This article represents the views of its author, G.B., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.
Published: May 2013

The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps
Eric Hazan, tr. David Fernbach
Verso Books, 2011 (paperback)
384 pp.

The title doesn't bode well. The Invention of... is by now the most well-worn of publishing clichés. We've seen inventions of Tradition, of the Jewish People, the Crusades, Solitude, Athens: you name it, and somewhere a publisher or an author has invented it for us. The obsessional regularity with which such titles appear is matched only by the formulaic content they present us with. Where once we might have expected to see a title on the invention of the Spinning Jenny, for instance, we'd now be far more likely to see a title on the invention of the Industrial Revolution; which is to say that what we're basically presented with under this rubric is a rather stale 'history of ideas' dressed up in a pseudo-radical garb. Indeed, almost any subject dealt with in this manner is given a spuriously revolutionary and ridiculously overwrought historical and ideological import ("The Pre-Raphaelites: the men who invented modern art!"—"The Tudors: the monarchs who invented modern Britain!").

Eric Hazan is surely alive to such issues in publishing, having been involved in the business for very many years, first as director of Éditions Hazan (founded by his father in 1946) which specialized in books on art, and then, in 1998, as founder of his own publishing house, Les Éditions La Fabrique, whose 'project' is none too dissimilar to that of Verso Books, or Pluto Press. Indeed, he lets out the occasional lament for his industry, which has gone from a "blessed age, when the trades of bookseller and publisher were still combined"—in the early nineteenth century—to its present state, when "concentration, the search for economies of scale, and a contempt for history dispersed the large conglomerates and their controlling directors into air-conditioned towers, sheltered from any contagion with actual books, readers or bookshops."

It's a shame, then, that Hazan chose such an uninspiring title, since what he actually delivers is anything but a history of 'the idea of Paris'. Instead he gives us Paris in all its solid materiality, as a living, growing, and ever-changing city, in social, demographic, geographic, and, not least, architectural respects.

Paris has always been a walled city. If today that wall is formed by the Boulevard Périphérique, rather than by imposing military fortifications (a périf in place of the old fortifs), the barrier is no less definitive. This simple fact has governed the course of the city's growth as well as its basic shape.

From the wall of Philippe Auguste to the modern Périphérique, six different walls followed one another in the course of eight centuries—without counting reinforcement, retouching or partial correction. The scenario has always been the same. A new wall is constructed, with broad dimensions that afford free space around the area already built up. But this space is rapidly covered over. Available land within the walls becomes increasingly scarce, buildings are pressed together, plots filled up, and the growing density makes life difficult. Meanwhile, outside the walls, and despite the laws against it—a constant over many centuries and political regimes, but never respected[...]—houses with pleasant gardens are constructed in the faubourgs. When the intramuros concentration becomes intolerable, these faubourgs are absorbed into the city and the cycle begins again.

This motif of the barrier provides the ordering principle of Part One of the book ("Walkways"), in which the city reveals itself to be an aggregation of numerous quartiers, faubourgs, and villages, each with their own specific character, each with a more or less well defined set of geographical boundaries. The terminological distinctions have a solid basis in the actual histories of the various city walls: within the Wall of Charles V, completed in 1383, is Old Paris with its quartiers; New Paris with its faubourgs is found in the areas that lay beyond the Grands Boulevards (built when Louis XIV had Charles V's wall razed in 1670) and within the Wall of the Farmers-General, the infamous customs barrier that ultimately cost Antoine Lavoisier, a member of the rapacious tax collecting corporation, his life during the Great Revolution; New Paris with its villages is found between the latter wall and that constructed under the "poison dwarf", Adolphe Thiers, which now survives only in the form of the Boulevards of the Marshals.

It would have been a simple enough task, as well as a fairly worthless one, to choose a handful of privileged quartiers or faubourgs as bastions of revolt, or resistance, or the working class, etc., and contrast them with those parts of the city more attuned to the lives and pastimes of the rich, holding the former up as the 'real', the 'hidden', or the disavowed Paris. Easy enough, and no doubt appealing to a certain kind of leftist (one might say, a certain kind of tourist).

But it's one of the great merits of Hazan's tour through the city that he gives a fairly even weight to its many districts. In doing so he fleshes out their geographic skeletons with something of a social archaeology, which often enough includes the visible architecture. This gives the reader an opportunity to see beyond the façades of certain well-heeled districts (the Left Bank faubourgs in particular) into their more plebeian past incarnations:

Between Rue du Cherche-Midi, the Daguerre market, the Observatoire and the Salpêtrière [the Faubourg Saint-Marcel], apartment prices are sky-high, private educational establishments are most expensive as well as mainly secular, the grocers are Arab and the street sweepers Black. Everything has the good order of a prosperous provincial town, and a certain attention is needed—to texts, to certain streets, to a few high walls—to perceive that these were once the most wretched and dangerous faubourgs, haunted by the sinister couples of crime and punishment, suffering and imprisonment, sickness and death.

On the Right Bank, we catch a glimpse of a similar situation in regard to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine (between the Place de la Bastille in the west and the Place de la Nation in the east, in the expensive heart of the modern city) when Balzac says of one of his characters that she "bore down like an insurrectionary wave from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine." This faubourg was heavily involved in Paris' revolutionary journées from the fall of the Bastille, through the overthrow of the Girondins, beyond even Thermidor to the hunger riots of Prairial in year III. Saint-Antoine had, indeed, sent a joint address (along with the Left Bank district of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau—just to the west of the Salpêtrière) to the National Convention:

Legislators, it is the brave sans-culottes of 14 July and 10 August, whose blood marked the fall of a despicable throne, whose faubourgs Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marceau are proud to address you today. In their breast they have been nourished in a hatred of tyranny and in the republican spirit. They ask you to let them form up in their companies to fly to the defence of the Fatherland … The children of the faubourgs Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marceau will carry these names to the banks of the Rhine. They will make Frédéric [Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia] and François [Franz II, the Holy Roman Emperor] see so closely the scars of 10 August that they tremble at being kings.

Not for nothing was it said that the history of this district was "the history of Paris—written in musket fire." Considering the present character of this part of the city, the reader is thus given an exhilarating glimpse of a shadowy 'other Paris'.

It's a great shame, though, that this section of the book has so few maps. No doubt it was intended for those with a fairly good knowledge of the city (although I'm sure many long-term residents of Paris would be floored by the sheer extent and intimacy of Hazan's knowledge of their home town); but the smattering of vague, hand-drawn sketch maps of certain districts are hardly adequate for the vast majority of English language readers. Ultimately, this means that it's often difficult to get an idea of the shape, the extent, or the scale of the quartiers, faubourgs, and villages Hazan leads us through. The only—deeply inadequate—solution I found was to sit in front of Google maps while reading this section of the book.

We can extend this criticism into Part Two of the book as well: "Red Paris". Adapting the motif of the boundary, this section gives us something of a history of the barricade. Again, we have a handful of roughly sketched maps that do little to situate what they purport to show either within the context of their immediate surroundings or of the city as a whole. On into Part Three of the book ("Crossing the Swarming Scene"), where we encounter flâneurs and artists, there are no maps that might allow us to follow Baudelaire through the city, and no reproductions that might have helped the less well cultured reader, such as myself, in the discussion of Manet, or in the discussions of the early photographic records of a Paris being rapidly transformed in the period between the Commune and the Great War.

It comes as something of a surprise to find that the section on flâneurs in Part Three is so relatively short since the book as a whole is basically an extended exercise in flânerie. Throughout the book, Hazan's most constant companions are Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Victor Hugo, and, above all, Balzac. Less familiar to English speakers, but of no less importance as his companions, are writers like Sébastien Mercier, author in the late eighteenth century of two works on Paris; Alfred Delvau, sometime secretary to Ledru-Rollin, leading member of the 'farcical' Mountain in the Second Republic who enthusiastically cheered Cavaignac's suppression of the 1848 Revolution; and Émile de La Bédollière, roughly contemporary with Mercier.

