An essay in the guise of a daydream, George Sand’s “Rêverie à Paris” grapples with serious questions about the purposes and possibilities of public space. The novelist often wove vivid landscape imagery into her stories and travelogues. But here, in a short piece that she tossed off for Paris-Guide — a 2,340-page anthology of essays by 125 of France’s leading writers, published on the occasion of the 1867 Exposition universelle — she serves up a critical reflection on contemporary urban design and garden art, a.k.a. the nascent field of landscape architecture. Sand’s essay is a love letter to public space and a defense of decorative landscape embellishments. Everyone, she argues, deserves access not merely to green space, but to landscapes evocative of wonder and delight. Toggling deliberately between empirical and poetic modes, “Rêverie à Paris” uses theatrical metaphors to argue that one can simultaneously respect the integrity of landscape as given, and enjoy artfully artificial renderings of “nature.”
An essay in the guise of a daydream, ‘Rêverie à Paris’ grapples with serious questions about the purposes and possibilities of public space.
“Rêverie à Paris” begins by stating what it is not: a systematic survey of public parks and gardens constructed, modified, or preserved amid the redevelopment then ongoing under the command of “Baron” Georges-Eugène Haussmann; “a study of nature acclimatized to our world of rubble and dust.” The author begs forgiveness of her editor Louis Ulbach (and, by extension, of the reader) for submitting a mere “retrospective impression.” But her freewheeling, confessional style allows her to convey lush sensory experiences, critical judgment, and people-watching pleasure. In this way the text stands out from more methodical contemporary accounts of Parisian landscape architecture, including the authoritative tome Les Promenades de Paris (1868–73) by Adolphe Alphand, the city’s chief engineer of parks and gardens. 1 Dispensing with the pretense of objectivity, Sand writes as an embodied subject, here analyzing and there rhapsodizing. She approaches her topic obliquely and wanders unhurriedly through it, much as she allows streets and gardens to guide her perambulations; the dreamer-narrator proceeds “without listening or looking at anything — a very pleasant state of reverie that nonetheless does not prevent seeing and hearing.”
“Rêverie” is short on specifics regarding individual sites, yet it’s evocative of the rhythm and texture of a city that was transformed during the French Second Empire (1852 to 1870), a period of rapid population growth, economic reorganization, political repression, ascendant consumer capitalism, and heavy-handed urban planning. Sand acknowledges her privilege in having the leisure to stroll absent-mindedly, to be “lulled by the movement and the murmur peculiar to this mad and wise city, where the unexpected has always reigned.” She thinks more people should have this luxury of private time to enjoy these luxuries of public space. She decries the failures of a traffic system that cannot protect porters and pedestrians. And she describes how human technology seems to infuse even the organic matrix of land and air, so that grayish-pink Parisian skies appear “rippled (moirés) or pearled (nacrés) with the most vivid and finest tones,” as if worked by skilled artisans. A moiré pattern in silk or other fabric results in a wavelike shimmer (a variation on the moiré effect in printing); the adjective nacré denotes a pearlescent sheen applied to metal or ceramic. Paris, then, is a city adorned as if by the decorative arts — though these surface effects never totally obscure the substrata of earth and water. Such are the varied currents of Sand’s musings before she finally strides, near the halfway point, into the terrain of her official subject, the new public parks and gardens of the Haussmann era.
Can well-conceived public spaces encourage social harmony? Can they give us the amplitude, the luxury, to dream?
“Rêverie” has its weak points. The marvels of increasingly globalized horticulture were tainted by colonial violence and Eurocentric arrogance, yet the essay flirts with standard 19th-century hokum about the march of progress, along with a simplistic gloss of class inequities, and a racist would-be joke about “cannibalistic natives” who prefer “white flesh in tomato sauce.” In certain passages, it’s hard to say if Sand is being sly or sincere; possibly she invoked such tropes only to emphasize their hollowness, as Jacques Offenbach composed slaphappy operettas lampooning the hypocrisy of Second Empire society. 2 Regardless, what makes the text worth re-reading is Sand’s core argument about social inclusiveness and aesthetic delight. Her essay still prods us to question what “we” — as publics perennially oppressed by racism and inequality — want and need in the design of urban landscapes. Can well-conceived public spaces encourage social harmony? Can they give us the amplitude, the luxury, to dream? Can they distract us from personal torments and help us to reconnect with our social surroundings and our unconscious minds? Instead of contributing to gentrification and displacement, can city green spaces foster moments of joy, rest, and expansiveness for people who justifiably fear that any investment in public beauty will drive them from their communities?
