Friday, March 5, 2010

The White Ermine

Well, hello friends, and thank you, Anne, for allowing me to write on your blog, and for the introduction.
To begin with, I went out on assignment from my good friend Pedar, who needs a beer, and so sent me - half a world away - out to have one for him. I did. And then I had one for myself. It was nice enough, but it would have been more fun if he had been there to have one with me.
He also asked me to describe it, so here it goes:
I had a local brew called the Blanche Hermine - the "white ermine." They have it on tap at the bar that I often go to for coffee in the afternoon - which you can see in the photo here! The beer is brewed in a town just a few kilometers from here, a brewery named "Lancelot" with a range of beers that all have some sort of Breton heritage built into their name and imagery. The white ermine, for example, is part of the heraldry of the dukes of Brittany.

It's a wheat beer, more like a Belgian wit beer than like a Bavarian Weizenbier. It's crisp and refreshing without being too light, a little fizzy and not very hoppy (not that I mind hoppy). It's got more depth than, say, Blue Moon, which is the wheat beer I like at home, but not as much as, say, a Paulaner, which is also on tap everywhere here. But I like to drink a local beer, if it's good!
While I enjoyed my refreshing beer, I watched a rugby game that was on - apparently a semi-final for the French national championship, between Cleremont and Perpignan - and again, I'm sure that Pedar would have enjoyed that, too. Rugby seems to be on tv in every bar and café in Brittany, which has surprised me a little. According to the proprietor of the bar, it's more popular here in the north of France, with soccer dominating more in the south. I'm not much of a sports fan, but it was fun to watch, if a little baffling. I'm sure that Bob Dewey could have helped explain it to me, if he had been there instead of celebrating the appearance of his new book.
Here's a picture of the bar itself that I took earlier today, as seen from one of the two main streets in our little town.

It's the yellow half-timbered house, and it's a very handsome looking building, with figures carved in wood underneath the eaves of the first story.

As we learned from the program about Brittany on tv the other evening, the fancy pattern of half-timbering and the carved decorations were a way for successful bourgeoisie to signal their wealth and increasing social standing during Brittany's efflorescence in the 16th and 17th centuries - and this building undoubtedly dates to that period. And of course I'm happy to now be able to read the meaning inscribed into these old, picturesque houses.

I took these pictures (except for the beer) with Iris' camera earlier today - the camera that her grandmother gave her for Christmas. She loves taking pictures with it and, frankly, so do I. Even though we bought a higher quality one for ourselves a couple of months ago (after I dropped our old one on the cobblestones), I like the funky color and imperfect focus of Iris' - it reminds me a little of the Diana cameras we used to play around with in college, as a break from the rigors of using a view camera (which was what I generally preferred) and of painstakingly exposing, developing and printing one large negative at a time. The Diana camera, with its plastic lens and medium format film, gave rich but unpredictable and idiosyncratic images. And you could forget about proper exposure - which made it like a little holiday for us. The quality of the photographs suggests to me, right now, memory, in that they are, like personal memories, somewhat imprecise, idiosyncratic, verklärt, as they would say in German. Whereas the purpose of a large-format view camera is to record with documentary precision the facticity of an object or scene. So with a sense of nostalgia brought on, oddly enough, by being able to control the exposure in our other digital camera for the first time in years, I used Iris' camera to take some pictures around town.

I'm fascinated, for one, by the old stone walls everywhere here, which are mostly centuries old and covered in lichen, moss, and vines.
They are, of course, the same building material as the houses. Some of these walls are toppling over (some have even toppled since we've been here, due to the heavy rains of last week), which makes the surviving walls seem even older. They seem to express so much about life here as it must have been lived in past centuries - wrested from the ground and hugging the earth, dripping wet most of the time, and - this a more contemporary element - sheltering from the view of outsiders the closely guarded private lives of the townspeople, hiding what appear to be very well-tended and pleasant gardens and comfortable homes. Here and there are springs with water running downhill from them.
These are pictures of the walls lining a pathway above us, that runs steeply down to our street.
And here's a picture of the remnants of the wall that once surrounded the whole town, protecting it, until the 18th century, from who knows what dangers. You can still see where the beams of houses that were built against the wall were set into the stones.
When I walk among these stone walls, I often think about memory, and the collective memory of a town, or a region - as though these stones were somehow witnesses to the history and lives that had passed between them, from the dukes of Brittany living here in the centuries before it became part of France, to the wealth of the 17th century and the poverty of the 19th. As though the walls themselves were "sites of memory" in the way that Pierre (!) Nora writes about. And then I'm reminded of something I read recently by John Frown in which Nora was criticized for imagining that memory is held organically and immediately in objects - perhaps hearkening back to the medieval notion of certain objects, like saints' bones, as containers of the sacred. In fact, these walls - like the walls of Mont-Saint-Michel, don't remember anything. If we want to discover that the gateway that used to be a few feet from this wall, and from our house, was torn down in the 18th century to facilitate increased traffic to the areas where linen was produced, then we need to go to the departmental archives in Vannes - or at least read about it on one of the handy, informative wall plaques that are all over town (but which, I hope, repeat information gathered from the archive). History is in texts and, in some way, images, but not in stone walls, as much as they are the concrete remainders of history.
I've been reading a lot about history for my work on Otto Dix and his paintings that sought to remember and memorialize, in strange ways, the First World War. I've been reading about the theoretical differences (developed by Maurice Halbwachs) between "collective memory" - the kind that people repeat to each other in stories and that is lost when they die - and official commemoration, such as that of the WWI memorials in every French town, including ours. An example of the former would be our across-the-street neighbor, who just turned ninety and whose father fought in WWI. Presumably, he told her something about it when she was a child, and when they already lived in the house facing ours. But she doesn't talk about it. An example of the later is, of course, the column inscribed with the names of 103 men from this town who died in WWI. That's a lot from a town that only has 2500 people now, and probably fewer then. Certainly everybody must have mourned somebody then - but nobody remembers that mourning now. It's commemorated, not remembered, with an official monument that for a while must have served to instill some sense of national belonging - signaled by the amazingly bellicose Gallic cock perched atop the globe at the summit.

Jan and Aleida Assmann have elaborated Halbwachs' ideas of memory, discussing the kinds of memorials, especially those like this one commemorating the dead, that require expertise and skill to make, as well as control over iconography, etc. I think of Otto Dix, who had these skills, but who used them not to create "official" memorials, but rather to project onto the screen of large-scale history paintings the kinds of memories that would have circulated verbally among veterans themselves, in the form of anecdotes, stories, even jokes, as well as painfully truthful accountings of their real experiences. That's what I find so fascinating about his work: that he combined the high forms of history painting and official commemoration with the low forms of gross stories and dirty jokes.
I've also been reading Jay Winter's most recent book about memorializing the First World War, where he talks about small, local efforts to commemorate the war and the war dead. I'm not sure if these local memorials would have involved less skill, but I'm assuming they did. I'm also not sure what these would look like, and for some reason that I couldn't understand for the longest time, the void in my imagination when I think about these local, unofficial monuments was filled by, of all things, an image of the street in our town - which I've photographed here, standing in the same place but looking in the opposite direction as the picture of my local bar. It was sort of annoying to have such a seemingly unmotivated connection be so persistent in my imagination. Why this random spot in the street?Finally, yesterday, it dawned on me what was tugging at my own memory when this particular site came to me unbidden. It's the rather amateurish mural on the wall of the street just to the right, depicting the locally famous Battle of the Thirty (March 26th, 1351), a minor but decisive skirmish in the War of Breton Succession!
I'm sure that Proust could have helped me understand the hidden workings of individual memory there. The more official commemoration of this event in medieval history is the restrained yet impressively tall neoclassical column put up by Louis XVIII in the early 19th century, by which time the practice of inscribing the names of the dead, or just of participants, was already established - a practice continued in the WWI memorial here in town, and which culminated with Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial. I didn't see this mural in my mind's eye, just the street where it was located. I have no idea who the artist was, or who was doing the commemorating, but it is certainly part of an effort to revivify a sense of Breton national identity - as is the White Ermine beer brewed nearby.
I'm not sure yet what to do with the fact that text - the stuff of the archive - has migrated to the monument, which used to be primarily visual imagery. Commemoration has in the modern period given way to something more like documentation. That is to say, I'm not sure where to locate the work of Otto Dix, which is already so replete with tensions between different modes and registers of memory, within the tensions between text and image, and the skillful and the not-so-skillful. He certainly played freely with both, thereby infuriating all kinds of conservative nationalists in Germany.

I guess that's a good place to finally end this blog entry, which I'm afraid has collected together a lot of different things that I've been meaning to share for some time. Thanks, Anne, for giving me the chance for a guest appearance, and we all look forward to having you back!

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