Aragon on Gardening and the Phallophoria of Trafalgar Square

93111Marcel Noll suggested going to Montparnasse, and I was unable to think of anything more original than drinking. This kind of twilight of decision-making drifted along with us as far as the Châteaudun crossroads, the favourite meeting place for Parisian accidents. (133)

Thus Louis Aragon and co. venture out from the arcades and the cafes, not to Montparnasse in the end, but to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where they spent an evening of adolescent adventure as winsome as schoolboys.

"Paris et ses environs 1890-1900 square des buttes chaumont" by http://gallica.bnf.fr - Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, PETFOL-VE-1356. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Paris et ses environs 1890-1900 square des buttes chaumont” by http://gallica.bnf.fr – Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, PETFOL-VE-1356. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I have heard similar stories of alcohol-fueled adventure from my brother Dan and his co, which almost admits Aragon into the family as it were, but this installment of Paris Peasant offers not simply rather sweet hijinks to end his evocations of Paris life, but gardens as well [more on the rest here].

It is most unexpected.

Everything that is most eccentric in man, the gipsy in him, can surely be summed up in these two syllables: garden. Not even when he started adorning himself with diamonds or blowing into brass instruments did any stranger or more baffling idea occur to him than when he invented gardens. (118)

From such a sentence you might imagine Aragon some stranger to gardening, some bewildered observer of this phenomenon…and yet his descriptions betray a rather surprising knowledge of plants. Even so, they are most wonderful when most abstracted from unexpected details:

This evening the gardens are marshaling their ranks of great dusky plants that look like nomadic encampments in the heart of cities. Some are whispering, others are smoking their pipes in silence, the hearts of others are overflowing with love. There are some which caress white walls, while others touch elbows with the foolishness of turnpikes and moths flutter in the hoods of their nasturtiums. There is a garden which is a fortune-teller, another which is a carpet-vendor. I know all their professions: street-singer, gold-weigher, meadow-footpad, lard-pilferer, Sargasso Sea pilot…

Nor, of course, does he ignore gardens as places of tryst and forbidden encounter:

Thus, in public gardens the densest part of the darkness is no longer distinguishable from a kind of desperate kiss exchanged between love and rebellion. (141)

And thus his clear advice on the creation of green public spaces in the hearts of our cities, which should never take their cues from the suburbs:

Do not allow avenues to proliferate, is the advice of the technical manuals. And I say to you, gardeners, that your laws, your wisdom are of no consequence. You fear that if a garden us divided up too much it may look small. Ah! You have been spoiled by your suburban customers, that’s quite clear. You have lost the taste for greatness. May the sinuous concept of the avenue capture your minds again and lead you to real labyrinthine follies, may we read on the ground over which we wander the comical, despairing expression of your disquiet.  (146)

The history of the park reveals it is a yet another creation of Haussman…a curious success it would seem, and the politics of that not lingered over here.

Instead Aragon utters admonishments on  the subject of statues, asking questions that remain unanswered:

And what will become of humanity on that fast-approaching day when the population of statues will have grown to such huge proportions in town and country alike that it will scarcely be possible to make one’s way along the streets choked with statues, across the fields of poses? (152)

This must be one of the best words in the book:

Then we have the phallophoria of Trafalgar Square… (153)

I’m not sure about the one-armed Nelson’s presiding over a nation’s hysteria, perhaps it was simply in the column’s erection in the first place…

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