Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Rum Tum Tugger and the Egyptian Cat
T.S. Eliot's disobliging cat, The Rum Tum Tugger, "only likes what he finds for himself." I can relate to that. If you don't want me to see a particular movie or read a particular book, just make it into a blockbuster hit. Line people up around the block, and I will go looking for something else. Tell me that it changed your whole life, and I might get around to investigating it in another ten to fifteen years. Fill my workplace with the popular kids from high school, all dressed in conservatively-colored suits, all chatting about cupcakes and groupons, who has the newest smart phone, and where do you get your beemer detailed, and I will polish up my resume and plot my escape.
On the other hand, if I stumble onto some quirky topic that few people have noticed, I will dive in and find out everything I can. I can take a tiny topic, put it into a bigger framework, and make a story out of it. My stories haven't achieved cult status yet, but people have mentioned to me now and then how some magazine article or web posting I wrote two or three years ago really got them thinking.
Having said that, the things that go beyond merely piquing my interest, the things that resonate deeply with me and stay in my mind for decades, tend to find me rather than the other way around. I may be looking one way for inspiration, and the "big buzz" comes at me from the other direction. Sometimes, I'm not looking for anything at all, and a big idea hits me like a wet mop in the face. If another human is involved, it's almost never intentional on their part. More likely, it's something they say or do that connects with something else in my mind and starts the electrical current flowing. It's something I see or something I read about that fascinates me and engages my imagination.
One such "big buzz" hit me on a trip to Paris a few years ago. My friend and I had parted company for the afternoon. She wanted to see the exhibits at the Musée d'Orsay, and I wanted to find an old Roman amphitheater that I had read about in my guide book (Arènes de Lutèce in the Latin Quarter). This was before handheld GPS devices were common, so I set off on foot with my paper map in hand. Every few blocks, I would check the map at the nearest bus shelter, looking for that comforting phrase, "vous êtes ici", to reassure myself that I was headed in the right direction. I almost missed the amphitheater, which is cleverly disguised as a public park and a playground in a residential neighborhood. I spent some time drinking in the ancient vibes and trying to imagine crowds of toga-clad spectators, but it wasn't the kind of place that would hold my interest very long. I had a few hours to myself before I needed to head back to the museum, so I started walking west, looking for anything that might be worth checking out.
I hadn't gone very far before I saw an imposing building with a large dome. The guide book said that this was Le Panthéon, and listed it as a place worth seeing if you had the time, but definitely not on a par with the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. Since I was there, I decided to stop in and see what this building was all about. I had not heard of this place before, and the admission fee seemed reasonable.
In the main hall, an Egyptian cat stood watch over Foucault's giant pendulum, which traced its endless track in a bed of sand. Murals on the wall told the stories of Ste. Geneviève, and Jeanne d'Arc. The real find, however, was down below, in the crypt. The names on the plaques were familiar from my college days: Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, Braille, Curie, Langevin, Dumas. More than plaques: the lower level was filled with tombs, marking the final resting place of the people who shaped French history, literature, and science. I wandered the passageways until closing time, filled with fascination and awe.
This place, which I had found so unexpectedly, moved me much more deeply than the Notre Dame cathedral, which I had heard so much about and was listed as a "must-see" in the guide book. I can't claim to have found Le Panthéon for myself, à la Rum Tum Tugger, but I claim the experience as uniquely mine, and it is all the more precious to me for that.