In last month's column, I discussed the giants of northern France: the fascination that they hold for people of this region, and the curious compulsion that has sent me to seek them out in the year and a half that I've been here. I concluded, you may remember, with—no conclusion. Though I would like to, I cannot offer any simple explanations of why people stand and look at, or carry around on their own shoulders, eighteen-foot-tall wicker effigies with beards.
This month, I will offer you the rest of my hoard of stories about giants and my speculation about why I, myself, find them so fascinating.
This, then, is the question: Why do people become giant-bearers? Why do they line the streets to watch parades? Why do people in this, or any, part of the world so much enjoy spending time with giants?
Proposition number one:
Maybe it's because they're lonely.
It might be as simple as that. After all, giants are about culture and community, aren't they? And everyone likes community and culture.
Here's an example. In the spring of last year, I took a train to Namur, capital of Wallonia—this exotic name means it's the center of French Belgium—because I had read about a "journée culturelle et folklorique namuroise" to be held there that day. For this reason I spent two and a half hours on a train, with a change at Brussels, for the pleasure of watching Goliath and his wife Madame Goliath parade through rainy Belgian streets under a looming sky. (The Belgians are a historically sturdy people, and neither they nor their folklore are easily dismayed by rain.)
The Goliaths, of course, are giants. They made a stately round of Namur accompanied by their "horse Bayard"—which means a large artificial horse wearing a long skirt to cloak the bearers—and marching bands dressed in yellow and blue. Tents had been set up in the main plaza, under which the people took refuge from the drizzle and drank beer and ate sausages and waffles. In this sense it was just like the Spoon-Throwing Festival in Comines, all very hearty and suffused with a vague whiff of the medieval. If you wanted to use the bathroom, though, you had to duck into the ultra-modern shopping mall that ran along one side of the Place, making your way through Perfume and Women's Lingerie and up the escalator leading to the first-floor toilettes, which broke the atmosphere a little. (I'm afraid I sound awfully catty about the shopping mall. I suppose I didn't like being forcibly reminded that modern Belgium is a nation of shopping and underwear, just as much as it is of hearty people eating sausages and waffles. But that's history for you.)
Under the white tent, I sat down at the end of a bench and took out the tuna-fish sandwich I'd brought. I am forced to admit—as I had to admit to myself at the time—that I felt lonely in the way that only a foreigner can feel lonely in the middle of someone else's cultural festival. The fact that so many of the people around me were speaking Flemish, the dialect of Dutch which is spoken as a first language by sixty percent of Belgians, highlighted my isolation. There was no good reason for this, since in general Flemish Belgians speak excellent English and, unlike their French counterparts, are cheerfully ready to exercise it with foreigners. But I still felt terribly alone.
For some reason, the presence of the Goliaths outside made me feel even shyer than usual. I am shy around ordinary human beings at the best of times, and I suspect no one else was paying a lot of attention to the giants at that point. But I am, as we have already established, perhaps unhealthily sensitive to these creatures. Something about giants makes me feel the way I do when I'm around mountains—the silent profiles, the staring eyes aimed at something higher than I can see, make me feel as if I'm in the presence of something timeless, a feature of the landscape. At the same time, though, it also makes me feel as if I'm in the presence of the sublime, and sometimes this gives me courage to talk.
I managed to pull out of my shyness long enough to strike up a conversation with a blue-eyed Flemish bandleader from one of the nearby towns, who had come with his fanfare (brass band) to participate in the celebration. We chatted in a mixture of French and English, with the bandleader turning his head every few minutes to swap jokes and comments with his fellows down the table in rapid Dutch.
The bandleader was older than I am, sliding gently into middle age, and he seemed to know everything about the history of the city and of the giants. In answer to my questions he rattled off dates from Namur's medieval history, its sieges, its battles, the shifting of control of the region from one monarch to another, the founding of the city brotherhoods and the fanfares. When I asked him a question he could answer, he turned pink with pleasure. Although he was square-jawed and pale-skinned in a way that often leads me to make assumptions about the Flemish, he nonetheless seemed flattered by my attention, and at some point during our conversation I realized he was shy.
