Monday, November 3, 2008

A Passion For Everything - And Nothing

Fig. 1. Jean-Antoine Watteau - The French Comedians, 1720-21

'The variety of Paris is matched by the energy, the voraciousness and the passion of its population. Balzac observed that the appetites for gold and pleasure were so strong in Paris that its citizens quickly burned themselves out. 'In Paris there are only two ages,' he wrote, 'youth and decay; a bloodless, pallid youth and a decay painted to seem youthful.' He also took note of the Parisians' love of novelty - and their devotion to nothing. Or, as he put it:

The Parisian is interested in everything and, in the end, interested in nothing . . . Intoxicated as he is with something new from one day to the next, the Parisian, regardless of age, lives like a child. He complains of everything, tolerates everything, mocks everything, forgets everything, desires everything, feels everything passionately, drops everything casually - his kings, his conquests, his glory, his idol, whether made of bronze or glass . . .

Since Balzac's day, of course, Paris has changed. No one is too ambitious, since its populace is now cosseted in the meagre but constant comforts of the socialist state, and the city's glory days are long in the past. But the passion for novelty still reigns. Perhaps Paris is the one city left where the tyranny of Paris fashions still holds women in its thrall. A great theatre director, a perfume, a new fad - all will be embraced one season and forgotten the next. There is nothing more final or frightening than the way a Parisian hisses out the words ‘C’est fini! ça? c’est dépassé, d’est démodé.’ Even children say it with ruthless confidence.'

Edmund White (The Flâneur)