Beauty From Tyranny
I prefer the more higgledy-piggledy English style of garden to the far more precise and manicured French style, which bespeaks the Cartesian mind (N.B., I visited Descartes’ tomb yesterday). That said, the Luxembourg Gardens surely must be one of the most beautiful places in the whole world, a joy-giving expression of French cultural genius. The controlled exhilaration is what I find so fascinating. As I’ve been saying, the beauty of this city is so thrilling, but you have to keep in mind what the American writer Irwin Shaw pointed out about it:
Standing there, with the whole city spread around you, its palaces and spires and statues glistening in the damp sunlight, you reflect aloud to the girl on how wise Parisians are to have had ancestors who were ruled by tyrants, because tyrants are egotists with an itch to build monuments to themselves. Then after a while you get rid of the tyrants and are left with the Louvre and the Tuileries and the obelisk and the Place Vendome and the brave, sculptured horses and the great boulevards that were built because someone was ruthless enough and powerful enough to tear down acre after acre of people’s homes and pave what used to be somebody’s kitchen and plant chestnut trees in somebody else’s bedroom. You reflect on the selfishness of being alive in your own time. You are delighted with what Louis XIV did to the city with the taxes he squeezed from the poor, and with what Napoleon built on the blood of a generation of young Frenchmen, though you would struggle to the death against a new Louis or a later Napoleon, no matter how many arches and palaces he guaranteed for your descendants to enjoy on their visit from America a hundred years from now.
This is true, but it’s an incomplete truth. Tyranny is no guarantee of beauty. Look at what the Italian Fascists and the Nazis produced. Look at the unspeakable ugliness the communist tyrannies inflicted on the peoples they ruled. Ceausescu, for example, pulled a Haussmann on Bucharest, but replaced what he destroyed with buildings and broad roadways of unspeakable ugliness and inhumanity. Even here in Paris, in modern times, if the utopian 20th century architect Le Corbusier had had his way, look at the horror (“Radiant City”) he would have inflicted on the Right Bank of the historic Paris city center:
Today, the destruction (“modernization”) in the 1960s of the medieval food market district of Les Halles is widely mourned as having been a mistake. In the US, think of the tyrannical New York urbanist Robert Moses, who, had it not been for Jane Jacobs and her crew, would have bulldozed much of Greenwich Village for the sake of improvement.
If one must be governed by tyrants prepared to roll over the masses for the sake of building beautiful public spaces, one should take care to be ruled by an aristocracy that has taste. Does such an aristocracy exist any longer, or did the early 20th century kill them all off? It may be necessary that 16 acres of Upper West Side blight should die so that a vast temple of culture should live … but Lincoln Center, the mid-20th century’s idea of the Beautiful? Really?