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THERE IS A STORY that Baron Haussmann, who rebuilt Paris in the middle of the last century, on his deathbed wished all his work undone.—Would that it died with me! he is supposed to have said, though as he died of a congestion of the lungs his last words may have been garbled. If the doctor who heard them and, astonished, wrote them down, made no mistake, then we're left with a riddle, for in life Haussmann seemed incapable of regret. Regret is a backward-turning emotion, and the Baron was famous for straightforwardness; he made the boulevards and razed the crooked lanes where tanners' sheds fronted cracked courtyards and sewer ditches spilled over into the bins of wire and paper petals of the artificial-flower makers for which the city, before his arrival on the scene, was famous. To Haussmann's German name and the sense of order which, we can only assume, came with it, we owe the sidewalk cafés with their six tiers of wicker chairs, the public urinals and Morris columns for theatrical advertisements, the insane asylum of Sainte-Anne and the park at Boulogne; to him we owe the rows of plane trees which in summer catch dust and sunlight in their leaves, and the pastime of strolling that caught on as the sidewalk widened into the twentieth century. Stop a moment on the avenue Foch, one afternoon, and thank Haussmann; stop again on the boulevard Raspail on your way home, weigh the oblong package of dates tucked under your arm, and wonder why the Baron, having made all this, wished it undone? Was it selfishness? Or as death approached did he see for the first time that the Emperor had been wrong, the speculators had been wrong, the engineers had been wrong, he had been wrong—did he see that, in all his work, there was something to regret?
To answer these questions we'll need the story of a girl. She was called Madeleine, after the church which on clear mornings sends its shadow almost as far as the rue de Surène: a minor axis compared to the great north-south sweep of the boulevard de Sébastopol and the boulevard Saint-Michel, but one which, in its daily growth and diminution, threatens to reveal the truth, that Paris is not made of axes but of sorties toward every compass point, which wind with the wind from forgotten tanneries and follow the tributaries to the Seine just as they did in Roman times. The story of a girl becomes the story of a road, of many roads; the roads lead us back to old buildings; and now, if we look inside the buildings, we find Madeleine, a tanner's daughter, born to dye and the evil smell of skin. But to get from Madeleine-church to Madeleine-girl we must cross from the Right Bank to the Left. We'll do so—why not? for our architecture will need a few people to bear it out—in the company of an old lamplighter, Jacob his given name, returning from his rounds on the Île de la Cité. He has been looking in convent windows. Though modest in his other tastes, Jacob has an appetite for three things, innocent enough singly, but which together constitute a vice: for lamps, for curtains, and for nuns. It's best, he thinks, bootnails clicking against the flagstones of the otherwise quiet bridge, if the light is behind the curtain. To see the shrouded form pass into the lit square of the windowpane, a walking sarcophagus one would say for all the drapery it's wrapped in—and then to stand, stick in one hand and matches in the other, as the woman kneels and the shadow-wimple is lifted from her invisible face ... To watch the shadowy motions of a nun at her prayers behind a lit window is perhaps the greatest pleasure one can know in this life, as it combines religion, lust, and flame, the three forces which vie—so thinks Jacob—to consume the world. When the lamp within goes out, then it's time to raise the wick, strike the match, burn one's disappointment in rapeseed oil until dawn. If you know a lamplighter, then you know that streetlights are only so many monuments to failed voyeurism. Jacob wonders whether the new gaslights, far from extending the city's life into the night, won't blind Paris to itself; then, arguing with himself, he proposes that streetlights are simply a reversal of the normal nighttime order of seeing and being seen. The well-lit streets become blind, while the cloisters, under cover of darkness, open their eyes. Then Jacob has crossed the bridge. The thin streets behind the Quai Saint-Bernard urge him to hurry; the Ursulines are impatient for him to finish his rounds.
Let him go for a moment. Listen instead to the gurgle of the Bièvre stream, and smell the strange smells which rise from between its banks. Shit and tannin and the smell of rotten meat; faint beneath these the brackish smell of the water, which grows greener and thicker on its way through the city until it dilutes itself again in the Seine. Nothing lives in the Bièvre, although there is much in it that was once alive, and much which, silting the banks downstream, will give rise to life again. Nothing lives in the Bièvre, as a rule, although many people live by it, and in general find in this circumstance occasion for regret. Tanners mostly, who in their sheds and huddled factories prepare humans to wear the skins of beasts; and mercers, wine-market porters, and students little better than walking tuns of wine, who rest their heavy heads on their blotters and prepare with a groan for the coming of night. And families; and families with children; and lamplighters. Children in Paris in the year 1840 have more fates available to them than any other children in the world. Theirs a monarchy, a republic, a new empire, and theirs its fall; they have revolutions ahead of them, and the possibility of choosing sides again and again. They are at the head of the army of children who will overflow the city, swelling it like a belly. These swollen-bellied children will change the map not by revolution, but by numbers. They'll clamor for homes, factories, parks, shops, diversions; in 1871 they will cry briefly for brotherhood and for liberty; but by then their work will already be done. The city will have grown to fit them; for justice they will have blocks of apartments, and for liberty, parks. Before all that they will have to be apprenticed, and before that survive the difficult period between birth and work, when children are most susceptible to poverty, disease, beggary, blinding, suffocation, and abandonment.
