Friday, May 14, 2010

One Thousand Roman Soldiers Turned to Stone (Carnac)

What is the best picture of Carnac? How do you capture three fields of megaliths in perfect alignment? Perhaps, though woefully modern, we start with numbers: 1099 megaliths in 11 rows at the Menec site; 1029 in 10 rows at the Kermori site; and 555 in 13 rows at the Kerlescan site. These were never meant to be seen all in one human gaze, but we (conditioned by the all-powerful view that Renaissance perspective has given us) want to. They don't yet offer helicopter rides at Carnac, but you can take a dandy train which rides you around the fields for about an hour - the rain made us glad of it. But how strange to be chugging along these fields, which are now fenced off and can only be visited with a guide every other hour in order to let nature reclaim a little bit of the hold that she had on the sites for those thousands of years. How odd, but convenient with the kids, to be moving rapidly among the stones whose rhythm seems to mark time much more slowly. There are multiple formations here: the famous rows, but also circles and semi-circles and accumulations. The medieval myth goes that the megaliths are thousands of Roman soldiers turned to stone by Pope Cornely, a third century Pope who, in more scholarly accounts, is known for his struggles with an anti-pope (fascinating debate: was the Christian church to be "catholic" (for all including sinner?) or holy (only for those who were free of sin?) - the "catholic" or "universal" side won and history was the different for it). Research focused more on legend reveals the tale of his pursuit, his hiding in one of his oxen's ears (!) and his transformation of the hundreds of soldiers into stone. I don't know when this legend began, but it goes deep, and we think of the frame that people created, this miracle for instance, to even try to begin to understand what they were seeing. So what is the best picture of Carnac? The pelmel shot above that barely reveals the rows, but begins to show you the wide array of "figures" of stones - their great and teeming number?

Or perhaps this model at the Musée de la Préhistoire in Carnac that starts to give you a sense of the tremendous planning, the lay-out of this fantastic series of alignment. This model fills in gaps that are there today. When Carnac started to be excavated, 80% of the stones were down (compare that to 90% of Montneuf's stones being down, and all of a sudden one dreams of raising Montneuf's stones!) - mostly because of an earthquake in 1722 (can't blame the medievals this time!). Apparently, the stones didn't elicit enough interest to be recorded in any significant way until the 18th century - they had been either so deeply hidden in the forest, or been so much the objects of peasant superstition, or (the one that fascinates me) people just weren't ready to see them - look at them as rocks in the landscape, yes, but not see them. That seems an impossible claims for the thousands of stones at Carnac, but human perception is very particular. So is this the best shot of Carnac? The imagined wholeness of the field of stones on a landscape razed of all intervention with the master design of generations (one things it took generations to erect the stones at Carnac - there are just so many).

Well, this is definitely not the best picture because I look so unbelievably goofy. But it does start to communicate the surprise and the wonder at this place. The mind scrambles: what do you do with a site (a sight) like this? Especially having the conviction that there was a purpose, a specific wonderful purpose: that much human effort (thousands of stones, perfect alignments) had to have a purpose, and it was probably grand and really cool and we have no access to it. I can only quote the abbot Mahé, canon of Vannes who, in 1825, wrote to (not just of) the stones: "Parlez... mais parlez donc!" (Speak... well speak then!"). Wasn't wonder, then, always part of the experience of Carnac? Perhaps only a few initiates knew its purpose (knowledge being the oldest and still best efficient form of power), perhaps we are more like most neolithic people than we knew. Or perhaps the knowledge of the purpose of the stones created a community: a community of knowledge and ritual and purpose. I'm not even interested in what the knowledge is (calendar, ancestor worship, landing strip for alien spaceships) (oh, there are many, many theories!) - Carnac makes me interested in the how of knowledge. Carnac is about perception - how one sees Carnac, how one can understand it from this or that perspective. We moderns want the all-seeing view. What did they cherish? Perhaps the entire alignment was meant to be seen as a whole from above - by a divinity. Or perhaps Neolithic gods lived closer to earth. But it carved out a place, and it was these Bretons, this one of six Celtic nations, who inherited this massive presence. One needs to wonder a little bit why Stonehenge is so much more famous than Carnac. I don't think that it's just savvier marketing (although don't underestimate that). Rather, Carnac is messier formally and intellectually: it does not present a bounded form, a circle itself encircling a semi-circle. It is not contained the way Stonehenge, with its wondrous lintels, caps its megaliths, tames them, keeps them under tight control. Carnac is unwieldy, it spreads hither and yon with lots of rhyme but a still mysterious reason. It is as maddening as it is incredible. And (ah, the rigors of the modern gaze), Stonehenge is much more easily contained in one image. Carnac defies being captured by one iconic image.

