Unreal City

Michael Wood

  • Paris and the 19th Century by Christopher Prendergast
    Blackwell, 283 pp, £35.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 631 15788 3

Baudelaire’s city is swarming with people and full of dreams, a place of daylight ghosts.

Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves
Où le spectre, en plein jour, raccroche le passant!

It is a zone of hideous excitements and grim dislocations, and it has become, through Eliot and others, the great city of sophisticated modern mythology, the labyrinth where we love to get lost and feel homeless. As long as we are not really homeless, of course: merely not-at-home, metaphysically on the move. The tourist city offers more or less the reverse of this image, or is its sanitised and cheerified twin. The swarm is a bustle, dreams are fulfilled, and the ghosts are harmless, inviting advertisements. No one lives in this carefully edited place, but it is full of people. I think (I hope) upbeat enjoyments of the tourist city are still possible – more possible, and more permissible, than Christopher Prendergast suggests – and they are surely more appealing than the glum romanticising of awfulness by which many city-dwellers manage simultaneously to accuse and congratulate themselves. But of course Prendergast is right to point to what such enjoyments necessarily exclude or deny.

Paris and the 19th Century is an intricate and challenging book, with much to tell us not only about Paris but about other cities, and about the business of thinking about cities. It explores urban perspectives high and low, hills, towers, sewers, markets, parks, canals, boulevards, barricades, shops, taking as its witnesses chiefly poets and novelists but also painters and photographers, and the authors of guides, catalogues, essays, manifestos, reports. It is a dense and rich work, it thinks hard and it makes you think. From the man who fell into a cesspool in 1782, watched by various scientists interested in new ways of managing miasma, it takes us to the stench and dirt of the 19th-century city. From the fact that the century is taken emblematically to begin with the removal of skeletons from a cemetery we move to its equally emblematic ending with the opening of the Métro. This is work inspired by Walter Benjamin, as Prendergast says, whose ‘imprint’ is to be found ‘virtually everywhere in the following pages’. But the influence has been thoroughly assimilated, converted into practice. Benjamin has provided insights and ways of seeing, but above all, it seems, a model of modern curiosity, an assortment of hunches about where to look.

The heart of the book, as Prendergast says, is a long chapter on Baudelaire’s prose poems, seen as works where the city is not only a topic and a scene but a provocation and a problem, an interrogation of literature. It’s not that the prose poem is the urban form par excellence, as is often suggested: it’s that the prose poem, in Baudelaire’s hands, becomes a site of tension and threatened collapse, takes the stubborn realities of the city into its language. Class, for instance, appears in ‘Les Yeux des pauvres’ not as ‘a polemically contrived image’ but as a ‘brute reality ... simply there, obdurate, intractable, as that which will not go away’. Baudelaire thus undoes, as Prendergast says, ‘one of the great fictions of Second Empire Paris: that the culture of the boulevard has been fully democratised, and that the city of pleasure is available to all’: but he almost undoes his own writing in the process, and certainly undoes his aesthetic of harmony and control. ‘The question ... is whether there are any adequate, fully workable forms for the poetic representation of urban life, or whether the latter is so refractory that it puts the idea of poetry itself into crisis.’

The same, as Prendergast sees it, goes for discursive prose in longer fiction, so that Balzac’s grand, panoramic ambitions for the description of Paris – ‘the universe seen from the point of view of the universe’, as Prendergast wittily puts it – crumble into a kind of carnival of excited verbs. ‘The text is as turbulent as the city it describes, veers towards its own kind of riotous behaviour.’ It is characteristic of the book, I’m afraid, of its writing and its editing (‘the more we rely less on’), that Prendergast can’t leave this fine joke alone, and must plod on to a ponderous comment about symbolic policing and the possibility of arresting Balzac himself ‘for suspected dereliction of representational duty’. (In the first paragraph of the book Prendergast invites us to picture Emma Bovary reading Le Père Goriot: ‘The year is 1835; the Bovarys have moved from Tostes to Yonville and Balzac’s Le Père Goriot has just come out in La Revue de Paris,’ Wonderful; that’s all we need, we’re ready to go. But Prendergast pauses to assure us that this is ‘not at all an implausible imagining’, and to adduce chapter and verse for Emma’s reading of ‘Balzac and George Sand’. Of course it’s not an implausible imagining. When Prendergast later tells us that part of his discussion of Les Misérables has been ‘wilfully flippant’, I had to turn back and scour the previous pages for anything that looked like flippancy.)

Michelet and Flaubert, in a fine chapter which compares their versions of Paris at the barricades, are shown to have more control of their representations, but the meaning of what they represent is elusive, damaged or burlesqued. ‘Where Michelet writes about 1789 in the hope that it might Continue to be a Living model for 1848, Flaubert writes about 1848 as if 1789 were indeed the model, but dead rather than alive.’ What we get politically in Flaubert is a parody of Delacroix’s heroic painting of Liberty. ‘All this adds up,’ Prendergast says, ‘to a Delacroix that no longer adds up, Delacroix in bits, disintegrated into derisory and degraded fragments.’ L’ Education sentimentale offers ‘a great discursive exhibition’, an ‘ironic citational space’. On the other hand, as Foucault said, ‘le discours n’est pas la vie,’ and life is what Flaubert’s characters keep missing, as if it were some turning or street they didn’t know how to recognise.

Le discours n’est pas la vie. Manifestly not, in all kinds of cases. But discourse, too, is a form of life; and entangled in other forms of life. Prendergast solves this problem in practice but leaves it pretty muddled in theory; and it is worth pausing over, since it appears currently in the most varied intellectual circles, and may not be as turbid as it looks. It concerns our confusions about ‘the referent’. His book, Prendergast says, ‘is not about the referent “Paris”, but about certain symbolic representations, various manifestations of the discursive category “Paris” ’. He then goes on to say the distinction is artificial anyway, because ‘the symbolic is also part of what was the case’; and further, that the distinction is ‘something of an embarrassment’ to several of his book’s ambitions, because he is interested in social realities – the realities of poverty or un happiness, of vagrants and slums and disgruntled workers – which are masked not only by representations of ‘Paris’ but, as I understand it, by Paris itself, the referent, insofar as the referent is the comfortable, conventional one. That said, Prendergast goes on to talk about getting close to the lived life of the 19th-century city (‘what it felt like to inhabit the city at the level of sight, smell, touch, sound and taste’), about the ‘reality of the social use of the Paris parks’ being quite different from the myth, and even about the banished referent (‘the referent should not be allowed simply to disappear from view’) – what Baudelaire calls ‘le fait tel qu’il existe en dehors de nous’.

There are several preoccupations here. One concerns the seemingly sensible but probably deluded notion of the unproblematic referent, what is simply ‘there’, what our language is ‘about’, or ‘really about’: something not only not complicated in itself but the means by which other complications are dismissed, the solid thing behind the shifting word. It seems unlikely that any such convenience is available to us, and Prendergast is keen that we should not think it is. The real Paris, in this sense, is no less elusive than the symbolic one. Second, we know it’s important, in all kinds of areas, and for what Prendergast calls ethical and cognitive reasons, to distinguish between wish or fear and fact, and between words and other realities. I could starve if I only imagined I was eating, and Written shit, as Barthes said, does not smell. Third, the city, like any other reality, is made up of material and non-material configurations, it is the place I map in my mind, the place constructed out of the films I have seen and the stories I have heard, and the place where I get rained on or stuck on a bus or a train. The Louvre is a palace in history, a museum in my head and a contemporary building that could fall on me. This is complicated but not mystifying. Fourth, what I take to be reality, whether material or non-material or both, is likely to be what my class and gender and prejudices allow me to see – only an act of imagination will get me beyond this, or a moral or material meeting with a fact I have neglected or denied.

The referent, it seems, is what there is and what we miss; caught up in the lies we tell but also what refutes them. It can be conjured up, perhaps, but not named; or rather, its name is where it hides. Balzac’s Vautrin, quoted in Prendergast’s opening pages, presents himself as a connoisseur of the city, but all he can say about the place is: ‘Paris est Paris, voyezvous.’ Can’t argue with that. Yet Vautrin has seen that the referent is everywhere; its only adequate definition a repetition of its magical title. It looks as it Prendergast’s book is all about the referent ‘Paris’, filtered through an interesting range of texts and images and declarations. Conversely, what book about Paris could not about a ‘discursive category’?

Prendergast’s last chapter contains a brilliant commentary on Laforgue’s agile and sardonic ‘Grande Complainte de la Ville de Paris’, where the lament comes simultaneously from the city and from a large department store called La Ville de Paris – ‘Laforgue’s text tears up the contract enabling a ready “consumption” of meaning,’ Prendergast says, ‘engenders panic in the markets of sense’ – and some thoughtful speculation on speed and stillness in the modern city. Here Prendergast makes clear and gets straight what has been bothering him throughout the book, a sort of tug of war between innocence and sophistication, or between confidence and scepticism, all seen as disabling. If we say we know the city, we say too much; if we say we don’t, we appear to have given up on knowledge. Even seeking to know the city may deliver us to paranoid imaginings, as in so many contemporary novels; but enjoying our failure to know (or as Prendergast puts it, ‘booking one’s trip on the exhilarating flight of the signifier’) seems at best a soft option and at worst a form of blindness. ‘It is one of the myths of the modern city,’ Prendergast suggests, ‘that it “belongs” to no one in particular, that every thing in it is permanently up for grabs to everyone. No belief could have been more convenient to those with an interest in disguising the fact that they actually owned most of it.’ What Prendergast’s 19th-century writers evoke, and what his book presents, is a continuing difficulty which is not quite an impossibility, or a reason for entire despair. The city is readable, we might say in Barthes’s terms, but not decipherable. We can make some sense of it; or sense of some of it; and shouldn’t abandon the project because we can’t make perfect sense of it all. Between dogma and bafflement, as Prendergast suggests, we pick our way towards whatever understanding we can get of ‘the city of tomorrow’.

These are the last words of the book and we arrive at them with a considerable sense of achievement; neither Prendergast nor we got here easily. A number of the obstacles along the road are symptomatic of current academic discourse. The first chapter, for instance, displays an astonishing level of intellectual anxiety. ‘Arguably – at least in some cases’ gives a measure of the style; as does ‘my use of painting ... is for the most part resolutely opportunistic’ Prendergast writes as if he expected to be morally mugged at every minute by someone more correct than he is. Thus the very questions the book seeks to address (‘What, then, does the city represent, and how to represent the city’) are a worry, because they ‘risk resurrecting’ fantasies of total control. On the other hand, as we have seen, the idea that we can’t know or map the city is ‘problematical’ because it plays into the wrong ideological hands. Eclecticism is attractive and is (‘in many ways’) Prendergast’s own method, but it ‘can also serve to mask important difficulties of interpretation’. We have to ‘resist ... reductive schemes of causal explanation’, and the choice of literary material is another snag, since ‘there is inevitably a risk of being caught up oneself in one of the more suspect practical and ideological forms of 19th-century urban “style”.’ Even loving the city, as Prendergast loves Paris, is a dilemma, because it makes him ‘wholly complicit in that peculiarly “amorous” idiom which saturates the literature of Parisian flânerie.’ The chapter ends in a flurry of nervous glances at potential sources of further trouble: the image of the labyrinth has ‘problematical implications’; considering panoramic views of Paris ‘risks ... prioritising and privileging ... the visual’, not to mention an ‘all too easy adaptation of Henry James’s pluralistic metaphor of the house of fiction’. As it this wasn’t bad enough, it could be that we shall ‘skirt close to the fetishising stratagems of the flâneur as pure spectator’. We read with no surprise that ‘the attractions of risk are at the heart of the ideology of the modern city,’ but Prendergast seems to have only a limited tolerance for these attractions, at least in so far as they get into discussions of the city. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be wrong, it’s that he doesn’t want to find himself edged off the moral high ground, set up on some disreputable political lower slope. He need not worry, Of course, since the ground he holds is high enough; but I hope he doesn’t really want never to be upstaged, since there are muggers even his vigilance has failed to spot. His idea that his ‘canonical’ writers are ‘virtually sell-selecting’ for example, misses the whole point of current debates about the canon: ostensible self-selection is what is at issue, far more than the particular names that finally end up on the list.

The word ‘arguably’, tirelessly used by Prendergast, is probably a teaching tic, a way of seeming to allow room for the discussion you’re not going to have, but there are times when it seems to mean something else, as in the thought that Bouvard et Pécuchet has ‘arguably the greatest beginning in 19th-ceutury French fiction’, or that Seurat’s Le Chiffonnier is ‘arguably the most haunting’ representation of the Paris rag-picker; that certain sentences from L’ Education sentimentale are ‘arguably quintessential Flaubert’, or that La Musique aux Tuileries is ‘arguably one of Manet’s funniest paintings’. Most haunting? One of his funniest paintings? Why not? What would the argument be about? ‘Arguably’ turns out to mean ‘in my view’, dressed up as if for debate. When Prendergast moves (once) to ‘demonstrably’ and (at last) to ‘unquestionably’, you feel he’s come in from the critical cold, home again, safe for a while from the unkind city of endless doubt.