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Prologue: Writing Revolutions
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Writing Revolutions

Das XIX Jahrhundert ein Zeitraum (ein Zeit-traum)
Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk

The nineteenth century—a time-space, a dream-time.

The year 1789 made Paris the city of revolution, and it remained so for the century that followed. The city had been the theater of the Revolution in the 1790s, and for almost the whole of the nineteenth century it set the stage for revolution yet to come. The nineteenth century could neither contain the Revolution as a current event, though it would try, nor relegate it to the immobility of the past. The Revolution was, instead, a vital social phenomenon that had to be reengaged, redefined, and reimagined by each succeeding generation. And if Paris was, in Walter Benjamin's brilliant characterization, the "capital of the nineteenth century," it was because revolution haunted the present and the future of the city even more than its past. The history of the French Revolution was always written in the present tense. Nineteenth-century observers could scarcely escape the confrontation of city and revolution. The profoundly urban character of the Revolution, contemporaries agreed, had a great deal to do with the decidedly revolutionary nature of the rapidly transforming urban scene. Given the connection, it was imperative that Paris be explored and known again and again. Knowing, in this sense, would always be a complicated business.

Inevitably caught up in the turmoil, writers focused so obsessively on the city because it seemed to hold the key to an explosive past no less than to a bewildering future. Paris as Revolution locates the originality of nineteenth-century fiction in this convergence, in the intense commitment of these writers to knowing the city and to dramatizing that knowledge. Seen as revolutionary performances them-selves, the great works of Flaubert, Hugo, Vallès, and Zola that I discuss in the chapters below stand as the extraordinary, vital elements


of a vast urban text. Paris produces far more than the background for the tales these novels tell; it furnishes the terms of the narrative itself. These writings do not just talk about revolution in the city; they stage the city as itself revolutionary, and on many levels at once.

Paris served quite literally as a revolutionary stage. The site for the most dramatic as well as the most emblematic events of the Revolution—from  the storming of the Bastille to the executions of the Terror—the city offered an ideal space for the daily practice of revolutionary ideals. The concentration of energies and institutions, like the density and volatility of population, exacerbated the inherently public character of the Revolution. From the Festivals of Reason and Federation on the Champ de Mars to the carts of prisoners trundled about Paris, the Revolution put the political on display. So much of what has come to be thought of as modern about the events of 1789 derived from the translation of politics into everyday life, where every move, every speech, every article of clothing, made a public statement. Every engaged citizen appeared on stage at every moment.

These politics of publicity connect Paris in revolution to modernity. The delicately balanced, even at times slightly perverse relation of the observer to the observed, which Baudelaire made so important a feature of the modern metropolis, actually begins in revolution and then proclaims itself in the revolutions that disrupted Paris after 1789. In the public arena, it became as essential to be seen, and be judged, as it was to see, and judge. Sorting out the signs of revolution meant ordering the city in a complex interaction of political identity, social setting, and cultural practice.

A convenient label after 1789, "postrevolutionary" begs more questions than it answers. Where should we stand to determine what revolutionary meant, and might mean still? After which revolution? 1789? 1830? 1848? 1871? Do we mean revolution in the city or revolution of the city? Must postrevolutionary imply that revolution has somehow ended? From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, "prerevolutionary" is surely as appropriate at any given moment prior to 1871 for a society that overthrew or established three monarchies, three republics, and two empires in just over eighty years. Radical political dislocation consumed the century, and its concomitant, revolution, became the antithesis of a discrete event. Revolution became a state of mind, a heightened consciousness of the fragility of social institutions, and an acute sense of the possibility of continuing and constant transformation. In the course of time, that possi-


bility became a probability that demanded action and reaction, again and again, from both the individual and the collectivity.

