« EelmineJätka »
THE MODERN BABYLON.
It is not surprising that M. Eugène Pelletan, in publishing a new volume on the much-vexed question of modern life and manners in Paris,* should forget the old, but very meaning adage, that “it is an ill bird that befouls its own nest.” M. Pelletan, be it remembered, like most men, has a pet grievance of his own. While editor of the Journal de Dimanche, he was so weak-minded as to institute comparisons (which are always odious in France, especially in print) between the freedom of the press existing in Austria and in his Fatherland. For this heinous offence he straightway found his way to Sainte Pélagie, and the volume we have now under notice appears to have been the result of his incarceration. When we add to these facts that M. Pelletan is a virulent . Protestant, who would make his fortune on the Exeter Hall platform, we have said enough to explain why it is that he has an overflow of gall in the ink which he employs to pen his diatribes against imperial Paris.
M. Pelletan, for the sake of greater freedom of expression, and possibly in order to produce a more marked contrast, places his diatribes in the mouth of a country lawyer, who, having sold his business, resolves on a trip to the capital, which he had not seen since his salad days. His reminiscences, however, were of a valuable nature for the purpose of comparison, if we may judge from the following extract, in which the exnotary describes what he saw in Paris during his hot youth:
Thirty years ago I was a law-student at Paris, and helped to draw Chateaubriand in triumph on leaving M. Ampère's lectures; I lost a skirt of my coat at the first representation of “Lucrezia Borgia;" and, lastly, I saw one night at the Café Procope the publisher Renduel mount on a marble table, cross himself, and read, in a loud voice, “Les Paroles d'un Croyant.” It was just after the July days, at the moment of that magnificent new life of literature which was called at that day the school of romanticism, and should have been called the school of inspiration, for at that time the esprit poured from the source both over the poet and the crowd, as much to create as to understand. At that time France quivered. France thought, France dreamed-dreamed as much as she thought, shall I confess it?-of her glory; for what is dreaming except sending the mind ahead to take possession of the future? The idea was in the air, and any one who liked could inbale it at his window. A man needed only to take up his pen in order to have talent. A new soul was given simultaneously to science and to poetry. Genius spoke, and youth listened; the audience received enthusiasm, and gave it back to the master; and in the midst of this current of intellectual electricity, cach man, whether small or great, felt the level of his temperature raised one degree. . . . . Each day had something to say for itself at the tribune. Roger Collard was exhaling the last sigh of his eloquence. Béranger was magnificently delivering the funeral oration of the past. Thiers threw into the debate his plirases prompt to reply. Guizot draped himself in his speeches with the majestic attitude of a Roman orator. Odilon Barrot was sounding, with a grave voice, the tocsin of the opposition. Dufaure laid his finger on the question, and everything was said : all that was left was to vote. The whole of Europe listened to these words, and these words, though now forgotten, if we were to search for them, would assuredly be found everywhere around us-in the quivering of Hungary, in the victorious chants of
• La Nouvelle Babylone. Par Eugène Pelletan. Paris : Paguerro.
Italy, and in the groans of Poland, that sublime corpse which is ever in a state of resurrection. At the present day Poland again rises from her tomb, pale and bleeding, as in the hour of the murder; she removes the folds of the windingsheet from her bosom, she points to the last wound in her chest, and says to the conqueror, “Strike again !"