Carnac is run by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (they do all the big ones, including Mont Saint-Michel and the Sainte Chapelle and so on) and these people know gift shops. It would only be later that day that I would understand the presence of the pirate treasure box that Oliver craved (his North Carolina pirate roots go deep and right around now every year he yearns for the sea and pirate lore). My head was so full of megaliths (hmmm) that I resisted at first, but Mac reminded me of how close we were to the ocean and I relented. (Plus, I succumbed to a megalith t-shirt (!) - and, is four books on neolithic megaliths too many? no, no) The ocean would prove to be an important part of our day, so I would happy to have a pirate with us. Even at lunch.

Directly after lunch (which was quite late even though none of us had felt the time passing among the stones - hmmm) we went to the Musée de Préhistoire de Carnac. Iris here surprised us all by whipping out a little notebook and starting to take notes and make drawings of the various exhibits. She studied the burial sites (with shells and antlers buried all around the bones) and the necklaces with especially close attention. The museum itself holds artefacts and bones from digs all around Carnac - even some of the Carnac stones (at the extremities of the fields) held tombs. Neolithic is going to mean before metals and so we didn't see chieftains buried with swords and helmets and knives. Instead, these careful arrangements of shells and antlers. And Iris noting every one.

And then there are the engraved stones. These interested Oliver particularly. I was too busy looking at him looking at the stone to (shame on me) note where the stone is from. They had several plaster casts here from tombs whose stones were engraved, but I do believe this one is the real deal. The engravings should give us a clue, right? Ah, but their abstraction matches that of the stones they are on, so we are little better off. I consistently thought of Arnold Hauser today, and his thesis about neolithic sites like Stonehenge (I'll need to see if he discusses Carnac now) - his primary interest (good Marxist art historian that he was) was in the social organization necessary for this kind of feat. While the abstraction of this early art puzzled and sometimes shocked a lot of early writers, for Hauser the abstraction made sense if one thought about the societies that produced art. Neolithic art was abstract (its shapes mysterious and unforthcoming as to their meaning) because its society was highly hierarchical. For Hauser, the more hierarchical the society, the more abstract the art; the less hierarchical the society, the more naturalistic the art - a question of access to knowledge: the privileged few have knowledge of abstract art; the many "get" naturalistic art. (This was a fascinating claim to be making in 1951 as Abstract Expressionism was soon to take off - and indeed to this day, most abstract modern art is still seen as appreciated by more of an elite than by everyone - we'll have to have Mac in on this conversation). Abstract art is one thing, but abstract architecture, such as the pattern/endeavor at Carnac is another. I do love to think about the kind of social organization that it would take to put together something like this. Hauser saw the necessity for one, very powerful ruler at the head of such a project. I would like to think that he was wrong, that people came together in communities (matriarchies, why not?) and built Carnac, but I have no more (less) proof than he does about the kind of society needed to produce Carnac. Hauser: someone had to be very much in charge (charisma, power, will, brilliance). Other: they all had to get along to do this. Well, all this to say, Oliver, a little boy lost in his thoughts, loved this piece. I watched him seek out all of the engraved pieces and look upon each one.

Eleanor had plans of her own.

Being a museum made up almost entirely of finds from tombs beneath megalithic constructions, the Musée de Préhistoire de Carnac has set up several different tomb and dig reconstructions. This one, with its great photographs of the beach right behind it, was part of a special exhibit on a couple who were archaeologists all along the coast of the Morbihan in the early 20th century. I wish that I'd caught more of their story, but the pictures were just incredible - and apparently they were the first to use several techniques current in archaeology today (involving film? I'm too fuzzy on the details - apologies!). But seeing all of these reconstructed burial sites Iris asked "Aren't they supposed to be under the megaliths?" (Everything in its place for my girl). I did stop to think about that for a bit - and then to think about this drive, this will to be remembered. These people are being remembered in a phenomenally different way than that which they had envisioned - they no longer lie quietly beneath great stones, but instead awe and educate hundreds of people every day. They are very much remembered. Are these stones about memory? They've certainly worked that way.

It was when we drove down the presqu-île de Quiberon and up its côté sauvage that I began to see this issue differently. In the face of such strong, relentless nature, its constant erasure of human presence, yes, I'd fight harder to be remembered. This very blog is an attempt to remember always (a personal, not universal, memory). I have to laugh to think of the immateriality of a digital blog compared to the absolutely materiality of a megalith. But maybe we're all after the same thing: to not disappear entirely. Yes, but also, to remember specifics (this love, that laugh, this battle, that peace), not just universals (king, warrior, queen, child). It was cold, it was rainy, the sea was throwing itself against the rocks, and yes, I wanted both to remember and to be remembered - I was rendered active and passive both by this dramatic landscape. One does have to wonder why so very many megalithic sites are so close to the sea. Is it another direction for the projection of the image of the stones? Is there another view (force, divinity) waiting out there? So many, so many, close to the sea (and another feature that makes in-land Montneuf so remarkable).

