Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wait, I was going to save that

If one had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, one might accuse Paris in this day and age of being too in search of "perfection" when it comes to "urbanity".

The sheer beauty and taste found over and over again in the buildings and stones and streets and monuments and bridges and stores of this city can at times almost seem twee, to use a Britishism.  Twee means too cute and I suppose inauthentically so.  Stores that sell candles or chocolates in shopping malls are often twee.  Carmel, California is twee.  And Montmartre is both beautiful and twee, though saved from excessive twee-ness by it authenticity.

But it only takes a quick stop at the Museum Carnavalet, an amazing hodge-podge of five centuries of bric-a-brac celebrating the history of Paris, to be reminded of the intense, violent radicalism that also is a trademark of this city.  The French Revolution must be exhibit number one, with the beheading of the king as the truest expression of its extreme.  But the Revolution wasn't just Paris, and its impact, more than just France.

A truer moment of distinctly Parisian blood-shedding is the Paris Commune of 1871, when citizens rose up against the newly formed government under Adolphe Thiers following the abdication of Napoleon III.  In the resulting two month period, from March to May of 1871, Paris was run by a local committee whose politics set to defend workers rights, separate church from state, and promote women in society.  The Thiers government, determined to reassert unified control over the French state, fought its way back into Paris with a brutal and unforgiving determination.  The death toll was high.  Summary executions common.  My neighborhood of Belleville was reputedly the final holdout against government troops.

In retaliation, the Communards burned buildings of the French patrimony, among them, the city's Hotel de Ville, City Hall.  In doing so, the Communards sent hundreds of years of Paris' documented history up in flames.

So today's question is: How should we think about a destructive act that permanently erases the record of history that is itself nevertheless an historical act?  Confusing?  Yes, for me too.