Secular Sacred

You could find anything in the cafes of the Palais Royal in the last decades of the eighteenth century: “Distinctions of rank were obliterated, and men were free to exercise sexual as well as political freedom. In the course of a single visit, one might sip such libations of liberation as a new tricolored liquor, savor foreign foods in perfumed botes, see the laterna magica trace the history of the world in the apartment of Philippe-Egalite, visit a quasi-pornographic wax museum in the arcades, attend a melodrama which included music and acrobatics in the Cirque, and then go underground for entertainment that ranged from ventriloquism by a dwarf to sex with the seven-foot two-inch Prussian prostitute, Mlle. Lapierre” (Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men, 31).

It was, in James Billington’s words, filled with “the intoxicating ambiance of an earthly utopia” (31).

Distinctions of race, class, and culture were erased: “Hedonistic awakening was combined with political and intellectual discussion in an atmosphere of social equality and directness of communication that had been unknown among the aristocratic conventions of the old regime. All races were represented among the servants, entertainers, and shopkeepers of the Palais. Two blacks (known as Aladin and Scipio) were revered rather in the manner of court ‘fools’ during the Renaissance, and were even called upon to resolve conflicts. The form of communication was egalitarian. The often scatological language of the cafes was incorporated into plays produced by the Duke of Orleans in his ‘garden of equality'” (32).

All of the encrustations of civilizations were stripped away. It was a utopia of unaccommodated man.

Billington quotes a revealing anonymous 1790 description: The Palais-Royal was “a sacred temple where the sublime sounds resound in celebration of this revolution that is so happy for the French nation and of such good augury for the entire universe” (32; emphasis added).

What made the cafes compelling is precisely this sacral quality, this relocation of holiness from church and Mass to cafe and brothel. It was a secular re-enactment of the gospel, the original revolution that burst the bounds of the sacred.

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