Skye Duke: France as Text 2022

Lyon as Text

Montluc Prison / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

Echoes of the Past

By Skye Duke of FIU at Montluc Prison on July 8, 2022

Montluc Prison in Lyon, France holds an important part of histroy, an active part of World War 2 and the Nazis attempt to crack down on the French resistance. The prison was built in 1921, and though it experienced periods of closure, was only permanently shut in 2009, and is now open to tours. It housed political prisoners, French resistant fighters, and those being persecuted due to the Nazi regime. The prison fell under the control of the Vichy government and became a key tool to enforce their regime. Vichy France was in collaboration with Nazi Germany, and the prison saw many of those arrested by the Gestapo in the area.

Many of France’s most important activists and resistant fighters can be linked to this prison. As one roams the cells in which the Memorial National Prison of Montluc has open to visitors, they are greeted with the photographs of just a few of the many people that were arrested and forced to spend time in the prison. Over 15,000 people were imprisoned in Montluc alone. Historians, businessmen, physicians, writers – resistance fighters. Those who had important but seemingly mundane jobs, heroes forged in war. The halls of the prison almost echo the individual prisoners’ stories, demanding attention. Reminding all those that walk through that their lives are just as important now as they were back then.

The sky is black, the earth is black. Hard is the frost, heavy is my heart. Sad expiatory victims fueled by hatred and resentment. We are waiting.

Denyse Clairouin

I was particularly struck by a photo of a woman named Denyse Clairouin, and the plaque next to it, which displayed a poem she had written. Denyse was a writer, a translator and an eventual resistance member, enabling liaisons and serving as the assistant to Jean Biche. Her ultimate role in the resistance was Deputy Head of the Mithridate Network, where she was crucial in organizing command in the area of Lyon. She was arrested for denunciation in 1943 and died in 1945 after being deported. 

After absorbing so many stories like Denyse’s, I was struck with an overwhelming urge to take action. I have spent the last few weeks feeling such intense anger and resentment towards the United States, a country in which I don’t even hold citizenship for. The supreme court’s decision regarding overturning Roe v Wade has left me shocked to my core, confused as to how such a superpower of a country can so blatantly violate human rights. It is in my belief that in injustice and turmoil, a person’s true self is revealed. I am hugely passionate about writing – and when I try, I do believe I can produce somewhat passable prose. And yet, I am silent. I believe that the world does not need my voice, I expect to be swallowed into the abyss, simply a voice among the many. To see writers condemned for taking a stand, actively fighting for their cause utilizing writing, I feel ashamed. In myself, in my generation, in the United States government. How could the world undergo such atrocities and still allow for human rights to be stripped and violated? How can I sit back and believe that I myself have no ability to strike change – at what point do I become complicit?

It would be delusional, to believe that I would have risen along those resistant fighters. I cannot begin to fathom their choices. And yet I feel this immense anger at the state of America, and my mind cannot help but cling onto the resentment. And I know that this feeling is fighting to put into tangible action. I by no means liken the United States’ current political climate to that of World War 2, but I strongly believe that the recent actions of the supreme court indicate a new wave of changes that will continue to encroach upon and violate the most basic human rights. And it disturbs me that the world has not learnt from the atrocities which occurred during World War 2. That people continue to be dehumanized by those in power, legislature being implemented on bodies, on those who simply want to live their lives with autonomy. 

I felt moved by Montluc prison, and inspired. Whilst the prison presents a period of vast atrocities, poor conditions, blatant violations of rights, and was for the most part a sobering experience, I left with the resolution to use my voice, to acknowledge my place in the world. I often feel powerless, living in a country without a citizen status – being passionate about political issues and yet not being able to vote. But so many of those imprisoned lived their lives with such meaning during a time of absolute repression. I hope that I along with so many others can learn from them, and move to strike change in our own time.

