THE STORY OF THE POSTMAN’S FOLLY
Folly (noun) : a lack of good sense.
We live in a culture that values technology over art, prefers practicality to dreams, and rewards concrete achievements over creative imaginings. But where would we be without the dreamers? The men and women who peer deep into the gaps between what is already known, and glimpse the possibilities? The Newtons and Copernicus’s and Curies? Wasn’t Einstein deliberately casting aside all good sense in order to ask:-
‘What if I could ride a beam of light across the universe?’
And what of Tim Berners-Lee, who foresaw a web stretching over the entire planet, connecting all of humanity, connecting you to me, at this very moment?
Visionary (adjective) : thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.
I wonder who decides whether someone is foolish or a visionary? Is it just the passage of time, or a general consensus of opinion? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the object of this story, Ferdinand Cheval, was considered as both, even in his own lifetime.
Ferdinand was born in 1836, to a poor family in rural France. As a young man he tried his hand at various trades, before becoming a postman at the age of thirty-one. At that time, the main requirement for the job was fitness – his daily route covered a distance of twenty-eight miles, carrying all the post, and on foot.
When he was forty-three, he tripped over an unusual looking stone on his rounds, and stopped to look at it. It was at this moment, this exact moment, that we see how this unsophisticated man was indeed a dreamer of the most extraordinary calibre.
In his own words:-
‘I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few metres away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream, I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well… I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, my foot reminded me of it.’
This original stone is known as The Stumbling Block, and Ferdinand put it in his pocket and took it home. This is it, below.
Stumbling block (noun) : a circumstance that causes difficulty or hesitation.
Many of us consider stumbling blocks a problem, something that can throw us off course, or dissuade us altogether. But not Ferdinand:-
‘The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on a spot and was overcome with delight… it’s a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature.
I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.’
He started collecting stones, first filling his pockets, then a basket before, finally, loading them onto a wheelbarrow. He found some land in the small village of Hauterives to build his dream castle on, and then every night, after he had finished his long rounds for the day, he set to work, literally cementing his place amongst the visionaries of our past.
‘What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?’ – Vincent Van Gogh
‘Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing …. must be attained.’ – Marie Curie
Now Ferdinand lived in a time of great change. There were the results of the Industrial Revolution, the advancement of the railways, the second French colonisation of Africa and Asia, and continuing developments in photography. There were periodicals documenting the changes, and, more pertinently to Ferdinand, the creation of picture postcards. The images he was exposed to fed his imagination and became embedded in his work.
Piece by piece, and stone by stone, he constructed an elaborate temple to his vision. He incorporated all the elements that he could dream: all the animals, real and imagined, the giants who had inspired him (Caeser, Vercingetorix and Archimedes), and all the architectural styles that were wonderful, strange and exotic to him.
‘Everything you can imagine is real.’ – Pablo Picasso
‘In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.’ – Miguel de Cervantes
The man and his wheelbarrow became a familiar sight, as he worked laboriously by the light of an oil lamp.
‘You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made. But I just kept pushing.’ – Rene Descartes
‘A diamond is just a lump of coal that stuck to its job.’ – Leonardo Da Vinci
It took him thirty-three years. Can you imagine that? That’s more than half my life.
‘1879 – 1912, 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of trials: let anyone more stubborn than me set to work,’ he said.
Stubborn (adjective) : having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good reasons to do so.
The thing is that good sense and good reasons don’t create anything magical, or fantastical, or awe-inspiring, and Ferdinand’s Palais Ideal (as it became known) is all of these things.
Since its completion it has attracted many great artists and thinkers, including Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Picasso and Dali. I saw this photograph in an exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s work, last week, in Prague. It shows Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at The Palais Ideal in 1939.
And both Dali and Picasso have featured it in their paintings.
Ferdinand had hoped to be buried in his castle of dreams, but the local authorities refused. Undaunted, he spent another eight years building his tomb in the corner of the local cemetery, before passing away at the age of eighty-eight.
‘We build…now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.’ – Tim Berners-Lee
We first stumbled upon the story of Ferdinand as we were driving up through France. It was cold, wet and windy, and we were tired and hungry. But none of that mattered once we stood in front of the Palais: all was forgotten, and we became child-like with wonder, and quiet with awe.
I bought a postcard with a picture of The Stumbling Block on it to keep in the van. It will remind me that hard work and persistence pay off. It will inspire me when obstacles in my path upset and re-route me. It will help to keep me on course in following my own dreams.
And I will remember Ferdinand, with his ability to see beauty in the smallest of things, and his courage to turn that into the grandest of realities, in the face of everyone calling it folly.