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


Variété, mon sujet t'appartient.
Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris

Variety, my subject belongs to you.

The struggles over the designation of city space gave a distinctly urban resonance to the larger political conflicts that played out in postrevolutionary France. The successful contestation of authority opened the city to redefinitions from every quarter. The execution of one king and the defeat and subsequent flight of his successors in


1814, 1815, 1830, 1848, and 1870 dramatized the fragility of political authority. Having lost its central authority, the urban symbol system fell into disarray. Into this void, writers stepped with surprising assurance to assert the authority of the written word to interpret the modern city and the society that it both represented and expressed. In this continually manipulated urban space, guidebooks found a ready market, among the provincials arriving in Paris to undertake the work of the new representative government and among a good many others hopeful of profiting from the new state of affairs. Parisians themselves, many of whom seldom ventured outside their neighborhood, stood in need of instruction. They were often lost, as Mercier noted before the Revolution, in the swelling multitude of provincials and foreigners. Native and visitor alike desperately needed direction in the changed and rapidly changing milieu. If this need was apparent to Mercier in the very last days of the ancien régime, it was palpable after the Revolution and in the new century.

Not the least problematic aspect of the new Paris was its inhabitants. The Parisians of the revolutionary and postrevolutionary eras were not those of prerevolutionary yesterday. Indeed, description of place presented less of a challenge for the urban accountant than did analysis of people. If writings in and about postrevolutionary Paris went on at length about the "ruins" of the old Paris, the psychic emphasis nevertheless fell on the new city, and particularly on the changed and changing customs (moeurs ) that characterized that city. One P.-J.-B. Nougaret presented his Paris, ou le rideau levé' in 1798 "to serve the history of our former and present customs." In Paris à la fin du XVIIIe siècle (1801),J. B. Pujoulx opened the century with promises of a "historical and moral sketch" of monuments and ruins, disquisitions on the state of science, art, and industry, "as well as the Customs of its inhabitants." In 1814 Louis Prudhomme's Voyage descriptif et philosophique de l'ancien et du nouveau Paris announced not only "historical facts and odd anecdotes about the monuments" but also much concerning the "variation of the customs of its inhabitants over the past twenty-five years," that is, since 1789.[5] And so on.

To be sure, earlier guidebooks did not altogether neglect the Parisians. Corrozet, we have seen, addressed his Parisian public directly, and a century later, Brice undertook to defend their character. Over the eighteenth century, newspapers and novels found Parisians an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Lesage's novel Le Diable boiteux


(The Lame Devil ) (1707) was immensely popular at the time of its publicaton (Lesage kept adding to it until 1726) and became an important model for a whole line of nineteenth-century literary guidebooks. What better figure for the guide to the inner city than his device,  a not very threatening junior-grade devil whose ability to remove rooftops revealed the inside story? Montesquieu was another literary ancestor, not of course through the sober, magisterial Esprit des lois (1748) but through his satirical epistolary novel of 1721, Les Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters ) Marivaux, best known as a dramatist (witness the street named in his honor near the Théâtre de l'Odéon that created such a commotion in the 1770s), also joined this group of explorers of Parisian mores in his novels, La Vie de Marianne (1 731-42) and Le Paysan parvenu (The Parvenu Peasant ) (173435), and. in a direct steal from the journalism of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Le Spectateur francais (1721-24) and Lettres sur les habitants de Paris (1717-18). Yet, however much these works tell us about Paris, none makes an explicit claim as a guide to the city, and none resembles what we might now call an ethnography of the city.

It fell to Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814), poet, playwright, novelist, chronicler, and all-purpose man of letters, to make, and make good on, both claims. The first, one-volume edition of the Tableau de Paris, which appeared in 1781, contains 105 short, definitely quirky sketches that explore Paris and examine the mores of Parisians. Here was the literary ancestor to whom every subsequent urban ethnographer turned; this work was the model against which subsequent works were measured.[6] Mercier does not address foreigners who seek their way around Paris so much as he tells Parisians about themselves and their neighbors, about people and places, which they may not know at all and which, in Mercier's view, they ought to know. "Many of its inhabitants are like foreigners in their own city; this book will perhaps teach them something" ("Préface"). The public obviously agreed with the author's assessment, for the popularity of the first volume was such that the indefatigable Mercier brought out a revised edition in four volumes the very next year, four more volumes in 1783, and four more in 1788.

The epigraph to the fifth volume boldly states his credo: "Variety, my subject belongs to you." There is something quite extraordinary in the assertion. Instead of claiming a hierarchical focus as an order-


ing control—king, country, or other symbols of authority—Mercier takes on the whole range of the city around him and makes himself the control. Everything is relevant within an authorial self-possession that becomes its own reason for being. The quasi-ubiquitous and extraordinarily prolific urban explorer alone is in a position to cover and to render the whole city, and through the city, the larger society. Moreover, ubiquity is suddenly a virtue instead of a problem. The controlling perspective in the Tableau de Paris is, to use a neologism of the 1780s, that of ethnology. Mercier justifies a striking comparison between life in Paris and the life of natives in Africa and America by the fact that two-hundred-league hunts and arias at the Opéra Comique are practices that are "equally simple and natural" ("Préface").

Ethnologist avant la lettre, Mercier looks down at the street dwellers as well as up at the great and shows no hesitation about venturing into the most insalubrious and potentially dangerous corners of the city. He will not, he warns the reader, disdain the lowly, the miserable, the disquieting, or the distasteful, for his research covers "all classes of citizens" ("Préface"). Introducing the article "One-eyed cabarets" (7), Mercier knows full well that his "delicate readers" will not come to such an ill-famed place. Now there is no need to do so: "I went there for you. You will see the place only in my picture, which will spare you some disagreeable sensations." And indeed Mercier writes often of places and people that few of his readers will or will have wanted to know: "Beggars" (3), "Rats" (5), "Prisons" (3, 8), "The Executioner" (3), "Cemeteries" (9), "Public latrines" (7, 11) (notably, the absence thereof), "Sewers" (7), and so on and on.

Instead of a place, Paris has been transformed into a multiform experience, one that Mercier describes in such a way that no Parisian need feel left out of that experience. By the same token, every Parisian can also feel more richly involved in a complexity that is less intimidating because it is now experienced—if only vicariously through the printed word. Behind or within each aspect of the narrative lies a larger claim of still greater importance. "This is what we now are," Mercier seems to say, inviting everyone to take both comfort and pride in the cohesion and identity that reading his experiences can bring.


In short, Mercier renders the city in terms of both the vagaries and the concrete possibilities of everyday life and through the occupations of ordinary people. He favors public space over private enclave. The places that attract him are not the palaces of royalty or the hôtels particuliers of the elite but rather the gardens and boulevards and promenades open to all, the shops of the bourgeoisie, the cafés, and the cabarets, places of natural urban promiscuity, where the urban spectacle is at its most lively. The individuals he crosses as he traverses the city from one end to the other are not, with a very few exceptions, the well known or highborn. The personages of the Tableau are the many who  fill the multitude of tasks on which the city depends: the water carriers, pawn brokers, charlatans, booklenders, cooks, governesses, authors, maids, prostitutes, working girls, dentists, midwives, lackeys, authors. The Tableau emerges in the act of reading as a vast compendium of the everyday practice of the city, where the ordinary may be the extraordinary, and where, under Mercier's pen, the extraordinary becomes ordinary, the stuff of everyday life, from the "Mobility of the Government," "Visits," and "Civility" to "Moving" and "Miracles."[7]

The broad net cast by the Tableau de Paris gives the work a decidedly modern flavor. Over a half century before the "Avant-Propos" to the Comédie humaine and the extended parallels Balzac will later draw between the animal and the human kingdoms, Mercier asserts that the human being "is an animal subject to the most varied and most astonishing modifications . . . whence the infinite number of forms that transform the individual according to the place, circumstances, and time" ('Préface"). Like Balzac, Mercier takes those transformations as his subject, and, like Balzac, he also receives considerable criticism for the reach of people and behavior of which he takes serious account. The most celebrated jibe comes from Antoine de Rivarol, man of letters and author of the most famous celebration of the French language, De l'universalité de la langue française (On the Universality of the French Language ) (1784). To a writer who flatly decrees that "what is not clear is not French," the Tableau de Paris must have appeared obscure and confused. Certainly he objects strenuously to what he viewed as its irremediable vulgarity. This is, Rivarol scolds, a work "thought up in the street and written on the street sign," whose author "has depicted the cellar and the attic and bypassed the salon."[8]


