polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Revisiting Henry Miller’s Paris, Part 2

by Alex Schafran 

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This post is a continuation of “Revisiting Henry Miller’s Paris, Part 1.”

“Sometimes Henry went as far down as the Saint-Lazare train station to watch prostitutes accost the men, and to see the ‘thick tide of semen flooding the gutters’ (Tropic of Cancer).”

Henry would likely be disappointed that Saint-Lazare is now a central node in a shopping zone that stretches down the Haussmannian boulevards to Opera and beyond. Likely Henry and I have different circadian rhythms, and I rarely haunt Saint-Lazare late at night, nor can I claim to have ever seen semen or sex workers in the gutter or elsewhere. Welcome to the contemporary Paris train station, which is more about bikes, Blackberrys, and baggage.

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"For many years he had only one permanent address: 11 Rue Scribe, the location of the American Express office."

I am not sure why I was so excited that the Amex folks were still there. I think it is the Blade Runner syndrome, where we are almost nostalgic for old brands which tend to be consumed in capitalism's creative destruction, even if we have no relationship with them whatsoever, and pretend to dislike brands, especially those involved in international finance. In true post-industrial style, the office is now owned by another chain and only licensed by Amex.

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"The offices of the Chicago Herald Tribune, at 5 Rue Lamartine, were located in the middle of Paris's red-light district. All Henry had to do was walk through the door of Chez Paul, two doors down, and he found himself in the dark heart of the district among the men who ruled it."

The old CHT building is still there, but Chez Paul could not be found, nor men who rule much of anything. As you can see, love is still easy to find on the street, but not perhaps in the way that it was in Miller's time. Lamartine does not seem to be the heart of anything but typical bourgeois Paris, as the red-light district seems to have been curtailed geographically and qualitatively, more strip clubs and sex shops for tourists rather than the quotidian urban sex trade. That, for better or for worse, seems to have been largely driven to the edges, to the woods of the Bois de Boulogne, the underpasses of the péripherique and darker places, which I imagine to be more vicious and cruel and more dependent on the young and the trafficked than in the libertine days of Miller.

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''The Cemetery Montmartre.. . shot from the bridge at night is a phantasmagoric creation of death flowering in electricity; the intense patches of night lie upon the tombs and crosses in a crazy patchwork of steel girders which fade with the sunlight into bright green lawns and flower beds and graveled walks' ('The Eye of Paris'). Henry also loved watching the ghostly evaporation of night, giving way to the first glow of day spreading across the city. Sometimes, to better capture this fleeting moment he prowled through the night all the way up to Sacre Creur to catch dawn's arrival on a Paris still shrouded in sleep."

In all honesty, even the great Brassaï had a tough time shooting from the Montmartre bridge at night, for "intense patches of night" make for tough photography, especially with an 80-euro point and shoot. I feel a bit of sympathy for the dead of Montmartre, always relegated to secondary status over the more famous dead of Pere Lachaise, boasting only Degas, Ampere and the utopian socialist Charles Fourier to go against Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison, and a virtual who's who of French cultural history. But perhaps it is my urban clock which doesn't mesh with that of Miller and Brassaï, preferring the view of the 18th's modernism in the glow of a fading day to any Parisian dawn.

"He explored it all, from bottom to top-from the Moulin Rouge to Place Pigalle. The long sequence of cafes, restaurants, cabarets, movie theaters, residence hotels, and 24-hour pharmacies reminded him of that stretch of Broadway between Forty-second and Fifty-third streets. The difference was that Montmartre was even more of a flesh market. With its little dives jammed with prostitutes, pimps, thugs, crooks, and other local color, this boulevard at the foot of Sacre Creur (Bd. Rochechouart) seemed to him the raunchiest corner in all Paris. Vice lurked over everything like an erotic gargoyle."

This is a brilliantly global urban moment about Pigalle and Rochechouart, in that it still reminds me of Times Square, even if it has kept the sex shops and the strip joints that became victims to Giuliani's "cleaning" of New York Ciy. With the possible exception of the South American trans prostitutes and old time dives on Rue Germain Pilon, Rouchechouart has also been sanitized, and is still a collosal tourist trap. The rest of Montmartre has decided to bank on artsy and old, hipster and bobo, and is now packed with seemingly nice places to eat and have apéritif, which I will only ever run past on my way up the mountain. It is almost impossible to get into the Moulin Rouge for under 80 euros, and I think I would probably splurge for the seafood platter at Wepler's first.

What interests me is not that Pigalle and places like it have been cleaned up or transformed into tourists spots, but that the tourism is based on this imagined sexual urban past. Sex is just as much for sale as ever in the city, but it seems that one has to choose between upscale spots like Les Chandelles — a purported favorite of DSK, located right across from the Palais Royal — and the seedy and exploitative zones of clandestine, criminalized, and generally exploitative prostitution. My generation missed the libertine days, missed the free love days, missed life before AIDS and the Albanian mafia and global sex trafficking, so now we go buy postcards and, vaguely if uncomfortably, dream of an earlier era that maybe would have been nice to visit, just for a night.

Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran.