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OUR BOOKS > MINI–MAGS > CHARTRES

Chartres
Memoir
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover art by Rodney Manning, 2011
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Circa 5020 words
Print edition of 200 copies, 2011 by Chris Giacomi of Design To Print, Somerville Victoria 3912
Electronic publication 2012
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To read some extracts from this memoir click here:

Pride
The Cathedral
La Scala


To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

Pride

I was nervous about Europe, yet keen to arrive. Europe meant a long flight, fast trains, and an almost bottomless history. It meant Shakespeare, Mozart, and the infallible Pope. It meant war, with men sucked in from subordinate countries like mine, responding like dogs to a whistle when the great powers wanted to fight. Two of my uncles had fought in France and my father had been spared only because his parents said two sons at war was enough. Europe had legends, stretching north into lands where ice and snow abounded. It possessed the Mediterranean sea which, as the name told you, was the middle of the earth. Australia was at the periphery. Everything central came from the nations of war, revolution, discovery and sublime music, which I’d loved for years. It spoke with knowledge of the human heart. Other places had their customs but Europeans knew the constituents of humanity and could show them to you, set out like notes on a stave. Europeans were cruel, but they made the world do what they wanted. They had empires, and my own land had been part of one; we celebrated it still, in ways that underlay our apparent independence. The British flag was in the corner of our flag, and we performed our politics in the British way. We spoke their tongue, adapting it a little to suit our style. Our financial system wasn’t ours at all, it was theirs, and we were puny, for all our wool and wheat, beside their accumulations of wealth. When my plane landed at Singapore – an island the British hadn’t been able to stop the Japanese capturing – and we boarded a bus to the terminal, I looked back on the jumbo as our last connection with home. Australians were good at getting around the world, because we didn’t think much of ourselves by comparison with those of greater experience.

We had a certain innocence, an ignorance, really, which I hoped might be replaced by dipping into European experience and de-freshening ourselves with all the centre knew. It was dark when we landed in Rome. When our driver set off he drove on the wrong side of the road, but so did everybody else; we in Australia followed the British way, as the continent did not. Civilisation had more than one way of functioning. Entering the city, I recognised the Colosseum in the half-light of a European dawn. The sunlight was so much brighter back home. Rome’s buildings enclosed me in a way I’d never felt in Sydney or Melbourne. Office workers, dressed ever so smartly, were crowded into bars, sipping coffee to start the day. What rhythms could they feel as they trod their narrow, crowded footpaths between, already, a noisy stream of cars? If anyone stopped, horns tooted behind. No one had any patience. Despite the press of civilisation’s confidence, it seemed to me that hysteria was close. The genial humanity of my own land didn’t exist.

We got out at Central Station, pushing our way past the men who’d gathered to keep the driver company, despite signs forbidding this. I pulled out a map and we headed for the Via Nazionale, sheltering from traffic under a tree that had somehow got itself into central Rome. The earth around it smelt of piss. Piss. I thought of the wheatfields of my childhood, the vast plains between our farm and the orange groves of father’s birthplace. Piss! In the heart of a famous city. We got to our lodgings to find a heavy door. There was a speaking device, so I pushed the button and spoke. A mechanical voice, far out of sight, told us to press another button to get in. We slept, after our flight, our sheets smelling of some fume-laden drying process, not of the open air.

It occurred to me that there was no open air, as we understood it, in this city. Exhausts belched night and day. Jet planes drew lines of white in the sky. We travelled to Florence and I saw that there was no bush, either. There were patches, thin enough, of trees, then farmland again. One no sooner left the ambit of one city than signs of the next appeared. Everybody lived within sight of each other. Everything told you how small you were. The piazza in front of Saint Peter’s empowered the Pope and his cardinals, not the faithful who gathered every day. Crowds, I felt, were regarded cynically by those who sold them flags or ice creams. They fed on each other, these Europeans, without much independence at all. They shuttered their doors and windows as if riot or civil disturbance was never far away. I thought of the dictators whose rageing had readied these people for war. We went to Barcelona and I saw a workers’ demonstration in the streets near the cathedral; it was orderly enough but the latent violence caused me to think of the spiky, dangerous-looking ornamentation I’d noticed in the cathedral. The people surrounding me were used to murder of one sort or another, and I wasn’t. They made me feel foolish, naïve, impotent and yet I was resistant too. A well-mannered people, living inside a generous social agreement, as we had, most of the time, at home ... that was surely something to be proud of?

