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The bird's-eye view: looking at the city in Paris and Algiers.

In an engraving from 1830, three men sit in the basket of a tethered balloon, floating above a city shrouded in smoke. One shades himself with a parasol, another holds aloft a champagne bottle as if to celebrate victory, and the third inspects the landscape with a short telescope or lorgnette. The city sketched below is a stylized view of Algiers, recognizable by its triangular shape on a steep slope above a harbor, and by the Islamic architectural detail of a mosque with a crescent finial. The one discernible monument, the minaret, looks more Turkish than North African, entirely appropriate since the event illustrated in the engraving, the French conquest of Algiers in early July 1830, would figure in colonial historiography as a victory over the Turks, characterized as despotic rulers whose overthrow needed no further justification. Which one of the three men in the balloon will write this history? One of them surely plans to do so, since the title of the engraving makes it an illustration of the historical enterprise: "Le grand historiographe d'Afrique, en observation" While he surveys the scene in wide perspective, his assistant looks down through his lorgnette toward the source of the smoke, the Fort de l'Empereur just outside the city walls, the explosion of which was the fatal blow for the defenders of Algiers. The Dey Hussein signed the surrender a few hours after the moment imagined by the illustrator, opening the city to much doser observation and turning over to the victors his own paramount viewpoint, the fortress at the summit of the city, from which the spectator's view plunged into the heart of the Casbah. The men in the fantasy balloon thus anticipate the privileged view the French would gain through victory. More importantly however, they also inaugurate a long tradition of French city views of Algiers, and the dominant perspective for writing about Algerian history. They are positioned both above the city and in front of it, looking down at its plan in a bird's-eye view, but also looking across the water at its elevation in profile, as so many of their followers would from the decks of arriving ships. They thus combine what would become the two most familiar perspectives on the city, both of which would become primary tropes in writing urban history. "Et voila comment on ecrit l'histoire!!!" they exclaim, referring either to their own operation above, or to the French operation below, which made it possible.

In the middle third of the nineteenth century, Algiers offered French writers new opportunities for urban observation and historiography, a vein mined especially thoroughly in French writing in several genres during the July Monarchy and Second Empire. The forty years following 1830 saw the publication of hundreds of works of travel narration, city description, and history of Algeria, forming a literary topography for the new colony. Such prolixity tempts the critic to treat the "Voyage en Algerie" and the genres linked to it as a corpus complete in itself. Nonetheless, this literature, part of the exoticist tradition in North Africa, did not develop in isolation, and its writers responded to historical phenomena in the colony and at home. I will argue that descriptions of Algiers took shape concurrently and symbiotically with descriptions of Paris published in even greater numbers during the same period. Conversely, perspectives and polemics from the metropolitan center were often heavily informed by modes of writing about the city developing at the same time on the colonial periphery. The art historian T.J. Clark has argued that looking at and representing the city became an essential activity in the development of modernite in nineteenth-century France (Clark 23-24, 47, 66). I contend that under the July Monarchy and Second Empire, French writers and artists learned to look at cities and to describe them in print and images through modes of observation elaborated in both Paris and Algiers. Paris, the city of modern life in the nineteenth century, had Algiers as its mirror image, at once opposite and uncanny double, in which certain forms of "modern" observation were more easily learned, applied, or adapted. At a rime of radical change in Paris, Algiers could represent the romanticized old city nostalgic writers regretted at home. Algiers itself was changing rapidly, however, occasionally preceding Paris in urbanist innovations, and many travelers developed views of the colony just as nostalgic as their views of the capital, despite their appreciation for the way the colonial city solicited observation. In any case, their appreciation of the way the colonial city solicited observation, and the manner in which these observations fit into discourses of "ways of seeing" at home, suggest that our understanding of looking and observation in nineteenth-century France is incomplete without consideration of the cultural history of the French in North Africa. Contemporary cultural studies, in work by Jonathan Crary, Jann Matlock, Margaret Cohen, and others, has illuminated the history of looking and its vital role in the development of modernite. Scholars have consistently situated the development of sophisticated techniques and technologies of looking (and indeed modernite itself) unequivocally in Paris. What happens when we shift our focus outside the archetypal Metropole? Moving to the supposed antipodes of the modern, to the anti-Paris constructed in the French imagination of Algiers, questions the received history of modernite. It suggests other loci for the tropes and techniques associated with the concept, and opens a new way to understand the role of the colony in the development of nineteenth-century French culture.

