Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Arena

IT WAS in Paris, in his room on the hill of the University, that a traveller woke and wondered what he should do with his day. In some way─I cannot tell how─ephemeral things had captured his mind in the few hours he had already spent in the city. There is no civilisation where the various parts stand so separate as they do with the French. You may live in Paris all your life and never suspect that there is a garrison of eighty thousand men within call. You may spend a year in a provincial town and never hear that the large building you see daily is a bishop's palace. Or you may be the guest of the bishop for a month, and remain under the impression that somewhere, hidden away in the place, there is a powerful clique of governing atheists whom, somehow, you never run across. And so this traveller, who knew Paris like his pocket, and had known it since he could speak plain, had managed to gather up in this particular visit all the impressions which are least characteristic of the town. He had dined with a friend at Pousset's; he had passed the evening at the Exhibition, and he had had a bare touch of the real thing in the Rue de Tournon; but even there it was in the company of foreigners. Therefore, I repeat, he woke up next morning wondering what he should do, for the veneer of Paris is the thinnest in the world, and he had exhausted it in one feverish day. 

Luckily for him, the room in which he lay was French, and had been French for a hundred years. You looked out of the window into a sky cut by the tall Mansard roofs of the eighteenth century; and over the stones of what had been the Scotch College you could see below you at the foot of the hill all the higher points of the island─especially the Sainte Chapelle and the vast towers of the Cathedral. Then it suddenly struck him that the air was full of bells. Now, it is a curious thing, and one that every traveller will bear me out in, that you associate a country place with the sound of bells, but a capital never. Caen is noisy enough and Rouen big enough, one would think, to drown the memory of music; yet any one who has lived in his Normandy remembers their perpetual bells; and as for the admirable town of Chinon, where no one ever goes, I believe it is Ringing Island itself. But Paris one never thinks of as a place of bells. And yet there are bells enough there to take a man right into the past, and from there through fairyland to hell and out and back again. 

If I were writing of the bells, I could make you a list of all the famous bells, living and dead, that haunt the city, and the tale of what they have done would be a history of France. The bell of the St. Bartholomew over against the Louvre, the tocsin of the Hotel de Ville that rang the knell of the Monarchy, the bell of St. Julien that is as old as the University, the old Bourdon of Notre Dame that first rang when St. Louis brought in the crown of thorns, and the peal that saluted Napoleon, and the new Bourdon that is made of the guns of Sebastopol, and the Savoyarde up on Montmartre, a new bell much larger than the rest. This morning the air was full of them. They came up to the height on which the traveller lay listening; they came clear and innumerable over the distant surge of the streets; he spent an hour wondering at such an unusual Parliament and General Council of Bells. Then he said to himself: "It must be some great feast of the Church." He was in a world he had never known before. He was like a man who gets into a strange country in a dream and follows his own imagination instead of suffering the pressure of outer things; or like a boy who wanders by a known river till he comes to unknown gardens. 

So anxious was he to take possession at once of this discovery of his that he went off hurriedly without eating or drinking, thinking only of what he might find. He desired to embrace at one sight all that Paris was doing on a day which was full of St. Louis and of resurrection. The thoughts upon thoughts that flow into the mind from its impression, as water creams up out of a stone fountain at a river head, disturbed him, swelling beyond the possibility of fulfilment. He wished to see at once the fashionables in St. Clotilde and the Greek Uniates at St. Julien, and the empty Sorbonne and the great crowd of boys at Stanislas; but what he was going to see never occurred to him, for he thought he knew Paris too well to approach the cathedral. 

Notre Dame is jealously set apart for special and well-advertised official things. If you know the official world you know the great church, and unless some great man had died, or some victory had been won, you would never go there to see how Paris took its religion. No midnight Mass is said in it; for the lovely carols of the Middle Ages you must go to St. Gervais, and for the pomp of the Counter-Reformation to the Madeleine, for soldiers to St. Augustin, for pilgrims to St. Etienne. Therefore no one would, ever have thought of going to the cathedral on this day, when an instinct and revelation of Paris at prayer filled the mind. Nevertheless, the traveller's feet went, of their own accord, towards the seven bridges, because the Island draws all Paris to it, and was drawing him along with the rest. He had meant perhaps to go the way that all the world has gone since men began to live on this river, and to follow up the Roman way across the Seine─a vague intention of getting a Mass at St. Merry or St. Laurent. But he was going as a dream sent him, without purpose or direction. 

The sun was already very hot and the Parvis was blinding with light when he crossed the little bridge. Then he noticed that the open place had dotted about it little groups of people making eastward. The Parvis is so large that you could have a multitude scattered in it and only notice that the square was not deserted. There were no more than a thousand, perhaps, going separately to Notre Dame, and a thousand made no show in such a square. But when he went in through the doors he saw there something he had never seen before, and that he thought did not exist. It was as though the vague interior visions of which the morning had been so full had taken on reality. 

