Apocalyptic Pilgrimages

Two Fridays ago I went out to celebrate my friend Terry's dissertation defense. It was a night of great conversation, and among the new acquaintances I made was Marsha Fulton, an art historian currently teaching gothic and romanesque architecture (among other things) at SUNY New Paltz.

Our discussion caused me completely to reread a couple of major sections of the Recherche.


Marsha explained that the flourishing of romanesque architecture in France during the 10th and 11th Centuries was characterized by two different climactic events. During the 10th Century there was widespread fear that the world would end, so romanesque churches were built in expectation of the apocalypse. When that didn't happen, in order to thank God more and more churches were built during the 11th Century on a larger scale and with greater ornamentation. They began in the romanesque style and later evolved into the gothic.

The fact that churches were sites where people mapped apocalyptic associations reminded me of the same during the WWI section of the Recherche. At least that's what I thought it reminded me of. But when I did a few searches in the archive to find some passages to write about, I discovered that Marcel the narrator and his contemporaries are somewhat indifferent to the destruction of cathedrals. They are more concerned with the destruction of what cathedrals represent, which differs for various constituencies.

A search on the War association brought up the best apocalyptic results.

Searchlights, WWI, Venice, by Giulio Aristide Sartorio || Source - http://www.museobonifica.sandonadipiave.net/sart-dipinti.htmMme Verdurin had visited Venice during the war, butâ€â€like those people who cannot bear sad talk or display of personal feelingsâ€â€when she said that "it" was "marvellous" she was referring not to Venice, or St Mark's, or the palaces, all that I had so loved and she thought so unimportant, but to the effect of the searchlights in the sky, of which searchlights she could give you a detailed account supported by statistics. So from age to age is reborn a certain realism which reacts against what the previous age has admired.) (6 1 1 51)

[Painting: Searchlights, WWI, Venice; by Giulio Aristide Sartorio; original here.]

This passage I remembered well for its expression of a modern(ist) attitude toward cathedrals and monuments of the past. The experience of Mme Verdurin, the avante-garde salon-keeper, is anaesthetic, much in contrast to the intoxication of Marcel's reveries about St. Mark's and the church of Combray. However, even the passages I thought would contain a more cataclysmic sense of what was lost with the destruction of great cathedrals are actually somewhat muted.

amiens-st-firmin-01-sm.jpgFor example, during a conversation between Marcel and Charlus, the Baron compares the destruction of the church at Combray -- which literally embodies his family history -- with the destruction of Rheims and Amiens. He says that if the statue of St. Firmin at Amiens has been broken, then "the loftiest affirmation of faith and energy ever made has disappeared from this world." Marcel quicky chastizes him for confusing real faith with a symbol of faith.

"And I adore certain symbols no less than you do. But it would be absurd to sacrifice to the symbol the reality that it symbolises. Cathedrals are to be adored until the day when, to preserve them, it would be necessary to deny the truths which they teach. The raised arm of St Firmin said, with an almost military gesture of command: ‘Let us be broken, if honour requires.’ Do not sacrifice men to stones whose beauty comes precisely from their having for a moment given fixed form to human truths." (6 1 1 154)

[Photo: statue of St. Firmin, left porch, Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens; by Deborah Fulton, November 2003; original here.]

I'm struck here by the unease with which Marcel greets Charlus' admiration of the art instead of the men who fought and died to preserve the French nation. The importance of the cathedral here is not its status as priceless art-object but the real people it "stands for". In the archive, the passage is paired with the famous, iconic image of the woman with a sword, using the destruction of Rheims to rally the public. The emotional rendering of the burning cathedral and its protector is like the "loftiest affirmation of faith and energy" that Charlus admires in the statue of St. Firmin. Obviously the medieval statue and the early 20th Century poster are both propaganda. But what's interesting is the repurposing of the iconic image for the new context.

Juxtaposing the government poster of Rheims with a documentary photograph of its porch during the same period can illustrate the cognitive divide between Marcel and aristocratic and upper-class characters like Mme Verdurin and Charlus. Both images here are from the Library of Congress online archive.

rheims-propaganda-02-sm.jpg rheims-porch-guarded-01-sm.jpg

No image is free of political influence or effect, but the more realistic photograph on the right is a matter-of-fact presentation of the same familiar ediface that represents France. Marcel's patriotism seems a little less grounded in idealism and more in realism. When reflecting on the character of different social groups during the War, he excoriates the "vile shirkers like the arrogant young man in a dinner-jacket" he saw at Jupien's brothel, who are "redeemed by the innumerable throng of all the Frenchmen of Saint-André-des-Champs, by all the sublime soldiers and by those whom I rank as their equals, the Larivières," Françoise's rich but low-class cousins (6 1 1 226). There is a profound -- almost apocalyptic -- sense of the failure of the governing classes, of "the sky falling".

