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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

En Route with Andrew Hamilton

Sacre Bleu at Sacre-Coeur
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
(The following is one in a series)
Here (above) is a photo of my favorite corner of Paris, the parc Nadar with its statue of the Chevalier de la Barre just downhill and west of Sacre-Coeur. There are probably better pictures available on the Internet, and I have taken brighter ones myself with better cameras than the Wal-Mart Smart-Talk Huweii smart-phone camera I had this trip, but this picture shows an early-morning version of the gloom that hangs over Paris from around late October until
April. This is the real Paris as we know and love Paris.

The parc Nadar is on the main road in front of Sacre-Coeur, between the rue Azais and the rue du Cardinal Dubois. I have heard that the little stub of street in front of the basilique is officially the rue Chevalier de la Barre, but can find no confirmation on Google maps or my street maps going back to 1966.

The Chevalier de la Barre was about nineteen years old around 1765, and he didn't take his hat off when a procession of Capuchine monks passed. He may have given them the mid-eighteenth century version of the upright middle finger -- the history is murky and confused and complicated by the politics of those recounting it. There had been desecration of a religious statue in the neighborhood, and although the chevalier had an alibi he was clearly a punk and a wise-ass and could have been involved in that crime. It was said that he had sung irreverent songs on occasion, and when the priests searched his chambers they claim to have found a book of pornography and some anti-clerical tracts.

The chevalier had at any rate irritated persons with some power, and he was tried and sentenced to death by a court that apparently had no authority to try him, and almost certainly no authority to kill him, under laws that did not apply to his suspected offenses. He was beheaded. His hand was first cut off because it had not tipped his hat, and his tongue was cut out because it was reported to have sung scandalous songs, and his body was burned about with "petits-feux" for miscellaneous offenses he may have committed. He said, just before his head was lopped off, "I didn't know a gentleman could be executed for such small offense." Voltaire later heard the story and, if I am not mistaken, gave the Chevalier de la Barre an entry in the famous Encyclopedia as a martyr for free thought.
Sacre-Coeur was built slowly, over about forty years, with funds that the church hierarchy around Paris coaxed out of apparently reluctant or tight-fisted parishioners. It was built  to expiate the sins of the Commune of 1871, which was an outbreak of violent socialism that reminds me of Barcelona during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, if only that it was a sort of brief quasi-Utopia and it was crushed. Nowadays the placards around Sacre-Coeur tell you that Sacre-Coeur was built to commemorate the war of 1871 and bemoan the triumph of Germany over freedom-loving France.

When Sacre-Coeur was completed, the libre-penseurs of Paris, supported at least for a while by the mayor and other public weasels, managed to have a statue of the Chevalier de la Barre installed on at the foot of the front steps, where worshipers would have to face his mocking likeness as they emerged. The statue in my photo is supposed to be based on that statue. The chevalier is "narguing" the church. "Narguer" means something like "holding your thumb against your nose and twiddling your fingers" or "giving the old raspberry." I've never heard the word spoken, and I am going by the dictionary.

[In 1966 nobody hardly knew any of this, and to me Sacre-Coeur was a place just up the hill that you had seen in the movies and you could run up those stairs and feel good about getting to the top, and a bunch of beatniks hung out up there on the steps. Michel Polnarieff, who was a famous pop singer, hung out on the upper steps with his guitar and would play and sing his great hit, C'était Une Poupée Qui Fait Non, Non, Non. If you were flush and had a Métro ticket you didn't even have to take the stairs, but could ride the funiculaire or ski-lift. It was just a famous building in Paris, with accommodating stairs and a view.

After the French defeat in WWII, which was abetted by some of the same reactionaries who built Sacre-Coeur, the Vichy government decreed that all the statues of France would be melted down into armor and bullets for the new European war industries. But the statues actually melted down were the ones of Jean Jaures and heroes of the Revolution, and the one of the Chevalier de la Barre in front of Sacre-Coeur. So for thirty or forty years we never heard about the Chevalier de la Barre.

About ten or fifteen years ago, the free-thinkers of modern Paris managed to get the present statue installed. It is not directly in front of the church, and nobody is forced to look at it. The statue is turned a bit so that he is not narguing the church directly, but is looking off a few degrees to the south-east. But it is in a nice little park, maybe forty feet wide by 120 feet long, and thousands of tourists pass it every day, on their way to and from the big white onion-dome basilica and symbol of Paris.

At the east end of the parc Nader, just opposite the statue of the chevalier, there is what is announced to be the only municipal dovecote or pigeonnier in France. It is owned and operated by the Paris parks commission, and the sign next to it says that it is carefully maintained with neutered birds to reduce the pigeon nuisance in the voisinage.  They cut out the pauvre-petit chevalier's tongue, and the cut off his hand, and they burned his body with small fires, and they chopped off his head, but in the end they gave his statue an endless supply of its own pigeons.

You may join the Association Chevalier de la Barre without doing anything overt, without signing anything or contributing anything or communicating with anyone but yourself. It is organized under the French law of association, which I believe was written around the turn of the last century to to allow people to do any damn thing they want without consulting bishops.

[Andrew Hamilton, PJ's travel editor, is a member of the Association Chevalier de la Barre. He lives in Trinity Center, California.]