Friday, May 27, 2011

The Life of Paris

I've meant to post an excerpt of my favorite chapter (well, one of my favorites) from The Doll for a while now, but never quite got around to it until now. I'm hoping my friend Molly -- who has been visiting Paris -- will read this before she comes back to the States and can report back on its veracity (which I can't do, since I've never been to Paris -- but, for that matter, neither did the author).

This is going to be a pretty hefty chunk of text, but please do read it all. This is the kind of prose I wish people were still writing and reading.

From the day when he first plunged into Paris, a life that was almost mystical started for Wokulski. Apart for a few hours devoted to advising Suzin with the ship-builders, Wokulski was entirely free, and he spent the time in perfectly disorganized visits to the city. He would choose a neighborhood from the index in his Guide, and would go there in an open carriage without even looking at the street-plan. He climbed steps, walked around buildings, hurried through halls, stopped at interesting sights, and drove on again according to the alphabetical index, in the same carriage, which he hired for the day. But, since what he most feared was lack of something to do, he spent his evenings looking at the city plan, crossing out the places he visited and making notes.

Sometimes Jumart accompanied him on these excursions and took him to places the guidebooks did not mention: to merchant stores, to factory workshops, to the homes of craftsmen, to student quarters, to the cafés and restaurants along the streets of the fourth quarter. It was here at last that Wokulski became acquainted with the true life of Paris.

In the course of these trips he climbed towers: St-Jaques, Notre-Dame, and the Panthéon; he went up the Trocadéro in a lift, descended into the Parisian sewers and to the catacombs decorated with human skulls; he visited the world exhibition, the Louvre, and Cluny, the Bois de Boulogne, and cemeteries, the cafés de la Rotonde, du Grand Balcon, and fountains, schools and hospitals, the Sorbonne and the fencing halls, the Conservatory and musical halls, animal fights and theaters, the Stock Exchange, the July Column and temple interiors. All these sights created chaos around him, corresponding to the chaos reigning in his own soul.

Sometimes, running over the objects seen in his mind —— from the Palace of Exhibitions, two kilometers in circumference, to the pearl in the Bourbon crown, no bigger than a pea —— he asked: what is it that I want? And it emerged that he wanted nothing. Nothing gripped his attention, nothing quickened the beating of his heart, or prompted him to action. If, for the price of a walking trip from the cemetery of Montmarte to that of Montparnasse, he was offered the whole of Paris with the condition that it should absorb and stimulate him, he would have not gone those five kilometres. But he walked tens of them daily, only in order to deaden his memories.

Sometimes it seemed to him he was a being which had been born by a strange chapter of accidents, a few days ago, here on the pavements of Paris, and that everything which came into his mind was only an illusion, a dream from some earlier existence which never really existed. Then he told himself he was perfectly happy; he rode from one end of Paris to the other and scattered handfuls of louis d'or like a madman. 'It's all the same to me,' he muttered. If only it weren't for that particle of grief, so minute yet so bitter!


Then he would visit the Exhibition, the museums, the artesian wells, schools and theatres, for days at a time, not to learn anything but to deaden his memories.

Slowly, against the background of dull and ill-defined sufferings, a question began to take hold of him: was there some kind of order in the construction of Paris? Was there one object with which it could be compared, a system according to which it could be regulated?

Seen from the Panthéon and from the Trocadéro, Paris appeared the same: a sea of houses, criss-crossed by a thousand streets, the irregular roofs looked like waves, the chimneys like spray, and the towers and columns like larger waves.

'Chaos!' said Wokulski. 'But how could it be otherwise in a place where a million endeavours converge. A great city is a cloud of dust; it has contingent contours, but can have no logic. If it did, the fact would have been discovered long ago by the authors of guides; for is that not their role...?'

And he examined a plan of the city, mocking his own efforts. 'Only one man, and a genius at that, can create a style, a plan,' he thought. 'But that a million people, working across several centuries an ignorant of each other, should create some kind of a logical whole, it is simply impossible.'

Slowly, however, to his great surprise, he perceived that this Paris, built over several centuries, by a million people, ignorant and each other and with no plan in mind, did, nevertheless, have a plan, it constituted a whole, even a very logical one.

He was first struck by the fact that Paris was like a great bowl, nine kilometres wide from north to south and eleven kilometres long from east to west. To the south, this bowl was cracked and divided by the Seine, which cut it in a bow running from the north-east corner through the centre of the city and turning to the south-west corner. An eight-year-old child could have outlined such a plan.

'All right,' thought Wokulski, 'but where is the order in the positioning of individual buildings . . . Notre-Dame in one direction, the Trocadéro in another, and the Louvre, the Exchange, the Sorbonne! . . . Nothing but chaos. . .'

But when he began to examine the plan of Paris more closely, he notied something that not only native Parisians had failed to perceive (which was less strange), but even K. Baedeker, who claimed the right to know his way about the whole of Europe.

Despite an apparent chaos, Paris did have a plan, a logic, even though it had been built over several centuries by millions of people ignorant of each other and giving no thought at all to logic or style.

Paris possessed what could be called a backbone, the city's crystal axis.

The Vincennes forest lay in the south-east, and the edge of he Bois de Boulogne on the north-west side of Paris. So —— this crystal axis of the city was like a great caterpillar (almost six kilometres in length) which, bored with the Bois de Vincennes, had gone for a walk to the Bois de Boulogne.

Its tail leaned against the Place de la Bastille, its head on the Etoile, its body cleaved almost to the Seine. The Champs-Elysées were the neck, the Tuilries and Louvre its corset, and its tail was the Hôtel de Ville, Notre-Dame and, finally, the July Column on the Place de la Bastille.