If revolution disquieted, it also exhilarated. For sheer intensity of creative energies, nineteenth-century Paris had no rival. The emerging urban discourse compelled critical strategies of accommodation to an ever-shifting milieu. Although cities had long been associated with both political unrest and intellectual innovation, nineteenth-century Paris was unique, and not least because its narratives presumed to tell the story of the modern world. The great novelists of the nineteenth century did not simply write about the Paris that they knew (or hoped to know); they confronted the human condition in that time and place, fully confident that they could fix the meaning of the largest transformations through the multifaceted phenomena of revolution and urbanization. Their narratives of the modern city also transcribe an emerging modernism. The fragmentation of vision, the disintegration of experience, the primacy of individual expression over collective belief—these are the signs that mark these novels as chronicles of the modern. These works are, in consequence, essential to an appreciation of both the urban setting and the changing form of the novel.

Yet, for all the modernity that twentieth-century readers recognize in them, these works are very much of their century. The fragmentation of vision is countered by an assumption of narrative authority, an authority that rests, I shall argue, in the assumed role that revolution plays in narrative. Revolution was a virtuoso metaphor that gave the nineteenth-century city and also the nineteenth-century novel an originary source, a dramatic contemporary context, and an interpretive model. It could explain the city and make sense of its apparent contradictions. It could comprehend the city as a whole. Since revolution related at once to the past, the present, and the future, it touched every aspect of politics, society, and culture. Specific political assessments aside, revolution was imagined very differently depending on whether revolution was grasped as the historical events that followed more or less directly upon 1789; perceived as the contemporary and continuous political agitation that brought into being the regimes of 1799, 1830, 1848, 1851, and 1871; or, yet again, filtered through the fears and hopes of dramatic change still to come.[1]

At issue in every explication were the connections between the several dimensions of revolution. How were the changes of regime tied to the escalating impact of industrial capitalism? How did both


impel the literary and artistic turmoil that so altered modes of artistic production and the products themselves? That there were connections was obvious to the most indifferent observer, but the exact nature and meaning of the linkages were a subject of great debate. The choices within the vast semantic and sociological field of revolution charted the range of both literary options and political positions from the beginning to the end of the century. Assuredly, the world of literature was not what it had been, and even if there was little agreement on what literature had been under the ancien régime, every change at hand was intimately linked to revolution. The indissoluble connection between literature and politics was already a commonplace when, in 1802, the vicomte de Bonald made his celebrated proclamation that "literature is the expression of society as language is the expression of man."[2] But the continuing fact and presence of revolution gave the idea irrefutable and constant confirmation. The connection became almost an article of faith for the century that followed, regardless of political or aesthetic position. Revolution on the street, revolution on the page—the two were inevitably found together, even if the relations were far from transparent and the correlation was often indirect.

Attitudes toward revolution are always problematic, but in nineteenth-century Paris they were as consuming as they were at least in part because they were also confused. Passionate involvement with revolution in its many guises turned Paris into an engrossing object of cultural speculation. As a result, the city comprised much more than the subject and backdrop that it had provided for writers and painters for close to six centuries.[3] From the background of cultural performance, Paris moved to center stage, and it did so through urban narratives that focused importantly, if not exclusively, on revolution as the deciding factor in the changes marking Paris on virtually every street. The great social and political reconfiguration that followed upon 1789 bestowed upon the city a status that it held for a century: the permanent but ever-changing site of the Revolution gave birth to the city of revolution.

The capaciousness of the concept made both its literary and its sociological fortune. Revolution proposed such a seductive model for literary interpretation because it constructed social change simultaneously as a function of time and of space, the very elements that form the foundation of any narrative. Revolution is the perfect chron-


otope, the rhetorical figure proposed by Mikhail Bakhtin that fixes the interaction of historical time and space in a work of literature. Understanding how chronotopes work in particular texts is fundamental, Bakhtin argues, to figuring out how genres work.[4] If we accept Bakhtin's claim that particular genres are distinguished by their chronotopes, we realize that revolution may well give us the distinctive chronotope of nineteenth-century urban narratives. For in rendering the triangulation of time, space, and text, revolution suggests the decisive context for thinking about the city in nineteenth-century France. A three-way definition of self, society, and political identity is always at work in the nineteenth-century authors who write about Paris, and the controlling frame of reference is invariably the place that each constructs in a revolutionary tradition.

