We all live among a city’s ghosts, but Paris lets you know exactly where they continue to haunt.
A charming house on the corner of the Rue Fortuny and the Rue de Prony, right near where I stay in the 17th arrondissement, has plaques for two of its former residents. On the Rue Fortuny side, the plaque notes that while Edmond Rostand lived there, from 1891 to 1897, he wrote his most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac. On the Rue de Prony side, another plaque notes that Auguste Chapuis, a composer and musician and student of César Franck, died in the house on December 6, 1933. Two ghosts in one.
Across the Rue de Prony stands another house, on the corner of the Rue Jadin (named for another artist, Louis Godefroy Jadin) and the Rue Médéric (named for a member of the French Resistance), is a house where Edouard Manet once had his atelier. And farther along the Rue de Prony you can find the still-standing former houses of the writer Marcel Pagnol, the actress Sarah Bernhardt and a celebrated dancer-courtesan Caroline Otero, who was known as La Belle Otero. (A photo taken in her prime doesn’t seem to do her celebrated beauty justice; you probably had to be there to appreciate the allure of someone who, according to some reports, caused at least six lovelorn men to commit suicide.) Caroline Otero’s house looks like that of someone theatrical – it certainly doesn’t fade into the surrounding architecture.
My gym on the Rue de Chazelles used to be the workshop of Gustave Eiffel, where he built his famous tower. Claude Debussy wrote Pelléas et Mélisande on the Rue Cardinet, around the corner from the apartment where I stay, and Gabriel Fauré lived not far from me, on Avenue de Villiers.
Plaques on some of these sites note the notables who lived and worked within, though others remain unmarked (the courtesan’s house, for example), and you discover, almost by accident, who helped shape the neighborhood. The other day, when I visited the nearby Jean-Jacques Henner museum – he was a 19th-century painter whose descendants bequeathed his house to the state, which turned it into this small, almost provincial, museum – the most interesting room was on the ground floor, and didn’t have much art. It had a map of the neighborhood that showed where artists, writers and demimondaines lived. People lingered longer over that than Henner’s works.
This is understandable. I myself returned to look at the map – in addition to the wall map, there was an interactive table map that gave you pop-up biographies of the notable people who lived on the streets around the museum – after going through the other galleries in the museum. Henner was an academic artist who might not have been remembered for much if the state hadn’t accepted the bequeathal of his house as a potential museum. But he was an artist who knew artists, and in a way that gave him a bit more cachet than his own art might have.
I think this fascination with the lives of dead others is a sort of phantom possession. Just as some works of art acquire more value because of who owned them (as if the art itself becomes better than it actually is because a rich celebrity once bought it) so too do the neighborhoods, if not the homes, where celebrated artists lived and worked.
We give ourselves more value, perhaps, because we stay near or pass through places where creators lived who contributed in a memorable way to their particular eras. Our impressions are built on the memories of other lives, and the memories of those memories. It’s not the thing itself but the attitude toward it, the spirit we ascribe to it, that counts: a house that was home to someone for whom we carry an idea of another age, another world, a finer sense of experience, perhaps, that we absorb by investing in that attitude or spirit something that ennobles us for acknowledging the impact of who used to be where we stand.
It’s rather like spotting a famous actor at a restaurant where you’re dining. The food isn’t necessarily better, but the experience is fixed because someone larger than life is eating across from you.
The impact of the ghosts of Paris is also made up of the impressions we bring to any place we want to speak to us more deeply, a way of setting in our imagination the importance of our place in the world because we have sensed, or thought we sensed, the fleeting presence of someone who mattered. We all matter, but most of us are forgotten. When we remember someone who was at one point there, we might put aside for a while our own inevitable mortality and the certainty of our disappearance from a collective memory. At least Paris keeps alive the dreams of eternity by letting us believe in the power of of even third-hand remembrance.