Literary observations of Paris and the Parisians go back at least as far as La Bruyere's Caracteres, but their first modern version (and still one of the most comprehensive up to now) appeared in the years immediately preceding the Revolution of 1789, in Louis-Sebastien Mercier's enormous Tableau de Paris. The architectural historian and theorist Anthony Vidler credits Mercier with having invented "de nouvelles manieres de representer, de mettre en images, une realite urbaine complexe et incoherente, par des procedes qui anticipent sur d'autres ecrivains 'topographes,' de Nodier et Nerval a Baudelaire et Walter Benjamin" (Vidler 224). Nonetheless, despite Mercier's evident influence on the genre of "topographic" literature on Paris which flourished in the July Monarchy and Second Empire, scholars have had difficulty tracing concrete links between the Tableau de Paris and later works like Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un (1831) or Le Diable a Paris: Paris et les Parisiens (1845-46). Many of Mercier's followers in the genre of topographic literature scorned him as a hack writer of the Revolutionary period, obsessed with the disreputable and the marginal of the ancien regime. By "topographic literature," I mean writing about place in genres as diverse as guidebooks, city descriptions, histories, sociological observations, and government documents. (1) Despite the enormous quantity of this literature published in nineteenth-century Paris, Mercier's writings on Paris saw no complete reprint until 1994. Reeditions of the Tableau were scarce and limited; in 1853 the first and most substantial reproduced 127 chapters out of the original 1,050; this attempted revival attracted little attention in the Paris press. (2) New perceptions of Paris in the nineteenth century also undermined Mercier's direct influence: the nineteenth-century literature of urban description in Paris treats a city constantly in the throes of massive modernization, a conception of the city that, for many writers, rendered anachronistic any application of Mercier's views of it. By contrast, Algiers seemed ideally suited for Mercier's style, predilections, and tropes, an obvious exemplar of what nineteenth-century observers saw as the "medieval" urban fabric only barely visible in Paris. The Algerian city became a vital link in the tenuous transmission of the Tableau, and an important site of the development of a historical focus for urban description.

Despite the paucity of Mercier's reeditions during the nineteenth century, a number of substantial new tableaux of Paris appeared, just at the moment topographic literature about cities on the other side of the Mediterranean was beginning to flourish. Beginning with Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un, a 15 volume compilation of local descriptions and moeurs-et-coutumes articles by the leading journalists and novelists of the early 1830s, the July Monarchy saw a radical expansion of the topographic literature focused on the city's history and physical description. Mercier scholars note that the more nineteenth-century authors absorbed his modes of description, the less they cited his text (Rufi 18). When they acknowledged him at all, these writers took care to distance themselves from what nineteenth-century critics referred to as his excesses, accusing his text of being "pense dans la rue et ecrit sur la borne; l'auteur a peint la cave et le grenier en sautant le salon" ("Esprit de Rivarol" 15). The preface to Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un firmly rejects Mercier as a model for many of Mercier's nineteenth-century readers, the Tableau overemphasized the filth, crime, and immorality of Paris's outward appearance, and as a result concentrated too little on the city's interiors (Le Livre des cent-et-un vi-vii). Moreover, for the editors of this new 1831 collection, changes in the city's appearance and personality have rendered Mercier's descriptive practices obsolete; Paris's new toilette defied his oesthetic, which nineteenth-century authors perceived as valorizing muck as much as finery. Yet even when written out of individual works, Mercier continued to appear in the interstices of the topographic genre in the 1830s and 40s.

This proved especially true in the literature on Algiers, which became fertile ground for the application and preservation of Mercier's oesthetic and methods of observation, at the very time topographic literature on Paris was disowning him. Almost immediately after the conquest of 1830, the French army set about razing and rebuilding much of Algiers to meet military requirements, displacing much of the pre-colonial economic, political, and religious authority (Lespes 242). (3) At the very moment Louis-Philippe's engineers were continuing the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, the Genie de l'Armee was aligning arcaded thoroughfares in the lower part of the old city of Algiers; similar opposition arose to both projects, viewed by many as a desecration of the past and a spoliation of the city's charm. Victor Hugo's chapter "Paris a vol d'oiseau" in Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) contains famously bitter comments on the Rue de Rivoli, as well as on any number of then-recent constructions; his was the first in a long series of diatribes spanning the next forty years. The 1840s saw the first major wave of literary travelers to North Africa, including Theophile Gautier, Eugene Fromentin, and Mexandre Dumas pere, and many writers of this group expressed their disappointment and disgust with Frenchifying Algiers. (4) No matter how early they arrived, it was always too late; the exotic city was at the very least retreating rapidly, if it had not already disappeared. Gautier's trip to Algeria took place in 1845, when the transformation was well underway. He, too, would complain bitterly about what he considered the undistinguished architecture of the Genie: "Des demolitions successives, puis un incendie, ont nettoye le terrain et forme une large esplanade entouree en grande partie de maisons a l'europeenne qui ont la pretention, helas! trop bien fondee, de rappeler l'architecture de la rue de Rivoli.--O maudites arcades! on retrouvera donc partout vos courbes disgracieuses et vos piliers sans proportion?" (Gautier, Voyage en Algerie 38-39). Having passed judgment on the new, Gautier paid considerably more attention to the old, the parts of the city he perceived as still genuinely Arab. Even after a subsequent visit twenty years later, he still felt he could write that "si l'on vous dit qu'il n'y a plus rien d'arabe a Alger, ne le croyez pas"; despite disfigurement by the French, the city remained characteristically Arab for him (Gautier, "Inauguration du chemin de fer Alger-Blidah"). The aspects of Algiers that French travelers perceived as most Arab (the narrow, unlit, winding streets of the old city untouched by Army engineers), were also those resembling most closely the mix of popular grime and impenetrable alleys that Mercier's nineteenth-century readers saw represented in his Paris.