Whether present or repressed, implicit or explicit, revolution determines what Benjamin calls the "time-space" and the "dreamtime" that define nineteenth-century Paris.[5] But these definitions are necessarily multifaceted in both theory and appeal. Any appreciation of revolution as paradigmatic chronotope must be an interdisciplinary process. Literary criticism, historical interpretation, and sociological placement join in any realization of the symbol system that is constructed in and around nineteenth-century Paris, and it helps to keep these disciplines in play in our own awareness of nineteenthcentury conflations.

The genres that work out these historical and spatial interconnections most fully are the journalistic essay and the novel, which together constitute something of a "collective autobiography" of Paris and Parisians as they confronted a rapidly changing world for which they were often ill prepared.[6] To read these prototypical genres of the modernizing city is to do more than discover the great number of revolutionary and revolutionized urban texts that recount the city and tell stories about the Revolution. These profoundly urban genres make the city itself into a revolutionary text. To speak of an "urban genre" or a "revolutionary text" is to do more than indulge in metaphor. Or rather, this particular metaphor takes on a theoretical life of its own. If reading the city has become a commonplace, we do well to remember that we are able to undertake such readings, as Michel de Certeau reminds us, only because of the properties the urban text shares with written or more specifically literary texts.[7] Urban and literary texts alike display the never-ending dialogue between author


and work, between work and reader that also inheres in the practice of the city. Each exhibits the contest between fabrication and interpretation; each exemplifies the shifting affinities between text and intertexts. Moreover, reading urban space in terms of a literary narrative comes easily to nineteenth-century Parisians who struggle with the vitality of revolution in order to represent, to explain, and, finally, to make sense of their city.

The power of what is in sum a political aesthetic lies precisely in the expression these works give to a collective memory or tradition. At the same time, these texts anchor and thereby perpetuate that memory. They provide a "social frame," to take Maurice Halbwachs' term, on which society hangs its beliefs and its practices. But, as Halbwachs also argues, the social memory—in this case, revolution—remains alive only to the extent that it is reactivated by and through current social structures.[8] The names of the city scrutinized in chapter 1, the guidebooks of chapter 2, and the novels of Flaubert, Hugo, Vallès, and Zola analyzed in subsequent chapters—all of these manifestations of the written word, from the ephemeral journal article to the most complex literary work, are means by which the present activates the past and keeps it alive. Revolution was contemporary in nineteenth-century France not only because of the recurrent political conflict and the repeated changes of regime but also because so many texts supplied a continuous social frame and literary narrative for the revolutionary tradition.

These works were not the only means of communication, and it is certainly true that they rely on other kinds of social frames that also kept revolution alive. Even so, I shall argue, the power of these texts lies in their capacity to mobilize revolution in the present—even, at far remove, today. In the construction of revolution and in the elaboration of the symbol system attached to Paris, the texts examined in Paris as Revolution played a critical role for contemporaries, and to the extent that these texts are read still, they perpetuate revolutionary Paris a century and more later. To the degree that the Revolution remains a touchstone in French culture (a matter of much current debate), these texts will resonate within that culture. They, in turn, will have something to do with keeping revolution alive.

Much of the power of these works derives from the sense of authority that they radiate. These writers are confident that they can know Paris. However different Vallès, Hugo, Flaubert, and Zola are,


they all write from knowledge of some sort and, more important still, they write from a presumption of knowability. For them, the city is readable, and they write within this conviction of legibility.[9] The assurance of legibility governs the work of some—Balzac, Hugo, and Zola—more obviously than others—Flaubert and, perhaps, Vallès. But this faith—and it is indeed a faith—makes all of these writers figures of the nineteenth century.

There is, of course, much criticism, both of individual writers and of nineteenth-century fiction more generally, that rightly stresses the complexity of representation and the awareness of these writers of that complexity.[10] Reading backward from Proust or Joyce, Sarraute or Beckett, the twentieth-century reader finds the authority of the omniscient narrator not so unimpeachable after all. The urban narrative that I identify in effect mediates between the necessarily simplifying perspective of the controlling author (the "bird's-eye view" of the omniscient narrator) and the muddled, fragmentary perspective from within the labyrinth of the city (the incomplete, obscure point of view of the protagonists in these works). That these writers at times acknowledge the fragmentary and therefore faulty nature of the knowledge that their works convey does not lead them  to renounce the larger project of understanding. For the writers of revolutionary Paris, the possibility of knowledge of the city, its fundamental knowability, is a requisite article of faith. When Paris ceases to appear knowable, as it does by the end of the century, when revolution no longer offers an explanatory principle but becomes one of many available images in the cultural archive, this revolutionary tradition comes to an end. At that point, revolutionary energies turn in other directions, twentieth-century journalists and novelists look to other models and other aesthetics, and they imagine other cities.


