Ah, the Great Human Stream.
What a seductive idea: a torrent of all our beings, an outpouring of who we really are, an endless well of creativity. It was a term used by Jean Paul Sartre in his “Being and Nothingness”. To be who we really are, he wrote, we must transcend how society wants to define us – I am a plumber, a musician, a teacher, a physician, a prince – and join the symphony of being human.
And words? They are the embodiment of the symphony. Sartre once wrote: “Regarding language, it is our shell and our antennae; it protects us against others and informs us about them; it is a prolongation of our senses, a third eye which is going to look into our neighbour’s heart.
“We are within language as within our body. We feel it spontaneously while going beyond it towards other ends, as we feel our hands and our feet; we perceive it when it is someone else who is using it, as we perceive the limbs of others. ”
Power indeed, these words have.
They elbowed their way to the front of my mind as I stood in front of a building in the city where Sartre was born: Paris. To him, words are the very nerve-endings of our senses; and there I stood in front of words which represented the wordsmiths of the world, all etched up there on a wall in front of me. The names of the greatest authors ever lived, inscribed on a library wall.
Where were we in the last post? Ah, yes. This will kill that, the words Hugo put in the mouth of a cardinal in his book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the beginning, intimates Hugo, man taught and controlled his fellow man through the great buildings of his time. The very churches and cathedrals spoke through their towering sophistication.
And the advent of the printing press, the ready and cheap availability of books – that, Hugo argued, would mean man would no longer need the great buildings, the church and its framework, as a medium between himself and enlightenment. No: he could pick up a book and read.
The lessons buildings taught men of old are defunct, and architects were toying with the old styles instead of inventing new ones. By the time Hugo wrote, he was convinced architecture had run out of things to say.
But one young architect read what he wrote.
And rather than stand on a soap-box, or write an article, Henri Labrouste informed Hugo the old fashioned way that a building could still thrust where a book could not.
The Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve has been a library since the sixth century, when a monastery became the repository for those great and gorgeous tomes, impossibly expensive, created by the monks. History was unkind to it; its oldest volume now is twelfth century, and the Saint Genevieve collection was dispersed during the sixteenth century.
The Parisians love their ideas; and only they could have dug their talons deep into the very concept of a library, working tirelessly under the banner of the Royal Library Sainte-Genevieve to re-amass its volumes. Finally, in the 1830s, Henri Labrouste was commissioned to create a house for this Ancient Parisian Idea.
Ha. Hugo, take that. Touché, mon ami litéraire.
For here was a house for those killer books, a steampunk cathedral with iron pillars and uncompromising lines and angles, a veritable card catalogue for the authors who stalked its bookshelves. On the simple unadorned, sheer walls outside are inscribed the names of the great writers; in a corresponding location inside are the shelves which house them. Unsentimental and breathtaking, is the Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve, in which the Great Human Stream – This – is housed, and contained, by That.
And so, to Sartre. And to his great life partner, Simone De Beauvoir.
It is said she read, and read, there at the Bibliotheque, and constructed the arguments, which would shake society at its roots, in amongst the library’s pillars.
De Beauvoir’s nickname amongst her friends was ‘Beaver.’
Writer and Professor Nicole Ward Jouve wrote about those years and her image will not leave my inner retina: “Sartre has sent his indefatigable beaver to chomp trees and pile trunks in the Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve. His beaver is building a dam…”
The great human stream, dammed up, waiting to become a raging torrent: all inside a dispassionate card-catalogue of a library.
Perhaps architectural raging would have confused the direction of the stream. To contain This, a century of books which contained 1984, The Gulag Archipelago, A Clockwork Orange, The Female Eunoch, Lolita, the Satanic Verses, and Mein Kampf: buildings must be beautiful, dispassionate, sturdy, unelaborated frames.
And the Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve has proved an apt container for the maelstrom which was to follow.
I would never have known about the Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve had it not been for Michael T Maher, architect and husband of writer Andra Watkins, who walked us through the streets of Paris to see this beautiful building, and told us its story. Thanks to them both.