Shockingly, Ennui in France

I’ve now finished five of the six novels I prescribed myself for this project. 450 pages of La Cousine Bette are all that stands between me and a mental break. I am profoundly disturbed by how weird Zola can be (seriously, just one normal relationship would be great. Just write one book that doesn’t involve cheating, incest, rape, necrophilia…) In the room where I’m staying, there is a bookshelf with a few classics that my host sets aside for her American visitors and the temptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mots keeps me motivated through the 50 pages of Balzac I aim for each day. I love Sartre, but I think I’m particularly drawn to him at this moment because of the affinity this project makes me feel to his Roquentin.

I’m becoming increasingly fluent in the history of the Second Empire. At this point, I’ve read about it from almost every angle. For six weeks now I’ve read novels exclusively from the middle third of the 19th century. I have a pretty good idea of what it was like. As a result, I’ve reached the point where I’ve started disagreeing with some of the texts I read.

Currently, I’m reading a book called Modernity before Haussmann. It’s a work something like mine in that it engages people from multiple disciplines and asks them to consider the question of whether Haussmannization can really be considered a paradigm shift or if it was not a revolution so much as an intensification of processes already underway. Ignore for a minute the obvious selection bias that occurs when you ask people (almost all of whom are demonstrated partisans of the position the book’s title espouses, mainly that Haussmann was not revolutionary) to describe evidence of “modernity” before 1853 rather than asking them to comment on its significance.

What really irks me about the book is something that Fredric Jameson talks about in his book, The Political Unconscious. Jameson points out that a lot of literary criticism is essentially the mediation of two incompatible discourses into one common vocabulary that allows comparisons that would otherwise be impossible. By that he means that critics use a metaphorical language to describe trends in a text, which itself has no intrinsic validity and is contingent on the language used by the writer, to make two things that have nothing to do with each other seem naturally connected. A made-up example: “The characters of Emile Zola’s La Curée put on masks like actors in a play, but if every play needs a director, then Zola leaves his readers searching for the force controlling the scenes we witness.” The simile describing Zola’s characters leads to an exogenous demand for “direction” that has nothing to do with Zola and only to do with the writer’s choice of metaphor. A language that had not been conditioned by Shakespeare to consider “all the world a stage” would never impose the expectation of a director on Zola’s book.

The book I’m reading frequently admits its ambivalence towards the word, “modernity,” a word that has different meanings to different disciplines (and has multiple meanings even inside the single discipline of literature). The diversity of the word’s applications seems less a hindrance to the writers than an opportunity to make exactly the kind of comparisons Jameson warns against. To the architectural historian, modernity (or its frequently substituted but even more ineffable sister, modernism) means a style. To the urbanist, it describes the access to clean running water and the density of gas lights. To the literary critic, it’s a word that comes from the 20th century, a consideration that doesn’t stop it from being repurposed to describe all feelings of alienation, no matter how pre-modern. To the social scientist, it might be synonymous with what the art historian would call futurism. None of these definitions has a common starting point, which is perhaps precisely the attraction of the book’s title (a title that predated the writing of the essays it describes – many of the writers remark in their essays that they find it difficult to see how to read the title).

The result is carte blanche for revisionist history, with one writer even going so far as to make the ridiculous claim that the invention of the railroad had very little impact on Paris since there were already canals in place. The doubling of Paris’s population in less than 20 years doesn’t seem to enter into his thinking.

It just frustrates me to no end to see such specious arguments given credence. I’ve been studying this subject for less than two months now and I can effectively refute an argument published in a book now in the National Library of France? As someone who currently intends to pursue a professorship in literature and who expects to write such essays in the future, I find myself very depressed to see such shoddy work.

The fact of the matter is that Haussmann was not revolutionary in the sense that every method he employed was borrowed from another moment in history. His architectural template was Napoleonic, as was his use of boulevards; he didn’t invent the bourgeoisie, nor did he invent capitalism; he didn’t build the first railroad; he wasn’t the first utopian socialist; he didn’t create the idea of the floating debt; he didn’t invent alienation and people felt detached from history long before he became prefect of the Seine. But those are statements that Haussmann makes in his own memoires in 1890.

What was different was the massive escalation he effected in all of those arenas. What distinguishes the Second Empire is not that it created the modern malaise but that it made it an inescapable phenomenon. When Zola’s Sidonie asks everyone she meets if they have any news about the “3 billion” (the cost of Haussmann’s projects in Paris), she is standing in for a national obsession with debt and money that equally plagued Madame Bovary, Renée and Aristide Saccard, M. Arnoux, and M. and Mme. Quenu. In 1846, Balzac’s Cousin Pons could look at his art collection and only see a set of beautiful paintings. In 1867, Pellerin has hardly finished his masterpiece before he tries to find someone to buy it.

Anyone who wants to argue that Haussmann invented the 19th century is wrong, but to claim that Haussmannization was just a blip on the bourgeoisie’s radar is absurd. Go to Marseille or Lyon or Nantes and look at the Haussmannian buildings alongside the Haussmannian boulevards and then pick up a Marseillaise newspaper and tell me how many of the stories have to do with Paris. To this day, people in the provinces feel marginalized in France by the importance and centrality of Paris, echoing the same feelings that you find vocalized for the first time in Madame Bovary and in The Sentimental Education. The Belly of Paris, written about Les Halles, could have just as easily been called The Nerve Center of France, judging by the long wagon-trains of food pouring into the city from every province.

These frustrations are good for my work because they polarize me and make it easier to adopt a point of view, but it discourages me when I see rigorous theories misapplied to create results so out of touch with reality.

I’ve tried to combat it by outlining my thesis, which gives me the feeling that I’m producing something and making progress, and that’s going relatively well. Just like Roquentin, I think I’ll have to write my way out of this funk [in other news, you should read La Nausée. It’s a great book. It will make you a better person. It is to existentialism what Steppenwolf if to Nietzsche. Everything makes sense once you’ve read it.]


  1. wmresearcher says:

    This is a thought-provoking piece. Your logic against Haussman’s revolutionary status, particularly with the notion of population growth as a catalyst for railroad growth, appeared quite sound.