by Jack Kessler,
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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France enewsletter, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Enewsletter subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: email@example.com .
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From kessler January 15 1996
FYIFrance: Treasures of the Bibliothe`que Nationale at the Library of Congress, and now on W3 / the WorldWideWeb! Anyone unlucky enough to have been in Washington D.C. this past December -- sleet, snow, and political idiocy which "closed" the US government for the first time in its history -- still might have been lucky enough to have seen a magnificent exhibit at the Library of Congress, "Creating French Culture". And now grand parts of the experience also may be had on W3 / the WorldWideWeb, in French and in English, at http://www.bnf.fr/loc/bnf0001.htm : this exhibit offers one - stop - shopping for an outstanding introduction to French history, book and library history, culture, and general civilization. The exhibit at LC consisted of no less than the leading treasures of the Bibliothe`que Nationale de France: there is more in there, I know, but these were plenty. There were the manuscripts of Zola's "J'accuse" (acquired by the BN itself from Zola's family only in 1991, and thus a generous inclusion), Montesquieu's "De l'Esprit des lois", Proust's "Sodome et Gomorrhe" (he corrected a _lot_), Hugos's "Les Mise'rables" (he didn't), Beaumarchais' "La Folle journe'e, ou Le Mariage de Figaro" ("the copy... heavily corrected ... used during the private readings that he gave in salons during the three years that censorship prohibited official performances... "), Debussy's "Pelle'as et Me'lisande", Bizet's "Carmen", and Baudelaire's "L'Avertisseur". The French tendency to controversy was well - represented. Mme. de Stae:l's original "De l'Allemagne" was on display, as were Marat's "L'Ami du peuple", the first edition of "Re'sistance" ("Bulletin Officiel du Comite National de Salut Public, 15 de'cembre 1940"), and Marie - Antoinette's copy of Ben Franklin's "Constitution des Treize E'tats - Unis de l'Ame'rique" of 1783 (this exhibit was being held at LC, after all). Many fascinating coins and maps and prints were shown, including Hevelius' first lunar atlas, and one of Sanson's wonderful maps of France (1652 - 3). The "Yuzhi Guwen yuanjian" ("Anthology of classical Chinese prose") given by the Emperor Kangxi to Louis XIV in 1700, was on display, as was a truly beautiful bit of personal calligraphy addressed by Su:leiman the Magnificent to Francis I (1536). One could see first or early editions of Rabelais, La Fontaine, Montaigne, and Villon (1489), and the first book printed by the Sorbonne printers. There even was one of the very rare "placards" which, posted on Francis I's own door, angered the king and helped to begin the Wars of Religion, accompanied by the fascinating story of its 1943 discovery and reconstruction from pieces in the binding of a later book. The greatest surprise was to find -- so far from their Paris home (they are hard enough to get to see there) -- some of the BN's most famous illuminated manuscripts. From "Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne" (c.1503), to "La Mer des hystoires" (1488 - 9), to the Rene' D'Anjou copy of "Le Livre du Coeur d'amour e'pris" (1480 - 5), and the "Book of Hours of Marguerite d'Orle'ans" (1430), these are some of the monuments of French art, calligraphy, and history. The manuscripts included some of the most meticulously and exhaustively - studied treasures of French culture: Christine de Pisan's "Le livre de la Cite' des Dames" (1405) in a copy which she presented herself to the Duc de Berri, Charles V's "Les Croniques de France selon ce qu'elles sont compose'es en l'e'glise Saint - Denis en France" (1370), a beautiful copy of Guillaume de Machaut's "Oeuvres" (1350 - 5), the "Image du Monde" of Gossouin de Metz (1315-20), the "Breviary of Philip the Fair" (13th c.), and the "Roman de la poire" (1250-60). The "Bible d'Acre" (13th c.) was shown, as were Peter the Venerable's "Liturgical and Historical Miscellany Concerning Cluny" ("De cluniacensi cenobio") (12th c.), the "Psalter - Hymnal of Saint Germain des Pre's" (11th c.), and the "Historia" of Adhe'mar de Chabannes (11th c.). The BN even entrusted LC with several of its oldest and holiest relics. The "Sacramentary -- Use of Saint - Denis" (9th c.), the "Gospels of the School of Reims" (9th c.), and the "Bible of Count Rorico" (835) all were included. The "Opera" of "Pseudo - Dionysius The Areopagite", marked "abbey of Saint Denis -- before 827", was shown; along with the story of how Peter Abelard -- in old age and retirement at the abbey, long after his adventure and debacle with He'loise -- debunked the long - standing myth that equated the abbey's founder with the biblical Dionysius, and, "probably examined this very manuscript". Most impressive of all to me personally, though, was the "Gospels of Lothar" (849 - 851), a "gift" for Charles the Bald, commissioned by his brother Lothaire: a supposed celebration of the end of their territorial feuding, but one illustrated with impressive pictures of a very - regal Lothaire, and significantly produced at St. Martin in Tours, inside what formally was Charles' own territory -- and thus perhaps one of the great back - handed compliments of history. As the exhibit catalogue points out, in this manuscript, "Nothing was spared to show off... the eminence of the individual who had ordered its production...": the grandsons of Charlemagne, representing what were to become France and Germany, and warring even then. Both the Bibliothe`que Nationale de France and the Library of Congress did themselves proud with this exhibit. The event apparently was the brainchild of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, conceived during his recent tenure as BN administrateur: entirely likely, as only such a personality could have engineered both the BN librarians' parting with such treasures -- their own national President gave one away the last time he was in Korea, and the memory still rankles at the BN -- and the Library of Congress' smooth cooperation with their French counterparts for such a complex occasion. LC's James Billington also gives generous praise to Marie - He'le`ne Tesnie`re, Jean Favier and Philippe Be'laval, who ably continued LRL's project at a time when they had so much else on their minds for their new BNF. There appears to have been some controversy -- see below -- but the exhibit nevertheless took place and was impressive, perhaps due to Le Roy Ladurie's general stewardship, and certainly as an outstanding example of cultural cooperation on an international level. One of the greatest treasures of this exhibit is its catalog. This is not usually the case. Exhibit catalogs usually are throw - away items: tourist souvenirs purchased in the enthusiasm of the moment, which on later examination prove to be hurried and ill - conceived amalgams that lie neglected on upper bookshelves for years. Occasionally they are well - decorated. But the "Creating French Culture" catalog is an exception in all these respects. It contains thoughtful writing by several of the finest contemporary scholars and technical experts in the fields concerned: prefatory materials by James Billington, Jean Favier, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, an excellent timeline, and thoughtful chapters by John Contreni, Marie - He'le`ne Tesnie`re, Elizabeth Brown, Antoine Coron, Orest Ranum, Le Roy Ladurie, Peter Gay, and Florence Callu. For each of four consecutive historical periods, from Carolingian times on, one author covers the general history while a second discusses the role of libraries during the age. Any one of the essays can stand on its own, but all also are woven into a coherent whole by the catalog's well - disciplined presentation. The overall conception of the exhibit -- that political forces "created", or at least have tried to create, French culture -- is reflected firmly in the catalog: this catalog is no haphazard assortment of photos and captions and miscellaneous notes, as such exhibit catalogs usually are. And the "decoration" of this particular exhibit catalog is extraordinary: large color plates of fine quality are included for every item, including 15 full - page blow - ups. It usually is the case, at a rare - books exhibit, that dim lighting obscures text and illustration detail. This often is intentional, out of concern for damaging the items shown. But dim lighting, combined with window reflection and unconscionable focal - length distances, too often makes the items shown nearly invisible to the exhibit's visitors. None of these problems were present here, thanks to LC's excellent display. LC contributed fine display cases, lighting which appeared actually both to illuminate the works and to protect them from light damage, a well - structured and very interesting audio tour, fine labels and graphics, and a wonderfully - renovated Jefferson Building. But rare book exhibit catalogs often are the only real means of seeing such an exhibit, and as such they usually fall short. The "Creating French Culture" catalog is an exception, like the exhibit itself: the catalog added greatly to an already - exciting event. [Tesnie`re, Marie - He'le`ne and Prosser Gifford, eds., _Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliothe`que nationale de France_ (New Haven : Yale University Press, c1995) ISBN 0 - 300 - 06283 - 4. The online version, sadly, does not include the articles, or the excellent and detailed descriptions and bibliographies provided in the catalogue for each item. The Internet must figure out the economics of this. Until it does -- and perhaps even after -- this printed catalog will be a valuable addition to the bookshelf of any student or scholar seriously interested in French general history, book and library history, culture, or civilization. $25 in paper at the exhibit store: Books in Print shows it at $65 hardcover.] France would not be France without its controversies. In the US, government policy differences at most involve shutting down Washington DC for a couple of weeks; in Paris they riot and burn cars. And intellectual controversies -- matters of high principle -- are a particular French specialty. The Historians -- a special elite in France -- succeeded, where others had failed, at lopping off a couple of stories of the new Bibliothe`que de France building. They likewise became a bit engage' with this exhibit. The exhibit's message, as stated in the distributed brochure, and on the wall in the exhibit itself was (I am told -- this is by no means certain -- that this was written by an American): "From its inception, the French monarchy sought to expand state control over culture... The death of the Sun King in 1715 marked a turning point in the relationship between power and culture in France. Since the Enlightenment, the "producers" of culture -- artists, artisans, scientists and intellectuals -- have gained an unprecedented degree of creative freedom. No longer servants of the state, they have become increasingly emancipated from those who wield political power. The democratization of culture... " To this, the BNF's President, Jean Favier, himself one of the leading French Historians, retorts, in his introduction to the catalog (p.xi): "To say that a national library derives from national power is self - evident to the French. An ancient tradition which makes the state responsible for