This caterpillar possessed many long and short legs. From the head, the first pair leaned to the left: the Champ de Mars, the Trocadéro Palace and Exhibition; to the right they reached as far as the Montmarte cemetary. The second pair (of shorter legs) reached the Military School on the left, the Hotel des Invalides, and the Chamber of Deputies; to the right the Madeline church and the Opéra. Then (ever on towards the tail), to the left the School of Fine Arts, to the right the Palais Royal, the bank and Stock Exchange; to the left the Institut de France and mint, to the right Les Halles; to the left the Palais du Luxembourg, the Cluny museum and Medical School, to the right the Place de la République, with the Prince Eugène barracks.

Aside from the crystal axis and the regularities in the general contours of the city, Wokulski also became convinced (something the guides pointed out anyway) that in Paris there existed whole divisions of human labour and some order in their arrangement. Between the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République were grouped mainly trade and craftsmen; opposite them, on the other band of the Seine, was the 'Latin Quarter,' a nest of students and scholars. Between the Opéra, the Place de la République, and the Seine was export trade and finance; between Notre-Dame, the Institut de France and the Montparnasse cemetery clustered the remains of the country's aristocracy. From the Opéra to the Etoile stretched the neighborhood of the wealthy parvenus, and opposite them, on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Hotel des Invalides and the Military School, was the seat of military affairs and World Exhibitions.

These observations awoke new currents in Wokulski's soul, of which he had not thought before, or only imprecisely. And so the great city, like a plant or beast, had its own anatomy and physiology. And so the work of millions of people who proclaimed their free will so loudly produced the same results as bees building regular honeycombs, ants raising rounded mounds, or chemical compounds forming regular crystals.

Thus there was nothing accidental in society, but an inflexible law which, as if in irony at human pride, manifested itself in the life of the most capricious of nations, the French! It had been ruled by Merovingians and Carolingians, Bourbons and Bonapartes; there had been three republics and a couple of anarchies, the Inquisition and atheism; rulers and ministers followed one upon the other like the cut of gowns or clouds in the sky . . . But despite so many apparently fundamental changes, Paris took on ever more precisely the form of a dish torn by the Seine; the crystal axis was delineated ever more clearly running from the Place de la Bastille to the Etoile; ever more clearly did that districts define themselves: the learned and the industrial, the ancestral and the industrial, the military and the parvenu.

Wokulski perceived this same fatalism in the history of a dozen of the more prominent Parisian families. The grandfather, as a humble craftsman, worked at the rue du Temple, sixteen hours a day; his son, plunging into the Latin quarter, set up a larger workshop in the rue St-Antoine. His grandson, even more submerged in the scholarly district, moved as a great tradesman to the Boulevard Poissonnier, and his grandson, as a millionaire, set up house in the neighborhood of the Champs-Elysées so that . . . his daughters could suffer from nervous dispositions at the Boulevard St-Germain. Thus a race exhausted with work and enriched near the Bastille, worn out alongside the Tuileries, expired in the vicinity of Notre-Dame. The city's topography reflected the history of its inhabitants.

Pondering this strange regularity of facts, recognised as irregular, Wokulski sensed that if anything was to cure his apathy, it would be analysis of this kind.

'I am a strange man,' he said to himself, 'and so have gone mad, but civilisation will rescue me.'

(I will have you know that this wasn't ctrl+c, ctrl+v'd; I copied it directly from the text. It's actually a fun exercise -- Hunter Thompson, you'll remember, used to sit at a typewriter and copy passages from the Great Gatsby to get a feel for how Fitzgerald composed.)


  1. As a response to the last comment, you do not need to necessarily replace the current representative system to use a direct meritocracy, all you need is candidates who will do what the people participating decide on. After that you just need the votes to win.

    It could also be the organizational structure for the third-party people seem to want so much. Even if the capitalists and demagogues bitch and moan, there isn't anything they could do about it.

    It already exists in a different fashion too:

    What I hate most isn't the stupid people, it's the people who complain how bad the system is but don't bother trying to deal with it. If my direct meritocracy worker/consumer cooperative model doesn't work because the people don't recognize the value, then I'm going to join the capitalist/demagogue side myself.

  2. As someone who has been to Paris I don't know if I could properly affirm this description. But having walked around the city and seen many of its views it definitely has an energy of sorts to put it in the most hokey way possible. It's hard to describe really, but I could feel it in the city and in the people. If I were to describe it rather clumsily it would be "When you are here, you are in Paris. When you are somewhere else you are not in Paris."

    If that makes any sense.

  3. I have not been visiting every day, I am responsible for the page view drops.

    Victor Hugo called Paris a container overflowed with buildings as well. Actually, several overflowed containers of buildings; after they poured over the city walls new city walls were built up to contain the sprawl, repeatedly. He writes it better than I do.

    Yeah, Paris architecture is a major character in _The Hunchback of Notre Dame_, and I have few notions applicable to European architecture of my own so I rely on books for my opinions. :/

  4. About the composing like Fitzgerald idea: does it actually work? I mean, did it for you typing up this excerpt? Because thinking about it without having done it, it seems like it'd be just a shell of the experience. You're typing the words but are you thinking about every one of them? Thinking about the alternatives that could be used? Thinking about the images the author had in mind? Thinking about the images he'd hoped his readers would come up with? Are you catching subtle phrasings that could have two meanings, one possibly witty?

    It seems like it'd be dependent on the typist as it'd be easy to slip into the mechanical copying aspect. And that'd be great for typing practice, but I can't see where it'd get you into an author's head. But if you read it, like really read it, as you type I can see where it would force you to read more closely.

    Just a few thoughts.