Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bounded by History

I've always had a snobbish aversion to the word "historic" as used by American travel agents and local civic boosters. They present us with historic sites, historic areas, historic neighborhoods, and historic buildings galore. Usually this means that the thing referred to has been around forever, with a starting date for forever being somewhere around 1920. History, surely, is universal. It is the medium in which we live and move. I may fail to achieve fame or glory, but I can no more opt out of being "historic" than I can opt out of being mammalian or bipedal. To use the language so oddly used by our President of Afghanistan, history is a category of necessity and not of choice. Nonetheless, I find myself talking quite shamelessly about how "historic" our location in Paris is.
Here we are at the point of the little yellow slip, on the Avenue de Suffren as it separates us in the Fifteenth Arondissement from my daughter and her family in the Seventh across the street. As you can see, we are practically in the Champ de Mars park, which runs between the Eiffel Tower on the one end to the École Militaire at the other.

On a proportional basis, at least, there is probably more of revolutionary Philadelphia still intact than there is of revolutionary Paris. Practically all European capitals show the evidence of the drastic and unforgiving progress of the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. There is very little of Balzac's Paris left for the same reason there is so little of Dickens's London. Nobody in particular wanted to keep it, and there were piles of money to be made by changing it. But in Paris the remaking was particularly intentional and drastic. The great urban planner Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris on lines not merely incompatible with the the old unplanned jumbled neighborhoods, but positively hostile to them. He wanted a city that was new, beautiful, and different, and he got all three. But certain things have a better chance of survival than others. Only Xerxes or the Army Corps of Engineers would have the gall to change the course of a river. Only a vandal would turn the Tuileries into office blocks. And the Champ de Mars--well, as its name implies it was a military parade ground of ancient lineage. You might as well try to turn Fort Dix into a theme park. Actually, when you come to think of it....but I digress. This means that right at the moment the Flemings are living directly across the road from, well, history!

At the Musée Carnavalet on the edge of the Marais--another happy escapee from Haussmann's radiating avenues--there is currently an exhibition concerning Paris in the Revolution. There was a kind of tributary mini-expo featuring English satirical prints dealing with the Revolution or Napoleon Buonaparte--to the extent that Gillray and his contemporaries made a distinction between the two. The Carnavalet's mission is Parisian history, and its collection of revolutionary prints, paintings, and knickknacks is unrivalled.

Among the most striking prints on display were several that depicted events on the Champ de Mars. On July 17, 1791 a large crowd gathered there in connection with a circulated petition demanding the abdication of the king. As is usual with "historic" events what actually happened next depends upon what "history" you read. But the upshot (so to speak) was that units of the National Guard, probably under the command of Lafayette, fired into the crowds, killing many people. What was called the "Massacre of the Champ du Mars" was one of a series of radicalizing events that would spell doom for the "liberal" revolution imagined by people like Lafayette. Indeed the damagogue Marat attacked Lafayette violently in the aftermath of the event.

Less violent, though disturbing enough to some in its own way, was the formal institution of a new civil religion, replacing traditional Christianity, but imitating some of its outward forms. The revolutionaries went so far as to install the goddess Reason (in the form of a super-model of the day) on the altar of Notre-Dame cathedral. Someday I intend to write a little essay about this, because I am convinced that the organizers of this quasi-liturgical event took as their iconographic guide in coming up with Reason's costume a medieval manuscript of the Roman de la Rose! The revolutionaries were for the most part a godless bunch. A few were actual atheists; many more were when pressed what I would call low-church Deists. Their "theology", if any, was of the "clock-maker" sort; and though they were democrats the last thing they wanted was to invited that particular artisan back into the Assemblée Nationale. But Robespierre and some of his friends found it convenient to take at least a step in that direction, perhaps rather as Stalin in the middle of the War found it convenient to reanimate, in a limited way,the Orthodox Church. They instituted something called the "Feast of the Supreme Being". Try to imagine a block party presided over by, say, Matthew Arnold, and you'll get the feel of the thing.

In the Carnavalet exhibition one of the more striking images was this one--the celebration of the Fête de 'Être Suprème on the Champ de Mars, 20 Prairial de l'an II (June 8, 1794). That would have been about three hundred yards from where I sit as I write this. Talk about historic!


  1. Since we’re talking about historic, I’m reminded of the film in which comedian Steve Martin, playing a real estate agent, is trying to impress a British couple with the “historic” homes in a Beverly Hills neighborhood. He breathlessly informs them: “Some of these houses are over 20 years old!”

  2. I spent a summer in Switzerland when I was in high school and the place where I lived was built in the 13th century. My current home is not even 100 years old, a comparative spring chicken coop.