|A Review of: Paris: Capital of the World
by George Fetherling
As long ago as the Middle Ages, the word "Parisian" stood not simply for a resident of Paris but also described a trublion or troublemaker, especially of the political kind. So Patrice Higonnet tells us in his history of the city Paris: Capital of the World, a book both lively and serious. There was the French Revolution, when a mob forced the king to return from Versailles and then executed him. A generation later came the uprising of 1830, after which, Higonnet informs us, Paris and its people ceased to be thought of as masculine (as in le vieux Paris or le tout Paris) and became feminine (la populace and la plFbe). The Commune of 1871, the Popular Front of 1936 and the student revolt of 1968 followed in turn. All along, the city has been the temporary home to foreign revolutionaries as well as domestic ones: the city of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and uncountable other radicals seeking to overthrow the established order in their own countries.
Such events comprise one of the backdrops of Higonnet's book (translated by Arthur Goldhammer), and link up somehow-vaguely but profoundly-with its central thesis: that around 1750 Paris became "the capital of modernity". Higonnet, who teaches at Harvard, defines modernity "in a nutshell [as] a blend of meliorism, rationality, individualism, and scientism," with all the attendant changes in the meanings of self and state. This transformation was partly the result and partly the cause of new institutions. For example, "the Paris salon was not a courtly offshoot but the premier raw material out of which the eighteenth century built an altogether new public space, a new tribunal of public opinion which was in turn a new source of sovereignty, the essence of a new modernity, which proceeded from the bottom up." It also set in motion a sequence of "myths" about the city, which Higonnet traces in some detail.
In the eighteenth century came the Paris that was also the Republic of Letters, followed in the nineteenth by decadent Paris and then the Paris of the messianic urban (and social) planner Georges EugTne Haussmann, who created those wide boulevards to house new landmarks built to replace the ones he had razed. Reaction to Haussmann's idea of Paris provoked "a new fantasy, that of antiquated, familiar, comforting old Paris." We think of the physical Paris as a nineteenth-century city, but in large part it's nothing of the kind, though it was certainly "the capital of the nineteenth century," the subject of an estimated 10,000 other books over the years, to say nothing of those soppy Hollywood musicals by which Paris has seen itself reflected in a fun-house mirror.
Perhaps the most interesting section of Higonnet's book is a discussion of the idea that Paris was the European centre of espionage, prostitution and crime. Although even during the Renaissance one observer was quick to call it "a den of wild beasts", Paris achieved its status as "a cauldron of criminality [...] in mythical accounts of the lives of great criminals-a genuine sub-genre of romantic literature," Higonnet writes. He names one such person when he goes on to say: "In the Paris of the 1840s, Tallyrand was seen as a diplomat of genius, Napoleon as a general of genius, Chateaubriand as a memoirist of genius (as he himself was wont to remind his readers), Delacroix as a painter of genius, Hugo as a poet of genius-and with his pen as well as his actions Pierre-Frantois Lacenaire attempted (unsuccessfully ) to position himself as the greatest and most talented literary criminal of them all."
The reputation for all that was louche had its origins in demographics. Medieval Paris with perhaps 200,000 people was the largest city in Europe. But by 1700, Paris and London were the same size, with about 400,000 or 450,000 residents. But then London, as the centre of so much greater an overseas empire, suddenly took off. By 1800 it was the first city in the world to reach a population of a million. Paris followed almost 50 years later, but at least 10 per cent of its people survived by foraging for food in the city's rubbish piles. People now spoke of Paris as a cours des miuracles (den of thieves), and dreamed "of escaping from the miasmas of the city into the great outdoors, which soon became the promised land of migratory Impressionists."
Conditions in the city were so bad that as early as the 1850s and 1860s a movement rose up to improve "the mechanics of city life, to regulate both its positive energy (by improving the flow of traffic) and its negative energy (by limiting prostitution, reducing crime, and restricting the movements of the lowlifes of the slums and the not much less disreputable denizens of the rooming houses). A Sisyphean task if ever there was one . . ." Higonnet might have mentioned, but doesn't, that the sewers through which Inspector Javert chases Jean Valjean in Hugo's novel Les MisTrables were interesting to readers at the time of the novel's first publication in 1862 because they were so new-fangled; Paris had few sewers until the 1850s. Such subjects are treated in some detail in David L. Pike's Subterranean Cities: The World beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945. In any case, the city's not altogether deserved claim to infamy as a criminal hotbed came about towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Other sociological circumstances led to Paris becoming in turn the capital of science, of fashion, of art. We still cling to many of these old distinctions through the progress by which one generation's safe nostalgia replaces another's.
Paris: Capital of the World is full of little bits of information to learn or be reminded of, such as the fact that, unlike its exact contemporary the Brooklyn Bridge, Gustave Eiffel's tower had no practical utility whatsoever until, much later, when it was used for radio transmission. The book is full of interesting ideas as well: "In 1730 religious faith was nearly universal; everyone, rich or poor, was more or less a believer. In 1930 few people were still religious; unanimity had thus been restored, if in a different key." All of this is overlain with a certain persistent pride in the glory of the place. Thank God that, compared to most other major capitals of the developed world, Paris has been spared great canyons of skyscrapers. True, it does have a famous glass pyramid, designed by I.M. Pei, but the thing sits not in the financial district but rather in the courtyard of the Louvre.
Higonnet says that "in this capital, to be worldly, to be intelligent, has always meant and still means to speak elegantly. To this day, the manipulation of the pluperfect subjunctive is an unfailing signifier of social rank." His book is like such polished conversation.
I found it useful to read Higonnet in tandem with Victorian London: The Life a City 1840-1870 by Liza Picard, the final volume in her monumental history of the capital, a project she commenced only after retiring from the civil service. Hers is social history of the classic kind once practised by figures such as Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennell, telling the story of the city through the daily lives of its largely anonymous citizens, and drawing on an enormous range of primary documents of the most obscure sort.
Victorian London: The Life a City 1840-1870 by Liza Picard (HarperCollins Canada, $45, ISBN: 0297847333)
Subterranean Cities: The World beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 by David L. Pike (Cornell University Press, US$65, ISBN: 0801472563)