I asked him what he did for a job.
"I'm a fonctionnaire," he said. A fonctionnaire is a civil servant: one of the army of people that sits behind a desk, in Belgium as in France, and keeps the bureaucratic machinery turning. It can be as dull and as isolating a job, I imagine, around here as it is anywhere else in the world.
I asked him what he enjoyed about being part of a band. What I was really trying to ask was whether he could explain to me what made so many solid middle-aged people, mostly men from the looks of things, passionate enough to dress up in slightly silly costumes six or eight weekends every year and travel around to regional celebrations. What I really wanted to know, of course, was why people follow the giants.
The fonctionnaire's face lit up. "Oh, I wouldn't miss a parade," he said. "I love being part of the fanfare. History and music—you know, they're my passions. And it's such a long tradition here. You feel like you're really taking pride in your culture, keeping something alive, doing something your father and grandfather cared about. Also, you feel part of something bigger than yourself. When you're with the Goliaths, it's not just you any more."
A comrade leaned over from the table behind, delivered a joke in Flemish in a barely muted roar, slapped my companion on the shoulder and returned to drinking his Leffe. It was so Dutch that I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it, but somehow I managed to keep a straight face.
The fonctionnaire hoisted his shoulders slightly, turned back to me and gave me a smile that I can only describe as shy. It was startling on that wide, pink face. "Also," he said, "you can make some great friends. I think . . . everybody needs friends, you know?"
I nodded. Sitting in that tent, clutching my sandwich and surrounded by the happy chatter of another language, I thought I knew exactly what he meant.
Outside the gaping tent door, the drizzle was still coming down on the Goliaths, standing patiently in the rain.
Proposition number two:
Maybe it's about community.
Sometimes you don't have to look for the giants; sometimes they come to you. One Saturday last spring, I woke up from a mid-morning sleep to the sound of drums and singing floating through the window.
At that time I lived in Moulins, a neighborhood at the southern fringe of Lille (the name means "windmills," although the old mill sites were taken over years ago by kebab shops and the elevated Métro). When I looked out of my second-story window I saw, to my alarm and delight, the blond head of a giant bobbing by. It was the day of the neighborhood carnival. I'd completely forgotten.
I threw on clothes and ran downstairs. Most of the neighborhood seemed to have emptied out onto the streets, or, more precisely, most of the neighborhood's mothers and all of its children under twelve. The odd father was there, too, or clutch of teenage boys moving through the crowd, but in general the flood of humanity consisted mostly of raucous school groups and ladies with prams.
The Carnaval de Moulins was a decidedly small-scale affair. Its giants had been built by neighborhood associations and were pushed along on wheeled carts, amateurishly designed and none of them more than eight feet tall. They had childishly painted faces and lumpen heads, but they also had, I thought, heart. Saturday is a school half-day in France, so the neighborhood children must have been let out of classes to come to the parade, because the street was full of little groups in costumes they had clearly designed and made at school: Japanese-style jackets with false swords, or bumblebee wings, or knight's costumes with bright cut-outs in heraldic patterns, or rococo milkmaid dresses with lacey petticoats underneath. A special-needs school had brought its children dressed in strikingly beautiful Chinese-style costumes, and a graceful little dragon, which the students caused to dance by waving sticks.
Moulins is a working-class neighborhood, heavily populated by immigrant families. Some of the neighborhood's mothers had clumped together by culture or ethnicity: North African mothers in sober dark headscarves and coats, black African mothers in brightly striped dresses and head wraps, white French mothers bareheaded in black jackets and jeans and low-heeled shoes, with their pale, pinched faces, and darting eyes. In other place, the women intermingled, talking freely as they watched the street ahead and keep one eye on their bouncing children. A couple of bands led the way and brought up the rear, playing brass music and drums. These were mostly white Frenchmen in their fifties, with spectacles and thinning hair, wearing troupe jackets that said "Les Joyeux Fêtards" (The Merry Revellers) and blaring traditional northern French carnival airs. Someone had distributed confetti, which the children threw, with great energy, all over the street and each other.