References

Historique. Accueil du site. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.memorial-montluc.fr/lieu/historique 

Izieu as Text

The Maison d’Izieu / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

Remember, They Were Happy

By Skye Duke of FIU at The Maison d’Izieu on July 10, 2022

The region of Izieu is breathtaking. Stepping off of the bus and finding yourself surrounded by vast views of rolling mountains, endless greenery and the not too far off crystal blue water of a lake is an experience that lingers in one’s mind. There is a sense of serenity to the area, where the world falls still.

The school itself is unassuming, dated but not out of place. It fits with the nature, a figment of both the present and the past.

It is easy, to feel so fully immersed in the area, and yet be so unaware of the well of truth which rests merely behind the veil of the present. 

In 1944, under the orders of Klaus Barbie (known as “The Butcher of Lyon”, and the leader of the Lyon Gestapo ), forty four children and seven teachers were arrested by the Gestapo. The Maison d’Izieu served as a safe haven, for Jewish children to seek refuge from the brutal realities of war. Sent by their parents, the children lived happily within the school, playing in the green grass, learning and living in the peaceful environment. Barbie’s actions led to the deaths of all those arrested as they faced deportation, taken to concentration camps and murdered.

After the war, Barbie was held accountable and this act was ultimately deemed to be a crime against humanity, the first ever convicted in France. The incident was mentioned before the International Tribunal in Nuremberg, and Barbie was sentenced to death on two different occasions in 1952 and 1954, though he was not present and was ultimately taken into custody in 1983. He was sentenced in 1987 and died in prison in 1991.

The Maison d’Izieu / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

Upon researching Klaus Barbie, I found that the atrocities that occurred with these forty four children and seven teachers is often reduced to a single sentence. A passing remark. One of many despicable incidents that occurred under his orders. The Memorial in which marks this act of brutality challenges this. History can be desensitizing. Often requiring a detached and analytical approach, in dates and facts. The Maison d’Izieu forces the observer to feel. Through presenting the childrens artwork, hanging their portraits, and displaying their letters, Barbie’s actions are no longer diminished but condemned in the fullest vigor.

The memorial is heartbreaking. It is brutal. It is important. To look at the children’s faces in the pictures displayed. To take in the teachers. To see their faces, to humanize them. To view them as beings who were not nameless but children who had the rest of their lives stolen from them. The memorial enforces that we must not allow for their lives to be further stolen by refusing to acknowledge the brutality. The severity. Their truth should not be withheld simply because the world cannot digest its intense truth. 

To be surrounded by the beautiful landscape of Izieu is jarring. The overwhelming connection to nature compels you to be taken back in time, to acknowledge the landscape that these young children found themselves within. Not only the house but the scenery serving as a preservation of their lives. The places they played, learnt… lived. The museum director offered in parting remarks, “Remember it as a place where children were happy.” And it is a bittersweet thought. Because the children did indeed live happy lives, and should such a place of beauty and childhood joy be tainted so? Does that not further the harm in which Klaus Barbie and the Gestapo caused through their horrific actions? The crimes against humanity that occurred there must forever be remembered for the atrocities that they were, but it must also be remembered that the school provided years of safety, comfort and happiness for the children victimized by a war they had sought to escape. 

References

Trying after the War. Maison d’Izieu. (2022, February 28). Retrieved from https://www.memorializieu.eu/en/history/justice-from-nuremberg-to-the-hague-trying-criminals/ 

Paris as Text

Saint-Chapelle / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

Blurred Lines

By Skye Duke of FIU at Saint-Chapelle on July 4, 2022

Sainte-Chapelle is potentially one of the most famous historical sites in the world, ventured from a far to simply glimpse at the stained glass windows. The Chapel is no longer considered a church due to the events of the French Revolution and is now run by the ‘Centre des Monuments Nationaux’. The opulent piece of history symbolizes so much more than a popular tourist attraction, indicating France’s interesting past pertaining to the intersection of church and state. Both entities having legitimized one another at a point in time, then later a whole revolution being born in the pursuit separate them.