You may sometimes see in modern picture galleries an attempt to combine the story from which proceeds the nourishing flame of Christianity with the crudities and the shameful ugliness of our decline. Thus, with others, a picture of our Lord and Mary Magdalen; all the figures except that of our Lord were dressed in the modern way. I remember another of our Lord and the little children, where the scene is put into a village school. Now, if you can imagine (which it is not easy to do) such an attempt to be successful, untouched by the love of display and eccentricity, and informing─as it commonly pretends to inform─our time with an idea, then you will understand what the traveller saw that morning in Notre Dame. The church seemed the vastest cavern that had ever been built for worship. Coming in from the high morning, the half-light alone, with which we always connect a certain majesty and presence, seemed to have taken on amplitude as well. The incense veiled what appeared to be an infinite lift of roof, and the third great measurement─the length of nave that leads like a forest ride to the lights of the choir─were drawn out into an immeasurable perspective by reason of a countless crowd of men and women divided by the narrow path of the procession. So full was this great place that a man moved slowly and with difficulty, edging through such a mass of folk as you may find at holiday time in a railway station, or outside a theatre─never surely before was a church like this, unless, indeed, some very rich or very famous man happened to be gracing it. But here to-day, for nothing but the function proper to the feast, the cathedral was paved and floored with human beings. In the galilee there was a kind of movement so that a man could get up further, and at last the traveller found a place to stand in just on the edge of the open gangway, at the very end of the nave. He peered up this, and saw from the further end, near the altar, the head of the procession approaching, which was (in his fancy of that morning) like the line of the Faith, still living and returning in a perpetual circle to revivify the world. Moreover, there was in the advent of the procession a kind of climax. As it came nearer, the great crowd moved more quickly towards it; children were lifted up, and by one of Sully's wide pillars a group of three young soldiers climbed on a rail to see the great sight better. The Cardinal-Archbishop, very old and supported by his priests, half walked and half tottered down the length of the people; his head, grown weary with age, barely supported the mitre, from which great jewels, false or true, were flashing. In his hand he had a crozier that was studded in the same way with gems, and that seemed to be made of gold; the same hands had twisted the metal of it as had hammered the hinges of the cathedral doors. Certainly there here appeared one of the resurrections of Europe. The matter of life seemed to take on a fuller stuff and to lift into a dimension above that in which it ordinarily moves. The thin, narrow, and unfruitful experience of to-day and yesterday was amplified by all the lives that had made our life, and the blood of which we are only a last expression, the race that is older even than Rome seemed in this revelation of continuity to be gathered up into one intense and passionate moment. The pagan altar of Tiberius, the legend of Dionysius, the whole circle of the wars came into this one pageant, and the old man in his office and his blessing was understood by all the crowd before him to transmit the centuries. A rich woman thrust a young child forward, and he stopped and stooped with difficulty to touch its hair. As he approached the traveller it was as though there had come great and sudden news to him, or the sound of unexpected and absorbing music. 

The procession went on and closed; the High Mass followed; it lasted a very long time, and the traveller went out before the crowd had moved and found himself again in the glare of the sun on the Parvis. 

He went over the bridge to find his eating-shop near the archives, and eat the first food of that day, thinking as he went that certainly there are an infinity of lives side by side in our cities, and each ignores the rest; and yet, that to pass from what we know of these to what we do not─though it is the most wonderful journey in the world─is one that no one undertakes unless accident or a good fortune pushes him on. He desired to make another such journey. 

He came back to find me in London, and spoke to me of Paris as of a city newly discovered: as I listened I thought I saw an arena. 

In a plain of the north, undistinguished by great hills, open to the torment of the sky, the gods had traced an arena wherein were to be fought out the principal battles of a later age. 

* * * * * 

Spirits lower than the divine, spirits intermediate, have been imagined by men wiser than ourselves to have some power over the world─a power which we might vanquish in a special manner, but still a power. To such conceptions the best races of Europe cling; upon such a soil are grown the legends that tell us most about our dark, and yet enormous, human fate. These intermediate spirits have been called in all the older creeds "the gods." It is in the nature of the Church to frown upon these dreams; but I, as I listened to him, saw clearly that plain wherein the gods had marked out an arena for mankind. 

It was oval, as should be a theatre for any show, with heights around it insignificant, but offering a vantage ground whence could be watched the struggle in the midst. There was a sacred centre─an island and a mount─and, within the lines, so great a concourse of gladiatorial souls as befits the greatest of spectacles. I say, I do not know how far such visions are permitted, nor how far the right reason of the Church condemns them; but the dream returned to me very powerfully, recalling my boyhood, when the traveller told me his story. I also therefore went and caught the fresh gale of the stream of the Seine in flood, and saw the many roofs of Paris quite clear after the rain, and read the writings of the men I mixed with and heard the noise of the city. 

