The Soul of Paris

IN looking down upon any great city one is impressed with the truth of Belloc’s belief that cities have souls. He comes to realize that each city has an individuality peculiar to itself, —an identity, a spirit, and an attitude of mind belonging to itself alone. This is not only true of cities, it is true of nations; and if we look deeply into the characteristics of any of the nations we know, or of those whose tales are preserved in true histories, we find the soul that dominated the nation. Cities, too, are like men and nations in other ways; they have their periods of ascension, of maturity, and of decay; their seedtimes and their harvests; their youth and their old age.

Of the ancient cities, — for it has an age of almost twenty centuries, — Paris seems to be the phœnix, the one city that has the power of rising young and virile from its own dead ashes. It is not sunken in sleep, as Florence; it is not dying, as Venice; it has not fallen into playing with masks in which itself does not believe, as Rome; it is not suffering from arrested spiritual and mental development, as London; it has not resigned itself to the stupor of sensuality, as Tunis, but it has kept pace with the march of the centuries, it has itself often led the march, and it stands to-day, despite its hoary age and its ancient traditions, as the most modern city in the modern world, as the newest city in the new century. And its thought is new and modern, and its philosophy — drawn from the old — becomes new again in modem applications. It scans well the pages of history, so that, knowing the pitfalls that have been, it can avoid those to be. It scans well the future, and moves forward with great caution,— but it always moves.

Nevertheless, it is not the past nor the future that Paris loves best. It knows that the past has gone, and that the future is not yet; and without grieving for the one or fearing the advent of the other, it enjoys to the full the priceless Now. It enjoys it tranquilly, sanely, and soberly, and in many waiys. To develop in all ways is to be able to enjoy all things; so love, money, art, science, philosophy, literature, nature, beauty, and work are all revered by this wise city, which believes that each in its proper place is good.

Paris itself, as a whole, as an entity, has an indescribable fascination for its own people and for travelers as well. Whole libraries have been written of it, but the story of Paris has never been told, because no one knows or has known its story. Whatever one seeks in the world, Paris contains. Whatever men have done in the world, the effect, or expression, is in Paris. And so in attempting to view this wonder among cities it will be found to reward being studied in its inner nature, as well as from the bird’s-eye view of the lover of panoramas, — and that, too, will repay the effort it costs.

If one stands upon any of the heights about Paris and gazes down upon it, he sees one of the most fascinating pictures that are spread upon the face of the earth, — a great city stretching away in orderly proportions almost to the limit of vision, marked here and there by the great architectural monuments the ages have bequeathed to it, and lying busy and alert under the light mists that its multitudinous lives cause ever to hang over it, humming with its noises of toiling or playing millions, —as instinct with life as though it itself were human, as beautiful itself as any of the countless treasures of art it contains. The view of Paris is unique among the views in the world, as it itself is unique among the cities of the world. Why need we pore over the archæologists’ tales of the dead cities of Asia Minor, of Egypt, or of Mauritania ? Great Babylon or storied Thebes was never so great as Paris is. Herculaneum would not have made an arrondissement in Paris, and Pompeii and Timgad united would not have made it a suburb. It is worth while to study Paris both from within and from without, in its body and in its soul. We may find that all the giants did not live in the older days, and that the ancients did not know all the wonders of the world.

Victor Hugo liked to gaze upon Paris from the towers of old Notre Dame, and to send his imagination back to the time when it was a Gothic city, inclosed within walls, and forming what he believed to be “a homogeneous city, — an architectural and historical production of the Middle Ages,—a chronicle in stone.” He grieved for Gothic Paris and offered us picturesque but squalid Vitré as a consolation. But we require no consolation, for the world and humanity outgrew the Middle Ages, and why should Paris have been expected to lag behind ? Belloc loves Paris best as seen from the historic Hill of Valerian; and it seems to have been the Parises of St. Genevieve and of St. Louis that he deemed the best; but the destroying ages that demolished the Paris of the saints have builded a better Paris, and one more deserving of love.

Paris is well seen from the Eiffel Tower, — not the least of the advantages being that then one does not need to see the unlovely tower itself. From St. Cloud one sees the city over its great wood, — its magnificent garden built for pleasureseekers and which seems to border a pleasure city. But from St. Germain-enLaye the farther view is more in keeping with the real soul of the great city, — the soul that began to unfold two thousand years ago, and is still unfolding. One sees the city across the green valley of the winding Seine as he sees its history across the dim outlines of twenty vanished centuries. The view is bounded by heights on either side; it extends, crossing and recrossing the tortuous river, on over tree-embowered villages, past old Valerian, — and there, shimmering on the horizon like a mirage, crowned with its dome-crested hill of Montmartre, shines Paris, — a great white city, a great white vision floating in the translucent atmosphere. From this point one does not see all of the city; indeed only a small part of it. is within view; but one sees enough. The picture that lies before one is softened by the distance until it seems perfect; and the same distance hides all the city’s crudenesses and imperfections as the centuries that have gone hide the cruelties of its history. The harsher shades are all toned down, and one seems to be looking upon a city that is perfect, that is finished. And that great indistinct picture is Paris, — Paris the ancient, Paris the new, Paris the superstitious, Paris the free-minded, Paris the player, Paris the toiler, Paris the philosopher, Paris the mad, Paris the saint, Paris the beast! For Paris has been — and is — all of these things, and more.

As one approaches this “great human sea ” he comes upon busy suburbs, dominated by tall chimneys belching forth forever the smoke that is emitted by busy factories, and which emblemize the busy iron age that Paris, with the rest of the world, has entered upon. And beyond the factories, rising like a beacon, the new and unlovely basilica lifts its high head, as though to proclaim that the spirit of the Middle Ages also lives and remains a part of the great city’s life. And, as the approach becomes nearer, one may look upon the Louvre, treasury of the best and most beautiful work that the hands of men have wrought since the beginning of history; he may see the outlines of the great colleges from which, since the time of ill-starred Abélard, the essence of human thought has gone forth to leaven the minds of men. And as one passes through the city he may gaze upon crumbling old Notre Dame, mother of French Gothic churches, and one of the most imposing and beautiful structures that men have reared since the chisels fell from the hands of the old Greek builders. One may go on, and look upon the beautiful and the unsightly churches as well; upon the Tower of St. Jacques whose beauty has outlasted generations and dynasties; upon the great galleries and museums; upon the few remains of the old civilizations and old architectures, at the great schools and laboratories, the stately homes of the government, the splendid system of boulevards and avenues and parks that have served to bring the country into the city and to make of Paris the airiest and roomiest city in the world, then at the statues and sculptures which are the stone poems bequeathed to the city by the passing ages, at the monuments which have been raised to do honor to the city’s great sons, — and yet one has not seen Paris. He has seen but its framework, the outlines of its great monuments of history and of accomplishment, the shells of its great institutions, — but a part of the body that holds its great soul. For Paris, above all cities, has a soul. It, above all cities, is an entity, and individual. It is a city, but it is more than a city: it is a true microcosm. It is essentially French, but it is more than French. It is the great World City, more cosmopolitan than ever was Rome, great in more diversified ways than any city has ever been, and more beautiful than any other city that men have yet reared upon the earth, — for the Lost City of Is, its only rival in beauty, is but a myth. It is Paris the unique, Paris the intellectual capital of the Western world, Paris the greatest city in existence.

But that last statement will be challenged, for the pride of more than one great metropolis is concerned. Let us examine slightly a few other cities. London is very great, ponderous in its mighty bulk, mighty with its millions of humans and of gold pieces, the capital and metropolis of the English people. But after all, it is but an English city; it is English in its every feature, and English in its soul. It is bound by the same inflexible laws of caste that are choking the people whose capital it is; it is fettered by the same iron traditions that at first upbuilded and are now smothering its nation; and above all it is forbidding, and gloomy, and unlovely, and its treasures of architecture and its lovely places are not enough in number to offset the sombreness of its dreary miles upon miles of dreary red brick houses inhabited by dreary people w ho live out their dreary lives under its leaden and dreary skies. Yet under its grim exterior it hides a genial nature, and to those who know the way to its heart it is a city to love. But all the time, if one wall enjoy London, he must close his eyes to the human misery that hedges him about in almost every quarter, to the human wrecks that litter its streets, and to the great gloomy districts — populous cities in themselves — where only poverty and vice and ignorance and misery have their abodes.