all sectors of national activity leads to this contemporary political reality: that the state is responsible for the support of culture, if not for culture itself. Whoever denies this premise by asserting the independence of cultural creativity would soon revert to it by insisting that the state was neglecting its duties by not providing support. Other arrangements are conceivable, but they would upset the historical relationship between French society and the state. A millennium of custom and thought is not readily changed." So, the "Creating French Culture" catalog makes interesting reading, not just for its description of a magnificent exhibit, and not even just standing on its own as an historical document, but perhaps as an historian's controversy itself. I remember fondly the "Pirenne thesis" fights of my own student history years, and the "Dark Ages / Middle Ages" and "Eisenstein / media transitions" historians' controversies, which preceded and followed it: I wonder what historians will make over what may have been this controversy over "Creating French Culture"? For two nations which misunderstand each other as often as do France and the US, the "Creating French Culture" exhibit might illustrate, dramatically, both some of the common ground which the two nations share and the differences. Stanley Hoffman nearly despaired, in a recent article (New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995), at: "... fundamental structures of French society that have become obstacles to progress... corruption... the system of French education, with its growing segregation by class and national origin... [a system in which] power becomes confused among central, regional and local governments... [and] the system that trains French elites and guarantees to the bright students who have graduated from the grandes e'coles dominant positions in the bureaucracy, in politics, and in the major enterprises...". "The lack of any connection between much of the electorate and the political class is one result of this system," concludes this one of the most influential foreign commentators on the modern French scene. But the French, at the same time -- perhaps M. Favier among them, from the sound of his comments here -- are amazed at a US system, so close to and in some senses derived from their own, which can tolerate the bankruptcy and the resulting closure of a "public" hospital or a "public" school or a city or an entire national government, for purely "financial" reasons. To a society as dedicated as is that of the French to preserving liaisons between national power and just the arts, such ruptures in the political "contrat social" as the US recently has been experiencing literally are unimagineable. For the two -- the US and France -- to cooperate on such a major exhibit, all the moreso an exhibit ostensibly devoted to an exploration of power relations in society, perhaps is an indication of the problems in this respect currently being faced by both. The exhibit was filled with gestures to European grandeur and royalty which are foreign to many of the children of European immigrants who inhabit the US, and must seem totally alien to the great Asian populations which are coming to dominate large parts of the US West Coast. And yet the French expression of the relation between the governed artist and the governors -- the exhibit's central theme -- seemed universal. Certainly a Chinese or a Japanese or an Indian visitor might have seen familiar cultural parallels in the overbearing historical influence of the rulers in the objects of early date, and in the "revolt of the artists and intellectuals" represented by the documents of Baudelaire and Gide and Zola. It would be facile to reduce French cultural history to any simple formula, and simplistic in the extreme to generalize from this to other cultures. The fineness of expression in the objects themselves in this exhibit -- from Lothaire's toying with his brother's fears, to Guillaume de Machaut's and Molie`re's efforts to ingratiate themselves at court, to Malraux's assertions of artistic independence and "engagement" -- bears witness to this subtlety, more eloquently than any overall "lesson" supposedly derived from the exhibit might. Le Roy Ladurie told a story to a Berkeley gathering, several years ago, to illustrate his method of "administering" a large human institution like the BN. He remembered fondly, he said, the village cafe's of his youth, on the terraces of which, every day, were played out the full panoply of human emotions, foibles, weaknesses, and strengths -- warmth, coldness, ambition, anger, hatred, pride, jealousy, and warm, contented, happiness -- a day at the BN was a little like a day on the terrasse of a French village cafe', he told us. Le Roy Ladurie's little story perhaps presents a good analogy for the process of the BNF's mounting a "Creating French Culture" exhibit at the Library of Congress, and perhaps a good analogy for the process of French - American relations and understandings / misunderstandings generally. How could such a complex process be viewed simply? Perhaps it is its very complications which give it its final beauty, coupled of course with the achievement of the exhibit's actually having taken place despite those complications. French - American relations so often consist merely of complications, without achievements: the "Creating French Culture" exhibit perhaps is a salutary exception. One footnote to the US / Library of Congress side of the occasion: The LC Jefferson Building has been _wonderfully_ - renovated, and provided an ideal venue for the exhibit's display of French splendor. My own earliest memories of LC are a twelve - year - old's recollection of dust and dirt and grimy floors and dark ceilings. Now the building's murals glow, the floors and ceilings shine. The great convoluted spaces of the entrance hall and corridors of this massive 19th century pile now do justice to its contents and to Washington DC. They certainly -- as cleaned, as though by a Malraux -- house French splendor as impressively as could any structure in Paris. LC should be very proud. I made several visits to LC to see the "Creating French Culture" exhibit. A couple of days later I was with my family in the US National Archives, a bit down Pierre l'Enfant's Mall from Capitol Hill and the Library of Congress, trying in vain to read the sadly - yellowed documents of the Declaration of Independence (Rousseau?) and the Constitution (Montesquieu?), and I noticed a piece of paper in an adjoining case which bore the signature -- I spelled it out before recognizing it -- "B - o - n - a - p - a - r - t - e": the Louisiana purchase -- a receipt, en effet, for the western half of the United States. The French have been very much in evidence in US history, and occasionally in grandiose albeit frequently misunderstood ways. XXX Images online at the Bibliothe`que Nationale de France: http://www.bnf.fr A new installation on the Bibliothe`que Nationale de France W3/ Web server appears to promise the long - awaited resolution of a much - discussed BNF controversy: those digitized texts. As those who have followed the BNF will remember, at first 300,000 digitized texts were talked about, then numbers soared to 450,000, then technical and financial reality set in and a figure of 100,000 was released: _Le Monde_'s Emmanuel de Roux cried "foul", loudly, at that point. But today one can see the beginnings at last. There is a very good display online now: a section of the above - mentioned Webpage, headed "1000 enluminures", which already contains images from 11 of France's more famous and beautiful cultural treasures -- easily reached and downloaded by W3 viewers located anywhere in the world. Museums of the imagination, Malraux's "museums without walls", have existed only in the imagination until now. The dreams and the nightmares of universal culture, of culture which knows no physical or social or political boundaries, in the past have been only the straw men of philosophers' arguments: optimists have theorized about the "universal brotherhood" to be obtained from "universal bibliography", the benefits of Esperanto, the advantages of equal education and equal suffrage and equal rights of various kinds -- pessimists have worried about the lack of boundaries, the lack of definition, the lack of lists of "great" and "approved" things, the good walls which make good neighbors both within and around a culture. "Culture" has had its aesthetic polyannas, preaching that all that it might do would be right; it has had its abusers, pushing it to express various agendas, sometimes literally "out of the barrel of a gun"; others have urged that it be restricted, warning, as Robert Bolt's Sir Thomas More did, "This country's planted thick with laws... and if you cut them down... d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?" Well, we may be about to see who was right. It is by no means clear that access to all of what is on the Internet and the World Wide Web is going to be universal: substantial barriers of wealth and education still exist, often thinly disguised as technological expertise. It is no more clear that the content of what is appearing on the Internet and the Web is "cultural": there must be room for junk, somewhere, and it seems that the nets have such space in abundance, however broad one's definitions are. But if universal culture ever had its chance, now is the time. Millions -- tens of millions -- now can see these Bibliothe`que Nationale de France manuscript images, from all over the globe, simply by pushing a few buttons on increasingly - inexpensive systems. From any French village -- for the price of a local telephone call, promises their government (_FYIFrance_, 11/15/95) -- to software development houses in Bangalore, India (unimaginable a decade ago), to rice paddies in Kampuchea now equipped with radio - modems, and government offices in Hanoi now on the Internet, and Shanghai garment factories: all these now can provide all the very different people who inhabit them with immediate and personal access to the glories of French culture. One does wonder whether they all will view an illuminated manuscript of an ancient French king in precisely the same way. XXX FYIFrance (sm)(tm) e - newsletter ISSN 1071 - 5916 * | FYIFrance (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic newsletter, | published since 1992 as a small - scale, personal, | experiment, in the creation of large - scale | "information overload", by Jack Kessler. Any material / \ written by me which appears in FYIFrance may be ----- copied and used by anyone for any good purpose, so // \\ long as, a) they give me credit and show my e - mail --------- address and, b) it isn't going to make them money: if // \\ if it is going to make them money, they must get my permission in advance, and share some of the money which they get with me. Use of material written by others requires their permission. FYI France archives are at http://infolib.berkeley.edu (search for FYIFrance), or via gopher to infolib.berkeley.edu 72 (path: 3. Electronic Journals (Library-Oriented)/ 6. FYIFrance/ , or http://www.univ-rennes1.fr/LISTESemail@example.com/ (BIBLIO-FR econference archive), or via telnet to a.cni.org , login brsuser (PACS / PACS-L econference archive), or at http://www.fyifrance.com . Suggestions, reactions, criticisms, praise, and poison - pen letters all will be gratefully received at firstname.lastname@example.org . Copyright 1992- by Jack Kessler, all rights reserved.
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