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Revolutionary Paris and Literary France Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson O N THE 21ST OF JANUARY 1793, Louis XVI was driven from the Prison du Temple to what had been inaugurated as the Place de la Révolution.1 The journey lasted almost two hours. The closed carriage and its full military escort passed through streets lined with citizens armed with spikes and guns. Drums attached to the horses covered any expression of sympathy for the condemned king. At the scaffold the king declared his innocence and absolved his executioners, but his attempts to say more were muffled by more drums. The deed accomplished, the severed head was paraded before the impatient by­ standers whose shouts of “ Vive la liberté” and “ Vive la république” ended this performance of what Foucault aptly called the “ Spectacle of the Scaffold.” The conspicuous political dimensions of this event have long over­ shadowed its specifically urban consequences. In beheading the king, the Revolution not only abolished a central symbol of country, it obliterated a vital emblem of the city. At least since the sixteenth century, monarch and inhabitants alike had boasted of Paris as the “ capital of the king­ dom” : whose capital could it be henceforth? Decapitation deprived the city of a chef, of its symbolic head. Paris became an organism without a head, truncated, incomplete, a monstrosity. So strong was the associa­ tion of the city and the monarchy that the execution made much of Paris a symbolic non-sense. The fleurs-de-lys that figured on the seal of the city clearly had to be removed. But what would replace them? Whose city was it? It had been the monarch’s city. Who now would, or indeed could, comprehend it? In a very real sense, the city had to be re-written before it could once again be read. Most obviously, one political regime took over from another and went about the business of creating institutions in its own image. Accord­ ingly, revolutionaries destroyed a number of the more egregious emblems of the past (for which the term “ vandalism” was coined). But renewal entails more than demolition. The Revolution had somehow to accommodate the past, and given the imprint of the monarchy upon Paris, symbolic regeneration posed problems of major proportions. The execution of Louis XVI is itself a larger symbol of urban crisis. It Vol. XXIX, N o. 2 39 L ’E spr it C r éa te u r bespeaks an immediate need for symbolic re-representation. It requires a drastic rewriting or resymbolization of the urban text. In the nineteenth century, the writer, particularly the novelist, took up that challenge, claiming a new authority over the city as text. To a very considerable extent the integrity of the nineteenth-century novel lies in the recon­ ceptualization it proposed of post-revolutionary Paris. Struggles over the designation of city space gave a distinctly urban resonance to the larger political conflicts played out in post-revolution­ ary France.2The successful contestation of authority opened the city to definitions from every quarter. The execution of one king, the defeat and subsequent flight of his successors in 1814, 1815, 1830, 1848 and 1870 bespoke the fragility of political authority. With no center, the urban symbol system was in disarray. Into this symbolic void, writers stepped with varying degrees of assurance, to assert the authority of the written word and to interpret the modern city and the society that it both repre­ sented and expressed. The profusion of writing about Paris betrayed a pervasive bewilder­ ment over the state of urban society. If, as Victor Hugo insisted in the 1820s, a post-revolutionary society compelled a post-revolutionary aesthetic, it followed, in turn, that an urbanizing Paris dictated an urban aesthetic. Exactly how that aesthetic might be revolutionary was a sub­ ject of great debate. Histories, guidebooks, essays, novels, and poetry about Paris glutted the market, which then asked for more. In 1856, by way of justifying yet another anthology of Paris explorations, Théophile Gautier summed up the situation: Avec ce titre magique de Paris, un drame, une revue, un livre est toujours sûr du succès. Paris a sur lui-même une...


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