New York is a great city, a very great city indeed, standing as it does as the flower of a new civilization, the work of a new race. It has an undaunted soul, strong arms, great riches in its coffers, and high aspirations for its future. But the new race that budded it had, in times that are yet recent, to hew down the forests, and blaze new trails in trackless lands, and conquer wildernesses, and reclaim deserts, and establish new institutions, and light new beacon fires to guide the steps of men. New York and the nation of which it is the metropolis have been too busy, and are too young, to have equaled ancient Paris in the race for superiority. And it was not long ago that it could also have been said that America was too poor to enter the competition. It is now a nation grown rich, a nation rejoicing in its newly achieved wealth and power. But the memory of its days of poverty still abides with it, and the utilitarianism born of that poverty — of those old prime needs for houses to live in and food to eat—is still visible in its body and in its soul. As the metropolis of a great new nation — a nation so great that it does not know its own strength, so rich that the tale of its wealth is like an Eastern fairy tale — New York may in time also become a great World City. If it does there will be two, for eternal Paris will continue. But even now New York, in being the greatest city of the Americans, has achieved enough glory for a city whose site was the camping-ground of savages when Paris was hoary with age.

Berlin is a great German city, but it is nothing more. It is the tongue and the hand of Germany, — hardly its brain and heart, — but its influence is not great beyond the German Empire. It is in all things German, and a little provincial in being only North German, — staid, rather stolid, not so beautiful as it is substantial, not so cultured as it is rich, still bound by tradition, dreaming of war, and knowing more of science than of art, more of utility than of beauty. It is ambitious, very well content with itself, and progressive after its own fashion. Vienna is typically Austrian, which is to say South German. It does not even typify the various races whose capital it is. It is the fit seat of a feudal empire that has endured after the close of the epoch to which it belonged. It is held in lines of caste, which are gilded by gentility and culture, but which are none the less potent to limit its progress and stifle its advancement. It enjoys itself in pleasing manners of gayety that have come down from an older age; it is finished, accomplished, refined, — and it is decaying and giving way in the world, according to the inevitable law, to more progressive rivals. It has not the adaptability nor the philosophy of Paris; it continues more Catholic than Rome, more conservative than Brittany, more feudal than remotest Silesia. It does not change as the world and the times change, and its chief interest is that it remains as a living embodiment of a civilization that in other lands has died. It is a greater sister to Toledo and Venice, but it is in no sense a great World City. And so, after viewing the cities, it might be said that he who does not dwell in Paris is a village dweller.

It is Paris alone of the ancient cities that has kept step with the march of the ages. It retains some of the walls and towers of the ancient architectures that existed coeval with its ancient systems, yet it has gone from their epochs as it has gone from the systems they contained. And the monuments that stand from the older ages serve as reminders to the great city of the glories it has achieved, of the evils it has endured and conquered, of the sins it has done, and of the penances it has done for its sins. For Paris has sinned mightily, and it has done mighty penance. It might be likened to a great man, marvelous in ability, incredible in strength both of sinew and spirit, who is yet erratic and sometimes uncontrolled, who inherits from the past not only the polish of all education and refinement, but also old savage strains of barbarity that sometimes rise above his erudition and philosophy and cause him to return to the savagery in which his race was born. Paris has risen like a demon; it has reveled in blood like a fiend; it has gyrated in madness like a maniac. And yet even in its madnesses and its excesses it has been ever dominated by the great soul that sits enthroned within it, and that has always been potent to extract good from the evils it has done. It has risen in blind rage, but when it has done so an evil throne has been overturned or an iniquitous system has been removed from among the shackles that bind humanity. Upon the ashes of its evils it has always builded new structures of good. Except the invention of printing and the discovery of America, the French Revolution has been the most potent event for human advancement of which history tells; and its madnesses and its mighty beneficent after-results are typical of the fierceness and the wisdom of Paris.