George Sand (1804–1876) was a giant of 19th-century French literature, a novelist, memoirist, and journalist whose tales of love and struggle were colored by her own experience as a woman chafing against patriarchal mores and as a child in a family torn by class tensions. Born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin — she went by “Aurore” — she lost her father early, and was pried from the custody of her working-class mother by her aristocratic paternal grandmother, to be raised in the ancestral home at Nohant, some 270 kilometers south of Paris. She adopted the pen name George Sand while coauthoring a story with her then-lover, Jules Sandeau, and wore men’s clothes in part to assert artistic independence, despite discriminatory laws and customs. With great difficulty, she managed to legally extricate herself from an unhappy marriage with Casimir Dudevant, to win custody of their two children, and to repossess the manor at Nohant, where she lived for the rest of her life. Sand was a frequent visitor to Paris. But following the example of Jean-Jacques Rousseau — a personal acquaintance of her grandmother, Marie-Aurore de Saxe, who had remarried to become Madame Dupin de Francueil — she appreciated “the spectacle of nature” filtered through botanical study and philosophical reflection. 3
Sand’s essay, like a Picturesque landscape garden, dissimulates the mastery of the hand that made it. Under the spell of her eloquent prose and apparently unstructured lines of thought, the reader might not notice, at first, several provocative arguments. The first is in favor of “luxury for all,” a conviction that everyone deserves beautiful — even spectacular — but also safe and welcoming public spaces. This may sound glib, but it’s radical if you fully imagine what Sand intends. “Luxury for all” means collective spaces designed with care and flair: walkable streets, stimulating public gardens, enticing theaters and museums open to everyone. Such egalitarian “luxury” is not based on the flashy commodity culture then on the rise, but on an inclusive and inspiring public realm that Sand believed lay within reach — to be achieved through a convergence of science, art, and political liberalization. Luxury implies not only access to fine urban landscapes, but the time to dawdle and daydream there.
Sand embraces a potentially subversive notion of involvement with a city in flux; like Baudelaire, she exults in loitering as the antithesis of efficiency.
Sand’s reverie embraces a potentially subversive notion of open involvement with a city in perpetual flux. Unlike the 21st-century distraction of gazing at a smartphone while walking, what she calls distraction belongs to her feeling that, “in Paris, life is everywhere, and everything seems more alive than elsewhere.” Like Baudelaire and other contemporaries, she exults in loitering as the antithesis of efficient production; she views Parisians as masters of the art, and their city as the ultimate loitering ground — even if “people now say, in Paris as in America, ‘Time is money!’” Parisians worked brutally hard, but they were also great idlers, always ready to fight, to protest, and to party. Prefiguring Surrealist and Situationist approaches to navigating the urban landscape, Sand drenches her perceptions in close observation and colorful speculation alike; her writing interfuses lived and potential realities into one confection that is also a polemic — or vice versa. In the vast and cruel gap that separated lives of the rich from those of the poor, and against “those who think only of wealth and who predominate in our new society,” she glimpses in the life of streets and gardens the possibility of a more equitable culture.
Sand’s vision of “luxury for all” was not limited to Paris. She is, after all, writing for Paris-Guide, and hence for a national and even international audience, and she leverages the capital’s allure as if to convince provincial towns and villages to invest in public gardens and theaters along with free museums, concerts, and festivals. Such amenities have educational value, she implies, not least because they engage visitors’ senses and imaginations; Sand believed that art and artifice are required to make the pleasures of landscape broadly accessible. 4 “Do not hope to find the charm of nature,” she writes of the city’s new parks and squares. “It’s décor, nothing else … but adorable and marvelous décor.” A few pages later she urges, “bring to your hometown the spirit of whatever good and beautiful things you have seen in Paris.” Her oeuvre contains numerous calls for free public schools for children of all classes and genders, and in “Rêverie” she reasons, a little too idealistically, that well-designed gardens can awaken in city dwellers a new “instinct of curiosity” to study botany or a desire to travel. She hopes, rather naively, that free access to sumptuous greenery can help “the child of humble origins” to escape poverty by instilling an “appetite to learn.”
She believed that art and artifice are required to make the pleasures of landscape broadly accessible.
Sand may risk sounding, to our ears at least, like an out-of-touch aristocrat, confusing a dilettantish connoisseurship with actual opportunities for education. Still, she knew that, in the shadows of the city of light, there lurked “the other Paris,” as Lucy Sante called it in her 2015 book of that name — a place of misery but also of working-class cultural vitality. Poor Parisians lived precariously, hustled for pennies, exhausted their bodies, scavenged and recycled “everything from rags and bones to ideas and fads,” and carved out niches in dense neighborhoods that functioned like self-sufficient villages. 5 Sand was aware of this realm of daily struggle, however sheltered from it. Her mother, Sophie Delaborde (whose surname literally means “from the edge”), hailed from the so-called demimonde where sex work overlapped with high society. Sand’s father, Maurice Dupin de Francueil — an officer in Napoleon’s army, grandson of Marshal General Maurice de Saxe, and great-grandson of Augustus II, a Saxon noble — had married Sophie in 1804, but died when Aurore was only four years old. Madame Dupin disapproved of her son’s cross-class affections. Though young Aurore did not stay close to her mother after their separation, she absorbed her loathing for upper-crust pretensions.
