May 24, 2008

Les Passages de Paris

Since I live on the right bank of the Seine (and in the 9th arrondissement), I often walk through les Passages in Paris – I guess the technical term for these in English is “Arcade.” They are literally passageways running through buildings. From the exterior they appear to be a grand building entrance, but they snake through the buildings, bringing you through to a parallel street on the other side.

At some point there were over 150 passages in Paris, but gradually with time, that number has shrunk. The very first passage in Paris was the Passage des Panoramas, which opened in 1800 when Bonaparte was First Consul. Like many others, this passage is very near the Bourse (Stock Exchange). Most of the others were built between 1800 and1830, in the Napoleonic and Bourbon periods. The last passage was built in 1860.

At the time, they became famous for their role in ‘flânerie’ – strolling, idling, lèche-vitrine-ing (literally window licking – or window-shopping), and certainly, as being good ways of avoiding the often unremitting rain. For me, they are often super good short cuts – it is like being able to walk straight through a block of buildings to get to the other side directly.

So, we were ‘flâneurs’ today – Xavier, Marguerite and I. We strolled along these passages to get out of the rain and to look in the very haphazard and eclectic mix of shops. Illustrations follow (my very favorite, of course, being Madame Deer dressed to the nines. Oh my goodness. Love at first sight.):

I became particularly interested in these passages when I came across an enormous volume of work by Walter Benjamin, the ever-illustrious Jewish historian/philosopher (who, when pursued by the Gestapo during the Second World War, poisoned himself). His mass of notes, writings, and musings about the passages in Paris was entitled Das Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project] and was written between 1927 and 1939.

Benjamin regarded Paris as the capital of the 19th century. Of the passages, he says:

"These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need…where the street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur."

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin examines the history of these passages in a constellar mode – his specific approach to history. He is renowned for viewing history not as a linear set of occurrences, but rather as a constellation of events/happenings/people. He categorizes his search of the passages into things like “Fashion,” “Boredom,” “Photography,” “Advertising,” “Baudelaire.” His focus is on the ‘commodification of things’ – literally a constant for us, but which, of course, had its own inception and meaning in history.

It is interesting though, that most of the passages in Paris are located surrounding the Bourse, the financial center and that many of them were built because space became available due to secularization. Old convents and religious spaces were often part of the structures that were removed and taken over for the passage space after the Revolution. The worship simply changes form – religion to things.

Most amusing though, is that in the 19th century, les flâneurs would often walk tortoises along the passages – and allow these little guys to set the pace for their stroll. Charming.


Anonymous said...

no longer will i ask nicely that you write a book. i demand it now. your blog is so rich and meaningful, i LOVE reading it. I love how you document the cultural differences - i especially liked the gesticular video entry you did. so funny yet informative. your blog fills a void in my life, giving me sporadic tastes of frenchness and reminds me why i love the people and country so much. thanks for keeping up with it and putting thought into your entries.

a fan.

la_sale_bete said...

I just gave a presentation on an article about the arcades and Benjamin and lady flaneurs. You may enjoy it:
Parallax Historiography: The Flâneuse as Cyberfeminist by Catherine Russell.
I am so sad our haunches will miss one another in New York.

Anonymous said...

love it, love benjamin, miss paris, miss living on the right bank...

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