Certain esoteric schools believe that the destiny and progress of the world is guided by certain good and wise beings called Mahatmas, who, from silent places of peace, send forth the thoughts and inspirations that cause humanity’s progress. If one might draw a comparison from this belief, he might say that below the great Soul of Paris there exists and functions a band of lesser spirits who guide and direct the individual things that the great city stands for, — as progress, freedom, science, art, and literature. And in order to come closer to the soul that guides all, it may be well to observe what these lesser divinities of the city are accomplishing. The Spirit of Architecture in Paris, in times past, wrote as beautiful messages in stone as have been given to humanity since the decadence of Greece. It builded in the forms of Rome as well as did Rome itself. It inspired the Crusaders to carry the pointed arch of the Arabs home from the wars, and from that arch it created an architecture in which could be expressed all the passions of the human soul. It joined with Italy and produced the Renaissance. And then it slept. And it sleeps to-day, and in its seat sits a false Spirit of Architecture, that is cold, and hollow, and untrue, and arrogant, and pitiful, and wholly unlovely. The Eiffel Tower is one of its fruits, — a thing of strength and might, but with no softness in its soul, no grace in its spirit, and no beauty on its face. The Grand Palace is another of its fruits, — and is a fit emblem of brazen self-assertion, of mock gentility, and of the flaunting of vulgar riches in the abashed face of Taste; it is worse than the Trocadero only in that it lays claim to being better. The new Hôtel de Ville of Tours emanated from the false spirit that has usurped this throne in Paris, — and it, like the cold and soulless basilica of Montmartre, is so hideous as to be sinful. Archæologists have grieved because they could find no traces of the private homes of Egypt. If they were as unlovely as the new villas that are springing up, like excrescences, in the suburbs of Paris, fate was kind to hide all trace and memory of them. All this makes one incline to Hugo’s belief that books have killed architecture, as they are cheaper and easier mediums through which souls can express their passions. But in times past the Spirit of Architecture in Paris has slumbered through generations only to awaken refreshed and go forward to the accomplishment of truer and more beautiful things; and in time it may cast off the false forms that are created in its name and again build in truth and beauty. For a really rich mankind needs both books and architecture.

To make again the esoteric comparison, one might say that the Spirit of Painting is drunk. It is sending forth myriads of ill-formed things that can be the product only of a jaundiced eye and a hand unsteady from debauchery. And like any drunken thing, it takes itself most seriously. It produces weak things in discordant colors, paltry things without beauty of soul, trivial things without meaning or value, and then it blames the age because its work is not hailed as the emanation and product of genius. Painting in Paris has become puerile, and almost imbecile. But this now drunken Spirit of Painting was very sober and very sane through generations, and even in not olden times it inspired the eyes and hands of Greuze, and then of Millet and Diaz and Rousseau and Corot. It nodded and dozed before Puvis de Chavannes had learned all the message it tried to speak to him in sobriety; it was able to deliver its message almost intact to Lhermitte, — and then it maundered off into the drunken jargon that has been accepted as the code and the creed of almost all of those who came after.

