Here to Give Ourselves Away
It had been a very long time since I’d been alone in a cemetery.
I was held where I stood by three faces staring at me.
Actually before I even saw the faces, I saw the uniforms: three young soldiers killed in World War I. I had forgotten how much I love graveyards for all the stories they have to tell, but these faces reminded me. So I went inside.
Graveyard walking is to search for clues; it is to remember that these were once real people and therefore be constantly searching for the power somehow to breathe life into them and let them stand once more, say a few words, tell us a bit about themselves and what they saw, what they knew, what they felt.
Most graves give very little information – but even just the name, age and year of death is its own little story. The first thing I learned in the graveyard of Gavarnie is that if you survived youth in this village, you tended to have a very long life. The majority of the graves were for those who were very old – people in their 80’s, 90’s and even one woman who had reached 100; these were hardy people. I could imagine most of them lived a quiet mountain life, perhaps rarely or never leaving the region.
I also saw a lot of young men. There were many of course that died in war, but later there were also those that had challenged the mountains to take them, and mountains had won. It seems that even here, the audacity of youth can be dangerous.
And then there was Madeleine. She died in 1955 at the age of 17. There are indications to suggest she may have been a nun in training at Lourdes, or perhaps went to Lourdes for healing. They call her sister in a way that suggests “sister of the cloth” not the flesh. Perhaps she went there and devoted herself to god, believing she would either be cured or else die in grace.
While most of the graves in Gavarnie are granite – smooth, polished and geometric, there are also some graves marked by just mound of earth. These have their own special impact because they gives the sense of a body under there, taking up space; it reminds me of how we look when we bury each other in sand as a game at the beach. Just a body in earth. It makes the once-upon-a-time flesh seem closer.
There is something disconcerting yet poignant about a grave without a name – knowing that something that was once someone is there, but knowing no moret. Yet knowing just that much is something. In that earth lie bones, that once contained life, consciousness. And now those bones are an empty, derelict house, hinting at the life that was once inside. For me a ghost is just that: the consciousness that has gone, and the trail it has left behind. Even without a name there are still traces of what once was. In my mind, a ghost can live in the idea of a person that has vanished.
My grandfather died a long time before I was born. It is always so weird to me that someone who played such an fundamental role in my own father’s life, is someone who I actually cannot imagine at all. I have seen pictures and heard stories about him but I know that no matter how much more I learn I will never be able to actually imagine anything close to what the real man was like. For me he remains two-dimensional, limited to the space within a faded photograph, and the confines of conflicting anecdotes.
I know I’ll never be able to reconstruct him, but there’s something in me that is always wishing I had more to work with. I keep thinking that if I just had a bit more information – if I could hear his voice, or see a video with him in it, so I could know how he moved his face, how he laughed, a bit of how he expressed himself, I could come closer somehow.
I knew very little about him when I was growing up (besides how much he loved the outdoors, camping, hiking, etc.) so I found my own way to give him a voice. When I read Steinbeck as a teenager, for some reason I decided that his was a good voice to give my grandfather. In putting a writer in that surrogate role I think I was expressing the desire, more than anything, to know how my grandfather thought about things, to be able to hear his interior monologue. Lacking access to that, I found the voice that most closely matched the image I had constructed. When I told my father this he laughed. I think he laughed because I am not sure he ever really knew how his father felt about things either…
The gravestones that move me the most are ones that give me enough information that I can bring an idea of a human to life. A young nun dying of a wasting disease in Lourdes, young soldiers from a mountain village who know nothing of the world, who finally leave, only to see the outside world in a time of war, and never return. The young athletic 20-year old, dead from a fall, dead perhaps for trying to pack too much living in.
The combination of the information on and around the grave, and now sometimes even the very face itself of the person creates at least a ghost of a form. I know it does not come close to the people themselves – but in a way does it matter? Even famous historical figures about whom we have endless information still elude us when we try to reconstruct them. No matter how much information you have there is still something missing – perhaps the sound of the voice or the way they crinkle their eyes when they smile. And yet it’s still alway worthwhile to try to imagine…
I was thinking how archaeologists must feel something like this all the time – the way they reconstruct bones and try to imagine civilizations through the contours of broken pottery, and yet know they can never fully recreate what was. Or paleontologists imagining dinosaurs and other ancient animals – yet always wondering if perhaps they were an entirely different color.
There’s the beauty of the reconstruction – and the frustration at your distance from what actually WAS…and how you’ll never know far that distance actually was and what part of the picture you were missing entirely.
The massive medieval citadel of Carcassonne in the Languedoc region is one of the most visited places in France; a UNESCO heritage site, it supposedly furnishes the tourist with the vision of a proper medieval city.
