EVENT Mar 11
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Cataclysms and Subterranean Spaces in 19th-century Paris (NeMLA)

Organization: NeMLA
Event: NeMLA
Categories: French, Science
Event Date: 2021-03-11 to 2021-03-14 Abstract Due: 2020-09-30

As 19th-century Paris was excavated and rebuilt, archeological discoveries of ancient bones, the unearthing of subterranean spaces, and scientific research inspired the imagination of writers of popular, detective, and science fiction. Georges Cuvier’s research on paleontological finds theorized that cataclysms had propelled the earth from one geological era into the next. His writings on bones and debris jutting up through geological strata troubled 19th-century positivists whose tidy categorizations of the physical world were threatened by the prospect of catastrophe within the earth.

Claudine Cohen observes that Cuvier’s “idée catastrophiste” created a vision of the earth as a space of ruin. For David Pike, its socio-historical corollary was found in Haussmann’s modernization of Paris. The Second Empire’s demolition of the city’s old faubourgs left a wake of rubble and debris that forever changed the city’s topography and identified modernity with a cataclysmic rupturing of the city. Underground railways, drainage systems, and utility tunnels created new spaces for criminal violence and became mythical labyrinths for alternate societies, lone criminals, and ghostly presences. In Dominique Kalifa’s analysis of the bas-fonds, subterranean Paris became the space of vagabonds, prostitutes, and criminals, both real and imagined. Authors like Victor Hugo, Eugène Sue, Elie Berthet, and Gaston Leroux moved plots underground to capture the titillating, revolutionary, and potentially cataclysmic forces living just below the city’s sanitized, remodeled streets.

This panel aims to explore how 19th-century scientific, political, and literary discourses and representations inform one another. How did dramatic shifts in literary expression mirror the upheaval above and below the streets of Paris? What revolutionary potential did the underground unlock? How did different genres draw from these cultural currents? Abstracts in English or French are welcome.


Nicole Ferrari