isolated on the tip of Ile-de-Cité where the Seine splinters in half at the ancient Pont Neuf
“Place Dauphine is certainly one of the most profoundly secluded places I know of… I confess that this place frightens me,” Breton says of Place Dauphine, in his novel Nadja
. (80, 83) In the same passage, he describes his muse’s—Nadja— reactions to the area, “She is certain that an underground tunnel passes under our feet... [and] is disturbed by the thought of what has already occurred in this square and will occur here in the future”—Nadja tells him of her disorienting experience in a window overlooking the square, and about how she “didn’t want to die, but felt so dizzy,” and that she would’ve fallen if she’d not been held back. (84) All his descriptions of Place Dauphine points to it as a sort of dangerous and secluded, but alluring vortex of sorts. The way in which he conveys the square is certainly colored by his unique disposition and mindset, but even with such distortion, he seemed to somehow capture an essence of Place Dauphine that continues to linger today. In visiting Place Dauphine myself, one Parisian night, I discovered the place still held a similar air to what Breton captured in Nadja. I spent a few minutes in the triangular park, jotting down my first impressions of the place:
So empty for being so close to the lights of la tour Eiffel
, for being so close to l’ombre de Notre Dame
. A girl intrudes from another era to walk her inobedient dog around the grainy sand, as two aged intellectuals pass— their fingers separating spent yellowed pages. The atmosphere must be more surreal at this hour, studded with all those wooden beams that tunnel through the high balconied windows. A solemn bicyclist dares to plunge into the triangle, amidst all the closing restaurants. The angled buildings frame the speckled sky in a makeshift heart; sandy footprints dissolve into the orange dripped light. I misread Le Bar du Caveau
as Le Bar du Cerveau
just as a lonely man floats by its’ canopy. Empowered by the colored blood flowers in his window box, a man hurls on his leather jacket, disturbing his sterile white apartment ceiling, and speeds out the building’s forest colored portal towards a non- isolated Paris. The girl draped in black still trails her dog; I avert her eyes—I avert my eyes. A spark from la tour Eiffel
finds its way into the courtyard and prompts me to leave. I watch gridded glass doors knowingly open to allow a woman out of her imprisonment, and reach for my bag balanced on the unforgivingly rigid bench. I make my own temporary impressions in the grain dirt and decide to follow her. I leave through the open side of Place Dauphine— the base of the triangle— and swerve towards the left as the blue traffic sign commands. À bientôt,
Dauphine, à bientôt.
My new position allows me to gaze at the gold ridden ceiling that lines Palais de Justice on Rue de Harlay. I slowly gravitate back towards the blinding white light beneath Pont au Change. Levitating over the Seine, I realize I forgot to gaze at her watery legs below Place Dauphine. My mind pauses and considers a return, but my body does not hesitate and instead glimpses a sign at the end of Pont au Change that tells me ‘La paix est tombé ici.’
The unique triangular park is a sort of grass-less oasis, or perhaps a purgatory, in Paris. It is rarely penetrated by tourists, despite it’s location between Palais de Justice and Pont Neuf. It was originally laid out in 1609 by King Henry IV and is named after the son he had with Marie de Médicis, Dauphin. The park also has its place in Parisian literary history, having been mentioned in La Main enchantée
by Gérard de Nerval, Les dieux ont soif
by Anatole France, Kaputt
by Curzio Malaparte, and of course, André Breton’s Nadja.
