Victor Hugo on Nature and the Cosmos

“Nothing is really small; whoever is open to the deep penetration of nature knows this. Although indeed no absolute satisfaction may be vouchsafed to philosophy, no more in circumscribing the cause than in limiting the effect, the contemplator falls into unfathomable ecstasies in view of all these decompositions of forces resulting in unity. All works for all.

Algebra applies to the clouds; the radiance of the star benefits the rose; no thinker would dare to say that the perfume of the hawthorn is useless to the constellations. Who then can calculate the path of the molecule? How do we know that the creations of worlds are not determined by the fall of grains of sand? Who then understands the reciprocal flux and reflux of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, the echoing of causes in the abysses of being, and the avalanches of creation? A flesh-worm is of account; the small is great, the great is small; all is in equilibrium in necessity; fearful vision for the mind. There are marvellous relations between beings and things; in this inexhaustible whole, from sun to grub, there is no scorn; all need each other. Light does not carry terrestrial perfumes into the azure depths without knowing what it does with them; night distributes the stellar essence to the sleeping plants. Every bird which flies has the thread of the infinite in its claw. Germination includes the hatching of a meteor and the tap of a swallow’s bill breaking the egg, and it leads forward the birth of an earth-worm and the advent of Socrates. Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has the grander view? Choose. A bit of mould is a pleiad of flowers; a nebula is an anthill of stars. The same promiscuity, and still more wonderful, between the things of the intellect and the things of matter. Elements and principles are mingled, combined, espoused, multiplied one by another, to such a degree as to bring the material world and the moral world into the same light. Phenomena are perpetually folded back upon themselves. In the vast cosmical changes, the universal life comes and goes in unknown quantities, rolling all in the invisible mystery of the emanations, losing no dream from no single sleep, sowing an animalcule here, crumbling a star there, oscillating and winding, making a force of light and an element of thought, disseminated and indivisible, dissolving all, save that geometrical point, the me; reducing everything to the soul-atom; making everything blossom into God; entangling, from the highest to the lowest, all activities in the obscurity of a dizzying mechanism, hanging the flight of an insect upon the movement of the earth, subordinating, who knows? were it only by the identity of the law, the evolutions of the comet in the firmament to the circling of the infusoria in the drop of water. A machine made of mind. Enormous gearing, whose first motor is the gnat, and whose last wheel is the zodiac.”

– Victor Hugo, from Les Misérables (Saint Denis – Book III, Chapter III)
translated by Charles E. Wilbour

A Pagan Walking Tour of Paris – Day One: Garden Nymphs, Hero-Poets, and Divine Allegories (oh my!)

We arrived in Paris on Tuesday after many, many hours of travel and very few hours of sleep.  We’re staying with a friend on L’île Saint-Louis, the little island in the center of Paris, on the Seine and next to L’île de la Cité (where Notre-Dame is located).  We’re about a block away from the tiny apartment we lived in from 2000-2005.  This is my first trip to Paris since Wildstar’s big art show in 2007, but that was a really short trip (and our entire focus was the art show), so I feel like I haven’t really had a chance to experience this beautiful city since we lived here seven years ago.

And yesterday I experienced The City of Lights as I best remember it from our starving Bohemian artist days – by walking.  And walking.  And walking.  I must have walked at least 12 miles yesterday, maybe more (it’s no wonder we were so much thinner when lived here).  Wildstar and I began the day by crossing La Seine (aka Sequona, our beloved River Goddess and one of this city’s patron deities) to the Right Bank and Le Marais (the gay/Jewish neighborhood), where we had our morning coffee with fresh croissants.  There’s nothing like sitting in a Paris café and watching all the people walk by, and there couldn’t be a bigger contrast to our quiet life in our remote woodland cabin in the Northwest.  I love this city, but I definitely don’t miss the stress and the struggle and the constant activity.  That being said, Paris is still such an amazing place to visit.  In my opinion it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

We walked all over the old neighborhood to regain our bearings and prepare for the upcoming walking tour we’ll be leading.  We traversed the same old passageways, passed the same Gothic architecture, and despite the sudden proliferation of Starbucks (there were *none* in Paris when lived here before, now they’re everywhere), we were pleased at how many of our favorite old shops and restaurants are still in business.  This was even more clear when we walked back to L’île Saint-Louis.  It’s almost like nothing has changed.  The same shops, the same two women at the bakery, the same butcher, the same guy making crêpes at our favorite crêpe stand, even the same old woman (who vaguely resembles Quentin Crisp when he was in his 90s) sitting at the same desk looking out onto the street while she works.  It was all very surreal, like walking through a memory . . .

[Note: None of the photos in this post came from me, I found them on the web.  I am a terrible photographer so these will have to do.]

On the island we had to pay our respects at three important places:

1) The benches on the riverbank, where we once spent many days and nights, making many offerings to La Seine/Sequona.

2) The gilded balcony that was once home to the Club des Hashischins, a private club in the 19th-century that was attended by many cultural luminaries, including many of our poet-heroes:  including Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, and especially a poet by the name of Théophile Gautier, who wrote an incredibly surreal story about this club (containing a hallucination of a man with screaming mandrake roots for feet, and which inspired the name of the Rozz Williams album, Daucus Carota).  This place is significant to us because I once had an elaborate and vivid dream about the club, and the name Théophile Gautier, long before I’d ever heard of either of them, and before we’d even moved to Paris.  I spent years trying to understand the dream, and one day I found out about the story, and the club, and that this club was located on the exact block of Paris where we were then living, just a few doors down on the other side.

