Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houel [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The first time I came up from underground at the Bastille Metro stop, I imagined hearing the prisoners’ chorus from Fidelio as they sang “Luft und Leit.” On some rational level I knew what awaited me above ground, but on a deeper, more archetypal plane, I yearned for something else. This is the Bastille? There was no Elephant, of course. It was torn down in 1846. There were no looming towers and ramparts, as portrayed here in Houel ‘s epic painting. All traces of the bastion were obliterated by 1808. The July Column stood there stolidly, to be sure, but it looked about as prosaic as any banker’s cenotaph in a small-town graveyard. Victor Hugo called it “the Stovepipe.” Like the Arc de Triomphe to the west, the July Column was surrounded now by a monumental traffic circle teeming with a cacophony of zooming cars and motorcycles. It was not a place to indulge a blind flaneur’s childhood memories of revolutionary ardor.