If you happen to be in Paris, consider a short visit to Place Saint-Sulpice. It’s a place rich in literary references and stories. After a passionate investigation, the Italian writer and humanist Umberto Eco discovered that D’Artagnan and Aramis lived in nearby streets. An episode of the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown takes place in the Church of Saint Sulpice, the building after which the square took its name .
You will find many visitors who are passionate about the secrets of the Templars, along with a beautiful obelisk installed in the eighteenth century by Parisian astronomers, one of the components of a huge sundial. A lens on the south side of the church passes a ray of sunshine at midday, which hits a brass strip that runs along the obelisk and continues on the floor. The sundial does not hide any mystery, it was in fact used to determine the exact date of the spring equinox, which is essential to know when Easter falls.
Place Saint-Sulpice is the protagonist of a book written in 1982 by Georges Perec, “An attempt to exhaust a Parisian place”. Perec spent three full days in Place Saint Suplice in the October of 1974. His purpose was to describe
“what goes generally unnoticed, forgotten, what does not matter, what happens when nothing happens, if not the passing of time, of people, cars and clouds […] What happens every day and returns every day, the trivial, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual, how to account for it, how to describe it? “
Here are some examples from Perec annotations
The date: October 18, 1974, Time: 10 h 30, Place: Bar Saint-Sulpice
The weather: Dry cold. Grey sky. Some lightenings.
Inventory sketch for some of the strictly visible things:
- Some letters of the alphabet, some words: «KLM» (on the envelope of a passer-by), a capital «P» which means «parking»; «Hôtel Récamier», «St-Raphaël», «drifting savings», «Taxi station», «Rue du Vieux-Colombier», «Brasserie-bar La Fontaine Saint-Sulpice», «P ELF», «Parc Saint-Sulpice ».
- Conventional symbols: the arrows, under the «P» of the parking sign, one slightly oriented towards the ground, the other turned towards rue Bonaparte (on the side of the Luxembourg garden), at least four prohibition signs (one fifth is reflected on one of the bar’s mirrors).
- Numbers: 86 (high on the front of a bus of the line 86, above the indication of the place to which it is directed: Saint-Germain-des-Près), 1 (plate of the bus number 1 of rue du Vieux -Colombier), 6 (on the square indicating that we are in the 6th arrondissement of Paris).
- Elusive slogans: «From the bus, I look at Paris».
- Earth: crowded gravel and sand.
- Stone: the edge of the sidewalks, a fountain, a church, some houses …
- Trees: (with leaves, often yellow)
- A fairly large portion of the sky (maybe 1/6 of my field of view)
- A flock of pigeons that suddenly rushes to the central traffic island, between the church and the fountain
- Cars (their inventory remains to be done)
- Human beings
- A kind of dachshund
- Bread (baguette)
- A vegetable (escarole?) coming out of a shopping basket
The list is inexhaustible. In fact, it continues for many pages. Perec notes the trajectories of the buses, the colors, the actions, the discussions, the forms of locomotion, the positions of the bodies, the changes of light. Every single event is a universe in which to dive. Which awaits further and more detailed descriptions. As expected, the book stops abruptly because it can not close with a “THE END” that puts an end to the story. The universe of the ordinary (or the infra-ordinary, as Perec calls it) is unlimited. It’s exactly around us. We pass through it continuously without seeing it, blinded by habit. Let’s keep it in mind. It is the universe from which complexity grows.
Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Harvard University Press, 1998.
Georges Perec, An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris, Wakefield Press, 2010.