The Pont des Arts in Paris is a favorite place of mine, or used to be. You know it, of course. That’s the footbridge that connects the Left Bank to the Right Bank – or rather the Left Bank to the Louvre. Once I began a book about the history of modern art – a once notorious book, an infamous book, published back in the days when books on art could become notorious and infamous rather than merely viral – with an image on the bridge. We imagined a young artist in the late nineteenth century crossing the Pont des Arts, dreaming of making a new art as inspired as that in the great museum, and finding his new language in the streets covered with graffiti, the posters of Chéret, drawing on the visual idioms of modern Paris to make a new poetry of art.
It was possible to imagine, in other words, not just erotic but heroic acts on that bridge. That’s all changed, of course. These days, the bridge is covered, horribly congealed with, groaning under, another kind of love – the small real locks people attach to the railings of the bridge, as a sign of their commitment, or at least of their willingness to spend enough on a lock to pretend to be committed. The practice, which I’m sure you’ve read about, is simple, and by now repeated in the tens of thousands: you buy a lock, you and your beloved both inscribe your initials on it with a heavy felt pen, lock it to the bridge – and then fling the key away into the river, indicating that your love will never be unlocked. No one is entirely sure where the act began, though it is variously ascribed to an Italian novel or an American movie.
The love locks must have been a pretty sight, a touching sight, when they first appeared. For a week, or two, or three… Now, the bridge groans under their collective egotism, their self-centered marking. Unsightly, ugly – they are a form of three-dimensional graffiti, and dangerous too: One whole side of the Pont des Arts collapsed under their weight of the lovelocks earlier this year. They are a dread symbol of the “Venetian Paris,” the Paris so encrusted by mass tourism and the burdens of memory that it seems likely to sink into the river. I wrote about the lovelocks not long ago, and about two brave American women, both oddly sharing the very American name of “Lisa,” who are struggling to save the bridge from the locks, with the fitful help of the City of Paris.
So much love assembled together – and so much public ugliness locked in place. Even if one guesses that only one in ten symbolizes actual love with any chance of ripening into adulthood – if they were bought only to buy a night in a Paris hotel with the other signatory – still, what could be better? And yet how unsightly they make the bridges. The overcharge of love is ruining Paris as a place to be a lover.
The image of the lovelocks on the bridge is one I keep returning to, because as much as the image of a railway running from Paris to the moon summed up the modern dream of Paris, the image of the bridge being dragged down by the weight of too much sums up the current, post-modern fact of Paris. The transformation of the city from one of artistic adventure and endless aesthetic horizons to a site of mass tourism and encumbering affection is right there – the lovelocks mark the transformation of Paris from a site of memory to a site of paralyzed ritual. As in Venice, where what was once organic and local – carnival, the gondola – has become a façade, the lovelocks make us realize that mass tourism is really a form of ritualized theatre: one enacts the rites one is expected to enact, and then leaves, with the experience of place and the ritual of enactment now identical. Secrecy, privacy, and discovery – the great gifts of travel are denied to the visitor, and what is in place instead is merely the expected.
But now I think that perhaps the “original sin” of the lovelocks lies deeper than that, in their very choice of symbol: A shackle should never symbolize love. Love – real love, good love, love to grow on rather than to be trapped in – is a lock to which the key is always available: Another choice, another day even perhaps another city lies out there. The ugliness of the lovelock lays not in the locks themselves but in the false dramatic gesture that put them there – the key thrown into the water.
That kind of love has not really been entrusted to the river; it has merely been abandoned on the bridge. True love, either of a person or place, doesn’t say, look we are locked here for good – but, rather, we could liberate ourselves from this railing or any other if we chose… We could even unlock ourselves in a moment if we wanted. Real love is not the love that stays locked on the bridge, but the love that walks across it. The lovelocks are a reproach not only to Paris, but to its too-faithful lovers. I sense his with my own teenage children, one born, one raised in Paris. They simply ignore the Pont des Arts. The familiar stage set of the old Paris has been replaced by other arrondissements, north and south, and more important than mere physical locations, by new spiritual horizons – their bodies move to North African and hip hop rhythms, the substitution, their tongues to steak au poivre but fusion flavors and tagine spices.
What is lost in these transformations is real, and will cause a pinch of the heart to anyone who grew up loving the unchanging, intelligent continuities of French civilization. But one only need glance at the love locks to see the ruin that lies on the other side. Real love crosses bridges. Those of us who love Paris need to save the bridge. But must first find new bridges to love.
Article published in the January 2015 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.