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In Imitation of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Much was my confusion simulated
By dream within the life and yet the three
Stood a solemn wake about by the bedstead. 48

‘Why three’, I spoke, ‘and perhaps my soul free
Ranging in his sphere did send you hither
Or unbidden, least on truth shall we agree? 51

Choose what theme, although I may yet gather
from discourse what dreams do speak are fleeting
Its substance being laid neither here nor there’. 54

‘Why three?’, Why not five or one for asking
If you concede soul its circumference
Why settle for form and not unbound nothing? 57

In Conception what form you place summons
shades o’ meaning to which soul is but token,
As windswept clouds can toss pell mell a sense- 60

From shapes the eye will find names well spoken
But the wind casts it spell,- and what you read
Yet will vary, but fall within your ken. 63

The Sibyl spoke truly and she my rede
forestalled with words, ‘Look in your mirror
If we be the three Graces,- you concede 66

So much for the soul, it tells no error-
In the glass what form you would take
Paris must fit and here is our answer: 69

Art must but choose chaos so I would make
Names Raphael Michelangelo but
Two digits o’ selfsame Hand from it rake: 72

And so are we One in three forms strut
Imagination without Hand a lie
And without Art, we,- No more than a slut 75.

(To be continued)

Benny

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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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Paris was the cultural capital of the world. As Thomas Jefferson would qualify it ‘the second home of every cultured person. Is culture of any part distinct to be a beacon to every man who may have cut his teeth in the cultural milieu of his own corner under the sun?’ The difference may be illustrated in simple terms by the manner Parisian artists discovered Japanese art.

In about 1856 the French artist Felix Braquemond first came across a copy of the sketch book Hokusai Manga at the workshop of his printer; they had been used as packaging for a consignment of porcelain. In 1860 and 1861, black-and-white reproductions of ukiyo-e were published in books about Japan. Baudelaire wrote in a letter in 1861, “Quite a while ago I received a packet of japonneries. I’ve split them up among my friends …”. In 1862, La Porte Chinoise, a shop selling various Japanese goods including prints, opened in the rue de Rivoli, one of the most fashionable shopping street in Paris, and counted numerous artists from this art circle, like James Tissot, among its clients. This craze would lead to an art movement that we know as Impressionism. Whistler who was a frequenter of the salons of artists in Paris would introduce it in England. Such dissemination of Japanese art to all across the globe cannot happen by some fluke. Take music for instance: Maurice Ravel, saw the Indonesian Gamelan at the world fair in Paris and was inspired by its relaxed pentatonic sound. He did write some pieces for a full Gamelan and was forever influenced (Fray Hackbarth/quora.com). One need consider elsewhere in Europe the trends in music were becoming either loud ( shall I say ‘Wagnerian’?) or continuing the prevailing romantic style as was in the works of Brahms. French composers would resist such schism since in their fertile genius the use of pentatonic scale was more renewing and to the point. Whatever they did, carried their own stamp and it made a point. Thus they would set new trends after their own fashion. In short the world saw its own cultural heritage transformed and made altogether new. What was made in Paris sold across all the corners. Period.

Balzac was right: the city was the thinking voice of the world.

There is only one culture and each nation makes a part of it, and emotionally places hedges around it but holds nothing in their expression that can satisfy their intellect. Paris is where reverse is true. Besides the novelty of Japonism or Oriental music after having artistically elevated into a new mode, what else was there? Paris in short was the prism that can bear every colour of the spectrum.

 

Art in Paris as in the case of impressionism shall set the trends and la Belle Époque indeed showed it to its glorious best. If we continue we can well see the explosive colors and pictorial aberrations of the Fauve were not an anachronism but reflecting the moods of the times despite its surface glitter and gaiety. In 1905 it created furore when Salon d’Automne exhibited a room full of Matisse, Deraine, Marquet, Vlaminck. (A leading Fauvist spoofing critics who were enraged by the canvasses of the wild beasts(les fauves) used a donkey to create a canvas,’And the Sun set over the Adriatic-and it sold for 400 francs at an avant-garde show.) Victor Hugo’s dictum holds true: literature is civilization itself.’ Art was no exception reflecting the nation careening towards a catastrophe. The city exuded the national angst despite its thinking voice, and its own divided soul never fully recovered from the days of Revolution.

(To be continued)

 

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Paris, in Balzac’s words ‘is a sentient being’. If you need understand its sense of being one need only have entered into one of its houses in the early nineteenth- century Paris. Different classes and degrees of affluence might well be housed in the same building; only a subtle hint clued you in: higher you climbed you were entering a world of its own something out of Dante’s inferno. For every casual visitor again to quote Balzac, ‘Paris is still the same monstrous miracle, as astounding assemblage of movements, machines and ideas, the city of thousand different romances, the world’s thinking voice.’

