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The Dynamo, the Virgin, and the Quai D’Orsay

By September 14, 2012 No Comments

On a free day during my trip to Paris last month, I took the train to Chartres to visit its cathedral. I’d heard about it, read about it, always wanted to see it, and came away very glad to have done so. Key memory: a man with binoculars, leaning back in a chair, slowly studying one stained glass window at a time. He had the right idea. After the totality of the magnificent windows has blown you away, you start focusing on one of them, any one, deciphering the images. Look long enough and you’ll see the different geometrical patterns that predominate in this window or that; the leading hue changing one to another; the filigree in each pane and how it aptly fits with the subject. Stories and art in glass—it would take most of a week to do minimal justice to the place.

Henry Adams’ great essay on the subject, “The Dynamo and the Virgin” (chapter 25 in his Education), occurred to me now and then that day, if only to leave me resigned to being one of his typical 19th-century Americans, immune to any sense of the power of the Virgin to inspire human action and imagination. “On one side, at the Louvre and at Chartres,” wrote Adams, “was the highest energy ever known to man, the creator of four-fifths of his noblest art, exercising vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of; and yet this energy was unknown to the American mind. An American Virgin would never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist.” It’s true, too true. I devoted my attention on the glass and gave not a thought to the Lady for whom the cathedral is named. I love to participate in Anglo-Catholic services, but when the clergy process to the Lady Chapel to recite the Angelus? Meh.

I don’t think Adams believed in the Virgin either, not really, and certainly not for her own sake. Rather, as one conceivable antidote to the ‘dynamo,’ the symbol of the blind and explosive multiplication of force in modern society which was driving him crazy. All power, no center; magnum force but no channels in which it could be quarantined— Adams feared that the dawning twentieth century was pursuing entropy, his old haunt, on a higher level than ever. The chapter in his Education records his rising perplexity over the matter as he roams the exhibition halls of the 1900 Paris world’s fair.

Setting out from my room the next morning, I discovered that the two grandest of those halls—the Grand and Petit Palais—were right at the end of my street. Now my mind was whirling over a juxtaposition, and I roamed the streets of Paris trying to put it all together á la poor Henry a hundred plus years ago. True, my thoughts were neither so high nor mighty as his, perhaps because I settled for a solution in the coincidence closest by.

Running up to the palaces where Adams watched his dynamos whir is the Pont Alexandre III, a sweet and chaste arch over the Seine duded up with all sorts of ornate nymphology. The bridge honors the Russian czar with whom the French in 1900 had just forged an alliance—the radical republic cozying up to the arch-reactionary empire so as to gain security against the fearsome Germans they now had boxed in. Turn left at the end of the bridge and you’re on the Quai D’Orsay, a short walk from the French Foreign Ministry which bears the street name as a metonym.  

The lights had burned late at the Quai D’Orsay nearly a century before on just such August nights as I walked past it. After long weeks of bluff and parry, of incredulity and angst that it had come to this, the French finally bet on their alliance with Russia, and on another one struck with Britain, that, not having been able to stare the Germans down, they could prevail over them in a brisk and decisive war. Bad bet. The dynamo had arisen on all sides, and all sides used its force to pound the other into devastating losses, military strategy not having advanced sufficiently past the age of the Virgin. Yet the devotees of the Lady, and their Protestant counterparts who would never think of calling on her name, showed no hesitancy, in any land, to use the old sacred tongue to urge their sons to the service of the new Force. You can read the plaques commemorating the consequences, name by name, at the back of every church in Paris. Henry Adams died too, the year it all finished, 1918. Except it’s not over yet.



James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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