Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique

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How did Paris become the world favorite it is today? Charles Rearick argues that we can best understand Paris as several cities in one, each with its own history and its own imaginary shaped by dream and memory. Paris has long been at once a cosmopolitan City of Light and of modernity, a patchwork of time-resistant villages, a treasured heirloom, a hell for the disinherited, and a legendary pleasure dome. Each of these has played a part in making the enchanting, flawed city of our time.

Focusing on the last century and a half, Paris Dreams, Paris Memories makes contemporary Paris understandable. It tells of renewal projects radically transforming neighborhoods and of counter-measures taken to perpetuate the city's historic character and soul. It provides a historically grounded look at the troubled suburbs, barren of monuments and memories, a dumping ground for unwanted industries and people. Further, it tests long-standing characterizations of Paris's uniqueness through comparisons with such rivals as London and Berlin. Paris Dreams, Paris Memories shows that in myriad forms—buildings, monuments, festivities, and artistic portrayals—contemporary Paris gives new life to visions of the city long etched in Parisian imaginations.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Rearick's lively prose and knack for description make Paris Dreams, Paris Memories a pleasure to read."—Catherine Clark, H-Urban

"Charles Rearick has written a rich and entertaining history of the French capital's predominant myths and 'image-making' from the nineteenth century to the present. Paris Dreams, Paris Memories is at once a study of historical love letters to the city and a scholarly homage marked throughout by the author's own affection for the Parisian past and present. Drawing on a range of material—Paris guidebooks and histories, literary works, the popular press, government documents, and an impressive array of secondary works—Rearick's is a book that only someone with decades of experience studying France and traveling to its capital could write . . . There is much to love about Paris, its illuminated past, present and future. Paris Dreams is packed with intriguing citations, fascinating stories, and wonderfully textured descriptions of a village/mecca/world that Rearick himself has explored and clearly enjoyed over many years."—Roxanne Panchasi, H-France Review

"This book will provide a useful introduction to the history of the Paris imaginary. Like a pleasant stroll through the city, one finds much that one has already seen, but also plenty that one has not. The ballade is personal and well-informed and as one turns the final pages, one is desirous of yet another. This is no doubt the greatest proof of what Rearick has called Paris's mystique."—Stephen Sawyer, French History

"Paris Dreams, Paris Memories is a fascinating and highly readable book, fully succeeding in adding an innovative spin on the familiar history of Paris as a whole. Through a cultural approach to urban history, the author sets out to investigate the historical sources of Paris's mystique . . . [He] captures the speed of Parisian urban transformation in an engaging study and avoids freezing the cityscape in his analysis."—Nicoleta Bazgan, Contemporary French Civilization

"Rearick has written not so much a history of Paris, but a history of the history of Paris. He deals with the ways observers (mostly Parisian) have envisaged the city and confronted the ways in which it has changed. This is a book who will appeal to anyone—tourist or professional historian—who has learned to love Paris, warts and all."—William Irvine, York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804770934
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/22/2011
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 1,025,056
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Rearick is the author of Beyond the Enlightenment: Historians and Folklore in Nineteenth-Century France (1974), Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France (1985), and The French in Love and War: Popular Culture in the Era of the World Wars (1997). He is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a frequent visitor to Paris.

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Read an Excerpt


By Charles Rearick

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7092-7

Chapter One

Paris—Praised, modernized, remembered, staged, and Loved

Nineteenth-Century Foundations


Visitors to France first hailed Paris as a paradise back in the Middle Ages, when somewhere out of this world was the best place anyone could imagine. French and foreign writers alike made that flattering comparison, sometimes citing the similarity of the words Parisius and paradisus as etymological proof. But paradise could mean many things. When an English bishop called Paris "the paradise of the world" in the fourteenth century, he—a bibliophile—had in mind especially the city's twenty-eight bookstores. other admirers invoked exalted earthly imagery: Paris as a majestic woman—"the queen" of cities and "mother" of cities—high tributes indeed, but none could match the dream potential of the celestial imagery. With its splendid churches, eminent scholars and university, beautiful houses of nobles and prelates, fine arts and crafts, and the abundance of food and wine in its many taverns, late-medieval Paris was—according to travelers and proud locals—"magnificent," "peerless," and a "place of delights." in short, an earthly paradise.

