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A Flâneur in Paris – part two

How oddly this light suffuses the covered arcades which abound in Paris in the vicinity of the main boulevards and which are rather disturbingly named passages, as though no one had the right to linger for more than an instant in those sunless corridors. A glaucous gleam, seemingly filtered through deep water, with the special quality of pale brilliance of a leg suddenly revealed under a lifted skirt. The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant (Boston: Exact Change, 1994) – orignally published in 1926 as Le Paysan de Paris.

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Passage du Grand Cerf, 2nd arr.

It’s not exactly an obsession, but whenever we are in Paris we manage to explore a few of the covered passageways or arcades that remain more than eighty years after Louis Aragon’s paean to these doomed “human aquariums.”  On our visit in February we went through two, including one of my favorites – the elegant and light-filled Passage du Grand Cerf, which was a block away from where we stayed.  Its small, beautiful storefronts attract artisans, designers, decorators, and niche retailers that want to keep odd hours or nurture a tiny business.

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Galerie Véro-Dodat, 1st arr.

The other arcade we stumbled upon by accident.  Galerie Véro-Dodat is close to the Louvre and has a surprising number of vacant storefronts in spite of its prime location right off the rue Saint-Honoré.   When we walked through there were clusters of art students sketching.  The stores here tend toward the antiquarian, although at the intersection with rue Jean-Jacques-Rousseau lies one of the stores of the extraordinary shoe designer of Christian Louboutin.

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Storefront of Christian Louboutin – stuffed eland wearing one shoe

Aragon’s somewhat overlooked Surrealist novel Le Paysan de Paris is an important and very enjoyable work.   Realizing that tremendous changes were underfoot, Aragon used typography and graphics (but no photography) to pay homage to the remnants of the city of the 19th century.  For it was probably only in these urban European centers, where centuries and opposites collided, that Surrealism could have been born.  A year after Aragon’s novel this theme was also taken up by Walter Benjamin as his “arcades project”, which he worked on until his death in 1940.

On our final day in Paris, while browsing in the bookstore of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux at the Hôtel de Sully, I found the book that will guide future explorations of the city’s arcades.

covered-passages-of-paris

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Very interesting. I’ll hope you will cover Walter Benjamin as much as Sebald. Did Sebald not mention him? Why not, i wonder. Both looking to forlorn worlds by side-paths.

    March 19, 2009

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