Sculptures — Three Greats
Diderot, philosopher and encyclopedist of the French Enlightenment, was a skeptic, a materialist, a radical questioner of the authority of church and state.
Below, Diderot lifts a plumed pen and pauses at the brink of expressing a rational thought.
Diderot’s insistence on freedom of thought, and his critical examination of the social, political, and religious order of l’ancien régime, placed him in danger with the ruling authorities. The massive encyclopedia project that he edited with Jean d’Alembert was so controversial that he was imprisoned and his work censored.
But he was steadfast in his conviction that an encyclopedia must not simply rely on knowledge that is palatable to reactionary institutions. Below is an excerpt from Diderot’s own entry for “encyclopedia”:
One must examine and overturn everything, without exception or accommodation. . . . One must crush foolish old beliefs and tear down barriers that reason has not erected. One must grant science and the arts the freedom that is so precious to them.
Alfred Vulpian: pioneering 19th-century physician and neurologist who discovered adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. He stands facing the Faculté de Médecine, where he taught.
That’s all that I was able to glean from a bit of research, without diving into the complexities of Vulpian’s scientific method.
But perhaps this is an opportunity to note the place names and public works — sculptures, monuments, bridges, parks, squares, and streets — that honour persons for their contributions in various fields. The recognition of scientists, writers, musicians, poets, artists, composers, mathematicians, Resistance fighters, Revolutionaries, and statesmen adds another layer to the urban fabric, another set of signifiers expanding the complexity of the cityscape.
Like names in a cemetery, these eponyms are encountered more or less at random by the wanderer. One creates connections within the Parisian palimpsest, which is to say, one becomes involved in the intricacies of remembrance — itself a kind of wandering.
Another reason that Paris is a flâneur‘s paradise.
And since André Chénier kindly invited me to his street in Paris, here’s the first stanza of “Jeune Captive” (“Young Captive”), a poem that he wrote from prison after being arrested by the Committee for Public Safety at the height of the Terror, awaiting his turn for the guillotine:
Ears of corn ripen, respected by the scythe.
Without fear of the grape press,
summer vines drink dawn’s sweet gifts.
And I– like them, beautiful and young —
no matter how troubling and worrisome the present,
I don’t want to die yet.
Rodin’s Monument to Balzac
Balzac, erupting night and day from his colossal cloak, became my landmark for home when I spent several weeks in a nearby apartment.
A passage from Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet describing the town of Saumur speaks to the accumulation of moments and emblems that constitute a microcosm of French history:
Here a Protestant attested his belief; there a Leaguer cursed Henry IV; elsewhere some bourgeois has carved the insignia of his noblesse de cloches, symbols of his long-forgotten magisterial glory. The whole history of France is there.
Paris is Balzac’s Saumur writ large.