Or, in Madeleine's case, to both of these last two at once: born to a tanner's dying wife, she was dropped in the Bièvre. There she was saved by pollution, for the river was already so laden with debris that nothing more could sink into it. She was spared, at least, for as long as it took a lamplighter to distinguish her gurgle from the gurgle of the water and pull her with his lighting pole to the bank.
Forget the interpretation of dreams; what we need is a good psychology of last wishes. Why would a dying woman wish not to be survived by her only child? Revenge on the killer who split her open, and was caught red-handed, covered in blood; or the opposite. A motherless child grows only halfway into the world: one part of it always remains undeveloped, red-fisted, wailing. Perhaps tenderness moved the tanner's wife, or a sense of responsibility carried too far: she wanted to take no action whose consequences she could not oversee. Or perhaps—but the tanner won't think it until much later, when he enters into conversation with a cat—perhaps she whispered some word which was not Drown, or said Drown, drown it, but meant something entirely different ... Of all our wishes, it is the last ones that are most likely to be misunderstood. In any case she died. And Armand the tanner carried his daughter, nameless, to the river, and threw her headfirst into the evening-blue sewer. Later he would wonder whether even the streetlamps mourned the death of his wife, for they stayed dark all night.
Madeleine, a naturally buoyant child, rose quickly into Jacob's dusky world. She walked before she spoke, and long before she walked she learned to see. She stared out from her basket of swaddling at whatever was most distant, the grinning green ensign of the Benedictine Tavern if she happened to be facing the window, or the pot- and rag-filled recesses of Jacob's cupboard if her face had been set toward the room. The lamplighter lived in a cul-de-sac on the Left Bank, called by its tenants the cour Carence. The buildings there had been old a hundred years before Jacob moved in; their ill-built walls bellied outward, and were kept from collapsing only by wooden struts, so that, from a distance, in poor light, the cour looked a little like a buttressed cathedral; but if any deity had to take charge of the cul of that sac, it would not be the Gothic god of light and fire, but another, grimmer, a god of soot and leaks and things sinking earthward. No one entered the cour who did not live there; the dark stonework and half-hung shutters encouraged the eye to move on, and quickly. And yet the inhabitants of the cour Carence were not, by and large, displeased with their home. Yes, it was a shambles, but it had been run-down so long that no one knew what it had been run down from; and, as its condition had been stable for as long as anyone could remember, the tenants wondered if it hadn't been this way all along. They balanced flowerpots on the windowsills and hung the low sky with laundry, and if you had asked them whether they would give the cour Carence up for the new buildings on the rue Saint-Jacques, which was wide enough for two carriages to pass side by side, they would have told you that there might be better buildings elsewhere but in a hundred years they'd be rundown, Monsieur, whereas the cour would stand just as she was. The street was its own town, one of thousands that bore the name Paris lightly, the way distant provinces revere an emperor whose face, whose envoys, even, they will never see.
Like any town it was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone else a little too well, and so of course they knew everything about Madeleine. The neighbors said she was a regular ape; before she had control of her bowels she had learned perfectly to mimic Jacob's stare. When the first anniversary of her discovery passed, and then the second, and she had not yet spoken, the neighbors called her an ape indeed, and pointed to the fine black hairs that poked from the wrists of her baby clothes. She'll swing from trees, said the half-deaf Mme Arnaque, who kept a varnish shop on the ground floor; and crack nuts with her teeth, said one-eyed Fauteuil the upholsterer. Jacob called their predictions resentment, because his child might be a great noblewoman's daughter, whereas their brats were common beyond doubt. As if to bear him out, a month before her third birthday, Madeleine began to speak, and to speak! Jacob had never heard anyone talk so unless it was the bailiffs who came periodically to seize Fauteuil's furniture. "Altogether not to my liking," she trilled, and "nevertheless I insist," as though some count or lawyer had been sneaking into his room in the evenings to instruct her in the language of the court (or the courts, which were, to Jacob, the same thing). It was so hard for him to imagine the source of these words, which bubbled through his adoptive daughter like a noble gas, resisting conjunction with anything in her environment, that he paid a friend to take over his lamplighting work for a week, hid himself in the pantry, and waited for Madeleine's secret tutor. No one came. With slow wonder Jacob began to believe what he had boasted of for nearly three years, namely, that Madeleine was born of aristocrats. He invented details to impress Fauteuil, who padded the story and passed it on to Mme Arnaque, who added the gloss of her own imagination. Soon it was known that the lamplighter's black-furred child had been found in a wicker basket lined with eiderdown; pinned to the silk of her baby clothes was a golden seal, engraved with a well-known coat of arms.
