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  • Devouring Streets: Jules Janin and the Abjection of Paris
  • Margaret Miner (bio)

Janin . . . nous parlait avec toutes les langues, miel et épines de roses, nous fouettant avec l’ironie et nous pardonnant avec l’estime et les paroles sérieuses . . .

Et nous reconduisant jusqu’à la porte de son cabinet, il nous dit: “Voyez-vous, jeunes gens, il ne faut pas trop, trop de conscience!”

Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, Journal

Nirgends, es sei denn in Träumen, ist noch ursprünglicher das Phänomen der Grenze zu erfahren als in Städten. . . . Als Schwelle zieht die Grenze über Straßen; ein neuer Rayon fängt an wie ein Schritt ins Leere; als sei man auf eine tiefe Stufe getreten, die man nicht sah.

Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk


Before Haussmann set to work renovating it in the 1850s, the center of the French capital was worse than inaccessible. Every route leading into it, “[t]outes les larges rues pénétrant en deçà des boulevards intérieurs venaient buter, en quelque sorte, contre la masse compacte des habitations formant l’ancien Paris, que perforaient seulement des rues étroites et des ruelles, comme les cheminements tortueux des [End Page 780] insectes dans le cœur d’un fruit.” 1 So, at least, writes Charles Merruau, a political journalist who sat on the Municipal Council and served as secretary general for the Prefecture of the Seine under Napoléon III. The problem, as Merruau evokes it, was not so much that getting through the core of Paris had become utterly impossible by the end of the July Monarchy. It was rather that one still could—and often had to—squirm through this unavoidable district, burrowing over to shop at “la fourmilière des Halles,” 2 to worship at Notre-Dame, to work (like Merruau) at the Hôtel de Ville, to study (like the young Haussmann) at the schools honeycombing the Latin quarter, or to die at the Hôtel-Dieu. With a particular kind of attraction, the rotten core of Paris—the pear-is ruled by the Roi-Poire Louis-Philippe, as an opposition journalist might have quipped 3 —drew citizens like crawling bugs into its zone of defilement, repulsion, fermentation, nourishment. And if this attraction kept operating for decades on a massive scale, it would seem (“en quelque sorte,” ventures Merruau) to have been largely because of the streets. Too narrow for anything but wriggling insects yet too wide to block even lumbering carts, the streets in the city’s heart were menaces and magnets, holding circulation at the limit of the humanly bearable. They functioned neither as connectors nor as dividers and simultaneously as both.

Merruau, a prominent journalist with a taste for administration, concentrated on material conditions in the decrepit Paris that Haussmann was about to take in hand. Jules Janin, a well-known journalist with a bent for literature and the arts, found Paris as compelling a subject as Merruau, but was less willing to separate its physical decay from its moral ferment. Writing the introduction for Les Français peints par eux-mêmes, a collective, multivolume series published in the early 1840s, Janin determinedly shoves his collaborators into the traditional line of moralists running from Theophrastus through La Bruyère. But what this latter could accomplish alone in the circumscribed society of the ancien régime, declares Janin, only a large committee of writers, worming their way individually throughout the city and regrouping afterward, could hope to manage in the [End Page 781] tentacular Paris of the mid-nineteenth century. 4 By Janin’s account, it is not merely the overbuilt streets of this Paris that slow up circulation and force his colleagues to fan out. It is also the inextricable pile-up of moral values and their extravagantly lived consequences that congests the city: “Dans [cent ans], l’on entendra parler d’une capitale d’un grand royaume qui absorbait le royaume tout entier, qui attirait à elle toute fortune et toute beauté, toute intelligence et tout génie, toutes les vertus, mais aussi tous les crimes, toutes les poésies mais aussi tous les vices.” 5 To write from inside this distinctively urban...

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