The Lady and the Unicorn

There’s an exhibition, Osiris, at the Institut du Monde Arabe: the building to my left as I sit here, cross-legged, on the floor of an enclosed glass balcony. One of the windows is open, a great glass panel and I can smell honeysuckle without seeing any as I peer down the canyon between the buildings on either side of me, the university to my left, the Institute to my right, leading me to look where the sun rises. Now it’s setting; is it that way to London? Behind me, on the other side of the flat where I’m staying, and slightly to the north?
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        There’s a square outside the Institute: grey paving stones, generally light, like the colour of clouds on a hot summer’s day, the kind that breeze past, some a shade darker. Dark lines of tiles forming squares maybe ten metres each side criss-cross it, reflecting the great wall of the Institute, a metal carpet, green-grey holes punched in metal that shrink or open with the light – and it’s growing dark in the square. Little lights begin to shine among the paving stones and children run about, as if they want to catch them.
        There seems so much space for children to play in Paris (perhaps the lack of gardens) – although I’m not stupid. This can be a brute of a city as much as any of the cities I could trace the people walking the streets here to: in Europe, Africa and America. At Gare du Nord the afternoon before, on the way to RER B it felt dangerous, incendiary, less like the city I knew thirty years ago than the one I had read was here a hundred years before.
        We are staying with a friend. This morning she and I spoke about perfume, which is her speciality. She described it as the most intellectual sense and, although I told her I agreed, that perfumiers think themselves into their perfumes like nothing else, it’s also the most basic; the most primitive. Our friend, after all, didn’t take us to the Picasso exhibition, or any of the other shows leaning more towards cleverness. She took us to The Lady and The Unicorn, the six tapestries of the senses in the Musée de Cluny: the five senses we recognise and Mon Seul Désir.
        The beautiful woman in the tapestries seems trapped between a lion who seems foolish and fierce but only half-engaged in guarding her on her island in the middle of the flowers, and a unicorn who eyes and paws her. Other animals look on: rabbits who seem to weep although you might tell me they are cleaning themselves, and a thing rather like a duck doing a backwards crawl. There are monkeys, chained and picking through flowers. Monkeys, maybe, like idle curiosity or something to do with thieving. There’s something here about being trapped, but not the unfortunate prince said to have first owned the tapestries, who was imprisoned in a tower. I think, perhaps, that someone was a prisoner to the prince – perhaps even himself.
        These scenes are wild and chaotic, beautiful, but the kinds of questions I would like to ask aren’t in the catalogue – or the accounts I have read since, the descriptions of the lineage of the Le Viste family, of Cathar heretics, of cults of the virgin, or of cheene d’amour, even though these subjects seem as if they circle the kinds of questions I’m after: Why do some of the rabbits looks sad to me? Why do they seem to cry and why do the leaves of the plants close by one rabbit seem to be like eyes, the rabbits own weeping eye? Why is there no fox in ‘Smell’? Why does the unicorn’s reflection in ‘Sight’ seem a debilitated, somehow as the usually beautiful woman holding the mirror. Why does the unicorn have his hooves under her skirt while the lion looks away. Why are some of the animals in this tapestry paired as they aren’t in the others? Why does the unicorn stare at the handmaid in ‘Hearing’.
        These are questions about desire. All the information and the answers in the world can’t account for the strange effect of these tapestries, of their allure, their erotic mystery, their unendedness. These tapestries somehow remain free and will always be, unmastered, out of control, beyond me, beyond you, as primitive as much as they can be a honeypot for intellectual scrambling around. Désir.
        I asked my friend if she thought that a perfume called chaos, a scent inviting passionate disorganisation, might make a chaotic person feel sorted. She didn’t know – and I can’t think of anyone who’d know better. So I’m left thinking, perhaps of prince Zizi in his tower, or people visiting the Musée de Cluny who take time to really get close to the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, what happens to a person when they surround themselves with a particular, potent kind of a scene. I think of whoever’s desire prompted the tapestries, and wonder: if these tapestries are like postcard-dreams who are they too? How much can you dream for someone as well as of someone?
        This morning, to finish this piece, I woke early and found over a hundred and twenty people murdered in Paris.