Three Cities, Three Empires by Chilton Williamson, Jr. • March 10, 2010 • Printer-friendly
Stendahl begins his peculiar autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard, with his alter ego standing at the summit of the Janiculum Hill, surveying the city of Rome, west to east. It is October 16, 1832, and Brulard faces his cinquantaine in three months. Fifty years, he thinks! But Raphael’s Transfiguration has been admired for 250 years already, and better men than he have been dead for centuries. From the Gianicolo he can pick out Castel Gandolfo, the Villa Aldobrandini, and the white form of Castel San Pietro. At his feet below the slope lie orange trees planted by the Capuchins. Beyond the Tiber, he spies the Priory of Malta and the Pyramid of Cestius; at a greater distance, Santa Maria Maggiore and the long lines of the Palazzo di Monte Cavallo.
All of Rome, ancient and modern, from the former Appian Way with the ruins of its tombs and its aqueducts as far as the magnificent Garden of Pincio built by the French, spreads itself in view.
Lost in reverie, Brulard finds the modern metropolis supplanted in mind by the ancient city and its historical memories. “This place is unique in the world,” he tells himself.
Not only has Rome, the seat of the greatest empire the world ever saw, been a dead empire for 1,500 years, but she has, for many centuries now, stood as the symbol of and monument to all dead empires, almost for mortality itself. Yet Rome lives, and her empires live within her, because they are dead, and therefore beyond the hand of time, all revenge and revision, at peace with history. Stendahl seems not to have grasped the fact on earlier visits to Rome, owing in part to his youthful antipathy to the “dead” religion that also has its seat there; but his historical imagination was too strong to allow him to overlook it forever, and his highly eccentric but enormously fascinating Walks in Rome is a result of his eventual enlightenment.
Modern Rome, so marvelously alive today, is the ancient empire’s reward, as sainthood for the soul in Heaven is reward for a well-lived life in the body. Everyone who reads and loves history knows that one of its delights is that, in history, we have the whole story, we know how past finite events came out. More importantly still, perhaps, this story lies beyond the pain of partisanship, of having a horse of one’s own in the race. That, indeed, is why we can love history. Only liberals, socialists, atheists, and other unhappy people have an ax to grind in reading history; while, for healthy people, a “dead” city like Rome is a profoundly relaxing and comfortable place which we are at leave to enjoy on its own terms and where, as Michel Crouzet has written, “the tourist must become an artist.” Rome, like the rest of Italy, is threatened by invasion from the Third World, that is true; but Italy has never had a clear ethnic or racial identity, as England had until recently and France to a lesser degree had also—a fact well known to, and accepted by, the Italian nationalists of the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi included.
The French empire, a flimsy modern arrangement of almost ludicrously short duration by comparison with her Roman predecessor, nevertheless has far to travel before making her own escape from history. The shipwreck remains, the flotsam constantly stirred by historical conflicts, passions, hatreds, and prejudices, all very much in the present and all dangerously alive. Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, a fictional tour de force about the invasion of France by hordes of refugees arriving on a fleet of rusting hulks from India, owes its power to being at once a futuristic and a realistic story; the novel was published almost four decades ago now. Today, France has more Muslims than any other country in Europe. The mass intrusion of immigrants from its former colonies and elsewhere strains the historic French identity, threatens the classic French culture, overburdens the national budget, and incites religious and social conflict throughout France, including rioting in the ethnic banlieue and faubourgs that ring the big French cities, those of the capital especially.
My wife and I had last visited Paris three years ago, en route to and from northeastern France. We returned three months ago, in the fall of 2009, and put up for a week in a local hotel in the eighth arrondissement, at a close distance from the Gare St. Lazare. I had not spent so long in town since my first visit in 1972, and recent reports from friends abroad had not been encouraging. We feared the worst; but we did not find it.
It is possible that what follows is a wholly personal and quite superficial impression. I am acquainted with one Frenchman, a resident of the Left Bank with whom I agree on absolutely every matter of importance (politics, food, and drink), who would (and probably will) be the first to contradict it. Anyway, my impression is this: Paris—Paris centre, I mean—seems substantially to have cheated its historical fate as the former center of a fallen empire, no matter the condition of the rest of France, its own suburbs included. In 1972, the place had appealed to me as shabby, the streets dirty, the citoyens polite but not friendly, the women lacking in the proverbial chic that every Frenchwoman is supposed to possess. They were not even, I thought, particularly attractive, but vaguely unhealthy and unhappy looking. In retrospect, I suspect the Paris of 40 years ago had not fully recovered from the war: London, when I lived there in the early 60’s, had the same aspect, only more so.
