Today, I have chosen Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, because today’s post (see below) is about being in Paris in 1977 and going to see some paintings of water lilies by Monet at the Orangerie museum. Monet’s paintings were so different that they caused a revolution in painting. Painters became more and more obsessed with abstracting out form and color and how the paint relates to the surface of the canvass and this led to the Pointillism of Seurat, the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, and the Abstract Expressionism of people like Pollock. Debussy was influenced by Monet as well as the highly imagistic and non-linear music of the Indonesian Gamelan, which he had heard during the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889.
In the same way of the Impressionist painters, Debussy’s music influenced almost every composer of the 20th century. In the opening strains of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, for example, you can hear him quoting the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.
The Prelude was Debussy’s attempt to capture the emotion evoked by a poem by the French symbolist poet, Stephen Mallarme. In this poem, a faun (a satyr or Pan-like creature) has a semi-erotic dream about a water nymph. Debussy captures the feelings of arousal, the shimmering of the water, the climax of emotion, and the post-whatsit lassitude that engulfs the faun.
Down and Out in Paris
In my last post, I described how, during my first two weeks in Paris (in 1977), my moods fluctuated wildly. Some days, I would rise early with a sense of excitement and spend the entire day going through the laundry list of attractions that people had told me to pay a visit or about which I had studied while working on my degree in French. I went to the Louvre, Notre Dame, Mont Martre, Sacre Coeur, Place des Voges, and the medieval section known as the Marais. In the evenings, I went to see retrospectives of all of Bertolucci’s films up to that point in his career, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and Renais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Taking in all this culture buoyed my spirits, but at the same time an overwhelming sadness cast a pall over all my emotions.
I seemed to take to heart all the little setbacks that came my way and blame them on the city and its inhabitants. When I couldn’t find an apartment and the lead on one that seemed like a sure bet fell through, it sent me into a downward spiral. Now I see myself back then as being immature and impatient. Another thing that depressed me was that I wasn’t speaking French. I had fallen in with ex-patriot Americans and we all spoke English. Then when I would try out my French on the Parisians, they would either start talking to me in English or start railing at me about American imperialism or racism and sometimes both.
Perhaps I wasn’t prepared for the fast pace of big city life and the defense mechanisms that the citizens of Paris, like those of New York created for themselves. Truth be told, back then parts of Paris were dirty and full of people on the make. Here are a few paragraphs I wrote to my friend Thom, that kind of sum up my impressions:
“[Paris] definitely has its charms. Who hasn’t looked glowingly upon the clochards [winos] in the metro as they loll about like wine soaked walruses? Who couldn’t be happy with the beggars who exhibit mutilated feet or their unseeing eyes hoping to shock you into doling out money? Who wouldn’t reflect upon their own happy childhood seeing a little gypsy girl who hands you a note that explains that she’s very poor, how her father ran off and left her and her mother. The latter sits by looking very well fed, shoving junk food into another baby that lies, swaddled, across her lap. Ah, it makes a man feel good to be alive, I tell you Thomas!”
“I cannot begin to express to you the warmth I feel when, bustled and shoved into a cramped metro car, my glance flies hither and thither trying to avoid the glances of others who are trying to avoid my own gaze. You can stare directly at someone and nothing registers–their face is a complete blank. I suppose it’s because the women feel that to smile would be an approval of a come on?”
“It’s sort of interesting; most of what Mary [a friend of Thom’s] said about the way the French dress is true. Men cram themselves into blue jeans. Women have scarves, fur coats, and boots. But what ever your wear, it must be done in style, and everyone takes great care to develop their own. However, there are outcasts. For example, there is a cult of greasers, which one can see almost everywhere in their tight blue jeans, black leather motorcycle jackets, duck ass haircuts, etc. But even they have their own swagger and flair.”
In one of the letters that I wrote to Thom, I confess to being extremely lonely. All the new sights and sounds and smells of Paris were so overwhelming, that I wanted to have someone there to share it with. One of my fantasies was to become a writer, and I felt that if only could had had a soul mate with me in Paris, I could have become one. In truth, being on my own was probably the best thing that could have happened because I ended up writing almost continuously. I wrote letters daily to Thom and would sit in cafés for hours recording my impressions in a diary. What better way to learn how to do something than to practice it every day?
Still, I was too stupid to realize the value of that at the time, and so as I said before, I decided to buy a train ticket and go to the south of France. During my last week in Paris, I continued my sightseeing. One day I went to the Orangerie, a museum dedicated to the works of the Impressionists and the founders of modern art-Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, etc. It gets its name from having once been the green house for the Petit Palais and the Louvre where orange trees were stored during the winter. One of its treasures consists of two large elliptically shaped rooms that contain Monet’s culminating masterpiece, “Water Lilies.” This consists of four huge tableaux that cover the wall and recreated the scene on the pond on the grounds of Monet’s house at Giverny. The works represents and almost hallucinogenic or surreal experience sparked by gazing at the surface of the pond. The lilies seem to hover above the dabs of blue and green that shimmer on the rippling surface. I once read that Debussy was so taken by the evocation of moving water in Monet’s painting that he tried to capture the same sensation in his own musical compositions.
The curators of the Orangerie tried to capture the cross-fertilization between the visual and musical arts in their display of the “Water Lilies,” by playing music to heighten the artistic experience. Unfortunately, they chose to pipe in some ghastly and lugubrious contemporary music by a composer who was moved by the paintings. Why they didn’t just play some Debussy, remains a mystery to me. And believe it or not, this so offended me that it contributed to my decision to leave Paris.