Sainte-Chapelle was built in the thirteenth century, by King Louis IX, with the intention to house the Crown of Thorns and other religious relics. Interestingly, the relics were moved, the Crown of Thorns being moved to Notre Dame and fortunately surviving the recent fire. The chapel is an example of gothic architecture. In the lower chapel, decorative L’s can be seen lining the column, highlighting that while the church was built with the intention to glorify god, it also appeals to the ego of a king, who intends to associate himself with divinity. The stained glass depicts the bible, both the old and new testament, along with the process of relics finding their way to Sainte-Chapelle. The imagery of viewing scenes of Christ, understanding it was intended to depict and immortalize Louis IX, is powerful, when considering a subject such as the separation of church and state – and in this case the lack of it. It is interesting that this subject was a core issue of the French Revolution, and yet churches such as Sainte-Chapelle are still revered and heavily related to France’s identity, when it has evolved and implemented severe structural changes.  

As someone who isn’t religious, it has been particularly interesting learning about the history of France and the intersection of church and state, with an outsider’s perspective. It is in my opinion that unlike the way in which the two entities lent legitimacy to one another, religion (though it is important to note it is more so those wielding it) is beginning to undermine the state in the US. The process of democracy, the rule of the people, is being restricted instead of enabled through structures such as the Supreme Court. 

Saint-Chapelle / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

Whilst standing in the chapel and engaging in a conversation pertaining to the ways in which Louis IX utilized religion to bolster his own authority, I was informed by a classmate that six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic. It is in assertions like that that I begin to understand why such abuses of authority are occuring. There is little diversity in ideology, in a political structure which determines the lives of every single individual living within the country. In a democracy, those in power must reflect those they serve. 

The recent Supreme Court case that deemed a school teacher able to lead students in prayer was one that was viewed as granting religious freedom. And yet had the religion of the teacher differed, the outcome would not have been the same. Ideology that is viewed as yielding freedom to many, can be seen as oppressive and non inclusive. The United States is now a country that has determined it applicable to be able to control what I do with my body, utilizing Supreme Court powers. An argument that is often founded in religious ideology and rhetoric. The court has also recently ruled that religious schools are to be awarded the same funding as private schools – therefore the state is now putting money into the enforcement of religion.

Perhaps this is the application of my own somewhat cynical views in regard to the subject of religion, but I do believe that there is a correlation between the overexertion of governmental authority in recent times and religious ideology within those in power. I ponder how an all powerful entity is able to serve the people in an unbiased manner and provide full justice, when humans inherently act upon their belief systems. Whilst their actions ensure that their own values are being upheld and carried out, the Supreme Court along with the fundamental key elements of democracy within America are not aligning with the will of the people. Though, I understand that I do not speak for the country as a whole but those who also hold my own beliefs. Therefore as I criticize a lack of impartiality, I realize I do not hold myself to the same standard. 

Proving my point. 

How can justice be ensured when politics can never truly be objective? How can equality be granted, when there will always be people who feel slighted? Democracy is the rule of the people, but people act on beliefs, values, of which are often founded in religion. The separation of church and state is crucial in my belief, and yet I also see that it is truly impossible in practicality. France had a revolution in order to ensure that their country was structured so that the church was not involved in matters of the state. It is places such as Sainte-Chapelle which represent a time before this, that prompts deep and significant reflection on the declining nature of America.

References 

Centre Des Monuments Nationaux. (n.d.). Sainte Chapelle. Retrieved from http://www.sainte-chapelle.fr/en/

Versailles as Text

Versailles / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

The Price of Beauty

By Skye Duke of FIU at Versailles on July 3, 2022

It is hard to fathom that the Palace of Versailles was once a hunting lodge. The walls drip in gold, the ceilings alone displaying art that even the Louvre would envy. Every inch, fit for a king. It is easy to be swept away, taken to a different time. To long to skip through the halls, envisioning opulent gowns, violins… to live out the fantasies of a life so foreign to that of modern day. 

