As you read this I am (God willing and the creek don't rise) in France and will be a couple of nights at Chartres.
Which has made me think a good bit about "crowning achievements." I feel a bit sorry for those who turn out crowning achievements, since ordinary people have a way of getting less excited about them than about lesser efforts.
Chartres is commonly thought the crowning achievement of French medieval architecture, and the cathedral is unarguably glorious. I knew it would be, the first time I saw it, and you could say that nowhere else is the colored glass so beautiful. It did not disappoint me.
Still, the church that floored me was St. Sernin at Toulouse, a great brick business in the romanesque style. Romanesque buildings, with their round arches, small windows, massive masonry, preceded the Gothic buildings and forecast them.
When you worry about fire, you want stone ceilings, and when you start to vault the space between round arches you necessarily wind up with pointed arches. So within the romanesque plain style are the seeds of the flamboyant unearthly soaring gothic style.
You can see this at Durham and plenty of other places -- this forecast of glories to come.
This is not an architectural lecture, mind you. What has struck me is that you progress and progress and finally reach a summit, like Chartres. And then you find yourself turning back, giving the greatest love to something along the way, like the great building of Toulouse or even a Carolingian structure at Les Stes. Maries de la Mer.
In England there is no argument that Durham is the greatest architectural monument of the island, but you find your heart stuck at Ely -- a magnificent building, but a trifle on the exuberant zany side. The tower fell down so they stuck in a huge cupola or lantern, the wonder of the world, but a bit crazy compared with the solemnity of Durham.
The building at Canterbury, a fierce proud hodgepodge of tremendous splendor, lies deep in the heart of anybody who likes medieval architecture at all, yet it lacks the peculiar pull of the small church of St. Martin in the same town. Which was there before Augustine. You can pat its thin Roman bricks, and its tumbledown country churchyard is more touching than the tombs and chantries of Canterbury.
Such opinions are subjective. But then life is; so if a crowning achievement does not touch the subjective opinion, it does not touch the life.
I think one trouble with crowning achievements is the unspoken sorrow, "Where do they go from here?"
You look at the Parthenon and admire the glory of its sculpture (in the British Museum) and acknowledge its loftiness. But you sense strongly the end of the line, and the decay ready to set in. One more whack of the chisel and it is all overripe. But you see the statue of the Calf-Bearer, the guy with the calf slung over his shoulder, an archaic smile on his face, and you are happier it has been spared over the centuries than you are that the Parthenon figures have survived. It has not only great beauty as sculpture, but the promise of something more, the promise of art on the way up; while the Parthenon promises only art on the way down.
You will have noticed that old people are more pleased to meet young people, even when they are somewhat callow, than a Nobel laureate. It is not that old people are so enchanted with the beauty of youth -- they have been through all that -- but that they like seeing life on the way up, not the way down.
There is also a strong human fondness for the underdog. One is bound to like Avis in ways one cannot love Hertz. This is tied in with the long human experience that the difference between a masterpiece and a mess is not quite so great as one thinks, at first blush.
How many times, in the crises of the world, have the great behaved badly and the unknown or obscure behaved superbly? The first shall be last. The mouse saves the lion. All that.
In our own language, regrettably (from the viewpoint of any writer), Shakespeare is so far ahead of the pack as to be unapproachable, and writers do not envy him any more than they envy God. Unlike Chartres (which has a dozen rivals) he is out of the comparison game. So let's say Milton is our greatest writer, or our greatest writer whose talent is comprehensible. If you take him as the master, you will promptly find yourself giving your enthusiasm not to Milton (beyond pro forma prostrations) but to lesser writers like Donne, Blake, Hopkins, or (when you bump into him expecting nothing much) Arnold or Keats or (God save us all) Byron.
The hero can be some guy chewing gum on the sidelines, galvanized into greatness because he doesn't think twice and acts beyond his usual powers. The lesser poets startle with their breakthroughs, which are taken for granted in Milton. The rude small structure of St. Martin's wires into a love-space impossible for Canterbury itself to fill.
So at Chartres I guess I will be awed, once more, by the magnificence of the achievement, supreme in France. But the thing about getting old is you don't forget Toulouse is just down the road.