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Paris Spleen

David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity, Routledge, New York, 2004

It’s one of those beautiful crisp winter afternoons. Paris is cast in radiant pink light and the sun is edging toward the horizon. From my perch atop the Butte Montmartre, the city of dreams looks just as romantic as ever, even as gaggles of tourists jostle me for a ringside view, even as Iraq, death and destruction, uncertainty, and the Bush administration—the whole depressing bit—continue to rage. I’m standing in front of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, a five-star visitor magnet, with its giant white marble dome aglow in soft sunshine, enjoying a bit of R&R, trying to forget about the state of the world for a few hours, admiring the sweeping panorama before me. Everybody is smiling and having fun in the unseasonal weather. From an observation deck we gape down over the splendor of Paris, at an endless ocean of rooftops and chimneys, higgledy-piggledy stairways and back-alleys, at the North and East rail stations, at the Pompidou Center and Notre Dame, at Montparnasse and the Eiffel Towers, and at grand boulevards crisscrossing the cityscape in every direction and stretching miles off into the distance.

Down there, down in the endless swirl of movement and machines, down in practically every Parisian neighborhood, each side of the Seine, from east to west, from Luxembourg Gardens to Père Lachaise cemetery, Parc de la Villette to the Bois de Boulogne, you can glimpse the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. At Pigalle, its striking arabesque form and saintly grandeur, a feature that seems to make it at once stunningly beautiful and extraordinarily ugly, disappears briefly behind tacky sex-shops that could no longer turn on Toulouse-Lautrec; nearer Montmartre, it reappears as you traverse narrow streets lined with immigrant delis and garment stores and trinkety gift shops. As I plod up the steep incline en route to its summit, tucked under my arm is something that’s helping me navigate around this cavernous network of streets and monuments: David Harvey’s epic new Paris, Capital of Modernity, a big-formatted, almost-coffee-table book, packed with Daumier’s lampooning cartoons and Marville’s period photographs.

Bold and all encompassing, a stickler for minutiae with a penchant for big theory, Harvey gives us a remarkable vision of a metropolis I’d dearly love every tourist at the Sacré-Coeur to read. Not necessarily because it would wipe the smiles off their faces; more that it can teach them, as it taught me, how to look: how to look at cities and buildings, how to get more out of them, how to learn about what we see in bricks and mortar as well as what we don’t see entombed within them. Harvey invites all of us to ascend the dizzy heights of Paris’s glory while he leads us by the hand, as Virgil did for Dante, down into its bowels, into its forgotten depths, into the rubble that has long been dusted over, into a construction site whose scaffolding long ago was dismantled.

Forever the restless analyst, Harvey shows us how to be tourists with consciences, how to keep crossing the street for evidence, how to peer into apartment keyholes, ring concierges’ bells, wait for responses, never taking no for an answer. With him, we can learn how to consume and understand landscapes with a richer tonality, and bring the message back home with us, to understand buildings, monuments and landscapes closer to our own everyday lives. As such, Paris, Capital of Modernity doesn’t quite let you forget about the state of the world: it forces us to remember how much of what surrounds us, how much of our built environment, no matter how beautiful, has been founded on struggle and conflict, and on turmoil and violence.

Resident geographer at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Harvey has been studying cities for over thirty years. While American urbanization, especially the plight of Baltimore, has figured heavily in an oeuvre famously punctuated by Social Justice and the City, since the mid-1970s Paris has never left Harvey’s critical imagination. On and off he’s utilized its historical transformation as a testing-ground for the development of Marxist urban theory. Yet Harvey doesn’t offer us a party-pooper, typical plague-on-your-house Marxist account: he loves Paris as much as anybody, and wants us to share his passion for its modern history and geography, a tale which begins roughly in February 1848, with a bloody revolution, and culminates in 1919 with the construction of a gigantic monument whose entrance I, along with hundreds of other tourists, now cower beneath.