When she was five, Madeleine shed most of her hair; in the same year she forgot her aristocratic manners, and became, in appearance at least, a normal child. But the parallel superstitions of her infancy left her immune to intimidation of all kinds: she knew that the hairiest criminal might have a magistrate's ear, and the haughtiest aristocrat might, under his high collar, be furred.
This was in January 1848, when the whole country seemed to share her suspicion. When Jacob went out at dawn to extinguish the lamps along the Seine, he found the sides of the buildings white with posters that said the King was a crook and his ministers a gang of thieves; the republicans were hoodlums and the bourgeoisie were out for what they could get; the radicals were bloodthirsty demons from Italy or the Pit, and the reformers cowards who ought to be bled white, not, the posters intimated, that it would take much. Bring the lot of them to Justice! the posters cried, which caused Madeleine to remark, when Jacob told her about it, that Justice must be lonely if she wanted so much company. It was as good an understanding of the winter as any other.
Nothing was in order then: in the name of the people, everyone wanted something different, except the people themselves, who wanted something that had no name, something that was named when two opposing crowds shouted one another down. Every day the sun hung later in the sky, but Jacob swore that the February nights were longer and darker than those of December. By the end of the month it was so dark he couldn't see what lay before him in the street. Was that an overturned carriage? Were those soldiers? What were they whispering about? The darkness has driven us all mad, he thought, and opened the glass that protected a streetlamp from the wind. Fortunately there were still lamplighters to put the world aright. Jacob struck flint to steel, lit the wick, and adjusted the flame. For a moment the whole scene appeared as clearly and as still as an engraving, and indeed when engravings of it appeared a few days later in the newspapers Jacob would look for himself, but he would not be there, because lamplighters are the catalysts of history, provoking events in which they themselves have no part. At one end of the street, soldiers on horseback raised their swords; at the other, men with rifles crouched behind a barricade made of cartwheels and cobblestones. Then someone shouted, — The lamp is lit! The lamp is lit! — After that, Jacob told Madeleine, I don't know what happened. Yes, the lamp was lit, but you couldn't see anything for all the smoke. — What did you do? — I ran away. If that's what they want light for then let them get it from someone else.
So the monarchy ended. When Jacob returned to work three nights later, his first act was to extinguish the streetlamps of the Second Republic, or at least the ones that had not already burned themselves out.
Nothing was in order then, and least of all children. They played at piracy under bridges and fenced with sticks in muddy fields, gouging and slashing their way from one war to the next. Madeleine was the conqueror of Russia, and of China choked with reeds by the riverside; the river children paid her tribute in mud and boots and birds, brass buttons plucked by the current from the coats of suicides and bottles which, when you held their mouths to the wind, spoke in the sour mumbling of drunks. While Jacob made his rounds, Madeleine crowed at her courtiers' flattery: Jean Fauteuil brought her a velvet hood, and Carrosse the wheelwright's son made her a scepter from a cart spoke. Charogne the son of the butcher brought the greatest gift of all, a third-best cleaver, notched and speckled with rust, for Madeleine's sword. The river children, who had no great gifts to offer, being the sons of fishermen, were content to carry her through her new domain on their shoulders. Hooded, waving her cleaver about, Madeleine divided up the land and set the others to governing it. Carrosse she made the Prefect of the ditch, and Charogne of the knoll; she gave the river children powers of life and death over muddy plots, and Jean, her favorite, was made Minister of the Interior and told to keep a close eye on the rest.
When the toll collector's wife came out shouting, — Allay! Allay! Time for you children t'eat, and shrieked at the executioner who sat on her son's shoulders, Madeleine answered, — But Madame! It's just an amateur theatrical. They're held all the time in the houses of the rich. — When you're rich, said the toll collector's wife, then do as you like! And until then don't go about playing with knives. Madeleine looked down at the woman with contempt. She knew without having been told what Jacob thought of her: that a baby found in the Bièvre was not bound by the rules of rich and poor, of what you were and what you might become.
Excerpted from HAUSSMANN OR THE DISTINCTION by PAUL LAFARGE. Copyright © 2001 by Paul LaFarge. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.