I walked with the crowd, moving slowly forward in the crush of children and of shouting voices, and thought: okay, maybe this is also the point of giants and all the festivals around them. They bring people from the community together, rubbing up against each other with their diversity—all their different music and language and clothing. After all, despite the internal segregation, and the peculiar absence of men, this was clearly a neighborhood celebration. The kids were thrilled to be out of school on a Saturday morning, the mothers were happy to be outside in the warm spring air. One could view it, perhaps, as an assimilating agent, bringing in all this neighborhood's disparate people under the umbrella of local tradition. Did it mean any more than that? Did it have formal or ritual overtones? I was not at all sure about that. All I did feel sure of—and this seems not without its own importance—was that, as at any carnival parade I've ever seen, all those kids really did seem to be having fun.
Proposition number three:
Maybe it has to do with dancing.
There are three hills in Flanders. One of them is called Mont Cassel. It lies about half an hour from Lille by train, and the town of Cassel clings steeply to the top. The people there hold a famous spring carnival every Easter, and so, of course, last Easter Sunday I got into a train and went to see.
The train let me off down in the flat lands, at a silent, closed-up station, apparently deserted of life. I followed a few other recent arrivals who seemed to know where they were going up a long road, through misty fields, that gradually led, after forty minutes of walking, to the town at the top of the hill. There I was grabbed and embraced by a group of young men in drag—for the Carnaval was just beginning—and soon the streets of the small, steep town became very noisy indeed.
All that afternoon, under skies shifting from grey to blue and back again, we watched strange processions pass. The images were so bizarre as to seem as if they had emerged from a dream: men dressed as animals, children wrapped in flowers. Bands of dancers and musicians pranced delicately down the street, holding red-and-white-striped umbrellas or wearing close-fitting yellow brocade suits. Vast white ostrich plumes tickled their necks, and they moved in as strange and jagged a rhythm as if they'd stepped out from a fool's march in a Breughel painting. There were dancers wearing giant papier-mache heads, in the shape of a leering goblin's face or of the sun or a star or the crescent moon. There was a child riding a skirted horse, and a crowing cock with a giant head. There was a brick oven raised up high, out of which the Devil suddenly thrust his head, raking at the sky with curled black claws. All of them meant something, and I was so ignorant of local history that I had close to no idea what.
And then, of course, there were the giants. "Reuze Papa" and "Reuze Maman" are quite famous, as giants go: after the city giants of Lille and of nearby Douai, they are perhaps the best-known of those in the North. Their names mean simply "Papa Giant" and "Mama Giant" in local Picardy dialect, and, although the current versions weren't built until the nineteenth century, they are as much beloved as if they had been around for five hundred years, like the Gayant family of Douai. Reuze Papa, a warrior giant, is dressed in red, with a resplendent breast-plate, scepter and sword; his smaller wife, dignified, wears a crown. Reuze Papa stands twenty feet, six inches high, and weighs about two hundred pounds. It takes four men to lift him.
(I learned some of this from my Pays du Nord magazine, some from my guidebook to Lille, and some from the proprietor of the estaminet in Cassel where we ate lunch before the parade. He stood up in the middle of the lunch hour to welcome visitors and tell a story about the history of the town. I couldn't understand most of it, since as he grew more enthusiastic his accent became less comprehensible, but I thought I picked up something about how Reuze Maman and Reuze Papa had woken up out of the earth and started digging coal for the people. I could have been wrong, though; for all I know he was talking about the excellence of his roast chickens.)
When the parade began, several smaller giants came through first, visiting from nearby cities: a monk, a farmer, a musketeer. They passed through the narrow streets towering above us, each accompanied by his own band of protectors and celebrants, dressed in matching smocks or tabards or hoods. But these were nothing, they could not compare, to the moment when Reuze Maman and Reuze Papa made their entrance. I had positioned myself at the top of the sloping hill that gave a clear view onto the town's main square, and I could see exactly what happened.
Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman had been stationed, stiff and quiet, in a corner of the Grand'Place throughout the afternoon. At last, the porters ducked invisibly under their skirts, picked them up and started to move toward the waiting crowd. From my perch above the Grand'Place, I could see how the people convulsed toward them. It was as if the crowd were a creature, a single organism, reaching toward something it desires—maybe its food, or maybe its mate. That was how the throngs reached for the giants, with waves of motion that read like excited, happy yearning.
The yearning must have been reciprocal, because the giants took their time passing among the people. Normally, giants move with a fluid motion like gliding, because they are being carried on the shoulders of several walking men. But these giants moved, with a graceful sliding motion, up and down, and then backward and forward. They took a few steps up the crowded street and then turned around again. Their bodies rose and fell, in time with the people's shouts. I realized after a moment that, along with the music of the brass bands—now played by the brocaded men with the white plumes on their heads tucked into a corner of the square—Reuze Maman and Reuze Papa were dancing.
I don't know if you have ever seen a twenty-foot-tall giant dance. I wasn't sure then, and I'm not sure now, why it brought tears to my eyes: the motion and the shouting of the people, their brilliant faces, the insistent music of the drums. What's so moving about seeing a man and woman, tall as a building, dancing in a cobbled square?
I suppose it had something to do with the fact that the attitude of the people—their excitement, so thick and noisy that would probably be fair to name it passion—seemed so much like dedication; it's something you might even have called love. If that's so, then I was witnessing the love of a crowd for something that represented its own soul, dancing in the cobbled square among the adoring throng. Except, of course, that I still do not feel settled about the question of whether it is possible to love a giant. Giant aren't real. They don't exist except insofar as humans build them and humans carry them.
But, still, what moved me so deeply in that alchemy of emotion and ritual was definitely something that belonged in the realm of the human. Whatever it was, it was not the sort of thing you ever leave behind, or ever, ever forget.
Proposition number four:
Maybe it's really all about death.
You may remember my mentioning, last month, a brief period I spent in Barcelona during which I saw for the first time several amazing things: dragons that breathe fire and giants walking down the city streets. Two other events that occurred during that time now seem to shine a light on the shadowy meaning of giants, although at the time they occurred the significance was not clear to me.
I was in Barcelona during the Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter, a very holy time in much of Spain, and I went to the Old City to see an Easter parade. To tell the truth, I had imagined something like an American-style celebration, with floats and confetti, or even, at the back of my mind, something like what you see in movies from the 1950s, with ladies in extravagant hats showing off their Easter clothes as everybody makes their way cheerfully to church.
That is not what I saw. Instead, I found myself pressed into a corner of a crowd in a narrow, canyon-like street of the Old City, with arms and elbows pushing in all around and voices murmuring to each other in Spanish and Catalan. The leaning buildings almost cut us off above; the streets were so small that we couldn't see what was coming around the next corner. Above, an iron streetlamp swung against a narrow strip of sky.
Around the corner, suddenly the first figures of the procession appeared. For a moment, I felt as if I had lost my breath. I could not make sense of what I was seeing.
Down the street came black figures, black cowls covering their faces. They wore pointed hoods, like those of the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were cloaked in robes. Some carried large crosses; others had long torches with a brand of fire burning at the end. Some swung censers of incense, back and forth, over their feet. All were chanting in a low, hypnotic tone. It sounded like Latin; it sounded like promises; it filled the street to the swaying as they came slowly on. As they came closer, they turned their heads, glancing this way and that out of eyes hidden behind the slits of their cowls, like executioners' masks. I was looking . . . there is no other word for this, for the conjunction of images and echoes this conjured . . . into the face of the Spanish Inquisition.
I understood, much later, after research and reading, that what I was seeing that day was a parade of confraternidades, citizen groups that also fill religious functions in Spanish communities. These groups have existed for hundreds of years. The costumes that they still wear for formal parades look like those of the Spanish Inquisition because they come from the same Church culture, and became fixed at roughly the same time. They are not meant to evoke the Inquisition, nor to terrify Americans, per se.
