When I leave Paris I cry. I did on my first visit in 1973 and, again, as I left this week more than twenty visits later. It’s inconvenient and embarrassing even though I remind myself it was nearly expected of men in the 17th and 18th centuries. Still, it feels awkward, and I time it carefully to avoid embarrassing my driver, Stéphane. It’s an outcrop of the question I travel to answer. How does a place that one only knows only as a visitor come to feel more like home than one’s real home?
America and New England have come to feel unrecognizable – conspicuous consumption triumphant, common civility in retreat as reality TV plumbs new depths of exhibitionist cruelty, and an unspeakable chasm between rich and poor that ignores even J.P. Morgan’s belief that the spread between the salaries of the lowest and highest paid members of a business should not exceed a factor of ten. Paris feels more recognizable, although it is no stranger to these ills. Limousines glide through the city, their tinted windows concealing the financial titans whose manipulations plunged us into financial woe, as they continue to move unscathed through a world of unimaginable luxury. Other limousines contain the privileged descendants of those whose ancestors did the dirty work. It is distasteful. And yet, I am deeply drawn to so much of the art that has been created for centuries to surround this inequality. I wonder how it can be so.
I return repeatedly to Versailles to lurk in corners of the palace, listening for clues as lackeys did three centuries ago. Something calls to me through doors ajar, chinks in the glitter, and first-hand accounts of life at the Court. A phrase comes to mind – our common humanity – such a prosaic, nearly bureaucratic, term for that intangible thing we all feel together when we see a stirring performance and rise as one in applause, or when we witnessed thousands of Egyptians standing in a public square not screaming for blood, but just asking a dictator to go away. It is part of the fabric of the world that reassures us about each other, about the possibility of feeling the same things and not being alone.
Most visitors are overwhelmed by the scale and opulence of Versailles. Who wouldn’t be? Who could have failed to be in the 17th and 18th centuries after slogging through rutted muddy roads to get to this gilded oasis that was home to more than 4,000? In the babel of fellow tourists that surrounds me the same words spin relentlessly in multiple languages “…gold…Sun King…silk…diamonds…silver thread…Marie Antoinette…guillotine”. Even erudite friends who could teach me a great deal about many subjects have boiled the palace’s history into several talking points that represent a variant on manifest destiny – a megalomaniac king (Louis XIV) followed by wanton luxury (the whole Bourbon clan) concluding inevitably with a bloody uprising (Revolution & the Guillotine) – perfect 20-20 hindsight that flattens the ambiguous history of thousands of individual experiences into a singularity.
One professorial American passes by and points knowingly to a small door leading to a narrow passage at the corner of the Queen’s State Bed Chamber. He declaims to his companions, “There’s one of the servants’ passages.”
I remain silent but long to say, to scream, “No, that’s the point. It’s not just the servants’ passage. It’s the hallway through which the king and queen passed to see each other and to get to their private chambers – rooms that overlooked light wells – the places in which they actually lived.”
Contemporary visitors seem unaware that the palace has always been open to the public. In the 17th century, guidebooks, including a guide to the gardens written by Louis XIV himself, instructed visitors on the sights to be seen, Mona Lisa being one of them. The King’s Bed Chamber as well as adjoining state rooms were open to visitors if the king was not immediately occupying them, and thefts sometimes occurred. Well-timed visits could even include watching the King and other royals dine in public. It was an ancient tradition that survived longer in France than in other countries.
When Louis XIII was born in 1601, his father Henri IV held him aloft for the crowd assembled to witness the birth. Holding the newborn beyond the anxious reach of the midwife, the father proclaimed “He belongs to France.” Later, as a child, Louis XIII would say that he hoped someday to belong to himself. His search for self-possession led him to build the first small hunting lodge at Versailles as a private retreat and, thereby, set in motion a complicated history.
Like Mozart whose irrepressible genius appeared as soon as he could reach a keyboard, Louis XIV displayed his monarchical genius as soon as he touched the edge of power at the age of 4. When taken to the bed of his dying father who asked who had arrived, the boy answered, “Louis XIV”. The tale may be apocryphal, but it gives measure of the man who instructed his son that the unique quality of the French monarchy was the accessibility of its king to all its citizens – to live in public view in a manner befitting the nation.
Expanded continually over the course of 53 years to fit the regal personality of Louis XIV, Versailles proved an oversized garment for his successors. By the time Louis XVI attained the throne in 1774 the rigid protocols of the French court were anachronisms. In an age that valued private life, the rituals softened slightly, but continued as daily public obligations from which Louis XVI fled whenever possible either to the hunt or to a warren of cramped rooms he had built around an internal courtyard. Some of the rooms were opulent and some were utilitarian workshops for his metal and locksmithing. Most were somewhat dark. Nearly all were on a scale that we would recognize as domestic and personal.
In the 19th century, rooms that has been added at the roofline were demolished as blights including a small observatory from which Louis XVI watched the arrival of visitors and anticipated – or dreaded – his consequent obligations. The rooms that remain are not those of a craven sybarite or megalomaniacal dictator. If one takes the time to look closely at the thing itself and to read the words of those who were there, one can see a home, a refuge, an imperfect way of life created in the voids left by inherited obligation – power without freedom.
I am touched by the words Louis XVI spoke on October 6th, 1789 when he left the palace forever. The night before a mob had arrived from the city to demand food. Their demands evolved, some guards were killed, some rooms were stormed, and soon they insisted that the monarchy return to the capital, to Paris after a century’s absence. It was a volatile moment and no one knew what would come next. No one could recognize the world in which they found themselves. Accepting the inevitable, Louis XVI turned care of the chateau over to the Comte de la Tour du Pin, asking simply: « Tâchez de sauver mon pauvre Versailles » - “Try to save my poor Versailles.”
I suspect he also cried as he departed.
Ton ami qui est revenu à Nouvelle Angleterre,