The Servandoni Towers
“In the world’s fading light / The stairs of Delphi meet the void.”
I am laboring up the spiral staircase in the north tower of Saint-Sulpice. There are squares of paper stuck to the walls. Pausing to read the maxims scrawled on them gives my respiration a certain rhythm and allows me to catch my breath.
Who put up those two lines of poetry? The sacristan leading the way climbs the stairs eVortlessly with a spring in his step. He is an impassive, laconic man, but his ability to observe and anticipate makes me think of a hunter. He has a very reliable instinct for anything to do with his church. He can find his way with no diYculty at all through the complicated network of galleries, secret passages, cellars, nooks, and crannies that make up the invisible face of the church. He is the keeper of the keys. He, better than anyone else, can gauge the progress of the insidious disease aZicting Saint-Sulpice: damp. It attacks the stone, crumbles the mortar, eats at the metal framework, and makes holes in the roofing.
“Saint-Sulpice is in danger of collapsing, and this is an understatement,” warned the mayor of the sixth arrondissement in a letter to the prefect of Paris in 1900.
As the construction of the building has never been completed, it has been encumbered with temporary structures for three centuries. At the beginning of the Revolution, poles and scaVolding had still not been removed from the south tower, even though work had ceased a long time ago. The newspaper Le Matin announced triumphantly on 22 January 1912 that “The most famous scaVolding and also the oldest, as its origin is lost in the mists of time—that of Saint-Sulpice—has finally been taken down.”
French ingenuity and love of tinkering struck again. The art of improvisation, that sin of national pride, wrought havoc here until the 1970s. It was thought that the problem with the building could be alleviated by repairing it with reinforced concrete. In the end, oxidation made the reinforcement swell until it split the stone.
The slow destruction of the building is heartbreaking for the sacristan. He coldly analyzes the causes and stages of the disease, speaking in short, sharp sentences that only make his personal distress and feelings of anger all the more apparent. Saint-Sulpice, the poor old ship, can no longer be careened for repairs. It is disappearing before our eyes; it has taken oV beyond our reach. It is going to die and does not want to be in the way. The two thick masts of the uneven towers show the presence of the massive square vessel on the town horizon. The sails of the sloping roofs and the jib of the domes give the ship an elegant momentum, but there is no denying it: the hull is rotten.
“Rotten! You’re exaggerating. In bad repair, most certainly,” my companion exclaims.
“You know this church of yours is in a bad way. Why try to cover things up?”
I like to provoke him to test the limits of his composure. He pauses on the staircase and watches me panting a few steps below.
“Save your breath. The north tower is 240 feet high.”
I think of Huysmans and Durtal, the main character in Là-Bas.1
“Have you read Là-Bas?”
“You should. It’s a satanic novel, and Saint-Sulpice comes into it. The hero does the same thing as we are doing now.”
“And what is that?” he says politely.
His expressionless voice gives no indication of curiosity. With his heavy build and open austere face, he is such an integral part of his church that one would think he was hewn from the very stone of Saint-Sulpice before it began to decline: a pure, tough limestone from the Creil region.
“Like us he climbs up the north tower where the bell ringer lives. Don’t you think it strange that he could have imagined a detail like that?”
“Not so very strange! There is a room in the north tower. I’ll show it to you.”
Occasional openings in the wall let in patches of light to pierce the gloom and the noise of the town to ring in our ears. Then the hubbub reduces to a dull throb. The plaintive honking of car horns stands out above the general hum of the traYc. In the heart of Paris this distant noise is disturbing. As I climb higher, it slowly fades away. It emphasizes the fact that there is something missing, rather like the sounds heard by a prisoner that signify a life to which he no longer belongs.
We have reached the level of the second series of columns on top of the church facade. A drift of warm air smelling of dust and greasy wool—the heavy stale smell that lingers in the attic in summer—sometimes creeps into the staircase. Although I hold on to the continuous channel hollowed into the stone, which serves as a handrail, in the semidarkness my foot still hits against the rise of the next step. I stumble over dead birds, but these bodies of pigeons dried out by the weather are by no means repellent. They are so light that the tip of my shoe sends them into the air as if they were freeze-dried. The wind gusts in through the openings and whistles softly in my ears.