It was their pride, more than anything else, that made Europeans supreme. Castles, cathedrals and palaces told you how mighty the high-born could be. Parliaments were impressive, but they purported to represent the people, and it was evident that for most of Europe’s history the people, bless them, had been in the grasp of power. Lesser ranks of society did their best to mimic those more fortunate. Nobody had much space. It wasn’t there to be had, unless you subjugated someone else, as kings and rulers had done when building their palaces. Even the most expensive homes in my country made lesser claims on those who passed them by. Servants had largely died out in nineteenth century Australia because people wanted lives of their own. Servitude was acceptable only when temporary. It wasn’t a state of being that Australians could accept. Homes as individual statements were scarce, in Europe. Larger buildings seethed with rank, and servitude. Identity was a matter of place: your place! Manners were important too, as an expression of society’s workings. On the other hand, Europeans found a freedom on the roads that my people had given up. The roads were more dangerous, because more individualistic, than ours. Ambulances hee-hawed night and day, their drivers enjoying the lack of restraint that their jobs allowed. People who’d suffered under the Nazis said they found the sirens frightening because they reminded them of not-so-distant horrors.

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The Cathedral

Chartres. With my son and daughter, I travelled on a train from Paris. Approaching the town, I could see the cathedral on its hill, a dark shape visible from far away, standing over the town it had been built to represent, and to shelter, it was that big. We walked around the town, we lunched, and then we went to the great doors, admiring and in my case at least, a little apprehensive. I thought this was because beggars liked to accost you in these doorways, when, they thought, you might be vulnerable, or even generous. But no, my vulnerability was inside me, and I didn’t know.

It was a winter day and the sunlight was weak. There were no beggars and we pushed through the doors. The space was vast and it stretched into darkness, but on the floor ahead of us was a pool of light. It had come through the rose window above us and behind, which we had seen, grey and stony, from the outside. Now we were within. The light lay before us. We advanced, entering this light which came ...

... from another world? I’d grasped the gothic ideal on visits to Notre Dame and I knew that the cathedrals shaped themselves in the form of a cross, they pointed to the sky (heaven), and they were gloomy because that caused worshippers to look at the windows, which not only told stories in an abstract sort of way, but reminded the viewer that the light they revealed came from another world. I knew nothing more marvellous than these windows, let into mighty stone structures to bring viewers’ minds into contact with that other world, in which humans lost their importance. Monarchs, cardinals, nobles, lords and peasants were all humbled by this light coming down. To the amazement of my son and daughter, I began to cry. My children were displeased. They pummelled me. They needed me to pull myself together. They were hardly safe in a land that wasn’t their own if their father couldn’t control himself. He did. He put his arms around them and we moved out of the light-pool that had undone me. I said, ‘Let’s find our way around,’ hardly knowing what I meant. Find our way around? Find a way out? There was none, in the Christian world, except the gradually increasing secularism replacing the spiritual revelation that had taken over men’s minds in the twelfth century, and lasted, some of it, to the twentieth. An absolute statement made when the world was younger was reverberating still. Enormous effort had gone into building Chartres. Stones had been cut, hauled to the site, lifted into place ... Teams of workers had done what their master-builders had told them to do, then they’d all gone away, their intentions achieved. I was to read books about the builders’ processes, later, when I’d had time to become curious. Building teams had moved across Europe, something that went on for hundreds of years in some places, shorter periods in others, as towns vied to achieve what every city and township wanted – a place where heaven and earth coincided, a place where the heaven that surrounded earthly beings could be felt, even seen, in the light that came into the great cathedrals, places of such miraculous construction that they seemed to prove any crazy concept that the priesthood preached to their congregations.

Europe was never the same after I’d visited Chartres. I felt I had its key. Europe’s greatest creation, its most imaginative by far, was the idea that God and his holiness had visited this earth and were still in touch. Of all creatures, man was closest to god, and resembled him, however pitiful the likeness at times when warring, greedy or lustful behaviour controlled his soul. Man was a creature of soul, its outline had been defined by the church, man’s uncontrollability was restrained to some extent by the judgements made in that other world which touched, infiltrated, this one. If this was no more than belief it had been solidified, shown to be proven, by the churches, places of intense worship, which lay all over the nations that had spread their form of civilisation around the world.

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La Scala

I saw the upside at La Scala, in a Giorgio Strehler production of Simon Boccanegra. I simply walked in and asked for a seat. There were none for that evening, I was told, but if I came to the same room the following evening at six, there would be seats. I came back as I had been told, and for less than five Australian dollars, was given a seat, high in the house, directly in front of the stage; La Scala was a horse-shoe theatre and I felt I had the best possible seat. The curtain rose, and I didn’t know what I was going to see.

