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Archive for January 18th, 2016

La Belle Époque in ultimate analysis reveals no substance or a constancy of national character but an acute elevation of senses. This would be reflected in the works of JK Huysmans(Á Rebours) and of Proust (Á la recherche du temps perdu). This upbeat mood was steadily dissipated in the light of events that convulsed entire Europe. It was a mood that a man about town would feel after a satisfying night out, before confronting dismal circumstances awaiting him at home. A brief respite it gave Parisian, a hope that emerging industrial and technological advances would lead to richer, happier life. But by the 1910s much of that promise had vanished. As poet, philosopher Paul Valery put it, our civilization had found that it was mortal. While the delicate Marcel Proust stood on the balcony of the Ritz to watch the German planes strafe Paris a young priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was serving as a stretcher bearer of the trenches. He would write home that the front was ‘the extreme boundary between what we already know and what is still taking shape.’

The north and western suburbs of Paris were the motor city of the day. There were 600 car manufactories in France and 150 different makes – not just the emerging giants of Peugeot and Renault, but long-forgotten treasures like Berliet and Delaunay-Belleville. Delaunay-Belleville, which operated from what is now the high-immigration suburb of Saint-Denis, made limousines for Tsar Nicholas of Russia. France was the world’s biggest exporter of cars, and there was pride, but no great surprise, when the racing driver Jules Goux won the 1913 Indianapolis 500 – in a Peugeot.

France led the way in the skies. Bleriot crossed the channel in 1908, and in 1913 the sportsman Roland Garros – later (after his death in combat in the last month of the war) to give his name to the tennis stadium in Paris – completed the first ever crossing of the Mediterranean. And in cinema, invented, of course, by the Lumiere brothers two decades before, France vied with the US for first place in number of films produced – more than 1,000 every year, made by names still familiar today like Gaumont and Pathe.

Modernity was the moving spirit. It was the time of the machine. The city’s last horse-drawn omnibus made its way from Saint-Sulpice to La Villette in January 1913. From the top of the Eiffel Tower, built 35 years earlier like a symbol of the coming age, a mast had recently been erected, beaming radio waves into the ether.

Advances in Science and a new understanding of the nature of time and space would enable artists and writers to break the mould and experiment as Gertrude Stein did with language. As an art movement cubism entailed a new way of looking at things. In Paris Pablo Picasso and his friend Georges Braque would take the lead. Instead of painting things as they appeared to a single pair of eyes at a single moment in time, they painted things from a variety of possible viewpoints, creating a shifting world of abstract space. In the words of the late art historian Robert Hughes, the cubism of Picasso and Braque, created in the years running up to the war, was every bit as modern – and indeed part of the same destabilising intellectual movement – as the contemporary forays of Einstein into the secrets of relativity.

The speed of change, the rise of technology over craftsmanship, the frenetic search for new modes of artistic expression, as one avant-garde was overtaken by the next (and let’s not forget that 1913 was also the year in Paris that Marcel Duchamp presented his first “readymade” – a bicycle wheel on a stool – making the point that anything is art if you say it is), all this must have worked its way into the collective subconscious, creating a feeling that matters were accelerating out of control. It was indeed so. Just as the ideals of 1789 went out of control in the Commune of 1971 while the social changes merely created new class system and inequalities the spirit of optimism of the Parisians was backward looking than in the future.

Aftermath

Institutions would not escape the blight that had eaten into the vitals of  the republic. The Church, the Army and Politics were at odds with one another, which would bedevil the Third Republic till the Nazi Germany marched into Paris on 14 June 1940. These six weeks it took the brown-shirts to claim control of Paris showed the lie of La Belle Époque: it had lost its will. The setting up of the Vichy government under Marshall Philippe Petain was the coup de grace given to the nation that could never come to grip with ideals for which they fought the Great Revolution.

