- Le Promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, and: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War
Paris had to be made into a modern city so it could make France into a modern nation. Two recent works—a probing monograph on the history of eighteenth-century promenading by a young French scholar and an artful overview of the nineteenth-century French countryside by a long-seasoned English writer on French literature—help us understand this transformation of Paris and France. In his award-winning book, Le Promeneur à Paris, Laurent Turcot traces the development and mutation of promenading in its movement from court and garden to Paris’ boulevards and ramparts in the eighteenth-century France, setting the stage for the nineteenth century urban flàneur. Resembling a doctoral dissertation, Le Promeneur, though rich in types of documentation, is overlabored in the service of its thesis—and, by my lights, its lucid paragraphs and telling turns of phrase do not entirely justify stark omission of parallel developments of promenading and the emergence of city walking in London, Rome, Vienna, and elsewhere in Europe.
Turcot’s principal contention is that the transformation of French aristocratic promenading in the eighteenth century gave birth to the individual walker-observer-writer who depicted and, thus, made walking in Paris the quintessential urban experience. This metamorphosis occurred, according to Turcot, in three stages, which form the principal divisions of his work. Initially, an aristocratic activity, promenading constituted another type of decorative display. Motivated by the desire to see and be seen, it was structured by rituals and ceremonies, and moved as much in carriage as on foot. In the second stage, the [End Page 488] Paris’s redesigned boulevards, the Champs-Elysées in particular, and town ramparts constituted the new venues for putting one’s best foot forward. Open, safe, and entertaining, these places increased popular participation and were, so to speak, “the proving grounds” of the Parisian stroller. In third stage, the new urban walkers began to appear, although Turcot does make much of this fact, as did (especially in the English-speaking world) the reflective romantic country walker. These new philosophical walkers turned the act of walking and select city walks into an independent, autonomous, and self-validating activity. Among those who fused footing, wording, and Paris in a new frame, Turcot identifies early city guide writers and a fresh breed of conscious and critical pedestrians. Aside from such obvious choices as eighteenth-century luminary Denis Diderot and romantic Jean Jacques Rousseau, who rejected carriages and horseback riding, inveighed against the filthy streets of Paris, and embraced the wholesome countryside, Turcot dedicates whole insightful sections to Siméon Prosper Hardy, Louis Sébastien Mercier and Rétif de la Bretonne. Each of these three, in his own manner and way, recorded observations from his diurnal and nocturnal walks, while affirming that walking was a true way to know a city, society, and self.
Le Promeneur à Paris is commanded by the desire to provide a historical background for Marxist philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin’s influential but unfinished work on Paris, The Arcade Project (Das Passagen-Werk), first published in English in 1999. Among Paris’ arcades of the 1820s and 1830s—those new structures and icons of iron, glass, and cloth manufacture—Benjamin identified the appearance of new consciousness in the era’s “historical scouts,” those intellectual flâneurs, whose principal representative, Baudelaire, “an allegorical genius,” metamorphosed Paris, the literary center of the world, into poetry. Turcot’s attempt to locate the genesis of Benjamin’s flâneur in the urbanization and individuation of eighteenth-century promenading ultimately makes his work an exercise in cultural history, which in turn, explains why Turcot sets aside other subjects: Was there, for example, a continuity or discontinuity between the eighteenth and nineteenth century ordering of Paris by transportation, police, sanitation, and traffic control...