In describing these features of Algiers, Gautier both complied with and escaped an Orientalist mode of representation in his city descriptions (Brahimi 12). (5) Although his friends and fellow writers may not have been able to tell him much about Algeria, this hardly meant that neither information nor codes of description were available. Confining ourselves to the nascent tradition of exotic literary travel narratives before Gautier's first Algerian writings, we might indeed find relatively few precedents for carefully observed and sensitively written accounts of Algeria. Among the prominent writers of Gautier's own generation, only Nerval had already published a Voyage en Orient (1844), and it dealt with Egypt and the Levant. Nevertheless, a great many lesser-known writers had already published accounts of Algeria, of varying merit: the list of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France's cataloguing class containing most of them includes more than 60 published between 1830 and 1845. (6) Moreover, exotic travel descriptions did not develop in a vacuum, but rather in close connection with the flourishing literature describing places closer to home. The forms and oesthetics of city description had been well established in Paris, in the first place by Mercier himself. The colonial stereotypes of the city of Algiers as unchanged from the medieval period, despite the advent of French urbanism, more than justified the application of a descriptive tradition which Parisian topographic writers affected to find outdated.

In what was becoming a commonplace in writing on Algeria, Gautier privileged nighttime descriptions of its cities, illuminated by an unsteady and flickering light that emphasized details which
   nous devinrent familiers par la suite, [et qui] ne se laissaient
   deviner que d'une maniere confuse, avec ce grossissement et ce
   mirage que la nuit prete aux objets.

      De rares lanternes tremblotaient de loin dans ces fissures, ou
   deux hommes ont peine a passer de front; souvent meme nous marchions
   dans l'obscurite la plus opaque, tatant les murailles jusqu'a ce
   que la ligne, se redressant, permit au pale rayon d'arriver a nous.
   De temps en temps, d'une porte basse entrebaillee, d'un grillage,
   d'une petite fenetre, d'une boutique encore ouverte filtrait la
   lumiere avare d'une chandelle de cire, d'une lampe ou d'une
   veilleuse, qui projetait sur la paroi opposee des silhouettes
   bizarres et grimacantes. (Gautier, Voyage en Algerie 43)

Nothing could be further from the gas-lit city of Gautier's contemporaries, or nearer the shadowy neighborhoods of Mercier's Tableau. The lighting renders a totalizing vision of the city impossible; as in the Tableau, the narrator perceives the city in a series of brief flashes. Algiers is not merely obscure but also opaque to the passage of light; its typical urban layout, the famous narrow and tangled passages of the Casbah, hinders light from reaching far ahead of the lantern-carrying pedestrian, and prevents an easy view of the whole from within. Gautier's description touches on virtually all the tropes then becoming standard features of exotic descriptions of the North African city: low doorways temptingly half-open, grills forbidding access, small windows preventing views, twisted streets disorienting the pedestrian, and above all, shadows alternately surprising and menacing. All of these had echoes in Mercier's Parisian writings. Mercier famously complained about the lack of street lamps, for example, in passages which critics have cited as emblematic of both his will to philosophical enlightenment and his desire for practical reform (Mercier 1: 175). The intermittancy of light and shadow is one of the defining features of Mercierian description. Shadow demanded opposition by every means possible in order to obtain the clear descriptions of the rationalized city to which Mercier aspired, but it also provided the fascinating obscurity which gave his project its goals and urgency. These shadows, an inescapable blot on pre-Revolutionary Paris, became what most interested writers like Gautier about Algiers; Mercier had provided them with an adaptable precedent for forming the descriptive oesthetic they developed in the colonial city.

Most of Gautier's striking descriptions of Algerian scenes take place under the same illumination; he found it particularly appealing when applied to public festivities, dances, and balls:
   De petits groupes de quatre ou cinq personnes occupaient, au pied
   de chaque arbre, un tapis commun entoure d'un certain nombre de
   bougies de l'Etoile (o civilisation! que venais-tu faire la?)
   fichees en terre comme les chandelles des malheureux qui, a Paris,
   font voir des hiboux ou chantent des romances, le soir, aux
   boulevards ou aux Champs-Elysees.

      Cette illumination a ras de terre faisait un effet singulier et
   donnait aux feuillages, eclaires en dessous, un air de decoration
   de theatre auquel le costume des acteurs, costume qui semble, pour
   des yeux europeens, emprunte au vestiaire de l'Opera, pretait
   encore plus de vraisemblance. (Gautier, Voyage en Algerie 77)

Gautier makes explicit the comparison of Paris and Algiers by evoking the sort of street performers and musicians who populate Mercier's text, and recuperates his predecessor's excess and theatricality for his own purposes. His text shows a curious mix of fascination and rejection, an ambivalence about the uncanny parallels between the two cities. "Civilization" in the form of cheap export products seems out of place lighting up the exotic Algerian night. Yet without illumination, Gautier could not observe the scene; insofar as the effect of lighting creates the tableau, its absence would leave nothing to observe. While objects like the bougies de l'Etoile become irritating intrusions in Algeria precisely because of their banality in France, they permit a kind of street performance, pathetic when seen on the Champs-Elysees, to become artistically effective theater in Algeria. Despite warnings about its disappearance, the exotic could still resemble the costume-ball artifices on which it thrived, thanks to an effect of lighting and a mode of description adapted from an otherwise obsolete style of topographic literature on Paris.