“How dreadful is this place!” Jacob declares when he wakes from his dream. He has seen a flight of stairs, and the top of it reaches to heaven.
As I climb I cannot help thinking about Jacob’s dream, a story as enigmatic as the crossing at Jabbok, the ford where the fight with the angel takes place. The prophet Hosea makes a strange comparison of the two incidents: “He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God: yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication unto him: he found him in Beth-el.”2 It is at Bethel that Jacob has the dream about the ladder, a word that can be translated both as a ramp and a ziggurat.
Jacob is a marvelous symbol of what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier: thinking of what one should have said or done as one leaves and goes downstairs, when it is too late. For him events are nearly always delayed, when the right time has seemingly passed. His mother Rebecca, the barren wife, becomes a mother late in life. After she gives birth to Esau, the intruding twin suddenly appears: Jacob, the baby no one expected. He has lagged behind already, but he is also tenacious and very, very crafty. He has quietly taken a grip on Esau’s heel. He clings on and will not be easily dislodged. His entry into the world bears all the signs of the usurper.
The sacristan’s bunch of keys jingles with a happy silvery tinkle like a carillon. He opens a door, letting in a blast of air, then it bangs shut. For one moment I feel as if the wind-swept terrace is leading to a sheer drop. Paris suddenly appears below under our feet, silent, white, and strangely inert, spread out like a faded tapestry. A stony desert from which a rumbling sound rises up in waves. A monstrous, desolate vision of beautiful Sodom, spared by the angel but emptied of its inhabitants. There is something disturbing about it: a sense of suspended animation, the certainty that the whole scene will soon be no more, the premonition that everything has been played out. One can already foresee the final catastrophe. The grey concrete, the worn paving stones, this poor shaky, chalky mass will one day be buried in sand and silence. There will be only a few little peaks in a sierra of ruins. How long will the ziggurat of Saint-Sulpice hold out? A dry wind lifts ocher dust into the air. The Saint-Sulpice fountain gleams like a marble mausoleum surrounded by the dark clump of chestnut trees.
The sacristan looks at his watch. Suddenly there is such a loud explosion that I immediately think of a supersonic boom. The powerful shock wave seems to spread in slow motion, and the echo cannot settle in the air. This deep reverberation of sound rolls towards me. I’m stunned as it hits me full in the face, although the eVect is more dizziness than a blow.
“That’s Henriette,” the sacristan says.
“Yes. A sharp!”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You’ll also hear Thérèse and Caroline, A and B flat.”
The second, deeper boom sends out a heavy sound in such a low register that I have to block my ears. Now I know why we had to move away from the tower. The bells of Saint-Sulpice are well-known for the redoubtable firepower of their sound. For this burst of energy with a huge incandescence that burns and devastates everything in its path is fire indeed. Its burning breath whips across my face. Once again the vibration makes me feel dizzy. I’m not afraid that I might fall over the edge; on the contrary, I feel a kind of paralysis overwhelming me, as if the ebb and flow that has ceased in the petrified world below is now spreading through me.
The most impressive thing is not Paris lying so still beneath our feet, but the last tier of the north tower with its statues of the four Evangelists. The clouds flying past skim the top and unravel into fleecy trails. Mark looks the most restless. The wear and tear of time and pollution have flattened his nose and ravaged his features. He has a violent face. He looks as if he might take oV at any moment, straddle the flocks of clouds that look like woolly sheep, and ride them over to the other tower.
My companion, however, is looking elsewhere. He is examining the stones, investigating the progress of the disease.
“It’s everywhere . . . Decades of seepage!” he says wearily.
“What can be done to save such a colossal edifice? The works that are carried out from time to time seem like patch-up jobs. It’s just a pretence at helping this church!”
I know I’m exaggerating. The slate roof on the nave has been entirely replaced and the chapels on the south side of the ambulatory have been saved from damp. But no sooner has this curative surgery been applied to one limb than another part catches the disease. It is an impossible task to maintain the church and keep it in good condition. An operation is carried out only at the point of death. The keeper of the keys knows the hypocrisy of this intensive medication to keep the patient alive. He sees nonetheless that the tired old body is still holding out, and above all, he does not like to hear anyone speak ill of it.