GMercyU Students Spend Week in Paris at Conference
Gwynedd Mercy University students spent a week in Paris to attend a conference at the Maison Heinrich Heine in the Cité Universitaire on the history of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Junior Misha Melnik, a double-major in History and Philosophy, and Eric Shaheen, a double-major in History and Computer Information Science, were selected as the result of a competition that involved submitting a letter of interest, a recommendation from a faculty member, and an interview conducted by Professor of History Michael Clinton and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Lisa McGarry.
Misha and Eric are currently enrolled in a course with Professor Clinton that covers the topics addressed at the conference. Professor Clinton was also invited to present his paper, European Pacifists & “American Money”: Origins of the European Center of the CEIP, 1905-1914, at the conference.
Misha and Eric are traveling free of charge as a result of a Presidential Mini-Grant and support from the School of Arts and Sciences. Each year, the Office of the President hosts a Mini-Grant Competition. The competition encourages the development and implementation of creative and innovative projects to improve the success of GMercyU students. Mini-Grants are awarded through the President's Excellence Fund.
Misha and Eric shared their experience through several blog posts below.
I was immediately struck by the strong and expressive character of Paris as soon as I exited my connecting flight. The city itself seems to have a strong character architecturally, starting immediately with the airport. As it is the first thing that any who are arriving from flight will see, the airport of a city acts as a sort of greeter that gives a first impression. Importantly, the airport’s character not only exposes how that city interacts with guests, but also how it wishes to be viewed by those guests. Charles de Gaulle Airport was immediately striking through the escalators in its first terminal, each one moving up through individual tubes that lead through a courtyard. Each of the escalators were coated in a glass window, so those using them could look out and see the others. It is difficult to describe, but just that alone made the airport feel incredibly modern and artsy, a characterization that reflects the city itself.
What was instantly interesting that I noticed on the train and subway that brought us from the airport to the hotel where we would be staying was the diversity of the city. Paris is a stellar example of an international city, with people of all backgrounds. Part of this was undoubtedly due to tourism, but there were many who spoke French. One scene that stuck out to me was what appeared to be a Syrian family holding up a cardboard sign asking for help. I did not have the time to analyze the sign, other than noticing the words “Syriens”, “famille”, and “SOS”, but it caused me to think back to the Syrian crisis that had been sending refugees throughout Europe. How many Syrian refugees are living in Paris, and what are their status? What is the general situation of the homeless population in Paris as well? On the way to our hotel I noticed what appeared to be an elderly homeless man sleeping in a pile of filled garbage bags. I’m not sure exactly how to process these events which, although not at all foreign in America, made me stop to think about another angle of how to view Paris that I would not be able to see as just a tourist. While I am here in part to tour the city and see the monuments, I feel as though the tourist mindset is something that will be inherently damaging to any attempts of objectively understanding the city. Engaging with Paris as something entirely foreign to be marveled at, while in part natural, makes it akin to an exhibit rather than anything connected to reality.
On the first day in Paris the highlight that stuck out the most was the Arc de Triomphe. It is the most striking part of the city and feels incredibly culturally significant and oozing with history as well. Misha shared with me an observation of his, that the Arc de Triomphe felt as though it was the spiritual center of the city. From the top the of the Arc the circular road that surrounds it is branched off from by numerous other roads that seem to extend outwards, making it seem as though the Arc is a literal city center. The Arc itself is striking just to observe from the underside. What seemed like hundreds of names and locations carved into the monument, all of the locations of victories France had during the Napoleonic Wars and of the generals who fought to win these victories. Located at the bottom is a plaque commemorating the announcement of the Third French Republic, in the exact location that the republic was supposedly proclaimed, and another celebrating the return of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine following World War I. Another monument located under the Arc, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, contains an eternally burning flame that commemorates both the World War’s unknown dead. The Arc de Triomphe is not just one monument within Paris, but a collection of them interwoven through history. The original Arc was built long before the First World War or Third Republic, but the French during this time used what was already a historical monument to form as a base of their own patriotism. The Arc de Triomphe feels like more than just the sum of its parts. The monument has an atmosphere of living history because of how many times it was altered after its creation, with all altercations keeping the same theme of French patriotism. This feels best to be described as a form of historical syncretism, where many different historical events are fused together to create spiritual capital for the French nation.
It feels very easy to read about historical events through a textbook or see pictures of monuments and not truly grasp all there is in that historical event. The nature of history as a manner of telling stories about the past by nature means that these events must be translated through the teller. Historical monuments and architecture have a way of speaking for themselves, and seeing these structures personally can give something that cannot be gained through looking at pictures and listening to stories alone. There will always be a degree of separation from the listener when stories are being told that evaporates once the physical space that these historical events occupy are witnessed.
In a way, the city of Paris captures another emotion that cannot be understood in America. After entering the Towers of Notre Dame and learning how absolutely ancient the building was it felt almost as if there was an air of sacredness that surrounded the building (even more so than naturally from the religious aspects). The towers of Notre Dame, built in the 13th century, were significantly older than any structure that exists in the United States. As an authentic piece of French Gothic architecture, it had an air of majesty to it that just doesn’t exist in America. The exterior entrance of the building was covered in depictions of saints, some of whom where pointed out to us by Dr. Clinton, such as Saint Denis, a martyr who was depicted as holding his severed head in his hands. The iconography was apparently supposed to be understandable to the medieval French peasants, who would largely be illiterate, and serve as a way to teach and reinforce religious stories and history. The use of iconography as storytelling was evident in the various statues and monuments spread out around the city but felt most present in the religious iconography of Notre Dame. The relics and stained-glass windows were also used for the purpose of telling history to the pre-literate French society. It is easy to imagine priests as occupying a job similar to historians in medieval times, as it would be their job to explain the iconography that coated the walls of the church and tell these stories about the past in a compelling manner. Much of the iconography was created through patronage from the wealthy, and in some cases, they were even included in the iconography they funded. One such scene in Notre Dame included a noble kneeling and praying in reverence to a depiction of Mary. He had presumably funded the painting and statue as to show his piety as well as to leave his own imprint on the church. This patronage apparently continues today, as one of the displays was funded by Chinese Christians. This more modern inclusion added to make this ancient piece of history feel like it was still alive today, and was reassuring to see, as it meant that Parisian culture is still growing and evolving.
My first day in Paris was a moving and astounding experience. Dr. Clinton, Eric and I, after traveling for many hours and finally landing in the airport, were in for an unforgettable experience. Upon our arrival to Paris-Charles de Gaulle, I was immediately astonished by the design of the airport, which evoked images of the famous (or infamous) Paris catacombs. However, this was only the beginning of my amazement, as the city of Paris has much more to offer than what one might initially expect.
I have been to multiple “megacities” before, most notably London, New York, Tokyo, and Moscow, and I noticed many similarities between Paris, which before today I have only seen in movies or pictures, and those cities. However, from my initial experience of the city, Paris seems to have retained much more of its royal grandeur and elegance in the midst of a rapidly changing social and economic landscape. Never could I have expected Paris to be so massive in size; and this is not only true for the newer parts of the city but for those landmarks that define it.
Notre Dame de Paris, Sainte Chappelle, Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe are actually spread quite far from one other, and walking from each location to the next feels like walking through a never-ending stream of grandeur and beauty. This is precisely what differentiates Paris from other major world cities in my experience. Starting our walking journey from Saint Michel Blvd. and reaching a climactic (and rather triumphant!) end by immersing ourselves in a panoramic view of Paris atop the Arc de Triomphe, we passed by a countless number of museums, historical sites, monuments, and royal gardens, not to mention the gorgeous street-front facades of commercial buildings on the banks of the Seine. This, combined with the great number of museums that look like temples and the way in which every major attraction connects to each other in a logical and seamless way despite the distances proved to me that Paris cares not just about how it looks, but also about its own history and the enormous
amounts of work that went into making this city and its story truly live and stand out, whatever you might find yourself observing.
Upon entering the square in which Notre Dame, one of the greatest medieval gothic cathedrals, is located, I was impressed with the beauty and detail of the cathedral’s exterior but also mistakenly underestimated its size; my initial judgment was instantaneously corrected when we entered the cathedral, however, and I stood in awe at the cathedral’s spaciousness and length. It is evident by looking at the religious symbolism and monuments within the cathedral that great work went into detailing the cathedral and preserving the history of the people to whom it was more than just a city attraction. It is not only a sublime place of worship but also a reflection of the city’s rich history and the history of the faith. As we explored the interior and exterior of the cathedral, Dr. Clinton explained to us the architectural innovations that allow the cathedral to be so big, the significance of symbolism and decorations, which prompted me to want to study the cathedral more.
After seeing the Notre Dame, we went for a very long walk along the right bank of the Seine, passing through courtyards of the world-renowned Louvre. Near the museum, Dr. Clinton showed us a statue of Joan of Arc that is the rallying point for a right-wing political party that uses her image and her story to supplement and give authority to their own political views. I am currently in a class with Dr. Clinton that explores exactly this topic: how historical figures and stories are used in the present for present purposes. In a certain way, history is about the present just as much as the past. As such, it is important to understand history in order to contextualize the present, see our place in it, and keep the past in mind for our future actions. The statue of Joan of Arc and the ways in which she is still an active participant in present dialogues by virtue of the way her story still has relevance speaks just to this, and is another excellent example of how history is an active, vibrant, and central part of Paris.
Finally, as the culmination of a day’s worth of travel, sightseeing, and learning, we trekked on towards the Arc de Triomphe, possibly the most awe-inspiring attraction in Paris. This is a simple structure compared with the gothic complexities of the Notre Dame or the enormous scale of the Louvre, but its simplicity is part of what makes it such an attention grabbing center-piece of the colorful and expressive Paris. A military memorial erected by Napoleon, the Arc de Triomphe commemorates the spirit of the French nation and the soldiers who embodied it. Displaying memorial writings ranging from lists of Napoleon’s victories, plaques commemorating the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France after WW1, and plaques marking the spot of the Third Republic’s formation, the Arc is filled both on the outside and the inside with educational and patriotic marks. In fact, visitors can go inside the Arc itself and climb to the top to get a panoramic view of the city. It truly felt like the climactic point of the day when I approached the edge and saw Paris at nighttime. The Arc very much feels like the center of the city as major roads stem from the ring road encircling the Arc in all directions, and in every direction, buildings stretch out to the horizon line. I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time ever while on top of the Arc, as it is actually very close to the Arc. La Défense, Paris’s skyscraper-laden business district looks like a city of its own and adds to the perceived enormity of Paris.
Experiencing the Arc de Triomphe was the conclusion of our day, as we went back to Cité Universitaire to have dinner and retire to our hotels. Looking back at the day, I am able to contextualize my experience and connect everything I saw and experienced during the day with what I know about the history of France and Paris. My first day in Paris was an unforgettable experience; I visited and saw medieval gothic cathedrals, a medieval fortress that was converted first to a royal palace and then to a museum, huge gardens amidst rows of creamy-colored buildings on the banks of the Seine, and a memorial to the spirit of France and its people. Not only am I excited thinking back at what I saw today, but I am greatly looking forward to what I might experience tomorrow.
My second day in Paris was just as interesting and engaging as the first. As the conference was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., we had the entire first half of the day to ourselves, and we seized this opportunity to do what we hadn’t done the day before: visit the Louvre.
One of the most famous museums in the world, the Louvre combines old and new, and this is especially evident with its entrance, a giant glass pyramid. The glass looks very modern, but the shape evokes images of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, thus bridging the gap between two epochs in an aesthetic sense. Once inside the Louvre, we had a clear idea of what we wanted to see; making our way through exhibitions, we finally reached a crowded hallway that leads to various different galleries. Inside one of these galleries was perhaps the most famous painting ever made: the Mona Lisa. Hung on a wall standing in the middle of a large, well-lit gallery, the small and simple framing of this painting evokes a sense of mystery and uncertainty that is exacerbated amidst the crowd of people congregating in front of the painting. It almost has a sort of religious or spiritual quality to it, and that is as much to do with its setting as it is with aesthetic merit. Mona Lisa’s smile is haunting in a certain way; it is mischievous but silent and still. In fact, nothing in the painting seems to move, and this contributes to its haunting feature when compared with the bustling and loud crowd in the gallery. As such, she seems to tower over the room and observe the crowd in complete silence, as if she has some secret, sinister knowledge that cannot be transmitted or perhaps understood by us, and so she just keeps sitting, content in being the object of popular aesthetic deification.
As we moved into different galleries, Dr. Clinton, Eric, and I engaged in a discussion about aesthetics, particularly in relation to some of the paintings that we saw. In the same gallery room as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People was a painting of Napoleon in one of his African campaigns. Dr. Clinton explained the religious sentiments evoked by this painting,
especially since Napoleon is clearly depicted as a Christ-like figure not only healing the sick but bringing European civilization to a supposedly backward place in need of a savior. Even though Napoleon was a revolutionary figure, he and his time period still used ancient and medieval artistic tropes in order to transmit political messages, almost as if they appealed to pre-revolutionary conservative sentiments with the purpose of promulgating political agendas.
Following our visit to the Louvre, our group decided that we just had to see one more Parisian landmark before heading out to the conference. This famous, or rather infamous, landmark was once the grounds for perhaps the most notorious prison in human history, one that symbolized through its very walls tyranny and political repression: the Bastille. Of course, the prison no longer exists, and in place of it stands an enormous obelisk in the middle of a street intersection. It was very difficult to envision such a dark prison once standing in what is now an intersection of a nice Parisian neighborhood, and the metro station name (“Bastille”) adds to this sense of confusion in time and space. But this brings up an interesting observation that I make in all of my travels and that I most certainly made in Paris. I am always fascinated by the “ground I walk on,” and directly seeing places with such famous and important histories intrigues me and contextualizes what is otherwise merely words on a sheet of paper. Even though the Bastille no longer looms over the Parisian landscape, I can stand on a street corner opposite to the commemorative obelisk and imagine what it must have looked like and connect it with what I have already discovered about Paris. It is almost as if my mind maps out a historical map of Paris and transforms my historical knowledge into something 3-dimensional, thereby making my understanding of the city and its history much richer than before. Now whenever I think or read about the Bastille, I no longer have an abstract conception of it but a very real reference point; I can see the streets, the people, and where it stood in relation to the rest of the city.
After spending several minutes on the street, it was time for us to go back to our hotels and prepare for the main event of the trip: the conference. The conference surpassed my expectations in terms of both content and setting. I was ready to engage with the material and take notes on what the speakers were presenting. The independent study sufficiently prepared me for the talks; I understood everything the speakers were presenting and was able to make connections between what I have learned and the arguments they were making. A few questions in which I saw the potential for interesting discussions came up in my mind, however, while listening to the speakers.