It is isolated on the tip of Ile-de-Cité where the Seine splinters in half at the ancient Pont Neuf. Breton describes it as a magical place, as mystical as the female is to most surrealists—often comparing the triangular space littered with trees to a female pubis, and sees that split in the Seine as her legs—Paris’ surreal, flowing legs. Place Dauphine seems to have the same effect on Breton as Nadja has. “Whenever I happen to be there, I feel the desire to go somewhere else gradually ebbing out of me, I have to struggle against myself to get free from a gentle, over-insistent, and, finally, crushing embrace.” (80) He observes Place Dauphine as such a constraining place immediately after Nadja tells him of his power over her—tells him that she is lost to him, and then attempts to please him by playing the role of a character he had previously created in a work of his: Poisson Soluble
. Such desperation on Nadja’s part—such an attempt to connect with and please Breton— most likely provoked in Breton an instinctual repulsion, a need to escape from any threat of commitment or connection with her. In the novel, he appears to be pleased with Nadja—he’s impressed by her reenactments of his fictional characters and admits that her performance is precisely as he had imagined—yet his descriptions of Place Dauphine illuminate an obscured layer of disgust in Breton, illuminate his instinct to escape. His descriptions of Place Dauphine and of Nadja become a portal into his subconscious—they are colored by his temporal observations. These tinted descriptions allow the reader to more accurately gage his true thoughts and disposition, and also help to highlight something ineffable about the place.
In the same passage that Breton describes Place Dauphine, Nadja embodies his self-destructive side, by attempting to free herself from any trace of identity she is bound to, in order to chain herself to Breton. Therefore, he sees Place Dauphine as he sees Nadja in that moment—as a wasteland, as an isolated vortex, void of any specific personality— Place Dauphine becomes a mirror reflecting his deepest fears. Sitting in Place Dauphine, he feels the pull of the vortex of isolation—as in Nadja’s presence, he feels the pull of her mystery and destruction. He would like to free himself from Nadja, yet also wants to own her, and at the same time wants to decode her peculiarities in the belief that in doing so, he may discover something essential about himself. Place Dauphine literally becomes a sort of limbo, a sort of purgatory that he can choose so easily to either dissolve in or revolt from. The limbo that is Place Dauphine threatens Breton with fatal freedom and spiraling entrapment.
His observations of Place Dauphine also coincide with some of his writings in the Manifeste
—Surrealism’s influence over Breton seems comparable to Nadja and Place Dauphine’s influence. “Surrealism does not allow those who devote themselves to it to forsake it whenever they like. There is every reason to believe that it acts on the mind very much as drugs do; like drugs, it creates a certain state of need and can push man to frightful revolts.” Place Dauphine elicits in Breton feelings of rebellion, yet he cannot forsake it (nor Nadja) completely, because it is partially composed of his own personal impressions. More importantly, as destructive as Nadja and Place Dauphine may appear to be, they exist as muses for him. Their isolation—and their threatening qualities— is a sort of inspiration for Breton, their seclusion intrigues him and he seems to want to break through their mysterious barriers as a man would with a muse. Still if he doesn’t struggle to escape from Place Dauphine’s “gentle, insistent, and crushing embrace,” he could so easily sink into a state of liquid —becoming a sort of poisson soluble, “born under the sign of Pisces… and soluble in his thought.”
Breton’s impressions of Place Dauphine capture something essential about that secluded little area of Paris. It may be one of the lesser-known sites in Paris, but it certainly stands its ground among the surrounding tourists attractions because of its powerful, mysterious influence over many. The desolation of the triangle seems to affect all who lay their eyes on its barren surface, and the juxtaposition of Place Dauphine against its surrounding peopled areas only heightens its dream like atmosphere. To stumble upon Place Dauphine randomly must be quite disorienting– entering the triangle is comparable to dropping off into an unexpected, liminal, unstable universe. It's as if, at any second, Place Dauphine could either suck you into its hellish underground tunnels that Nadja described, or could catapult you into an abyss as bright and blinding as that light I saw below Pont au Change.
sources/ links/ translations:
1) the passage from Nadja
2) wiki on Place Dauphine.
3) breton's surrealist manifesto.
4) Le Bar du Caveau
as Le Bar du Cerveau
-- caveau means cave, there are many cavern bars in Paris... but cerveau means brain.
5) "La paix est tombé ici.
" -- I think this can be translated as either "peace was here" or "peace fell here"-- but I misread this
sign, when I was walking quickly past it, at night, and just wrote down what I thought I read.