Paris - Shifting Sands
( Originally Published 1921 )
WITH its fundamental setting practically intact Paris is enormously changed. Of this there can be no shadow of doubt, " no possible, probable shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever." What will newcomers make of it? I often ask myself. How will those who never knew it be-fore the war relate this hard, brilliant metropolis with the romantic, legendary city of Victor Hugo, of Balzac, of Du Maurier, of that host of writers of fact and fiction who have made it their theme?
The change is, of course, the result of the war; but just what makes it so different is hard to define, for the change is subtle and the face of things is the same. The boulevards are there, thronged as of yore; the cafes ply the same busy industry, despite the fabulous rise in the cost of consommations; the theatres are a succes fou; the streets are full of taxis, gliding hither and thither with their restless fares, though chauffeurs are be-come as capricious as society belles ; the Place de 1'Opera presents the same confusion of vehicles all tangled up together at tense crises, and all getting through somehow, in defiance of all the laws of traffic.
The decorative police preserve their same noble air of detachment from the vulgar exercise of law and order. Handsome and gentle, lithe of figure and slender of waist, they seem rather models of decorum than agents of discipline, walking in abstraction, the neatly folded cloak thrown over the left shoulder, or standing solitary and aloof from scenes of violence—calm, disinterested spectators. But it is they who are right, France understands their function differently.
The kiosks bloom with the same flowers and journals, presided over by the same brisk little women, as exquisitely coiffed as ever, with their own neat tresses, and guarded over by the same little dogs, who run about in careless freedom, oblivious to social amenities, and with insouciance escape sudden death at every turn.
During this year of quasi-peace, Paris has thrown off its shabby aspect, due to five years neglect of its toilette ; activities long abandoned have been resumed, and the women are little by little relaxing the strict black of their bereavement and brightening up at each change of the season, like butterflies emerging from the chrysalis. Yet somehow the old charm is missing, the joie de vivre lacks, as though the people had looked stern reality too fully in the face to be really diverted by their pastimes, or to put love into their work.
Constantly shifting, like a kaleidoscope, nothing that one can say of this superficial Paris can have more than a fleeting truth. The clearing-house of the war, it has been also the theatre of all the phases of this new thing called peace. The population since before the armistice has been more than doubled, and one-half the dwellers in Paris at the moment are provincials, composed of those countless refugees from the devastated departements. It is this which has made the crise du logement more genuine and more acute here than in any other city.
The easy hospitality of Paris was also in a sense abused by the tremendous inundation of foreigners throughout the war. Accustomed al-ways to a large floating population of strangers, the city had never before found itself the hostess of such armies of semi-hostile guests, guests brought here by military necessity, or commercial interests, or for mere considerations of personal safety, not at all attracted hither by a love of the city, or a predisposition in its favour, or because of its rich treasures of history and of art.
One hesitates to say that Paris had, up to the time of the war, been fed on flattery most of its life, but at least it is true that it had been accustomed to a wide and intelligent appreciation. The great bulk of tourists who came annually came to learn and to admire, and even when, amongst the more crass, they couldn't quite succeed, at least they bowed to the consensus of opinion, they felt the fault to be their own.
Suddenly all this is withheld. Paris is invaded by several millions of homeless persons, whose sole preoccupation is food and shelter; and by as many more foreign soldiers and " war workers," who look upon its streets, its river, its monuments with cool indifference; its institutions with uncomprehending intolerance; its business methods with amused indulgence. Paris, the beautiful, the mistress of poets, of painters, finds herself scrutinized by multitudes of young, crude, cruel, critical, practical, uncompromising eyes, which see in the great cathedrals only space takers, in the old palaces useless impedimenta, in the narrow, picturesque streets traffic obstructors ; eyes which pierce the mystery of the Seine to the lost power of its waters, the romance of old neighbourhoods to defective drain-age; eyes, in fine, of foreigners and aliens. Never had Paris been looked upon so strangely.
The Frenchman has fewer illusions about himself than most people. In the first shock of a victory which seemed to have all the disadvantages of a de-feat, these cold, clear-sighted criticisms struck home, and he felt himself in need of some readjustment to a world so different from that of his ancestors, from that of yesterday. Meanwhile every-body claimed attention at once. The piper was there with his amazing compte—there were debts to pay off, pensions to be granted, workmen to be satisfied, strikes to be settled, the public to be pacified. A certain system of adjustment to the state of war had been worked out and was in successful operation, but this peace business upset everything again and the work of reconstruction was crushing.
