When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…



Romantic Agony

March 9, 2008


Mario Praz’s book, The Romantic Agony was published in 1933. I happen to think that my psychedelic Jagger image is just as appropriate to a discussion of it as the 16th century paintings that grace the cover of my Oxford paperpack edition. Probably more so, though Mario would have probably vomited at the thought of Jagger on the cover of his book.

The book, is discussed in this article at a “wiki site” (something I don’t understand too well) that seems to be presided over by the blogger Jahsonic, an affable fellow who shares many interests of anyone interested in this post.

In the text, Praz delves in great detail into the morbid sexual imagery that infuses much of romantic literature during the 19th century. The book contains lengthy excerpts – often in French – has a fantastic index, and a table of contents worth browsing in its own right. Starting pre-romance, with the Shadow of the Divine Marquis, he sets the stage for what will come in his discussion of authors down to the time of the Symbolists and Decadents, and D’Annunzio.

I learned of this book from another, Dreamers of Decadence, by Phillipe Julien, a study of the art of the late 19th century Symbolists. At the time I read these books, I was about sixteen years old, which tells you something about where my head was at. I later kicked myself for not developing a syndicate to buy up art of this period, considered kitsch and dreck in the early 70s, but which I, in a rare bit of financial acuity, knew would soar in value soon. And so it did! Every style has its day, and a second day, and another…With the hippies of the 60s growing up, abstract expressionism and modernism was bound to go out and the overheated sensibilities of the decadents would find buyers again. Thus, we come to Mick Jagger again, the watered down Satan of rock ‘n’ roll.

Praz’s book is of a type that doesn’t get written much these days, I think. I loved the scholarly apparatus of the notes, the clear sense that a scholar was at work here, one who knew his field, and could show the evidence for his point of view. So much love for the texts – he is not a critical vivisectionist, though he has his opinions!

Yes, I spent many happy hours searching for the juicy parts, reading them over and over, imagining their effect on certain attractive young women I fancied. I even read passages to one of them, during a romantic evening a deux. I think it was the passage in which Swineburne compared his passion to rats gnawing on a corpse…you never know what will grab a girl, do you?

Finally, I must quote Praz on the Divine Marquis:

Let us give Sade his due, as having been the first to expose, in all its crudity, the mechanism of homo sensualis, let us even assign him a place of honour as a psychopathologist and admit his influence on a whole century of literature; but courage (to give a nobler name to what most people would call shamelessness) does not suffice to give originality to a thought, nor does the hurried jotting down of all the cruel fantasies which obsess the mind suffice to give a work mastery of style…The most elementary qualities of a writer – let us not say, of a writer of genius – are lacking in Sade.

Such wonderful good sense! Such a sure grasp of values! Much as I love the surrealists, I always found their championing of Sade a little tiresome. The fact is, Sade is boring! He is not a fine writer. People who regard any discussion of sex or perversion as thrilling may find him congenial, but he really only has three or four things to say, and he says them at length, over and over. (Philosophy in the Bedroom is his only piece that I can recall as having a sustained and interesting argument. And he is arguing, always…) Would that this quotation by Praz were repeated everytime a new book, film, or play comes out with Sade as the misunderstood poete maudit.

They say that if you will sup with the devil, bring a long spoon. Praz could have broken bread with Satan himself, with no fear for his soul.