Recall, too, that this was an era in which all manner of exhibitions — world’s fairs, galleries, botanic and zoological gardens — were founded in the name of public betterment. Thus Sante, looking back on old Paris — the other Paris — observes:
So much of life was conducted in public that an entire education could be procured just by walking around, riverbank to market to square to boulevard, from “the great poem of display” (Balzac) to the performances of mountebanks, from the dance halls to the public executions, from the news vendors to the dandies, from the prostitutes to the bill posters, from the east to the west. 6
Sand’s second big idea has to do with the overtly theatrical quality of the naturalistically styled grottoes, faux-rustic waterfalls, sculpted ponds, rolling lawns, and picture-perfect compositions of foliage that characterized the new gardens of Paris: “I have seen naturalist artists genuinely furious with these ruinous toys that pretend to recall nature, and which they treat as silly and monstrous counterfeits.” She has in mind especially the cascades and follies of the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Monceau, the Square des Batignolles, and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where — as she was writing — a cement-encrusted, ivy-screened grotto was being established in a former gypsum quarry.7 Some contemporary critics denigrated these “delicious hydraulic baubles,” and Émile Zola, also writing in 1867, denounced the new type of Parisian square as “a shred of countryside dragged violently into the mud of a city.” 8 Sand, however, took no offense, deeming such artifice more honest, in a sense, than a misplaced pursuit of authenticity. Stylized details could satisfy, even (or especially) if they were understood as fictitious. The key was that such artifice be transparently legible; fiction represented for Sand not falsehood, but the poetic rendering of reality.
Further, she implies, this understanding is not limited to those with educated tastes. As a novelist, she was practiced at wringing truth from made-up characters. (“The tendency to impart poetical color and significance to whatever was capable of taking it was her mastering impulse, and may sometimes have led her to lose the distinction between fancy and reality,” wrote a sympathetic biographer in 1883. 9) Sand sought to counter the mischaracterization of fiction as mere make-believe, and to mitigate prejudice against actors as “immoral” — a reputation owing to their social precarity. 10 Parisians of all classes were, after all, familiar with the suspension of disbelief in theatrical performances. Only the rich could afford an opera ticket, but numerous playhouses attracted working-class crowds, who packed in night after night despite the suffocating atmosphere of unventilated gaslit halls. They cheered, booed, laughed, and shouted for actors to repeat the best lines; house lights stayed up during the show, allowing audiences to observe each other as much as the action onstage. (“How many poor city dwellers,” she wonders, might never experience the thrilling variety of landscape “except through the fictions of our theaters and our gardens!”) Sand’s ideal spectator, then, is not the captive subject of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). She — the flâneuse absorbing the sights — is an active participant in the construction of scenarios and realities.
Promenades and Publics
The prompt for Sand’s essay was an historic burst of public landscape construction, simultaneous with the more famous reconstruction of the built fabric with new boulevards, sewers, and other infrastructure. More than 20 public parks and squares, linked by miles of tree-shaded sidewalks, were established or renovated in Paris during the Second Empire. 11 Unlike older and more celebrated gardens such as those attached to the Tuileries and Luxembourg palaces, these were owned by the city and explicitly given to public use. It was the first modern urban park system, an integral “system of green spaces.” 12
The ideal spectator is not a captive subject but an active participant in the construction of scenarios and realities.
The landscapes were designed, constructed, and maintained by a dedicated municipal landscape agency, the Service des Promenades et Plantations. It’s tempting to translate the name of this novel bureaucracy to its contemporary equivalent in American English: the department of parks and recreation. Instead, call it the Office of Promenades. 13 This preserves the richness of the 19th-century French promenade, which encompassed at once an activity, a location, and a social experience. As Anthony Vidler has written:
The activity “promenade” was the slow strolling of the crowd; it was also the special weekend excursions to the great parks of Boulogne and Vincennes, the picnic by the artificial lakes. The space “promenade” represented these leisure activities inserted into the city and rapidly becoming the daily environments of business and labor. 14
The Office of Promenades was directed by a civil engineer with an artistic eye, Adolphe Alphand. Recruited from Bordeaux, Alphand was hired by Haussmann, the notoriously autocratic chief administrator of the Paris region. Haussmann answered directly to Emperor Napoléon III, otherwise known as Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who was both the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte and the original target of Marx’s remark that historical figures tend to appear twice, “the second time as farce.” When Alphand arrived in 1854, Paris was on the brink of explosive growth. The annexation of peripheral suburbs in 1860 would more than double the city’s area, to 30 square miles, while the official population would increase from just over one million in 1851 to 1.8 million in 1866, incorporating not only annexed suburbanites but thousands of migrants who arrived each year from the countryside. 15
In the 1850s and 60s, the Office of Promenades saw their mandate expand likewise, into a metropolitan landscape program that touched every neighborhood in Paris and influenced urban design across the world. 16 Alphand relied on the skills of landscape architects Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps and Edouard André, architect Gabriel Davioud, and engineers Eugène Belgrand and Jean Darcel, among many other contributors, as he rose from chief engineer to overall director of city public works. Though the government was keen to neutralize the threat of popular protests and street barricades, security was peripheral to the mission of the Office of Promenades. Its main job was to beautify the public realm with greenery, water, children’s play areas, and public furniture. These public works were, unsurprisingly, subject to class bias. They favored wealthy neighborhoods, at least initially; they suppressed the informal economy by replacing flea markets with garden squares; and they exposed poorer residents to heightened risks of displacement. Despite the presence of guards, however, the new amenities attracted diverse publics; Richard Hopkins, who has analyzed the records and correspondence of the Office of Promenades, observes that “the homeless, prostitutes, petty thieves, ruffians, and youth gangs all exercised their right of access to, and use of, the spaces of the parks and squares in Paris.” 17
The landscapes were designed and maintained by a dedicated municipal landscape agency — the Office of Promenades.
