Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Ogre of Modernity by Frederick Brown


Public comment on the Eiffel Tower did not argue a neat correlation between taste and politics. Some political conservatives liked it, some republicans found it abhorrent. Among the latter, for example, was Guy de Maupassant, one of whose characters ( in "La Vie errante") claims that he fled Paris because of the tower:

'... an unavoidable and tormenting nightmare... this tall, skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this disgraceful giant skeleton with a base that seems to support a formidable monument of Cyclops, an odious column of bolted metal which aborts into a thin, ridiculous profile of a factory smokestack.'

Maupassant joined forty-six artists and writers - "passionate lovers of the heretofore intact beauty of Paris" - in an open letter to the minister of public works protesting the flouting of French taste, art and history by the useless, monstrous Eiffel tower. The sacred city was being profaned by Mammon, the "mercantile fantasies" of an engineer fouling Paris's noble mind.

But like Joan of Arc, the Eiffel Tower came to reflect even more sharply the ideological rift in fin -de -siecle Paris. While republican newspapers published panegyrics, L'Univers , the Catholic daily inveighed against it: "the ill-proportioned tower would, like an arriviste forever climbing, always find true height beyond its reach. Naked and pointless, it was dwarfed in every respect by the Gothic church. And unlike republican engineers, medieval architects eschewed the worksite on Sundays... Had not the Prime Minister Pierre Tirard inaugurated the tower on Sunday? The ceremony was entirely civil: no benediction, not the least little prayer, not the least homage to the God of Heaven and Earth." Such hubris would not go unpunished, the paper prophesied. The vainglorious tower erected as a symbol of the Revolution would eventually fall or be eclipsed by a taller structure crowned with the sign of Redemption.

In Remarques sur l'exposition du centenaire, Melchior de Vogue imagined a dispute between Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower, with an ethereal moderator trying to reconcile the adversaries. "Things down below, heavy things," his moderator says to the cathedral towers, "your words are unjust and your view short-sighted. You, pious Gothic towers, why do you forbid your young sister to be beautiful? The Athenian Greek would have said what you say to her today, treating you as barbaric monsters, an insult to the sacred lines of the Parthenon." Then, addressing the Eiffel Tower: "And you, daughter of knowledge, curb your pride. Your science is beautiful, and necessary, and invincible; but you accomplish little by enlightening the mind if you do not cure the eternal wound of the heart. Your elder has been giving mankind what it needs: charity and hope. If you aspire to succeed her, arrange to found a temple of the new alliance, the accord of science and faith."

But the argument for rational cohabitation could hardly make itself heard. Scorn spoke too loudly, in too many voices. For aesthetes, Eiffel's towers was the grotesque child of the industrial age, desecrating a museological city. For Catholics, it was the sport of revolutionary Nimrods expounding their secularism in Notre-Dame's parish with phallic arrogance. And for nationalist zealots, who joined the chorus, the wrought-iron tower incommensurate with everything else in Paris was a tyrannical mutant, a foreigner lording it over the French past and future, a cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of "Israel".

"I am dismayed, but hardly surprised," wrote Jacques de Biez in The Jewish Question: France Cannot Be Their Promised Land, "Only a Jew could have submitted such a project. Touted as a sentinel guarding the homeland, the tower would, on the contrary, operated as a spy betraying Paris to "hordes from the East." The Jew who brought it with him from Germany" entered France in the bowels of a Trojan horse.

Master and disciple, co-founders of the National Anti-Semitic League of France, took turns decrying the tower. Eduouard Drumont drew a parallel between its erection and the trappings of victory worn by Byzantine emperors marching back to Constantinople after disastrous defeats at the hands of the Bulgars and Goths. With France's economy in shambles, the three-hundred-meter tower was a comparable deception. And whose interests did it serve? Those of the cosmopolite ( a codeword for 'Jew").

"We sons of France would like our mother to face our trials with dignity," wrote Drumont, whose nostalgia for the 'organic" city - the higgledy-piggledy of pre-industrial centuries sacrificed to Napoleaon III's abstractly conceived capital inspired his first book:

The Cosmopolites, who have substituted themselves for us, don't see things the same way. They absolutely insist that France appear before the universe covered in ridicule. Having been cruelly humiliated ( by Germany in 1871) isn't enough; it must make itself a laughing-stock by declaring that it has never been so great, so daunting, and rich. In all its imbecility, bad taste and foolish arrogance, the Eiffel Tower has risen for the express purpose of braying this message to heaven. It is the symbol of industrialized France. Its mission is to be insolent and stupid, like modern life, and to crush under its mindless height the Paris of our fathers, the Paris of memories, old houses and churches, Notre-Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, prayer and glory. This delirium of vanity signals the death throes of a society.

Drumont agreed with de Biez that the misbegotten tower sprang from the mind of a Semitic race that reflected not only its lust for money and power, but its natural penchant for deformity.

"With its instinctual hatred of all that has inspired our respect and enthusiasm, with its need to blaspheme, this race is incontestably gifted with eyes for perceiving the grotesque side of everything moving and beautiful. Jewish artists and writers show us the world through lenses that are dirty or askew, lenses that conform to their astigmatic brains and make everything on earth seem deformed, ill-fitted, incoherent, extravagant, and baroque."

Several years later, Drumont presented much the same argument, applying "modern" to Jews as a term of abuse. "In reality, Jews - these Moderns, these ultra-civilized people with their excesses, their fevers, their constant hungering - wreak more havoc wherever they go than Goths and Vandals." * Powerful beyond his numbers, the Jew, like Faust, rode on the devil.

The journalist who had predicted that hubris would not go unpunished was to credit himself with having been half right. He would see punishment inflicted four years later after Eiffel (who was not Jewish) unfurled a flag over the tower. The tower didn't fall, but its creator did, in a scandal that tainted not only him but the visionary whose accomplishment at Suez had inspired him to undertake epic tasks of his own - Ferdinand de Lesseps, both drowned in the red ink of the Panama Canal fiasco.

*It is ironic that the allegedly "Jewish" features of modernism in Drumont's portrait reappeared four years later as symptoms of degeneracy in Max Nordau's famous disquisition on modernism in art, literature, and mores, Degeneration. Nordau was a founder of the Zionist movement.

1 comment:

  1. For The Soul of France; Culture Wars in the Age Of Dreyfus by Fredrick Brown; Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y. 2010