The great advantage of the constitutional government was that men combated with talent, which compelled their adversaries to double their talent in turn, and thus the standard of polemics, and consequently of opinion, was raised on both sides. As our author epigrammatically observes, “ Talent elevates, and mediocrity lowers : as the press is, so is the nation.” The comparison, however, which Pelletan suggests between the Paris of 1830 and that of 1860, as regards literature, admits of no. contradiction :
Each day supplied its masterpiece : Lamartine was bidding a magnificent farewell to poetry in his “ Jocelyn,” and placing his foot on the first round of the ladder.' Victor Hugo had passed from the militant to the triumphant epoch: he reigned over youth, and gazed at the horizon with a forehead already illumined by a prophetic ray. Had he foreseen exile? Auguste Barbier was branding with a searing-iron the worship of the sabre and the traffic in consciences. Musset was pursuing his muse through the flowering lilacs bareheaded, like a Bacchante. Béranger was humming a last ballad to the little hat, and placing his popularity in the savings bank. Lastly, at the very bottom or at the very top, Chateaubriand, standing on his rock, was casting his great shadow over the plain in the setting sunlight, and sadly watching it melt away in space. A young woman arrived from the heart of Berri, who was destined to glorify the name of George Sand, and preach love in a language of fire, then drink from Medea's cup, and assume a second youth. Balzac was regarding through a microscope the infinite littleness of the human heart. Merimée, affected by a secret passion for brigandage, was dashing off some story about an assassination. Eugène Sue was speaking to nerves, while waiting till he should speak to the loftier feelings of his generation. Charles Nodier was expiring like an autumn day in a melancholy smile. Jules Janin was writing with a humour and grace which made one really believe that he had neither father nor mother, that he was born one day of an improvisation, of a puff of wind and fairy who wished to have a child on that occasion only through curiosity.
It is only natural that a man who remembered these glories, and who had not visited Paris for thirty years, should feel anxious to compare the present and the past. Such, in fact, is the fundamental idea of the volume, and no better plan could be selected by a writer who bore a malice against the existing régime, both political and social. M. Pelletan, speaking through his country notary, makes his first assault on the re-edification of Paris, which he says is justified by the government on the ground that the invention of steam has rendered Paris the hotel of Europe. In keeping up this character marvels of architecture have been performed, the smoking obelisks of trade have been erected in all the faubourgs, and Paris has drawn around it the military screen of its victories; it has inscribed in all the squares its contradiction of ideas, as if anxious ever to keep these absurdities before the French ; it has raised in one place a column displaying the power of an individual standing upon a spiral of victories ; and in another square a column to serve as the perch for the genius of liberty, who ever seems to be taking his flight into space, but always remains tied by the leg. But to let our author have his spiteful say:
France loves palaces even in profusion, and builds so many that it does not know to what use to turn them. A palace has been built at the Louvre, and antiques are lodged in it; another in the Rue de Bourgogne, and the legislative corps is lodged in it; another at the Bourse, and time-bargainers are lodged in it; another at the Tuileries, and a court is lodged in it; another at the Hôtel de Ville, and M. Haussmann is lodged in it; another at the Luxembourg, and the senate is lodged in it. In addition to all these palaces, Paris also raises to the sky its countless cupolas : a dome at the Pantheon, to shelter the demand of dust for immortality; a dome at the Sorbonne, to cover words; another at the Invalides, to cover wounds; another at the Val de Grace, to cover diseases; and another at the Institute, to cover compliments. .... It seems as if, from all time, destiny has wished to make of Paris a city of pleasure and expense. When a man has the spleen, no matter in what language, he signs his peace with existence here; when he wishes to dine agreeably, he enjoys his repast at the Palais Royal. Hence the trains have poured into Paris such a mass of foreigners, that it was wise to form a breach right through the town, in order to facilitate circulation.
