No one in history has wanted to make a name for himself more than Ferdinand Cheval.
Cheval was a postman who lived in Hauterives, France. He began the building shown above in April 1879, claiming “that he had tripped on a stone and was inspired by its shape. He returned to the same spot the next day and started collecting stones. For the next thirty-three years, Cheval picked up stones during his daily mail round and carried them home to build the Palais Idéal … He often worked at night, by the light of an oil lamp.” Wrote Cheval: “There was no notion of time anymore when the mail delivery was completed. I could have devoted my free time to hunting, fishing, billiards, or cards — there were plenty of pastimes possible. But I preferred above all the achievement of my Dream. It cost me 4,000 bags of lime and cement and my Monument represents 1,000 cubic meters of stonework — that is to say, 6,000 francs. But because of this, people tell me that my name will go down in history — that’s quite flattering!”
The inscription at top left reads: “Work of one lone man.” Similar inscriptions, along with extracts from poetry and literature, surround the palace: “1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of trials—may those more stubborn than me get to work,” ‘This marvel of which the author is proud will be unique in the universe,” “Work is my only glory; honor my only happiness,” “In creating this rock, I wanted to prove what will power could do,” “All that you see here is the work of a rustic.”
Through his work on the palace, Cheval made himself a name. By the end of his life, it had been visited by thousands of people, including art-world luminaries like André Breton and Pablo Picasso. After Cheval’s death, a government report declared: “the whole monument is absolutely hideous. It is a pathetic pack of insanities muddled in a boor’s brain.” However in 1969, the French Ministry of Culture declared the palace a cultural landmark. In 1986, Cheval’s image was put on a French postage stamp. The bust of Cheval at top right was commissioned by the people of his town for the fiftieth anniversary of his death. It stands outside the post office — which now, ironically, has been shuttered.
Leon Kass writes the following about the human impulse to make a name for oneself that motivated the project at Babel: