Friday, April 5, 2013

A La Bastille!

A 1789 French etching of the storming heard 'round the world
     On his way from--I assume--the Gare de Lyon to the Grand Hotel du Louvre, Twain passed by the Place de la Bastille.  He writes a brief but stirring passage, full of high-blown sentiment and descriptive flair, a heady mix of history and heartstrings:

...when we passed by the Column of July we needed no one to tell us what it was or to remind us that on its site once stood the grim Bastile [sic], that grave of human hopes and happiness, that dismal prison house within whose dungeons so many young faces put on the wrinkles of age, so many proud spirits grew humble, so many brave hearts broke. 
      Anyone want to try counting the rhetorical devices in that long half-sentence?  There's metaphor, of course, as well as allusion, alliteration, assonance, hyperbole, parallelism, point-of-view.  And what about authorial intrusion in that turn of phrase, "we needed no one to tell us...or remind us"?  Maybe metonymy in the "brave hearts" that broke?  Pathetic fallacy in those faces putting on those wrinkles? And surely the whole thing is a textbook example of periphrasis or circumlocution?  But all to good effectTwain the tourist successfully creates a cathartic moment of tragic lyricism for his audience back home.
     I was thinking of this passage recently when my husband, our two sons, and I walked down to the Place de la Bastille from our apartment not far away.  It was a nice evening, the first after weeks of battleship-gray skies, cold rain, and even rare snow.  We were like a group of giddy kids on a field trip as we wound our way down the rue de Charonne through the 11th arrondissementWe hadn't been here long and, what with all the bad weather, we hadn't much explored our own--never mind nearby--quartiers So we were delighted to see all the cafes and shops that we could get to-- a pied, without a car!  
The view from our apartment window this winter.
     And I was especially excited to see how many people were out on the streets.  "How great is this!" I cried to my family.  "People coming out on the streets!  Just wait till the weather warms up.  Le monde [them again] will be out enjoying life. We can sit in cafes with our cafes gourmands.  Now this is Paris--you'll love it."
     (This last was aimed at our teenage sons, who would usually  rather be back home with their friends.)
      My husband was getting into the swing of things, though, smiling and taking my hand.  Even the boys were not complaining.  Then we started to notice all the people wearing face paint and bright costumes.  There were stripes in many colors, creative hats, and masses of balloons.  Some people were singing and chanting, but I couldn't figure out exactly what.   The sidewalks and the narrow streets kept getting more and more crowded as we approached the Place de la Bastille.  
My favorite placard: "Better a gay marriage than an unhappy marriage"
     Then we came around the corner and saw the large crowd that had gathered around the Column of July.  Someone was standing on a makeshift platform with a bullhorn.  People were cheering and hooting.  I looked around and put the picture together: we'd found ourselves in the middle of a large gay marriage demonstration held in response to an anti-marriage demonstration a few days earlier. Mariage pour tous, they call it here; under Francois Hollande's socialist leadership, the government is considering--and likely to adopt--a law that provides gay French citizens equal rights to marriage and adoption. 
     For a moment, I was ashamed by our resemblance to the family in the National Lampoon's Vacation movies, in which Chevy Chase and Beverly DiAngelo, as Clark and Ellen Griswold, bring their kids to famous places, only to reveal themselves as American cultural ignoramuses.  In particular, I was mortified at the memory of a scene in European VacationClark tosses his son Rusty's monogrammed beret off the Eiffel Tower, whereupon a Parisian lap dog jumps off after it: 
     But then, as the sun set over the Column of July and French demonstrators chanted and sang around me, I felt a thrill coming on.  What had been a feeling of bourgeois complacency turned into a frisson of revolutionary promise.  
     Aux placards, citoyens!  I starting humming La Marseillaise to myself.  Have a listen; it might get you too in the storming mood:
     Now this, I thought, revising my earlier assessment, this is France.  You go out for an evening stroll and you wind up in the middle of a revolutionary movement.  



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