previous sub-section
2 Mapping the City
next sub-section


Il n'y a plus au monde que le Czar qui réalise l'idée de roi, dont un regard donne ou la vie ou la mort, dont la parole ait le don de la création.
Balzac, "Ce qui disparaît de Paris"

There is no longer anyone except the Czar who embodies the idea of king, whose gaze gives life or death, whose word has the gift of creation.

Whether expressly instrumental like Le Nouveau Conducteur or more narrative like Le Diable à Paris, the guidebook could not cope with the city of revolution. Understanding that city required more than lists or descriptions. In place of enumeration nineteenth-century Paris craved interpretation. Collections of miscellaneous texts failed to satisfy that need. Because they diverted attention from the essen-


tial, they could never provide the focus necessary to a coherent urban discourse. Individual writers, however, might and did assume that authority. The great novels of Paris that drew their strength from this arrogation of authority became the privileged vehicle of urban interpretation. Novelists defined the role of guide in the strongest, virgilian sense of the term, as they took their readers into the inferno of the city and led them out again, sociological tour and moral lesson completed.

Clearly, the model for the narrator in these works was no lesser devil, but the highest authority. Rewriting revolution demands a special kind of imagination, one that sees beyond the parts to the whole. The great novels of the nineteenth century do just this, and their richness depends, in good part, on their assumption—quite the contrary of Janin's—that the city exists intact and that, however much attention must be paid to the parts, Paris is more than their sum. For the aesthetic of iteration characteristic of the literary guidebooks the novel substitutes an "aesthetic of integration." The novelist claims to produce in narrative the whole fragmented by the Revolution, reaching to a larger authorial vision.

Balzac, in his piece "Ce qui disparaît de Paris" ("What's Disappearing from Paris") for Le Diable à Paris in 1844, explicitly connects the transformations in the city, in particular its losses, to the dereliction of royal authority. The definition of city space once imposed by the monarch no longer obtains. Latter-day kings no longer possess the powers of invention. In the Europe that appeared after 1789, only the czar fully realizes the idea of kingship, which Balzac locates in a gaze capable of giving life or taking it away or in a word endowed with the gift of creation. Obviously, Balzac has a replacement in mind, himself, the writer, the one individual endowed with the power to resurrect old Paris.

The conjunction of literature and the city is already a commonplace by the nineteenth century. Indeed, urban discourse of every sort threatens to overwhelm the city itself. In one hundred years, Jules Janin fears, "people will say that in this capital all time was spent talking, writing, listening, reading" ("Introduction," Les Francais peints par eux-mêmes ) Into an urban space flooded with discourse of every sort the novel brings a reimagined city. In place of the fragments of a city the novel affirms its intention to make the city whole. This paradigmatic urban genre simultaneously expands the narrative to


contain the city and constricts the city to fit the narrative. The simplification involved in these rhetorical strategies of containment is a necessary feature of the governance and use of symbols. Without such stylization, the city muddles the reader looking to decipher the urban text in much the same way as it disorients the individual inhabitant or traveler endeavoring to negotiate the city.

The metaphorization of Paris does not begin in the nineteenth century, but metaphors and images of the period take on a decided intensity.[16] The characteristic and appropriate trope for the city is metonymy. For metonymic figures, in particular synecdoche, construe the familiar sights of the cityscape that topographically and symbolically tie its many parts: the Seine, the sewers, the catacombs, the cemetery, and in the long term, the métro are, like the printed page, networks that bring the scattered fragments into a whole. All of these figures reduce the city to a part, but a part that in turn contains the city. The reciprocity of synecdoche is vital to the way these metonymic figures define the city in its entirety.

