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2009 is the 500th anniversary of Jean Calvin’s birth, and from all over Europe pilgrims in their hundreds of thousands are currently pouring into Geneva in a state of fervent anticipation. I am generally tolerant of the transcendental emotions of others, but from my viewpoint, as a commuter between the small lakeside town of Nyon (founded by Julius Caesar in 50 B.C. for the veterans of his cavalry) and Geneva, this phenomenon is something of a nuisance.
Traffic on my 20 km. stretch of autoroute is far from fluid at the best of times. Typically, up to half of it is generated by drivers from Ain and the Haute-Savoie, the two neighbouring départements in France, as one can tell from their license plate numbers. But this week, every region of France is represented in the terminally congested motorway. So are all 26 Swiss cantons, from mighty Zurich to tiny Appenzell Innerrhoden. So is every far-flung European country you can think of: Norway and Greece, Portugal and Ukraine, and everything in between – not to mention a sprinkling of Turkish or Qatari vehicles spicing up the air with their exotic fumes. Indeed, the traffic right now is so dense that, paradoxically, there is no particular advantage to be gained by taking the train; you can read, say, the International Herald Tribune on your way to work even more comfortably at the steering wheel of your immobile car, which at least guarantees you a seat.
I rather suspect that Calvin would have frowned on pilgrimages as an idolatrous, papist practice, and would in no way have wanted his name to be associated with them. If so, he can rest in peace within his austere, almost anonymous grave in the Cimetière des Rois: I daresay that no more than a few hundred faithful are likely to drift into Geneva this year with him in mind. The mass migration of people in their automobiles to which I refer, notwithstanding its rituals, its zeal and its ecstasy, is untainted by misguided Christian impulses. Its source of inspiration is solely the Car, and its shrine the colossal Palexpo centre, where the Geneva Motor Show is held every March.
In The Canterbury Tales, horses are fairly prominent, and it’s obvious that Chaucer expects readers (or listeners) readily to deduce from the description of each pilgrim’s steed his or her social rank or pretensions. But frivolous displays of status notwithstanding, the formal pretext that made “folk longen to goon on pilgrimages” was religious – in this particular case, to pay their respects to the martyr St. Thomas à Becket, and not to ogle in reverential awe every deity in the equine pantheon, from the Anglo-Arabian thoroughbred to the Lithuanian Heavy Draught.
You might argue that at least there is no whiff of pious hypocrisy in the Geneva Motor Show; it’s all about pure, unabashed, in-your-face hedonism. The state-of-the-art characteristics of most of the cars clogging up like cholesterol the arteries, veins and capillaries of Switzerland’s small-scale highway network is such that, by the time they reach the Motor Show itself, drivers will already have seen, crawling alongside them, just about every conceivable and insolently ostentatious model of Porsche, Audi, Jaguar, Maserati, Mercedes, Cadillac, Bentley – you name it – hot off the assembly line. As part of a bizarre onanistic rite, thousands of people flock to Geneva to see on display the cars they have already bought.
And, one should add, endlessly to photograph them with their compact cameras and mobile ‘phones, rather like earnest Catholics might point their lenses at Benedict XVI. But surely there is a key difference in the underlying motivation. Futile though their best digitally recorded efforts might be, the worshippers in the Vatican are trying to capture and preserve a glimpse of the successor of St. Peter, whom they regard as their only tangible link with Christ; there is a perhaps naïve but spiritually sincere purpose in collecting blurred pictures of the Holy Father. What exactly the 700,000 Geneva Motor Show pilgrims do with the vast archives of sleazy supercar snapshots that they take back home is anyone’s guess.
I grant you that in Europe, at any rate, faith-based pilgrimages nowadays are not necessarily bona fide, and possibly they never have been. Millions visit Lourdes or Fatima in a pragmatic frame of mind, seeking miraculous cures when medical science fails. Many, if not most, of the amiable eccentrics who still trek to Santiago de Compostela in the 21st Century are anxious to make it clear that they are not satisfying a specifically religious need (God forbid!) but merely an ineffable craving for something different. All this is eminently harmless, however, when compared with the Geneva Motor Show’s annual transhumance. From an ecological perspective, to drive hundreds or thousands of miles, bumper-to-bumper with other cars, in order to see yet more cars, is rather like hobbling lepers congregating from all over the world to admire the multifarious disfigurements their disease can cause, with a view to spreading new and improved strains of the illness.