There are several images that have come to be associated with Paris – one of which is it as a city of light, a title attributed to it as a result of its intellectual history and partly also as a fruit of its place of leadership in technological advancement in the past. Among other things, it lead the way in the diffusion of electric street lighting.
Changes in the distribution of the global balance of intellectual power, however, now means that the production of knowledge is now largely in English. The French language while still holding its own, now arguably holds less relevance for the diffusion of knowledge compared to English. English has arguably become the global language of ideas.
Equally so, places like Silicon valley come to mind more swiftly in any discussion of the geography of technological advancement in today’s global economy than La Defense for example.
Needless to say, the ease of communication has also meant that knowledge spreads more widely so it is now more common to hear about advances in medical technologies from South Africa, information commmunications technology from India and so forth. The edge of Paris as a knowledge hub has to compete with a vastly transformed world.
Yet, there the title of it being a ‘city of love’ – one that works well both for city’s revenue from tourism and its cultural promotion through the arts and literature, still holds very well. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation an Development (OECD) has in the past drawn interesting economic analysis of the impact of cultural tourism in its “The Impact of Culture on Tourism” document.
Fewer cities have been able to as successfully brand themselves in equally amorous or sexualised terms as Paris and perhaps the bigger question is what accounts for this? Where did this concept cole from? I think this would make an interesting subject for a book. I have come across one but it is written from a very particular point of view that it is hard to actually make out why Paris holds onto this title and the history of the term.
It is quite clear that Paris is not alone but is part of a league of large urban centers that are also romanticised to varying degree – but it is quite fascinating to me that the charaterisation of Paris as a city of love, romance and sex has so pervasively filtered into art and the general narrative of the city as an incontestable venue for lovers, romance and other such activity.
Now,of course the reality of living in the city does not always match up to the reputation – although for me personally it definitely does. The city has been a great context in which to build a loving relationship and life with my my spouse. But, the question that has been on my mind is what tools have been used to construct the image of Paris? How has it managed to cultivate and sustain this image? And is it possible to replicate the same romantic model elsewhere in world?
I guess there are many factors that coincide to make Paris a city with its given reputation. Its local language certainly fuels the perception, given French’s status as a medium for romance. Historical accounts of love between celebrities- ancient and modern ones – in the city that are not always unique, have also given grist to the mill of Paris romanticisation.
However, it could also be that the city’s history of liberal policies over sexuality when the rest of the continent and world were prudish about such issues has been particularly helpful. No other city would have welcomed Oscar Wilde and entertained a similar level of open sexual and romantic expression as Paris has from the Belle Epoque onward.
Then there is the influence of cosmopolitan , intellectual elites in the city that have allowed for creative ideas regarding love, romance and sex that are not easy to find in more puritanical parts of the world. And the role of art and literature in both constructing and at the same time capturing stories of love associated to the city would be an entire book in and of itself.
Intuitively, one would also assume that perhaps part of this image -and reality – of Paris as a city of love lies in the urban planning? Its accessibility on foot, the integration of several Romanesque piazzas in some areas of the centre of the city, a public transportation system that makes much of the city accessible as a venue for pedestrian traffic perhaps fuel the concept of it being a city of love. But, you can do the same in Brussels, but very few people are brave enough to call it the city of love, one might say.
Perhaps the most powerful resource that Paris and other cities like it have as a competitive edge in the market for tourists in search of romantic destinations is the sheer power of sustained imagination. And the capacity to somehow develop a collective imagination at home and abroad of the amorous qualities of Paris as a city. It is all a function of a powerful imagination sustained over time. Dreaming about it long enough and promoting the myth of Paris as a city of love for long enough. That is the key.
Few French folk would care to admit it, but part of this active, sustained imagination owes itself to the city’s Catholic roots. Think about it. Some of the most creative feats of the imagination have come from the Catholic-influenced world (Italy, France, Spain etc). One could also mention Lady Gaga and Madonna here as evidence of Catholicism and its impact on creativity, and philospher Carl Jung’s work on this subject.
More than that, it may also simply be that the city has thrived on the creation of an atmosphere where being lost in one’s thoughts, day dreaming and pondering on lofty out-of-this world ideas is something to be encouraged. A friendliness to eccentricity and creativity,departures from the main script, one could argue, have served Paris well. Think of all the philosophers that have thrived here, where their impractical thoughts would have not gone down well in other places.
So, Paris in my view, owes its status as city of love to many factors, not least of which is its openess to the power of the imagination. Can this be replicated elsewhere? Sure. If it all boils down to psychology and imagination,and persistence – the dullest of cities can transform itself into a city or village of love. In a small farming town on the other side of the world, I once made a group of friends who had transformed their very small part of the world into a little hub of romance and love. All it takes is imagination. While Paris holds her place strongly as a city of love, any space can be just as full of love and light in the imagination and hearts of people. The reverse is also true. Paris could also equally be the worst place to live, depending on one’s perspective. It is, ultimately, whatever one makes of it.