We awoke to much nicer weather in the Berner Oberland yesterday than we had previously enjoyed during this trip, so we drove over to Stechelberg, in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, from which four of us headed up via aerial tramways to the top of the Schilthorn. (My two nieces opted out.)
The weather was still iffy, and we passed through a very solid cloud bank that put us in a pea soup fog. So I was very pleased when, just as we approached Piz Gloria itself, the sky opened up. There was a constantly shifting sea of fog (Nebelmeer) below us, and a layer of thick clouds above us, but, in between, the Eiger and the Mönch and the Jungfrau (and the Breithorn and the Gespaltenhorn) were and remained completely visible. Even the Wetterhorn managed to show up from time to time.
It was windy and very cold, but the views were much more than worth it. And we eventually sat down in the revolving restaurant for quite good hot goulash soup, so it was thoroughly enjoyable.
It’s a breathtaking place. And I have happy memories of previous visits — once with my parents, and twice (in company with my wife) with my late brother and my sister in law.
Then we drove over the Brünig Pass again, into Lucerne (Luzern), where we passed the city’s iconic covered bridge.
But then, to my great delight, I found an unexpected, excellent, parking place on the busy street that passes out of the city but within fifty yards or so of the equally iconic Löwendenkmal. (The Löwendenkmal is invisible from the street, hidden by a row of buildings.) I instantly accepted the surprising gift, pulled into the spot, and took my passengers over to see something that only my wife and I knew about.
Let me say something about this remarkable piece of sculpture.
First, there’s a Utah connection: It was designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen, the Danish sculptor whose Christus stands, in the form of a copy, in the North Visitors Center on Temple Square (and in a few temple visitor centers elsewhere), and whose Christus and twelve apostles will soon grace one of the buildings adjacent to the Rome Italy Temple.
Second, there’s a connection to Paris: The monument commemorates the heroism of the Swiss Guards who were massacred defending the royal palace at the Tuileries in Paris — just few dozen yards from where I’m writing at the moment — in 1792, at the beginning of the French Revolution. Helvetiorum fidei ac virtuti, the Latin inscription reads. “To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss.” Out of nine hundred, only perhaps a hundred of the Swiss Guard survived the wrath of the revolutionaries who were seeking the overthrow of Louis XVI. (You may have wondered why there is a famous Swiss Guard at the Vatican. Wonder no more.)
The sculpture, which is more than thirty feet long and roughly twenty feet tall, was designed by Thorvaldsen, but his design was actually executed by Lukas Ahorn in 1820-1821. It depicts a mortally wounded lion — hence the name Löwendenkmal or “Lion Monument” — with a shield bearing the cross of Switzerland near its head, its paw resting protectively on a shield bearing the fleur-de-lis of the French monarchy, and a broken spear plunged deep into its side. Mark Twain described it as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”
Afterwards, we continued driving, uneventfully, from Luzern around Zürich to the airport at Kloten. (I would like to have had time to stop off along the way in Zug, where I worked for two or three months, and in Zürich, where I spent about six months in the mission home, but we were running short of time.) We flew from Zürich-Kloten to Paris De Gaulle, and now I sit very near the Place de la Concorde and the Jardin des Tuileries or Tuileries Garden.
The Place de la Concorde is rather ironically named.
Walking home tonight, for example, I noticed plaques on the wall commemorating roughly eight members of the French Resistance who had been executed by the Nazis against that wall in August 1944.
But it was also here, that King Louis XVI was guillotined on 21 January 1793. During a single summer month in 1794, it is said, more than 1300 people were executed in the plaza, typically before a large and obscenely enthusiastic audience.
Among the other victims of the guillotine at this famous spot were Louis XVI’s Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette; Princess Élizabeth of France, the thirty-year-old sister of the King, who had stayed behind to care for her orphaned niece and then spent her time praying with and comforting those who, like herself, had been condemned to die; Charlotte Corday, the twenty-four-year-old who assassinated the bloody and fanatical revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat in an attempt to stop further radical violence; Madame du Barry, the official mistress of the previous king, Louis XV; Georges Danton, a 34-year-old revolutionary leader, on charges of corruption but probably because he tried to moderate radical violence; “the father of modern chemistry,” Antoine Lavoisier, falsely accused by Jean-Paul Marat at fifty years of age of having adulterated France’s tobacco supply (but really condemned because he was a minor though thoroughly apolitical and rather otherworldly aristocrat); the bloody revolutionary leader and anti-Catholic Maximilien de Robespierre (age 36) and his notorious ally Louis Saint-Just (age 26), known as “the angel of death,” who fell victim together to infighting among radical factions; and Olympe de Gouges, a feminist and abolitionist playwright who criticized the Revolution’s appalling bloodthirstiness.
I am, to put it mildly, not a fan of the French Revolution. There is a vast chasm (as Edmund Burke eloquently observed at the time) between the conservative moderation of the American Revolution and, on the other hand, the fanatical and deadly totalitarianism of the slightly later French revolt — which has been the prototype for so many horrors (in, for example, Russia, China, and Cambodia, and perhaps even in Hitler’s Germany).
My awareness of this sort of history is one of the things that makes me very leery of ideologues and of “idealists” who would like to tear things down because they think that they can remake everything so much better. “Making politics as the crow flies,” as the late and very English conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott termed it. Such people make me nervous.
It’s why I’m so very fond of, and so often cite, this exchange between Sir Thomas More and his son in law from Robert Bolt’s great 1966 play A Man for All Seasons:
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Ropespierre and Saint-Just could easily serve as object lessons to illustrate Sir Thomas’s wisdom (as ascribed to him, anyway, by Robert Bolt). They were purists, widely recognized as incorruptible, but they were also cruel and unbending and terribly, terribly foolish. And, in the end, their revolution consumed them, too,
Posted from Paris, France