Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique

Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique

Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique

Paris Dreams, Paris Memories: The City and Its Mystique

Synopsis

How did Paris become the world favorite it is today? Charles Rearick argues that we can best understand Paris as several cities in one, each with its own history and its own imaginary shaped by dream and memory. Paris has long been at once a cosmopolitan City of Light and of modernity, a patchwork of time-resistant villages, a treasured heirloom, a hell for the disinherited, and a legendary pleasure dome. Each of these has played a part in making the enchanting, flawed city of our time.

Focusing on the last century and a half, Paris Dreams, Paris Memories makes contemporary Paris understandable. It tells of renewal projects radically transforming neighborhoods and of counter-measures taken to perpetuate the city's historic character and soul. It provides a historically grounded look at the troubled suburbs, barren of monuments and memories, a dumping ground for unwanted industries and people. Further, it tests long-standing characterizations of Paris's uniqueness through comparisons with such rivals as London and Berlin. Paris Dreams, Paris Memories shows that in myriad forms- buildings, monuments, festivities, and artistic portrayals- contemporary Paris gives new life to visions of the city long etched in Parisian imaginations.

Excerpt

The Paris that inhabits imaginations around the world is a “moveable feast” of pleasure, beauty, and elegance. The Paris that most Parisians know is a workaday big city with traffic jams, supermarkets, and skyscrapers; it is also a sprawling multiethnic agglomération of ten million people. The Paris that the city’s recent mayors have promoted is a world cultural capital—or the “new Athens.” Those different versions of the city, along with a few others, are the subject of this book. We should think of Paris “in the plural,” writer Julian Green has urged. Taking that idea as a starting point, I have written an account of how and why those several “Parises” became important and how they have together shaped the fabled, flawed great city of our time.

Paris is not just a city, it’s a “world,” the Emperor Charles V remarked (reportedly) in the sixteenth century. The city’s multiple facets and identities, together with its size, have made it difficult to comprehend and describe—from the Middle Ages on. In our time, the problem is even more daunting than ever: how can that great variegated “world” be captured or represented in words and images?

French phrases describing Paris over the centuries may offer us some help on that question, though they all have limitations, focusing as they do on one or another feature or role. Some writers have pictured the city as a vital organ—the heart and the brain of France, and the head (tête) of the world. To some it has been a “paradise,” to others a “new Babylon,” a hell, and a “stinking ulcer.” Poetic minds have also portrayed the city as a lion, a spider, a ship, an ocean, a volcano, a furnace, a sewer, a brothel, a labyrinth, a beacon, a star, and … The list goes on and on.

Only a few of the images have become conventions—or what scholars call social representations, widely shared by Parisians and foreigners alike. Those few play leading roles in this study of modern Paris. As widely accepted ways of perceiving and imagining the city, they can tell us much . . .

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