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Posts Tagged ‘the Man on the Horseback’

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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