Prompted in an attempt to get away from the turbulence of court life in Paris and to reassert control, Louis XIV moved the government in 1682. He relocated the court to Versailles and embarked on a quest to make it the finest palace in the world. The building was clearly crafted to impress, to present an outward image of grandeur, in an attempt to strengthen the perception of France… and to appease Louis XIV’s (the Sun Kings) ego. Utilizing the help of architects from all over the world, Versailles today serves as the culmination of some of the greatest artistic minds, the palace is notably one of the greatest examples of the baroque style.

I spend a lot of time immersed in fiction. I love fantasy worlds, full of dragons, sword fighting, kings and queens… and grand palaces. Therefore, it was as though I had entered one of my beloved books when it stepped through the doors. The palace of Versailles caters towards those who long to romanticize life. Yet, I also find myself drawn to the sinister truths when presented with beauty. Whilst it served (as it still does) as a great source of luxury, it did present heavy implications to the French people, and France’s political landscape in regard to the structure of its monarchy.

Versailles / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

Louis XIV had a problem with overspending. While people can now walk the halls and appreciate his choices, we do so with a level of disconnection, due to the fact we as tourists do not feel the weight of his actions. The people at the time felt it, in taxation which severely impacted the lower classes way of life. Louis XIV drained the royal money reserves through the expansion of Versailles along with mobilization efforts for various conflicts. Here marked the beginning of what would have been rather strong resentment from the French people toward Versailles, as they watched the gold covered building be funded as they starved.

Versailles played a key role in the French Revolution. The king at the time, Louis XVI, was arguably poor in his role, and much of the dissent toward him brewed from his disconnect to those he ruled. It could be argued that had he not resided in Versailles, which is so far from the core population he served, he might have been a better ruler, forced to act instead of withdraw. Had Louis XIV never moved to Versailles, never set it up as a political stronghold, France today might have looked very different. In 1789, Louis XVI, along with his wife Marie-Antoinette and their children, fled Versailles in the night. Tension had been brewing as the revolution took off. However, the royals were intercepted and ultimately died, this marking a turning point in the changes of France’s government structure. Versailles, a place that was intended to strengthen the monarchy, saw its downfall.

I find it incredibly interesting that Versailles might be one of the most visited places in France, and yet I’m sure so few know truly of its significance. I find myself drawn to places, stories, people that hold beautiful exteriors but host more nuanced truths within. It is so compelling that what served as a figment of a time before the revolution, before basic human rights and freedoms, can stand the test of time and still offer the world so much. I believe that the darker truths don’t devalue beauty but offer it depth, somehow enriching it. Perhaps, had Versailles simply been a pretty palace, it might have felt hollow. But standing in the halls is an impactful experience, because it is a direct connection to the past, to a time where the world was so different and yet still valued art and pretty things.

Normandy as Text

John Ray / Retrieved from Memoire & Database

John Ray: To Leave Behind More Than One Takes

By Skye Duke of FIU on July 24, 2022

John Ray is a prime example of the many heroic soldiers laid to rest in the Normandy American Cemetery. He was born on the 15th of August, 1922 in Gretna, Louisiana. He was a Sergeant in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in the 82nd Airborne division. In 1942, he enlisted alongside his brother, taking after their father who had served in World War 1. When Ray learnt of the opportunity to jump out of planes and earn $50 more a month, he enlisted in the Paratrooper infantry. John Ray had enlisted under the pretense that he would only be serving for a year. The events of Pearl Harbor changed this. He met his beloved wife when he went home due to the death of his mother. They got married in 1934 and were married for a week before he had to once again leave.

“Don’t worry. I am doing my job with the guys I trained with. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have a job to do and we will finish it together.”

