beauty, occupation, and empire

I approached the cathedral and looked up at its magnificent spire, trying desperately but unsuccessfully to tune out the haunting chorus of both Walter Benjamin and Cathubodua screaming between my ears.

At that moment, I heard ‘Sweet Caroline’ coming from the brass band playing in the square just as a group of police ominously rolled through.  img_2480

Everyone around me was distracted, absorbed, or tuned out. But I glanced at the police and then at the cathedral and then at the clueless tourists, and there was something about the moment… I felt nothing but pure terror.

I looked up the cathedral again, and it stared back down at me, reflecting in its beauty a thousand years of war and horrors.

And the feeling of terror only increased. And many hours later, it has still not faded.

*   *   *   *   *

I would much rather write about Arles, or Toulouse, or Rennes right now. But I haven’t those stories in me yet, or more specifically I haven’t yet the words to brings those stories out of me yet.

Those cities, and my experiences in them, carry many stories that I am itching to bring forth, to bring to life. Those cities carried magic and meaning and lessons that I still am digesting and still cannot quite comprehend.

And yet I feel that I can’t do those stories justice until I am back home, back on American soil, where I can let their magic sink in a bit more and allow the effects of distance to clarify their meaning. For those places took root in my mind as do the inner workings of dreams, dreams which I still need to sort out further in order to extract their true meaning.

Strasbourg, on the other hand, is not a dream but a stark reality, and I would much rather extract that reality while I am still here in the hopes that it will not continue to linger so heavily once I leave.

And as much as it breaks my heart to leave France, I am anxious to leave Strasbourg, despite the fact that Strasbourg is breaking my heart as well. But it is not the same type of heartbreak that France as a whole has affected me with, the heartbreak of longing, or of yearning, or of desire unfulfilled.

Instead, it is the heartbreak of the mirror and the truth reflected within. It is the heartbreak that Walter Benjamin articulated so beautifully when writing of the angel of history. It is the mirror that Hegel spoke of when he reflected on the owl of Minerva and the falling of the dusk.

*   *   *   *   *

There are three deities which I have obligations to, agreements with, working relationships with that I do my best to fulfill to the best of my ability. As I’ve written about before, they are the reason I am here. We are close, we are kin, we engage with mutual respect and without fear. Often what they bring me is unexpected on a certain level, but I always take it in stride. For that is the nature of trust and kin and obligation.

The three have been hovering close throughout the entirety of this trip, as I expected. They are louder and stronger, as is everything here, but they are altogether the same comfortable and guiding presence as they are back in the states.

And then there is a fourth deity who I have a very different kind of relationship with. We have agreements as well, but there is a mutually understood distance between us that is maintained for good reason. She does not require my service as the others do, she has many others who serve her as she wishes, and I hear from her rarely although I often sense her close by. But we have understandings all the same, and when she does show up and command my attention I oblige with the same level of obligation and trust as I do the others.

Despite our distance, I had assumed that I would be graced with her regular presence here as well, if for no other reason than her history in these parts. But she had been completely silent and absent thus far, absent to the point where after a week or so I didn’t think much about her at all.

She was silent, that is, until I got to Strasbourg.

We had been here for less than two hours. I was still in the wondrous, child-like state that I find myself in every time I set foot in a new city, a state of wonder that often does not allow me to immediately sense what lies beneath. We were in a German-style bar and a beer had just been set down in front of me when suddenly I heard her unmistakable voice. And what she had to say brought me nothing but terror.

You need to know this place, she said.

You need to know its history, you need to feel its wounds and its scars and its dead. You need to understand and know it thoroughly, and it will not be pleasant. This city holds its past well, and it’s beauty is seductive, but it is a place of war. It is a place that has known great suffering. And you need to know it and feel it because this is what is coming. You need to prepare. You need to save yourself if you can. Because what this city holds is what the future holds. And that future is almost here.

I kept looking out the window, at the picturesque, Medieval-style surroundings that seemed just as friendly and welcoming as any other place I’ve visited in France. The message was clear as day, so loud and forceful that I couldn’t have tuned it out if I tried. And yet, only having been there for a few hours, it was without context.

And so I spent the night and the next few days talking to the streets and doing my homework.

*   *   *   *   *

Strasbourg exists as and at the crossroads of European history, both in its role in such history as well as the name in itself. Stras shares an etymological history with the English word street as well as the German strasse, all derived from the Latin strata, meaning paved road. Burg, which comes from German as well as Dutch, is cognate to the English borough and the Latin burgus, which all derive from the Indo-European burgh, meaning fortress, fortified city, or stronghold. So in itself, stripped bare, Strasbourg means ‘fortified town of paved roads’, and understood by residents to mean ‘town at the crossing of roads’.

The crossroads, if you will.

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Some of European history’s most crucial moments, both the highest points of Western civilization as well as some of its darkest moments share Strasbourg as their stage.

Strasbourg is where Gutenberg debuted the moveable type printing press, and the first modern newspaper was printed in this city. Goethe was educated here at the University of Strasbourg. Rouget de l’Isle wrote ‘La Marseillaise’ here after a dinner with Baron Philippe Friedrich Dietrich, the first mayor of Strasbourg who was guillotined under orders from Robespierre a little over a year later. The Cathédrale de Notre-Dame in Strasbourg was one of the greatest architectural achievements in European history, which was completed over a period of nearly three-hundred years and stood as the tallest building in the world for two centuries.

But Strasbourg is also a city that has bore witness to well over a thousand years’ worth of war and horrors. The aforementioned cathedral bore witness, for example, to the Strasbourg Massacre of 1349, where several hundred Jews were publicly burnt to death only a few blocks away, having been blamed for the Black Death during the height of Medieval-era anti-Semitism. The city itself was violently disputed between France and Germany since the Middle Ages. Nearly every great war of European history, from the Hundred Years’ War to both World Wars, left their distinct marks on Strasbourg. This is one of the few cities of the region that embraced both the ideological and subjective violence of the Protestant Revolution, and where Calvin himself lived for several years as a political refugee.

Nowadays, aside from Brussels, Strasbourg serves as the center for much of the mechanisms of the European Union and its various tentacles and is known as other ‘capital of Europe’. The city serves as the official seat of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe is located here, as is the Eurocorps and the Ombudsman of the European Union. It is not only a city that has bore a long history of war and horrors, it is also a seat of a crucial and controversial body of power, a power that holds together an empire that is arguably in the beginning stages of being brought to its knees.

*   *   *   *   *

My favorite movie as a child was ‘The Sound of Music’. I’ve seen it more times than I could possibly count, and I pretty much know it line-by-line. And unlike the other cities that I’ve experienced in France, Strasbourg is aesthetically much more Germanic in its architecture and aesthetics due to its history, and the first thing that struck me when I walked around was how much it reminded me of Salzburg as shown in the movie.

And I can admit that it was partially on account of yet not limited to that association which first sent chills down my spine when I saw a line of police marching down one of the cobblestone streets. I thought of when Baron Von Trapp first observes the Nazi presence in Salzburg, then I thought of the stormtroopers marching through Mos Eisley in Star Wars.

And yes, Strasbourg is not Hollywood, but all the same it feels like a city under occupation, and that feeling is reverberated both through the cobblestone streets as well as through the reactions and expressions of its citizens when the posse of officers marches past.

*   *   *   *   *

“It feels like a former lover who is so distant that I don’t know what to say to them.”

Unlike myself, Rhyd has been to this city several times before, and his words solidified what I had been feeling so strongly but couldn’t confirm on my own. The tension, the nervousness, the feeling of occupation was a very recent development.

In America, 9/11 was the final nail in the coffin in terms of our normalization and acceptance of the police state. I remember the initial reaction of tension and horror in the days following that tragedy when tanks rolled down the streets of Manhattan. I also remember clearly that a few months later, nobody really seemed to notice their presence. Today, it’s generally only foreign tourists who come from countries where police are not militarized that react to the sight of police officers with automatic rifles marching through Penn Station. And it’s only in their reactions that I myself often have to reflect on how much I have normalized such a state as well.

In France, on the other hand, local police are generally not armed, and the national police (gendarmerie) have not been a regular presence until very recently. The terrorist attacks that shook Paris last year and the yet-materialized threats that have been hovering since that moment have resulted in a sudden increase and militarization of the French police as well. But unlike Americans, who basically took the sudden presence of a police state lying down, the French are much more visibly upset and express a much greater displeasure at their presence. This city has a long history of hostile occupations, most recently the Nazi occupation during WWII, and those lessons and that energy had never been forgotten here. And so, tension and resentment. And fear.

That tension and fear echoes through the streets here, through the facial and the quick pace of the citizens who walk past the occupying forces. And while I have never set foot in this city until three days ago, the energy is all too familiar.

