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VI

C'est donc Paris, Paris misérable et glorieux, Paris dans sa grandeur et son horreur . . . ce grand corps fiévreux.
"La Rue," La Rue


It is then Paris, miserable and glorious, Paris in its grandeur and its horror . . . this great fevered body.


In the assimilation with Paris, Hugo is a model, but again one that Vallès could not but oppose. When Vallès began writing in the 1850s, so forceful was Hugo's identification with Paris, on the one hand, and with political opposition, on the other, that Vallès could not escape the connection. The affective and ideological distance that Hugo maintained during the empire was denied to those on the scene, who had to deal not only with the instability of the quotidian but also with the particular circumstances of censorship and the other tribulations of literary life during the empire. Well before he joined the Commune, Vallès had a long history of run-ins with the authorities. An


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impassioned lecture on Balzac brought him an interdiction from the Ministry of Public Instruction preventing him from speaking in public. He served two months in prison and paid a substantial fine for one article that the government judged incendiary, and for another was fired by the all-powerful newspaper magnate Émile de Girardin under pressure from the minister of the interior. Vallès' journals led a very precarious existence as they steered, with varying success, between the shoals of the censors.

In view of the obstacles encountered in actual literary life under the empire, Hugo had a relatively easy time of it. He maintained his credentials as a revolutionary by never having to put them into practice. The Hernani that caused so much ink to flow in 1830 appears to Vallès in 1867 no more than a pathetic substitute for a truly revolutionary work. The vast antitheses for which Hugo claimed divine example seem a pernicious rhetoric. "Let's not confuse a maker of antitheses with a leader of people. . . . M. Victor Hugo is only a superb monster . . . a hollow statue," so that to call Hugo a revolutionary "would be a lie and a danger!" (1:951). (A few years later, when he himself would be forced into exile, Vallès would express greater sympathy for Hugo.)

If Vallès' fixation with Paris was surely the equal of Hugo's, his Paris was a very different city. It was assuredly not the Paris of monuments. Indeed, Vallès criticizes the vast, multiauthored Paris-Guide for its excessive attention to monuments and institutions and, hence, the past. "All stones look alike," declares the narrator of L'Enfant, dismissing monumental Paris without a second thought (2:338). The aversion to monuments and statues is, in turn, part of a larger antipathy to anything or to anyone who claims to be larger than life—or to anyone for whom the claim is made.

The deflationary perspective that Vallès brings to such apparently diverse subjects as the past, nationalism, literary style, and governmental authority is distinctly modern and even modernist. "I don't believe in the Panthéon, I don't dream about the title of a great man, I don't care about being immortal after my death—I care about living while I'm alive!" (2:891). In the presentation of his journal La Rue in 1867, Vallès warns his readers that the journal "will attack all aristocracies, even those of age and genius" (1:939). Replying in the next issue to cries of outrage protesting just this comment, he makes the point with even greater force: "I want La Rue to show you fly-


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catchers of glory ("gobe-mouches de la gloire") that there is no more need for providential men in literature than in politics" (1:941).

Although these barbs may not be aimed directly at Victor Hugo, Vallès makes it abundantly clear in a number of other articles that Hugo certainly fits the description of the "monumental" writer, the writer who preaches and "makes phrases for the pleasure of making phrases" (1:941). Even the largely favorable review of Quatrevingttreize Vallès writes in the Revue anglo-française reproaches Hugo for "bible-ized sentences" ("biblisme de phrases") that "drown the idea in shadow or dampen it in fog." The "solemn and vague manner" of the narrative fails to serve the "terrible precision" of the drama being played out. Finally, Vallès cannot help closing with an injunction to the "great poet" to stop talking to the clouds (2:79).

Vallès assuredly does not talk to the clouds. Against Hugo's aesthetic of the monumental, the transcendental, and the symbolic, Vallès proposes a very different aesthetic that is part and parcel of very different politics. Against Hugo's politics of performance, Vallès sets his own very personal performance of politics. For Vallès, the emblem of the city, the part that best expresses the whole of Paris, is the street, and it is the street that renders best the originality of Vallès' conception of Paris. The significance of the street for his work is patent. Vallès gave the name to not one but three journals that he edited (1867, 1870, and 1879), to a number of articles, as well as to two books (La Rue in 1866 and La Rue à Londres in 1884). He used "Jean La Rue" as a pseudonym. In fact, the most devastating criticism that Vallès can think of for the collection of poetry that Hugo published in 1865, Les Chansons des rues et des bois, is that the book "has nothing of the street: the title is a lie" (1:568). As movement, the city cannot possibly be represented by a monument. Jacques Vingtras knows very well why he dislikes monuments: "I like only things that move and shine" (2:338). In a later issue of Le Cri du peuple Vallès notes laconically that "we aren't in favor of statues." Why? The "petrification of a reputation conflicts with our ideas about the progress of the human spirit" (2:1094). "Fewer statues, more men!" (1:896) is the battle cry of this critic. Vallès nevertheless, if unsuccessfully, opposed the destruction of the column in the Place Vendôme with its statue of Napoléon.

The street has just the kind of movement that, for Vallès, marks true art. It is the repository of the human spirit, filled with just the


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sparkle of life that Vingtras loves. It is not a place fixed and defined by externals but rather a space of circulation. "Originaux" and "excentriques," rich and poor, mix in a space that itself has no hierarchy. "Heaven forbid that I should establish hierarchies—I detest them!" (1:324). Vallès thinks of literature as he thinks of society and refuses hierarchy in the one as in the other. The movement by which the street is defined and the egalitarian principle by which the street is governed make this open space the paradigmatic expression of Vallès' literary practice and political commitment.

In contrast to the visionary mode of Hugo's characteristic bird's-eye view from  the towers of Notre-Dame or from  even further in Quatrevingt-treize, Vallès places himself, and his text, squarely in the street. Distance disables. Climbing to the top of the Panthéon, he gets dizzy (1:957). And when he goes up in a balloon, Vallès sees only the map of the city, not what he recognizes as the city itself (1:960). To write about the city, Vallès needs its streets. Escaping from France, having just crossed the border into Belgium, Vingtras turns back to look at the sky in the direction "where he senses Paris" (2:1087). Whereas Hugo deliberately distanced himself from  contemporary Paris to write about the Paris of 1793, Vallès had to return to Paris to write his saga of Paris in the Terrible Year. The first two novels in the Jacques Vingtras trilogy, L 'Enfant (1881) and Le Bachelier (1884), could be written in exile, but L'Insurgé, the epic tale of the battles on and of the streets of Paris, required that the space be lived in the moment. The same need to experience directly the distinctive nature of urban space meant that to write La Rue à Londres Vallès returned to London.

An aesthetic of the street produces a politics of the street. The collective politics of the Commune as Vallès presents it in L'Insurgé are at the opposite pole from Hugo's politics of transcendence. Similarly, Vallès' participatory poetics stands against the prophetic stance that Hugo assigns to the great writer. In Vallès' version of the nineteenth century, every one of us can write a masterpiece if we will only write "frankly and simply." Then the "immense book of human emotions" written by all will replace the "monstrous work" made by those "who are claimed to have genius." No more "literaturizing literature" ("littérature littératurante") that only talks about itself. No more mysteries, no more great men, no more fixation on the Panthéon or the Académie française. Thus La Rue, as Vallès envisaged the journal, would not be "the paper of a few, but the work of every-


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one." True to his conception of participatory poetics and to the logic of journalism, Vallès invited his readers to be as well "our collaborators and our friends!" (1:941, 942).

Vallès aims at being a very different kind of writer. Accordingly, he takes the side of a very different kind of literature. There have been too many "Victims of the Book," too many who believe what they read, too many who believe only through what they have read. "Not one of our emotions is direct." In contrast to Hugo's vision of the democratic utopia that would be initiated by the printing press, Vallès depicts a society where the book has taken over, where "everything is copied," and it is copied from a book. "The Book is there. Ink floats on top of this sea of blood and tears" (1:230).

The danger that threatens any book, the danger that Vallès strives to counter, is petrification. Vallès seeks a society, and a literature, without models, that will not be copies, that will not look to monuments, or books, in the past but will look around in the present. As a student with revolutionary aspirations he would look upon the Convention that executed Louis XVI and legislated much of modern France as the "culminating point of history," this "Iliad," and its actors "our fathers these giants" (2:481). The older Vallès, as convinced as ever of the necessity of working for the revolution, realizes that there is no point in copying the theatrical gestures of one's ancestors (2:907). The political problem facing the Commune is not to repeat '93 (2:926) (or, for that matter, 1789) but to invent the revolution, to produce a new society, and with that new society, a new literature. Above all, he assumed that the best literature in the best society required the city, a real Paris.


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