These modern parks and squares not only functioned differently from private pleasure grounds, but looked and felt different from older public gardens. Abandoning Baroque geometries, they adopted the naturalistic, Picturesque aesthetic that had long prevailed on private estates (first in Britain, then in France and far beyond), but which had scarcely appeared on the urban stage. Sand recognized the 19th-century promenades as stylistic heirs to an 18th-century French version of the “English” landscape garden, also known as the jardin anglo-chinois, with its undulating lawns and calculated spontaneity. 18 Alphand, however, downplays the decorative bent of the new landscape architecture. Rather, he (or his ghostwriter) in Les Promenades de Paris emphasizes the need to respect the integrity of geography, geology, and hydrology:
To shift around the earth, composing a terrain of sheer fantasy, is a bad system that almost always leads to disappointment, after enormous expenses. One can, and often one must, adjust the ground, but without drastically modifying the original terrain. 19
The promenades of Paris largely still reflect Alphand’s judicious spirit. At the same time, they do betray an excess of aesthetic intent, and Sand’s critique is astute in parsing its significance. She was acquainted with at least one senior member of the Office of Promenades, horticulturist Edouard André, chief gardener of Paris and author of a widely circulated treatise on garden art and its urban applications, L’art des jardins (1879). When, in “Rêverie à Paris,” she describes a visit to a glasshouse, a “sanctuary closed to the public,” she is recounting a behind-the-scenes tour of municipal nurseries near the Bois de Boulogne, where she was André’s guest. The deft blend of reportage and phantasmagoria that characterizes the essay overall is exhibited in miniature in this passage. In the greenhouses, she explains, “skilled horticulturalists can learn the secrets of conservation and reproduction specific to each species.” In the very next sentence, botanical fact swoons into flights of fancy: “I will never forget what I saw there, as if in a dream out of One Thousand and One Nights.”
Sand does not explicitly address gender inequity in “Reverie à Paris,” but she doesn’t bury it too deeply between the lines, either. In the first paragraph, she says that she appreciates the widened streets cut through by Haussmann’s workmen; although they are “too straight for the artistic eye,” they “allow us to stroll for a long time, hands in our pockets, without getting lost and without being forced constantly to consult the corner salesman or the affable street grocer.” Such leisurely independence, not to mention slouching deportment, were male privileges to which Sand claimed equal right. 20 Women, people of color, and the poor had — and have — a different experience of moving through a city than the mythologized White, male, dandified flâneur. One can guess that Sand was glad to find her way without having to ask directions at every turn, not only because such interactions would interrupt her reverie — nor because she looked down on the shopkeepers — but because, as a woman, it would have been tiresome to repeatedly field “affable” male responses to her unorthodox self-presentation.
An interest in disobedience permeates the essay. Tradition, Sand knew, could be a vehicle for perpetuating injustice.
According to Sand scholar Thelma Jurgrau, Sand’s life story is “a tale of gender in flux,” spanning from her childhood invention of an androgynous god to her public self-styling and unconventional romantic arrangements. “It is surely ironic,” Jurgrau adds, “that one of Sand’s unspoken intentions in writing her life story was to ‘come out of the closet’ as a woman.” 21 This interest in disobedience permeates “Rêverie à Paris.” “The defiant one can modify her look,” Sand writes, “but she keeps her sparkle and her voice.” She is talking about falling water as deployed in urban settings, the charming effect of which a designer’s manipulations could never spoil. Yet, of course, she is talking about more than that. L’insoumise (the rebel, literally the insubordinate one) was a recurring figure in French literature of the time: a beguiling but steadfast woman, typically young, who frustrated men’s attempts to bend her to their will. This character might be compromised in any number of ways, while retaining a defiant integrity. Sand wrote about such women, and was one herself. Her revisionist take on l’insoumise seems to be, moreover, an implicit critique of “nature” as invoked ad nauseum in 19th-century thought: attractive, coquettish, in need of coaxing and training, but ultimately fertile and available. 22 Sand keeps the Picturesque aesthetics associated with this vision, but she tosses out the sexism and nostalgia that often cloaked it. Tradition, she knew, could be a vehicle for perpetuating injustice.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the net result of Haussmann’s renovations favored the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie at the expense of working-class Parisians. Gentrification was an explicit strategy, not just a byproduct, of Second Empire development. Quite simply, the city aimed to raise property values and thus tax revenue, in order to recoup its enormous expenditures — which multiplied so rapidly that Haussmann’s political opponents finally ousted him in 1869. Many poor families were pushed to shantytowns and villages at the margins of the expanded city. Still, some working-class areas, such as the 19th arrondissement in northeast Paris, retained their social character and relative affordability for decades after the construction of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. What’s more, the Office of Promenades was responsive to community requests for adjustments in design or policy. 23
George Sand herself had been a republican activist in the revolution of 1848. She did not, however, directly criticize the authoritarian regime of Louis-Napoléon. (He had been democratically elected in 1848, but elevated himself to “Prince-President” in 1851 and crowned himself Emperor in 1852.) Nor did Sand, from her country seat in Nohant, voice support for the Paris Commune in 1871. She was a liberal, not a radical, and her retreat from revolutionary politics caused later leftists to criticize her; Simone de Beauvoir said that Sand “refused any type of solidarity with women,” and that, as a landowner, “She settled down and became a conservative.” 24 That assessment seems simplistic. Nevertheless, if are to understand Sand we have to ask about her politics, just as we must question the politics of the Second Empire parks and promenades. 25 The expansion of Louis-Napoléon’s park-building program from the wealthy west side of Paris to the proletarian east and peripheral neighborhoods reflected his desire to be seen as a champion of working people, even as he resisted any reforms that would give them a political voice or improve their economic standing. These public landscapes only became democratic through daily use. By turns banal and spectacular from the outset, they have lent themselves, over decades, to social reinvention and ecological diversification. They are more dynamic than their planners imagined, even if they can’t always deliver the thrills of Sand’s reverie. 26 Political machinations and pretense helped create these places — but, quite wonderfully, they have outlived the rise and fall of several regimes.
These public landscapes only became democratic through daily use; they have lent themselves, over decades, to social reinvention and ecological diversification.
No matter how well loved, parks and gardens cannot save a city from war. “The Empire means peace,” Louis-Napoléon had declared in 1852, shortly before shredding what remained of the Second Republic and plowing ahead with the Second Empire. He proceeded to embroil France in a series of conflicts; the final one, with Prussia, led swiftly to the French army’s surrender at Sedan in September 1870, and to a four-month siege of Paris that left citizens cold and starving. The once-luxurious gardens were requisitioned as military staging areas. The trees of the Bois de Boulogne were shattered by cannon fire, cut to deny cover to the enemy, and burned for firewood. Animals in the experimental zoo known as the Jardin d’Acclimatation were slaughtered to feed the city. The lake of the Buttes-Chaumont was drained and filled with barrels of fuel oil, which caught fire and turned the park into a scene of apocalyptic destruction. The buttes themselves became strategic cannon installations.
Sand, at home at Nohant, feared for her friends in Paris. A summer heat wave killed the crops (and her gardens), dried up water sources, and brought on forest fires and cattle-plague. A smallpox outbreak drove her into quarantine. “The execrable year is out,” Sand wrote at the end of 1870. “But to all appearances we are entering upon a worse.” 27 She was right; in March, disaffected workers and soldiers established the Paris Commune, which held the city until “The Bloody Week” toward the end of May, when the Army regained control arrondissement by arrondissement. The authorities then executed 17,000 or more suspected combatants and sympathizers. 28 Firing squads mowed prisoners down in the Luxembourg Gardens, the Bois de Boulogne, and Père Lachaise Cemetery; corpses rotted in the gardens of the Palais-Royale and along the Seine. Civil war turned all urban space into battleground, bastion, or hide-out; no room for reverie.
Yet behind the scenes of shattered barricades, as tourists filtered in to see the aftermath, there persisted the question of luxury — whether for a few, for many, or for all. The struggle of the Commune did not nullify the Parisian art of distraction; the rise and suppression of this radical experiment represented dueling visions of social enfranchisement and with it, the uses of public space.
The final paragraph of “Rêverie à Paris” escapes the difficult materiality of landscape architecture. Without breaking the spell of daydream, Sand leaves the garden and, as it were, invites the reader to accompany her to the opera or ballet. “There we will see fantastic effects of electric light create before our eyes a representation of nature far more unfaithful than that of gardens, which at least are lit by a real sun or a real moon.” Does the blatantly fake scenography offend her? No: “This intensely colored light transports me even farther than the sight of exotic plants.” Surrendering to the ecstasy of pure artifice, the dreamer-narrator is catapulted to a realm of “indescribable” landscapes set aglow by manufactured starlight. This grand finale signals the end of the dream, the opera, the essay, and the promenade at once.
Urban landscape should allow us to be ourselves, or a version of ourselves that we wish to present; the question is not what is natural, but what is true.
Sand’s analogy between landscape architecture and theatrical performance may strike some readers as superficial, but I think it makes a useful point. Landscape is both a series of processes and a way of experiencing a place. It comprises relationships among soil and water and organisms, but also those between human beings and their environment. As city dwellers, we need safe and stimulating spaces that ignite our senses, intellects, and imaginations as we move, alone or in company, lingering or passing through. Urban landscape should allow us to be ourselves, or a version of ourselves that we wish to present to the world; the question is not what is natural, but what is true. By valuing both empirical and poetic truths, each in their place, we can share in the luxury of landscape.
“Rêverie à Paris” (1867)
by George Sand; translated by Gideon Fink Shapiro
Excellent friend, I had promised you an essay on the squares and gardens of Paris, in other words a study of nature acclimatized to our world of rubble and dust. The subject involved a serious, interesting analysis, which I had commenced; but illness took my hours, and what I submit here is no study, but simply a retrospective impression that I humbly call “Reverie in Paris.” Truly I do not know of a city in the world where itinerant daydreaming (la rêverie ambulatoire) is more pleasant than in Paris. If the poor pedestrian, enduring the cold or heat, meets with countless tribulations there, that person must also admit to being, “if they know their good fortune” in fine days of spring and autumn, a privileged mortal. 29 For my part, I would observe that no vehicle, from the sumptuous carriage to the modest cab, can match, for sweet and delightful reverie, the pleasure of using two good legs, on street or sidewalk, that obey the fancy of their owner. Pine for old Paris if you will; I could never manage to grasp its twists and turns, although, like so many others, I was nurtured there. Today the great streets cut through the city, too straight for the artistic eye but eminently sure, allowing us to stroll for a long time, hands in our pockets, without getting lost and without being forced constantly to consult the corner salesman or the affable street grocer. It is a blessing to be able to amble (cheminer) along a wide sidewalk without listening to or looking at anything — a very pleasant state of reverie that nonetheless does not prevent seeing and hearing.