In between those years came an even bloodier coup d’état that kick-started a spectacular and speculative rebuilding program, engineered by Baron Georges Haussmann and Emperor Louis Napoleon, a scheme surpassed only in scale and cost a century later by Robert Moses in New York. Thus, Harvey’s story of the production of modern Paris isn’t just a painstaking analysis of a single city from a bygone age; it’s equally a parable of urban history—one that still persists—which holds that all great cities possess their monuments and myths, idiosyncratic charms as well as menacing fears, master creators as well as creative destroyers. To unravel this modern mystery, Harvey invites us inside the hallowed space of Sacré-Coeur itself, adorned with the figure of Jesus on the dome of its apse. His arms are stretched wide and he bears an image of the sacred heart on his breast. Below, in Latin, in upper case lettering, is the motto GALLIA POENITENS, a "stern admonition," Harvey says, that "Paris Repents." But what, exactly, does Paris repent?

A key moment here is a dull and foggy October morning in 1872 when the archbishop of Paris climbed up a desolate Butte Montmartre. Suddenly, legend has it, the sun burst out of the clouds and, overcome with the epiphany of Paris gleaming in a golden aura, the archbishop wept and exclaimed aloud: "It is here, it is here where the martyrs are, it is here that the Sacred Heart must reign so that it can beckon all to it." The road to martyrdom is, of course, a rocky one, fraught with torment and danger, with blood and tears, with honor and betrayal, and, at least in this instance, it straddles both sides of the political spectrum, from the radical socialist Left to the reactionary Catholic Right. Those martyrs commemorated by the Sacré-Coeur came of age between February and June 1848, during the popular uprisings flourishing in Paris and mainland Europe. Harvey delineates this so-called "springtime of the peoples" with aplomb and originality, and frames its French birth pangs with a brilliant chapter on an unlikely commentator: Honoré de Balzac. "Balzac’s supreme achievement," Harvey insists, "was to dissect and represent the social forces omnipresent within the womb of bourgeois society. By demystifying the city and the myths of modernity with which it was suffused, he opened up new perspectives, not only on what the city was, but also on what it would become."

Harvey absorbs Balzac’s vast and sprawling "Human Comedy," a corpus of 90 odd novels and novellas penned between 1828 and 1850 (when he’s reputed to have eventually OD’d on coffee!). Balzac, he says, spotted the underlying contradictions of a pre-1848 Paris, a city waiting for something to give, on the cusp of a new era, where myth and hearsay, desire and psychology, seemed to be undergirding material reality—not the other way around. Laid bare here are the ideological shenanigans and insuperable antagonisms festering within early 19th century Parisian culture and economy, contradictions between past and present, between Paris and the provinces, between a disgruntled peasantry and a fading aristocracy, an ascending bourgeoisie and a bludgeoned proletariat, quibbling merchants and proud artisans, shrewd financiers and rapacious rentiers. Writ large is what Balzac called "the monster of speculation," a relentless bustling, scheming and prodigious monomania for wealth and power—and sex. Balzac sets the tone for the venal, corrupt, and essentially hollow world that a century-and-a-half later would dramatize the Big Apple of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoys roam everywhere in mid-19th century Paris, yearning to be masters of the universe, weighing things up, calculating, speculating, and waiting.

Balzac, Harvey reckons, was out to possess Paris, to make it his own, to get beyond the surface froth of events. He was "radical" in the Marxist sense of the term: he wanted to grasp the root of things. The canonical novelist depicts himself as a canny flâneur, one of "few devotees, people who never walk along in heedless inattention…[and who] sip and savor their Paris and are so familiar with its physiognomy that they know its every wart, every spot or blotch on its face." This mentality, Harvey believes, is instructive for any would-be urban researcher.