It enjoyed that sky-high reputation as early as the twelfth century. Some clerics were so impressed with Paris's bounty of riches and pleasures that they denounced it as a fatal snare, best avoided: "Flee [this] Babylon, flee and save your souls," urged saint Bernard in the mid-twelfth century. A German visitor in the following century, enjoying the delights of the place, fell back on the heaven-on-earth line, but scaled it down significantly: the city was a paradise for the rich, he wrote, ... And a dreadful swamp for the poor. That qualifier, however, did not take hold in the emerging tradition of Paris description, a tradition shaped early on by enthusiasms fixed in the loftiest of metaphors.

The accolades as well as the reproaches have echoed down through the centuries, only the palette of words and imagery changing from time to time. In the early nineteenth century, the French authors of Paris pittoresque hailed the city not as heaven but as the "capital of the civilized world" and "the marvel of the world." "Everything ever conceived in thought or dreamed to be beautiful, pleasing, and gigantic.... All that is Paris."

The praise from foreigners swelled to a resounding high in the now-celebrated period around the turn of the twentieth century. Guidebooks then were instrumental in framing individual experiences with a collective memory, one that had taken shape centuries earlier in the writings of awestruck travelers and learned Parisians. Designed to interest visitors seeking the best of Paris, the guides told readers what to see and how to put it all into words and memory.

Addressing tourists from the english-speaking world, Conty's Pocket Guide to Paris (1898) declared it "a model city," "a wonderful city, "and "the gayest city in the world." There "business and pleasure are harmoniously combined." Visitors could be sure to find a "reception" that "fully justifies the prodigious vogue which this wonderful city enjoys throughout the entire world." The english guide Cassell's (1900) began by describing Paris as "the beautiful city ..., which for ages has been recognized as the chief capital of europe." Bouquets of superlatives appeared year after year. "The most attractive treasury of art and industry in the world," "the most cosmopolitan city in europe," "indisputably the cradle of high culinary art"—these were not the boasts of a proud Parisian, but the remarks of the sober German-based Baedeker, passing along conventional judgments as matters of fact. The "charms of the seductive capital" are so great, Baedeker assured its readers, that "no one quits [it] without regret." among those charms was a beauty that "French writers of all ages" and "many foreigners" have celebrated.

None of the guides mentioned the city's big rats, large enough to eat cats. Nor did they quote the French writers of the time who described Paris as a "sewer" and a "hell," rife with poverty and alcoholism. The guides also ignored tuberculosis-ridden slums and the new "ugliness" cropping up after the turn of the century—tall buildings spoiling historic perspectives, brazen displays of pornography, and the noisy, dangerously fast automobiles, "autobuses," and trucks that destroyed "the charm of strolling," as a French journalist lamented in 1907. Strolling the Grands Boulevards meant running an obstacle course of smelly urinals that were like a "jumble of cesspools," wrote a former city council member in 1907. Crossing the boulevards on foot required maneuvering through heaps of horse manure, discarded papers, and rotting meat, fish, cheeses, and vegetables thrown out by street vendors. Another lost charm of the city was good dining (already!), reported a knowledgeable man-about-town in 1900. Parisians were so busy and harried, he testified, that they ate "hastily, without taste and without pleasure." "With this fever that we bring to everything, we absorb chemical products and we don't even notice that they are bad." Clearly the guidebooks and writers who described Paris as wonderful and beautiful were telling only part of the story.

But some of the city's enthusiasts found so much to love about Paris that its defects did not matter. To some, even its famed beauty was inconsequential. Parisian writer André Billy, for example, author of two volumes (1909) describing in detail "our beautiful Paris," did not count its aesthetic charms as a source of "the love of Paris." Love for the city, he maintained, sprang from an "innate temperament" and strong interests in the life of the present and past. The lovers of Paris had in common "a keen instinct of sociability with the taste for modern existence," a "curiosity for the past," and a "general preoccupation with public life." Then, complicating the matter further, Billy acknowledged that the amoureux de Paris were quite diverse: some relished "Parisian partying" ("'la noce' parisienne"), while others loved the artistic, historical, and intellectual life. Many of them were neither born in the city nor residents of it. So by this eminent Parisian's account, the love of Paris springs not from an aesthetic sensibility or living in the city, but rather from an assortment of sympathies and dispositions, which can be identified but not wholly explained.

The topic is worth pursuing. What has made Paris so beloved? is that love traceable to an innate temperament, or is it a miscellany of acquired tastes and penchants? And how can people love something as large and heterogeneous as a modern metropolis?

One common way is to focus on only certain parts of the city and ignore the rest. Selective vision has been the rule in guidebooks, memoirs, and most essays. Billy's books, for example, left out poor working-class neighborhoods, banal streets, and even most pleasure spots. Guidebooks long promised to inform the visitor about "everything worth seeing," but most have proceeded with very limited notions of what is worthwhile, sticking to canonical sites, omitting everything outside the center.

Yet those guides and countless writers, from the middle ages on, have showered praise on the whole city—its beauty, spirit, atmosphere, and people—and have expressed love for the totality. Twentieth-century guidebooks, quoting tributes from centuries past, cast the greatness of the city as timeless and transcendent, setting it in the realm of myth. A book of 1924, for example, begins with the medieval monk's hymn to the "queen of cities." Generations of travel writers reiterated the old lines about the French capital's superiority—without offering any comparative evidence. nor did they acknowledge the exalted praise that has been heaped on other cities over the centuries. According to an oft-quoted medieval poet in England, for example, London was the "soveraign of cities, semeliest in sight." Seventeenth-century books on Dutch towns commonly touted the greatness of each featured city and its attractions. "Civic bragging" was a convention from the renaissance on.

So the tributes to Paris accumulated over centuries in poems, travel accounts, and songs, well before guidebooks became an institution and before tourism promoters joined the cause. Montaigne's oft-quoted appreciation set a high standard early on: Paris was "the glory of France and one of the most noble of ornaments of the world." He went on to declare his great love for the capital, personified as a woman in the already-conventional way. The more he saw of other beautiful cities, the more the beauty of Paris won his affection. He loved "her" so tenderly that even her "warts, spots, and blemishes" (verrues and taches) were dear to him. Poems, memoirs, essays, histories, and guidebooks centuries later added to the chorus of praise, but have often left the reader wondering exactly what was it that was so beautiful and lovable—or not.

Most have not been able to embrace the "warts and blemishes" in an all-encompassing love. Paris was "the dirtiest city in the world," declared Louis-Sébastien Mercier in the 1790s, referring to the clogged, narrow, filthy streets, among other things. Critics in Mercier's time decried the city's defects more insistently than ever before, moved by hope for enlightened improvements. Sensitivity to foul odors and bad air was on the rise, Alain Corbin has shown. "The capital is no more than a vast sewer [cloaque]," wrote one observer of the mud-and-manure-covered streets in 1789. "The air is putrid," he added, noting that people could scarcely breathe in some quarters. Popular entertainments in Paris, too, stirred outcries of disgust. Why, asked a letter to the Journal de Paris (1782), do theaters persist in giving the people vulgar jokes, the spectacle of the worst morals, and "licentious performances"?

A small group of observers, in contrast, presented a mixed picture: for them, the intermingling of the delightful and the repulsive was the defining feature of Paris. "Clearly it is not enough to call it the first city in the world, the capital of splendor and enchantment," concluded a Russian traveler in 1789–1790. "If you go farther you will see crowded streets, and an outrageous confusion of wealth and poverty. Close by a glittering jewelry shop lies a pile of rotten apples and herrings; filth is everywhere and even blood streaming from the butchers' stalls. You must hold your nose and close your eyes.... In a word, every step brings a new atmosphere, new objects of luxury or the most loathsome filth; thus you must call Paris the most magnificent and most vile, the most fragrant and the most fetid city." most observers were content with giving simpler descriptions, retouching the familiar old ones. By the early twentieth century, several of those views had crystallized into popular conventions passing as truisms. The most widely known images and themes from the nineteenth century folded willy-nilly into several phrases: the City of Light, old Paris, the Capital of Pleasures, and Paname. Each was a response to the others in some way, each conditioned by others, in a continuing discussion. Together they formed what can be called the classic imaginary of modern Paris. This chapter looks back to see how those characterizations arose and what they meant—in the culture of Parisians and in the imagination of many far from the capital.


"Modern" Paris emerged in the 1850s and 1860s through an ambitious urban renewal program undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon III. Or rather, that was how the supporters of the Second Empire described it. In their admiration for the bold projects, they made it sound as though the emperor and his prefect for Paris, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, had created a new and different city in the place of the old. In fact, only some central areas became "modern" in that period. Nonetheless, the operations carried out were massive: they included 165 kilometers of new streets, 560 kilometers of sewers, 24 squares and two large parks, and an infrastructure of new town halls, hospitals, and schools. Workers demolished 20,000 buildings and constructed 34,000. All that rebuilding, along with embellishments before and afterward, generated a fresh wave of admiration of Paris as a showplace of modernity, epitomized by broad, straight, well-lighted new thoroughfares.

Admirers identified the city lights as a crowning touch and propagated the sobriquet "Ville Lumière"—"City of Light"—toward the end of the nineteenth century. The city lights had been impressive for a couple of centuries, but not exceptional enough to warrant the title. Candle-lit lanterns illuminated streets in the late seventeenth century; brighter lamps burning oil replaced them in the late eighteenth century. Though weak and scattered by later standards, those early lights were doubtless remarkable to visitors who knew only the dark lanes of small towns and villages. In the eighteenth century Paris was already well lighted in comparison to London, but it was still far from being the "city of light." It became much brighter when gas lamps were installed in the 1840s. Then in the second half of the nineteenth century its lighting multiplied a hundred fold—from 350 million to 75,000 million candle hours, with the increased use of gas plus the introduction of electric lamps. Gas lighting in the late nineteenth century was generous to the point of seeming "reckless"—to the sensible American reporter Richard Harding Davis. "[The Parisian] ... raises ten lamp-posts to every one that is put up in London or New York, and he does not plant them only to light some thing or some person, but because they are pleasing to look at in themselves." They also brightened spirits, he noted. "It is difficult to feel gloomy in a city which is so genuinely illuminated that one can sit in the third-story window of a hotel and read a newspaper by the glare of the gas-lamps in the street below." Yet the apparent excess was economically shrewd, he added, "for it helps to attract people to Paris, who spend money there, so that in the end the lighting of the city may be said to pay for itself."

In 1900, when Paris hosted its biggest-ever world's fair, the expression "Ville Lumière" gained currency in tourist literature and celebratory reportage. The fifty million visitors who came to the "exposition universelle" were met with a dazzling profusion of electric lighting—in the pavilions and the Palais de l'Électricité and all the way up the eiffel Tower. Outside the fairgrounds the new lights illuminated the city's monuments and central boulevards. Elsewhere gas lights were still the rule. Yet overall Paris was far behind New York, whose inhabitants were less concerned with keeping down the expense. Nothing in Paris compared with the twelve-to-fourteen-story building on Broadway whose façade was a galaxy of bright bulbs in advertising signs, a veteran Parisian journalist pointed out in 1899. "When night comes, the whole gable lights up and sets the air ablaze with flaming colors." The lighting in "the vast stores" "in all the large American streets, ... Even after the closing hour," was also impressive in contrast to what he knew back home.

Although Paris was not widely known as the "Ville Lumière" before 1900, it had been associated with light since the eighteenth century—in the metaphorical sense. When Victor Hugo used the phrase "Paris is the city of light" in 1875, he was speaking figuratively, in the tradition of the enlightenment. He was contrasting his beloved capital with the "dark cities" across Europe, the politically and intellectually less advanced ones. Paris, once again free of king and emperor, was the "edge of the future," he continued. Paris was "Progress" in its visible form. Even when Europe and the rest of France languished in dark times, Paris was not eclipsed—at least in the eyes of democrats like Hugo. Here light and progress meant the cause of liberty and democracy, the legacy of the enlightenment and French revolution.


Excerpted from PARIS DREAMS, PARIS MEMORIES by Charles Rearick Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1 Paris-Praised, Modernized, Remembered, Staged, and Loved: Nineteenth-Century Foundations 6

2 The Memory of a Certain Belle Époque (1914-circa 1960): Or How the Turn-of-the-Century Lived on Beyond Its Time 44

3 Postwar Modernizing and the Resistance of Memory (1945-circa 1980) 82

4 New Varieties of a "Nouveau Paris" (1974-…) 119

5 Paris in Comparison 158

6 Contemporary Paris-Images, Spirit, Soul, and Sites 186

Conclusion: To Know Paris 222

Appendix 1 Unusual and Unexpected Paris-A Sampler 229

Appendix 2 Landmark Paris Imagery 230

Appendix 3 Modern Paris Timeline 232

Notes 235

Selected Bibliography 269

Index 273

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