Wrapping Up Phase One

My stay in Paris is rapidly coming to a close. Tomorrow is Bastille Day and just five days after that I’ll be getting on a plane out of here. While there’s too much to read on Haussmannization for there to be a finish line to look to in only two months, I am content with how much I’ve gotten done here.

Yesterday I finished Balzac’s La Cousine Bette, meaning that I’ve now finished all six novels I’ll be analyzing for my thesis. In case you don’t remember which they are – at this point I barely remember what they are – I’ve read Les Parents Pauvres by Balzac (the aforementioned Bette and its partner, Le Cousin Pons), Madame Bovary and L’Education Sentimentale by Flaubert, and La Curée and Le Ventre de Paris by Emile Zola. I’ve also taken over a hundred pages of notes from more than twenty academic texts of varying lengths and disciplines. There’s still much to read – I definitely need to read more Marxist theory, I need to read Baudelaire’s critical texts, and I still haven’t gotten to some of the most famous architectural studies of Haussmannization – but I think I’m in good shape to be able to produce my thesis in the next few months. Today I opened my first bit of pleasure reading since the beginning of May, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mots. The fresh air of the 20th century…

This trip has been very interesting in a lot of ways. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but the past eight weeks have made me think that every student should do a significant independent research project. In the past two months I’ve taken my education into my own hands in a way that I haven’t been able to at any other point in my life. I feel much older and much more mature being able to look at a body of knowledge I can call my own. There is to me a huge difference between saying, “I know a lot about Baudelaire; I once took a course on him,” and being able to say, “I know a lot about France in the 19th century; I spent a year studying it on my own.” Almost all of the books I’ve read I’ve discovered on my own, rather than having them fed to me on a reading list. If some are better than others, I’ve had to figure that out myself. What’s most exciting is when I look in the footnotes of someone’s essay and find authors whose names I know and books I’ve read.

One of the most common names I come across is that of the great French-German critic, Walter Benjamin, whose essays I was reading today. The masterpiece of Benjamin’s life is in a sense the model for the work I’m doing. Unfortunately, the Passagenwerk was famously never finished, so we’re hoping for different results than he had. Benjamin believed that the introduction in Paris of the shopping arcade – passages cut across city blocks that I suppose are precursors to shopping malls – in the mid 19th century was the beginning of the bourgeoisie as we know it. At the very least they’re a great metaphor for it, representing one of the first locations of unfettered consumerism as well as rendering the distinction between public and private space very ambiguous.

Only two short essays ever made it out of the nearly thousand pages of notes and quotes Benjamin assembled – perhaps every reference to the passages ever made in literature – and neither does much more than sketch the direction of the argument that would have one day ensued. That doesn’t stop people like me from citing his unfinished work with reckless abandon along with his equally famous complete essays: Paris, Capital of the 19th Century and On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.

I think part of the reason Benjamin is such a favorite for students of the 19th century  is how eloquent he can be. When he wants it to be, his reasoning is impeccable and his arguments rigorous and profound. But he is capable of moving almost instantly from the most complicated discussions of Hegel and Marx to pure lyricism. It is suitable that he studied Baudelaire, because they are in my mind the two greatest poets of the Paris street. Here’s an example, certainly ruined in the translation by me:

“There is a drunkenness that seizes the man who wanders for a long time in the streets. With each step, his pace acquires a new force; the shops, the bistros, the girls who smile slowly lose their attraction and the next street corner, a distant square in the fog, the back of a woman walking before him exert an ever more irresistible attraction. Then hunger makes itself felt. But the wanderer wants nothing to do with the hundreds of places which would allow him to sate it. Like an animal he prowls in unknown neighborhoods, in search of food, of a girl, until utterly worn out he collapses in his bedroom, which has grown cold and foreign. Paris has created this type.”

That’s the kind of paragraph that got me into books. If nothing else, I hope it makes you dig up your copy of Les Fleurs du Mal. I think Benjamin would be very happy if that quote got people to give another look to Baudelaire – it’s already accomplished as much for me.