Rivarol is not totally off target. The street is never far from Mercier's eye. The street sign, as we have seen, is an apt analogy, and the streets themselves of eighteenth-century Paris are, and not just by Mercier's account, dirty. There is a good deal of dirt in the Tableau, both real and metaphorical, from the chapter entitled "Manure" (2) to the startling assertion that the proud city of the Enlightenment used to be called "Lutetia, city of mud!" ("Décrotteurs," 6). Mercier's city needs its garbage men, and Mercier sees that his Tableau gets them  ("Boueurs," 5). Readers accustomed to the decorous guidebooks that implicitly glorify the monarchy and explicitly praise the city must have been disconcerted, and quite possibly appalled, by the Tableau. Mercier concedes that his is a revisionist view and acknowledges that he has painted a more somber picture than readers are used to, one filled with "chagrin and anxiety" rather than the "joy and gaiety" traditionally attributed to Parisians. But he swears that his paintbrush renders faithfully what he has seen with his own eyes. Not for this ethnologist the "indeterminate and vague speculation" of experience that comes from books. He has, as he tells us, written the Tableau with his legs ("Mes Jambes," 11).

In walking the whole city, Mercier also bespeaks the implicit democracy of the coming revolution. Everything is of interest, and every layer of the city, every social group, receives its due. Privilege and poverty exist side by side. The importance accorded the lowly in this insistence upon a parallelism is almost unthinkable within the ideological (and therefore aesthetic) confines of the ancien régime. With the actual revolution, this same stress becomes part and parcel of a broader and inevitably more dynamic urban experience. One may go farther. Paris is almost incalculably more vital when everything is worthy of description. Mercier predicts, in every sense of the word, a revolutionary city of infinite possibility.

It is not simply what or whom Mercier talks about that explains the success of the Tableau de Paris among contemporaries or made it a model for literary guidebooks a half century later. The literary program that Mercier sets for himself in the 1780s echoes throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Mercier's is a new kind of Tableau de Paris, not the tableaux of Jèze, nor the many inventories or catalogues that seek to rationalize the city, but the tableau of the painter, with its varied palette and different brush strokes. No more annales, no more descriptions raisonnées or dictionnaires, no more antiquitez. Mercier marks his


dissent from the tradition of guidebooks by his determined refusal to take account  of topography or history: he has produced "neither inventory nor catalogue." He will not talk, he informs his readers at the outset, about the already fixed, about the monuments and buildings that mark urban space. (Ever-obliging, however, he supplies the name and address of a bookseller where a four-volume dictionary can be purchased.) He will himself fix the transient, the ever-changing public and private behavior, the "fleeting nuances" of comportment and "public and private customs," and everything else that strikes him in "this bizarre heap of customs that may be crazy or reasonable but always changing" ("Préface"). Mercier disavows satire; he is not, he tells us, a latter-day Lesage, however easy it would be to indulge in satirical sallies.

In a credo that looks ahead to and perhaps paves the way for the nineteenth-century realist novel, Mercier certifies that he will restrict himself to what he sees. There will be none of the intellectualizing that mars the work of so many of his contemporaries. His tableau is the product of "the brush of the painter," not "the meditation of the philosophe." Unlike so many others, he does not dismiss the world around him. His own century, his own country, his own city, interest him far more than the "uncertain history" of the Phoenicians or the Egyptian. And since it is, after all, with his contemporaries that he must communicate, the Tableau by rights concentrates on them. In a proclamation that points both ahead to the journalistic principles and the realist practice of the next century and back to the pedagogical thrust of the Enlightenment, Mercier asserts and justifies his unremitting focus on the present, on the "current generation and the physiognomy of my century" ("Préface").

It is here, in his concentration on the present and the exclusion of the past, that Mercier at once continues and revises the guidebook. New editions allow guidebooks to keep pace with the shifting urban scene. But these standard guides tend to place the changing landscape of the city within a fixed history. Fixed by a monarchical past, the changing present is defined and anchored by an established, conventional past and a rationalization of the present (remember that Jèze boasts that he considers Paris systematically, "relative to the Necessary, the Useful, the Agreeable, and [in the wonderful apparent non sequitur the Administration").


