Beneath the City of Light

The city hall of Siena, Italy, features a series of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. One, titled Allegory of Good Government, represents the virtues thought to promote a healthy civic order, while another, an allegory of bad government, castigates vices such as avarice, pride, and vainglory, which were held to contribute to the misery of the populace. Luc Sante’s The Other Paris aims to stand this representation of the city on its head. For Sante, the civic order that Lorenzetti praised is an artificial construct imposed on the “wild” city by “the exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, [and] unanswerable questions.” Where Lorenzetti valued order, Sante values disorder, which he takes to be a sign of vitality.

“We have forgotten what a city was,” he writes. In our zeal to feed the hungry and house the homeless, we have deprived the poor of “the riches they actually possessed: their neighborhoods as well as their use of time . . . their refusal to behave . . . their key . . . to the common property of the streets.” Sante’s aim in The Other Paris is to restore the wildness of the past: to paint the missing fresco of Parisian misrule, but to place it—contra Lorenzetti—on the side of virtue rather than vice.

Of course, an author necessarily shares at least one proclivity with Sante’s despised bureaucrats: One cannot write without imposing a certain order on one’s materials. Every few pages, Sante erects signposts to mark his ambling journey through the other Paris. We find chapters ostensibly devoted to the patchwork of Parisian neighborhoods; to the outskirts known as “the Zone” that were once frequented by criminal tribes known as apaches; to “the rabble”; to prostitution; to the bewildering variety of drinking establishments; and so on. But as befits a student of the city who finds order stultifying, this apparent structure is somewhat misleading. In fact, Sante, like so many writers on Paris before him, adopts the stratagem of the Baudelairean flaneur—the idle but exquisitely sensitive stroller who makes his “home in the multitude, in the flux . . . in the fleeting and infinite.” His narrative is therefore an aleatory affair, a matter of serendipitous encounters.

The city through which Sante wanders is not the Paris of pavement, stone, and mortar, however. It is a city of “ghosts,” and its “principal constituent matter is accrued time.” He evokes it not directly through the senses but indirectly via the pages of books—dozens if not hundreds of books devoted to the Paris of the past. Sante’s knowledge of the voluminous Paris literature is prodigious. He draws on the writings of literary flaneurs such as Georges Cain, Léon-Paul Fargue, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Nicolas-Edmé Restif de la Bretonne, Eugène Sue, and Louis Aragon, as well as historians such as Richard Cobb, Louis Chevalier, Éric Hazan, T. J. Clark, and the inevitable Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project also depends on the principle that the deep truth about a city is more likely to emerge from a miscellany of aperçus than from a preconceived thesis. Sante’s great gift is his ability to draw on the “verbal photography” of previous writers to send the reader back in time.

The Paris that commands Sante’s love and imagination was not so much a city as a congeries of villages. A nineteenth-century denizen of the Left Bank, constrained by long hours of work, might possess only hearsay knowledge of Montmartre on the heights across the Seine. One of the central contributions of Sante’s book is to map the social geography of the real city—to present Paris as its humbler residents have experienced it at distinctive historical moments. The urban environment was shaped, he says, by “occult forces,” which leave “ghostly impressions” even when partly effaced by administrative fiat. Guy Debord, founding member of the Lettrist (and later the Situationist) International, tried to chart what he called “ambience units” and to record the hidden currents of social and economic life that determined habitual pedestrian routes. Sante’s aesthetic of intimacy and enclosure leaves him utterly unmoved by the “religion of the straight line” dear to Baron Haussmann, the reforming nineteenth-century prefect who refused to allow ambience or any other considerations of mere human sociability to interfere with his vision of a rationalized urban machine that the forces of order could successfully defend against any revolutionary velleities entertained by the more restive elements of the Parisian population. Many of the neighborhoods whose teeming life and menacing dangers Sante meticulously details were swept away by Haussmann’s work—and then, as Victor Hugo remarked after the Franco-Prussian War, “Bismarck finished what Haussmann began.”