Though Harvey hates Haussmann’s guts, he grudgingly admires his modern progressivism. The Prefect of the Seine, a power broker whose edict after the 1851 was none other than to transform central Paris, embodied the ruthless dynamism of a capitalist class intent on business. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx had marveled at the "revolutionary part played by the bourgeoisie," blasting away fetters of the past, stripping off all sentimental halos, innovating and renewing itself, implanting everywhere modern economic relations. The bourgeoisie, Marx said, "has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals." Accordingly, with the socialist uprising in tatters, and a national economy on the rocks, Napoleon III (whom Marx once deemed a "cretin") and Haussmann’s counter-revolution stepped in to tear down medieval Paris and replace it with "the capital of the nineteenth-century," a city of bright lights and new things, with conspicuous consumption galore. An erstwhile pesky proletariat would now take hold of the shovels, mobilize the wrecking balls, populate building sites, and stop making trouble. (They’d also find themselves dispatched to the rapidly expanding peripheral banlieue to the north and east.) Public money would pump-prime gigantic projects of destruction and private renewal, which would rekindle capital accumulation, and enable investors to find new speculative outlets, realize new devices and tropes for money making and laundering.

For over two hundred pages, Harvey wends and wefts through Paris, circa 1850-1870, though the grim devastation of the squalid disease-ridden worker neighborhoods, onto the spankingly new glitzy boulevards erected in their stead, onwards into the grands magasins department stores. He presents a staggeringly detailed commentary on "Haussmannization," this prototypical paradigm of gerrymandering and gentrification, exploring in-depth its tax and credit system, its labor markets, the condition of women, consumerism and spectacle, the transformation of space-relations, consciousness formation, and class struggle. He shifts seamlessly from ground-rent statistics, property prices and the number of bricks entering Paris, to the art of Delacroix and Manet, the prose and poetry of Zola, Flaubert, and Baudelaire, and the politics of Marx and Blanqui. For those critics who see Marxism as dogmatic politics and vulgar economics, this is an impressive rejoinder: Harvey weaves together economic, cultural, political and ideological phenomena without ever reducing any one to the other, without ever losing sight of their complex and often contingent interaction. His mode of inquiry and method of presentation seemingly concurs with the great French urbanist, Henri Lefebvre, who likewise framed his idea of city space around a subtle triad of imagined, symbolic and material realms.

Amidst Haussmann’s "geopolitics of urban transformation," Harvey says, Paris gained in our sense of it as an independent work of art, as an aesthetic experience, admired to this day by every tourist and visitor, but it also lost something of its character as a "sentient being," as a "body politic" and living democratic organism. Dazzling facades, towering monuments, he hints, leap out at us as things, as objects for contemplation, not as intricate historical processes and social relations. In June 1848, Harvey reckons, one idea of a body politic got smashed and replaced with another more static, less freer one, captivated by ideology and reconstituted around imperial power and capital accumulation. The sense of loss, the sense of dispossession, was apparent for many ordinary poorer Parisians. The irony, of course, was the new modes of communication and publicity, as well as the radiant new street illuminations, opened everything up—in Baudelaire’s words—to "the eyes of the poor," inspiring awe, acrimony, and organization; their anger, their feeling of outrage, together with their organization, would climax in March 1871.

But by that point the speculative binge of the Second Empire had runs its course. Debt mountains piled up, over-investment and over-accumulation were rampant, and too much money flooded into a real estate market and urban economy that was already getting saturated. Titles to fictitious capital remained just that: fictitious, never-to-be realized. When lenders demanded their money back, when workers absolutely couldn’t be exploited anymore, the whole regime came crashing down like the Vendôme Column, the reviled statue celebrating the imperial mantle of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III’s more famous uncle, which a ragged band of Communards would later topple in festive merriment. To compound matters, in a desperate ploy to save face and Empire, the epigone Emperor sent France to war against Prussia, with disastrous consequences. Soon Paris was under siege, surrounded and starved out. The French ruling class knew it couldn’t break the Prussians without working-class support, whose center of agitation was in the northeast, at Belleville. Yet French leaders balked, and saw themselves as caught between a rock and a hard place, between Prussians on one flank and "the reds" on the other. Harvey frames the dilemma around the testimony of communist insurgent August Blanqui: "I do not know which of these two evils terrified them [the bourgeoisie] most; they hated the foreigner but they feared the Bellevillois much more."

