Falling in Style

“Thou shalt not blow pot smoke into the face of thy pet!” was the thirteenth commandment according to William Burroughs. The effort to upgrade the moral standards according to the needs of society is an ever-going process; and over the course of centuries, we turned populations of criminals into law-abiding citizens as we created new populations of criminals out of former law-abiding citizens. “Thou shalt not keep an old children’s book on your library shelf!” for nothing corrupts the young mind worse than an uncensored nursery rhyme, or the original version of a fairy-tale where no woodcutter comes to the rescue of a mischievous little girl who talks to strangers while taking short-cuts through the forbidden forest.
I believe that an old moralist tradition rife with conventional and somewhat retrograde wisdom, is not any worse than a new one, for both are equally good for a laugh. Not all humor is ha-ha, of course, some of it could be he-he, and other is closer to hm…, but whichever is your natural disposition, allow me to elucidate here the moral message of the above painting by Hubert Robert, the painting that anyone happening to be in Paris can see in a small and quite neglected by tourists museum of Cognacq-Jay. 

A fall, even as the result of stepping on a banana peel, always contains moral lesson. You know you deserved it. But I leave my reader to his introspective reasoning, for I am more curious about the gentleman in the picture: what might have been his infraction? What had he done to deserved this triple punishment — falling off some kind of an ancient temple and into a sarcophagus and then receiving a huge piece of loose masonry on top? Before we touch upon why, an astute observer can help me with how: we see how he got up there — there’s a long ladder leaning against the building. Devil made him do it, of course, but what else? The man grasps something in his right hand. We cannot make it out, since the detail is too small, but we can infer that it is the same object the fleeing woman holds in her hand, probably a small bouquet of flowers.

Obviously, the terrible punishment does not match the crime, if we can call crime what looks more like a safety or risk management issue. And there an onlooker is likely to remain as baffled as I was when trying to crack the code of this late XVIII painting. Is the puzzle even decipherable? It should be, given that the author of the rebus was a simple mortal, creating in a well-understood historical context. True enough, for a painter of ruins, all ruins offer ethic and aesthetic lessons. The first one is about vanity of our pursuits. The second is more subtle and is often due to a shere scale of the site, and as we try to surmise from the skill demonstrated in the execution of a fragment and complete through the work of imagination the rest, gradually arriving at the quality and size of the whole, which is quite comparable or sometimes superior to our present ability and skill, the artifacts dwarf and humble our unequal idea of the past, bringing our emotional reaction to the point of astonishment, or even consternation or someting close to sacred awe.

At that euphoric moment a moral flaw that deserves to be squashed without mercy is none other than callousness, insensitivity, and obtuseness shown in the presence of a ruin. And if we fail to appraoch the ruin with tripidation, a different type of horror, more trivial like a stupid accident will substitute itself for the sublime. To each according to his ability. The aesthetics is replacable by the sensational. Such intolerance to simple pleasures we would find intolerable. Actually, they did too. I don’t know about my reader, but myself when in the presence of Hubert Robert’s paintings, I am subject to hearing hallucinations. Whenever I put my ear close enough to a guilded frame, I hear a metallic noise: it sounds like a ghostly figure dressed in lace and silk stockings is sharpening a large rectangular blade to be fitted into a different, much cruder and much larger wooden framework.


About versaillesgossip, before and after Francis Ponge

The author of the blogs Versailles Gossip and Before and After Francis Ponge, Vadim Bystritski lives and teaches in Brest France. The the three main themes of his literary endeavours are humor, the French Prose Poetry, the French XVII and XVIII Century Art and History. His writings and occasionally art has been published in a number of ezines (Eratio, Out of Nothing, Scars TV, etc). He also contributes to Pinterest where he comments on the artifiacts from the Louvre and other collections. Some of his shorter texts are in Spanish, Russian and French.
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