Musée de Cluny and Rilke

The Lady And The Unicorn Desire

Letter from Paris September 2011

After the special atmosphere of the month of August (relative quiet, unusually empty streets, familiar shops closed) Paris changes almost over-night with the beginning of September. While I like Paris in August, partly because the there is such a marked change in the people who throng the streets and the metro (Parisians on holiday make way for tourists from all over the world) and partly because I am obliged to adopt a different rhythm and adopt different habits, the abrupt change in September is no less welcome: I begin to see the place I live in once again, almost with fresh eyes.

This thought sent me back to Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, one of the great works of literature about Paris. It begins with a date that has become iconic: 11th September, and the pages that follow give numerous examples of how the central figure (who has some similarities to Rilke himself), a foreigner and solitary, sees life in Paris. “I am learning to see” – the phrase is reiterated and we are given wonderful examples of what this entails: a vision of squalor and poverty, a pregnant woman, the multiplicity of faces, a man with Tourette’s syndrome, buildings… “I am learning to see. I don’t know why it is, but everything enters me more deeply and doesn’t stop where it once used to. I have an interior that I never knew of. Everything passes into it now. I don’t know what happens there.”

Later on he describes something I saw myself recently: a building that had been demolished, leaving traces of the rooms, and the lives lived in them, on the wall of the building next to it. I say “I saw myself”, but I wouldn’t have seen it without having read that passage. (Heidegger quotes it in its entirety in Basic Problems of Phenomenology as an instance of the power of poetry, or any creative literature, to make visible: “For others who before it were blind, the world first becomes visible by what is thus spoken.” Heidegger also insists on the fact that what Rilke reads from the exposed wall “is not imagined into the wall, …the description is possible only as an interpretation and elucidation of what is ‘actually’ in this wall.” – in other words, it isn’t a question of “subjectivity”. In a less intense way, the sheer change in atmosphere (and its suddenness) encourages – for a short time – a “new” way of seeing, and I’m grateful for that.

Another consequence of reading Rilke’s novel (the term is not really suitable, but there isn’t a better one that I can think of) is that it sent me back to the Musée de Cluny, which I hadn’t visited for years – indeed I’d forgotten about it. Rilke devotes some splendid pages describing the tapestries there, a series known as “La Dame à la Licorne” (The Lady with the Unicorn). The museum is devoted to the middle ages, and although there are other interesting items (notably several rooms devoted to stone capitals from the 10th – 13th centuries, as well as sculptures and stained glass) it is the room containing these extraordinary tapestries that should be visited first of all and for the longest time. You need to follow the signs because it is not the room nearest to the entrance.

My first impression of these mysterious and haunting works, after such a long time, was how splendidly they have been displayed. The light is subdued to protect them, and this immediately creates an atmosphere which imposes a certain respect. Perhaps I was fortunate, but there were very few people in the room at any one time during my visit. Such conversation as there was seemed hushed – and even the audio-guides were respectfully low in volume. It is perfectly in accord with one of Rilke’s comments: “Everything is so restrained.” My next impression was of the subtle and rich mystery of these works. At that time art was still a form of knowledge, and these tapestries make use of a symbolism which though I do not understand, invites one to explore and make connections: to feel one’s way into what is being conveyed. I noticed, for instance, that in the last of the scenes devoted to the senses, that of touch, the Lady’s hair is undone and flows to her shoulders. The last of the scenes is separated from the others (it is placed opposite them) and rightly so because it seems to be a kind of summation, or rather a commentary on the first five, each devoted to a different sense. At any rate there is a difference in that there is a kind of tent behind the Lady on which are the words “A mon seul désir” (To my one desire).

The Lady seems to be putting her jewels into a box (is she renouncing them?) and both the lion and the unicorn hold the tent open (in the other scenes their reactions are often contrasted) – is some kind of withdrawal from the world being implied? What could “my one desire” refer to? No doubt someone will know, but my own feeling is that the questions are more interesting than any answers. At any event, I would urge visitors to take their time, and linger is this room – perhaps even go back to it several times. In a very poetic way, these tapestries encourage another kind of thinking, more exploratory and open-ended – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say another kind of being. But to go further in this direction would take me too far from this “letter from Paris”!

Finally, however, I don’t want to suggest that these tapestries are coldly cerebral: one astonishing feature is the incredible richness of the living world they portray – the splendid animals and birds in the background, and sometimes in the foreground; the astonishing colours, especially of the Lady’s garments. If there is a renunciation of the world of the senses, it is not engaged in lightly. The following link to the site of the museum offers reproductions of all the tapestries, and some very brief commentaries in English:

Julian Arloff

The sense of hearing

The sense of smell

The sense of taste

The sense of touch

The sense of sight