I saw the finest performance I’ve ever seen of anything. Boccanegra had been a sailor, and when the production referred to his past, the stage was dominated by a ship and the light that allowed us to see this ship of his earlier manhood was as filtered, tinged, as the light on that morning when we entered Rome. The producer had made a virtue of something I’d thought a defect. I was also so fixed in my Australianness that it took time for me to appreciate the discipline the singers were exercising. They sang almost without gesture. Nobody moved. Only when a number ended did the actors rearrange themselves for what was to follow. Stage positioning was eloquent of the action, and the audience, too, kept themselves in control. When a number ended, its last harmonics were allowed to die away before the people in the stalls reacted. They were listening more closely than I’d ever heard an audience listen. Their clapping, though intense, was quick, because the action mustn’t be delayed. It was all so perfect, so intense, so demanding, that I knew I mustn’t leave my seat when interval came. If I went outside, I wouldn’t be strong enough to come back. There’d be an empty seat instead of a humbled, close to humiliated, young man to listen and learn.

The characters in the story had done terrible things to each other, yet by the end they were reconciled. Europeans, it seemed, were not afraid of the divisions in their culture, of which the distinction between good and evil was principal. Those whom the audience deemed to be good could be reconciled with those who’d done harm. Man was both good and bad and most of us wavered between the two. Good and evil were more than words, they were forces loose in the world and only saints contented themselves with good. There were saints enough, and they were still being created, but the workaday world had to balance its best and worst aspects; there was no other way to live in the world.

So Europe had understood itself better than I had given it credit for. Even the ghastliest crimes of the Nazis had been understood, then covered over so rebuilding could begin. Dresden, destroyed by incendiary bombing, was being rebuilt, sometimes in modern style, sometimes according to ancient plans. Europe had always been at war with itself and its boundaries had been endlessly redrawn. Europe was in a constant state of remaking and it was beyond a visitor’s mind to know what they would do next. If dictators happened to be out of political fashion they were still conducting orchestras, demanding that peak of performance that we, in our country, were too afraid to ask for.

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The writing of this memoir:

For the second time I’ve written two mini-mags which are best thought of as a pair. My awareness that this was going to be so came early: exactly when, I no longer remember. The split, the contrast, between them is obvious. They are about my reactions to Europe – awe, and a feeling of being overwhelmed, out-powered, mainly - and my eventual realisation that not only did I belong in my own country but that it was as good, though different. How different, and in what way?

That was what I had to write about.

If we look for peaks in European history, there is a choice, I suppose. The romantic era of Wagner and Gustav Mahler? The time of empires, with European flags flying over much of the world? The disgrace of their twentieth century wars? The peak of their Christian period, before the rise of the nation state, and if so, when did Christianity peak? Or something or somewhere else in their long history? I chose the age of the cathedrals, something I had read about in the histories of Frenchman Georges Duby, but only because the cathedrals themselves had staggered me. I am not alone in being amazed by the cathedrals, of course, because tourists are still feeling their sublimity, and this will go on as far as one can imagine, but they gave me a base for my thinking about the Europe that I had seen. (This was little enough, really, because my visits had only been short and I had never been forced to confront the power of the place except in my own reactions to what I saw as I travelled, mostly with my family and at a low cost level, as we preferred.

What did we see, and how did it make us feel? I’ve tried to answer these questions in Chartres, and then, moving to the second mini-mag, The Plains, I’ve voiced the reaction, the sequence, to my feelings about Europe. For some time I’ve noticed in myself a way of thinking about my own country that made me wonder if I was turning it into an object of religious awe as I grew older. The answer is, I was, and I am. Some displacement of earlier feelings has taken place, and at the same time as I slowly unify the many and varied impressions I have of my homeland, such a huge and varied place.

This process is still to large degree a puzzle for me. I feel at one and the same time the unity of Australia and its variety; its central, over-all definition, and its regionalism. People have been describing the place for donkey’s years with a range of clichés, most of them useful enough, but none of them very satisfying for me. In the end the best I could do was to say a little about the sort of spirituality that one feels in its horizontal spaces. This spirituality I have contrasted with the vertically expressed spirituality of Europe’s cathedrals. I think this is no more than an attempt, a work in progress, but it is still pleasing to me as a way to get something started. If the people of Europe can think of themselves as spiritual, so can we. This implies, I feel, that spirituality can take many forms, and at the present time, as the age of globalisation gets underway, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to rank one form of spirituality above another. Best, at this stage, to find out what they are. Other steps can be taken later.

So the two little memoirs, Chartres and The Plains, are offered as a pair and I hope readers will think of them that way. Readers may see more quickly than I can where next to take the thinking of this little pair, and I hope my readers do. Thinking is as communal as it is personal. That’s why, really, I write these mini-mags and put them before the public on this site.

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