But when, ignorant of these customs and far out of my element, I saw the black figures coming toward me there in the Barri Gótic, I was seized with fear. It seemed surreal—impossible—this could be happening: that hoods and torches could be materializing before me, even in these shadowy streets, even in such a distant city. And yet somewhere in the dark shadows of my heart, I remembered my Jewish ancestors, some lost and distant forebears expelled under Isabella in 1492, and an irrational but entirely hideous panic closed my throat: I thought, They've come for me.
The parade filed past us, slowly, ponderously. As the figures passed, they paused periodically, to swing their censers and catch their breath. Turning its dark head, ominously, one caught my eye. Through the slit in the black cowl, I caught a tiny flash of light: it was the glint of eyeglasses. Below them was a pale shimmer of tired skin, and behind them were the blinking eyes of a tired old woman.
I suddenly realized that the cowl and torch, which were striking such terror into my heart, were carried and inhabited not by some horrible warrior out of the past, but by an old lady of around sixty. A sixty-year-old woman! She probably lived in the neighborhood, I thought. Perhaps she was a retired librarian. She certainly had grandchildren. She must be wearing sensible shoes, under the cloak. Presumably, for her, belonging to this confraternidad was a matter of being part of a social group. She must go to church regularly, and as part of her confraternidad obligations she probably did charity work.
It was a very strange moment. To see the glinting eye of the old woman was to perceive the human face behind the ritual mask, and it sent the same shiver of fear and exaltation through me that, perhaps, I would feel four years later, when in Comines I saw a man's face looking from behind the grilled window mounted at the knee of a giant.
It probably should have reassured me, to detect that behind the fearsome hood of the Semana Santa parade there was nothing after all but an ordinary old lady, who surely meant no one any harm. After all, surely she would seem in no way threatening if I were to meet her in the street away from this context, away from the group, away from her black mask and swinging censer and dull, repeating chant. It's a powerful thing to realize that it could be anyone—anyone—behind the mask.
But actually I could not figure out whether this made me feel less frightened, or more.
I suppose that what I was seeing in that narrow street was the way that history reverberates down to the present. It was also the way that history, and its rituals, can become simultaneously sublime and banal: on the one hand, ceremonies like the Semana Santa parade are presumably very commonplace for people who perform them yearly, but on the other they are capable of transforming an innocent neighborhood grandmother into a smoldering demon of history and sending an innocent spectator whirling down through centuries of terror. I suppose an American doesn't have to go to Europe to perceive this, but it does become more obvious here. The commonplace rituals have deeper roots, and as a rootless foreigner one is more susceptible to being impressed by the strange details, stirred up or terrified. This is, I think, part of what I am trying to understand when I go following the giants.
It's a curious fact that, although, two weeks after the parade, I was assaulted and mugged in the streets of Barcelona, I don't remember the event nearly so well. It happened in the same dark streets as the ones where I had watched the confraternidades pass; it was an hour or so after sunset and I had carelessly lingered, a happy tourist, ripe for attack. I know that strong hands closed around my throat from behind, and someone lifted me off the ground, forearms closing under my chin to cut off my breath. The hands of the child accomplice frisked at my pockets. I had gotten out one good scream and a few kicks before the loss of air told, and then I dangled, growing weaker and feeling unconsciousness rush up.
I remember the pressure of those arms digging into my throat, and the surreality of kicking at the air and finding no footing. I also remember, as the last of my breath left me, wondering if I was going to die. Just before I thought I would pass out, I remember noticing one more thing. There was movement at the mouth of the alley and the glimmer of curious eyes: people drawn by my scream, gathering, watching the tableau but not yet ready, for who know what reasons, to interfere.
And then, naturally, there was noise and pain, and I was lying on the ground with people standing over me, and there was the police station, explanations and forms to be filled out, and the police, uncharitable with my shaky Spanish and bored with yet another tourist mugging. My attackers had not taken the cell phone from inside my pocket, or the money belt under my jeans. They had even left me my backpack, perhaps for fear of being seen running away with it through the gathering crowd. It seemed that I had been lucky enough to run into an unusually incompetent pair of thieves. It seemed lucky, too, that my shout had had the desired effect, drawing human aid that frightened the assailants into flight.
