Today, historian Rob Zaretsky asks, is it a sacred site or a theme park? The
University of Houston presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Build it and they will come. Be they secular or religious
pilgrims, they will come by the millions. They will come with similar desires,
and will be welcomed in similar ways, though the ends seem dramatically different:
salvation on the one hand, entertainment on the other.
These, at least, were my thoughts as my family and I were carried by a wave of
humanity toward the gates of Disneyworld. The air crackled with excitement, while
the faces wore blissful smiles. This was no less true for senior citizens than
for children. As these elderly folk, many in wheelchairs and others with walkers
or canes, made their way to Main Street USA, they were welcomed by the voice of
Jiminy Cricket. We had all reached the Magic Kingdom: the place, according to
Jiminy, where dreams come true.
Forty years ago, Orlando was an unlikely place for such promises. Swampy and
mosquito-infested, this brackish backwater was well off the beaten tourist trail.
Then Walt Disney had a vision -- Tinkerbell descending from the heavens -- and
he built his kingdom. The infrastructure followed: highways, monorails, airports,
sewers and power plants. In quick succession, there came competing kingdoms --
some boasting animals, others movie stars -- and, of course, the countless hotels
and restaurants and souvenir emporiums to service the rising tide of pilgrims.
This same outline applies to Europe's most famous pilgrimage site, Lourdes in
southern France. There, in 1858, a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw a vision
of the Virgin Mary. By the end of the century, this sleepy provincial town had
become a bustling city, built quite literally on the underground stream that had
been discovered by Bernadette. Lourdes soon sagged under a major railway station,
funicular, and jammed boulevards lined with hotels, restaurants and souvenir emporiums.
Even then, the city could barely service the more than one million pilgrims who,
in 1908, descended upon it.
And they came, and still come, with the hope that, by bathing and drinking at the
grotto, they would leave without their wheelchairs and canes. And with, at the same
time, their porcelain statuettes, postcards and even pastilles de Lourdes --
lozenges made from the water of the grotto. The promised health benefits were
Perhaps the true miracle resides in the way that modern commerce and devotional
practice blended to create this modern shrine. As Suzanne Kaufman has pointed out,
the genius of the local religious and civic leaders was that they taught traditional
pilgrims to act like modern tourists. In Lourdes, they not only paid reverence to
the grotto -- but they also paid billions of francs to visit the dioramas and wax museums
recreating Bernadette's experience, as well as to buy the bric-a-brac bursting from
One outraged Catholic, J.K. Huysmans, dismissed Lourdes at the turn of the century
as the capital of "American abominations." How ironic. After all, Disney created a
perfect mirror of Lourdes: modern tourists are now pilgrims to their lost childhoods.
At the Magic Kingdom they seem to hear once again intimations of their own immortality.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College,
and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nīmes at War:
Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn
State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue.
(Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001),
translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and
Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001). With John Scott, he is
co-author of So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and the Limits of Human
Understanding. to be published by Yale University Press in 2007.
S. K. Kaufman, Consuming Visions: Mass Culture and the Lourdes Shrine.
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).
to plan your vacation in Lourdes!)
All images are from John L. Stoddard's Lectures, Vol. V, (Boston: Balch Brothers Co, 1898/1903).
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.