Saturday, September 15, 2018

September 15, 2018 (Paris)

September 15, 2018

People often asked me why I write when I'm on a trip, or especially in a city like Paris?   For me, my brain moves slowly, which causes my reactions to being slow as well.  I'm one of those fellows that morning means one thing, a few hours of reflection.  Without the meditation, my life is meaningless, and therefore I have a great need to write.  

Travel writing serves many purposes.  Recommendations to where to shop, to see, or eat, but what interests me the most is how aware I'm of my surroundings.   When I wake up, and I look out the window, I see the rooftops of various Paris buildings.  I have the urge to leap out of the window and hop from one rooftop after another, like my spiritual hero Fantômas.  Alas, I have a fear of heights, which stops me from doing such a practice.

Nevertheless, I do take the elevator down to the street level and leave the building in that sort of manner.   The lift itself is small.   Not that long ago we invited my Japanese relative to our place here in Paris, and even she commented that this is the smallest elevator ever, and that's a compliment of sorts for anyone who spent time in Japan.  There is Tokyo small, and then there's Paris tiny.   I often think of the substantial men walking around the city and how they can fit into a typical Parisian elevator. 

Today is Oscar Wilde day.  Lun*na and I decided to visit his tomb which is located in Père Lachaise Cemetery.  In the past, I have tried to locate his grave by using a tourist map or two, but consistently got lost, and never found the location.  This time, with the miracle of the smartphone, I can find the blasted tomb.   I'm not the type of guy who has heroes, but Oscar Wilde is a different breed of the icon for me.  Ever since I was a young teenager, I have been drawn to his life and writings.   I remember that I even had photographs of Wilde up in my bedroom wall.   The reason why I looked up to him in such a manner is mostly due to his 'outlaw' image and his sexuality.   He seemed to be a man born in the 19th century, but very much a 20th-century figure, or dare I say it, a 21st-century man.  When my memory was good, I used to quote his quotations to whoever would hang out with me. I was apparently an Oscar Wilde bore.

As one approaches Père Lachaise from the south, you are consistently waking uphill, and following my phone map to the Oscar destination is quite a hike.  Once I reached there, I'm surprised that the tomb is not more prominent.   My vision of the burial site is that it was a block-long, but alas, the nature of the tomb looks lonely and a worthy subject matter for a Smiths song.  Still, the monument by British sculptor Jacob Epstein is magnificent.  One's impression is that it's an art deco piece, but  I think that's simplifying the design.  Wilde died in 1900, and Epstein built the tomb in 1914.  It was commissioned by Wilde's literary executor Robert Ross and paid anonymously, but over time the donor was revealed to be Helen Carew.  Ironically there were some during that era that wished that the statue was homoerotica, but Epstein chose Wilde's poem "The Sphinx" as the inspiration for his work.  

Epstein did most of his work in England, and then transported the tomb to Paris, but had trouble going through customs.   On the French side, they refused to see it as a work of art, and customs charged an import duty of 120 pounds, due to its material, which was paid by Ross.   The sculpture had testicles but was covered by plaster by an unknown figure on the French side of the world.   As a compromise, Epstein made a bronze butterfly to cover up the testicles, but that too was altered or stolen by famed poet and occultist Aleister Crowley.   Weeks after discovering the removal of the butterfly, Epstein by chance meets up with Crowley at a Paris cafe, where the occultist had the bronze butterfly around his neck, wearing it like a necklace.  Crowley told Epstein that his work is now on display as he intended. 

Epstein had a successful and long career as an artist, and his eldest daughter, Kathleen, was married to the British painter Lucian Freud, who did numerous portraits of her.  Her nick-name is Kitty, and the painting "Portrait of Kitty" is a classic work by Freud. 

Looking at the tomb today I feel overwhelmed, almost starstruck seeing such a monument to such a great figure like Oscar Wilde.  What I like about the work is that it does reflect on Wilde, but not in an obvious manner.  I feel it has a life of its own.  It's interesting to note that they put a glass wall around the tomb because of the damage caused over the years by fans.  There are many lipstick lips on the grave which gives it an erotic edge.  

- Tosh Berman 

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