Paris as Revolution follows these urban narratives from the First to the Third Republics, from the expansion of the city beginning in the First Empire to the demolition and reconstruction during the Second Empire, from the political triumphs of 1789 and 1830 to the revolutionary defeats of 1848-51 and 1870-71, and to the Dreyfus affair at the end of the century. The political parallels are not fortuitous. Each of these major events redefined Paris, its topography, its soci-


ology, its iconography, its systems of representation. Each of the chapters below analyzes this nexus of the political, the cultural, and the iconographical at a particular historical moment. I shall not have much to say about the actual alterations of the topography or the political or social landscape of Paris over the nineteenth century because I am concerned above all with the means by which that landscape was understood and with the rhetorical frame that conveyed this understanding. I want to know how Paris was represented and how Paris was known.

The most obvious change in Paris appears in urban iconography, and particularly in the names by which the city represented itself. As the monarchy had claimed symbolic authority over the city by imposing its favored names, so the revolutionaries of the 1790s contested that authority by proposing their own politically correct names and images to control the stage upon which revolution was to play itself out. The strident battles over nomination and representation, which recurred at every stage of revolutionary change in Paris, underline the issue of ideological control that will emerge in a more muted form in literary and journalistic writing.

The literary guidebooks that proliferated from the beginning of the century worked to secure the transformed and ever-transforming social landscape. A crucially important genre in the writing about the city in the nineteenth century, these proto-novels of the city responded to the new Paris that demanded to be named, defined, and explored, enterprises that became increasingly problematic as the city itself was reconfigured. The guidebooks of nineteenth-century Paris reached for images that would render a larger meaning in narratives that were consciously partial and soon outdated.

Whereas the guidebooks wander about Paris and ramble over the text, the novel aimed for rhetorical control. To clarify how the novel commanded the revolutionary city, I have focused on a number of classic writers and texts, each of which confronted Paris at a moment of political crisis, at a time when revolutionary hopes fell. For Flaubert in L'Éducation sentimentale, it was the failure of 1848 and the coup d'état of 1851 that turned the jaunty flâneur, prototype of the artist in control of the urban environment, into the failed artist, the hapless soul lost in the city. For Zola in La Curée, it was the Second Empire, which unleashed unprecedented speculation and set Paris on the course to defeat; in La Débâcle, it was the war and the Commune in


1870-71. For Hugo in Quatrevingt-treize and Vallès in L'Insurgé, it was, once again, the Commune, the civil war that pitted France against Paris. Finally, Zola, in the novel named simply, but superbly, Paris, confronted the city as it faced the twentieth century.

These times of political crisis accentuate the inevitable disparity between the vision of a city and urban realities, between the dream of political change and the actuality of politics. Representations of the city, too, are caught in discrepancy, between the emblems that work to fix the image of the city and the narratives that endeavor to capture its movement. For nineteenth-century Paris, revolution afforded a dynamic principle, at once a principle of explanation and of representation, simultaneously vision and reality. Static representations of the city—the names, the seals, the icons—remain locked in the past, attached to a particular moment in time and to a particular definition of revolution. The great works of urban narrative, however, conceive revolution as an active narrative force. One might even say that the great novelists Flaubert, Zola, Hugo, and Vallès, whose works I shall discuss, conceived revolution as a precept of representation. For these writers revolution did not pose a problem so much as challenge their powers of representation. They needed, and they created, the kind of narratives in which Benjamin's time-space and dream-time could become one. In the process, they gave artistic force to the legendary verdict handed down by Emperor Charles V in 1540 that Paris is not a city but a world.[11]


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Prologue: Writing Revolutions
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