Arcades of Paris (with Walter Benjamin)

On New Year’s Eve we stumbled across these two arcades in Paris (I’d love to say that this came as a shock as we’d been taking a stroll along Leytonstone High Road, but sadly nothing mystical was involved, we traveled on Eurostar).

I thought of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project, a book I confess I’ve only read snippets of, but is difficult to avoid if you have an interest in the life of cities – it is a grand work dreamt up in these very arcades.

Passage des Panoramas

From what I gather, he saw the arcades as the natural habitat of the urban wanderer, the drifter, the flaneur:
“The Parisians … have made Paris the holy city of the flaneur – ‘the landscape built of sheer life,’ as Hofmannsthal once put it”

Benjamin describes the experience of the urban drift, or what another dweller of Paris, Guy Debord, would recast as the psychogeographic derive (Debord would see the flaneur as a decadent figure rather than a revolutionary or a subversive – I’m not so sure myself)

“That anamnestic intoxication in which the flaneur goes about the city not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but can very well possess itself of abstract knowledge – indeed, of dead facts – as something experienced or lived through.”

“The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass.”
Difficult to imagine Westfield Stratford moving someone to produce such prose.

“Architecture as the most important testimony to latent ‘mythology.’ And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade.”

Quotes from The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
Reading on the video by Heidi Lapaine

Psychogeography with Kids in Paris


On Wednesday I arrived in Paris with my family after setting out for Los Angeles alone that morning. I realise that this sentence comes across as both pretentious and preposterous but I hope to redeem myself by steering this in the direction of the heartland of French psychogeography.

We were in Paris to visit some my wife’s friends who live in Canberra (true and yet another dimension to what could also be a missive on ‘time-space compression – but isn’t). Los Angeles – well that’s better left unsaid.

After some of the usual family-friendly fun at the Natural History Museum perusing their collection of dusty old bones laid out like a Damien Hirst installation (that sentence would work in reverse if I were writing about Hirst – of course the museum was there long before BritArt) we allowed ourselves to drift through the frozen streets. Children are natural psychogeographers and flaneurs. They live for the moment, are completely guided by their senses and desires, and are inherently iconoclastic and anarchic prepared to challenge conventional norms with virtually every step. And we had four of them of various ages between us.

So I reckon it was the kids rather than the Paris-born Mathew who led us to Rue Mouffetard. It rang a bell, I think from the Will Self vs Iain Sinclair event at St. Lukes in 2004. As Mathew sat us down in the traditional café of Le Mouffetard, I asked him whether there was any link to Debord. He confirmed that it was in fact an area with Situationist associations, as later confirmed by this passage from The Situationist City by Simon Sadler:
“Situationsists regarded the best urban activity as human, unmechanised, and nonalienating, and their texts, films, and maps indicated some possibilities, variously idealising the marketplaces, like Les Halles or the Rue Mouffetard, the traditional cafes, notably those around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and the places of student congregation, such as those around the Pantheon” (p.92).

He led me up the street to Place De La Contrescarpe where Debord frequented the cafes – possibly whilst plotting dérives that he got too soaked to carry out. I would have a cheesy photo to mark the occasion had I not by now have been carrying my youngest child.

View Larger Map

Indeed Debord mentions the location in the Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography: “Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?”
I was going to note how strange it was that a family outing should find its way to this exact location with such psychogeographical resonance, but this would be to ignore the articulations at work in the urban realm – particularly when guided by children.

The photo at the top is of the Memorial de le Deportation

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