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  • “Hive of Words”: The Transnational Poetics of the Eiffel Tower
  • Tim Conley (bio)


There are three mythic towers. The first was the “useless and monstrous” blot on the skyline erected in 1889 not by an architect but by a “builder of machines,” an aesthetic blight so despised by the cultural old guard of France that, to use a notorious example, Guy de Maupassant preferred to dine at its base since that was the one place in Paris where he was assured of not having it in view.1 Then there is the icon which, when it appears onscreen in Hollywood films to signify Paris, is accompanied by the title, “PARIS,” because it is so hard to believe that this image could really be of the Eiffel Tower, the real one in Paris, and not just another simulacrum. Between these—that is, between the novelty and the cliché—is the tower internationally celebrated by avant-garde artists and writers. This tower was regularly identified as a new Tower of Babel,2 thereby calling to mind all of that myth’s rich and often contradictory implications of unity and diversity, ascension and downfall, and grandeur and folly. Though this association was first prompted by the tower’s terrific and novel height, it proved all the more fitting as the tower came to represent a shared circuit of communication that superceded and transgressed geographic, national, and linguistic boundaries. It served, of course, as a modernist visual icon, the subject of so many and so various visual representations in the early decades of the twentieth century as to defy cataloguing (the paintings of Robert Delaunay, the photographs of László Moholy-Nagy, the collages of Jaroslav Rössler, the posture of dancer Milča [End Page 765] Mayerová in Viteslav Nezval’s Alphabet [1926], any number of concrete poems, films, plays, and so on). Moreover, it was the inspiration for a European network of towers, including the Petřín tower in Prague (1891) and Tatlin’s proposed Monument to the Third International (1920). Radically innovative conceptualizations of space were nourished by the tower’s scale, the openness of its structure, and the multiplicity of viewpoints provided (both of it and from it). Yet these spatial renegotiations were not solely visual, and it is a different sensory perception of the tower that I would like to consider in focus here.

Gustave Eiffel’s denigrators were quite right: he was a builder of machines, and it was precisely this “new architectural order,” as Fernand Léger recognized it in a 1924 manifesto, “the architecture of the mechanical,” that fascinated poets ready for formal and sensory experimentation.3 The tower was as much a new kind of machine as it was new architecture. In a 1932 radio broadcast on the collapse of a bridge in Scotland, Walter Benjamin draws upon notes that we find in the Passagenwerk to praise iron construction, and specifically the Eiffel Tower.4 His source in both instances is Alfred Gotthold Meyer’s Eisenbauten: Ihre Geschichte und Ästhetik (1907), and the passage he fondly repeats describes the construction site where “the sound of chisels” cannot be heard; rather, “thought reigns over muscle power, which it transmits via cranes and secure scaffolding.”5 More than to the novelty of this new construction material, Benjamin was drawn to what struck him as a new method of construction and, by implication, a significant new function to its result. Essential is the verb “transmits”: the Eiffel Tower is not just a transmitter but itself a transmission. Indeed, the emphasized reign of thought suggests a psychic transmission, and the effect of the tower in this context becomes suggestive of the “auratic perception” that Benjamin pursued and which is perhaps too much, too exclusively associated with sight.6

French salutes to the tower by Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars are well known to students of modernism,7 though their far-flung dissemination represents a history still in the making, and it is easily forgotten that neither Apollinaire nor Cendrars was in fact a native son of France. This commonality is of interest precisely because the tower’s call extended beyond the borders of France: it could be “heard...


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