Mercier's Tableau parts company from contemporary urban discourse in its elimination of the anchor that had stabilized the city text at least since Henri IV in the beginning of the seventeenth century, namely the monarchy. Thus, even before the destruction of the Bastille actually altered the cityscape, Mercier undertook to remap Paris. His reinterpretation of the city, and of the larger society, reaches well beyond the specific criticisms of the government made with considerable verve (Mercier writes from a prudent self-imposed exile in Switzerland). Like the good philosophe that he is (despite his disclaimers), Mercier stakes his claim to glory on the "few useful verities" contained in his observations, which, he fervently hopes, will lead "the zealous administrator" to correct some of the more egregious abuses he points out ("Préface").

The reconfiguration of ethnologist turns out to be far more significant than the didacticism of the philosophe. Mercier's Paris is more various and more diverse than the Paris produced by the usual guidebook exactly because it has no focal point. In the Tableau, all classes, all occupations, meet and mix. The focal point is the author himself, whose subject, as he himself tells us, is the variety that he finds. The consequent jumble of the text faithfully reproduces the disarray of the city. Both, in Mercier's aggressively egalitarian view, repudiate the hierarchy and chronology that implicitly or explicitly order the conventional guidebook.

Mercier conceives his writing of a piece with his perception of the city. His language adheres to classical norms no more than his rendition of the city follows classical conceptions of urban design. Tellingly, if the word that he needs does not exist, Mercier makes one up. Language changes like the city, and Mercier connects the two fields of action in his Néologie ou vocabulaire des mots nouveaux, à renouveler ou pris dans des acceptions nouvelles (Neologia or Vocabulary of New Words, to Be Renewed or Taken in New Senses ) published in 1801. The clutter of the Tableau reproduces the confusion of the quotidian in a large city. If the Tableau can be seen as a harbinger of the Revolution, it is because this work exposes the neat distinctions between the first, second, and third estates for the fictions that they were. High and low born mixed in the public spaces of the city frequented by Mercier, and by his readers. As Mercier's city encompasses all walks of life, so too his Tableau mixes genres, tones, and modes. At once and in turn reporter, ethnographer, philosophe, man of letters, gossip columnist,


journalist, redoubtable pedestrian, watchdog of government, and more, Mercier sets a paradigm for urban observers for a century to come.

It is scarcely surprising that a work by someone who ten years before had written a utopian treatise (L'An deux mille quatre cent quarante, 1771) should adopt a prospective rather than a retrospective view of society. Mercier is by no means unaware of history. But his is a history in the making, a history of the present for the future, and he writes about the present as a past in the making. Thus, far beyond the ken of most of his contemporaries, Mercier addresses posterity, confident that a hundred years in the future readers will return to his work to find out about his century and his city.

This confidence, perhaps Mercier's greatest asset, was not misplaced. The Tableau de Paris inaugurated a new genre and served at once as model, standard, and norm  for innumerable later works about Paris. Louis-Sébastien Mercier was one of the first to write the diversity of the city. Almost alone, he created the essay-reportage, the urban genre that fascinated and inspired generations of urban explorers with its insistence upon the vitality and the meaning of turmoil and confusion. Not surprisingly, then, the "literary guidebooks" that proliferate in the early nineteenth century take the Tableau de Paris as a touchstone, as the work that they have to confront, as the model they must rewrite if they are to come anywhere near Mercier's achievement.

Mercier also sounds one more theme to which later Parisian guide-commentators will turn again and again, that of the special relationship between the writer and the city: "Paris is the country of a man of letters his only country" ("Paris, ou la Thébaide," 12). More than this, however, Mercier's practice sets the example for nineteenthcentury literary urban explorers: affirmation of the diversity of human, and particularly urban, experience and affirmation too of the equality of interest of all those experiences. Where writers in the 1830s and 1840s differ from Mercier, why Mercier himself cannot repeat the achievement of the Tableau de Paris after 1789, what makes his later writing at once more timid and more aggressive, is the colossal fact of actual revolution—1789, 1799, 1804, 1814, 1815, 1830. Mercier anticipates the event but not the many changes of regime that will soon impress upon writer and reader alike the ever-present possibility of violent social change.


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