A brief debate—one that I only partially understood, as it was conducted in two languages—occurred between two of the participants over the Gramscian approach to history. One of the participants criticized the Gramscian approach as being too “mechanized,” to use her word, and supposedly simplifying complex problems. Knowing only little about this approach, I was curious to know more about its strengths and weaknesses and any potential ways to salvage the methodology. From what I know, the Gramscian approach focuses on classes as units of political interaction based on the concept “cultural hegemony”, a kind of cultural soft power that the dominant class is always trying to expand and preserve. For instance, a Gramscian approach to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace [CEIP] would analyze American philanthropy as a way for the United States to further its influence in Europe for the purpose of establishing its power there. As Dr. Clinton explained after the presentations, the critique of the Gramscian approach stemmed from questioning the concept of classes, which many people mistakenly assume to be theoretically cohesive in both the Gramscian and Marxist approaches. The argument rests on the premise that classes are not as cohesive as we might think, and this particular presenter used the fact that the CEIP had great factional and political divides, not just
on technical issues but on questions of fundamental values. Additionally, she pointed to the fact that the exchange between the CEIP and European internationalists during the inter-war era was not one-sided at all; rather, it was more of a dialectical exchange in which Europeans consented to American influence. These facts are used to develop the argument that, as a result of this lack of cohesion and cultural domination, class structures are united and, consequently, the Gramscian interpretation fundamentally resting on class structures is flawed.
Intellectual explorations such as these prompted me to have discussions with Eric and Dr. Clinton after the presentations. In addition to spending a substantial amount of time reviewing our notes and discussing the ideas from the presentations, Eric and I also had a chance to speak with a couple of the presenters over dinner, in particular, a German professor. After the final presentations, we all retired to our hotels to rest before the second day of the conference.
March 14th was my second day in Paris, and my first full day after arriving from the airport. Waking up in the morning I discovered that the hotel room that Misha and I shared had a view of the Eiffel Tower. The academic conference was not scheduled until later in the day, and so during the first half of the day we went to visit the Louvre. We had seen the pyramids at the entrance of the Louvre the day before but had passed over the museum in favor of visiting other monuments and attractions. The pyramid built around the entrance of the museum was exceptionally beautiful, and Professor Clinton informed us that it was a more recent addition. The pyramids lead to an underground shopping area known as the Carrousel du Louvre, which is connected to the museum.
One of the first things that we gravitated to in the museum was the Mona Lisa, indisputably the most famous painting in the world. The room that the painting was hung in immediately communicated its importance. The entire room was bare white and was empty of anything but the Mona Lisa. The painting itself was hung high on the wall opposite the entrance, enough so that it could be seen just above the heads of the crowd that surrounded it. The lighting and general positioning of the painting made it the focal point of attention and clearly visible to everybody in the room no matter the size of the crowd. The reverence displayed through the presentation of the painting made it seem more important than some of the religious artifacts that we had seen at Notre Dame, and the size of the crowd around the Mona Lisa was much larger than around any of the individual religious artifacts. I had been familiar with the Mona Lisa prior to seeing it in person, but the sheer importance that the painting radiated caught me off guard. The Mona Lisa was a beautiful painting painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, but this alone did not seem to be enough to propel it to the levels of fame it enjoys today. Da Vinci painted many other paintings that surely were equally as beautiful and required just as much skill in their completion. I asked Professor Clinton why the Mona Lisa was so excessively famous, as I did not understand the spectacle around the painting. He explained that it was likely in part to the fame of the painting drawing more fame in a self-feeding cycle. Additionally, I learned that Napoleon had kept the Mona Lisa in his bedroom for a time during his life, and the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, both potentially responsible in part for propelling the Mona Lisa to its celebrity status. The discussion made me curious as to what art is. The Mona Lisa did not seem to convey any deeper artistic meaning or emotion, despite what some may say about the quality of its smile.
This discussion on art and aesthetics led into a discussion as we saw Liberty Leading the People, a painting embodying the French revolutionary spirit. In comparison to the Mona Lisa, this painting was extremely expressive, showcasing an incredibly intense emotional scene. The woman in the center, Marianne, standing over a pile of corpses while leading on the angry citizens of Paris feels incredibly significant in a spiritual
sense. This was an emotion that we returned to after leaving the Louvre and heading to the site of the Bastille. The physical building of the Bastille itself was destroyed long ago, but the square where it once stood remains named in commemoration of it. In the center of the square stands a monument erected in honor of France’s 1830 revolution. The street where it was located was very busy, and construction was in process, causing traffic congestion. If not for the square being named after the Bastille, it would be impossible to tell that it had been where the prison stood. This was the last place we stopped before heading to the academic conference.
The conference was held in Heinrich Heine House, at the Cité Internationale Universitaire. The speakers presenting on the first day were Professors Arnd Bauerkämper, Ludovic Tournès, and Helke Rausch. Coming to the conference as an undergraduate student was intensely intimidating, but the readings and discussions that Professor Clinton assigned to us had done an excellent job in making me familiar with subject material and topics of discussion. Following the conclusion of the three presentations, there was a discussion between Ludovic Tournès and Helke Rausch on the topic of the Gramscian historical theory that was immensely interesting, despite only catching one half of the conversation, as Ludovic Tournès was speaking in French. The usefulness of the theory was debated, with Helke Rausch stating that the Gramsican view was “unhistorical”. Gramsci’s theory on cultural hegemony was something that I had taken interest in while doing preparatory readings for the conference, and so I was curious about the criticisms that Helke Rausch brought up, along with Ludovic Tournès’ defense of the theory. I had borrowed a book by Antonio Gramsci from Professor Clinton that had come up in our readings, the Prison Notebooks, written during Gramci’s extended time in prison under Mussolini’s reign. I had brought the book with me on the trip and at the end of the day I reviewed his theories in preparation for further discussion.
On the second day of the conference, the morning session featured presentations that focused primarily on the European chapter of the CEIP, exploring the various factional divisions and broader cultural differences that arguably hindered the CEIP’s productivity and revealed larger issues regarding the peace movement. As I listened to the presentations, a question kept bugging me. I know a lot of facts about the CEIP, the international peace movement, and their dynamics, but I struggled to collect them into a meaningful narrative. Facts do not have meaning outside of the narratives that we create around them, and often these narratives do not stand alone as objective accounts of the past but rather as accounts that speak directly to our present societal needs. In any case, a historical narrative cannot possibly be expected to include every single historical fact; the account would be endless and infinite. Ultimately what matters is what facts we choose to include in and leave out from our narrative, in addition to uncovering what value judgments underline our thinking as we construct the narrative.
When it came time for lunch, the presenters and audience went to a cafeteria, where Eric and I were seated next to two of the presenters from the first day of the conference: Ludovic Tournès of the University of Geneva and Arnd Bauerkämper of the Free University of Berlin, both distinguished scholars and historians. Eric and I seized the opportunity to ask them about historical interpretation and the Gramscian approach that looms large in the historiography of the CEIP, and this led to a long, satisfying, and intellectually stimulating discussion. What I realized was that I was not using methods of historical interpretation correctly; these approaches, including the Gramscian approach, are not clear-cut ways of looking at history and are most certainly not all-encompassing. Different historical approaches have their strengths and weaknesses and, if used, must either be used in conjunction with one another or just as tools to spur thinking and make us ask questions that we otherwise would not have thought to ask. One historical approach, regardless of its merits, cannot in any way explain the whole of reality in a substantial way, but it can help guide one’s thinking to navigate through an otherwise chaotic and meaningless collection of facts. A discerning historian can use these methods of interpretation but must be aware of their limitations and be cautious lest complicated issues be forced into simple rationalizations. This means that historical interpretations are both helpful and precarious at the same time; helpful in that 1) they navigate one’s thought process and shed light on existing patterns and 2) reveal connections that otherwise would not have been made, and precarious in that they can force a pattern onto disharmonious facts and limit other possibilities that would make more sense.
This discussion shook all of the preconceptions that I had about history and made me think in more nuanced ways, for which I extremely grateful. I now do not have the same difficulties that I had when trying to organize these facts in my head, and I can more easily shift my field of vision from differing and often opposing historical interpretations and see the merits and demerits of each one. Now that I have some more time to reflect, I am beginning to see very clearly the connection between the subjects of my two majors: history and philosophy. These are not clear-cut disciplines that have their own subjects of inquiry and methods of analysis; rather, history and philosophy are thoroughly intertwined, and questions like the ones I examined above really illuminate this convergence.
Throughout the rest of the day, my newly acquired insight helped me to better understand and contextualize the other presentations. The last one was one of my favorite presentations, given by Katharina Rietzler of the University of Sussex. She investigated an often overlooked facet of the peace movement (and of any major movement in history, for that matter): the role of the public and especially the role of students. Often while examining the deeds and dynamics of prominent men and large organizations, the role of the public is left out. This is misguided, especially during this time period when democratic institutions were expanding and public opinion was gaining more and more import in the workings of both governmental and large non-governmental organizations. These and other ideas helped me to think about the CEIP and the internationalist movement in a broader and perhaps more democratic way, making my understanding of the topic richer and more expansive.
As the day wound down and the conference ended, Eric and I were treated to a dinner with Dr. Clinton and a few of the presenters. This was a great continuation of an even greater day; even though it was dinner, it did not conclude our day. The real conclusion came after dinner when Dr. Clinton, Eric, and I went to Montmartre, an artistic Parisian district nestled on a hilltop with two cathedrals, one from the Middle Ages and another more modern. This hilltop provides an excellent view of nighttime Paris from multiple angles, and the district was ripe with small, charming French houses amidst cobblestone streets and narrow pathways. A popular place of gathering for bohemian artists, as Dr. Clinton called it, this district elegantly conveyed the feeling of a small and artistic Paris right in the middle of the rest of the city. It is a gem that is so different from the huge cream-colored buildings that line the banks of the Seine or the skyscrapers of the La Défense district, but perfectly captures the deep and vibrant quality of the Parisian spirit when experienced in juxtaposition to the rest of Paris.
Presentations for the second day of the conference began early in the day, and so after a quick breakfast we set off to the Heinrich Heine building. As I had been preparing for the opportunity to go on this trip and attend the conference, my perception of the event had warped. I had begun to become incredibly intimidated by the idea of attending a professional-level research conference. I had been told prior to the event that undergraduate-level students were never invited to the conference, and that this would be an event attended almost entirely by graduate students and those with doctorates. On the first day of the conference, I felt a bit like a fish out of water, but the anxiety quickly evaporated as I realized how comfortable the experience was. The weeks we had spent with Professor Clinton had prepared us very well in familiarizing us with the material that would be presented. The format of the conference did not feel that dissimilar to the sort of lectures that Professor Clinton gives in his classes. Realizing this gave me a lot of confidence regarding my position as a historian, and I feel as though I would have a lot to gain from attending similar conferences and presentations on my own time in the future. The first presentations began at 9:30 in the morning and would last until 5:00 in the afternoon. Professor Clinton was the second person to present. His paper focused on how money defined the relationships between the philanthropic forces in America and the pacifist movements in Europe. During the time we had been preparing for this conference we read several articles by Professor Clinton that were of a similar nature to his presentation. One of the other more interesting presentations was the one given by Jens Wegner of the Ruhr University Bochum. As a way to display the connections between various people and organizations related to the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, Wegner created an experimental social network connectivity graph. He pointed out that the graph was still incomplete and explained its function to several audience members; however, seeing it was incredibly interesting. This prompted a conversation on the intersection of technology and history after the conference. I would be incredibly interested in seeing the exact methods that were used to create the chart, and seeing it has inspired me to want to see if I could recreate similar graphs with the correct software, as I had never used or created any similar looking social connection graphs before.
At lunch in the building’s cafeteria, Misha and I ended up sitting beside Professors Ludovic Tournès and Arnd Bauerkämper, who had both been introduced to us by Professor Clinton. Misha and I had spoken together regarding the argument on the Gramscian theory that we had heard the day before, but this was an opportunity to ask these two distinguished historians their opinions. There had been several flaws that we attempted to pick out of the Gramscian theory as we saw it, including the difficulty in accounting for disunity within a dominant class, but we had not reached a definite conclusion of our own. Originally, we had wanted to ask Helke Rausch why she had taken such a harsh stance on the issue, but both Misha and I had been too intimidated to seek her out and ask her. Both Ludovic Tournès and Arnd Bauerkämper were eager to discuss this with us over lunch and to explain what had confused us. Ludovic Tournès had been the one that Helke Rausch had argued with over Gramscian theory; however, as he had been speaking in French at the time, we were unable to understand exactly what his view was at the time. Both were very quick to tell us that while Gramscian theory was not some perfect and flawless historiographical theory, it was not exactly useless or “a-historical” either. They were quick to correct our preconceptions of looking for flaws in the theory by explaining to us that historiographical theories are tools that can be used to help with explaining trends in history, and that they should be used as they are useful and relevant. There never will be a historiographical approach that will fit cleanly into every situation flawlessly, and trying to find one that is perfect in such a manner is foolish. Attempting to stick to one single approach to explain everything is what Ludovic Tournès described political theorists as doing, and that historians should take a more nuanced approach.
After the end of the conference Professor Clinton invited Misha and I to dinner at an upscale French restaurant. It was a very pleasant group event, where we were able to drink French wine and try traditional French foods, such as escargot and beef tartar. As the menu was entirely in French, we needed a bit of assistance to order. Following dinner, the three of us took a trip to Montmartre, where a massive church had been built on one of the hills in northern Paris. The view from the top of the hill was absolutely beautiful and looking down you could see the entirety of the city.
With the conference completed, our last full day in France was one of travel, exploration, and revelation. Having woken up early and eaten a fine European breakfast consisting of baguettes, jam, and cheese at our hotel, Eric and I met Prof. Clinton at the metro station where we started our journey to one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your views) attractions in France: Versailles. Although the palace and it's immeasurably expansive gardens are an international attraction today, in the times of the French ancien régime it was the center of political activity and royal luxury. Built purposefully outside of Paris to avoid the rather unpredictable political climate of the city, especially during times of increased mob rule, Versailles for many symbolized the vast wealth and prestige of the French monarchy. Indeed, Louis XIV, its creator, was a celebrated leader of France, and this fact is most certainly made evident inside the overwhelmingly meticulous and grandiose halls of the palace.
After a 40-minute train ride to the southwestern suburbs of Paris, we approached our final station. I was surprised to discover that Versailles now has a rather large town surrounding it, and it was interesting to walk through it and compare its rather simple architecture with Paris. Finally, we approached the actual palace and were struck by its size; the palace is not very tall, but it still looms over the town in a very formal way, as if it were still a royal center of power. Upon entering the palace, we picked up maps, and I looked at the layout of the palace in order to get a better perception of its size. I was blown away by something completely different, however; the gardens at the back of the palace were at least five times larger than the palace itself and contained fountains, long walkways, and even small villages. Later during our visit Eric and I explored these gardens and had one of the most eye-opening discussions of the entire trip.
But first, it was time to tour the palace. Walking through each of the chambers and halls, we saw the king’s chambers, dining room, guard room, and the women’s apartments, along with rooms intended for more formal diplomatic meetings. In each of these rooms (except for the guard room), the walls and ceiling were completely covered in paintings, extremely detailed gold decorations, marble columns, and busts of Greek and Roman figures. I saw at least five large busts of Louis XIV himself, carved out meticulously into stone in very flamboyant poses. Every single corner, every single square inch of every wall was accounted for in the most thoroughly painstaking ways possible, and this combination of pomp, extravagant decoration, and colorful furnishings absolutely overwhelmed my senses. As a matter of fact, that is what the rooms were intended for: bewildering any guests who were lucky to enter the chambers of Versailles. The eye immediately tries to find something to look at, but gets lost in the endless luminescence of the chambers. There is just so much to see, so much to take in, and everything was intense almost to an absurd degree.