The thing that most tourists don’t know is that in the in 1850’s the French Government decided to restore the Cité de Carcassonne, hiring architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, to oversee the renovation. Viollet-Le-Duc decided to remake it to match his idea of what this medieval fortress should look like rather than attempting to restore it according to what had already been there. Carcassonne for him was not supposed to just be what it had been in the past – but stand for something about France of the present, a kind of conversation about France over the ages.
“Viollet-le-Duc’s aim in restoring the Cité was to reintroduce meaning into a set of ruins — meaning, of course, for the culture of nineteenth-century France. For us, therefore, Carcassonne stands as a meaningful architectural monument of the nineteenth century, speaking for its nationalist passion for history. The restored Cité fundamentally expresses the architectural interests and thought of an architect in the 1850s. As architectural intervention is never neutral, as it is always an exercise in interpretation, it deserves as much attention as the original object. From the perspective of our day. Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration is as expressive of the architect and his time as were the medieval remains of their era.” – Francesc Xavier Costa Guix
So many elements of the restoration of Carcassonne say way more about the mindset and aesthetic and ideology of the 1850’s, than of the medieval era. For example – the famous towers that circle the city are pretty much Viollet-le-Duc’s interpretation of medieval – their conical tops that give Carcassonne so much of its particular flavor, were completely imagined by him, and had never existed previous to the restoration project.
People visit this impressive place and leave feeling they’ve seen what a medieval city looked like when in fact they are seeing what an 1850’s architect decided a medieval city should look like.
But is it important that they know this? Or is it really just as good that they carry away the simpler version of the story, and walking through those streets and imagining them just like that a thousand years ago?
I have never seen faces in a cemetery before – but there were so many in Gavarnie.
Here is the Family Germain Bordes.
Baby Philippe Bordes was buried here. He was exactly 1 year old – born December 17th, 1961, Died December 17th, 1962. A beautiful baby. It was disconcerting to see that face, his smile and chubby cheeks, in this place of death.
And then there was Serge Bordes. Probably Philippe’s brother – born in 1959.
We see him pictured, as a handsome young man – who died 19 years after his baby brother – at the age of 21 or 22. A year before, it seems his Grandfather Justin died, aged 74. We see him in his beret and traditional mountain clothes. A man who lived a full life, next to his kin who lived such short lives.
I felt strange taking these photographs, like there was something grotesque in the stealing of these faces, much more problematic than photographing a headstone. It felt so much more intrusive.
What right did I have to read these names and dates and look at these faces and create something out of them that was so far from the truth known by those that truly loved them? What right did I have to imagine them, stereotype them, make assumptions, take pictures, and carry pieces of them away for my own purpose?
But their loved ones put their faces there so that people would see them and remember them. I don’t think they would be there otherwise. I think maybe part of the purpose is to be able, years later, to have someone walk by these graves and be able to look at these faces and get some small sense of the human however faint and inaccurate, and take it with them. I think a graveyard represents the desire for those traces of of the dead, the ghosts of them, to continue to have a voice, albeit distorted, and thus still have some impact on the living world.
And maybe those men are now not just who they were – but now they are also the picture on a plaque in a cemetery and the imagined human ghost in the head of an American woman passing through and taking their image with her.
One day when I was in Paris I was walking along the Rue Mouffetard during market day. A man walked by me and handed me a rose and then walked on. I stood on a street corner there, holding the rose to my face, delighting in the ridiculous romance of moment.
A few moments later I spotted a tourist with a large camera trying to secretly photograph me standing there with my rose to my cheek – stealing an image of me, an idea of me. He probably thought I was French and he’d just managed to catch some minute inhale and exhale of the city. Whatever he thought, he stole some piece of me and made it into something new, whatever he believed it to be.
And I think that is beautiful. We are here to give ourselves away to each other in one form or another, maybe even after we are gone. We shed pieces of ourselves like skin cells – in the form of people’s impressions that they carry away – the smallest gesture that they inflate into a new form. This form may not resemble us from our own perspective, but perhaps we are so much more than what we think we are from our own perspective. Perhaps we are all these things that people take away from us too, even the things that we’d argue are wrong. And these assumptions, misconceptions, and perceptions tie us all to one in another in the most complex and amazing web of ideas.
We don’t have to be dead for people to steal our faces and fill them with new thoughts, new personality, new motivations. It happens all the time every day. We are all body and brain snatchers, writing the world around us like a fiction. We turn living, breathing humans into ideas. And in doing so, we hope to understand each other in a way that, despite not being accurate, is still somehow true.
When I write here I struggle to express feelings and get them translated somehow into thoughts. I never quite know what ideas I am actually transmitting, and how closely they resemble what I was hoping to communicate – but that isn’t so important. Because once words are let go, just like images, they take on their own life. I think that’s why it feels so necessary to release them.