless female as portrayed in this sculpture, which has perpetuated one version of the Trojan myths for the last five or six hundred years. Most male writers seemed to have forgotten the fact that the Amazons didn’t live that far away from Troy, and that most probably women in ancient Troy had more agency than is supposed by later writers. Otherwise, their names would have been effaced, rubbed out, or stamped out from myths a long time ago. For example, Helen was well-received by Priam, and was treated with honour and respect. As was Andromache. And Cassandra was also a priestess, who were much respected in ancient times.
When the weather is clement, lots of young people seem to party on the pedestrian bridges (for example, the Pont de Arts) in the City of Lights, and I thought it could be nice to hang out there in the evening.
Soft fragments of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat, Op. 9, No.2 being played on a passing boat, transported me to another layer of time in Paris. Had any of the luminaries of the ‘Belle Epoque’ passed by on elegant boats, in fashionable gowns whilst being serenaded by the latest compositions of the day under the same bridge?
For example, in that surreal world, the phantom of Mucha could be sketching the ghost of Sarah Bernahardt, on a private boat, while Liszt tried out variations of La Lugubre Gondola (The Black Gondola) even if this was not Venice to impress an indifferent lady who was too busy checking if better dressed men were still staring at her or not. George Sand’s ghost would be taking mental notes of which characters to use in her next novel, while Victor Hugo’s spectre would still be taking down notes of the massive Notre Dame cathedral, as his boat passed by that landmark. No doubt, given the chance, he could expand his novel with lots of detailed descriptions.
But that idealistic picture in my mind of spending the evening counting the various kinds of boats passing underneath that bridge got frittered away, as soon I was both hungry and thirsty. Made a mental note to myself: bring your own drinks and snacks, if ever there’s a next time. Ditto for the steps on the Ile de la Cité, where it’s nice to sit in the summer after a boat ride on the Seine. There’s a huge gap between the dreamy picture ads show of this most visited city of Europe, and the everyday reality of tired tourists. But, as I looked at the hundreds of locks on the railings of the bridge, I couldn’t help wondering how many of those hopeful lovers were still alive. Or if their ghosts came to meet on those ponts on the day they’d snapped that lock shut on that bridge?
I couldn’t help thinking of a story when I was wandering around the vast empty spaces of the Pantheon. Suddenly, the clock of the Paris Pantheon began to ring on December 24, 2006, after 50 years of silence. Why? At work were the Untergunthers who tend to restore hidden neglected sites in cities. Of course, I didn’t spot any people working clandestinely on any sites. Not that I visited any hidden ones, as I dislike underground sites anyway.
On this occasion, I closed my eyes, and tried to catch the vibes of the clock from 2006. Could I hear the slow, yet deep and resounding sonorous sound again? It was gone like a flying dandelion seed before I could really catch it.
In case you end up reading the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, you might view all solid stone cathedrals with a different eye, was one of my thoughts was I ambled around, inside the cold walls of this relatively sparsely decorated cathedral. The Sacre Coeur cathedral was impressive enough, but had I just missed some Shadow-hunters disappearing into a secret part of this cathedral?
And if I’d waited there long enough, would Nicholas Flamel, alongwith Sophie and her twin brother Josh have appeared in the nave suddenly, all the way from the US? Popping out of Michael Scott’s books? In any case, the feel of that place wasn’t exactly welcoming. Tourists were there on sufferance. At least that was my impression. Soon, I was glad to be out in the warmer air.
Though I thought about keeping a midnight vigil at Point Zero outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame, just in case Nicholas Flamel from Michael Scott’s novels would show up suddenly. But hunger and tiredness drove me back to my small hotel room long before then.
While at the Musée Quai d’Orsay I recognized Odile Redon’s signature colours from afar, as I came across some of his larger canvases on the same floor as the cafeteria. Later, in the bookshop, while having to choose which books to buy, always a struggle in any museum shop, I came across a book on Odile Redon. He seemed to have been obsessed with heads. The words Grosse Têtes came to mind. Was the artist projecting himself as a pensive intellectual, or was he piqued by what philosophers thought about when in a pensive mood?
I recognized the big head, though it didn’t really resemble that other one. The one that adorned the big, thick book for which I paid a small fortune (for me anyway). Ecrire la Mythologie, it said. Irresistible, my mind said. Leave it, my rational brain scolded. But impulse won in the end. Guilt increased. Here I was buying this dear book, for which a family could have paid a week’s rent in the cités on the gritty outskirts of Paris. Not that Odile would have ever visited such faraway places where folks lived in tiny flats in high-rise building about to collapse at any moment.
But the mind can make its own cubicle-like prisons. Such as the one which held Galatea. Wonder if Odile was inspired by Moreau’s Polyphemus regarding Galatea brush-stroked into being in 1880? Which graced the cover of the most dear (pun intended) book I have, with Odile’s Char d’Apollon on the back cover, closing the chapter on this tome. Wonder if Odile ever saw the beautifully pensive profile of Narcisse, brushed on canvas by Ecole de Leonard de Vinci somewhere between 1490-99? Or was Redon perhaps inspired by the avidly curious profile of the browner Narcisse thrown onto the dark waters of the canvas by Caravaggio about a century later?
Was the head in Light 1893 a study of sorts for his own oeuvre Le Chevalier Mystique (Œdipe et le sphinx) done in 1894? Then there’s that intense expression, which Redon managed to capture even on the profile of Maurice Denis1 in 1903, a friend, a competitor, or an inspiring fellow-artist?
Wonder what Odile would’ve made of the extremely enigmatic expression, (or lack thereof)
on the football-like visage of the doomed prince in Œdipe et le sphinx brought into existence by Giorgio De Chirico in the liberating 60s?
Wonder if all these monstrous grosse têtes haunted his nightmares? Did they leave him be after he’d stamped them on paper, so that they got imprinted on the human minds through the centuries, gleefully haunting other puny humans, just for fun?
A sketch by Odile of man with a fish’s body grabbed my attention. Who was this man? How had he turned into a fish. Soon, I was drowning in greenish waters. Pure waters, with dappling sunlight on the surface. The man had somehow mocked the Sirens, and they’d experimented with him and dozens of others they’d caught. This was the result. Had this man popped into Odile’s dreams?
But now I had a full-fledged story in my hands. The question was: how was this fish-man going to outwit the Sirens and gain his liberty?
There was even a class given, entitled Mystical Paris on a website, but I prefer to imagine most of the surreal happenings there. The streets of Paris are so full of history and mystery that it’s enough to walk around, and history will open her cracks just a little to let you peek inside.
Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s poems have appeared in 100+ journals/anthologies, including Columbia Journal, The New Verse News, Vita Brevis, Entropy, London Grip, Classical Poetry Society, Dissident Voice, and Poetry24. Her fiction received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review, and has been published in Knot Magazine, Coldnoon Journal, Setu, impspired, and Entropy. An Independent Scholar, Sultana Raza has an MA in English Literature. She’s published essays and presented papers on Tolkien and Romanticism (Keats). Her creative non-fiction has appeared in numerous journals including Literary Yard, Literary Ladies Guide, impspired, and Litro.