This is exactly when an uncomfortable thought struck me, and it stemmed from my knowledge of French history, limited though as it is: is it possible to even enjoy all of this splendor as authentic art? Furthermore, is all of this “art” stained or tainted in any way by knowing that while the French royalty of the 18th century overindulged themselves in this exorbitant luxury, the vast majority of the French population was erupting in bread riots as the result of absolute poverty and food scarcity? In one of the dining chambers, Prof. Clinton talked about how Louis XIV would have an entire ritual around his consumption of food. The women of Versailles, all members of the nobility and coming from extremely wealthy families, would gather at this chamber and simply watch him eat. Another offensive realization came when Eric and I walked through the gardens and came across the Queen’s Hamlet, essentially a miniature peasant village that was built for Marie Antoinette so that she could play around in it, pretending to be a simple milk-maid. This village is supposed to be a smaller version of a typical French village of the time, and it is romanticized beyond belief. Sure, the houses look very charming, but upon seeing them a person who knows the history of pre-revolutionary France would see the obvious incongruity between the romanticized peasants of the nobility’s perception and the squalor of actual French peasantry. Simply contemplating the contrast between the extravagance of the royal courts and the destitution of the French peasantry and urban workers really opened my mind and forced me to understand the revolution in a completely different light. It is easy to overlook the motives of historical actors when reading about them in a textbook, but seeing it in real life is completely different; I now have a better understanding of what drove the passions behind the French Revolution; I understand many of the aristocracy’s demands for not only political and economic but also social reform following the financially over-indulgent decades leading up to 1789; in light of this, I understand Versailles in a very different way.
One might think from reading this that I did not enjoy visiting Versailles. Quite the contrary, it is exactly these thoughts that make me enjoy visiting royal palaces. Being inside of them and seeing the artistic extravagance forces me to think about ethical dilemmas and their connections with aesthetics and politics, and Versailles was no exception. It is exactly this incongruity between the historical reality of the country and the lives of its wealthiest elite that places like Versailles elicit, and while this feeling is most certainly an uncomfortable one, it makes me think about things that I otherwise would not have thought about, and that can prompt intellectual discussions like the one that Eric and I had on our way to the Queen’s Hamlet. We discussed exactly that: whether the history of a given piece of art taints its artistic worth or value. I held the position that a historical reality on such a massive scale as the French reality of the 18th century can, in fact, taint the aesthetic experience of Versailles, a structure that in every way, shape, and form was worlds apart from how the vast majority of the French lived.
After our trip to Versailles, the three of us rode the train back to Paris to visit one of the many famous Parisian museums, the Musée d’Orsay. Once a railroad station on the left bank of the Seine, this museum contains mostly Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, ranging from sculptures and photography to paintings and even furniture. While not as big or expansive as the Louvre, this museum was my favorite of the two. I am not very knowledgeable about art by any means, but I did feel that I connected with the art in this museum better. To me, it seemed more eccentric and attention-grabbing while still being very substantive in terms of the meanings of the art and its aesthetic qualities. The museum exhibited paintings from world-renown artists like Van Gogh and Monet, and even had entire galleries dedicated to the two artists.
Following the museum visit, there was only one more attraction we to visit, perhaps the most iconic Parisian landmark and arguably one of the most iconic attractions in the entire world. But first, in order to get to it, we had to walk down the left bank of the Seine. It was a very bright day, and many people were out on the streets. Since we were walking down the bank, we got to see the many bridges that Paris is known for, including ones commissioned by Napoleon and one that was named in honor of Tsar Alexander III. These are not ordinary bridges: images, figures, and patterns were carved into the stones that comprise the bridges and huge columns with plaques and figures lined the grounded part of the bridges. These are not simply practical structures, but works of art in themselves that point to the way Paris values even the most utilitarian, everyday things. As soon as we reached the Eiffel Tower, my attention was immediately diverted away from the bridges to the enormous tower that has an entire park surrounding it. After standing in line to enter the park area, most of which is under the tower, we had to wait in another line to buy tickets. It is very difficult for pictures to elicit a spatial understanding of the enormity of the tower, but as I was standing in line under it I was astonished by its scale. Each of the four “legs” of the tower had cable cars that go up to the first and second levels, upon which the visitor can stop and look at the surrounding landscape of Paris from varying heights. It was our decision, however, to go to the very top of the tower, the third level, which has an open observation deck that one can walk around on. Little did I expect upon reaching that observation deck that the wind would almost blow away my glasses. It almost felt like I would be blown away myself had it not been for the fence surrounding the open parts of the deck.