3) Square Barye, which features a monument/memorial to one of my favorite sculptors, Antoine-Louis Barye. When we first moved to Paris, I fell in love with the work by Barye at the Musée d’Orsay, especially a beautiful series of allegorical figures (who happen to be male, which is rather rare as far as allegories go). I became somewhat obsessed with Barye, started seeing his work all over Paris, and it later turned out there was a full-scale monument to the man in a park about two blocks from our apartment, which included two of those allegorical figures, Order and Force:

We then went over to the Left Bank, stopped by Shakespeare & Co. (the American bookshop and one of my old hangouts), walked through the Latin Quarter and over to the St. Michel fountain, which I have *always* associated with Hermes despite the overtly Christian imagery:

At this point, a severely jet-lagged Wildstar needed to go back to the apartment and rest, but I decided to continue my walking tour and visit a few old haunts.  I headed a long way down the Seine to the gorgeous Jardin des Plantes, a huge botanical garden and park where I would often sit for hours and write.  This also gave me a chance to revisit one of my favorite neoclassical statues, Amour captive (Love Captured) by Felix Sanzel, which stands in the middle of an incredible rose garden:

Another statue, though, which has no title or attribution, has always puzzled me.  Perhaps someone reading this might be able to help me out. The following statue is clearly a classical philosopher, but which philosopher would be portrayed holding an egg?  Any ideas?

There are so many amazing plants and flowers and quite a few very ancient trees which I also spent time communing with.  I daresay there are more dryads and other nymphs (garden nymphs? park nymphs?) in the Jardin des Plantes than almost any other park in Paris I’ve visited.

I then walked to the Fontaine Cuvier (dedicated to the zoologist Georges Cuvier) – a fountain with an allegorical statue representing Natural History, and which features a stern-looking goddess figure surrounded by animals.  I’ve always found something particularly numinous about this fountain and another tiny fountain across the street, so I paid my respects to the fountain nymphs here:

Nearby are the Arènes de Lutèce, the Arenas of Lutèce (Lutèce was the Roman name for Paris, hence “City of Lights”), which are a Gallo-Roman gladiatorial arena and amphitheater from the 1st century CE that is now a public park.  Years ago I remember a bunch of young football/soccer players running around, beating their chests and exclaiming “We’re the lions now!”  I loved to sit in the amphitheater and read or write while the “lions” rampaged below.

The park was packed on this beautiful sunny afternoon, and beneath me were about 50 guys in a tournament playing the jeu de boules (that game so popular in France where metal balls are thrown into the sand . . . I have no idea how it’s played).

After the Arenas, I felt a strange compulsion to stop inside an old church I had never visited before, St. Etienne du Mont.  In the United States I never set foot inside a Christian church unless I absolutely have to for some reason (usually for a funeral).  But churches in Europe, especially in France, are different.  They’re aesthetically far superior to their counterparts in North America, they’re often built on pagan sites and frequently contain many pagan elements. I’ll talk about this more when I discuss Notre Dame in a future post, but yesterday I heard a voice calling me to stop in and pay a visit.  And sure enough, I was immediately led to a side chapel containing a beautiful allegorical statue of Esperance (Hope) holding an anchor. This lovely statue was made in 1826 by one S.-J. Bru (I cannot find a photograph on the interwebs).  Divine Allegories were everywhere yesterday, and so I paid homage to the Goddess of Hope and moved on.

I headed to The Panthéon, (which became the Temple of Reason during the French Revolution), where many French cultural heroes are buried, including  Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Toussaint Louverture, and Marie Curie:

Outside I poured libations to the Goddess of Reason, as well as my poet-heroes Voltaire and Victor Hugo (I was reading Les Miserables on the plane . . . such a wise and beautiful book).  I then sat for a while beneath the temple columns and read a few favorite passages of Plato’s Timaeus in the cool shade.

My next stop was the Luxembourg Gardens, which were originally built at the behest of Marie de’ Medici.  The park is filled with over a hundred different statues and fountains, including many of my poet-heroes (George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, Paul Verlaine, Leconte de Lisle), a series of Classical Goddesses, and many others.  Below are a number of those statues, starting with one that is particularly interesting in terms of hero-cultus – Le Marchand des Masques (The Merchant of Masks) by Zacharate Astrue.  It depicts a trickster-like lad holding up a mask while surrounded by a ring of masks depicting the actual (rather creepy) death masks of a number of 19th-century writers, artists, and composers – Hugo, Balzac, Dumas fils, Delacroix, Corot, Berlios, Fauré and others:

Dancing Faun by Eugène Louis Lequesne

Le Triomphe de Silene (The Triumph of Silenus) by Aime Jules Dalou

Monument in honor of Leconte de Lisle

Musicien by Jean Valette

The Medici Fountain (above) is a particularly numinous spot and a great place to sit in a chair and read or write.  The fountain portrays Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea, and there’s this uncanny mirror-like effect in the water that photos can’t really convey.  It’s surrounded by some particularly large and beautiful trees.  I honored the fountain nymphs and the dryads before I left.

My final stop was the Musée de Cluny, which is primarily known for being a Museum of the Middle Ages, with a lovely medieval Jardin d’Amour and, most famously, The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.  However, what few pagans realize is that the Musée de Cluny sits on top of an ancient Roman bath-house, and is home to one of the two statues in Paris of our beloved Emperor Julian, who is a hero to most pagans I know.  If you’re a pagan and you’re visiting Paris, you should definitely stop by the Musée de Cluny and pay homage to the last pagan emperor of the Rome.  (The other statue of Julian used to be at the Louvre, where I would visit him often, but the Louvre statue has unfortunately either been in storage or on loan since at least 2005!)

And speaking of the Louvre, I spent many hours immersed in the Greek & Roman antiquities section(s) today, which will be the subject of my next post!

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