Paris in the fin de siècle for all the restless movements must not have imagined it was standing on the rim of a crater and the beguiling way of living was merely a mood; despite swirling in a whirligig of ideas and fads the city would soon be swallowed up by the events of 1914. As such the good old days of Paris mark socially as well as culturally  a distinct social phenomenon called La Belle Époque.

France had much to be proud about. The nations industrial, scientific and cultural advances would be showcased by the International Exposition of 1900 and the Eifel Tower was its jewel in the crown. A million visitors ascended the Tower, which was completed 11 years before, all blissfully forgotten of its scathing reception during its erection (‘A ghastly dream’ it was called in 1887; Guy de Maupassant supposedly ate lunch in the tower’s restaurant every day because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible.)

On April, 14,1900 at four in the afternoon a balloon rose from the Tuileries Garden while 15,000 Parisians watched the cameraman who filmed the city for the coming Cinéorama, to be screened at the Exhibition that was due to open on the Left Bank.

The city was remodeled in the 1850s during the Empire Days by Baron Haussmann and had survived great many upheavals since then( the Commune of 1871 and Metro, whose first line opened to coincide with the Exhibition) and was the pleasure ground for two and a half million people. Symptomatic of the grand vision of the city everything was gigantic: the Ferris wheel 350 feet high, could carry 1,600 people at a time; The President of the Third Republic threw a party for 20,000 of mayors who were served by waiters on roller skates. The guide to the Exposition called the century ending ‘the most fertile in discoveries, the most prodigious in sciences’, that the world had had known and it spoke of a revolution in the economic order of the universe.’

In summer 1913, a party of San Francisco boy scouts passed through the city, and Le Figaro newspaper ran a survey – what had struck them the most?

Apart from the monuments and the gardens, they loved the trees lining the streets, and the general cleanliness. They thought the red trousers worn by soldiers most impressive, but it was odd how many young men wore moustaches and how many women smoked.

They loved the way policemen still wore swords, the dog barbers by the Seine, the glorious outdoor cafes. At the opera, one young American stared at the women “pivoting on their high heels, offering a fine view of their resplendent gowns and jewels”. This was Paris on the eve of war. Just doing what it did. Typical of the city, a thinking box, merely skirted the past, living for the moment. (Balzac quote is from his novel-Ferragus)( To be continued)

 

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Prussians after routing the French Army at Sedan headed towards the city of Paris. They were methodical and French towns were notified in advance of their route and requirements at each place. The list included one-and-a-half pound bread per soldier,one pound meat and one-quarter pound coffee, to five cigars and either a pint of wine and a pint of beer for soldier. Towns that didn’t  come up with the required supplies were burned to the ground.

News reached the Parisians and the city was in panic. To the pervasive beating of drums that relentlessly went on citoyens drilled in the streets days and nights men and boys alike, even at nights under the gas jets. Some 40,000 oxen and 250,000sheep were brought in from all directions to pasture in the Bois de Boulogne. Foods were packed into warehouses to prepare the city for siege. Rumor mill went on and every foreigner was suspect. Most foreigners had left Paris by August.

After the surrender of the Emperor the Government of National Defense had taken over the promise,’Not an inch of our soil will we cede, not a stone of our fortress.’ The US wanted Bismarck to lift the siege and also sent Civil War Generals, Sheridan and Burnside and Leonard Jerome(Churchill’s maternal grandfather).

The three envoys found the city starving. Warehouses were emptied long ago and so were the horses in the Bois de Boulogne. Some two months before Christmas menu at a Paris restaurant had listed:soup from horse meat,mince of cat,shoulder of dog with tomato sauce,roast donkey and potatoes, mice on toast.

According to one ‘sewer rats were considered far more delicate than young chickens. One gourmet found rat tasted like a mixture of pork and partridge.

Dogs sold for four francs a pound when it was available, compared to horse at 40centimes a kilogram. Cats were a delicacy and the price was 20 fr. per pound. According to Chronique de Siege the Parisians had eaten 25,523 cats not counting alley cats. When the zoo was closed elephant trunks went around eight dollars a pound. Camel kidneys were much cheaper. Bread seems to have been made from panama hats picked up from gutter and a piece of bread was the selling rate for a prostitute.

The only plentiful food was mustard and champagne. The prolonged siege made crush of starving men and women throwing at the Prussian soldiers for food. It angered Bismarck who wanted the troops to fire on the citizens.  When someone pointed out that the Prussian soldiers may not do that the Iron Chancellor was sure that the soldiers ought to be punished for disobedience. He seemed to have remarked ,’I  attach no great importance to human life, because I believe in another world.’ Concluded.
(ack:i)Napoleon II-and his carnival empire/John Murray-1988/John Bierman.ii)Jennie/The life of Lady Randolph Churchill/Signet,1970/Ralph G. Martin)

Tailspin: The terrible misery that visited Germany during the Hyperinflation and Paris under siege are two sides of the same coin. Integration principle works slowly but sets man’s inhumanity to one another on the same yardstick.

benny

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