However much the wind made it difficult to even hold balance in a comfortable way, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being at the top of Paris, being exhilarated by the strong wind but getting enjoyment out of it nonetheless by looking down at the city. It really did feel as if I had conquered Paris, that my efforts in class and at the conference and throughout the entirety of my stay in Paris culminated in a larger-than-life experience. Looking back on my experience of that day, I now realize that I had a truly remarkable, intellectually stimulating, and unique experience in a city that I now appreciate more than ever.
Professor Clinton, Misha, and I had planned that on our last day in Paris we would travel to Versailles. As Versailles was a good distance outside the city of Paris, we had to take a train from the city through some of the Parisian suburbs before arriving. Versailles was built as a secondary palace of the French nobility and was specifically chosen to be a day’s travel from Paris in order to escape the often revolting masses of peasants who lived in the city itself. While it may have taken nobility of Louis XIV’s era a day to reach the palace by horse, it only took us around forty minutes to reach. We had previously seen and discussed this while viewing Liberty Leading the People at the Louvre. The modern-day problems in France seem to almost parallel the same issues in a sense. The Yellow Vest movement has been engaged in France for months now protesting a variety of causes, mainly related to frustration with the current French government. The Yellow Vests typically protest every Saturday, and as we were traveling to Versailles for the bulk of the day, we would coincidentally miss some major signs of protest. During the journey back from Versailles and on the walk to the Eiffel Tower there was a noticeable police presence in the city. A bridge had been shut down, but there was no way to know if this was due to protests or not.
When we finally arrived at Versailles it took a bit of walking through the surrounding town before we were able to see the palace itself. Compared to the town that now surrounded it, the Versailles palace was impressive from just a glance. It clearly stood out from the surrounding area. There were maps that were handed out at the entrance and reading them immediately displayed just how large the entire compound was. The sheer amount of empty space present was interesting from a design perspective. The entrance to the castle had a massive empty paved brick road where the large crowd waiting around to enter seemed tiny, and the gardens in the back occupied a huge amount of land. Entering the interior of Versailles was an experience comparable to walking into another dimension. Every room either had the walls either covered in gaudy wallpaper or with absolutely beautiful paintings; busts and statues were littered around the building. The entire experience became very overwhelming after a short while. The rooms quickly blurred into each other and became almost indistinguishable. It wasn’t as if the rooms were the same, but with so many covered in such an excessive level of extravagance, it all began to bleed together. There was just too much to take in.
After we had seen the entirety of the building’s interior, the three of us left to see the gardens. As it had rained a bit in the last several days and was still on the verge of being spring, the gardens were in a bit of a damp and dead state, but they were beautiful even despite not being at their fullest potential. Misha and I walked through the gardens to seek out the Queen’s Hamlet, which was a sort of faux-peasant village that Marie Antoinette had built. As it was built inside the Versailles gardens, it of course never actually had peasants living there but was built as a sort of model dollhouse for Marie Antoinette to personally enjoy. Misha and I were both familiar with the Queen’s Hamlet before arriving at Versailles, and this was part of the reason that we both sought it out, but the sheer audacity of someone building a village for personal enjoyment was difficult to accept. While walking through the gardens and the Queen’s Hamlet Misha and I discussed the validity of the art presented at Versailles, both the interior and the exterior. He took the position that the outrageous displays of power by the French royalty and the artwork present were all inauthentic and could barely be considered art at all. Discussing the ethical dilemma that Versailles’ opulence raised made it a much more interesting experience than simply seeing the palace and gardens alone.
After having seen everything there was to see in Versailles, we boarded the train back to Paris. The Eiffel Tower was our next destination. It felt as though the Eiffel Tower had been hanging over us for the entirety of our trip. It was clearly visible in the skyline when we had gone to the Arc du Triomphe, in the skyline while at Montmartre, and every morning from the view of our hotel room. It is hard not to think about the Eiffel Tower when visiting Paris. A miniature park-like area surrounded the base of the tower, and we waited in line for tickets with a massive crowd of tourists. The sun was beginning to set as it finally came to the point where we were able to purchase tickets and enter the cable cars that ascended the tower. I was amazed when I noticed that there were stairs as well for those who wanted to climb the tower, and several groups of people were making use of them. It seems outrageous to climb up what must be hundreds of flights of stairs to reach the top. There were three separate floors in the tower, and Misha and I went to the very topmost level, where an open-air observation bay is located. It was incredible to see the view of the entire city from the top of the Eiffel Tower, but the height and the intense winds made it terrifying, as well. For a long time, I have had a fear of heights, but with a bit of difficulty, I managed to walk around the entirety of the top level of the Eiffel Tower.
The experience of being at the top of the Eiffel Tower felt like an appropriate way to complete my time in Paris. The fear that I felt in the moment evaporated quickly into satisfaction, and I began to feel the same way about the entirety of the journey. This had been my first time in a foreign country, and I had been intensely anxious in the days before leaving for France. At the top of the tower, it felt intoxicating, though, as if I never had anything to worry about in the first place. It was a feeling that didn’t leave me even as we descended back down the tower and went back to our rooms for the night. I feel that leaving the United States and gaining the experience of traveling in a foreign nation is possible one of the most important things I have done while at Gwynedd Mercy, and I can only hope that I continue to be blessed with opportunities to travel and see the world in the future.