But the thing I kept on remembering was that, in fact, no one had helped me, not until my attackers had dropped me and run. I kept on remembering that, that and the fact that I had never seen the face, or eyes, of the man who had seized me from behind, and that fact that I had seen the eyes of those who gathered, waiting, at the end of the alley, staring in the streetlamp's dull gleam.
What does it all mean? Where is the connection—if there is a connection—between all these images, these noises and streets? Is it hidden in there, the secret meaning of giants?
I don't know. I can guess at it, I can intuit it, but I don't know. When I guess, here is what I think of: the fire-running in Barcelona; the big-heads, the dragons, and then, barely three nights afterward, that terrible Easter parade, those moments in the street that, at least in my mind, nearly took my life. I think of this and I think of the half-glimpsed eyes of a man bearing a giant in Comines, and the strange and senseless violence that nearly knocked me to the cobblestones under its tranquil sky. I think of violence erupting in picturesque old squares, violence in the narrow streets, and the compression of history and ritual that I had come to Europe to find. And then I think of tutelary spirits, all the human lives of cities, their souls and violence, something flowing out from the crooked corners and taking form: what is incarnated in the narrow streets, and what remains hidden.
Something stands hidden and motionless in cities. Lydéric and Phinaert watch us from the wall of the Lille McDonald's, with their fixed and silent smiles, their charming story, and its hidden murders. I think of fear and panic in that dark street in Barcelona, and in the Grand'Place of Comines; I think of the murderous horror of crowds. But then I also think of the unforgettable beauty of that moment, late afternoon moving into evening, on a hill in Flanders at the carnival of Cassel: standing so close to the top of the blue sky above that I could look down on the crowd, with all the brass music filling the air, and the giants rising, falling and turning, dancing among the people.
What does it all mean? Movement, motion. Ancient tradition. Something simply human, older than human, more than human—or, it might be, only, only human—incarnated, incarnated, incarnated, in our cities and in our effigies and inside us, ourselves.
The truth is this. I keep on saying that I don't know what the connection is; that I can't figure out what the link is, if any, between the giants of the neighborhoods and my near-murder in that narrow Barcelona street. But, although I say it, it isn't true. I don't understand it, but I do know it. I can feel the meaning, burning dimly like a light hidden behind iron. I can sense it, waiting there. I know what it is.
The connection is linked to the mirror-reflection between the bearers' faces peering out from the slits in the legs of the Comines giant, and the eyes I saw shining behind the black hood in the Barri Gótic. It has to do with something—a thing—that is occupied by a person. It has to do with a ceremony brought to life. It has to do with the way that parts are played, masks are worn, by real people—simple people, ordinary and harmless. It has to do with what happens when a person takes on a role and puts on a shape larger than himself or herself. As if crusades and expulsions and genocides, as if the big god war himself, were nothing but a giant that we take onto our shoulders.
And at the same time, I also feel the connection between the thing that scared me—that terrified me—in the black parade, and the mugging. This has something to do with the relationship between the cool processes of historical murder, and the periodic, ritual reenactments that unify and exhilarate our cultures. It's something that we might call the collective violence of cities. The collective violence, even—because you don't need a modern urban state for this—the collective violence of people.
It is surely not the case that all this is what I have been hoping to find, what I have wanted, over the course of this year-long following after giants. Or is that really true? What I have been looking for is something sublime, something meaningful, that could take me beyond myself and outside the limits of human experience. Maybe that is exactly what I have found. The relationship between murder and exhilaration is nothing new, and if, in that vast beauty there is also a vast potential for destruction, perhaps that should have been obvious to me all along.
After all, I am not the first person to have gone chasing after transcendence and found myself in the middle of a ritual of violence instead. I am not even the first person who, looking for beauty, found myself involved in murder instead, high on a hill or in some sordid, narrow street, or on the docks, bathed in sunlight, dazzled by the flames coming off of the water, and barely able to make out the shapes of the figures advancing down the street as they come forward, larger than human, to meet me.