1789's Echo in Steel

Just what is the use of the Eiffel Tower? asked

 intellectuals, who often are the last to understand.

D enouncing the French Revolution is indeed like preaching a sermon to an earthquake, so in this Bicentennial moment let us let bygones be bygones. Instead, let us now praise the most pleasant result of the whole Revolution, something built for the Centennial---------the Eiffel Tower.

It really reflects the Industrial Revolution, but in life one thing leads to another and the Industrial Revolution owed much to the breaking of restraints----social structures, intellectual habits-----by their political Revolution.

Revolutions are like boulder thrown into ponds. Ripples radiate for centuries. Unintended consequences often matter most. The Revolution’s most important result was Napoleon, whose most important

result (as France learned in 1871, and then again in 1914, and still again in 1940) was the invention of Germany. Revolutionary radicalism provoked conservatism’s finest proclamation, Burke’s “Reflections.” And the Revolution’s centennial echo, in the form of the Tower, itself echoes clearly 100 years on. Deciphered, it makes an age intelligible. Ours.

The Tower has been called the Notre Dame of the Left Bank, cathedral of an alternative faith. It bestrides the Champ de Mars, formerly parade ground of the Ecole Militaire where cadet Bonaparte studied war. The Tower expressed the belle epoque’s confidence that mankind’s remaining problems were material and solvable by technology-----by applied reason rather than swords.

The Tower was the center piece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, which had the partly conservative purpose of turning Centennial thoughts from the fratricidal politics of the past, towards the scientific future. It was one of those 19th -century carnivals of machines expressing capitalism’s confidence and throbbing vigor. In Europe this meant the triumph of the upstart, entrepreneurial urban bourgeoisie over landed wealth. The Tower, writes art critic Robert Hughes, soared above ownership of land and “occupied unowned and previously useless space, the sky itself.”

Gustave Eiffel was not actually an architect; he was in fact an engineer, working with an industrial material, steel. The Eiffel Tower is a work of art by a nonartist, democratic art, to be viewed not just by the museum-visiting minority but by the multitudes. By literally everybody, so completely does it dominate the vista. It uses height to produce democratic intimacy, showing the swarm of common life. In 1889 the Tower surpassed the Washington Monument (homage in stone to the maker of the successful 18th - century revolution) as the world’s tallest structure. It remained that for four decades, until the Chrysler Building.

The Tower anticipated skyscrapers, those assertions of heroic materialism, and it soars over Paris because the city was built before the coming of structural steel, when the height of buildings was limited by the load- bearing strength of stone. (The curse of Manhattan, its suffocating density, is the result of too many buildings made possible by the two things that made the Tower possible; structural steel and the elevator.)

The Eiffel Tower, writes Hughes, was the master image, the great metaphor of radically accelerating change, gathering “all the meaning of modernity together.” The Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge were the century’s consciousness-changing constructions, conquering horizontal and vertical distances. The Tower even shaped art.

It altered, in the most artistically susceptible city, what Hughes calls “the cultural conditions of seeing.” More spectacular than the sight of the Tower from the ground----was the view of the ground from the Tower.

Remember, the highest that people (other than a very few balloonists) had been was Notre Dame’s gargoyle gallery. People lived their entire natural lives within 40 feet of the ground. THEN CAME THE TOWER and “a new type of landscape began to seep into popular awareness. It was based on frontality and pattern, rather than on perspective recession and depth.” It influenced modern art generally.

Sculpture of Hope.

As an emblem of machine-age capitalism when engineers were Masters of the Universe, the Tower was a huge sculpture of hope. Machines then held no menace for the middle class, which felt itself suddenly at the wheel of the world. Mass production from standardized parts (girders, rivets: the Tower) would be matched by peaceful politics from the masses, with nations shedding antique differences and animosities. But, a baby born in Flanders in 1889 was just 25 when he learned in Flanders to think of the noun “machine” as part of a compound noun: machine gun. There is a stunning photograph of Hitler alone at dawn during the few hours he spent in Paris. The Tower soars behind him, expressing faith in the inevitability of the progress through the fusion of science and industry. In the foreground stands the refutation. He, too, was born in 1889.

Still, the Tower, standing midway between the Revolution and us, stands for as great truth: What is dangerous in politics can be creative elsewhere. In politics, an extravagant idea of the possible leads to extremism, then terror and tyranny, as in the 1790s . Napoleon was the Revolution on horseback. One of his ministers said, “He never could see where the possible left off.” Hence the retreat from Moscow, the defeat at Waterloo, a legacy of corpses and orphans. But, a century ago a sense of limitless possibilities was both cause and effect of unleashed creativity in culture. Freud, Edison, Marconi, Einstein, Pasteur, Ford, the impressionists, the phonograph, the movie camera. The era brought what Hughes calls “the greatest alteration of man’s view of the universe since Isaac Newton.” Eiffel’s Tower insisted: The future is as open as the sky.

Many of Paris’s leading lights denounced the new Tower as proof of “faltering French good taste.” The writer de Maupassant said he often lunched at a restaurant in the Tower because that was the only place in Paris where he did not have to see it. What is the use of it? asked  the intellectuals, who are often the last to understand. It was an act of splendid audacity, not least because, in the climate of capitalist practicality, it fashioned a romantic statement from utterly utilitarian material. The fact that the Tower was at first ridiculed has made it forever after a force encouraging to be receptive of the new. In France when something daring is reviled, defenders say.”Just like the Tower!” In America we say, “They all laughed at Rockefeller Center; now they’re fighting to get in.”

Source: NEWSWEEK .

                   By: George Will. July 17, 1989.


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