* * * * * 

It is not upon the paltry level of negations or of decent philosophies, it is in the action and hot mood of creative certitudes that the French battle is engaged. The little sophists are dumb and terrified, their books are quite forgotten. I myself forgot (in those few days by that water and in that city) the thin and ineffectual bodies of ignorant men who live quite beyond any knowledge of such fires. The printed things which tired and poor writers put down for pay no longer even disturbed me; the reflections, the mere phantasms of reality, with which in a secluded measure we please our intellect, faded. I was like a man who was in the centre of two lines that meet in war; to such a man this fellow's prose on fighting and that one's verse, this theory of strategy, or that essay upon arms, are not for one moment remembered. Here (in the narrow street which I knew and was now following) St. Bernard had upheld the sacrament in the shock of the first awakening─in that twelfth century, when Julian stirred in his sleep. Beyond the bridge, in Roman walls that still stand carefully preserved, the Church of Gaul had sustained Athanasius, and determined the course of the Christian centuries. I had passed upon my way the vast and empty room where had been established the Terror; where had been forced by an angry and compelling force the full return of equal laws upon Europe. Who could remember in such an air the follies and the pottering of men who analyse and put in categories and explain the follies of wealth and of old age? 

Good Lord, how little the academies became! I remembered the phrases upon one side and upon the other which still live in the stones of the city, carved and deep, but more lasting than are even the letters of their inscription. I remembered the defiant sentence of Mad Dolet on his statue there in the Quarter, the deliberate perversion of Plato, "And when you are dead you shall no more be anything at all." I remembered the "Ave Crux spes Unica"; and St. Just's "The words that we have spoken will never be lost on earth"; and Danton's "Continual Daring," and the scribbled Greek on the walls of the cathedral towers. For not only are the air and the voice, but the very material of this town is filled with words that remain. Certainly the philosophies and the negations dwindled to be so small as at last to disappear, and to leave only the two antagonists. Passion brooded over the silence of the morning; there was great energy in the cool of the spring air, and up above, the forms the clouds were taking were forms of gigantic powers. 

I came, as the traveller had come, into the cathedral. It was not yet within half an hour of the feast. There was still room to be found, though with every moment the nave and the aisles grew fuller, until one doubted how at the end so great a throng could be dismissed. They were of all kinds. Some few were strangers holding in their hands books about the building. Some few were devout men on travel, and praying at this great office on the way: men from the islands, men from the places that Spain has redeemed for the future in the new world. I saw an Irishman near me, and two West Indians also, half negro, like the third of the kings that came to worship at the manger where Our Lord was born. For two hours and nearly three I saw and wondered at that immense concourse. The tribunes were full, the whole choir was black, moving with the celebrants, and all the church floor beyond and around me was covered and dark with expectant men. 

The Bourdon that had summoned the traveller and driven mad so many despairs, sounded above me upon this day with amplitude and yet with menace. The silence was a solace when it ceased to boom. The Creed, the oldest of our chaunts, filled and completed those walls; it was as though at last a battle had been joined, and in that issue a great relief ran through the crowd. 

* * * * * 

From such a temple I came out at last. They had thrown the western doors wide open, the doors whose hinges man scarcely could have hammered and to whose miracle legend has lent its aid; the midday, now captured by the sun, came right into the hollow simplicity of the nave, and caught the river of people as they flowed outwards; but even that and the cry of the Benediction from the altar gave no greater peace than an appeal to combat. In the air outside that other power stood waiting to conquer or to fail. 

I came out, as from a camp, into the civilian debate, the atmosphere of the spectators. The permanent and toppling influence against which this bulwark of ours, the Faith, was reared (as we say) by God Himself, shouted in half the prints, in half the houses. I sat down to read and compare (as it should be one's custom when one is among real and determining things) the writings of the extreme, that is of the leading men. I chose the two pamphleteers who are of equal weight in this war, but of whom one only is known as yet to us in England, and that the least. 

I read their battle-cries. Their style was excellent; their good faith shone even in their style. 

Since I had been upon phrases all these hours I separated and remembered the principal words of each. One said: "They will break their teeth against it. The Catholic Church is not to perish, for she has allies from outside Time." The other said: "How long will the death of this crucified god linger? How long will his agony crush men with its despair?" 

But I read these two writers for my entertainment only, and in order to be acquainted with men around me; for on the quarrel between them I had long ago made up my mind.

~Hilaire Belloc: in Hills and Seas

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