John Ray, in a letter to his Wife

 On the 6th of June 1944, in a tactical move that was a part of Operation Overload on D-Day, paratroopers were deployed to take back two bridges that surrounded the town Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Ray being among those to jump in. Due to poor visibility, the planes flew off course and the paratroopers were forced to land within the German occupied town. Two paratroopers by the names of Ken Russell and John Steele, found their parachutes caught on surrounding buildings, leaving them stuck hanging. As John Ray landed, he was shot multiple times in the stomach by a German Soldier, these injuries were fatal. Despite the gravity of these wounds, Ray continued to fight, shooting the soldier who had turned and believed him to be dead. This action saved the lives of the two soldiers who were stuck hanging, whom the German soldier had turned his gun on.

Ken Russel freed himself and John Steele played dead, later being taken prisoner – the pair both ultimately escaping and surviving. John Ray’s selfless actions, in the face of his own impending mortality shows the sheer strength and bravery in which so many soldiers were forced to display during a time of vast atrocities. His life, an ultimate sacrifice to the victory of a bigger cause, can be attributed to the survival of both men caught in their parachutes.

John Ray’s Gravestone / Retrieved from Airborne in Normandy

The date of John Ray’s death is varied throughout sources. In fact, until recent years, 2015 I believe, his headstone in Normandy American Cemetery listed an inaccurate date due to the wrongful account of a soldier in the field with Ray, who believed him to have died the day in which he sustained his fatal wounds. It has now been ascertained that he died from his wounds on the 13th of June, 1944. His wife, Paula, did not learn of his heroic actions until 1998.

I was initially drawn to John Ray’s story, as my dad was a paratrooper. He too joined up with the intention of serving for only a short time. In regard to a far more personal connection, I resonated with Ray’s story on a deep and emotional level. I personally live life with the one thought of “leaving behind more than I’ve taken” at the forefront of all of my decisions. My degree is split into three fields, all of which intersect with the intent of helping people. The level of selflessness and action in John Ray’s story struck me – I was both inspired and moved. At the intent to continue to help those around him, after being struck by what would have obviously been fatal wounds. In the face of death, John Ray fought to continue to preserve the lives around him. It is honorable and so incredibly heroic. 

My short adult life has been preoccupied with one day somehow making the world a better place. And yet, I cannot say that I would not have cowered and given into the fears in which those wounds would have incited. I would like to believe I would have had the courage and willpower to save those two paratroopers, but I don’t know that I would have. 

It is in that thought that the weight and importance of John Ray’s actions wear on me. He is only one of many who were placed in horrific situations and acted in a manner in which saved so many.

Not only did John Ray leave behind more than he took, but he created a legacy which represents a fight for humanity, even after having seen the worst of it. A fight of perseverance and sacrifice, rooted in selflessness and strength.

I hope to one day be able to say I have lived life with even just an ounce of the selflessness in which John Ray displayed during his final moments. I will carry the weight of his actions around with me for the rest of my life, inspired, remembering, and using his example to leave behind more than I take.

References:

Airborne in normandy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.airborneinnormandy.com/ray_file.htm 

Tirlemont, C. (n.d.). Ray John P – 505 PIR 82 AD. Mémoire & Database. Retrieved from https://www.database-memoire.eu/prive/fr/normandy-tous-soldats/53-colleville-r-fr/4790-ray-john-p-505-pir-82-ad 

Père Lachaise as Text

Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise / Photograph taken by Skye Duke / CC by 4.0

Oscar Wilde: Owning One’s Sin

By Skye Duke of FIU at Pere Lachaise on July 29, 2022

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit”

Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde is a well known poet, novelist and playwright. He was born in 1854, in Dublin and though his life was short, he cemented himself in history as an important figure in both literature and the pursuit to achieve LGBTQ rights. He was well educated, having attended Trinity College and Oxford. He is often attributed with injecting modern ideals into British society, following a period of the harsh confines in the way of Victorian society. He explored politics and socialism in his writings, often offering criticism of capitalism and the ways in which it hindered creativity. That being said, he believed art should not hold politics or agendas – that art is art, and it must not be convoluted by topics that detract from it. He was a prominent figure in the aesthetic movement in art, which held this view point. I find a lot of his writing to be powerful, and yet I’m not sure I always agree with all of his stances. I think that his work itself is inherently a contradiction of the aesthetics movement – his writing is undeniably a form of art, and yet he called for political reform and challenged the social order. He is quite cynical about love, and many other concepts, and I find that it is in those statements that I agree with him the most.

Whilst an abundance of quotes regarding Wildes’ distaste for marriage can be found, he did ultimately marry and have two children. But, it was in 1891 that Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas and they began their affair. This relationship saw Wilde begin to explore the world of which he called “depravity”. Douglas’s father, learning of their relationship, launched a homophobic assult on Oscar Wilde. Wilde attempted to sue him for defamation, but ultimately the trial backfired, as evidence from postitutes were uncovered and Wildes sexual deviancy became known. He was arrested for gross indecency. His wit and charisma saw him escape persecution in the first trial, but upon retrial, he was sentenced to two years in prison in 1895. Upon release, he fled to France to escape further persecution due to his romantic relations. He lived with Douglas for some time, until their families threatened their funds and they had to separate. In the year 1900, at the age of 46, Wilde died due to meningitis, saying the famous phrase, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” in his final moments. Oscar Wilde is remembered to history for both his talent in writing but also the way the world so unfairly condemned him for being gay. To consume his writing, is to face the life of a man who lived in luxury and a life of privilege and yet was convicted for living his truth. Convicted for something about himself that was so pure and unfairly judged. 

I have personally found a lot of strength in writing, and in an ideal world I would pursue a life surrounding it. Whilst my personal definition of being a writer often relates to being able to romanticize life in a way that makes living more bearable, that fosters escapism, Oscar Wilde’s writing is often brutal and harsh in the way that it forces the reader to acknowledge reality under his lense.

He writes a lot about love, art, and beauty, but also sin and depravity and the way life is enriched by these themes. I think it’s fair to say that this arises as his life’s story of one of being ostracized for who he loved. Things that we don’t deem today to be sins, were acts that saw him imprisoned. I believe that he internalized the hate and vitriol, and took back his power by weaponizing the concept of sin and pleasure, claiming them to be ingrained in life itself.  

I think the biggest connection one can have with a writer or any artist, is to leave inspired, or influenced. 

In Oscar Wilde’s words, “ to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul”.

So taking into account love, beauty and sin, as I worked to develop my connection, I felt inspired to write something utilizing these themes, as I myself am bisexual and found it a powerful and diffuclt experience to put myself in his shoes. I cannot fathom being held legally liable for simply the way I was born, and spending my whole life being surrounded by the rhetoric that love, something so pure, is made up entirely of sin. I thought the best way to honor a writer who so greatly expressed the importance of creativity was to let his influence guide my own work. I also realized that I haven’t really ever written anything under a sapphic lense. 

So in tribute to Oscar Wilde: this is me owning “my sin”:

Behind her eyes

I saw heaven in disguise

tasting like sin

and marshmallow skies

.

She held hell in her palms

fire burnt in her veins

and I knew in this insanity

for the first time I was sane

.

And if I could ever be 

the source of those flames

I’d thank the devil himself

before I’d try to refrain

.

Because a soul like hers 

wasn’t meant to be touched

but admired from afar

and envied from above

.

I’m in love.

.

And if who I love 

is deemed a sin

bind my hands

and bring me in

paint me red 

condemn my soul

but love is love

and I am whole.

.

References:

BBC. (n.d.). History – historic figures: Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wilde_oscar.shtml 

Wilde, O. (2022). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Union Square & Co. 

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