With indecision and chaos reigning, and with a government incapable (and unwilling) to deal with the needs of a besieged population, on the morning of March 18, 1871 all hell broke loose. French soldiers didn’t have the heart to turn on their own, enabling a working-class contingent on the Butte Montmartre to seize a battery of army cannons. A joyous mob of deserters, gaunt workers and angry women spurred the re-appropriation of Paris. Immediately, General Lecomte, the cannon battalion’s chief officer, was captured, as was General Thomas, remembered and hated for his brutal savagery against "the reds" in the June Days of 1848. Both were lined up and shot against a nearby wall. Thus the conservatives had their martyrs. GALLIA POENITENS. For the next 73 days, Paris became a liberated zone of people power; workers’ committees, citizen groups, and neighborhood associations defined the municipal politics of nation’s capital. The barricades went up, even across those mighty boulevards, amid the carnivals and the pranks. For the first time it looked like socialism wasn’t merely possible, but imminent. Vive la Commune!

Some of Harvey’s best prose comes from his "coda" on the Commune, when it was crushed by the National Guard, when the ruling classes massacred 20,000 Communards, taking no prisoners, wanting to wipe out future generations of socialist rebels. They killed more Frenchmen than they did Prussians in the war. Harvey recounts one incident near the end, on May 28th, when a 32-year-old bookbinder, Eugène Varlin, a salt-of-the-earth union man and organizer, was arrested and beaten by a reactionary mob. With one eye dangling out of its socket, he was taken to the same spot as Generals Lecomte and Thomas, propped up against the same wall, and shot. It took two bullets to finish him off. Thus the Left now had its martyr, too. GALLIA POENITENS. And so began a process of soul-searching, the work of expiation, Harvey says, out of which the phoenix of the Sacré-Coeur would eventually rise. But debate would soon ensue, a little like it ensued at post-9/11 Ground Zero after similarly bloody and terrifying events. Whose past was it here anyway? Who were the real heroes and victims? And whose future could stake a claim on a site where the blood of martyrs—on both the Right and the Left—had flowed?

After years of deadlock and acrimony, and with soaring costs and technical difficulties, Abadie’s design finally sprouted on Montmartre’s funeral pyre. (Alas, the Daniel Libeskind of his day never lived to see his vision completed.) For years, the Sacré-Coeur was taken as symbol of religious fanaticism, of an intolerant monarchy, as something that reversed the noble principles of 1789. It was backward-looking and hated by progressives, who had a better idea: why not erect a colossal Statue of Liberty there instead? Why not put the giant statue already being constructed in a Parisian workshop, the one redolent of republican values scheduled for the New World, in front of this God-awful monument? It’s a mind-boggling thought, the sight of Liberty on the Butte Montmartre rather than in New York Harbor, upstaging the Sacré-Coeur. (Imagine Rafael Vinoly’s Lattice edifice in front of Libeskind’s fêted Freedom Tower?) One wonders how many tourists at the Sacré-Coeur know this, how many could dream of what might have been. The view over those radiant Parisian rooftops somehow seems different knowing this awful truth. "The building," concludes Harvey, "hides its secrets in sepulchral silence. Only the living, cognizant of this history, who understand the principles of those who struggled for and against the embellishment of that spot, can truly disinter the mysteries that lie entombed there."

"Since the construction of Paris on a savage island frequented by herons, frogs and semi naked fishermen," wrote novelist Pierre Mac Orlan, "have people grieved over the past of this city." "Old Paris is no more," exclaimed Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, "and new Paris does not yet exist." Harvey locates himself somewhere in between these passionate laments for a past that’s no more, and a bitter yearning for a different future, one still to be realized. While Paris, Capital of Modernity never quite works through this tension, never quite endorses either a nostalgic search for lost time nor a headlong embrace of absolute modernization, Harvey pries open the dialectic of modernity, the creative destruction that infused, and goes on infusing, our lives. History marches on, he says, frequently through its worst side, leaving its trace in the built landscape around us. But amongst the buried rubble, in the shadows of the those mighty monuments, we can always find glimmers of light, rays of hope, works of art and literature and people that can instruct, even inspire, in the terrible peace that is the passage of time.


Andy Merrifield

ANDY MERRIFIELD is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2004

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