A few quartiers escaped unscathed from Haussmann’s urban-renewal efforts, including the Marais, Temple, and Saint-Antoine neighborhoods on the Right Bank and much of the Latin Quarter on the Left. These, curiously enough, have become favorites of today’s tourists. When visitors to Paris tire of the palaces and museums and triumphal arches set magnificently within the grand vistas opened up by Haussmann, they typically start exploring the Gallo-Roman amphitheater that somehow survived its slated destruction or the nearby rue Mouffetard market, which retains the feel of medieval Paris despite the relatively recent introduction of shops selling expensive handbags and chic gowns. This was once the stomping ground of derelicts and alcoholics, “the Bowery of Paris,” as Sante calls it (and as the reigning chronicler of “low life” New York, he knows whereof he speaks). This was dangerous, contested territory: The bums from the Maubert area would periodically parley with those who congregated around the church of Saint-Médard on the neutral no-man’s-land of the place de la Contrescarpe.

A Parisian flea market, ca. 1910.
A Parisian flea market, ca. 1910.

As one might expect of an author who equates order with repression, Sante refuses to allow his writing to be straitjacketed by tidy logical transitions. For example, in a chapter on crime entitled “Mort aux vaches” (the French equivalent of “Death to the pigs”), we find a lengthy discussion of the shifting balance of power among various criminal elements. But a linear narrative would be alien to the flaneur spirit, so Sante diverts us with the story of a gangster’s moll nicknamed Casque d’Or who became a minor celebrity owing to her role in a clash between two rival gangs. Postcards bearing her image were sold to the curious, and she appeared in a show named Casque d’Or et les Apaches. This vignette then opens the way for a passage on tattooing, an art of which the Parisian apaches were apparently pioneers. We then learn that criminal leadership in Paris began passing to Corsican gangs before World War II, and that they profited handsomely when German officers requisitioned brothels they owned. But it was the Carlingue, or French Gestapo, which ran the black market. One member of that gang, Pierre Loutrel, gained such notoriety as a violent psychotic that newspapers dubbed him “Pierrot le Fou” (the Madman). Although Loutrel died of a gunshot wound accidentally self-inflicted following a robbery, Sante takes advantage of his unsavory reputation to remark that “had he been caught he would have been guillotined,” and segues from there into a brief history of the guillotine. The meandering narrative line allows ample scope for Sante to display his unrivaled mastery of the lore of the bas-fonds (lower depths) of the City of Light.

Sante is also admirably frank about his distaste for the museum city he believes Paris has become: “The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay.” It would be unfair to suggest that this aestheticizing of danger, neglect, and decay is merely an exercise in bourgeois nostalgie de la boue—that is, an upscale weakness for the pleasures of slumming and the thrill of an occasional walk on the wild side. Sante’s passion for the lower depths is too palpable to be dismissed as voyeuristic exoticism.

Still, there is a more unwitting sort of self-distancing at work in Sante’s sprawling narrative. In his recent book titled, precisely, Les Bas-Fonds, the French historian Dominique Kalifa questions the solidity of the very contemporaneous sources on which Sante draws. The historian has a choice: He can take the literary reconstruction of the other Paris at face value, as Sante does; or he can ask, as Kalifa urges, why artfully interwoven tales of “poverty, vice, and crime” recurred obsessively in the works of so many writers of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Kalifa’s approach results in prose that is drier and less vivid than Sante’s but avoids the risk of romanticizing danger, neglect, and decay. Although there is some truth to Sante’s contention that in today’s Paris “the small has been consumed by the big” and “the poor have been evicted by the rich,” it is also true that “the other Paris” of the past existed in symbiosis with grandiosity and wealth.

I am less certain than Sante that the bankers and planners have crushed the vitality and spontaneity of what Benjamin called the “capital of the nineteenth century.” Take the place de la République, which Sante describes as a “charmless and windswept” void imposed by Haussmann on the “popular entertainment district” once informally dubbed the “Boulevard of Crime.” Haussmann’s latter-day successors have transformed that void into a gathering place where, on sunny afternoons, inhabitants of some of the less affluent quarters that do in fact survive in the capital mingle with the spillover from the more upscale Marais. At sunset, young couples drift away from République’s motley crowd of skateboarders, boom-boxers, mothers with toddlers, and hawkers of underground newspapers. Carried by Debord’s hidden currents, they find themselves congregating in another “ambience unit” along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin, a somewhat seedy but picturesque venue for urban picnicking, boozing, and amorous adventure. The other Paris still exists, but not yet having been set down in print, it oddly escapes Sante’s otherwise catholic notice. His book about the bygone Paris is far more comprehending and just than his peremptory verdict on the Paris of today.

Arthur Goldhammer writes widely on French politics and culture.