10 December 2012

Before the labyrinth in France and England made its way to cathedral floors, Robbe-Grillet noir and well trimmed hedges in country estates, it was likely presented in the schools of the Greek port of Massalia (now Marseille) before the Romans settled in the region in the 2nd Century BC in their push to Iberia.  Along the Rhone, the primary trade route from the Mediterreanean to the Gallic tribes, the dividing line between the Roman Republic and Gaul from 124 BC until Caesar defeated the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix in the Battle of Alicia in 52 BC and continued to Parisii was somewhere between the Roman settlement of Segalauni, now Valence, just North of Provence, and the capital of the Gallic Allobroges tribe in what is now Vienne 72 km to the North, 32km South of Lyon.  It is between these two towns, perhaps right at or near the pre-Christian border, that the Postman Ferdinand Cheval constructed by himself over the course of 33 years an abode that not only contains two labyrinths but a monument to Caesar and Vercingetorix, flanked to the right by a third "giant," Archimedes,* as well as various other figures:

Stendhal reflected on his "passion for escaping" this latitudinal stretch of the Rhone valley between the rural Massif Central** and the Alps, "which I abhorred and which I hate still, for it was there I learnt to know humankind..." Though the mosque built for Muslim employees of the shoe factory at Romans-sur-Isère, a town whose Occitan name suggests 2ndC BC Roman loyalty 28 km south of Cheval's Palace, was "destroyed before its inauguration" in 1982, Cheval's mosque, which contains a labyrinth, has managed to survive its initially cool reception, with improvised minarets less than 200 km by car from Switzerland:

Cheval, who wrote "I want to live and die as a son of the country, to prove there are geniuses and energetic men in my class also," developed his sculptural style while working as a baker, prompting Breton to write "At the moment when thousands of Vaucanson ducks preen their feathers/ Without looking back you would grab the trowel that breasts are made of." The order in which Cheval built his sections may assist interpretation: first the "Source of Life" pool which may have been influenced by Courbet's "The Source":

..then an Egyptian tomb similar to Robert Smithson's later sketches of the Museum of the Void, and then a Hindu temple, which I presume Cheval only saw in pictures, with animal reliefs all around the structure. The labyrinths were begun a year after the publication of Huysmans' The Cathedral, a novel about Chartres, wherein "Durval.. looked down, in the middle, on the labyrinth marked out on the ground in lines of white stone and ribbons of blue stone, twisting in a spiral, like a watch-spring. This path our fathers devoutly paced, repeating special prayers during the hour they spent in doing so, and thus performing an imaginary pilgrimage to the Holy Land to earn indulgences" but I have no idea if Cheval read Huysmans, whose Des Esseintes character could have also been an infuence.  The Cathedral also has a section on bestiary symbolism, which may have influenced Cheval though his animal imagery seems to have a logic all its own.  L’église Saint-Maurice de Vienne, damaged in the Wars of Religion, retains Romanesque zodiac reliefs and Provençal facades such as St Gilles' has animal scenes from the Old Testament.

A pre-Christian coin from Aquitaine in SW France presents a horse with the body of a labyrinth of straight geometrical lines and right angles making, it would seem, for seven legs, as a labyrinth is a compressed journey and "both Vercingetorix and Alexander were - amongst other things - cavalry generals." (Malraux) "Visual Culture's causal masonry again. Straight and true. No curves, please, they might lead to a labyrinth" the quipster Robert Morris who got me into this blogging maze (I, II, III). Apollinaire: "Finally you are weary of this ancient world.. You have had your fill of living in Greek and Roman antiquity." Morris reads off the charges, stemming from Wittgenstein's "This is really only this": "The acquisition of language, the mind-body problem, the question of meaning, of free will, consciousness" (my italics). Straight lines connected to horses loaded off boats don't themselves create consciousness, but as Bataille says after reflecting on Lascaux "we can never imagine things without consciousness except arbitrarily.. animal life, halfway distant from our consciousness, presents us with a more disconcerting enigma." Clayton Eshleman: "our situation.. seems to be bio-tragically connected with our having separated ourselves out of the animal-hominid world in order to pursue that catastrophic miracle called consciousness. If the labyrinth is a Double Axe, one might see it as humanity's anguished attempt to center a ceaseless duplicity conjured by the evidence that each step forward seems to be a step backward" or as Bhanu Kapil writes "The edge of the jungle is not the place where the line shifts the most. That is deeper in where the caves are, pink with bones."

Maldoror, which Wallace Fowlie opined was a labyrinth Lautréamont built for himself, was also in circulation in France in the era of Cheval, who named one corner "Octopus Sea Creature and Gallic Man."  Lautréamont: "Discard therefore any notion of comparison with the swan at the moment when its soul takes flight; see before you nothing but a monster, whose face I am glad you cannot perceive; though it is less horrible than his soul.. O octopus, with your silken look! whose soul is inseparable from mine; you most beautiful inhabitant of the terrestrial globe.. you in whom, linked indestructibly by a common accord, the sweet communicative virtue and the divine graces are nobly present, as if in their natural residence, why are you not with me, your mercury belly against my aluminium breast, both of us sitting on some sea-shore rock, to contemplate the spectacle I adore!"

Edward James' Las Pozas, which lacks some of Cheval's auteur handicraft because James cleaned out his trust fund having it built for him but is no doubt influenced by Cheval, features a labyrinth and other damnation mechanisms, sharing also with Cheval a serpent in the garden theme.   George Melly's documentary on James is uploadable:

..a later documentary called Builder of Dreams is also available on dvd for web rental, with less biographical detail, a bit more of a tour of Las Pozas, and different footage of Leonora Carrington.  In Xilitla, a long day's bus ride from the border, one can camp inside Las Pozas for about ten bucks in a shack with no power or plumbing, and El Castillo, the Neo-Arabic casa of Plutarco Gastelum, Las Pozas' builder, shown in the documentary, is open as a bed and breakfast, with a large Carrington relief in the breakfast room and this mural of hers in a nearby hall.  Since this paragraph has become Baedecker's, don't forget Les Labyrinths de Hauterives in Cheval's home town, trying to get people to stay for lunch:

..or Henri Michaux's holiday fun guide, written when France was governed from the Massif Central spa town Vichy, 223 km by car from Cheval's Palace:

Life, a labyrinth, death, a labyrinth
Labyrinth without end, says the Master of Ho.

Everything hammers down, nothing liberates.
The suicide is born again to the new suffering.

The prison opens on a prison
The corridor opens another corridor:

He who thinks he is unrolling the scroll of his life
Is unrolling nothing at all.

Nothing comes out anywhere
The centuries, too, live underground, says the Master of Ho.

* Cheval sells the idea of a trio rather than Mount Rushmore's quartet, so perhaps it's not necessary to carve out Loretta Lynn on my backyard relief next to Maya Lin, Jeremy Lin, and Tao Lin.

** Pascal was from the Massif-Central, prompting Jean-Louis Trintinant's Pascal rants in Rohmer's My Night at Maud's, set in Clermont-Ferrand, the provincial capital Alexandre Vialatte described as "a city of uncles. As recently as yesterday its cafes were full of uncles, its theater was a theater of uncles... The Auvergnat.. represents the very concept of avuncularity, the quintessential uncle untouched by contingencies, an uncle by predestination."

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