In 1867, by way of introduction to the guide for the Universal Expo in Paris, Victor Hugo wrote a book, that included the following:
La function de Paris, c’est la dispersion de l’idée.
The role of Paris is the spread of the idea.
Which, of course, poses the question, what idea? Over the course of a hundred pages or so Victor Hugo proposes liberty, fraternity and equality, which seems quite safe now, but in 1867 was still a bold affirmation of the struggle of the 1789-99 revolution that had occurred in the life of some of the readers.
Recently, my wife and I spent two weeks in Paris, one of life’s infrequent opportunities to stop, reflect and experience the beauty of being, of living, two small individuals in the broad tribe of humanity. In this context, the words of Hugo still sound as clear as a bell 150 years later.
The idea that Paris represents is our potential. Paris is one of those places that are about what we can achieve as humanity. As a New Zealander, I realised that the majority of my experiences here in this stunning land, Aotearoa, have been to stand in awe of nature; Papa and Rangi are our great architects who provide us natural basilicas of rock, wild waters and contemplative silence in our rainforests. So to stand before human achievement is an alien and compelling experience.
Paris’ history is written in, and under its streets: the remnants of the wall that protected the Roman settlement of Lutetia; the original wharf on the original banks of the ancient Seine beneath the forecourt of Notre Dame; marks of early Christian settlements and burials in the Musee de Cluny; the dark enduring stone of the churches of the Middle Ages, bastions of knowledge and faith; the eroticism, the passion and the faith of the sculptures of the Renaissance on busy corners; the outrageous opulence of the French monarchs, silent reminders of why the poor rose against them; ,monuments to the ego of the Napoleons; little plaques, testament to the loss and suffering of two World Wars; and finally the roiling, heaving movement and calls of the people, motorbikes, cars, trains of modern Paris moving in and out of view.
Paris is the idea of our potential. I have been to other great cities: Manila; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Sydney; Brisbane; Capetown; Singapore; Kuala Lumpur. But only Paris has the self-assurance of its immortality. Only Paris compares to the works of creation, timeless, before us and beyond us. It is the works of an ancient, wiser humanity in the flesh. All the individual artists, thinkers and leaders’ contributions to Paris have come together as a spirit and presence greater than the parts of the whole. Paris is a promise of what we can achieve, of who we can be.
We so often receive a world through our screens that is riven by hate, destruction and decay. Humanity seems a doomed race and we amongst the unlucky generations to see its demise. To see Paris was to have scales fall from my eyes and to remember that we are worth saving. Each one of us is an heir to a legacy of human achievement that is memorialized in impacting art, awesome holy spaces and fascinating history. Paris is a challenge to live as heirs, not doomed slaves.