Cultural tourism

Philippe Jaroussky is not perhaps the most interesting singer of our time, but certainly has one of its most beautiful voices: he is a counter-tenor singing in soprano, a rare thing. But unless you listen to Radio France, you won't hear him much at all.

This recording by him is of Marc-André Dalbavie's Sonnets by Louise Labé. It is very beautiful. Dalbavie, my exact contemporary, composes in a thoroughly modern idiom, one closer to Arvo Paart and Gorecki, but more radical then either, without yet wandering off into the incomprehensible. Radio France carried his piano concerto recently: it was really quite good.

Louise Labé was a French Renaissance poetess, a commoner, possibly a cross-dresser or courtesan, or both: an interesting and mysterious figure in her own right -- she is said to have competed in jousts. But then Mireille Huchon, a French scholar, has recently proposed that she had not in fact existed but was merely an imaginary creation by a group of Lyonnais poets, an invention capitalizing on the period's literary fascination with the classical poet Sappho and on a publication, in 1533, of poems attributed to Petrarch's "Laura" (Laura de Sade; the poems were in fact the work of a descendant of Laura). In 1542 Clément Marot, she says, seeking a French equivalent of Petrarch's praise of "Laura", proposed to the Lyonnais circle that they "louer Louise" (praise Louise).

Here is how he praised her:
Estreines, à dame Louïze Labé
Louïze est tant gracieuse et tant belle,
Louïze à tout est tant bien avenante,
Louïze ha l'oeil de si vive estincelle,
Louïze ha face au corps tant convenante,
De si beau port, si belle et si luisante,
Louïze ha voix que la Musique avoue,
Louïze ha main qui tant bien au lut joue,
Louïze ha tant ce qu'en toutes on prise,
Que je ne puis que Louïze ne loue,
Et si ne puis assez louer Louïze.
And here is (supposedly or not) her own work contained in the same book:

Sonnet VIII

Je vis, je meurs; je me brûle et me noie ;
J'ai chaud extrême en endurant froidure :
La vie m'est et trop molle et trop dure.
J'ai grands ennuis entremêlés de joie.

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoie,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j'endure ;
Mon bien s'en va, et à jamais il dure ;
Tout en un coup je sèche et je verdoie.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me mène ;
Et, quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me trouve hors de peine.

Puis, quand je crois ma joie être certaine,
Et être au haut de mon désiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.


How nice. One discovery leads to another; there is no end in sight; there are too many facts for anyone to master in his lifetime. While this means that, sadly, synthesis is impossible; which is to say that we will never be able to say anything definitive or final; yet it also means -- endless pleasure. History of culture is like a gigantic rich cake in which we can burrow like worms day and night till our dying day without tiring, or boring, or exhausting the sustenance.

Look, barely have I done with this morning's adventure of tracking down Louise Labé (by way of Jaroussky and Dalbavie) and, lo!, up pops this article on Qianlong's French etchings.

Qianlong, says Melikian, was a cultural tourist: an expert connoisseur of Chinese art an culture, he was also a quintessential Manchu: a hunter and a warrior; and his intellectual and artistic interests extended to xiyangxue, that is us, "Western Studies".

(He was altogether more broad-minded, it would seem, that Umberto Eco).

I am a cultural tourist, too.


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