Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Why No One Would Desire to Be a King of France

My wife and I just spent a delightful week and a half in France, during which we made the obligatory trip to the Palace of Versailles, home of the kings of France prior to the great Revolution of 1789. The crowds were massive. Even with pre-purchased tickets, we had to wait in line for over an hour just to get inside the palace. Of course, it is unbelievably ornate, but my impression, reinforced as our self-guided tour progressed, was how lucky we all are not to have lived in the era that this palace represents.

One’s first impression of Versailles is from a quarter mile away. The building is massive. I leave it to the gentle reader to Google all the details, but it struck me as a preserved dinosaur. Now, dinosaurs are very popular, with children especially. We anthropomorphize them through cartoons as gentle giants. Barney comes to mind. This is a common theme among children—to make them believe that something that is really quite dangerous is not to be feared. As we grow older, we may find the study of these long gone monsters to be of historical interest. But this does not mean that we desire their return or, if possible, our return to their age in history. I felt the same way about Versailles.

No one who has given the matter serious study would desire to return to the age of the kings of France, even if he were king himself! That is quite a statement, but bear with me. As one tours massive, ornate-beyond-belief Versailles, one is struck at the lack of true creature comforts. True, the king could drink out of a gold and bejeweled goblet; he could dine on the finest hand-painted porcelain; and he could sit on a plush chair. These comforts were the products of pre-capitalism, pre-industrial revolution France. They were the products of very little specialization. Just a few artisans--the best in the world, no doubt--produced the table service and furniture, but they produced these beautiful things over months and years of personal labor on one single item. Furthermore, these objects, beautiful as they are, performed no more utility than the commonest dinner service and easy chairs do today—they held food and beverage for our tableside consumption and provided comfortable seats for our weary backsides. The crystal chandeliers provided no better illumination, and probably worse, than a lamp purchased at any modern discount store.

In the movie “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”, when comedian Chevy Chase first views the great Hall of Mirrors, he says “It’s good to be king.” But the great Hall of Mirrors does not enchant us as it did visitors in pre-capitalist France. Mirrors are as common today as, oh, hot and cold running water, something that the kings of France did not enjoy. Remember the old proverb about breaking a mirror bringing seven years’ bad luck? At one time, mirrors were so rare and so expensive that breaking one was worse than having one’s house burn down. Houses could be built quickly, but mirrors could not be obtained for love or money.

But the greatest and most striking reason that none of us would desire to be transported back in time to be a king of France is the lack of hygiene. Proper hygiene is the end result of massive industrial-scale specialization. Even a king could not command central heat and air-conditioning at the flick of a switch. He could not read by the soft light of a non-burning and smokeless lamp. He could not wash his hands and face in hot water at the turn of a knob, much less take a shower whenever the mood struck him. His teeth rotted from poor dental materials—no dental floss or fluoride toothpaste, much less regular checkups for early detection and repair of decay. Reader sensibility prevents me from discussing toilet etiquette in the absence of flush commodes and sewers systems. All these hygienic conveniences are the products of modern post-industrial revolution capitalism. The wonders of the division of labor among cooperating peoples has given us mass production of creature comforts. The price has been driven down to such a degree that today the poorest of the poor in the Western world take them for granted. All these products were unknown even to the very richest in the era of absolute kingships.

When King Louis XVI attempted to flee the revolutionary mob, his heavy carriage became bogged down on the muddy roads and he was captured. Later he lost his head…literally. Today’s tyrants fly in their personal jets to political asylum in a friendly country. No king of France could dream of such service. Contrary to Chevy Chase’s conclusion upon viewing the great Hall of Mirrors, it would NOT be good to be a king of France.

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