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The Paradox of Paris and Conclusion

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As foremost a manifesto for reform, Mercier’s language is reconcilable with his desired readership. In a chapter concerning the effect of newspapers, Mercier remarks that “the great hardly read the newspapers”, “the common people have neither the time nor the inclination”, and thus there remains only the middling rank, “the educated part of which does read papers, but only to … pick out the thread of truth from all that has been disguised.” It would be a farfetched claim to liken the Parallel to a newspaper, but that same concern with affairs of state that preoccupied the middling sort could not have been confined to a single platform. It was the bourgeoisie who developed a class consciousness in Paris’ coffeehouses, engaging in the intellectual debates of the philosophes, so it stands to reason that Mercier would intend his readership for that stratum of people, change emanating from the bottom. Yet this perspective is mitigated by his request for reformers to “get the requisite permissions” before undertaking projects, supplanting the image of revolution by fire and fury with that of peace and paperwork; the middling sort should pursue improvement projects, but by the good order of a stratified system. Mercier’s penchant for order is further evidenced by the second person pronoun ‘you’. He uses this to address directly those members of the elite who are guilty of inaction. “You light up your buildings, you organize balls and let off fireworks to celebrate some occasion or other … You are barbarians of administration to let the poor remain in such a situation … What you are in effect saying … is we only have money to spend on festive illuminations.” Therefore, one is disposed to view the Parallel as a caution to the ruling classes, a foreshadowing of events were change not to be implemented. His seemingly powerful statement, “I hereby summon all men of small fortunes” is an empty threat, his reminder of the middling sort’s class consciousness sufficient to galvanize a ruling class who fiercely defended their status.

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Mercier purveys a similarly ambiguous stance in his discussion of Paris’ banks. He censors the monarchy for its despotism, a greedy power ready “to impose itself as its own needs dictate” to which Mercier lends a number of historical examples, most pertinently Henry II’s punishing of parliamentarians for their heretical leanings. In response to this he recommends giving the people of France, “a certain amount of freedom, strength and consistency” capable of protecting not only the banks, but the remainder of France’s institutions against that unconstitutional power. However this is inconsistent with the rest of the Parallel, where he otherwise undermines the capacity of each grade of citizen: the nobility are aloof in their public spiritedness, much as the lower sorts are blind to it. The clergy are corrupt and overpowering. The middling rank, presupposed purveyors of Enlightenment, were expected to behave so imprudently as to throw themselves blindly “into the tumult” of a riot together with the common people. With greater freedom, Paris of 1780 would surely erupt into a free-for-all. He pensively asks “once a problem is recognized and publicized, whose job is it to solve it?” purveying a conflicted self-reflection. An intimate understanding of the Parallel would, again, indicate a ‘philosopher-king’. Mercier praised the decisions of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, who “shrugged off the priestly yoke in favour of a freer and more courageous education.” This can be construed as the endorsement of an independent monarch who, much the same as the mob, ought to act with autonomy from the Church. Mercier points to reason as the primary source of personal authority, and to enlighten Parisians as such would require the innovation of an informed authoritarian.

Many reformative measures that Mercier invokes are subsequently suited to educating and refining the population, to the extent that they could eventually demonstrate prudent public-spiritedness. In a return to the Parallel’s genre, this proved a popular and practical theme of utopianism. Published in 1796, Robert Bage’s Hermsprong is situated in a nativist utopia. Like Mercier, he juxtaposes one society against the other, identifying the purity of Hermsprong’s upbringing in a Native American community (the utopia) against the faults of civilized society as Hermsprong travels to England. Moreover, Thomas Day’s 1783 book, The History of Sandford and Merton, poses a similarly utopian slant by championing a much reduced lifestyle, relative to the luxuries and possessions that were otherwise corrupting society. Both works entertained the value of education in procuring a utopian state. Relative to the Parallel, Mercier’s vast working class body of Parisians were “unprincipled and ignorant of the law”, devoid of national ties, and proponents of chaos under the same pretence of liberty as London, whose law-abiding, dutiful populace were, by comparison, “so deeply impressed by education and respect for the laws that it works like a sort of guet” (a watch). Here, Mercier identifies how far removed Paris’ population were from the utopia of London, much the same as Bage’s England. Mercier is not disillusioned to this reality, but hinted that to suddenly give the lower sort that liberty would be “ill-advised”, reiterating the Parallel’s stance as a vision of both short-and long-term planning. As an example, Paris’ public spaces should momentarily be stratified: The Colisée, a 40,000 capacity entertainment complex in the Champs-Elysees district, was threatened by the extent of prowlers and prostitutes who, by nightfall, posed a danger to the bourgeoisie public. They had not, by Immanuel Kant’s supposition, emerged from their “self-imposed immaturity” and so ought to observe a reduced freedom. This underscores Frederick the Great’s reserved policies, affording him that prudence which modern historians perhaps overlook. Fundamentally, enlightened absolutists pursued order and security such as to produce a rationally-inclined populace, lending to Mercier’s moralising project.

Mercier hoped that, by exposing the dark alleys in his rebuilding of the city, its unsavoury characters would be exposed to the sociability of public spaces, forestalling respect for their laws and compatriots that would earn them greater liberty. In London, the emergence of public spaces engendered the need for pedestrianized protocols, such that in 1780 the London Magazine reminded its readership to be ready to “give the wall, [rather] than to assert it”, that one ought not to embrace the “sauntering gait of a lazy Spaniard” and “not to fasten your eyes upon any person entering into a public room.” Such reiterates the short-term ambition for order over freedom. The long-term consequences, as established in Paris 2440, are a lower sort who, after a history of careful education, were now conscious not to “watch all [Mercier’s] motions”, nor smile at his great age and broken smile.

Conclusively, Mercier’s Parallel does offer a plan for a free, yet ordered city, by way of his time-oriented view of society. Utopia figures strongly as a showcase for his reforms, and as such his short-term vision is subordinate to the grandeur of the future. Indeed, in the near future Paris is ordered at the expense of freedom, as Parisians are generally unenlightened and unable to conduct themselves in a manner conducive to sociability. In the long-term, such flaws would be rectified by this order and good-governance, indeed paving the way for a free, yet ordered populace. Situated among L’An 2440, Mercier concludes that such reform would emanate from a singular authority, although the indecisiveness with which he comes to this conclusion undermines the broader coherence of the work. That said, the pertinence of the Parallel as a supplement to Mercier’s other works is significant. L’An 2440 imagines the result of long-term reform, whilst the Parallel lays the groundwork to achieve that by modelling itself on the most discernible contemporary example, London. The Tableau offers further refinement, incorporating aspects of both works, but situated in the immediate city. Such can these three works be viewed as a trilogy, with Mercier’s vision for reform becoming increasingly tangible by each new publication. Furthermore, as a focus of comparison, Mercier never entered into the Parallel with the intention of judging whether London or Paris was superior; on the contrary, he wrote it conscious of their disparate circumstances, though this serves to remind us that his focus was always on that of Paris, and it made sense that for her advancement, Mercier would look to one of the most advanced cities of his time, with the intention that by 2440, Paris would be the most advanced city of hers.

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