The Arcades of Paris

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I am about to begin my third day in Paris. Later this morning I plan to attend Easter Sunday services at the Episcopal Cathedral.

I came to Paris primarily because I wanted to see the arcades, the covered passages (les passages couverts), that still are standing in the city. When in the middle of the 19th Century Georges Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), working for the Emperor Napoleon III, began to demolish parts of Paris to put in many of the wide boulevards with scenic vistas that we find today, many of the old arcades were destroyed.

I became interested in the arcades of Paris because I wrote part of my doctoral dissertation on the writings of the Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) whose final project, unfinished at his death, focused on the arcades of Paris.   He had been inspired in part by the surrealist Louis Aragon’s book Le Paysan de Paris in which the Arcade of the Opera (now demolished) was a central site. Benjamin’s Arcades Project (Das Passagenwerk) was a vast compilation of citations in German and French related to life in 19th Century Paris, accompanied at times with a few philosophical comments or reflections of his own.   Since the work was never completed, we don’t know exactly what Benjamin would have done with all this research. Would he have left it as a mass of collected citations or would he have done something else with it? It is difficult to say. From this research, however, Benjamin did write a few wonderfully crafted essays on Baudelaire and Paris, “the Capital of the 19th Century.”

The arcades are the proto-shopping malls of today. Their ceilings of clear glass and iron provided a space to shop and in which move about the city in comfort and style. It has been raining on and off the entire time I have been in Paris. When I visited three arcades two nights ago in the section of Paris referred to as the Grand Boulevards I was able to find a path through this part of the city without getting too wet from the rain. The three somewhat continuous arcades I found there provided a path through the middle of a block of streets. Then I had to exit, cross the street, and enter the next one. While inside I was surrounded by a variety of cafes, bistros, and shops, some selling vintage cameras, candy, food, jewelry, stamps for collectors, and much more.   In places the paint was peeling and the wooden interior while attractive looked as if it could use some repair. The arcades were a place where one could see others and be seen somewhat free from the weather. That’s exactly why they were so popular with 19th century Parisians. It is also why shopping malls are still in vogue today.

The arcades are open to the weather at both ends so they can get quite chilly. On Friday evening I ate in a bistro in Le Passage des Panoramas (Built in 1799). I was seated near the door and so every time the door opened I was greeted with a blast of cold air from the interior of the arcade. Eating alone, I watched folks pass by just as Parisians have done for more than two hundred years. (The first arcades began to appear near the end of the 18th Century)

Benjamin was interested in the arcades as a site of early capitalism and influenced by Marx, for what it could tell him about the fetishism of commodities and the emerging capitalist economies of the 19th Century. If there is anyplace to study that, Paris is the place. But I think that Benjamin enjoyed strolling though the arcades for their own sake, even though he, as far as I know, never wrote openly about his experiences doing that. There is a kind of melancholic nostalgia in Benjamin’s writings on Paris even when he is attempting to write more politically engaged material. He has what Frederic Jameson, who served on my doctoral committee at Duke University, once called a “revolutionary nostalgia.”

The arcades draw you in. Their interior is a space for shopping, yes.  B  ut there is something in them that reminds one of a lost time—a time past in which the world was a different but nonetheless a familiar place. I’m not sure exactly what it is. I have a few more Arcades to visit for the first time and a few that I must see again. Their charm is hard to resist.

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