Today, we go to France for a meal that's too rich.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The English Channel is cold
and rainy today -- heaving gray water under gray
skies. The huge ferry boat is an English/French
world. Few other countries are represented. As we
leave New Haven, everyone speaks English. Near
Dieppe, French accents intensify. Finally, people
stop understanding my English. I begin recalling
bits of schoolboy French. We debark and find a
train to Rouen.
Here in Normandy, the iron armies of 1944 passed
over like angels of death -- pulverizing the
ancient towns. We walk by the tower where Joan of
Arc was interrogated during another awful war,
almost six centuries ago. We pass terrible WW-II
bomb scars on the Hall of Justice, along the way to
The cathedral is stunning. The immense columns and
arches distort and expand space. Its stone surely
violates the law of gravity! The building assails
the senses. We've entered a kind of fourth
dimension, and I struggle to resolve it with
But we see only fragments of the 15th-century
stained glass. Only a pane here and half a window
there has survived the bombings. Heads are blown
off statues. After 50 years, the repairs still have
far to go. A new window shows women in a grain
field, one with a wide straw hat. They could as
well be Vietnamese as medieval. They could be
bystanders from any war.
After half an hour, the geometrical unreality, the
poignant beauty, and the sense of violation by war
grow too strong. I go back out into the quiet rain
to clear my mind.
In a shop across the street I pay 100 francs for a
frayed science book, published in 1745 -- a set of
conversations on the senses. How do sight, touch,
hearing, taste and smell work? What do they really
tell us about reality? Here's Newton's new theory
of light spectra and an early picture of the inner
ear. Neither explains how vision and gravity failed
me inside Rouen Cathedral.
Back in Paris we eat one last perfect
pâté -- take one last walk among
buildings whose physical beauty and elegance mock
the mere shops and cafes they now house. Last week,
we saw the museums here: rank on rank of Van Gogh,
Monet, Rodin. In the Louvre, the Mona Lisa, Venus
deMilo, and Winged Victory went by like pictures in
Art Appreciation 101. Our senses grew numb.
It hit me in the Musée d'Orsay, amidst the
Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau. Suddenly the
assault on the senses was too explicit. I dropped
my guard and forgot to go numb. I had to flee to
McDonald's on Rue St Germain for a cup of coffee. I
had to find some blandness during a meal too rich
for the taste buds.
It's time to go back to America and rebuild all
this in my mind where I can contain it, cope with
it -- make sense of it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds