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Brassai: Paris by Night
Bulfinch PressCopyright © 1987 Flammarion, Paris
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Chapter OneNIGHT is not the negative of day; black surfaces and white are not merely transposed, as on a photographic plate, but another picture altogether emerges at nightfall. At that hour a twilight world comes into being, a world of shifting forms, of false perspectives, phantom planes. There is something eerie, even disconcerting, about the process-though the obvious epithet "diabolical" does not necessarily apply. Paris, metropolis of the mind and city of light, buoyant as the galleon in full sail that is her emblem, can no more than other capitals escape the dark contagion. Indeed, a furtive menace pervades the Paris night; its darkness teems with unseen presences, the restless souls of the Parisians escaping through sleep-bound lips. The dangers I refer to are not those which a romantic tradition has innocently fostered-from the legend of the Champs-Elysees caverns (in the Mysteres de Paris) to the mild terrors of a visit to the Lapin Agile; what I am thinking of is the more authentic menace of the subconscious mind of the French race, the night-side of their daytime perspicacity, all the more copious for being repressed beneath apparent equilibrium. For the Frenchman, so conservative by day, goes revolutionary in his dreams. He stands for civilization at its most lucid and alert; only in sleep does he set his questing fancy free to stray in the dim hinterlands of the Unknown. That is why Paris can be uncannier at night than any "haunted woodland", more alarming than the underworlds of London, Chicago or Berlin, written up ad nauseam by sensation-mongers. Julian Green, in "Derelicts", has rendered with consummate skill his vision of the Paris night as a tremendous shipwreck, where all things suffer a sea-change; as in the passage where he leads his characters to the banks of the Seine, there to read their destiny writ in water.
"In all great cities there are zones which reveal their true character only after dusk. By day they wear a mask, assume a look of amiable good-fellowship that hoodwinks even the astute. All that is needed is a respectably dressed woman showing her little boy the Seine, or four workmen, spade in hand, shovelling a heap of gravel; under these conditions quayside, river-bank and wharves all look smiling and sedate. But, when the nightmists rise, such places wake to life that is a parody of death; the smiling banks turn livid, dark surfaces grow pale and flicker with funereal gleams, coming with evil glee into their own again. It is the street-lamp that works the transformation. Under the first ray of this nocturnal sun, the nightscape dons its panoply of shadows and a malefic alchemy transmutes the texture of the visible world. The smooth, sleek trunks of the plane-trees seem suddenly transformed to leprous stone, the cobbled pavement grows darkly mottled like the skin of a drowned man, even the river-water burns with a metallic sheen. There is nothing that does not take on a life-forsaken aspect, sloughing off the honest form it had by daylight. Here nature is at her strangest; nothing breathes and nothing grows, yet all her features writhe in odd grimaces-it is as if the stage were set in preparation for some furtive drama. Under the broken gleams of the lamplight buffeted by the wind, amid the odour of death that hovers on the water, this dark domain of silence and the rats is hospitable only to the thief counting his plunder, apt for the humble orgies of the poor."
For all the seeming realism of this description, it evokes, most notably, the supernormal fears that haunt the modern mind, and, after reading it, I have little relish for a lonely walk by night in Paris. In any case, I am only too prone to find disjecta membra of my former self scattered amongst the various districts of this city where I was born; and, as I do not wish to take my readers on a sentimental journey and to indulge in one of those stock-takings of heart and body which seem incumbent on us once a year at least-when spring begins-I will escort you, rather, to the safe precincts of the city lights. Better avoid the haunts of solitude and shadow, peopled with a cloud of phantoms, and cultivate our neighbours' company-for, after all, what raison d'etre has the crowded life of cities if not its opportunity for human contacts?
Excerpted from Brassai: Paris by Night by Brassai Copyright © 1987 by Flammarion, Paris. Excerpted by permission.
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