And so with all who sit in the thrones of the artistic section of this brotherhood; all slumber, or are mad, or have sunk into dotage, or are drunken. A very little good sculpture is done,— more literary, if such an expression may be used, than artistic; and wholly impotent to stand against the armies of mediocre things that rise up, like dragon’s teeth, to contend the ground with it. The lustres and harmonies that once dwelt there have escaped from the tapestries that are now woven; the geometrical lines of the great iron tower have also invaded the potter’s wheel; Boule is almost a forgotten name, and is wholly a forgotten influence; and since Hugo and Renan — and with the exception of Maeterlinck — the Spirit of Letters has for the most of the time sulked in its tent. But such vagaries and lapses have occurred before, yet have always been followed by periods of renewed excellence. And there are earnest things still at work in Paris, — earnest and potent members of its Inner Brotherhood who are still striving and bringing forth. The Spirit of Science sleeps not nor rests. It works with patience, and it produces progress and aids evolution. All the sciences are progressive in Paris, from the humanitarian science of the physicians to the sciences that penetrate the heavens and the molecules. Philosophy — also awake and alert — guides the hand of Science, and gives it counsels, so it offers to the world only what it can demonstrate and prove. And the spirits of the more homely and more necessary arts of Government, Commerce, Finance, and Industry, — and itmust still be added, War, — are alert, keen, progressive, and successful.

And over all of these things there reigns that mystic, intangible Soul of Paris, that soul that permeates the great city and its people and its nation, that sold which has expressed itself in the people’s history, literature, art, science, and progress. And if we are able to approach closely to this soul, and to discern what is the inmost thing that dominates it and for which it stands, I believe we shall find that thing to be defined in the words Human Advancement, — the betterment of the condition of mankind. It was Paris that first killed the dragon of feudalism; it was Paris that overturned the despotic and cruel throne that had reared itself upon the quivering hearts of the masses; it was Paris that first dared to claim for humanity the rights of free thought and free speech, — and Paris was the teacher of Paine and Franklin and Jefferson. And it is from this Soul of Paris that to-day are going forth the words that direct a battle against older servitudes of humanity, — that battle being waged to enforce the edict of “Thou shalt not bind the fetters of dogma and forced belief upon infancy and youth!” Not only is freedom promised and given to men and women, to classes and divisions of society, but it is being claimed for defenseless children, and for generations yet unborn. This Soul of Paris cares not what men believe, and it denies them no freedom of belief or of right action; but it does deny the right of men to deprive the new generations of freedom of belief by arbitrarily fixing their own in the minds of others before maturity. The Soul of Paris has spoken on this matter; and who will predict that its edict will not be obeyed ? It may not always be wise in the weapons it chooses for its warfare, or fortunate in the instruments selected to perform its work; but its work will be done, and — to borrow the motto of its antagonist — “The end will justify the means.” And in France — the first of the Western nations — it will not be long until men may really and actually search for, and live in accordance with, beliefs that will truthfully harmonize with the dictates of their own consciences, — and not meet with ostracism therefor.

It is from this mythical and yet existent Soul of Paris that much of the progress known in the Western world has emanated. And as we study the mandates it has given forth, and as we analyze the effects that have followed its teachings, we find them to be good,and to stand always for the betterment of the condition of the human race, for the advancement and enlightenment of human society, for the progress of human institutions toward good, and, above all, for the evolution of the individual. And if there may be said to be a text to the inner and most sacred creed of this Soul of Paris, if there may be said to be one right which above all others it esteems as being founded upon an eternal verity, and which it considers to be its chiefest mission to promulgate and enforce, I think that it would not read, “ Be content with the station and the class in which fate has placed you,” nor “All men are born free and equal,” but that it would be the definition of the goal of all true progress and the aim of all true civilization, and that it would read, “ Equality of opportunity shall be free to all.” And in this, its inmost word, not yet fully enunciated, it is speaking anew the thought differently spoken but with the same meaning by Plato, by Napoleon, by the founders of the American Republic, — and by philosophy and science.

Will you analyze this promise that the future is uttering through the Soul of Paris ? I do not think that its realization would have the definition of anarchy, or of any form of socialism now advocated, but that it is the definition and description of the chiefest birthright of all men. If it is ever realized it will harmonize with the law of the Survival of the Fittest, — and it will not burden the capable with the weak.

And so one turns from his contemplation of the dominating Soul of this great World City with a renewed conviction that humanity is advancing, with a renewed confidence in the saneness of the purpose of things, — with a renewed belief that God’s world was made for the world’s people and for all of its people.