on seeing Lady Liberty in Paris
July 1, 2013 5 Comments
This post comes from southern France, near the Pyrenees.
Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones (or was it Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way?) noted that Ernest Hemingway and other American authors of the Lost Generation wrote about their home country from Paris, then wrote about France after returning to America.
That fits my own experience. I certainly think most about American culture and character when I’m abroad. All the little details, the background texture of life, are different in other countries: beyond the obvious differences, like the size, shape, and color of money and all the advertisements and instructions that are no longer in English (or in a noticeably different English if you’re visiting Britain), there are other more subtly alien aspects of mundane life, such as the shape of door handles, light switches, power outlets, and absolutely everything in the bathroom, including the question of whether all the "bathroom" amenities are together in one room or separated into two; I expect license plates to look different, but I’m caught off guard by how narrow the streets are, and how narrow the trucks and vans have to be in consequence — they’re driving on streets built for medieval horse carts. Different products are on display abroad; especially different are food and drink.
The longer you’re away and the more you’ve acclimated to these foreign details, the more of an adjustment it is to return home, too. I recall landing in the United States in the late 1980s, after half a year abroad, mostly in Israel but also visiting Egypt and Amsterdam. It was so weird to me that all the signs — street signs, store signs, billboards — everything was in English. I’d grown so used to understanding only maybe a tenth of all the written messages around me. Being surrounded by English felt like information overload — so much more than I wanted to know. The forest of neon signs in a foreign city center can be beautiful. Those same signs in my own language look garish.
My recent time in Paris was less of an adjustment. I’ve been there often enough that its mundane details are more familiar. But I still think more about America while walking Parisian streets. While crossing a bridge the other day, I saw, dwarfed by the Eiffel Tower behind her, a small version of the Statue of Liberty. The one in New York Harbor was a gift from the French government, so I can imagine Parisians consider Lady Liberty to be as much a French symbol as an American one.
But as I mentioned in the blog post "worshipping the wrong goddess," it’s hard for an American to see a lady with a torch and not think of her as "ours."
In fact, however, Lady Liberty’s appearance is much less uniquely American now than it used to be, certainly less clearly nationalist than Columbia, the feminine personification of America in popular use from 1776 through World War I, by which time, draped in the American flag — or rather, draped in classical robes with the very non-classical colors, stars, and stripes of the American flag — she implored Americans to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of the bankers and crony capitalists whose investments were threatened by the war in Europe. That’s not how she put it, of course.
Garance Franke-Ruta in the Atlantic attributes Columbia’s retreat from the American scene to a different cause: "Uncle Sam’s older, classier sister," she writes, "fell out of favor after women got the vote."
She does acknowledge other contributing factors:
Perhaps it had something to do with the rise of Lady Liberty as an icon, though in the 19th century the two were sometimes visually interchangeable, if not identical. Perhaps it had something to do with Columbia’s role beseeching citizens to endure hardship during the Great War.
But she clearly prefers the gender-war interpretation:
Or perhaps it was something bigger: Female national personifications in general fell out of vogue as women took on a growing role as emancipated citizens.
By "female national personifications," Franke-Ruta is referring not just to Columbia but also to the UK’s Britannia and France’s Marianne. Portraying nations as women was apparently in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries, less so in the 20th. Franke-Ruta would like to see Columbia make a comeback in the 21st:
A century later, Columbia looks like a lady who knows how to lean in. Enough time has passed, it seems, that we might consider reviving her spirit, and returning her to the pantheon of America characters for the years to come.
The suffragettes adopted Columbia as a figure of strength and determination for the cause of women’s rights, and it is this application — Columbia’s ability to "lean in" — that appeals to Franke-Ruta most: "When the suffragettes donned robes and armor, they garbed themselves in her rebel warrior’s spirit."
The warrior’s spirit I see, but did Columbia manifest a rebel’s spirit as well? She did so in the 18th century, when Paul Revere and other American patriots invoked feminine personifications to represent both Britain and America in the colonial struggle before independence.
In her earliest representations, Columbia (or Lady Liberty — as Franke-Ruta acknowledges, "the two were sometimes visually interchangeable, if not identical") was an American Indian, sometimes dressed in classical robes, sometimes naked, as in this political cartoon:
The proper English lady (an early interpretation of Britannia?) declares, "I’ll force you to Obedience, you Rebellious Slut."
The rebellious slut is defiant: "Liberty, Liberty forever, Mother, while I exist."
But where is there any rebel spirit in the Columbia of World War I? She has become an apologist of interventionist foreign policy and a manipulator of public sentiment — a source of sacrifice and guilt rather than backbone and righteous indignation.
I can’t speak to the withdrawal of Britannia or Marianne from popular nationalist semiology, but I disagree with Franke-Ruta about Columbia, both her diagnosis and her prescription.
Library of Congress researcher Ellen Berg describes the change from feminine, idealist Columbia to severe and scolding Uncle Sam as tracking the US government’s foreign-policy shift from noninterventionism to imperialism.
Around the same time, the previously fluid boundaries between Columbia (a symbol of the nation) and Lady Liberty (a symbol of, well, liberty) became more distinct. By the early 20th century, their separation was complete, with only one icon still clad in the Stars and Stripes, the other holding not a sword but a torch.
The American imagination did not reject the feminine, only the feminine warrior. The dissonance became too stark. The suffragettes may have embraced the lady with the sword and shield, but Americans more generally preferred the one with the flame of freedom. Let masculine Uncle Sam represent the narrower national interests; the feminine symbol stood, torch held high, for a much greater cause.
When I saw Lady Liberty in the Seine, I thought, Good! The French could use more liberty. So could we all.
To long for a return to the Columbia of 100 years ago is to seek a giant step backwards.