Revisiting Paris in 2009, I felt a delight and relief that acquired in the course of the week the force of a juggernaut that nearly bowled me over in the street among the café tables and book and sheet-music stands. Compared with London, New York, even Rome, the Paris of today retains, for me at least, its unparalleled urbanity. Architecturally speaking, Paris is a 19th-century town, and Parisian urbanity is a species of the urbanity of the haute bourgeoisie of that era. (On the trip, I read La Dame aux camélias, in French, and found the Paris of Dumas fils to be perfectly recognizable in the present day.) The wealthy bourgeois insisted upon, and was attentive to, detail, precision, and completeness, not just abundance and superfluity. This attentiveness is a part of civilization, and it continues to prevail in the daily life of Paris in the 21st century: in the markets, the shops, the hotels, the restaurants, the brasseries, bistros, and bars. The city throngs with lovely women, well dressed and elegant even in relatively casual attire. There is the bourgeois taste for spaciousness in Napoleon III’s plan for the capital that has hardly been compromised in a century and a half; the streets, save in a few neighborhoods, are clean; the historic buildings and monuments, carefully preserved and displayed to effect and with taste. I do not believe that Napoleon, on the whole, would be disappointed by Paris could he return there today. So far, the headscarves have not won in Paris (we saw surprisingly few), and Paris today remains very much a French city.
The established, though recently challenged, explanation for the collapse of the Roman Empire is that the barbarians from the north and east, having invaded and settled within its boundaries, in time destroyed the empire from within. In the case of France and Great Britain, the imperial nation formally surrendered her empire, only to discover that the empire refused to surrender her. The results to both countries are innumerable, but of all these the most dramatic and dreadful is the fate of London Town—the home of Boadicea, the outpost of Caesar, the capital of Elizabeth I, Charles I, the Georges, Queen Victoria, and Edward VII—in the 21st century.
My wife and I took the Eurostar from Gare du Nord in Paris, and until I stepped from the train onto the platform at St. Pancras Station I had not set foot in England for 47 years, except to change planes at Heathrow. We stayed at a small hotel at Inverness Terrace north of the Bayswater Road, a 15-minute walk from Portsea Place, where I lived for a year with my family in the 1960’s. For the first 12 hours of our stay, we heard hardly a word of English spoken in what I remembered as an upper-middle-class neighborhood inhabited by Englishwomen in tweeds taking their dogs for a run in Hyde Park, and men with rolled umbrellas catching buses and taxis to work in the City, where my own grandfather worked. Today, the lovely row houses are flophouses for Turkish immigrants, and the neighborhood pubs have been supplanted by Third World restaurants serving poor imitations of exotic fare. Tony Blair has bought a townhouse on Connaught Square, round the corner from Portsea Row, but that was small compensation for the Arab cafés on the Edgeware Road whose sidewalk tables were mounted with three-foot-tall hookahs (not the feminine sort); the burqas and headscarves; the Oriental markets; and the pathos of the stray red-faced Britisher in his tailored suit and plaid cap, gripping his umbrella and briefcase as he dashed round the Marble Arch with his head down, lost in a sea of dusky faces and looking as if he’d just stepped from Wells’ time machine.
I was devastated. We had seen nothing remotely to compare with this in Paris. London has lost its urbanity along with its identity, save in the best neighborhoods—the City, West End, Westminster, Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Mayfair; we attended Mass at Farm Street Church near Berkeley Square, where Evelyn Waugh had been converted and married. In these last redoubts, the old town lives on. Here London is still recognizable, despite the madding crowds of Asians (east and west) and of Continental tourists, beneficiaries of the exchange rates, crowding its narrow sidewalks and its monuments. Outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, we observed a Pakistani photographing his small boy waving the Paki flag in front of a sentry box. I looked round for a big blue policeman nearby, hoping to see the pair of them arrested.
God save the Queen! But for how long? History is not through with the British Empire, yet.
This article first appeared in the February 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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