On arrival in Algiers, most travelers promptly set out for the most "exotic" part of the city, the steep neighborhoods on the hill behind the new Place du Gouvernement and the mosque-cum-Cathedral. These quarters attracted visitors with their relatively unchanged layout; they remained the stronghold of "local color" in Algiers well into the twentieth century. The travelers' usual destination also satisfied the French desire for views from above, the wish to see the city comprehensively by looking down at it from a single vantage point, either from the Casbah fortress at the city's apex, or from the hills behind it. (7) The critic Mary Louise Pratt has described a tendency of European travelers to write what she calls "monarch-of-all-I-survey" descriptions, empowering themselves by taking possession of the exotic landscape with a map-maker's gaze from on high (201-06, 208). (8) French travelers to Algeria may have appreciated this sensation as well, but they also responded to imperatives having more to do with the codes of city description at home than with imperial necessity abroad.

While aerial views had been used to portray cities since the Italian Renaissance, the device saw sudden revival around 1830. What was new was not the point of view, but the infusion of historiography into it. I contend that this development took place in a symbiotic relationship between descriptions of Paris and of Algiers, underlying the colony's contribution to the vision of modernity. Victor Hugo's chapter in Notre-Dame de Paris, "Paris a vol d'oiseau," which became the archetype of the genre exploiting this perspective, looked out at medieval and modern Paris from one of the cathedral's towers, just after the grand historiographe d'Afrique had discovered the advantage of height for historical perspective. "Paris a vol d'oiseau" became the title of several books, and of chapters in a dozen others. In a classic version, one described or engraved the view from a suitably tall monument, slowly turning to take in the horizon, imagining both how the view would have looked in the past and how it might appear in the future. Besides the towers of Notre-Dame, other viewpoints included the spire of Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile, the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and even the roof of the Louvre, not to mention dozens of imaginary viewpoints suggested in engravings. (9) As a topos of topographic literature and illustrations, the "bird's-eye view of Paris" was both highly fantasized and heavily historicized. Many such descriptions and engravings of aerial views altered perspective to see things one could not have seen, and imagined viewpoints one could not have reached. Until the development of aerial photography, patented by Nadar in 1858 but not practiced until much later, it was impossible to get to most of the vantage points represented in the various "bird's-eye view" engravings. (10) In most cases in which a drawing presented a whole neighborhood or sector of the city, no suitable roof existed from which artists could have sketched from life, or to which viewers could go to see for themselves. Other fantasized views are radically foreshortened or elongated, so that they offer a plunging view in which streets appear clearly laid out in the foreground and middle distance as in a true bird's-eye view plan, and then beyond it an extremely long perspective in which boulevards seem to stretch to the horizon. The journalist and critic Edmond Texier's Tableau de Paris (1852-53) opens on an oversized foldout plate captioned "Paris a vol d'oiseau MDCCCLII," claiming to be a "Vue prise du clocher de Saint-Louis en l'Ile." The viewpoint seems impossibly high; though the roofs of the Ile Saint-Louis are close, those of the Cite and the rest of Paris appear quite distant and much lower. Even very large monuments seem dwarfed by the height of the observer: Notre-Dame and the Hotel de Ville look a fraction of their actual size, a rendering that permits us to see all the way down the river to the growing western suburbs and beyond. Textual versions could resort to a mix of perspectival alteration and historical fantasy. A text from 1852 by the historian Louis Vitet, excerpted in the monumental volumes of Paris dans sa splendeur (1861-63), promised a complete view of Paris from the roof of the Louvre, from the dizzying height of rive stories (Paris dans sa splendeur l: n.p.). (11) In the ten years intervening between Vitet's article and its reprint, the Rue de Rivoli facades had cut off half the view described; even in 1852, however, in order to see any distance Vitet already had to imagine the view at an earlier historical moment, with fewer obstructions (Virer 5). Aerial views of Paris had to struggle to "see" a satisfying portion of the city from a single vantage point, a feat which Hugo accomplished by fantasizing about looking out from Notre-Dame in 1483, but which had by the nineteenth century become impossible from any one place. Illustrators could place the viewer higher than the existing momunemnts, while writers tended to place the reader earlier than intervening obstructions. Recourse to either fantasy or history, both problematic, was the only way around the difficulty.

In many texts, the historical concerns of the "vol d'oiseau" trope overshadow any description of real panoramas. In the thirty years following Hugo's famous chapter, the phrase "Paris a vol d'oiseau" appeared at least as often as a title or heading in popular histories as it did as a caption for engravings. These histories very briefly treated most or all the major monuments of the city, describing their foundation and subsequent alterations, and relating anecdotes about famous people having to do with them. In one example from 1865 running to about 250 pages, 110 cover the history of Paris from the Romans forward (of which twenty pages relate the July revolution), with the rest comprised of very short sections on individual Paris monuments including almost no physical description (Paris a vol d'oiseau). Here, the aerial view is exclusively figurative: we fly metaphorically over the history of Paris, laid out in a compilation of narratives attached to specific places in the city. The text so fully assimilates the conceit of the aerial view as a way of looking at the city that it is virtually transparent, a historiographic convention.

