WHEN IT COMES TO PARIS, there is perhaps nothing more stereotypically cathartic than la Tour Eiffel, and despite my occasional suspicion of hyper-touristic objects, la Tour Eiffel was something I absolutely had to see. I went at nighttime, when the tower is illuminated, and it was, as expected, magnificent:
As always, please click on any pictures to make them larger. I did, too, take the obligatory picture of myself in the foreground of the tower, but it was unfortunately difficult to obtain the proper lighting, so the photo is mediocre and I am barely visible:
Luckily, my friend Adrienne (my gracious host in Paris) took some video of the tower and of me, and just at the end of the video, the illuminated tower begins to sparkle, which it does on hourly intervals at nighttime:
When I stood in front of the tower, I really was astonished in its presence. I thought much about the cause of this astonishment, and never did successfully conclude whether the astonishment comes from the actual aesthetic character of the tower, or if it is derived from all of the cultural potency which the Western world has infused into the image of the tower, both as perhaps the most recognizable landmark on earth and also as a symbol of modernity and Western accomplishment. In one sense, I think that the tourist industry has successfully conflated the image of the Eiffel Tower with the very essence of Paris. What I mean by that is that the Tower is used so ubiquitously to invoke Paris that in the minds of many, they are one in the same. This is also the reason that most people (myself included) admit that they just don’t feel they’re really “in Paris” until they look at the Eiffel Tower.
However constructed this reductive equation of Paris with the Eiffel Tower might be, it does have an architecturally domineering presence in the city. From most places I went in the city, I could see the Tower, even if I was quite far away. From the balcony of the apartment in which I was staying, the Eiffel Tower was visible in the distance, albeit several arrondissements away:
It was when I stood on that balcony, peering across the rooftops to the Eiffel Tower, that I was reminded of something Jacques Derrida, the famous late French theorist and scholar, said about such landmarks which seem to dominate our fields of perception. Derrida notes that in Paris, the Eiffel Tower seems to be the very center of everything – all of the city appears to organize itself around the Tower, and it seems to be the single unifying structural component to the city. But he goes onto observe that when one stands at the very base of the tower and looks outward, the apparent centerness of the Tower immediate evaporates, and suddenly the Eiffel Tower is a “center that is not a center.” The enthusiastic literary critic Paul Fry elaborates upon this observation:
“The Eiffel Tower is a wonderful way of showing the degree to which the vertical axis is virtual. That is to say, if you ever saw a dotted line, standing upright, it’s the Eiffel Tower. There’s nothing in it: it’s empty, it’s transparent. And yet, somehow or another, if you’re at the top of it, in the viewing station of the tower, suddenly all of Paris is organized at your feet…it’s a wonderful axis of combination that you’re looking at. It is just there, with its landmarks, not having the same kind of status as that which you are standing on, but rather just in a kind of row as the key signs, as it were, of the skyline of Paris…Guy de Maupassant, in a famous anecdote, complained rather bitterly about this, according to Roland Barthes in his essay – “The Eiffel Tower.” [According to Barthes] Maupassant often ate at the restaurant in the tower, even though he didn’t particularly like the food. ‘It’s the only place,’ he said, ‘where I don’t have to see it [the Eiffel Tower]’…[If we actually stand at the Eiffel Tower], we no longer have to worry about the way it organizes everything around it into a kind of rigorous unfolding pattern. After all, there’s a very real sense in which we infer the Eiffel Tower from its surroundings.” If you want to watch Paul Fry expand upon these ideas in an enriching lecture, click here!
Paul Fry is describing precisely the problem of reference to which I referred earlier. Just as the Eiffel Tower seems the center, architecturally and physically, of Paris, it also seems culturally central to the city as well. Of course, when in Paris, it is not difficult to deconstruct this association, but it certainly is a strong one. What I mean is that even though the source of my astonishment is indeterminable – or at best some complex combination of both the architectural centeredness of the landmark but also the cultural centeredness of the image as an icon – it ultimately really is not that important. The validity of the structure (in language, architecture, art, etc.) is murky, but the associations we construct around virtual systems of perspective, in the end, inform the dynamic shaping of our human experiences. Visiting the Eiffel Tower, for me, was one of the richest.