A people's park

I live near the aristocratic parks. If I bike South for ten minutes, I hit the Tuileries, and in fifteen minutes, more or less, I can hit Luxembourg. These parks are watched over by statues, or ponds at the center of which one finds a baroque fountain, and are herded by the orangeries or palais or hotels to which they once formed a unit. The way the parks should be experienced is evident in the ground plan, laid out by those architects, gardeners and urbanists – like Perrault at Versailles – who adapted the grounds to the royal perspective. But the point was not just to keep these gardens for the king. There’s a famous story about this:

“When the gardens of the Tuileries were replanted by Lenostre, Colbert wanted to close them to the people, who for more than a century had become used to strolling there; he went to give orders to that affect, accompanied by Perrault, who said to him, as they were walking
-You would never believe, monsieur, the respect that everyone, down to the petit bourgeoisie, has for this garden; not only women and children would never think of plucking a single flower, but they wouldn’t even touch them. They stroll about there like well behaved people, the gardeners can vouch for it. It would be a public affliction not to come here to stroll around.” And to Colbert’s objection, Perrault replied: There comes here… persons who have left their sick bed to take the air; there comes those who speak of business affairs, of marriages, and of everything that can be treated better in a garden than in a church, where it will be necessary to go in the future and make appointments. I am persuaded that the gardens of the king are so great and spacious in order that all their children can stroll there.” (Musee des familles, 212 – my translation)

Similarly, the Bois de Boulogne, which I can only get to by metro or bus, was once a royal hunting preserve. And though the last king that hunted there lost his head, and though I associate it as much with Swann, damning the Verdurins and Odette as he rambled in it one night, after being excluded from the “clan”, I am aware of its royal past when I walk on its paths.

Sunday, I visited another sort of park altogether – the Buttes-Chaumont. The sign tells me that the park was designed under Napoleon III, and opened in 1867 as, according to Luisa Lumida, an extension of that years Universal Exposition. The area was at the time in a worker’s district. While Napoleon III was no democrat, by 1867 the spirit of the aristocracy had gone into terminal decline. Beginning in 1830, when the revanchist noblesse played their last turn, and lost, the nobility had lost its real place in France, and by 1867 it was utterly caught up with the corruption and money making schemes that marked the final period of Napoleon III’s rule. By the time Proust’s chronicle takes them up, around 1900, the aristocracy was well on its way to becoming a mere collection of celebrities – indeed, Odette is the emblem of that transformation. And so they would continue to warp in the rays of the new media. Zola, in a way, foretold what was going to happen in the horse racing scene in Nana, where nobles and great wealth are both caught up in the spell of her estrus, while Nana, the resplendent child of an alcoholic and a cripple from the Paris slums, grows metaphorically to giant size and swallows France’s virility – its railroads, steel, agriculture – as she spends the money that is showered upon her.

Zola was as little a democrat as Napoleon III. As the Buttes-Chaumont was designed as a people’s park, Zola showed exactly what happened when the people crashed the gates of culture in L’assomoir. There, at the wedding of Nana’s mother, Gervaise, the wedding party, out of pure idleness, goes to the Louvre. Oh these laboring classes! Once there, they discover to their great amusement, that the walls are covered with paintings of tits.

This party is surely one of the great moments in the Gnostic history of modernism, a moment of abundant intersignage. The great compact that had held from the Renaissance and even through the French Revolution had surrounded art with a neutralizing and glorious aura, variously interpreted as sublimation or sublimity, the brunt of which was that these representations, these colors and forms, these sculptures, these poems, were the higher things. Yes, British dilettanti could nudge each other when gazing at the phalli uncovered at Pompeii, not to speak of the frescoes there, but the erotic was meant to be felt only under the strata, so to speak, of classical scholarship – the great lava of philosophy and learning pouring out from Wincklemann and the Germans. And then the time of the Whig Lords came to an end, and with it a respectability settled over London, which had already received the shock of the puritans in the 17th century. This is why, I think, London seemed a little strange to me after Paris – there is no tribe of accompanying nude statues in London. They do not lurk over the great buildings, or around the corner, in the parks. Instead, there is, at best, hatchet faced clothed statues and nudes that are painful, painful allegories. Thus, Zola’s Paris proles already had the experience of tits and ass in the streets. But these tits and ass were still faintly ringed with the noble disdain for prole appetites, all of which comes crashing down in the age of Expositions and daguerrotypes, when one can purchase, for one’s wanking pleasure, less inapproachable pics of nudes in the appropriately louche tabac, and it becomes obvious that it is all naked forked humans, nothing special, and something to touch. Zola is not at all happy with this situation. And surely in a sense he is right – whether art tries to ‘transgress’ or is rolled out in the Frommer’s Guidebook or Art History 101 as something to photograph reverently, it is under the spell of having its spell broken.
All of which leads to this: when I entered the Buttes-Chaumont, I immediately felt at home. Here, there are no rococo marbles to police our mildly libidinous pleasures, and we see, grouped on various sloping lawns, families, friends and lovers, all clumped together separately, eating or drinking. I recognized the spirit of this park – it is the same spirit that presides over Zilker Park in Austin. It is the spirit of hotdogs and burgers on the grill. The attraction, here, is the mild natural aberration of a hill and a grotto and an artificial pond. True, one thing was missing – radio stations in France have still not discovered the joy of playing top 40 songs on ace speakers to a crowd that never asked to hear them and would probably like them to leave, even in spite of the free t shirts being handed out. Perhaps some blessed, paternalistic abridgement of all our freedoms forbids this – we know the French!
I was quite quite happy. Then I went to a nearby café and had a beer.