Algiers presented several major advantages for aerial views, and helped solidify their link to nineteenth-century social observation and historical interpretation. Its compactness and sharp relief allowed views of the entire city without perspectival trickery, either from the deck of an approaching ship or the terraces of the fort at its apex. In Algiers, one did not have to bend the rules of perspective or imagine the removal of awkward buildings in order to obtain the Parisian fantasy of the visible city. The steep topography made this fantasy a reality. The city also responded to another particularly Parisian fantasy of urban description, that of seeing inside buildings, into the private spaces invisible from the street. The compilation Le Diable a Paris (1845-46) adapted Lesage's diable boiteux to nineteenth-century use: the devil Asmodee's principle trick in guiding the narrator through Paris consisted of lifting the roofs off houses to see the lives of those inside, a supernatural enhancement of the bird's-eye view. (12) North African architecture required no such diabolical intervention to feed this fantasy, since Algerians used open courtyards and roof terraces as living space. The journalist Xavier Marmier, visiting in the mid-1840s, called Algiers the "cite d'Asmodee, que nul toit ne derobe aux regards" [city of Asmodeus, which no roof hides from view], without mentioning what one might actually see (Marmier 44). The anonymous narrator of a set of letters published in 1844 was much more suggestive, and promised his correspondent that "[en] nouveaux Asmodees, nous monterons sur les terrasses; de la nous braverons la colere jalouse des Arabes, et si bien que soit mene leur interieur, nous saurons y glisser furtivement un oeil curieux. Je vous promets des details piquants" (Lettres sur l'Algerie 9). The author acknowledged the presence and censure of an Arab gaze intercepting his own, but believed his view from above would nonetheless let him see into the city's intimate spaces. The attraction lay in spotting the elusive women of the city in the only place one could imagine them visible, i.e., unveiled. (13) The bird's-eye view here thus stood in for the chapters in Parisian topographic literature on boulevard promenades, the locales where authors of these texts typically indulged in fantasies of looking at women. A French woman visiting Algiers in the raid 1860s wrote that the women of the city had used the terraces freely before the arrival of the French, but that subsequently "le jaloux mari n'autorise cette promenade qu'a la tombee de la nuit [...] on lui fait prendre cette precaution et bien d'autres, car il s'est apercu que nos officiers, du haut de la Kasbah, dominaient les terrasses, et y braquaient leurs lorgnettes, et se permettaient des conversations telegraphiques de nature equivoque, et pas du tout conforme a la loi du prophete" (Lagrange 45-46). The officers' lorgnettes, like that of the grand historiographe d'Afrique, become weapons of colonization, carrying the struggle into the household of the colonized. (14) The position of the officers allows them to "dominate" even the private landscape, much as Pratt argues explorers dominated the natural topography. (Lagrange's statements might lead readers to question the idea, often repeated in colonial literature, that the arrival of the French improved the status of women in the Algerian cities.) The city, however, may have foiled this ultimate penetration. The anonymous letter-writer of 1844 could not deliver the promised "details piquants," any more than the traveler reporting the officers' gaze from the Casbah could provide details on the insides of houses she saw from the street. (15) The unreconstructed portions of the city continued to resist the lorgnette.

The Algerian city nonetheless lent itself to French fantasies in another way, as it allowed writers to use the bird's-eye view developed in topographic literature in order to inspect the city's history. Algiers appeared to many French observers to have conserved at least part of its original form in a way Paris had not. Most of these travelers found that the city still preserved elements of its pre-colonial fabric, and they needed little effort of imagination to believe that anything predating the colonial presence had remained unchanged for centuries. Even those who regretted French interventions in "Arab" urban space (far from a majority of the many visitors who documented their impressions) emphasized that "primitive" Algiers still existed in the Casbah. The playwright Ernest Feydeau, in a description of Algiers in the form of letters addressed to the critic Sainte-Beuve, said of the city that "[o]n l'a beaucoup abime, beaucoup enlaidi, a moitie detruit," but nonetheless found what he had been seeking by climbing to neighborhoods higher on the hill: "[j]'etais enfin en plein Orient. Le reve de ma jeunesse se realisait" (Feydeau 8). (16) Despite the destruction, something clearly subsisted of the city's imagined original state. Edward Said and others have argued that nineteenth-century Europeans conceived of "the Orient" as static, outside history, and radically opposed to historical evolution: a place imagined as unchanging. (17) Visitors focusing on the aspects of old Algiers they labelled as "Oriental" enumerated the urban details on which they based their impression: "visitons la vieille ville, la vraie ville. Quand vous montez ses petites rues etroites, tortueuses, se croisant, s'enchevetrant, encombrees d'impasses, d'escaliers, de voutes jetees comme des ponts sur des cloaques et allant river leurs anneaux d'esclaves aux ruines de la Kasbah, vieux donjon feodal, vous etes tout etonne, vous avez presque peur, et, dans un intervalle de quelques minutes, vous retrogradez de cinq siecles au moins. Le vieil Alger: c'est la cite moyen age" (Vallory 15). The fear and prejudice Said indicts in European descriptions of the Orient show through here: the city has become the physical reflection of its slave-trading past. (18) For a Parisian visitor to Algiers, however, remarks like this about "the Orient" constituted a way of entering a polemic on urban forms at home that was in fact very historical. Placed in the context of urban change in Algiers and Paris, the valorization of Algiers as an exemplar of medieval urbanism represents more than European prejudice about the backward Orient. Pronouncements such as these (whether favorable or critical) participate in a much larger debate about the value of urban pasts in general, and about their physical manifestations in particular.

This is especially clear in descriptions of the urban texture of the old city in both places. Those treating the Casbah streets consistently described them as "narrow," "dirty," and "twisted," as in an 1854 guide to Algiers calling the Casbah "un inextricable labyrinthe, plein de bizarrerie, de confusion, de mystere. Des rues sales, etroites, de largeur inegale, mal aerees, sombres, tortueuses, rudes a monter, plus rudes a descendre, souvent fermees par le haut, taillees en escalier, terminees en impasse; des maisons sans facades exterieures [...] dont les etages superieurs avancent sur la rue, soutenues par des arcs-butants en bois [...] telle etaient l'apparance" (Duval 109). Several subsequent guidebooks (e.g., the Guide a Alger. Alger et ses environs) reproduced this passage, which purports to describe Algiers as it had formerly appeared, but also as it remained at the time. The guide's descriptions frequently switch from the present to the imperfect tense, creating an impression of continuity which suited travelers looking for an antidote to radical urban change at home. The architectural details chosen evoked the connection with the nineteenth-century image of old Paris: narrow, dirty, and badly-ventilated alleys, houses with upper floors encroaching on the street, and a labyrinthine layout. "Bizarreness," "confusion" and "mystery" were exactly what Parisian topographic writers reproached in Mercier, and yet also what Gautier appreciated most in his nocturnal outings in Algiers. In Paris, such elements usually subsisted as traces or literary memories, since the urban reconstructions loosely grouped under the terre "Haussmanization" were already well under way at mid-century. (19) Thus an essay signed "L. Duhamel" and entitled "Paris nouveau," in the 1859 collection Les Rues de Paris, inevitably recalled the old city popularized in Eugene Sue's Mysteres de Paris:
   Depuis quelques annees l'aspect de Paris est completement change et
   c'est a tel point que des quartiers en sont meconnaissables. Qui
   aurait vu la Cite en 1840 et la reverrait aujourd'hui aurait peine
   a croire qu'il se trouve dans le meme endroit. Beaucoup
   de ces ruelles etroites, sombres, infectes, boueuses et sans air
   ont disparu et fait place a des rues vastes et propres [...]. Le
   Palais-de-Justice et la Sainte-Chapelle ont secoue la noire
   poussiere des siecles; et les ruines, dont ils menacaient les
   curieux, sont remplacees par une imitation parfaite de
   l'architecture du Moyen Age. (Zaccone 13)

This is the Paris of the past, which had disappeared by 1859, except in period reconstructions like the one mentioned here. Though this observer clearly appreciated the cleanup, his was hOt the only opinion voiced on the subject.

Other writers admitted much more frankly their regret at losing the picturesque, the unexpected, and the strange of old Paris. The comic author and historian Edouard Fournier titled his 1852 promenade through the capital and its history Paris demoli: mosaique de ruines; he admitted that many of the ruins he would have liked to preserve were streets which "les siecles anterieurs avaient encombrees de masures insalubres" (Fournier xvii). (20) In most of the cases he describes, he does not actually have the option, since they had already been destroyed. Evoking the destruction of the place Saint-Gervais, he says "[s]i je m'arrete a ce coin, disparu d'hier, et que j'ai pourtant deja peine a reconstruire, c'est qu'il ne s'agit pas seulement ici d'une masse de bicoques abattues, mais de tout un passe plein d'histoire qui vient de perdre son cadre, son theatre, sa mise en scene" (Fournier xix). Gautier's review of Paris demoli, reprinted as a preface to the 1855 edition, credits Fournier with capturing in the text what had already been destroyed in the city. Many nineteenth-century Parisians feared that the city's history might somehow cease to exist if deprived of the mise en scene provided by physical remnants of the past. (21) Arguably, this had in fact already happened, since many of the old neighborhoods that Parisian writers lamented had already disappeared by about 1860, yet the final and irretrievable extinction of "old Paris" remained a dire prediction about an unspecified future. Reading the topographic literature today often leaves one wondering when exactly particular spots in Paris were demolished and rebuilt: the kind of rhetoric described above contributes to the confusion in the way it uses the past tense to describe specific demolitions, but refers to the global consequences as a feared future.