I lived in NYC when 9/11 occurred. And while I don’t need to reiterate any specifics of that event, what I feel I do need to articulate is the energy and the tension of the city in both the weeks preceding as well as the weeks after that event.

I remember the tensions of that summer all too well, the days and weeks of late August into early September, and the unspoken resonance that so many who lived there felt. There was something unexplainable in the air, an unmistakable force that was undefinable at the time but which was clarified for those who felt it the second that the towers were struck. While the rest of the country processed the shock, so many of us who lived here processed the that tension and the realization of what had been building. For many of us it was not so much shock as it was like, oh, that’s what that was. That’s what we had been feeling, that’s what we had been sensing.

It was as though the city itself had been trying to tell us something in the weeks before, something we could not pick up on as we had no cognate, no historical comparison of which to measure it against.

And here, now, in Strasbourg, I feel that same tension. And I can tell that do many others feel it too. But unlike New York before 9/11, these folks do have a historical comparison. They may not know details or timelines, but they abstractly sense all too well what is coming. They are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

*   *   *   *   *

“Don’t carry that knife around. Seriously. It will get you in trouble.”

I looked down at my right boot, at the 2 1/2″ knife that had been attacked to my boot for so long that it had long-ago left a permanent mark in the leather. I have literally been carrying it around for years, only ever removing it when I must pass through areas where it is forbidden due to security measures. It serves not only as a visual deterrent to potential harassment and trouble, but as an artist and a craftsperson I have a need to utilize it on a very regular basis. And I had been carrying it throughout my travels in France, not even thinking twice about it in over a month.

But Strasbourg was different. As opposed to what I witnessed in Rennes, there are no smashed banks in Strasbourg. Anarchist graffiti is a rarity. And while there is still plenty of left-wing propaganda affixed to light-poles and billboards, there is plenty of right-wing propaganda as well.

“If the police see your knife, they will target you for trouble, and it may not end well. They are angry. They are angry at the leftists, angry at the uprisings against the Loi travail, angry at anyone who they interpret as challenging their power. And they will use their power to punish you if they see you with it.”

I didn’t like it, but I knew that she was speaking the truth and only with the intent to protect me, so I reluctantly pulled the knife off of my boot and stuck it deep down into my bag.

And over the next few days, as I felt the eyes and the stares of the police every time I walked by, I was ever more thankful for her advice.

*   *   *   *   *

Americans know very little of the politics of the European Union, just as we know very little about world affairs in general and often also know little about even our own politics. We hear of things like “Grexit” and “Brexit“, but most of us haven’t the understanding to comprehend what lies behind or beneath those controversies and decisions. This is to our great detriment, as we are also an empire that is in the beginning stages of crumbling, and much of our fate and our survival is tied into the fate of the European Union.

Europeans understand this quite well, which is why despite their views on the EU, their views on Trump and the rise of fascism in the United States are pretty much unanimous. I have yet to come across a single person in France who is anything less than completely scared shitless at the prospect of a Trump presidency, regardless of whether they identify as Left or Right.

Of course, it also should be noted that other than those who specifically identify as Fascist and/or Far Right, those who are ‘Right’ in Europe hold similar political views to those who subscribe to liberal ideology in the United States. The politics of Hillary Clinton and the mainstream wing of the Democratic Party would be considered centrist at best in Europe.

As a friend in Strasbourg said so succinctly, “There is no ‘left’ in America. In the United States, there is just Right and far Right.”

And although I’ve known that for a long time, hearing it from someone who both was born and raised in a country and culture with an actual Leftist tradition as well as someone who is a resident of this city-under-siege has further driven home the importance of that fact.

*   *   *   *   *

It is Solstice in Strasbourg, and as per an old tradition, this city as well as most other cities in Europe are celebrating. The streets are blocked off, there is music coming from every corner, and thousands of folks, tourists and locals alike, are dancing and partying and drinking and celebrating. Everyone is participating, from the very young to the very old, despite the fact it is a work night and school night. The police are everywhere in force, but folks are at least pretending not to notice.

And for the first time since I stepped foot in this city, I don’t feel the tension quite so strongly. At least not from the people, anyway.

The city itself, that’s a different story.

The people may be able to put aside their fears for a night, but the egregore of the city itself still holds that energy, lest anyone forget.

And myself? I wish I could forget. Despite the merriment, despite the celebrations, I can’t shake myself of the feeling of dread, of violence, and of war.

Like the city itself, I hold the tension of what is to come.

*   *   *   *   *

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

 

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