The Secret History of Paris Is Right Under Your Feet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can forge your own path in the steps of François Arago.
I should have written this story in summer. That’s all I can think as I tromp around university buildings, construction sites and mud puddles in the freezing Parisian wind searching for evidence of a long-dead scientist’s long-since-failed quest for French domination of the way we map the world.
All across the city of Paris are bronze medallions, dotted in a precise line from north to south, originally placed in 1994, when Dutch artist Jan Dibbets decided to honor French scientist François Arago. Sticking it to the Nazi army that tore down Arago’s monument during their occupation of Paris, Dibbets laid more than a hundred medallions in the sidewalks and streets of the city to keep Arago’s memory alive for any tourist, commuter or shuffler who glances down at the right moment.
“Paris just opens itself in this really weird way,” explains Carl Lavery, an artist and professor at the University of Glasgow who, in December 2011, walked the length of the meridian as a performance-art exploration of the city’s psychogeography. “It was an abstract exercise that really allowed me to understand Paris in a corporeal, physical way.” Lavery’s work incorporates the ideas of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who saw the human body and soul as a creature of longitude and latitude that tracks emotions and perceptions as modified by art. But, he explains, a fanciful inclusion of the medallions in The Da Vinci Code, along with the vagaries of 20 years of Paris construction, mean about half the medallions are now gone, stolen or paved over.
Arago was the 25th prime minister of France, but that’s not why he’s remembered. As a young man working at the Paris Observatory at the turn of the 19th century, the budding scientist gallivanted across the mountains of Spain, measuring the meridian arc of the Earth and trying to set the length of a meter. He held onto the records he took even as he was busted for what some in Spain took for spying — lighting a fire on a mountain peak — and wound up in a military prison on Majorca. One fishing boat escape to Algiers and a stint of imprisonment in a Catalonian windmill later, he was back in Paris giving lectures on astronomy.
At this point, Parisian scientists had been using their home city as the world’s prime meridian for nearly 150 years. Paris was the center of the universe for artists, clubgoers and scientists, and why would they change it? But all parties have to end, and this particular party ended in 1884, 31 years after Arago’s death, when the International Meridian Conference voted to agree on Britain’s Greenwich meridian as the line around which the world’s maps would be organized. Sullen to the end, the French abstained from voting and continued to use Paris as their prime meridian until 1911.
Britain may have won the battle for scientific dominance, but Paris has done what Paris does best, transforming its own history into a personal emotional journey for those who walk it. I found directions from one medallion to another in an online guide from 2007 that included directions Google-translated from a 2003 book by a Dutch journalist. The clumsy translations now read like sadistic crossword puzzle clues: “Turn left and then right back to bed,” one said, while another explained, “We were allowed an exception here by stabbing and sniff the scent of three centuries beeswax on the creaky parquet.” I climbed up monuments and peered through gates and paced across the courtyard of the Louvre, tracing the line of Arago’s medallions, his invisible monument. Most of them are gone. Many of the landmarks given by past explorers to find them are gone — “near the telephone booths,” one said, but there were no booths and no medallion, just a Spanish ham shop. But Lavery is right, the city opens up at your feet as you traverse the Parc Montsouris, l’Observatoire, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Louvre’s pyramid, contemplating how much has endured despite the evidence of change — the swift disappearance of Dibbets’ medallions, one by one, is right in front of you. In many places, you can still see the circles from which the bronze medallions were pried, by Dan Brown fans or students searching for trophies or, I imagined, die-hard devotees of the Greenwich meridian.
On the Quai by the Seine, green-shuttered book stalls sell protest posters from France’s 1968 riots, slashed with red letters proclaiming the possibility of escape from a cramped and smoggy city life: Sous les pavés, la plage! Under the cobblestones, the beach! Under the cobblestones, Arago’s dream.