Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sometimes you've got to become fierce about guarding your light.

I've always loved the ugliness of Gargoyles. I've had one guarding my cookbooks in my kitchen for years. He's ferocious-looking, crouching atop a stack of Food & Wine magazines. His eyes bulge. His mouth is parted in a snarl, as if he'd gobble up anyone attempting to get at my French onion soup recipe.

Many people have commented on my ferocious-looking protector, wondering why on earth I keep him. I like what he stands, or rather crouches, for. (I’ll also admit that my French Onion Soup recipe is pretty darn good.)

So of course I looked for gargoyles in Paris, their natural home. I found them everywhere! Gargoyles glaring from hotel porticoes and grand arches, staring down from Paris’s unique apartment quadrangles. Peaking over courtyard doorways. But especially, gargoyles guarding churches. It’s possible there are more gargoyles in Paris than anywhere else on earth. The most famous residence for gargoyles is, of course, Notre Dame cathedral! Situated on an island in the Seine, the Ile de la Cite, the cathedral and it’s famous protectors are the literal heart of France – the point from which all distance in France is measured.

My first glimpse of those famous profiles was after dark, when their grotesque visages are wonderfully lit against a night sky. But we visited again – and again – during our Paris week. We were drawn back via the Left Bank while browsing the book stalls along the Seine. Notre Dame was in our gaze from one of the bridges in the shadow of the Cathedral, the Rue de Pont Arch and the Pont St. Louis. We glided beneath the flying buttresses and gargoyles on a river Batobus. And we rested in the square in front of the cathedral in the shade of France’s great unifier, Charlemagne astride his charger and yes – beneath the gargolyes. From every position, a chorus of gargoyles with every manner of fierce visage, glared upon us. It was comforting.

Gargoyles were the rage in Medieval Europe. Contrary to the notion that they represent the devil, Gargoyles were created as tangible symbols to ward off the evil spirits and the dangers of the world. And there were a lot of dangers back then. For centuries, through famine and plaque, through invasions and political turmoil, light and hope came from God and the church and the view was long-term.

The peasants, who build Notre Dame literally by hand, began it in 1163 with the hope that their great, great, great, great, great great grandchildren would live to see it dedicated. It took over two centuries. Know anyone these days with that amount of hope in the future? Thanks to Victor Hugo’s almost single-handed effort during the 1860’s to save the crumbling façade with his “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we can see those gargoyles in their full fierce glory today.

Perhaps the gargoyles are a fitting symbol for all of us working to find and hold our own light in this day and age. As a writer, I find that there are now so many ways for our thoughts to be diluted; for original expression to be polluted. You could say the influence is good – or terrible. Everyone who can tweet or string a couple of prepositional phrases together now assumes they are a great writer. Anyone with some technological ability announces that they are now a great marketer – regardless of whether or not they understand brand relationships, strategic positioning or have much in the way of the world’s wisdom. It’s gotten rather crowded with amateurs.

I’m thinking I need more gargoyles to protect my light. Gargoyles are not just the province of the old world. You’ll find them on the great cathedrals of America and on many of our public buildings. In fact, those of us who frequently travel through Denver’s new DIA airport are comforted by the presence there of a few of these protective beasts. Know where to find them? Next time you find yourself in baggage claim, look around. What you find may not just guard against lost luggage!

Come to think of it, maybe I’ll start by relocating my gargoyle to my desk.

No comments: