Epilogue: Balzac’s Vision of Paris

Balzac’s Paris was a very different place from Paris today. And yet, as he animates the monuments and places of his time with characters like Lucien de Rubempré and Raphael de Valentin, who aspire not only to move within that world, but to change it according to their desires, he offers us a vision of Paris that is fundamentally dynamic. This vision describes the forces that, under Napoléon III and Haussmann, were to change the Parisian landscape radically and give us the dynamic city we have today.

Balzac’s Paris reached its culmination in the time of Louis-Philippe. Perhaps Balzac’s most famous meditation of the nature of Louis-Philippe’s Paris is found in the opening pages of his novel La Fille aux yeux d’or (1835). It presents a tableau of incessant dynamism, one that is in complete contrast with the serene, static, eternally classic vision of Félix Dubin, notably in the Medallion of monuments we have seen before. Here is Balzac’s summation of Paris, which ends with a question:

Paris n’est-il pas un vaste champ incessament remué par une tempête d’intérêts sous laquelle tourbillone une moisson d’hommes que la mort fauche plus souvent qu’ailleurs et qui renaissait toujours aussi serrés, dont les visages contournés, tordus, rendent par tous les pores l’esprit, les désirs, les poisons dont sont engrossés leurs cerveaux ; non pas les visages, mais bien des masques : masques de faiblesse, masques de force, masques de misère, masques de joie, masques d’hypocrisie : tous éxtenués, tous empreints des signes ineffaçables d’une haletante avidité ? Que veulent-ils ? De l’or, ou du plaisir ? (Pléiade, I, 255)

[Paris, is it not a vast field, endlessly buffeted by a storm of interests, a storm at whose center there whirls a crop of human beings that death reaps more often than elsewhere, but which springs up anew, with ever increasing frequency. Ever packed together, their faces contorted and twisted, they exude through every pore their desires, their wit, the poisons that swell their brains; these are not faces, but masks—masks of strength, of weakness, of misery, of joy, of hypocrisy—all exhausted, all marked with the indelible signs of breathless avidity. What are they seeking? Is it money, or pleasure?]

A final set of images offers a concluding perspective on the transformation of Paris during the 19th century, from a city to the monumental capital of the world. We need only compare three sequential views of the Arc de Triomphe, the monument that anchors our visit to Balzac’s Paris as it does the itinerary of the modern tourist.

The two flanking images we have already seen: Dubin’s 1837 monument in its bucolic setting, with Ledoux’s serene barrière in full sight; and the view of the Place de l’Arc de Triomphe, Barrière de l’Etoile c. 1864, where the barrière abides in name only and where we see the modern Place de l’Etoile taking shape, with some of Hittorff’s symmetrical buildings (1860-1868) already ringing the Place.

The middle image, however, is a fitting reminder both of the energy and passion for change generated during Balzac’s lifetime and the eventual result of that energy—the radical transformation under Haussmann of the Parisian landscape. This image, taken from Edwards, Old and New Paris, I, 126, shows the demolition of Ledoux’s tollgates, which took place in 1860. What emerges from this tearing down, if we move our eyes from left to right across these images, is modern Paris, a journey from the strange to the familiar.



Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California, UCR College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Tomás Rivera Library. All rights reserved.