The awareness of the disappearance of Parisian neighborhoods helped predetermine the nostalgia which French travelers felt on disembarking in Algeria. The traveler's nostalgia which rapidly became the dominant affect in representing the Algerian city required at least a vestigial presence of the past in order to function. (22) Nostalgia had to have objects, and the major literary and illustrative device of historical observation in the city, the bird's-eye view contrasting old and new, helped travelers find them. The apparent contradictions in many of the texts I have mentioned stem from this need of a present object to lament that object's past disappearance. It became entirely logical for writers predisposed to urban nostalgia to say both that virtually nothing remained of the Orient they had hoped to see, and that Algiers was nevertheless still the epitome of the medieval or Oriental city. Their texts sought both to condemn past degradations, and to promote future preservation. Thus Feydeau says, on the one hand, that on arrival in Algiers he would have nothing to describe "parce qu'alors je n'aurai rien de presentable a vous montrer, et que je pourrai bien m'indigner souvent en vous parlant de ces edifices sans art et sans gout qui s'elevent sur l'emplacement des maisons charmantes," but, on the other hand, that "j'etais enfin en plein Orient. Le reve de ma jeunesse se realisait" (Feydeau 8). His protests may read today like a simple call for historic preservation of attractive buildings, and he defended his views at the time by saying that such monuments would give the colony something to show to tourists (Feydeau 270). He also demonstrated, however, the problem of urban nostalgia in the colony. Writers had to protest previous destruction in order to communicate the urgency of their feeling of new or iminent loss, but at the same rime they had to show their readers the charm that was at stake, the Orient that still remained and provided an ostensible justification for nostalgia.

As the rhetoric of Feydeau and so many of his fellow travelers suggests, the real stake was not tourism, but a polemic about urbanism developing concurrently in Paris. The predominance in Algerian descriptions of comparisons with new and highly-charged features of the Parisian landscape makes this clear. Evocations of the Rue de Rivoli and the suburb of Batignolles, two of the sites most disliked by the opponents of Haussmanization, recur constantly in works on Algiers. The Rue de Rivoli constituted a major feature of the debate on the new city, beginning with Hugo's denunciation of it in Notre-Dame de Paris; in 1843 the critic Jules Janin was still ridiculing Hugo's polemic of thirteen years before (Janin 12-13). (23) The suburbs received similar attention from writers like Alexandre Privat d'Anglemont, who made a career of Parisian street scenes, or Louis Veuillot, the Catholic pamphleteer and editor of L'Univers who published an Algerian travel narrative twenty years before his extremely anti-Haussmannian Les Odeurs de Paris (1867). (24) Dumas and Gautier both acknowledged the potential comparison between what they judged worst in both Paris and Algiers, but Fromentin and Feydeau made it most explicit:
   L'Alger francais, a l'heure qu'il est, il faut avoir la franchise
   de l'avouer, est une succursale des Batignolles. On me dit que,
   dans quelque vingt ans, il sera tres-embelli. Ce sont precisement
   les embellissements que je crains, et pour cause. Les rues
   Bab-Azoun, Bab-el-Oued, de la Marine, Napoleon, et la place du
   Gouvernement, qui furent des embellissements, sont tres-fort
   au-dessous de la rue des Colonnes, a Paris. Le boulevard de
   l'Imperatrice, en construction aujourd'hui, va repeter, tout le
   long du port, les affreux arches en plein cintre de la rue
   Bab-el-Oued [...]. Alger veut copier Paris; il parviendra tout au
   plus a se transformer en vilain Marseille. (Feydeau 29)

Wide, arcaded, and uniform streets represented not merely the death of the Oriental illusion in Algiers, but also the intervention of political and economic history in the city's structure. (25) Polemics about these changes in each city borrowed their rhetoric from the other, and habits of looking at the city in Algiers found their way back to Paris. One observer describing "Les Embellissements de Paris au point de vue de l'art" in the Revue de Paris in 1852 declared: "Comme exemple superieur du sentiment du beau et du pittoresque, je citerai particulierement l'epoque arabe, la plus grande, la plus elevee, la plus riche des epoques architecturales et la seule que nous puissions encore observer vivante, pour ainsi dire, dans les villes entieres de ces temps-la [...] chez [les Arabes] vous ne trouverez pas de rues semblables a celles de Rivoli, de Washington ou du Regent; ils etaient encore trop barbares, trop arrieres pour comprendre ce progres" (Beaumont 120, italics in original). By this time several visitors to North Africa had noted how out of place the arcaded imitations of the Rue de Rivoli looked in Algiers; the writers engaged in forming French judgments and habits in the city, the process T.J. Clark considers central to the development of modernite, were reading their colleagues' work on Algiers or recalling their own, and drawing lessons of architectural history from it. The interest of the Arab city, for this observer, stems from the visibility of its grand epoch on a city-wide scale, a view that nineteenth-century observers felt that Paris could not offer. French travelers may have gone to Algeria partly in order to escape to the exotic Orient, but among their souvenirs they brought back new notions of how to look for history in the city.


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Berbrugger, Louis Adrien. Algerie historique, pittoresque et monumentale. Recueil de vues, monuments, ceremonies, costumes [...] des habitants de l'Algerie. 3 vols. Paris: l. Delahaye, 1843.

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Seth Graebner

Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

Washington University in Saint Louis

Saint Louis, MO 63130


(1) I take my cue here from Jann Matlock's development of the term, initially in her Harvard seminars in 1994.

(2) The reedition by Gustave Desnoiresterres appeared in the Bibliographie de la France of 18 December 1852; a survey of the Revue de Paris, Revue des Deux Mondes, L'Artiste, Le Siecle, Le Constitutionnel, and the Journal des Debats found no reviews in the two months before and four months after its publication.

(3) The archives of the Gouvernement General de l'Algerie, carton 1 N 3, contains the letters of officers in the Genie to their superiors in Paris, justifying the reconstruction on military, sanitary, and commercial grounds.

