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  • City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris by Aimée Boutin
  • Rebecca Scales
City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris by, Aimée Boutin. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2015. viii, 194 pp. $95.00 US (cloth), $25.00 US (paper), $22.50 US (e-book).

Aimée Boutin's City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris, a recent addition to the Studies in Sensory History series published by the University of Illinois Press, joins a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship asserting the centrality of sound to modern life. Although scholars and [End Page 598] critical theorists have long regarded Paris as the birthplace of a "spectacular" modern visual culture, Boutin brings together a range of literary and popular texts — including poetry, novels, guidebooks, caricatures, and musicological surveys — to examine the city as a sonic space composed of different and competing sound cultures. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Boutin argues, bourgeois Parisians developed a heightened sensitivity to urban noise manifested in their preoccupation with cris de Paris, or the voices of street peddlers and ambulatory musicians. Street cries, set against the backdrop of political revolutions and radical transformations to the urban landscape, mediated class relations by reflecting shifting notions of public and private, evolving cultural traditions, and the vast economic disparities of the capital.

City of Noise opens with a rereading of the mythic literary figure of the flâneur: the man (or occasionally woman) who strolls through the streets of Paris taking its attractions. Most contemporary scholars have interpreted flânerie through the lens of the Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), who celebrated the flâneur's visual acuity as the key to his intellectual detachment from the urban spectacle. Yet eighteenth-century authors such as Louis-Sebastien Mercier first introduced the flâneur as a narrative device to organize the city's sights and sounds into a panorama. To bypass Benjamin's neglect of hearing and his bias against noise, Boutin returns to Honoré de Balzac's 1829 Physiologie du mariage and a number of contemporary physiologies (character sketches) to uncover how the flâneur experienced Paris as a "concert" at once harmonious and cacophonous.

Chapter two surveys a multiplicity of graphic, textual, and musical representations of cris de Paris, examining how composers such as Georges Kastner (1810–1867) and Victor Charpentier (1867–1938) incorporated street vendors' voices into their orchestrations, while artists from the caricaturist Paul Gavarni (1804–1866) to the photographer Eugène Atget (1857–1927) laboured to capture them in visual typologies. If cris de Paris had served as symbols of the vibrancy of city life since the Middle Ages, Parisians' obsession with collecting and recirculating images of street peddlers revealed new anxieties about how industrialization and urbanization were undermining the "city-as-concert." As a result, even before peddlers had fully disappeared from the streets, their voices had become nostalgic symbols of Old Paris. Under the Second Empire, when Baron Haussmann's ambitious urban renewal program gutted the city's central districts, those who opposed the new social and political order idolized street cries. Chapter three considers how the reorganization of urban space and architecture changed the soundscape of the capital, displacing trades-men to the new grands boulevards, where they were gradually replaced by mass-market advertising. Bourgeois residents and shoppers increasingly [End Page 599] heard peddlers as a sonic nuisance, not unlike police and city officials who sought to silence them through noise ordinances.

The final two chapters of the book focus on treatment of the cris in the prose poems of Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) and Arsène Houssaye (1815–1896) dedicated to the glazier's cry and in a range of verses penned by the avant-garde poets François Coppée (1842–1908), Charles Cros (1842–1888), Jean Richepin (1849–1926), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), and Joris Karl Huysmans (1848–1907). At the fin de siècle, the avant-garde sought to reclaim street noise as an antidote to bourgeois complacency and celebrated peddlers for resisting the mass market forces aligned against them. Poets reveled in the "'esprit gaulois' of the cris de Paris," Boutin argues; they mocked the...


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