Straight to Chartres: On Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Spencer Dew

Samuel Johnson said that reading is the primary task of any writer. In the process of writing, one works through “half a library to make one book.” With Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres I worked through one book to make one book, offering the story of a woman who, returning to Toronto on the occasion of her mother’s death, seeks refuge in the Henry Adams book of the same name. Her reading is an escape, a retreat, as she says about her decision to stay in some tourist hotel instead of her mother’s flat or with her friends. She’s turning to Adams’ experiment with feeling the 13th century—its aesthetic, its values, its worldview—as a coping mechanism, a kind of elaborate denial, even as, simultaneously—inevitably—she’s revisiting her childhood, coming to terms with her mother’s death and, to an extent, her own mortality. My method was a template from Kathy Acker, though Acker would likely say it was a template from Cervantes and be right. Her Don Quixote was on some line of plot “about” a woman who took refuge in Cervantes’ Don Quixote while waiting for an abortion. I wanted to take that framework—which I also assume, as with Doctor Johnson’s truism, to be commonplace, a standard human action and experience—and push it, see how it might feel in a prose and a vision of human reality that is a bit different from Acker’s.

Gorgeously produced—with illustrations on transparent overlays and a tiny blue build-your-own model of the cathedral—by the design team of the indie publishing house, record label, and microzine maker Another New Calligraphy, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres engages the Adams text with the same kind of sympathy he brought to his tour of French cathedrals. Adams writes, “We have set out to go from Mont Saint Michel to Chartres in three centuries, the eleventh, the twelfth, thirteenth, trying to get, on the way, not technical knowledge; not accurate information; not correct views either on history, art, or religion; not anything that can be useful or instructive; but only a sense of what those centuries had to say, and a sympathy with their way of saying it.”

Meg, the narrator, knows some basic background on Henry Adams. She knows about The Education, for instance, and that it neglects to mention his wife’s suicide. In earlier drafts I had her make explicit mention of his vitriolic Jew-hatred, but this I later cut because, while Meg still shows frustration at Adams—his hunger for an over-arching theory, for instance, or the various half-baked claims that he fires off, from the hip, as a result—I was more invested in getting across that his Chartres, despite its warts, a beautiful and haunting book, a useful book in its own right, a portable slice of the grand tour for all us “nieces” here in the States who might not have the time or finances or frame of mind to go and see as Adams saw, to think—however lunatic and sometimes offensive, but always, nonetheless, enthusiastic, infused with wild energy—as he did.

Adams saw his audience as “of English blood and American training,” possessed of a “scientific mind” that has “atrophied, and suffers under inherited cerebral weakness, when it comes in contact with the eternal woman—Astarte, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite, and the last and greatest deity of all, the Virgin.” It is notable, then, that Chartres was imagined as a letter to “nieces” back in the States, young women early in their formal education and, perhaps, already, by nature, in touch with what he saw as a central concern of his study. “The study of Our Lady, as shown by the art of Chartres, leads directly back to Eve, and lays bare the whole subject of sex.” For Adams, this “subject of sex” concerns the symbolic role of Mary—a church designed to honor the Queen of Heaven is necessarily constructed so as to affirm political concepts, the majesty and authority of the divine mirrored in human monarchy, for instance—and while his examination of religious discourse reveals the inherent human politics thereof, he doesn’t push too far, or think too critically, about what he’s reporting back to his “nieces.” Obviously, readers today will take observations a step or two further, and it intrigued me to imagine a contemporary “niece” trying to cut through the bluster and misogynist arrogance of this book and delve into the meat of what Adams was saying.

Adams, throughout his book, contrasts artists with everyday folk, though this dichotomy seems to me to be set up only to be viscerally broken down. “The rest of us cannot feel; we can only study,” Adams writes, but, of course, in his “study” there is deep and overwhelming feeling. He speaks of artists experiencing “the revival of archaic instincts,” but he is clearly reviving some of these instincts himself, and—more interestingly, to me—he seems to intend his text to do the same on and for his readers. Wandering through this book, I take Adams to be saying, will make you something of an artist, will rekindle sparks of spirit that the modern world, via various systems, has more or less erased. Thus, the book invites readers to consider its own function and afterlife—reading Chartres, one imagines how other people have or will read it, how it will affect them. Which is what I did, in this book.

Official Spencer Dew Web Site
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