One of the most frequent strategies of writers and tourists alike is to view the city from afar, most strikingly from a height. Early maps tend to place the observer somewhere on the horizon, at a point of view that no one at that time could possibly have. Mercier was not the first to climb the towers of Notre-Dame to observe the city from above, nor was he the last.[17] In the nineteenth century an adventurous soul might take a balloon ride. Or read novels. The view of the city from afar becomes a staple among topoi in the nineteenth century, an urban variant of the more general romantic taste for panoramas. The most famous of these is assuredly the "chronicle inscribed in stone" that Victor Hugo details for medieval Paris in "A Bird's-Eye View of Paris" ("Paris à vol d'oiseau") in Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) (bk. 3, chap. 2), which he counters thirty years later in Les Misérables (1862) by "the deadly harmonies" of the 1832 Paris insurrection in "An Owl's-Eye View of Paris" ("Paris à vol de hibou") (pt. 4, bk. 13, chap. 2). The mirror image of the aerial panorama is the labyrinth in Hugo's celebrated presentation of the sewers in Les Misérables, the one and the other not the "real" city but a projection of that city.

Of Balzac's Parisian panoramas, the most striking views, the most pregnant with meaning, are those from  the cemetery of PèreLachaise, which is both in and above the city.[18] These scenes—Jules Desmarets' meditations at the burial of his wife in Ferragus and Eu-


gène de Rastignac's defiant challenge at the very end of Le Père Goriot —elaborate the topographical contrast between the subterranean and the aerial city into an analogy between the city of the living and the city of the dead (complicated by the location of the cemetery above the city). The cemetery is a site de passage and a rite du récit, a rite and a place of passage, a modern example of the medieval dance of death designed to impress the living with the vanity of life. At PèreLachaise the grieving Jules Desmarets for the first time comprehends the Paris that he sees at a great distance. The cemetery becomes a city unto itself, a microscopic Paris that presents a synedoche for the "true" Paris. The topos of the cemetery constitutes a chronotope, which reinvests the landscape with authorial definition, and the bird's-eye view of the writer substitutes for the superior vantage point that was once the king's. And of course, as Balzac makes clear by equating the king's gaze with life and death, the writer aims higher, beyond the king to the deity from whom royal, and narrative, authority derive.

This "urban imagination" is then very much a "synecdochal imagination," defined by the ability simultaneously to conceive the part and the whole. This imaginative power is vital to the urban novel because it alone allows the city to be apprehended beyond the fragmentation implied in the parts that multiply as writers explore the city further. Synecdoche thus bespeaks the aesthetic of integration. Physiologies and literary guidebooks disperse energy by dividing Paris into parts. The urban textual equivalent of "divide and conquer" is the "segregate and dismiss" implied by the physiologies. Those caricatured are safely Other, they live safely Elsewhere. The urban imagination, however, insists upon the inescapable connections between those parts, not excluding the most extreme. Père-Lachaise is part of the city, so are the sewers; the infamous rue Soly, where the ex-convict Ferragus lives, is contiguous with the rue Menars, which is the home of his eminently respectable and elegant daughter; and the Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève of the scruffy Pension Vauquer is inscribed within the faubourg Saint-Germain of Mme de Beauséant's elegant hôtel and vice versa. Balzac never allows the reader to forget or dismiss these connections. Each is a necessary function of the other. Each depends upon the other. The myth of Paris, which crystallizes in the revolutionary energies released by the July Revolution,


is in turn a function of the emphasis upon these almost organic attachments.

The personification of Paris, indeed the multiplication of grandiose metaphors of every sort, further attests to this organic conception of the city. Integration overcomes iteration to create the unity that cannot be reproduced because it does not exist. The panorama offers one means of creating unity, global metaphors another. In either case this creation is the vocation of the writer, and the city thus created stands as another in a long line of utopics that allow us to identify with the city, to know it, or to feel that we do. The utopic offers the reader a text, and a tactic, for dealing with the city.

This utopic, properly speaking, is revolutionary. The assimilation of the Revolution into literary France is the task, and the glory, of the writer and the condition of literature. The writer's creation of figurative unity replaces the monarchy but does so only in full acceptance of the consequences of that which destroyed the monarch. The novel makes its distinctive contribution by restoring the human scale of the city through exemplary (not typical) figures, which give the city expression and definition. Rastignac, Quasimodo, Gavroche, Frédéric, Gervaise, Nana . . . are not simply protagonists in novels. They are also actors in a profoundly literary because profoundly revolutionary Paris.

previous sub-section
2 Mapping the City
next sub-section