(Ack: Hugh Scofield-BBC news Paris/magazine- 7 Jan, 2014 (2) Wikipedia

(3)Eugen Weber-Paris La Belle Epoque/ NGC-July 1989)

Benny

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In order to have an insight as to how thin a veneer the cultural capital wore and its splendid cosmopolitan joie de vivre with which it dazzled every visitor, one need understand its denizens itself. The intellectual ferment the city carried was no more a mask than the narrow provincialism it concealed: the masses were held in check by their fractured social affiliations. Of the many institutions there was nothing to cement these into one. The Right, Centrist, the Left, anti-clerical and anti-monarchial all these on the petri dish of national politics were manifestation of provincialism, each vying with one other. It would reveal itself periodically in startling fashion. L’affaire Dreyfus for example. The many newspapers each representing its narrow interests made them all the more fractious.

Despite the Great Revolution of 1789 and adopting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the nation was haunted by monarchial ambitions for which the Right and the Church had insidiously worked; the Army also had its secret clubs to promote their own narrow interests. Such divisiveness would lead ultimately to the collapse of the republic. Apart from these there was a shadow of the Man on the Horseback, some military adventurer literally emulating the Eagle. The glory days of Napoleon had given the Army a hapless duty to preserve the gloire at any cost. In the unjust framing of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, the role of the Army would prove to be a dubious one. France was a divided nation and its social structure carried over the thrusts and retreats of various institutions, like a body seeking its balance by a fever of sorts. For the bourgeoisie the intellectual life of Paris was distant and far removed from their own realities.

The French are noted for their Gallic spirit. They were volatile, energetic and ever unruly. There were lots of peasant and urban revolts under the ancien regime but these did not break into a sustained conflagration as it did in 1789. When their ire was up their cruelty would surpass anything, as in the case of the storming of Bastille. In this they would capture the hapless governor whose head they cut off with a pocket knife and would impale on a pike. The guillotine was touted as humane capital punishment (like ‘a cool breath on the back of the neck’ according to its inventor, Dr. Joseph I. Guillotine). Its claim however was lost in the many thousands of victims needlessly sent to death in a general atmosphere of savagery and blood lust.)

Being volatile their attention from pressing issues of the day wandered and did not mend matters.

The city was a hotchpotch of separate quartiers, each insulated from one other from which inhabitants seldom ventured forth. A cab ride cost about the equivalent of a workman’s daily wages, and the poorer you were, the more quartier bound you were likely to be; many a workman’s child grew to adolescence before World War I without getting out of Ménilmontant or Belleville. In the movie Les Enfants du Paradis there is a scene in which Garance relives to Baptiste (whom she had just met) her indigent youth in Ménilmontant. Along the way pointing to it she adds, ‘(At fifteen) anyone who has grown up too fast doesn’t stay alone very long.’ Only alternative for girls like her was to become a demimondaine in the city of Paris.

Prostitution was all pervasive for girls with no means of family, talent or support. Young men fared no better. Those who dared to break the restraints of the provincial life needed entirely an altogether temper to make it rich in the city of Paris. Most commodity a yokel could bring along was his stolidity of his forebears and those who jettisoned all those values and relied on wits made it to the top like Balzac’s character Eugene de Rastigniac. The other side of the coin bears the image of Lucien Rubempré.

As Balzac would say, ‘….The streets of Paris have human qualities… and some of them like the Rue Montmartre are like mermaids-lovely heads, but fishtails at the extremity.’ The fashion of the City of lights dazzled and at the other end dirt roosted permanently. Not only when servants throw peelings and offals out the windows to annoy the concierge but in the general lack of amenities. The sordid haunted all sides of life. At the time of the Revolution the Place de la Bastille,on the edge of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was then a warren of tenements, craft shops all fetid with unwashed men and women while at the Palais Royale, its arcades and apartments filled with bistros, gambling and bawdy houses. Here the 30,000 prostitutes plied their trade among its 650,000 inhabitants. The model of the bourgeois apartment house of that is the centre of Zola’s Pot-Bouille, reveals no taps or sinks, let alone lavatories.

( Merle Severy-The Great Revolution/NG-July 1989)

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