An even more "truly" apocalyptic effect is conveyed by a photograph of Rheims that, rather than focusing on the iconic cathedral, presents a panorama of the town that includes the ruined towers. The photo is also from the Library of Congress.


Marsha also explained to me that the flourishing of romanesque architecture in the 11th century coincided with a boom in pilgrimages. A vibrant tourist industry brought travelers on long walking trips where the effect of visiting churches in towns along the way reached a crescendo at the large cathedral that was the end point. This was done (as far as I can remember) largely to thank God for not destroying the world at the turn of the century, but also for a host of other reasons. She made me want to reread the Canterbury Tales.

As she talked about this, I was immediately reminded of the scenes at Balbec in which Marcel and Albertine cruise the Normandy roads in his new car visiting (and painting) old romanesque churches (roughly 4 2 3 535-70). This series of events is a kind of pilgrimage that stops at churches but is really about exploring the mysteries of love, absence, Albertine, beauty, technology, modernity, and other motifs.

car-tourism-unic-sm.JPGAs often as not I went no further than the great plain which overlooks Gourville, and as it resembles slightly the plain that begins above Combray, in the direction of Méséglise, even at a considerable distance from Albertine I had the joy of thinking that, even if my eyes could not reach her, the powerful, soft sea breeze that was flowing past me, carrying further than they, must sweep down, with nothing to arrest it, as far as Quetteholme, until it stirred the branches of the trees that bury Saint-Jean-de-la-Haise in their foliage, caressing my beloved’s face, and thus create a double link between us in this retreat indefinitely enlarged but free of dangers, as in those games in which two children find themselves momentarily out of sight and earshot of one another, and yet while far apart remain together. I returned by those roads from which there is a view of the sea, and where in the past, before it appeared among the branches, I used to shut my eyes to reflect that what I was about to see was indeed the plaintive ancestress of the earth, pursuing, as in the days when no living creature yet existed, her insane and immemorial agitation. (4 2 3 558-9)

The new experience of automobile travel is a search for origin and purity, though marked by the apparent aimlessness and whimsy of modernity. Interestingly, the only direct references pilgrimage (in the archive) come from aristocratic characters, Orianne and Charlus. They speak impatiently of making pilgrimages to Paray-le-Monial and other tourist destinations. The impression they give is that visiting old churches is done for bland relaxation and art appreciation.

chartres-facade-top-mono-01-cropped-sm.jpgContrasted with the profane attitude of the modern elite, however, is that of intellectual/creative characters like Marcel, Swann, and Elstir. It is Swann who in the appropriately titled Swann's Way sets Marcel's imagination on the path toward the Persian-influenced church at Balbec and St. Mark's in Venice. Those two churches, mixed with his early reveries in the église Saint-Hilaire and his contemplation-in-motion of the twin steeples of Martinville, awaken his vocation as a writer and set the reference points that shape his life and the changing modality of his meditations (and re-meditations). Observations of churches at different points of the narrative form a network of events that bear a synecdochic relationship to the Recherche as a whole. The pilgrimage ends on the final page when he sees the eighty-three-year-old Duc de Guermantes as one of those men who "never cease to grow until sometimes they become taller than church steeples, making it in the end both difficult and perilous for them to walk and raising them to an eminence from which suddenly they fall" (6 1 1 532).

Thus the plot-device of the pilgrimage, alternately implicit and explicit, has a wide-ranging valence within the narrative. It bears upon it the church motif, which acts as a lightning rod to highlight disparate characters' reponses to the Great War, to modernity, to homosexuality and decadence, to the cognitive faculties as they negotiate subject and object, and much more. It is also one of the main reflexive metaphors of the Recherche. It embodies the journey with its endpoints in the past and future, and changes as the nature of the journey changes at its different stages.

And it ends, as the West ends, with an apocalypse. The images presented here attest to the great "cataclysm from above": the search-lights over WWI Venice, St. Firmin's upraised arm, the government-produced fire and brimstone above Rheims, the artillery-produced fire and brimstone around and below it. The end of Marcel's journey, however, is not a revelation of ultimate or divine purpose -- far from it -- but of the processes of history and human purpose.