Review of "The Invention of Paris"

Women here look at themselves more than elsewhere, and from this comes the distinctive beauty of the Parisienne.
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

I picked up a copy of Eric Hazan’s new book The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps to read before going to Paris hoping that it would be akin to Robert Hughes’ Barcelona. While both provides a wealth of details on the evolution of a city from medieval splendor to modern grandeur, the tone and tenor of the two books are vastly different. Where Hughes gives his attention to the architectural details that make Barcelona such a draw for those studying the applied arts as well as the history behind it, Hazans’ historiography focuses on the class conflict that played such a large role in the development of the city and provides little detail to the large changes of the city.

The first part of the book is itself separated into two sections and provides what might at best be called a micro-history of Paris by neighborhood from the 15th century to the mid 1900’s. Hazan illustrates that many ways the means of transportation available to goods production, land bequeathed to religious orders of variable popularity, health concerns, and the tax walls protecting the city from those that would prowl and predate on those just outside (and inside) the city walls. As a microhistory, the amount of details is amazing, if at times overwhelming.

The erection of a new wall around Paris for easier taxation and the changes that went on within it provides the reason for Hazan to change his discussion from quarters to fauborgs. Tax collectors have never been loved and to the rebellious Parisians this is no exception. The continual push of the intellectuals from the center to the periphery is detailed as is the contrast between various sections of the cities. As the rich would entrench themselves in a given position, they would find themselves afraid to go into certain sections for fear of populations that was known to all that they were exploiting.

One of the endearing parts of The Invention of Paris is it’s focus on specific regions and his explanations as to why it was that certain types of people were attracted there. For instance, salon culture has always attracted me, and the descriptions of Marais during the baroque period, which would have seen Thomas Hobbes, Blaise Pascal, Balzac, Descartes, Moliere and Racine weaving around the streets and entering into ornate drawing rooms to discuss their thoughts late into the night. The proximity to vast, old libraries and a population density of wealthy patrons willing to give some of their money in order to fund or just assist some of the greatest thinkers made Paris the intellectual capital that it was renowned as being. Whereas English is now generally the lingua franca within a meeting of the educated, French was the language of the court as well as anyone who wanted to address the audience of the literate across Europe.

One of the books weaknesses is the manner in which Hazan will jump back and forth throughout different epochs, sometimes by hundreds of years, in a single sections. While each particular quarter or fauborg is detailed in such a way as to show the influence of Royalist or capital imperatives on it, the historiography here lacks a cohesive narrative to draw all of them together and can seem overwhelming. The information provided, thus while interesting, seems to lack a pertinence other than a desire to prevent a particular historical event from being forgotten. Thus while we learn that recurring outbreaks of violence lead to Bellville as this was one of the easiest areas to defend once barricades had been erected.

One of the endearing qualities of the book is the wealth of literature that Hazan quotes illustrating the development of the city over hundreds of years. From journals of Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo, letters by Daudet and Diderot as well as those closer to modern times like Guy Debord. In this regard the book reads like a love story with the city both from the point of view of Hazan as well as those that he quotes.

The second half of the book, the sections entitled Red Paris, Flaneurs and The Visual Image. The first of these three sections takes the histories of the neighborhoods and starts to show how various sections responded during period of social unrest. And where there are no longer seemingly random stories of transformations of architecture, movements of certain trades and markets and name checking of eminent personages and their relation to Paris, Hazan shines. After having provided all of these extensive details on the various neighborhoods of Paris, their political activism is not just described about but narrated in a series of tense scenes related to the various riots, rebellions, and revolutions of Paris.

“Even if this was not always where things started, even if the first shots were fired on the Pont d’Austerlitz or Boulevard des Capucines, the main fighting always took place in this labyrinth (the streets around Pont Notre-Dame) This constant is not just explained by symbolism, even if it was the capture of the Hotel de Ville that enabled an uprising to call itself a revolution. It also had strategic reasons, derived from the interlacing and narrowness of the streets” (294).

It is this sort of information, which comes after having read histories and reports on the unrest, that makes the at times very slow reading of the rest worth it. While I did not have a map of Paris available as I read it, I was able to use Google Maps to get a somewhat better understanding of the city’s landscape.
The first of the later two sections, Flâneurs gives a historical recounting of the milieu that gave birth to the types of social philosophy produced by Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. With a specific purpose in mind, outlining the manner in which the need to be seen in French society interacted with the idleness of many a person, though never a true idleness as it was always a resting point before highly productive work, created a notion of spectatorship that is no longer as common as it was once. The desire was both to see a scene that was “mysterious and complex enchantment” that would kindle the imagination through a shocking and unexpected encounter and not be visible as someone witnessing it, as then one’s inclusion in the events would alter things. There is an element wherein the highly cultured would be able to face the dark miseries of life, with some but not great risk. These encounters with the marginalized, as Hazan shows by interspersing quotes from various flâneurs, leads one to a passionate identification with the underclass and can thus account for the leftist tendencies in French literature.

In the closing section, The Visual Image, Hazan gives much attention to Manet and the manner in which the painting scene of Paris once dominated that of the world. Between the brusque manner that states with matter-of-factness that it was the combination of a certain number of ephemeral circumstances that caused this density of highly creative and innovative artists to emerge and migrate, to Paris, there are hints of elegiac sentiments stemming from the manner in which photography soon replaced painting as the means of showing “real life”. In this time the painters turned idyllic and started depicting ruins. The section is short, only 29 pages, and covers a lot of time and topics – Manet, Prout, Dadaism, Surrealism, Man Ray all are mixed together in a flurry of thoughts tangentially connected. And though this is unlikely to be deemed as anything more than a broad background for these highly influential people, there loose connections are exactly what Hazan has been bringing to the forefront throughout the work: Paris is protean and beautiful for it.