(4) See Gautier's passages, discussed below, as well as Fromentin's description (192). Fromentin first went to Algeria in 1847, and his last stay there ended in October 1853. Dumas pere visited Algeria in December of 1846.

(5) Other critical treatment's of Gautier's exotic travel descriptions deal with Orientalist stereotypes, or the importance of the Orient in the development of Gautier's thinking about art (Eigeldinger; Hartman). Guy Barthelemy's work is of greater interest for this study, since it deals with the collapse of the "Ici" and the "Ailleurs" inherent in Gautier's exoticism, a collapse that led him to connect the Orient to his musings on Paris.

(6) There are in fact many more than the 60 or so which I have surveyed. The works of Rozet, Lessore and Wyld, Bavoux, Berbrugger, and Nodier figure among the most substantial consulted for this study.

(7) "Casbah" from the Arabic "qasba" simply means fortress. In colonial Algiers, the term came to stand for the entire pre-1830 city; properly speaking, it referred only to the fort at the top.

(8) Another parallel for panoramic views arose in Paris: around 1830-31, panoramas once again became popular after 25 years of obscurity. In 1832, the panorama painter Charles Langlois displayed one of Algiers, viewed from the Casbah. For discussion of panoramas and their relation to conceptions of history in nineteenth-century literature, see Samuels. John Zarobell treats their relation to landscape views and the colonial enterprise in the first chapter of his dissertation.

(9) For a view from Saint-Louis-en-Ile, see the frontispiece of Edmond Texier's Tableau de Paris; for views from the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, see engravings in Paris dans sa splendeur.

(10) Felix Nadar submitted the brevet for his invention in October 1858, but no aerial photos appeared until Paul Nadar, Felix's son, enlarged a plate to show at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. The plate, exposed in 1868 from a balloon at about 1700 feet, showed the western neighborhoods of Paris looking toward Parc Monceau and Montmartre from near the Etoile. It appears to have remained almost unique in its genre until well after the Exposition (Nadar: Karikaturist--Fotograf--Aeronaut n.p; Nadar 1: 37, 2: 604).

(11) Louis Vitet (1802-83) wrote a number of descriptions of Paris monuments, as well as works on other aspects of French history.

(12) Main-Rene Lesage, author of Gil-Blas and other romances, introduced the diable boiteux to French literature in a book of the same name first published in 1707, and inspired by Luis Velez de Guevara's El Diablo Cojuelo.

(13) Veiling was a complex social practice about which it is difficult to generalize. In the coastal cities of nineteenth-century Algeria, most women seem to have veiled most of the time, outside their homes. Exceptions included Jews and blacks, especially when the latter were servants.

(14) This point of interesection between gazes assisted, intercepted, or censored recalls issues central to Jann Matlock's work on the lorgnette (42 ff).

(15) Lagrange recommended that travelers desiring to see the inside of an Algerian house should visit one which the French had converted to administrative use, and suggested the Palais du Gouverneur, the Archeveche, or the offices of the colonial administrations (45).

(16) Ernest Feydeau (1821-73) was a playwright whose Fanny was an overnight success in 1858. Sainte-Beuve compared it to Madame Bovary, and Feydeau became a major figure of the theatre of the late Second Empire.

(17) See especially the first and second chapters of Said's Orientalism.

(18) Before 1830, the French knew Algiers primarily as the home port of Mediterranean pirates who engaged in the sale and ransom of European slaves. The pirates had declined considerably since the height of their power under Barbarossa in the sixteenth century, but their extermination constituted one of the French justifications for conquest.

(19) David Pinkney's Napoleon ni and the Rebuilding of Paris is still a very useful reference in English regarding Haussmannization, though David Jordan's Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann has greatly enhanced our understanding of it.

(20) Fournier (1819-83) produced a very substantial body of work (over zoo entries in the Bibliotheque Nationale catalogue), including comedies for the boulevard theaters as well as topographical works.

(21) Richard Terdiman has analyzed the literary consequences of the destruction of the Carrousel neighborhood for Baudelaire's affect in "Le Cygne" and other reflections on history in the mid-nineteenth century (l06-47).

(22) Ali Behdad demonstrates that expressions of nostalgia or the feeling of belatedness were widespread in texts by French travelers to the Middle East from Nerval on; as I show, there was considerably more at stake in nineteenth-century travelers' nostalgia than the sensation that the Orient was disappearing under the influence of the very forces that had constructed it in the European imagination. See especially Behdad's chapters on Nerval and Flaubert in Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution.

(23) Hugo had reproached the designers of the Rue de Rivoli for the street's uniform and boring aspect. Janin blamed Hugo for valuing picturesque disorder and grime over neatness and practicality.

(24) Veuillot traveled to Algeria as personal secretary to Marechal Bugeaud in 1841, and published his narrative as Les Francais en Algerie, souvenirs d'un voyage fait en 1841.

(25) In the same way, the exigencies of real estate speculation and, to a lesser extent, riot control fueled the urban interventions in Paris which would overlay old neighborhood structures with city-wide structures that blurred their character. T. J. Clark attributes considerable significance to the refocusing of economic life from neighborhood to city-wide activity (52-54).
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Date:Mar 22, 2008
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