It’s still dangerous, of course, to be distracted in the middle of a big city that doesn’t guard your safety when you’re not looking out for yourself. Paris is far from adopting a truly safe system that would separate the movement of cars and horses from that of people, and which, without hampering commerce, would effectively get rid of these handcarts that I want to complain a little about in passing.
It is a blessing to be able to amble along a wide sidewalk without listening to or looking at anything — a very pleasant state of reverie that does not prevent seeing and hearing.
Consider that 90 out of 100 accidents are caused by a single man, yoked to a slim cart, who could not match the pace of horse traffic, and who can neither speed up nor take refuge on the sidewalk. It’s frightening to see this poor man caught in a fragile harness that would not protect him in the slightest if the 50 or 100 cars that crowd him in front and behind, and often right and left, should be pushed forward or back by a wayward vehicle. He would be crushed like a bundle of sticks. But if he courts extreme danger, hundreds of pedestrians more or less engaged in this same struggle are hardly less exposed. And faced with the waste of time when people now say, in Paris as in America, “Time is money!” 30 Some old troubadours still say: “Time is friendship, it is love, it is devotion, it is duty, it is happiness.” We can hardly be bothered to deal with these old-fashioned spirits; but let those who think only of wealth and who predominate in our new society therefore figure out how not to waste a quarter of an hour, whether on foot or in a car, at any intersection of our amiable city. We found a way to eliminate dog teams, so can’t we find a way to eliminate human teams?
Let us hope. Progress never marches fast enough, but everything is advancing all the same. Meanwhile, in awaiting better things to come, let’s take advantage of the real improvements on which we can already congratulate ourselves.
I dare say that distracted people on the streets of Paris, for the hundred perils they still face, already benefit from a hundred thousand intimate and real joys. Those who share my preoccupation with safety will agree that I am not being contradictory. There is in the air, in the appearance, in the sound of Paris, I know not what particular influence, that cannot be found elsewhere. Paris is a cheerful milieu. Nowhere does the charm peculiar to temperate climates manifest itself better (when it does) than with this city’s moist air, its pink skies rippled or polished with the most vivid and subtle tones, the gleaming windows of its wildly diverse and colorful shops, the gentleness of its river, neither too narrow nor too wide, the soft clarity of its reflections, the leisurely pace of its population, at once active and dawdling (flâneuse), its garbled sound in which everything harmonizes, the noises of the waterfront mixing marvelously with those of the streets. In Bordeaux or Rouen, the voices and the movement along the river dominate everything, and one can say that life centers on the water. In Paris, life is everywhere, and everything seems more alive than elsewhere.
It is very sweet, for those at liberty to enjoy the moment, to let themselves be lulled by the movement and the murmur peculiar to this mad and wise city, where the unexpected has always reigned, thanks to its people’s habits of wellbeing and their great sociability that keeps them from prolonged struggles. Paris wants to live, it absolutely (impérieusement) wants to. The day after a fight it needs a party: we slit each other’s throats as easily as we embrace each other, and with the same good faith. One is profoundly selfish at home; in each house a small world, more or less unhappy and often nasty, chafes and conspires against everyone. But go into the streets, walk along the quays or boulevards, stroll through the public gardens: all these vulgar or pernicious individuals form a benevolent crowd, subject to general influences, a population that is gentle, confident, polite, one would almost say fraternal, if we could presume to judge hearts by faces, or intentions by ways of walking. I no longer recall which illustrious foreigner said he enjoyed throwing himself into the crowds of Paris just to hear the endless courtesies of those who accidentally elbowed or pushed him: “Pardon me, sir!”
But look, fellow distracted ones, here we are in the new public gardens, and suddenly we become attentive, having been thinking of something while seeming not to think of anything. It’s impossible to walk, even in a diverting and charming city, without dreaming of unlimited spaces — fields, valleys, the vast sky stretching to the horizon of the prairies. Here is greenery: we gravitate to it and open our eyes.
The exotic world of plants that, little by little, has revealed its treasures to us, is beginning to inundate us with its riches.
The new garden, undulating (vallonné) and planted with exotic flowers, combines the classical decadence of the Petit Trianon with the “English” garden of the beginning of this century, perfected in that the designers have multiplied movements and accidental effects in order to achieve the appearance of a natural landscape within a limited space. Nothing is less justified, I think, than this title of “landscape garden” (jardin paysager), which middle-class city dwellers (bourgeois) now seize for their country homes. Even in the larger spaces that Paris dedicates to this landscape fiction, do not hope to find the charm of nature. The smallest corner of rocks of Fontainebleau or the wooded hills of Auvergne, the slightest waterfall of the Gargilesse, or the most overlooked meander of the Indre have another twist, another flavor, a more penetrating power than the most sumptuous compositions of our landscapists in Paris! If you want to see the Garden of Creation, don’t go to the end of the world. There are ten thousand of them in France in places that no one bothers with or that no one knows about. Seek, and you shall find!