To those of us who have weathered, eye to eye, the incredible conditions of life during the period immediately succeeding the cessation of hostilities, the old Paris that we knew and loved in time of peace and plenty seemed at times to have fairly sunk out of sight. It has only been by a strong grip on essential values and enduring fundamentals that one has been able to hold at all to the old and true idea of the Gallic city—that one has not been swept off one's feet by the tide of material considerations that have from time to time threatened to engulf us.
At first, though the riding was uncommonly rough and the most that one could do was to hold hard while things in general went by the board, one had faith that a little patience and courage would see one through what was merely a temporary and provisional state of things in France, not at all surprising after so great a calamity. The American press invented a phrase in which one took much comfort—that Europe would " come back," as a delirious patient might return to consciousness or a madman regain his senses.
One thought in one's finite way of a transition period, or a period of reconstruction, as a matter of months merely—one was frantically occupied with the hand-to-hand struggle for daily existence, personal existence—and in a larger way one saw Paris in the throes of a superhuman effort to right itself after release from years de-voted exclusively to the absorbing passion of war. All courses had been turned to swell the one great torrent of resistance. What one now saw was the bending back of those currents into normal channels, the enormous travail multiplied by the fatigue of the nation—the vague de paresse of which we heard so much.
Of the international politics one cannot pretend either a close observation or a profound understanding; but it is certain that the country stood more than once upon the brink of revolution and that its leaders dreaded a repetition of the horrors which succeeded the war of '70, and pursued a yielding policy of mingled tact and propitiation, preferring to avert by excessive concession, rather than to attempt to crush by force, and perhaps thereby precipitate, an all too menacing disaster.
To each country its difficulties. And besides the debt of gratitude which the nation owed to the army, to a man, there was also the knowledge (as who indeed does not know?) of the limits to which the Gallic temperament will go when it has reached the point of rupture, when the last straw has been laid upon its exceedingly patient back. Certainly the wise old Communard knew how far to go in his dealings with a people already ereinte, to use their own forceful adjective describing their moral and physical state as the result of the five years' tension.
The indefinite extension of the moratorium with its attendant complications between landlord and tenant, the fabulous rise of workmen's wages, with its reaction upon prices in general, and the crowning disaster, the adoption of the eight-hour day, upsetting the routine of work at the very moment when work was to have been the salvation of the country, these have been the outstanding factors in the great metamorphosis that has taken place in France. I doubt if even the great Revolution itself made more drastic changes in a people.
In the enveloping thick of a mighty battle against the insistence of every minor annoyance, Paris has never been more uncomfortable, it has never been more thrillingly interesting. Deprived as we have been daily of each elementary commodity in turn, obliged to scheme and plot for the strictest necessities, forced to give up, one after another, when it is not all at the same time, the comforts and luxuries of a normal existence, the essential charm and beauty, the poetic depths of the loved city, seem to hold aloof, to be for us of this hand-to-hand conflict with the hard facts of mere physical life, forever separated by those centuries which have rolled between us and the builders of Paris the beautiful, by that vast gulf of emptiness which represents for us now the interminable period of the war.
Crossing the Pont du Carrousel frequently during days sacrificed to dealings with material obstacles, the vision of Notre-Dame, rising there in serene majesty, in all the glow of its Gothic beauty against the eastern sky, usually piled with soft, gray, cumulus clouds, into which the towers melt, seems so remote from actuality, from strife and struggle, as to detach itself from the present, to represent a phase of belief and an ideality of vision so long ignored as to have been completely forgotten.
Secure on its tiny island, the birth-place of the city of the Romans, its massive architecture dominates the compactness of that old, romantic section, gives the note of remoter antiquity to that boat-like isle, freighted with the treasures of an only less ancient epoch. Pointing its prow to-wards the mouth of the Seine, the Ile de la cite seems to float upon the bosom of the silver river. Its forward part is green at most seasons with the verdure of the graceful trees which screen the heavy masonry of the Pont-Neuf. To the left, the composition is held together by the heavy mass of the Conciergerie, its conical towers relieving the level of the roofs, while to the right the flat facade of that handsome row of XVIIth century dwellings stands out clear, and from the middle rises high and fine the spire of the Sainte-Chapelle, silhouetted against the gray sky, its line repeated in the slender fleche of Notre-Dame, above the cross. From the left-hand tower the fateful siren, whose four great mouths announced the approach of the enemy's air raids, has lately been removed, the ancient glass of the three roses has been re-stored, and the cathedral stands firm and splendid as the symbol of the faith of its builders, of the great and serious Paris, the Paris that must come back in time.