Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Glass Doors

Last month in Birmingham, England I attended a reading by the extraordinary novelist Will Self.  A bit early, I decided to drop into a café for a quick coffee.  Although I know Birmingham city centre quite well, I don’t know a single independent café.  Like independent bookstores, they’ve all gone to the wall. So, it had to be a Starbucks lookalike, Café Nero I think – couches, forgettable music, customers locked behind laptops.  I stood in line, ordered my espresso macchiato, then shuffled obediently sideways, waited in line again until my drink arrived then walked like I knew what I was doing to the island with the sugar and water, and having filled myself a glass I made my way towards an empty couch. Sometimes I feel like a robot, though without really knowing how robots feel.
From my seat I had a view of the door. I couldn’t resist it, and on impulse I got up and took a photograph of the door.  That’s one way of drawing attention to oneself, I must say. From behind the counter a kid darted forward, clad in uniform that included the regulation baseball cap, and asked me could he be of assistance.  Apparently taking photos of glass doors is considered aberrant behavior in controlled, risk-free environments, like Britain. And by the way, when did British waiters, or baristas, start wearing baseball caps? Does it have anything to do with Blair’s attempt to become the prime minister of the USA?

Anyway, what attracted my attention was the signs on the door.  I guess it’s an obsession of mine, though I do think it is a symptom of the nanny state that Britain has become.  It’s also an indication of the growing ugliness of public spaces.  If there is a wall, slap a warning sign on it; a glass door,  cover it with stickers that say “Glass Door”.  I once got in a train to Birmingham airport and counted seventeen safety signs in the carriage, including one that said “Please take the time to familiarize yourself with our safety signs”. After deboarding my plane in Zurich I got in a Swiss train.  The carriage had one small sign, a sticker, indicating “no smoking”. How do the Swiss manage? I would venture, they are grown up.

Well, back to the glass door.  Luckily my photo wasn’t confiscated by the pimply waiter.  As you can see, there is a sign over the door that tells you this is the exit - always helpful. Then, each glass door has a sticker prominently warning you that this is, well, glass, just in case you’re stupid.  And then, alongside each door there are big exclamation marks, warnings that these are sliding doors, just to save you from being crushed between the door and the wall, though really, if you happen to have squeezed yourself between the glass door and the wall then, as far as I’m concerned, you deserve to be crushed. Off to one side of the doors you have some gadget ot other with four signs telling you when and how  to use it and the penalty that you'll pay if you abuse it.  Maybe its my deep Irish peasantry, but such nonsense stirs the vandal in me. I remember a time when entering and exited through doors was a simple affair.

Some people will argue all these signs are simply to cover the business from being sued. Think of all the people who would otherwise be jamming themselves in between the door and the wall in an attempt to become millionaires.  But, my musing done, it was time to go.  I had warned Will Self that I was coming, but he wasn’t going to wait for me.  As I walked towards the dangerous exit, would you belief it, the doors jammed.  An electronic malfunction; a door engineer had to be called.  He arrived within a minute, in regulation uniform, including baseball cap. At last, the obnoxious doors sighed open. I was almost late for the reading. I should have sued.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Love-locked in Paris

While recently walking back to the Left Bank by way of the Pont de l'Archevêché in Paris I was surprised to find the railing of the bridge festooned with thousands of padlocks. Paris is supposed to be the city of love, but this is a relatively new addition to that reputation.  Just under the tower of Notre-Dame, on the little bridge that links the Ile de la Cite with the Left Bank, lovers inscribe their names on a lock, fasten it to the railing of the bridge, and then toss the keys into the dark Seine.

It's a way of declaring love, a romantic gesture and, perhaps, an attempt at gaining immortality. Whatever happens in the future, our love-lock will always remain, and our names will always be entwined on a bridge in Paris.

I can't help but smile at the simplicity of the gesture.  Apparently the authorities have tried to quash this habit, but have had give in to public pressure - people's power.  Yet the symbolism of using a lock to express your love is ambiguous. In fairy stories, a door that is padlocked implies something that is hidden, even forbidden.  And of course, humans being humans, we are irresitibly drawn to the forbidden, often with fatal consequences. Bluebeard kept a chamber of his castle under lock and key and warned his wife never to venture into the forbidden space.  Of course one day she did, to find the bloodless corpses of his former wives.  Terrified, she realised her mistake, but too late; she had fallen into her husband's morbid trap and and quickly, horrifyingly, met the same fate as her predecessors.  According to Jungians, Bluebeard represents the animus or male personification within woman - in the words of Jungian pyschoanalyst M-L. von Franz, Bluebeard "personifies all those semiconscious, cold, destructive reflections that invade a woman in the small hours, especially when she has failed to realize some obligation of feeling."  Hmmmm. Let me just say, I'm not a Jungian.

On the other hand, we keep things under lock and key in order to deny change, which denies growth.  A love that is kept under lock and key is a love which is bound to putrify and die. Didn't the medieval crusader lock his wife's forbidden zone in a chastity belt, in an attempt to deny entry to others into his property. To be locked in, has all sorts of stifling connotations. Neil Young once sang "You lose the word love when you say the word mine".  Well these days plenty of young lovers in Paris are shouting to the world "He or She is mine forever".

Keys without the locks have all sorts of meanings in western art.  An old man with a key, or a set of keys, is probably St. Peter with the keys to heaven, or he might be a prophet or simply a member of the church who carries the key to salvation; a bird with a key in its beak usually symbolises salvation. 

A key put into a lock has a clear erotic connotation, and thousands of examples can be found in art and popular imagery.  Of course in erotic imagery the key being inserted into the lock is about to carrying out the action of unlocking rather than locking, yet the newset romantic gesture in Paris involves locking rather than unlocking. And a logical extrapolation would mean that if the lock represents the female genitalia and the key the male, then the many keys tossed daily into the River Seine would represent some form of joyous castration, an uncomfortable thought.

A famous example of the lock and key as a sacred symbol is found in the Merode altarpiece from the early 15th century Flemish artist Robert Campin where the door represents the entrance to heaven, the lock represents charity and the key the desire for God.

Robert Campin: detail
The locks that now grace the bridges of Paris in the vicinity of Notre-Dame are certainly not altarpieces, but they do have something ritualistic about them.  On the one hand we have the great cathedral providing the ancient symbol of a religious faith of a bygone age; on the other the spontaneous gesture of the locks demonstrating a symbol of contemporary profane love. I wonder which will last longer.
Robert Campin: Merode Altarpiece