But if you want to see the decorative garden par excellence, you’ll have it in Paris, and let’s agree right away that it’s a ravishing invention. It’s décor, nothing else, decide for yourself, but adorable and marvelous décor. Science and taste have joined hands; let us bow to this young pair.
The exotic world of plants that, little by little, has revealed its treasures to us, is beginning to inundate us with its riches. Each year brings to our attention a series of unknown plants, many of which already appeared in the herbaria of botanical classifiers, but whose form (port), color, appearance, and life escaped our understanding. The numerous greenhouses of the City of Paris possess an ever-expanding world of wonders, where skilled horticulturalists can learn the secrets of conservation and reproduction specific to each species. I will never forget what I saw there, as if in a dream out of One Thousand and One Nights. But this sanctuary is closed to the public, who are compensated by the exquisite arrangement that these master gardener-botanists know how to give to the pupils that spring from their hands, once freed from the tiered rows and glass enclosures where they are schooled. These pupils have become robust and luxuriant when used in the decoration of public buildings, squares, and public gardens. Already the gardeners have placed in the open air, during the summer, remarkable plants that until now had only been cultivated in the great glasshouses known as winter gardens. They studied the temperament of these poor exotics that vegetated perpetually in artificial warmth; they discovered that some, thought to be delicate, had a very rustic vigor, while others, more mysterious, could not survive under our skies the kind of cold that they patiently endure in their native land. But, like animals, plants can be trained, and a time will come, I have no doubt, when more than one that we beg to live in our midst will produce fruits or shoots with good will. [Sand’s original footnote: “Underground heating systems, via bricks and other artificial means, are an ingenious recent discovery; hydrothermal cultivation, or sprinkling warm water on plants, is a technique developed by Mr. Edouard André, author of excellent scientific and practical works.”]
We freely enjoy, all summer long, the sight of tree ferns, splendid orchids, colossal palms, mosses more beautiful than the velvet from our factories.
We will freely enjoy, all summer long, the sight of tropical forms, perhaps tree ferns, easy enough to transport into the greenhouse for winter despite their respectable age of several hundred centuries, splendid orchids, colossal palms, towering tree trunks that seem as old as the flora that formed coal deposits, sagittate leaves ten meters in length that seem to have come from another planet, colored foliage more striking than flowers, grasses more akin to clouds than herbs, mosses more beautiful than the velvet from our factories, perfumes unknown to the most sophisticated industrial chemistry — in effect, gigantic living herbaria made accessible to everyone.
Let’s pause here and dream a little. Having processed our initial astonishment and expressed our initial admiration, we find ourselves carried away by imagination to distant worlds, to still-deserted islands, to overlooked wilds, where courageous and impassioned naturalists venture, risking their lives, to bring these treasures back to us. In terms of perils, we speak not only of the whims of the sea, the venom of rattlesnakes, the injurious appetite of wild animals and cannibalistic natives, some of whom are fond of white flesh in tomato sauce; the plants themselves sometimes have quicker and more direct means of defense, as evidenced by the beautiful nettle that we find naturally covered with viscous, silvery droplets that can be touched, but whose undersides are thick with purple hairs, whose least contact with the skin brings death.
Rest assured: that one will not escape its glass prison.
Thus we go wandering, a few thousand leagues removed from the Parc Monceau or other public gardens in Paris, like the Buttes-Chaumont, that are expected to be even more luxurious. The rich decoration that surrounds us cannot keep up the illusion for long: too many different regions, too many diverse countries, too many different and distant lands have contributed to this fabulous ornamentation that appears here as an artistic summary of all creation. We necessarily fly from one to another on the wings of intuition and, struck and ashamed by the number of things we still do not know, are seized with the desire to travel in order to learn, or to learn in order to travel enjoyably and rewardingly.
Thus the child of humble origins is instilled with the appetite to learn, to find, and to act — by luxury! Doesn’t that suggest something to dream of?
Shouldn’t we see this instinct of curiosity, awakened in the lighthearted and lazy Parisian temperament, as a real discovery made by progress for its own benefit? Progress thinks nothing of it: its nature is to wander a bit, like the absent-minded person whom I defended earlier — without knowing where it is going. Or it looks for one thing and finds another, and for a long time holds it in both hands on a whim, or because it’s fashionable, or idly, without knowing what it’s good for. One morning, the taste for flowers takes hold and becomes an essential element in civilization: we want tulips at an exorbitant price. Another day, we notice the beauty of foliage, and we order foliage from all over the world. During one season, we want aroid plants and nothing else; a little later, we speak only of ferns or spotted begonias. Eventually it comes to pass that fashion has formed and spread everywhere a very beautiful, very valuable museum of natural history, accessible to almost all budgets, for the pleasure of all eyes. The progress of luxury has been harnessed to the progress of science. Art, too, enters powerfully into the mix. It educates the eyes of the public by showing them gracefully chosen and composed plant groupings. The ordinary pedestrian learns the secrets of light and the real significance of the words color and effect. Masses of papyrus pierce the grass and conceal beneath their close-packed stems the tub that holds their roots. (I remember the time when I was told that these plants could only live in the clear, running waters of the Fountain of Arethusa.) The passerby recalls the ancient use of the papyrus plant, evoking a thousand thoughts about the past, from those early breakthroughs to all the plant fibers that could replace rags and old clothes, today so expensive and so rare, and soon to be impossible to find. 31 A thousand other plants evoke geographical notions, from which flow all other scientific, social, economic, historical, religious, political, and industrial notions. Thus the child of humble origins is instilled with the appetite to learn, to find, and to act, by none other than the negligent brother of poverty — by luxury! France is not yet rich enough to provide free education, yet millions are spent to provide it indirectly: doesn’t that suggest something to dream of?