Our author has, then, no objection to offer to the prolongation of the Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard de Strasbourg ; nor has he any fault to find with the cleansing of the Carrousel and the completion of the Louvre. Less than thirty years ago we can remember the latter place as a fair-ground, under the very windows of royalty, covered with booths, slates, planks, wooden shoes, old iron, engravings, bird-cages, parrots, dogs and cats, and guinea-pigs and squirrels, incessantly twirling round in their cage. When we were in Paris last, we found in the place of this menagerie an enormous palace, and in front of that palace à Zouave on duty, in his short knickerbockers, with his elbow resting on the muzzle of his rifle. Unfortunately, our author objects, the example of the Boulevard de Strasburg and the completion of the Louvre have led to the idea of having boulevards and Louvres everywhere. The result is, that the worthy inhabitants are living in a sort of camp. In a room of the Hôtel de Ville a man sits studying the map of Paris, and every now and then thrusts in a black pin, like a general who is meditating a strategical operation. A new boulevard has just occurred to the fertile imagination of M. le Préfet, and the next morning, on awaking, you receive a printed note, politely requesting you to pack up and be off. If you have not a registered lease, no compensation is made you for improve. ments you have introduced in your apartments; and though through an act of pure munificence three months' rent is granted you, it is only enough for moving and the injury done to your furniture :
The hapless man then finds himself in the street in search of a domicile. But the movement of urban strategy which has turned him out has, at the same time, turned out a whole quarter. He must outstrip a tribe expatriated like himself, wandering about like him, with their heads in the air, with their eyes seeking bills of lodgings to let. If the fairy of his cradle has placed a million under bis pillow, he can still retain a hope of settling his family in some corner of Paris, for apartments at seven or eight thousand francs a year are yet to be found with a little good will. But if the humility of his budget compel him to set aside a thousand francs at the most for his rent, he can reckon on an Odyssey in a perpendicular line, from the first to the fourth floor, far more terrible than Ulysses's tour round Ithaca. He will beat up all the districts of Paris, ascend every staircase, visit all the fifth floors, ransack all the sixth floors, interrogate all the garrets, and from all these ascents into the clouds he will bring back the painful conviction that the unhappy man who is so disinherited by Heaven and his fellows as to have only seven or eight thousand francs income or salary, has lost the right of living in Paris, and must pitch his tent in the suburbs. But in that case he must add the omnibus charges to the rent, and after due reflection, he prefers to pay a higher rent, and save the deficit out of his food, in order that he may at any rate bave the consolation of remaining in the vicinity of his occupation and his acquaintances.
The result of the alterations, according to our author's showing, is that, while the income derived from the houses of Paris amounted, in 1840, to one hundred million francs, it now exceeds two hundred millions. It is, in reality, a tax of one hundred millions which the lodging population pays annually for the metamorphoses. We are afraid that we must agree with our author in thinking this rather too high a price to pay for English squares and hothouse plants that pine in the lukewarm sun of Paris. But if this be bad, worse remains behind, and the new style of living, says M. Pelletan, has led to a frantic luxury, and a realisation of the reign of Sardanapalus. He is ready to allow that luxury, tò a certain extent, has a right of citizenship, owing to the circulation of capital which it produces, but he does not consider that a reason for deifying it. At the time when Louis Philippe reigned, there were in the capital of the civilised world fine houses, fine carriages, grand liveries, and pretty women arranged for show in the Opera balcony. But if luxury then had its place in France, it only had its place, while at the present time nothing else is seen, and luxury reigns everywhere, like the first personage of the state and the hero of the conversation. In former times, at any rate, people deigned to recognise the superiority of intellect, but now they only care to enjoy and dazzle : the man of the world may have gone to school in his youth, but it was only because he made too much noise in the paternal mansion. After he has taken his bachelor's degree, however, he considers it derogatory to continue his mental development. A little old man at twenty, very dry and staid, with wrinkled morals, a thorough sceptic as regards all the belief of the age, buttoned up against any aspiration, and well guarded against any audacity of the head, he considers that the son of a rich father has amply paid his debts to God and man when he has chosen a first-rate tailor, is able to ride, breakfasts at the Café Bignon, dines at the Café Anglais, sups the Lord knows where, and studies Gavarni in nature in the Breda Quartier. He may accept a diplomatic appointment, because it permits him to travel at the expense of the state, and, after a while, gives him the right of wearing all the colours of the rainbow in his button-hole. After spending a portion of his patrimony, he marries the first heiress he comes across to re-establish the balance, caring little whether she be maid or widow, known or unknown. From this moment he will study Gavarni as in the past, but he will accompany his wife to church, and gallantly carry her missal for her. Such is the picture M. Pelletan draws of the French gentleman of 1861, but he is not a whit more merciful to the fairer sex, as the following extract will show :
As for the woman of the world, once she is married, the best proof she thinks she can give of a brilliant education is, to affect the same indifference as the shepherdess who knits stockings while watching her flock. After all, what are poetry, truth, morality, good or evil, peace or war, the progress or decadence of humanity ? a matter for yawning or a headache: a fashionable lady has no time to lose over the page of a book or in intellectual conversation. In winter she is obliged to visit and be visited, receive and be received, and divide herself, evening after evening, in the four corners of Paris : at the most, she reads in bed a chapter of a realistic romance to soothe her nerves, which have been excited by music or gone to the help of slow-arriving sleep. Then, at the first song of the nightingale, she must go into the country, travel in Switzerland, emigrate to Italy, return to Aix, Plombières, Cauterets, Biarritz, Royan, or Trouville, and, in that summer carnival which is called sea-bathing, majestically display on the beach some new thing in costume, such as the flaming lood of the valley of Ossau, or Garibaldi's red shirt. When a woman gives up thinking, she digs an abyss, which she at once seeks to fill up with dresses, and all those exquisite spider-webs which are produced by the bobbins of St. Etienne or Lyons. Thus she displays on her person and round her person those dreams, or rather nightmares, of fashion, which are like the eruptions or efflorescence of a diseased imagination upon the surface of the epidermis.
M. Pelletan has a theory that the spirit of a nation may be judged by its style of dress. Thus, during the Fronde—"a glorious epoch entirely confiscated to the profit of Louis XIV., by an historic robbery which has remained unpunished”—people dressed soberly and in dark colours, but so soon as Louis XIV, had installed at Versailles “ a policy of oppression and bombast, hypocrisy and arrogance," dress became deceitful: men heightened themselves at top and bottom by means of perukes and red heels, while the ladies wore masks and paint. “A full-blooded Poitevine, of the name of Montespan, invented the large-skirted dress to extend her divinity in space and to conceal her condition.” The Regency improved on Madame de Montespan by inventing baskets; and, with history in hand, M. Pelletan declares that “the more an age loses the life of thought, the larger becomes the domain of the petticoat.” We can guess from this his opinion of the fashion of the day. But he confines himself to a complaint that modern rooms are not adapted to serve as coach-houses for these enormous female circumferences. But there is a worse side of the question than this: our austere censor affirms, that when a woman grows fond of display, she seeks to please, and from coquettishness to gallantry there is only the distance of the opportunity. “However firm a woman's foot may be, it will slip one day or the other, and it has already slipped mentally; it is not the intention that is lacking, but the boldness.” Luxury, by making a display of woman, soon strips her of every feeling of inodesty. The facile duchesses of the Regency ended by choosing their lady's-maids among their lacqueys : footmen fastened their stays and tied their handkerchiefs. In the nineteenth century M. Pelletan asserts that there are milliners who wear a beard-men, real men, men like Zouaves-who, with their solid hands, take the exact dimensions of the most fashionable ladies in Paris, dress them, undress them, and make them turn round before them like the wax dolls in the hairdressers' windows :
There is in the Rue de la Paix an Englishman whọ enjoys a popularity among the world of flowers far higher than that of any Lenten preacher. It must be confessed that this Englishman has created a new art--that of pinching in a lady's waist with a precision hitherto unknown. ... A perfect gentleman, always clean shaved, always curled, with a black coat and white tie, and cuffs fastened with gold links, he officiates with all the gravity of a diplomatist who bears the fate of the world shut up in a drawer of his brain. When he tries a dress on a living doll of the Chaussée D'Antin, he feels, measures, and marks with chalk the defective folds in the dress with the deepest contemplation. ... At times he plants a flower here, or tries a bow of ribbon, in order to judge the