Iris loved this landscape. She clambered atop rocks that jutted up (looking themselves like megaliths - well, being megaliths, after all) while Oliver stayed down below and worried. He said "These kinds of places terrify me." I hugged him tight and said "Hey, that's your first brush with the Sublime!" - that took some explaining, but he seemed to like the idea of something so beautiful and so intense that it became terrifying, but in a purgative, exhilirating kind of way. (Just wait until he can read Romantic poetry!!!). Iris responded to this place by wanting to dominate it. She asked that I take her picture, ad she posed herself in this pose - looking out upon the churning horizon of a wind-tossed sea. (Where was Caspar David Friedrich to paint her? Plucky Girl Above Sea of Fog could have been his masterpiece!)

Considering this was what she was looking out upon, I do consider her a brave girl. I can't imagine what goes through the mind of a 6-year old girl when she sees and feels this - the wind whipping through, the salt air. And Iris is generally quiet about complicated things - but her silences speak volumes.

Oliver found enormous snails happily moving about the grass and undoubtedly gave this one a pretty fright - but Eleanor and Iris were fascinated, and the noisy sea was forgotten for a while. They carefully put the snails back (in a circle arrangement so that the snails could talk to each other, of course) and declared the outing good. There's an effort to restore the landscape to its previous, wilder existence. This is why you can't walk around the Carnac guides save with a guide. And I will say that out here by the sea, I was glad to see dozens of snails, and wild unkempt flowers and crazy grasses. But there are some sites where you are allowed to roam freely. And even though I was used to this luxury from sites such as Montneuf, nothing could have prepared me for Kerzehro.

The first thing to try to convey is the freshness of the heather, this wonderful smell of earth and flowers that here, just a little bit inland (just up the D781 from Carnac) is so incredibly refreshing. The site is comprised of at least two parts: there are alignments, Carnac-style, and here you can see their precision and their continuity. This part of the site is directly off the highway (in fact, the highway cuts off a few straggler stones which are on the other side of the road now), and there are houses directly across the street. Surely, surely the sight of Kerzehro has become mundane for this people. How long does that takes? Because even though now I've seen literally thousands of standing stones, they still take my breath away. Each new site creates a new presence, a new mood, a new will. These thick, squarish stones seemed more staid and steady than those at the Carnac sites which, smaller, skimmed along the surface of the land in their impossibly long rows. Here, the scale was more human - it was easier to get a sense of the overall pattern. And then, we took a little path that Oliver had seen said "Géants de Kerzehro" - giants? sign us up!

This is the part of the site that I was utterly unprepared for. Here, the stones literally took my breath away. Yes, I've studied them, yes I love them, but I'd never seen a stone this tall before. We put me in front of it because of the outrageous red jacket for contrast - I'm 5'7" and this stone can fit three mes into it, yes? so some 15' tall? Here I go with the numbers again! But how else do I start to communicate what it felt like to approach and then stand under this stone? It sound so simple: make it big and it will have more presence. And yes, yes it's true - and yet I can't tell you exactly why that works - why size matters (and no, I'm not going to do a matriarchal phallic interpretation of the standing stones). But one of these enormous stones looms out at you from the forest, and you are not alone.

This last picture from today is of a stone that was very popular in early 20th-century postcards. Perhaps because of its anthropomorphic shape, perhaps because of its still standing besides its fallen companions. I bought such a postcard with its photograph from 1927, and was surprised to see nothing but scrubby land around it: no trees anywhere. Now there is a farm to the left (something lush was already growing), and this fervent verdant green forest all around. I don't know which is the neolithic landscape (barren or forested), but the forest creates an intimacy that is unparalleled. The Baby Pink Dragon story tonight was full of ancient pirate spirits come to life, having been trapped in stone for thousands of years. Gentle spirits that our adventurous group to the sea to learn mysterious things... :-)

I leave you tonight with a little song that Oliver sang at dinner. Iris had just walked us through her notebook with a meticulous page-by-page account of her impressions and thoughts on "the Neolithic Life" - she'd been so taken by the necklaces and wondering who wore them. Oliver then offered up his own strange but surprisingly catchy contribution - I'm still humming it now! "Neolithic Necklace" - woo-hoo! Eleanor got excited to tell her friend Sophie all about the big rocks. Helps keeps things in perspective. :-)

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