That is why, dear provincials, the people of Paris are, or are quickly becoming, more vital than you are. They don’t have your health, or even your active habits; they are idlers, they waste time, they are distracted by a fly. The fortunes made in your midst, however, wind up engulfed in this intense life of Paris — she of the soft skin and pale complexion — who absorbs you and lives longer than you do.
Who is to blame? You, in your small towns, who either don’t understand or don’t want to organize luxury for all. Already the larger regional cities are following the right example. Let the smaller localities follow it as well, and since you do not have schools, open free gardens and theaters, give free concerts and festivals, establish free museums. There is no place so small that it cannot provide all these things in some interesting form. Bring to your hometown the spirit of whatever good and beautiful things you have seen in Paris.
Shall we leave the decorative gardens without dreaming of the delicious hydraulic baubles that now play such a large role in our urban embellishments? Water, running clear and fast, is always a kind of music and light. Even art cannot spoil her charm. The defiant one (l’insoumise) can modify her look, but she keeps her sparkle and her voice.
I have seen naturalist artists genuinely furious with these ruinous toys that pretend to recall nature, and which they treat as silly and monstrous counterfeits. “Give us the lush, rocky falls of Tivoli with their impetuous maelstroms,” they say, “or bring back the water-spouting tritons of Versailles, the hydraulic concerts of the gardens at Frascati, all the follies of the Rococo, rather than these false grottoes and these lying waterfalls. 32 It is to distort all notions of truth, all the laws of taste, all the sensibilities of the next generation of artists and scholars!” They are outraged and we can’t calm them down.
Do we share their anger? No. Between the real and the conventional, between art and nature, there is a middle ground necessary for accessible (sédentaire) enjoyment by the masses.
The thought of our time aims to make us love nature. Romanticism has rid us of the fetishes that did not allow us to see, to understand, and to love nature for herself.
How many poor city-dwellers have never seen and will never see the picturesque sites of Spain, Switzerland, and Italy, and the enchanting perspectives peculiar to mountains and forests, placid lakes and rushing rivers, except through the fictions of our theaters and our gardens! It is impossible to present them with real specimens; we must limit ourselves to copying a detail, a corner, an episode. I cannot bring you the ocean; content yourself with a reef and a wave. This detail would gain nothing by multiplying its already considerable proportions a hundredfold at the price of gold; it would not be more true. All that one can ask is that we make it look pretty; and, in this respect, our hydraulic garden-toys are beyond reproach. Formerly, such water features were much more costly, and their mythological references in marble or bronze did not truly realize the style of ancient Greek poetry, gardens, and temples. For a long time, they formed a separate and totally fantastical style that certainly has its charm, but which we must leave in its place. Apollo and his nymphs, Neptune and Amphitrite have nothing more to tell us, unless they tell us about Louis XIV and his court, which we do not intend to restore. The thought of our time aims to make us love nature. Romanticism has rid us of the fetishes that did not allow us to see, to understand, and to love nature for herself. What we want to teach our children today is that grace is in the tree and not in the hamadryad who once inhabited it. It’s water that’s as beautiful on a rock as in a marble basin. It’s the dreadful rock (l’affreux rocher 33) that itself has its physiognomy, its color, its cherished plant whose windings make a marvelous curtain. It’s that rockeries (rocailles) do not need symmetry and a surface treatment of shells: it is only a matter of imitating, with a skill that loves truth, the rocks’ natural dispositions and their monumental poses, whether easy or fanciful. Later, if our children see the workings of true nature, they will appreciate it all the better, and they will remember the artful rockworks of Longchamps, Monceaux, and the Buttes Chaumont as we tenderly and fondly remember the slender little plant that we once cultivated on our windowsill, and which we later see, tall and robust, flourishing in the soil of its homeland.
Let us leave the decorative gardens. [Sand’s original footnote: “Don’t leave the Parc Monceau without reading the excellent little volume by Edouard André, Le mouvement horticole, of 1864-65.” ] This evening, without breaking our reverie, we will go to the opera, perhaps, or to some ballet of the fairy theaters. There we will see fantastic effects of electric light create before our eyes a representation of nature far more unfaithful than that of gardens, which at least are lit by a real sun or a real moon. Does this mean that we should forbid the splendid illuminations of scene paintings? I dare say I would protest such a ban. This intensely colored light transports me even farther than the sight of exotic plants. It carries me up to other worlds where the stars, dazzling and more numerous than ours, reveal in their radiance landscapes that are indescribable.