Monday, April 03, 2006

Light at the end of the temple

I wondered into Notre Dame Cathedral with what seemed like a few minutes spare in my life. Here was a moment to luxuriate in a seeming vast expanse of time. I joined a stream of tourists that circulated around the margins of the cathedral. I was first struck by the dishes of candles, glittering in the darkness. Beyond that, believers were sitting patiently waiting to go to confession. Rather than opaque boxes, these confessions were now heard within glass doors. I wondered further with my fellow tourists and eventually settled on a pew down the rear of the church at a small chapel. At first, I was struck by the intense devotion of the several believers, kneeling in prayer. But then I began to be aware of the flashes illuminating the chapel at irregular intervals. Along with the constant shuffle of comfortable shoes behind me was a series of random flashes as digital pilgrims drank in the darkness. Some of the flashes were not single. They were preceded by a faint red flash before two flashed went off in short succession. I realised that their cameras were set on red eye. Not only would flashes be incapable of reaching the dark cavities of the chapel, you certainly wouldn’t expect any eyes looking back at you. After a while, there seemed an odd balance between the intense stillness of religious devotion and the restless hunger of the digital cameras. Were they praying for the cameras to stop? Were the tourists challenged by the believers to break their concentration? As a global tourist centre, the Notre Dame cathedral seemed like a flashpoint for the monstrous consumer spectre that has gripped late capitalism. We are like a creature who can no longer bear experience in the real. We need the small screens on the backs of cameras and mobiles to filter reality into snaps. We are masticating the real world and absorbing into our digital bowels. These cameras are like rear view mirrors constantly before us, guiding our journey through the spectacle. I stood transfixed at the spectacle of the spectacle. Tourists paused at the main vestibule with their silver hearts with glowing green eyes, holding the camera up to the sublime ceiling, flashing into the void, and then gazing back into the preview screens, then shuffling on. It was ceaseless. I must have stood for about twenty minutes until the organ began resonating through the cathedral, following by a sublime solo female voice. A line of elderly people filed to the side of the altar, the women dressed in black lace and the men in white vestments with ornate Latin lettering. A phalanx of priests followed and finally the bishop arrived and gave his blessing to the congregation. It was the first anniversary of Pope John Paul’s death. Incense poured through the church. I was swept up by the spectacle. I was distracted from the cameras and beholden to the gravitas of the catholic mass, my entire body covered in goose bumps. Then it happened. My phone started ringing. I tried to ignore it, but my message back must not have been working and they kept ringing. I was being drawn away from the mass and back into the river of tourism spilling out of the church. On my way out I looked back. Then I saw it. Every pillar had a flat screen showing close-ups of the service. The camera looked back. It was quite awesome. I left the cathedral, chastened.

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