As Hazan leads us through Paris alongside these and a whole legion of other companions, the reader can really begin to understand Walter Benjamin's assertion that Paris was the "capital of the nineteenth century". It's this period which is most extensively covered throughout the book, but particularly in parts two and three. Whereas the semaine sanglante of the Paris Commune holds most weight in the imagination in respect of the twin motifs of the barricade and military suppression, Hazan demonstrates that the experience of the 1848 Revolution was no less bloody and no less marked by subsequent repression. Much of what constituted the parliamentary Left of the time demanded exactly the kinds of measures that Cavaignac put into action against the insurrectionary proletariat in the city: in contrast to Louis Charles Delescluze, the old 'Jacobin' who was later to die on one of the last barricades to hold out in 1871, Hazan tells us of Alphonse de Lamartine, "the gentle elegiac poet," demanding and obtaining in 1848 "a law against rioting, with a penalty of twelve years in prison and withdrawal of civil rights for any citizen taking part in an armed riot that did not disperse at the first summons." Cavaignac's "end with terror" certainly left its mark on the city's outward appearance. Contemporary authors spoke of "rivers of blood, mountains of piled-up corpses, punctured and bleeding flesh, manhunts, public gardens turned into slaughterhouses".

The story is no doubt well known to most of us who have some familiarity with Marx. The cast will certainly be familiar (Thiers, Cavaignac, Blanqui, Barbès, Raspail, etc.), although Victor Hugo's role in affairs looms larger in Hazan's retelling; what will be less familiar, and which is more to the point of Hazan's subject, is what these events meant for the city.

The insurrectionary bases of 1848 were outside of what had been "the traditional centres of Paris uprisings." By 1848 the proletarian centre was being pushed ever further east and north; by 1871 the great bastions of revolution within the city were no longer the faubourgs, whether Saint-Antoine or Saint-Marceau, but the villages that had been annexed to the city. It was now Belleville, Ménilmontant, and Montmartre whose names were carried by their inhabitants to the Paris barricades rather than the Rhine. Beyond the scope of this book, we can see the same trend continuing in the 2005 and 2007 rioting that erupted in the banlieues outside the present walls of Paris. This apperçu makes it quite strange then to find Hazan describing the events of 1968 as a late echo of the great journées. These events were largely played out in the Left Bank quartiers that had long since been gutted of any plebeian connections, not least by the 'embellishments' of Baron Haussmann, which Hazan discusses very well. The experience of 1968, if anything, flatly contradicts Hazan's account of insurrectionary Paris. That's not to say that his account is defective. Rather, it gives a clear indication of the actual character of 1968 and of the actual situation of the great majority of its participants.

And since those participants were largely the scions of an about-to-be-enthroned stratum of the 'technocratic' bourgeoisie it seems doubly strange of Hazan to mention 1968 in this context, given what he has to say in regard to the barely remembered events of 20 March 1814. When the Coalition armies invaded France, Jeannot de Moncey attempted to organise the defence of the Clichy barrier against the advancing Cossacks. The attempt was, of course, doomed to failure; nonetheless, Moncey (sometime Marshal of France who had been cashiered for refusing to serve in the invasion of Russia) was able to muster a great deal of enthusiasm and support from the population of the city: "Paris hastened to take up arms, in an enthusiasm shared by bourgeois and people, children and old men— truly resolved, despite the defection of its natural protectors, to fight to the death." This curious 'battle' reveals what we might well take as indicative of the spirit of Paris that occasions Hazan's whole work (though the author himself doesn't make this case for the observation):

It is one in a whole series that began in 1792 and ended in the years 1940-44—its intermediate steps being precisely 1814, as well as 1871—consisting of violent conflicts between a 'ruling elite' ready to capitulate and compromise with the enemy, and that section of the Paris people who are eternally rebellious.

In a slightly modified form this motif has been deployed by Alain Badiou (with whom Hazan has co-authored a work on anti-semitism in France) as an explanation of much of modern French history. The easy integration into the current ruling elite of the leading lights of 1968 should be an indicator of which side of the barricades the soixant-huitards should be viewed from.

The Invention of Paris is a tremendous achievement in spite of the limitations that I've highlighted. The translation is very well done and very well written and Hazan manages to avoid the twin idiocies of nostalgic despair and of cultural-studies paeans to a spurious 'popular sub-culture'. In summary, Hazan has done a wonderful job in this book in redeeming the great city of rebellion from a sad fate as hip tourist destination and as so much garnish for a photo opportunity at the Tour Eiffel.


G.B.

Privacy Policy