I was in France last week showing two San Francisco grandchildren both a bit of Paris and two chateaux in the Loire Valley. Unexpectedly, the trip proved to be a history lesson for me, a lesson in the globalization of our time.
The famous sights of Paris – the Louvre, the Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles – were inundated by tourists, each room flooded from wall to wall. Lines everywhere. Toilets in need of cleaning and replacement of tissues. Taking the Metro was an experience in being herded.
It was the typical tourist season, which I had expected, only worse, as people from all over were putting Covid behind them and spending their money in conspicuous consumption of status goods. But the usual crowds of Chinese tourists did not add to the congregating, as they were confined at home. The hordes of non-Chinese were enough to overflow the city’s tourist attractions and the two chateaux.
It was almost as if most of Paris itself had become a kind of Disney theme park.
As I observed those arounds me – in the Metro; in the ticket lines; in cafes; walking the streets; filling the rooms in Versailles; lining up for a 30-second selfie documenting their presence before the Mona Lisa; and then immediately leaving her without comment – the thought entered my mind that our world has entered a new phase of globalization.
I even imagined that the Mona Lisa herself was calling out to me from behind her protective enclosure with her face seemingly more sad than in my previous visits. In her expression, I imagined her wanting to say something about the trivialization we humans so easily impose on excellence.
I then focused for a second on the thousands walking right past, without taking any notice three Leonardo’s on the hall just outside room 70, where the Mona Lisa sits in her protective enclosure.
My grandchildren were following the crowd heading toward room 70. I asked them to step aside for a moment so that I could show them the three other paintings by Leonardo. They seemed a bit surprised that the museum also had such pictures, as nobody had ever made a fuss about them. They stood a few minutes looking at them. I felt down at not being that able to make those pictures too more a part of their awareness of greatness.
One of them, a portrait of a woman which I find more powerful that his Mona Lisa, is:
In our hotel lobby one morning, while awaiting my grandchildren to come down for breakfast, a friendly woman from New York, originally from Haiti, said to me, with a hard expression in her eyes and tenseness in her voice that, in her opinion, the crowds would even pass up a chance to see Jesus, just to put themselves before the Mona Lisa.
What a poignant way, I thought, of asking what determines worth in our culture – popularity; rarity; appearance or essence; convention; what goes viral; or the whim of the masses? Do we have any standards of quality anymore or is quality a form of social injustice, impossible to allocate equitably to every human soul born alive.
Maybe Shakespeare was correct in concluding that “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
The middle class and even some from the upper lower class in their retirement, at least in Europe and the Middle East, along with many Asians and not a few Latin Americans, has gone global in its aspirations for tourism. The bounty created by the global, post-World War II “liberal democratic order” has more than trickled down from the top. It has financed the rise of a large “Third Estate” – Le Tiers Etat – which revolutionized France in 1789 and thereafter, the entire world.
But in today’s phase of success in globalization of wealth and opportunity, those taking advantage of travel seemed to me to have little personal interest in history or art. The ones surrounding me this past week in Paris evinced in speech overheard, in behaviors, in their rush to get on to the next cell phone photo documenting their presence at a place of renown, no excitement in the presence of greatness or where history happened.
In being carried by the crowd through the royal rooms in Versailles, I heard not one mention of “Louis XIV,” nor any voice make a comment about the France of his time or his role in history – apres moi le deluge. Not did I hear elsewhere Napoleon’s name spoken in my presence.
In the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, while waiting for my grandkids, I happened to look up and saw this saying above a mirror: “The king governs by himself alone.” (Le Roi gouverne par lui meme) I had not seen it in previous visits, but thought – how apt it still was for our time. This principle of jurisprudence applies to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Erdogan and in the opinion of some Americans, Donald Trump. History repeats itself. Or is it just us, never able to rise above our natures?
The phrase is the title of the ceiling painting executed by Charles Le Brun in 1661:
Le Brun’s painting is:
In any case, did the crowd in the Hall of Mirrors last week have concern to learn from French history about how our governments should be run and who should get to do what to whom? I doubt if more than a few even looked up at the ceiling except to take a picture.
In the Orsay museum, tourists from all over did not stop before masterpieces by Van Gogh other than to take a photo.
The experience brought to mind the disdain and resentment of “new money” and “the middle class,” the dreadful, even deplorable, gaucheness (as an appalled Hillary Clinton castigated Donald Trump’s supporters in 2016), which dominated the tastes of pre-industrial aristocrats in France and England in the opening century of capitalist accumulation.
The Marquis de Condorcet, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte created elitist socialism to elevate the masses properly, not to let them make it on their own through the uncouth experiences of labor and trade. Even Karl Marx was appalled by the boorishness of the early capitalists, giving them the caricature of being only “Mr. Moneybags” and bitterly recoiling against the “cash nexus.”
Charles Dickens, who wrote of and for the rising middle class in England, denigrated a capitalism gone too far by creating his character, Ebenezer Scrooge, and then sharply contrasting Scrooge with the Christian morality of grace at Christmas time.
It was not only the economic inequality brought about by the economic prowess of capitalism which drew forth a felt need to control the tide of history, but the threat of a crass bourgeois geist taking over and degrading our humanity that called into action those with ideas for the prevention of or, if needed, the remediation of such a baleful contingency.
My question is: Has capitalism, through globalization, now brought that unseemly tiers etat with its banal, collectivized id to global prominence with the “embourgeoisement” of our civilization?